ZAZEN - THE WAY TO AWAKENING
Translated by Misako Nakatsuka
Edited by Gillian Coote
Peace of Mind
Discovering My Diamond Life
My Search For Self-Liberation
Glossary of Buddhist Terms
Zen Buddhism continues to attract worldwide interest. Zen meditation groups are everywhere. This itself is an appropriate and gratifying development. But it is disquieting to acknowledge the origins of this interest in Zen may be due to the ceaseless destruction of the human spirit in today's world and may reflect the yearning for spiritual identity. It may be the expression of people's desire to unleash themselves from the spell of inflated egos.
Progress in material civilization frees people, at least in industrialized economies, from strenuous labour for sheer physical survival. But, it also pampers and traps people in habits of overeating and extravagance, consuming far beyond their real needs. When people's basic needs for survival are met easily, without any compelling effort, they inevitably lose touch with their dynamic sense of being alive in the real world. It is this vitality that gives meaning to hard work, fills the heart with gratitude and joy, and brings contentment to life. This vibrant sense of self evokes the essential goodness of human nature inherent within ourselves. We become capable of appreciating everything we have got, while removing any illusory desire for wasteful consumption.
Humankind has worked hard throughout its history to free itself from the endless struggle to survive and to provide greater material wealth. In that sense, today's world ought to be a dreamland, and we should be overjoyed for what we can afford for ourselves. As an old proverb says, "If the body is impoverished, then so is the spirit.". However, the Buddha says, "Those who are contented with their life are rich, even if they are poor. Those who are not contented are poor, even if they are rich."
The development of technology has certainly transformed inconveniences to conveniences, discomfort to comfort, and intense perseverance and effort for physical survival are no longer needed. But though we benefit from the development of technology in every sphere of our lives, the pursuit of technological progress is mistaken as the very purpose of humanity.
As a consequence, we are glutted with material things but have lost our sense of gratitude and public moral responsibility. Competition at work is like endless warfare, leaving people stretched to their limits.
This is extremely dangerous for our future. Home and school are no longer always nurturing environments for our children. If this trend continues, the damage to our future generations will be irreparable. Underneath the apparently confident appearance of modern men and women lies a profound insecurity and an inability to cope with the desensitizing aspects of this 'high-tech age'. The effect of glorifying technological progress without due care for the spirit is manifested in loss of confidence, absence of appreciation, denigration of altruism and justice, and diminishing social order and communal spirit. The spiritual foundation underpinning the individual - the capacity to empathise and inspire - is being progressively debilitated. Spiritual atrophy is creating serious problems among developed countries.
The awareness of 'our planet earth being a single global village' is potentially enhanced by the information age with its instantaneous transmission of information from one part of globe to the rest of the world. However, peace and progress are hampered largely due to our attachment to egocentric consciousness, self-serving ideologies or dogmatic religions that give no regard to the law of causality. We refuse to see our own part in this, and continually blame others. This low level of spiritual development entrenches people in archaic views of life and stands in the way of spiritual growth and integration. Our minds are polluted by obsolete ideas just as they are polluted by material affluence. And, regrettably, polluted minds keep on polluting many more minds.
As long as humankind lives on this planet applying the current mode of development, then development and destruction will proceed hand in hand. Human dignity, despite our wishes to respect it, will continue to be pushed aside, and our spirituality will continue to wither in our ever more arid inner world. When our mind is out of balance, we lose confidence. We find harder to connect with other people, let alone trust, respect, and appreciate them. We lose touch with the goodness of our human nature. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to expect our actions to reflect truth, goodness, beauty, love, courage, and justice. These are qualities essential for living together in harmony. Without them, our life is tossed about by rampant egoism and endless conflicts.
Such peaceful coexistence can grow only when mutually giving and receiving peace and joy becomes the essential focus of our life. However, if our spirit is already damaged, it is inconceivable that we can be genuinely concerned with the well-being of other people. And it is the damaged spirit that gives rise to every human evil on this earth.
I have named this phenomenon 'the developmental desensitization syndrome.' It has already spread around the world like a chronic disease. Its consequences are ominous as they are the manifestation of core problems in our inner world that neither the political nor educational system can resolve.
That is why the restoration and enhancement of the spirit must be given the greatest priority in life. This must outweigh cultural and educational activities, because without spirit, it is impossible to achieve the full potential of a vibrant and healthy global community. Without spiritual redemption, there is no lasting peace of mind.
A clouded spirit is the direct consequence of egoism running amok which only swamps us with mumyo, or spiritual ignorance, and suffering. Those who became aware of this often turn to religion for an answer. Zen practice offers a way in which people can address the inevitable drama of life as a positive challenge and live everyday life with satisfaction and a sense of direction.
The ultimate aim of Zen is to break out of the constraints of ego and have direct personal experience of the absolute infinity of our being. It is to awaken to the truth of our nature beyond the ego. In a nutshell, Zen focuses on the essence of mind.
The human mind is inherently free. It neither affirms nor denies. It is not constrained by the conflict of the opposites, like right and wrong or self and others. An awakened mind knows that the dynamic unity between self and others forms part of an integrated whole. Having direct knowledge of this mind brings profound peace. The teachings of the Buddha point the way to acquire this knowledge through direct personal experience.
As Dogen, the great Zen master, put it, "Zazen is our practice to experience the truth, and that practice itself is the truth." Serious Zen practice purifies the mind; as the mind settles down, a glimpse of the truth unfolds spontaneously.
Zen practice aims at attaining unity with being. When the false boundary that separates mind and body from the universe dissolves, and the self is perceived to be a part of the whole, one can break away from the very source of false attachments, false fear, and false thinking. This is the liberation of mind; the mind is awakened to see the essence of the real world. This awakened mind is what we call the enlightened mind. Free from false fear and attachments, the enlightened mind is filled with compassion, appreciation, and contentment.
What is Zen? How relevant is the Buddha's teaching for me? How does Zen help me function in everyday life? Is enlightenment attainable? If so, what are the steps to get there? What do we focus our attention on? What happens when we commit ourselves to practise?
These are the questions anyone aspiring to practise Zen first asks. Unfortunately, the guidance available in Japan as well as the rest of the world today does not always fully respond to these questions nor enable students to experience the benefits of practice. Unless teachers are capable of offering clear-cut guidance, in understandable language, the students'dedication and commitment may result in even greater confusion.
Before starting to read this book, I would ask the reader to 'just read,' without attachment to any preconceived notion of Zen. I also need to warn the reader that to expect that you can understand Zen through a little reading is a complete illusion, and your complacency will be nothing but a barrier to your growth. Zen starts to unfold only when thought is consciously abandoned, and there is no more conscious mind. This book is designed to provide the reader with a few landmarks and a practical methodology for treading the path of Zen. There is a huge gap between intellectual understanding and embodying understanding through direct experience. The scope of intellectual understanding is acutely limited. In order to grasp the Original Self, a Zen student must meditate to push beyond the limits of the intellect. As Dogen put it, "Without zazen, practising Zen is never authentic. Likewise, without zazen, enlightenment is never authentic."
The liberation of each individual mind from the small self is what truly counts and is the only effective way to eventually resolve the conflicts, anguish and suffering confronting the world and humankind. We need to be acutely aware that we cannot count on anything other than the collective effort of liberated individuals and the law of causality in creating a better world for our future generations.
15 November 1987 Kido Inoue
Peace of Mind
a builder & take-away restaurant owner/ born in l945
Until very recently I have had no particular interest in religion, although at funerals bowed and chanted for the deceased spirits like everyone else and, in times of difficulty, I prayed for help.
That does not mean, however, that I denied religion or treated it lightly. I had always felt that one day I would be deeply drawn to it, whether Buddhism or Christianity, I did not know. My intuition told me it would start with a direct personal encounter with someone who would be worthy of my faith and capable of illuminating my spirit.
One day, Mr Kozumi, a friend of mine, strongly recommended that I meet Inoue Roshi, the head priest of Kaizoji Temple. Mr Kozumi is that rare gem with a pure heart. Possibly he sensed my secret yearning for such an encounter. But people in our town hardly knew about this small temple, let alone its head priest and, at the back of my mind, I thought Mr Kozumi's open admiration of Roshi was a bit ridiculous. In the end, however, his enthusiasm and good intentions persuaded me.
As a first step, I met Mr Miyaji, who was helping Roshi raise funds for the restoration of the temple. Mr Miyaji asked if I could give a hand door-knocking. He showed me Roshi's fundraising message. I had never seen calligraphy so beautiful and flowing but, I am ashamed to say, it was barely legible and too sophisticated for an uncultured fellow like myself. Who would give a donation in response to this unreadable message? I immediately said, "Roshi will have to rewrite this. A fund-raising letter must be readily understandable to everyone. He doesn't know how things work outside the temple," thus deriding Roshi's naivety and giving Mr Kozumi and Mr Miyaji a lecture on how a proper fund-raising letter should read.
When I talk to people, I am usually so enthused with what I say that I get carried away and leave no room for others to intervene. Eventually, Mr Kozumi and Mr Miyaji asked me to come with them and speak to Roshi myself. "Sure!" I said. "I'll tell him how little he knows."
The following day, the three of us went to see him in his temple. The first thing that struck me were his clear eyes; a sense of inner strength emanated from him. He was different from any monk I had met before, but that did nothing to prevent me from telling him how to solicit donations in my usual forceful tone. Roshi listened throughout my lecture with a smile, apparently unperturbed.
Whenever I try to persuade people of something, my listeners usually cower. I have always believed this was because of my brilliance. With my ego thus boosted, I have then spoken even more vociferously, detailing how they have failed to address the issues properly.
Roshi's response was succinct. "Mr Dake, fund-raising depends on how open and ready people are to form a relationship with us at the temple. For those who have no intention of giving us support, there is no chance of a relationship developing, no matter how well we might explain the purpose of fund-raising. But if people care about us and wish to give us support, they will readily see the situation of this temple and understand what they can do for us. I am perfectly happy to connect only with those people who care. No matter how hard you try, you cannot form a relationship if people are not ready. If you impose a relationship on them, you deviate from the path; our actions must not be propelled by our own attachment and desire. Do you understand?"
He had spoken quietly for perhaps only two to three minutes. Still, what he said was engaging. I said, "Yes, I see your point. I will be delighted to help, starting tomorrow." I surprised myself. Why wasn't I frustrated when Roshi didn't take my advice? And it was not just that; I felt a sense of lightness, as if Roshi had helped me become aware of a hidden part of myself. He radiated such a quality of inner strength that, somehow, our first meeting had a profound impact on me.
For the next month or so, I completely forgot about my own business, and worked from dawn to midnight to promote the restoration of the temple and raise funds for it. I saw Roshi and talked to him every day, and thought I felt softer and more flexible; my awkward, stumbling ego was starting to melt away slowly. I did not know why, but with Roshi I never had to bother with what he thought of me or whether I was presenting the right impression. As a result, when I was with him, I became as unrestrained and light-hearted as a young child and authentic in whatever I did. But as soon as I was with someone else, I tended to become self-righteous again. This swing between my two polar selves was disquieting.
During the following nine months, my Zen friends started serious practice. Whenever we met, they would encourage me to start as well. They said every day would become more peaceful and enjoyable with zazen.
Personally, I did not see any noticeable change in them since they had started practising zazen, although they had become better listeners.
I could still beat them in debate. I loved winning them over with my cogent logic. At least, I thought I was winning. Secretly I belittled their practice and made myself believe I was streets ahead of them, even without practice.
However, I began to feel excluded. My Zen friends had a special quality of mind which I could not attain. I grew fractious. I was lagging behind them. Perhaps they weren't just good listeners; perhaps they were ignoring me when I lectured them, thinking I was not qualified to debate Zen without a committed practice. The thought that they were not taking me seriously made me feel bleak.
I tended to speak bluntly to everyone, regardless of whether they were my clients or senior to me. I thought, if half the people I associated with could value some positive faculty in me, that should be more than enough. I didn't care if the rest thought I was a pain in the neck. People couldn't question my commitment to work or volunteer service; I always delivered results. For many people, I must have been a nuisance whose presence they could not ignore. I had a habit of quibbling with everything. Indeed, a difficult character!
But to be honest, I was fed up with my aggressive and impulsive personality. I couldn't tolerate differences. I tended to be extremely sharp criticizing others and anxious to beat them in arguments. At least I was aware of my unattractive personality. But I couldn't do anything about it; I simply didn't know how I could change myself. On the other hand, I liked myself when I was doing volunteer work. I worked really hard and looked after the needy with kindness, though not many people gave me credit for my good intentions.
One of the few such people was Mr Kozumi. He recognized my straightforward comments as a sign of honesty. As usual, I was convinced that he respected my arguments as valid and thus always gave me full support. It was a few years before I realized he was severely critical of my self-indulgence and aggression.
Mr Kozumi took pity on me and remained my friend. Unlike me, he rarely preached or gave advice to others. But on one occasion he said, "The problem with you is your lack of humility and gratitude. You had better make a bow and revere the Buddha."
At other times, Roshi laughed at me and said, "You respond to people's weakness by rubbing salt in the wound. You enjoy standing over them and bullying. You fancy yourself no end. You are just a big-headed child. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
These comments were like a piercing winter wind; I felt desolate and lonely. I said to myself secretly, I'd better put everything aside and practise zazen.
One winter day, I was making a big speech to Roshi about my business philosophy. At that time, I was planning to open a take-away restaurant as my extra business. I was quite sure Roshi knew nothing about running a business. So, while I confided my plans to him, I went over the top. Actually, I wasn't sure if my plan would work. But I spoke elatedly as if I was absolutely positive of my brilliant planning, pleased to have an opportunity to show off my business knowledge. Roshi listened quietly till I had nothing more to say.
Then he said "Mr Dake, you'd be better off forgoing this plan. However, if you really think you have to proceed with it, just do it and waste no energy in doubt. You have a tendency to focus only on one side of an issue and blindly believe in it. Once you start the business, you will have to face up to the other reality you keep ignoring. In your present state of mind, you will get easily upset and begin casting doubts on your decision.
In order to persevere through the initial period of putting the business on the right track, you will need to apply yourself utterly and completely. I advise you not to start working on your plan until you have learnt the knack of consistent concentration. It is not too late. Start practising zazen now and directly experience managing your own mind."
"Yes, Roshi, I will start zazen tomorrow."
Roshi knew my self-doubt exactly. And I responded to him on the spot. It was an extremely quick decision. I could not explain why I had made up my mind, but I felt much lighter. My psychological blockage had lifted, and at last I was ready for zazen.
Those students who had begun intensive zazen ahead of me invariably advised me that it was extremely tough maintaining concentration and doing zazen for many hours a day. Although they had all taken zazen seriously before they did their first sesshin, nevertheless, in the course of a seven-day sesshin, they often regretted ever starting at all.
There was no reason why I could not do what they had done. The thought of catching up with my Zen friends motivated me.
On returning home, I told my wife, " Tomorrow I am going to Shorinkutsu Seminary to practise zazen."
"You do what you want," was her usual uninterested response. Ever since we had been married, I'd never involved her in any decision-making nor sought her approval; all I'd ever done was tell her my decisions and act on them, irrespective of her feelings. Moreover, I'd never told her my itinerary so she had no idea where I was or what I planned to do during the day. Such being the pattern of my behaviour, there was good reason for her indifference.
At work, I instructed my staff not to contact me for a week and delegated all decision-making to them.
While all my Zen friends had gone to sesshin in pleasant weather, I happened to begin mine in the middle of the most severe cold spell that had gripped Japan in several decades. It was a seven-day sesshin, from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-ninth of January, 1984. Later, my friends made jokes about my freezing sesshin; "See, you had to pay the penalty of your own reluctance to practise. You were only too eager to argue when we told you about the benefits of zazen."
As I have said, hardly anyone in the town knew about Shorinkutsu Seminary where I was to sit sesshin, nor the great Buddhist nun, Daichi Rohni, Roshi's teacher. The Seminary followed the style of Zen practice developed by Iida Hakuin Zenji and passed on to Daichi Rohni. Currently Roshi was both practising Zen and attending to her day and night, as she was seriously ill.
By 9 a.m. I was at Shorinkutsu Seminary. Located in a gorge, it felt like a spiritual place, even though it was close to a freeway. I went through the simple but elegant gate. The crisp winter air heightened my motivation to take up this new challenge. I always perk up in a situation where I am venturing into the unknown. Rather than experiencing fear, novelty puts me on my mettle; I become more provocative, more vocal and more unreserved.
Soon after I had arrived at the Seminary, Roshi gave me an orientation to zazen.
"Keep yourself warm as you sit. If you maintain your commitment and do what you have set out to do, trivial issues will not bother you anymore. Concentrate on the immediate reality of what is. Only when you let go of the barrier that separates you from the outside world, can you be an integral part of what is. Being one with reality 'out there' will enable you to experience samadhi, or profound peace and stillness of mind. Samadhi is the state of mind that belongs to the selfless-self. And that is what Buddhahood or enlightenment is all about.
Direct personal experience of Buddhahood is the spine of Zen practice. Without that, it is like a bulb with no electricity, and the teachings of the Buddha have no illuminating power. Without that, theoretical zazen or Buddhism cannot guide people to true spiritual liberation."
Looking straight into my eyes, he continued.
"The essence of the Buddha's teachings lies in awakening to the Original Self and unravelling the roots of suffering. Mumyo, which literally means absence of light, darkness or ignorance, is the root of suffering. Often we do not know ourselves; we look for knowledge and concepts outside ourselves in attempts to know who we are. Through imagining and thinking, we try to fabricate a false image of ourselves and we get trapped in it. That is exactly where the root of suffering lies.
Zen practice looks at where your mind stands at 'this moment'; it sees the mind, entangled in so many unresolved issues, as the source of confusion and suffering. The mind is conditioned to perceive and judge reality through the ego. Being imprisoned by our self-centered interpretation of reality, the mind is blocked from seeing reality as it is. That is another way of explaining mumyo."
I must have looked skeptical, because Roshi spoke even more incisively.
"Zazen unravels the strong patterning of your mind which you have built up over many years; it sets you free from mumyo or narrow, limiting versions of your reality and empowers you to rise above mumyo. Zen practice illuminates the world of mumyo so you can clearly see yourself as having been constrained by your own ignorance.
When is the right time to practise Zen? There is no time other than this moment. Is tomorrow available right at this moment? Is yesterday available here and now? If they are, show them to me! The truth is that the only time you have is now, throughout your life. If you miss this moment and leave it for some other time, you will lose the opportunity to liberate your mind forever.
When are you lost in your delusive thoughts? Neither in the immediate past nor the immediate future. You are lost right at this moment. Be aware that your mind keeps itself busy with one thought after another. Meanwhile, your mind forgets to live the moment and is forever in the world of mumyo. However, once you start to see the difference between the self-centered perception of reality through your small self and reality as it is, the spell of mumyo starts to dissolve, and a sense of openness and liberation pervades.
When is the right time to work on the liberation of mind? Of course, the only time you have is now. If you remain in the darkness of mumyo this very moment, mumyo is manifested in the ongoing and endless suffering of this universe. However, if you concentrate on just listening, seeing or perceiving everything as it is, and if you are wholly present with whatever is perceived, then you have integrated yourself with the real world. You are already in the house of the Buddha."
I felt ready to start my first sesshin, my real adventure.
"Pour all your heart and energy into focusing on this very moment. Do not try to analyze. Just do zazen. When you get tired, just have some sleep. When you walk, focus on each step and just walk. The moment your mind becomes lax, it will immediately be trapped by random thoughts. Then you will lose your sense of unity with the present. You may be walking, but your mind will be somewhere else. So be alert and concentrate wholeheartedly on each step and that one step only.
Self-centered thoughts will rise like flashes of lightening without warning. If you try to do something about what has already emerged, your struggle will be doubly difficult. Just absorb yourself in following your breath; observe each process of exhalation and inhalation meticulously.
When you experience authentic and pure breathing, you can start appreciating the bliss of just being. You will have direct awareness that this very moment is one with eternity and that your being is connected to the universe."
What an enormous challenge! Roshi was telling me not to think, but to just be one with each breath. I was not at all sure I could do that.
Then he showed me round the temple.
"This is the room where you will sleep. I will prepare your meals. You must not wash your face nor take a bath until I give you permission. Maintain your aspiration to find Buddha-nature in yourself. Have the conviction that you can find it, and apply yourself wholeheartedly."
This would be my first attempt at serious zazen. Until now, the only experience I had was a couple of hours in another temple, just to get the feel of it.
I took three blankets to the zendo. I wore a shirt, two sweaters, and on top of them a kimono. I also put on a pair of warm pants and hakama, a pleated skirt for kimono. As I sat on the tatami floor of the meditation hall, I wrapped two blankets around my back and used the remaining blanket to cover me from my head down.
But no matter how many layers I had put on, it was freezing! My body kept shaking, and there was nothing I could do about it. Was I really meant to sit here for the next seven days? I felt I had plummeted into a cold hell. But if I ran away now, Mr Kozumi and my other Zen friends would only laugh at me. I told myself again and again, "I've got to stick to this and prove myself."
Now my sesshin could begin, but Roshi had failed to give me any specific techniques. He had already gone, so I had no choice but to put my faith in him and follow his guidance.
'Let's concentrate on each breath,' I encouraged myself. While I tried not to dissipate my attention, my habit of ceaseless thinking was overwhelmingly powerful, and took me away from the breath.
'This isn't working,' I said to myself. Then with renewed determination, I gathered my attention and started again. Each time as I tensed my body to brace myself, the blanket slipped down. It was too cold to sit without it. So I put it over my shoulders again. I repeated this dozens of times. Meanwhile, my mind could not quieten down even for one single breath. It was as though I was constantly fighting thousands of short but ferocious battles.
After a while, I heard Roshi beating wooden clappers to signal that lunch was ready. Well, at least now I could do something other than zazen!
"You must bring your full awareness to each movement of the chopsticks and just eat," said Roshi.
"Thank you for encouraging me to just eat, but the food is hardly appetizing," I said to myself. On the table was a simple meal; a bowl of steamed rice and rye, a piece of grilled salted salmon, pickles and small pieces of kelp cooked with soy sauce.
Many months later, when I mentioned my impression that the food was dreadful, Roshi thundered, "Shame on you! You are ungrateful!"
Let me tell you readers, if you are Zen students, you must never complain about the food. If you do, it only proves you have not gone far in your practice. Your mind is impoverished and cannot feel any sense of genuine gratitude for what you have been given.
After lunch, I took two more blankets. I was now wrapped in five blankets and started zazen again. The blankets kept slipping, and I was really freezing and restless, sitting in the cold.
I tried to figure out what my Zen friends had achieved by doing zazen. Roshi had told me, "You must not take any notice of waves of thoughts." I had heard what he said, but did not really know what that actually meant. My mind was so full of thoughts, I didn't have one single moment of tranquility.
Anyway, it was too cold to concentrate. All I could do was pull up my blankets to keep warm. My mind grew more listless and irritable, not knowing what to do.
After a while, I must have got used to the cold; it did not feel as unbearable as before. Then I started to become aware of the sounds around me, the wind blowing, birds chirping, and the sound of cars. Those sounds stimulated my thoughts incessantly.
I figured out which direction the wind was blowing and imagined how cold it must be outside. As the crows cawed, I imagined them saying "ahoh, ahoh," or "bakah, bakah," which, in Japanese, means "fool" and "stupid". I began to speculate whether traffic noises were from small or big cars. When I heard ambulance sirens, I wondered if someone had been hurt in an accident. So it went, one thought after another.
I remembered now that Mr Kozumi had been extremely annoyed with cats mewing and Mr Nagaoka with drums beating during their sesshin.
Why did they get annoyed? Wasn't it perfectly normal to associate things with the noise they made? And wasn't that perceptive power valuable in daily life? When I heard that siren, I thought of absolutely nothing other than an ambulance. When I heard crows cawing, the same thing. I did not think about my work or family but only about crows.
I said to myself, "This is great! There is nothing other than what is! It is so easy! I cannot believe others had to struggle for seven days. They must be damn slow. I knew I was different from them. Zazen is nothing like as challenging as they made it out to be." I was on top of the world, and everyone else seemed small and insignificant.
I was out of the zendo in a flash, looking for Roshi. I was told he was at Kaizoji. After changing into my ordinary clothes, I was rushing out the door when I bumped into Roshi, just returning. I shouted in triumph, "I have got it! Now I know what Zen is!" Some time later Roshi commented that I was then at the zenith of my arrogance; my bloodshot eyes were like those of a Doberman, its wide mouth dripping with the blood of some prey. I am acutely embarrassed to think how pathetic I was!
Roshi and I entered his room. As soon as he sat in front of me, he posed a question.
"Sparrows call 'chun, chun'. What is it that calls 'caw, caw'?"
I was disappointed with his simple question, especially after I thought I had had a major breakthrough.
"That is a crow," I answered, thinking what a silly question to ask.
"No, it is not!" Roshi shouted.
"That's absurd. What was wrong with my answer?" I said to myself.
"You said 'caw, caw' is a crow. Then if I say 'caw, caw', am I a crow? You claim you understand Zen. Give me an answer. Don't try and say you don't know the answer to my trifling question!"
A cold shiver ran down my spine. I regretted my boastful comment. There was none of Roshi's usual playful friendliness. In fact, I had never been confronted with such sternness in my life; I felt intimidated by the intensity of his questioning. As he went on, he grew more persistent in demanding answers from me.
"What is walking? Tell me clearly!" Roshi's questions forced me to face up to myself, I who did not know a thing. I had nothing to say. My mind had gone completely blank.
"Come on! Tell me! You must understand what walking is if you have seen the essence of Zen." Roshi was relentless in pressing for my response.
All I could do was repeat feebly, "I don't know," with my head drooped and shaking. I didn't dare look at Roshi's face. It was as if Roshi had turned into a monstrous tiger. I got into a complete dither, confused by remorse, fear and apology. In between saying "I don't know," I was crying aloud like a small child, my nose running and my face covered with tears.
The furore must have been tremendous, because Roshi's mother, who was nursing Daichi Rohni, came out of the room at the back. Having glanced at us, she said, "We wondered what the matter was! Rohni asked me to come and tell you not to be too rough with your Zen students," and returned to her room. It was already too late, because Roshi had seized the collar of my kimono and given me a couple of slaps.
"Be aware of your arrogance! You will only be qualified to tell me about Zen after you have been practising zazen wholeheartedly. Make every ounce of your energy available for zazen and sit in total devotion," Roshi shouted at me and then left the room.
I went into the zendo straight away. The spirit that had possessed me dropped away, and I was now calm. I was acutely aware that I had not grasped anything vital to Zen; I was not all sure what my Zen friends had learned from zazen either. I told myself this very moment was going to be the true beginning of my Zen practice and tried to absorb myself in each breath.
Sitting in the dusk that evening I was left with a clear impression of the profound tranquility of winter, where everything is frozen. I heard a sharp shriek; perhaps a solitary cuckoo-shrike, gone astray, flying over the zendo. Other than that, there was no sound. Against this background of quietness, noisy, incoherent thoughts were growing louder in my mind.
As night fell, the temperature went down even further. Even the sounds seemed to have frozen. But my mind continued to be busy, trying to catch the slightest sound and imagining what it might be.
Roshi had once suggested, "If you cannot help feeling drowsy no matter how hard you try, you may have a sleep." Following his advice, I decided to call it a day. It is a waste of time and energy pretending to conform with the formalities of zazen only because one is in the zendo. According to Roshi, nobody sleeps out of laziness in times of true devotion.
As I slipped my cold body into the futon, the electric blanket was a godsend. It had been Roshi's idea to turn it on so the futon would be comfortably warm by the time I went to sleep. I had expected Zen practice to be rigorous, and the warm futon was a nice surprise. I was grateful for Roshi's thoughtfulness and soon fell asleep.
After a good night's sleep, I woke up a little after 6:oo a.m. Outside, it was still very dark. I was ready to have another try. As for sitting in the cold, it no longer worried me.
I went to the toilet. On the door was written, "Just piss!" I wondered about its meaning. I must have seen it the day before, but obviously my mind was not present and I had taken no notice. But I was different this morning. I recognized the word 'just' being used everywhere in the writings and on the blackboard.
In his sermons, Roshi frequently said, "Just do what is to be done. When you walk, just walk each step, without the intervention of thoughts. When you breathe, throw yourself into breathing and just be the breath. When you listen to a sound, be one with the sound." I kept wrestling with the significance of 'just being.'
My mind was gaining some stillness at last. I could see myself and the surroundings with greater clarity. Like the day before, I wrapped myself in blankets to practise zazen. The difference between today and yesterday was my commitment. Now I was determined to personally experience 'just being,' instead of being distracted by the cold and sitting half-heartedly. I realized what had been driving me now seemed immature. At last I might be able to put some sincere effort into my zazen.
I sat. The noise of cars and trains, the sounds of wind sighing and leaves rustling, the pictures appearing behind my eyelids when I closed my eyes - all these things continued to stimulate my thoughts and imagination. I had always believed such a state of mind was perfectly normal.
Roshi came to talk to me.
"Thoughts arise in association with what you see, hear, and perceive because your mind holds on to them and gets enmeshed in them. They are delusive thoughts. Let them go as soon as they appear. Focus only on seeing when seeing, and only on listening when listening. The purpose of Zen practice lies in this single-minded concentration.
Attachment to your opinions, thoughts, and judgements begins when you separate yourself from what is and try to understand by conceptual thinking. If you are integrated with what you perceive, you are already one and inseparable with what is. Then there is no longer any need to intellectually understand it or become invested in your version of understanding.
Zen practice demands that students directly experience this state of unity, that everything reveals the truth if you perceive it just the way it is.
Without understanding this, you will remain confused forever; you will see your thoughts as reality. All thoughts are delusive. That is why you need to be aware of the clear distinction between delusion and reality. Otherwise, you won't know the focus of Zen practice. Pour all your energy into 'just being.' Striving for anything other than being totally present is a deviation from Zen practice. Allow the reality that unfolds at this moment; do not interpret and fabricate it. Zen practice is not about changing yourself through your thoughts.
Forget about yourself. Just let yourself be as you are naturally. Don't do anything. We are too used to mobilizing our egos and doing something about the situations we are in. That is why we need to make a conscious effort not to do anything at all.
Our being is whole in itself; our being is inherently free from confusion and needs no enlightenment. Some might say, 'We are enlightened without practice. We are O.K. as we are. Practising Zen is a sign of still being confused.' It sounds like sensible logic but does not resolve anything. Without practice, there is no chance for the emancipation of mind, the mind that can clearly discriminate your reconstructed reality against the reality.
The reason I tell you this is that our Original Self is beyond good and bad; there is no greater or lesser self. But our small self oscillates in confusion between polarities. While respecting the order of society, the Buddha's teachings point the way to complete freedom from human constructs of opposing polarities. Stay sharply focused and know your practice is geared to opening the Dharma. Apart from the reality of what is, everything else is delusion. Let those thoughts go and return to the present this very instant."
I had heard this before. At least half of what Roshi said made sense to me. In the past I constantly looked for a chance to rebut him, perhaps because, if I only listened silently, it was as if I did not exist, and this made me feel miserable.
'What's wrong with the thinking mind? As long as I am no trouble to others, I am free to think whatever I want to.' Thoughts kept taking my mind away from practice. They went round in a circle; in the end, I always reached the same conclusion, that I'd better put my faith in Roshi and follow his guidance. But soon my mind was anxious again, searching for some smart comment to disprove Roshi.
"Give your entire being to a single breath," was Roshi's instruction. No other choice! I pulled my mind back again and again to be just that single breath.
What incredibly scattered attention! I had no concentration, no determination, no willpower. I could not even observe a single breath. My mind could not stay still, even for a matter of a few seconds. 'No! It's not just me. Everyone else must have confronted the same problem,' I comforted myself.
After all, it seemed to boil down to the question of 'right this instant'; it is in 'this' moment that I lose sight of where I am going. Likewise, it is in this moment that I can illuminate the path and put myself back on it. Although vague and distant, something was starting to emerge.
After supper, Roshi recounted stories of how venerable Zen monks famous in history had experienced full enlightenment. Perhaps it was Roshi's passionate tone or the inspiring stories themselves, but something started to reverberate in me. My compelling urge to react to him was fading. It was as though my ears had suddenly cleared, and his words were reaching me directly, soaking up and melting my edgy behaviour and calming me down.
I started to feel some hope. Even I might have a chance to reach enlightenment if I dedicated myself. I too might be able to get in touch with a universe so much greater than my small self, if only I could bring my scattered attention into focus and set myself free from my egotistic self. It appealed to me as a fantastic experience far beyond my imagination.
The serenity and transparency in Roshi's eyes used to make me nervous but now they suddenly turned into a guiding light for my own salvation. Whenever I had eye contact with Roshi, I could settle down and let thoughts go. Perhaps when my mind was absorbed in pure listening, I became more open.
Zazen after supper was peaceful and satisfying. There was a sense of profound stillness which helped me concentrate. In trying to maintain my focused attention, I invented a trick. Whenever some sounds caught my attention, I shook my head and did some deep breathing. I did the same with thoughts, in the instant I noticed them. This way I was able to deal with distraction and bring my awareness back to just breathing.
At last Zen practice was within my reach. The irony was that though I let go of my thoughts, I still perceived them with immense clarity and vividness - a barrage of thoughts running wildly - an endless battle to chop and chop. I was fed up but I could not give up now. Truly it was a battle with myself.
Now that I was more aware of my random thoughts, they seemed to have snowballed at an alarming rate. What if I could not sustain my concentration anymore? I was scared. Thoughts triggering more thoughts might eventually sweep me away; then, I might lose my mind.
The only way to cut through distracting thoughts was to hold on to a single breath. I tried to cling to each breath single-mindedly, but soon thoughts sneaked in to pull my attention away and I plummeted back into the vortex. I returned to the breath no matter what, then was swept away again. This went on and on. I kept telling myself thoughts could not possibly be so powerful and tormenting if I just continued my practice tenaciously. I was exhausted by 11:oo p.m. and went to sleep.
It was the same old struggle; I still had not grasped the crux of the practice. What did Roshi mean by 'just breathing'? Why should we need to be extra conscious of breathing? We breathe naturally anyway as long as we are alive. I felt frustrated.
In the afternoon, as I was tired, I was lying on the tatami floor in the waiting room. Roshi came in and taught me how to practise zazen while horizontal.
"Whether standing, sitting, or lying down, your mind must be focused on this instant. There is nothing else other than a single breath at this moment. Be totally absorbed in each single breath while lying down. Hold onto this center of your attention. Otherwise, your practice will not have any strength, especially when thoughts are racing in all directions."
Roshi also said, "When sleeping at night, you can practise lying down zazen. As you fall asleep naturally, you can maintain the state of zazen throughout night."
I had believed that the warm electric blanket Roshi provided me with was simply a reflection of his thoughtfulness. But it was much more than that. Roshi was challenging me to practise zazen even while I was asleep. What intense rigour! I could not slacken my effort for a single moment in Shorinkutsu Seminary. When I think of how many countless breaths make up a day, my mind grows languid. But all there is to twenty-four hours is a single breath, right this moment. I realized I had been only practising in the zendo. Shame on me! I was still so far from applying myself wholeheartedly.
I went out of the zendo. To my surprise, my mind was incredibly lucid and light. I stretched out my hand to reach the door, and quietly pushed it. A view of the sunny garden was revealed as the door opened. I took one step out, turned around, and carefully closed the door. I was doing things as usual, but felt very different. My discursive mind had quietened down and was capable of following each motion I made. I was not doing anything special, but there was a sense of luminosity and lightness in whatever I did.
Thoughts still sneaked in; however, I could bring my awareness back to the breath with greater ease, and I was not deluged with thousands of thoughts. They were losing that rampant power to take my mind millions of miles away so I could return to my breath without strain.
Roshi explained to me this sense of ease and lightness went hand in hand with the unravelling process of my mind habit. My third day ended with some hope that, if I continued to stretch myself, perhaps I could also experience 'just being.'
It was very rewarding to find out I could naturally settle in zazen this morning. My concentration on each breath was growing deeper and sharper. The sounds I heard, whether bird or car, were only sounds; they left no room for meaning or association. I could sit without taking any notice of the cold. That was not to say I felt no cold. I was shivering but it did not affect me. When having a meal, I was aware of each quiet movement of my chopsticks, picking up first steamed rice and then cooked vegetables. I was experiencing a phenomenal clarity of consciousness; at the same time it was like a dreaming time; I was weightless, effortless, and there was nothing to resist. Was this what Roshi meant by 'just being in the moment'?
There were moments, though only for a very short span of time, when I was not bound by thoughts, images, or emotions, moments of absolute peace which I had never tasted before. Perhaps I might be able to break away from my egocentricity if I could sustain myself in this state. I warned myself, however, not to get euphoric and rush to see Roshi as I had done last time! What Roshi meant by 'concentration' was finally filtering through my mind.
The ambiguity around 'being present' was slowly clearing; I would not have dared to say I understood it, but it did not worry me as before. Time seemed too precious even to sleep at night.
He had said, "I am not asking you to concentrate so you can draw a clever conclusion from the experience. It is so you can gain an awareness of no-self, where there is no gap between the observer and the observed. There is just the reality or suchness of things right now. All your effort is geared to become wholly open, to be one with reality here and now. You must break the habit of busying your mind in vain and constantly dismissing the present. That is why you need to deliberately go in the opposite direction and to be centripetal rather than centrifugal."
As I was doing zazen in the morning, I heard Roshi calling me from the back of the Seminary, "Mr Dake, why don't you come out and warm yourself at the fire?" He had been cleaning up around the Seminary and had made a bonfire in a ten-gallon drum. I walked up to him, paying the greatest attention to 'just one step.' I stood by him in silence.
"Your mind has developed a clearer focus on the moment. There is nothing apart from being in the moment," he said.
"For example, take seeing. You perceive certain colors and shapes. You might ask why that is so. Through thinking and analyzing, you might be able to give reasons, but it is only an explanation for what already is."
Roshi bent down to gather more sticks for the fire and continued. "The cardinal mistake is that most people search for explanations in words and upon finding an explanation, believe they have gained some understanding. I am not undermining the importance of the ability to think and feel. But knowing that thoughts and emotions are precious human tools, you are, for the first time, in charge of using them freely for the benefit of all beings.
But if you are not clear that thinking is merely a tool, more thinking breeds more confusion. In Zen practice, you set aside the tool and return to your Original Self.
Having said that, I must warn you that our being has no fixed entity called self, separate from the rest of the world; it is constantly becoming through karmic relationships. Your being here and now is a continuing process of cause and effect with no beginning nor ending. Actions you take in each moment inevitably turn into causes for reactions; actions once taken never disappear nor can be rectified later. You can appreciate then, that unless you empty your mind and apply yourself to being wholly present, your wrong actions trigger more reactions, and you are forever stuck in deeper confusion and despair.
Zen points to a way whereby you experience the 'emptiness' of your being which is infinitely free, adaptable, and open to possibilities. With that experiential knowing, you can address and dissolve all of your confusion and suffering at its roots. But you must sit diligently and gain full awareness that your core self is nothing but 'emptiness.'
When you awaken to your Original Self, every action and thought evolving from you is in harmony, beyond any conflicting opposites of right or wrong, good or bad.
Awakening to your Original Self, you discover you transcend your ego. Going beyond ego allows you to have thorough knowledge of your true nature. And it dawns on you that ego has no room to interfere at that level of consciousness."
The burning sticks crackled and spat. Roshi turned around, looked straight into my eyes, and continued, "Listen! You hear odd sounds around you! Sounds originate and vanish as sounds. Any reasoning or judgement is irrelevant. If you are transparent and in direct contact with the sounds, you and the sounds are one. Discard all the rest, including even the consciousness of hearing the sounds, as they are only obstacles clouding the truth. Do not bother with them, but let them come and go."
Gazing at the silver-blue Seto Inland Sea with its layers of islands, Roshi said, "Look!" I followed his gaze.
"The seer simply sees whenever and whatever, and the seer and seen are one. The seer sees everything as it is and is identical with all of what is seen. Yet, the seer is not fixated or attached to any particular sights.
What undermines the integrity of 'just seeing' is your conceptualizing mind whereby you separate the seen from yourself and pass judgement on it, either liking or disliking it. This happens because your ego is at work."
Roshi paused and stared at me. "How do you live beyond ego? The answer is to flow with the natural course of events. When you do something, just do it. You must apply yourself fervently and cling to 'just being' with tenacity and perseverance. In the process, your ego will start to drop off naturally, and instead your Original Self will manifest itself.
Just listen when you listen. Forget yourself as a hearer and devote yourself entirely to listening to sounds. Zen practice is about forgetting yourself so you are all those sounds you are listening to. And it is precisely this practice that roots out the source of all delusions."
Roshi's words were plain and unpretentious, but I felt they were helping my mind become more transparent. I was on the right track, more sure of what I was doing.
"Just listen," said Roshi and, without a pause, kicked the ten-gallon drum.
"What is it?" he shouted.
Without any hesitation, I kicked the drum. Crash! Just that sound! And nothing else.
"Back to zazen right now!" said Roshi.
I bowed, turned around, and started to walk toward the zendo. Roshi was out of sight. All that mattered to me now was each step, right this moment.
I sat in the zendo. I was breathing differently from before. My exhalations and inhalations went deeper; I was able to concentrate my breathing to the precision of one-tenth or perhaps one-hundredth of a second. No matter how hard I tried, I could not have done this before. And now it was effortless.
Another fascinating surprise was that the branches of trees I saw through the window were trembling in the breeze, but they also looked still as well. They were moving and not moving. The point at issue was not which was right, whether they were moving or not moving. The difference was that I was completely open to see them as they were in their entirety. 'Yes, there is nothing apart from this moment! This is the very moment! How serene and peaceful! Neither past nor future! Practice is not doing something! I don't have to do anything!'
I had lived all my life justifying myself with useless arguments. What a nuisance I was, vain, pig-headed and anxious to impose my egotistic opinions on others. Streams of remorse gushed through me. I could not stop my tears as I sat in zazen.
My mind was crystal clear; it simply mirrored what I saw or heard with no vestige of self-consciousness. When I practised walking meditation, I was completely absorbed in each step. My whole body became one step, mind and body in absolute unison. I was able to walk around in the zendo with one-pointed concentration.
I offered an incense stick before the Buddha statue. Without reservation, I bowed and raised my hands palm-to-palm to show my gratitude. I felt incredibly free and alive.
As I stepped out of the zendo, Roshi was standing there. I bowed to him in silence, weeping. "Thanks to you," was all I could murmur. Roshi did not need any explanation about my experience. He said quietly, "You have found the path to enlightenment. But I warn you, it is elusive and will disappear quickly. It is not yet authentic; you have only touched the path through your emotion. Pursue your practice of zazen single-mindedly. Concentrate on zazen."
I was overjoyed and relieved; finally I was worthy to be with my Zen friends.
When Roshi gave me permission to wash my face for the first time in five days, I was mindful of every movement, and yet felt as if 'I' was not doing them. Every movement had a natural flow, complete in itself.
Now that my mind had calmed down, I was able to sit in profound peace. Thoughts still emerged, but I left them alone and let them go. No more struggle. Finally I was 'just sitting.' In retrospect, my persistent efforts to get the better of Roshi, Mr Kozumi and Mr Nagaoka seemed absurd and ridiculous. Zen experience is beyond polemics. No wonder they did not take my arguments seriously. I began to understand what had been going through their minds then, and was grateful to them for remaining my friends.
Feeling slightly tired by the evening, I went back to my room and lay down to meditate. I had learned this a few days before from Roshi. Initially it had been an irritating experience due to the restlessness of my mind. But now as long as I kept a few key rules in mind, it was just as relaxing as zazen. I focused my eyes on the ceiling and just breathed. In the process, I was completely absorbed into the ceiling, and there was no more boundary in between. I continued horizontal zazen after supper as well. I had no idea how many hours elapsed.
Some time later, I heard footsteps on the frozen pathway. Whoever was walking, those footsteps belonged to someone who was thoroughly present in each step and who had real warmth of personality. Incredible! Just by listening to the footsteps, I could tell that person was living this moment with the utmost care.
The footsteps headed toward the zendo. Other footsteps followed. Later both sets of footsteps approached my room. They were my Zen friends, Mr Kozumi and Mr Nagaoka. The moment I saw them, tears of joy welled up. Roshi had kindly asked them to come and see me. Mr Kozumi took my hands and repeatedly said, "I am very happy for you. You made it, Mr Dake!" Mr Nagaoka had come all the way from Hiroshima just for this occasion. "Congratulations! We came to celebrate with you," he shouted, with a bottle of sake in his hand. They wanted to celebrate and formally acknowledge me as a Zen student, now that I had a glimpse of being wholly present.
The sake tasted beautiful. Although neither Mr Kozumi nor I usually drank, Mr Kozumi enjoyed it too. Our small party with Roshi continued late into the night. We understood each other without effort because our focus was in the present rather than with Zen as a body of knowledge separate from us. As for myself, I remained peacefully quiet while thoroughly enjoying their company. Where had my craving for attention gone? Strangely, I had no desire to express myself; I had no need to figure out their comments so I could impress them with a clever response. I was with them and felt completely in harmony with them.
Roshi finally gave me permission to do some physical work. "Scrub the tatami mat in both the zendo and your room," said Roshi. In the middle of this severe winter, the water was absolutely freezing. When I rinsed the cloth in the bucket, my fingers went numb, and I found it hard to 'just scrub' the floor. It was such a cold winter that year that the tap water was frozen in parts of the city and there were many broken pipes. No wonder my hands cramped with sharp pain in the water. I kept thinking, 'It's damn cold,' and put my fingers to my mouth, trying to warm them up with my breath, just so I could continue to rinse and scrub the floor.
Suddenly I was hit with a dazzling insight. Irrespective of my thoughts about this water, the reality was the water was cold. And this reality was independent of any emotion and reason, plain and simple, detached from any thought. Nothing extraordinary, but that revelation was phenomenally important to me. I plunged my hands into the water many times to verify this new insight. I deliberately tried to think, 'It is achingly cold.' That thought was definitely real as a thought. The physical sensation of my cold hands was also real. However, the thought and the sensation had nothing to do with one another: they were entirely separate from each other. This must be what Roshi meant by his odd expression 'chopping front and back'! Being free of thought, I appreciated the cold sensation as it really was. I relaxed and experienced the biting coldness without wrestling with it. It was still piercingly cold, so cold that people with ill health might easily have developed a heart attack.
This experience gave me a solid sense of what 'transparent mind' was all about. It was as if this awareness suddenly enlarged and relaxed my mind. Hard to describe - deeper than an inspiration and with no emotional element, it was closer to a strong conviction that welled from the heart.
Then Roshi turned up with a kettle in his hand. "The water must be cold," he said, and poured hot water into the bucket, the swirl of water forming a parabola. The sound of the water was so alive. I continued scrubbing the floor with a cloth, using hot water this time. Great! I was truly in the moment. Now that I could feel my fingers again, there was nothing other than being totally absorbed in scrubbing the floor. In spite of my vigorous movement and lively senses, my mind remained still.
According to Roshi, the focus of true practice is in the moment. This is a fascinating experience. I used to believe that unfaltering absorption in the moment was insurmountably difficult to attain. But once emotion and reason are relinquished, there is no need to strive to become absorbed, our Original Self is always right here. I cannot agree more when Roshi says, "Devoted and continuous practice to forget yourself and absorb yourself in the moment wakes you up to the reality of life. Through practice, the process of emotion and thoughts triggering more emotion and thoughts peters out, and they lose their adhesive power to imprison your mind. So there is no longer any source of delusion."
Zazen opened up an enormous expanse in my mindscape, unimaginable without practice. It is a phenomenal world, and increasingly that world was growing conceivable to me. Even better, I began to personally appreciate zazen as a concrete means to tap that world. Now I had not the slightest doubt about enlightenment being a realistic possibility. I was finally moving away from my long-cherished skepticism.
In the evening, Roshi said, "Burn some wood in the stove to heat the bath. Then you may take one." So I started to wash the bathtub.
"What's the matter with you? You are not one with what you are doing!" I heard Roshi's loud, chastising voice from some distance. Frightening! How could he read my mind from three rooms away? Usually we cannot even figure out what is in the mind of the person next to us.
Roshi's remark made me realize I was not 'just washing' the bathtub. I had never experienced such lightness of body and mind before and I guess that's why I had tended to flow too smoothly, paying only shallow attention to what I was doing and lacking the sustaining power to be wholly centered in every activity I was engaged in. That was exactly the reason I had come to practise. 'I'd better concentrate in the moment with heart and soul,' I said to myself with renewed resolve.
Daichi Rohni was going to take a bath for the first time in many days. For over twenty-two years, Roshi had been practising Zen under the guidance of Daichi Rohni and her deceased husband, Gikoh Roshi. She was eighty-three. I had been told that she was terminally ill and currently had high blood pressure, over two-hundred and twenty. Two weeks prior to my sesshin, she had had another heart attack. She was taken to a hospital in an ambulance but came back in a couple of days.
About four years ago, she had a cancer operation. Seeing her cheerful and relaxed without the slightest fear, the attending nurse was startled and could not resist asking if she was not at all scared of cancer.
When Masao, a friend of mine, had visited her in hospital, she welcomed him with her usual liveliness, seemingly unaffected by her illness. "Ouch! Ouch! Masao, I seem to have cancer. Ouch! Ouch!" she laughed. Her unperturbed poise and sense of humour so impressed Masao that he imitated her gesture to me on a number of occasions. She simply was not bothered with her cancer, pain, or death.
After washing the tub, I was meditating in my room when I heard Rhoni's voice from the bathroom. Even while she was being undressed, she carried on an effervescent conversation with Roshi and her sister, sometimes praising them, and at other times telling them off. There was delightful rapport among them!
"It feels just wonderful!" said Rohni, thoroughly enjoying the warm bath.
Worried about Rohni's hypertension, her sister sounded very nervous. "Sister, what if your blood vessels burst again? That might be the end of your life. Remember your blood pressure is well over two-hundred and twenty."
"Silly-billy! I am not at all worried about my death. Stop worrying for me. That's why you cannot get enlightened despite many years of practice. It would be auspicious if I died in the luxury of this warm bath. Don't waste your time worrying about someone else's death. Opening your mind's eye is far more important. Anyway, I don't remember how many days it is since I have had a bath. It's so lovely to take a bath." Her voice across the corridor was strong and healthy. It would not be accurate to say she had no fear of death; rather, death was not an issue for her. It seemed that she was flowing with life as it evolved on its own terMs She had no problem to be concerned about; her whole focus was to appreciate every moment of her life and live fully in the present. To me, she was an example of a fully enlightened person. Although I had heard many stories about her from Roshi, that was the first and last time I ever heard her voice.
The point in zazen is not to discipline one's body and mind but to just sit, without doing anything else. All my efforts to bring myself under control interfered with zazen. Previously 'doing nothing' had not made sense to me, but I now realized that was the most important point. My understanding of zazen was 'doing something' with heart and soul in order to 'attain something.' That was completely wrong. Without sounding pompous, it is impossible to understand this without practice.
Even with that understanding, just sitting was still difficult. As soon as I slackened, thoughts started to drag me around. Roshi explained why.
"Your ego is still in full function with solid strong roots. You haven't been able to clear them yet, and that prevents you from being intensely involved in the moment. Your memories, opinions, judgements, and emotions from the past are entangled and overshadow the present. It is like constantly planting the seeds of suffering. Let your old baggage go. Then your mind becomes mindless, and in that absence of mind, the light that has been always an inherent part of your mind is given the chance to shine. We call it our Original Self."
Thoughts kept rising, reminding me of my faltering concentration. But an encouraging sign was that I could detect them quickly and bring my attention back to the moment. When I was scrubbing the floor with a wet cloth, I was completely one with my hand movements. But when I was washing dishes after a meal, again I heard Roshi's voice shouting, "You are not wholly centered in the moment!"
It was an awesome challenge to be engrossed in one's activities from moment to moment. Returning to the present was easier now but sustaining that level of pure concentration was another story. My old habits crept in. I started to separate myself from the activity I was engaged in and conceptualized it with this and that reasoning. Without a teacher, it would have been impossible for me to break out of my old habits.
Around 4 p.m. I started to sweep the garden, no more boundary between myself and the act of sweeping, just sweeping. Serenity and peace filled me as I swept. So long as I held fast to Roshi's advice and applied some effort, even I could experience that unadulterated sense of unity. It was a marvellous surprise. Before the sesshin, I would have been grumbling about sweeping the garden, saying, "What's the use of sweeping? How tiring and boring!" At best I would have been constantly thinking about the quickest way to get it over and done with.
I remembered Roshi once said, "When you are wholly present and apply single-minded concentration to just being, you don't get as tired." It was true. The time had gone extremely fast and it was already evening.
That last night Roshi said, "If you are not in a hurry, sit tomorrow before you go. You need to keep building up the power of concentration. Otherwise, hell will await you." My Zen friends, who had sat sesshin earlier, also used to tell me that the moment they stepped out of the temple it was as if they had plummeted into hell. I decided to follow Roshi's advice.
Zazen now brought me to the realm of emptiness, no more thoughts of aching legs or time passing. 'Just sitting' was an infinitely quiet, dry, and tasteless experience.
This was my final day in the Seminary. I could apply single-minded concentration to whatever I did. Whether work or zazen, it made no difference to my concentration. Roshi said, "When your mind is wholly focused, your mind-as-is starts to unfold. Your mind is free from the constraints of your ego, caught up in your opinions and thoughts. Your mind is one with the universe. The workings of your mind are completely aligned to the universe."
For a moment, my mind came close to the state of empty mind. What bliss if I could only sustain this state of mind for the rest of my life! There was not a single problem or negativity, but only peace and contentment.
Things I saw no longer triggered thoughts, nor took my mind away. Everything looked vibrant and alive. Nonetheless, thoughts bubbled up occasionally through small gaps in my mind, and I knew there would be enormous work ahead to truly awaken and 'be in the moment.'
Daichi Rohni, Roshi's teacher, had been growing increasingly weak since that day she took her bath. From the way Roshi talked, I sensed he was preparing himself for her imminent death.
Roshi was eager to offer her a more restful space and was thinking of removing a partition next to her room. "Leave it to me. I am a qualified first-class builder," I said to him. To me that was far easier than trying to focus my whole attention on each movement of my chopsticks during my meals. By taking only a mere glance at a building, I could readily identify its internal structure and know exactly what to do.
I stretched out my hand, "Roshi, bring me a saw."
Soon I had started cutting, following my on-the-spot demolition plan. As I cut a beam, I gave a kick. Noise and dust filled the place for a moment. Then I moved on to cut the next beam.
I suddenly remembered Daichi Rohni was resting in the next room, and was acutely embarrassed by my zeal. In the past, when I had been in similar situations, I often ended up being perplexed about myself. People criticized me - and I thought they were right - for my insensitivity and lack of common sense.
But the situation was different now. Had I not done the work, Roshi would have. Not knowing the structure of this building, he would have taken much longer, while I could finish it in twenty minutes at the most. No need for hesitation. All I needed to do was focus myself and complete this work in the shortest span of time, as Roshi wanted.
Roshi brought a shovel and a wheelbarrow and started to clear up.
"Roshi, where do we dump this earth?"
"Let's leave it under the stairway."
"It will make the place muddy when it rains."
"Don't worry. I will take care of it. My priority now is to offer a quieter place to Rohni and use the next room as access to her room."
I had total empathy with Roshi. I knew how much he cared for Daichi Rohni. Our demolition work was finished in a flash; it was as if I had become an extension of Roshi's mind, and we worked in total harmony. Her room was more spacious and had more fresh air now. The moment I saw the dusty floor I started vacuum cleaning. Surprisingly, before I had even thought about it, my body was doing what needed to be done.
Incidentally, it was a big surprise to find a vacuum cleaner in the Seminary! The Seminary building was run-down: the same old kitchen from the pre-war period, the dark dining and bathroom, and flattened, hard futons. I had always believed places for Zen practice were antiquated and without modern gadgets. So, finding a high performance vacuum cleaner in this old place was somewhat unexpected. However, two years on, I am happy to report the kitchen and the dining room, once dark and inefficient, have been renovated; the dark north corridor has some lights now. Even the futons and pillows have been replaced with new ones. No one will think of this place as decrepit anymore.
Anyway, the building work was completed smoothly; the lightness and speed with which I worked left me pleasantly satisfied. In such situations, Roshi was extremely agile, without the slightest trace of authority or status as an eminent Zen teacher. My stereotyped image of a Zen teacher used to be someone as solid and calm as a huge rock, unperturbed by anything. That was far too simplistic. What became clear to me was that Roshi's mind maintained stillness though he worked extremely fast. His mind had the power to sustain phenomenal clarity and perceptiveness; that was why he could respond quickly to each situation without delay. I had renewed respect for him.
It was time to leave the Seminary. I bowed low in deep appreciation of Roshi, my Original Self manifesting. I could not have done this before the sesshin; my recalcitrant ego would have blocked me for sure. As we stepped out of the Seminary door, Roshi cautioned me, "Do not boast about having had some experience of zazen in the past. Zen practice is about living each moment without the facade of ego; it is about constantly striving to demonstrate that this moment is not controlled by your ego. Be like air. Just be, simply in response to any relationships that form around you. That is the essence of Zen, the key to living in harmony. Unless you constantly make the effort to return to the present in your everyday life, you will not be qualified to say you have done zazen. Keep up your Bodai-shin, path-seeking mind. Make an all-out effort to live the present with the purest intention. There is nothing other than the present, no matter how far you go. Be that one step; it is that one step that takes you back to your home, and your home is where your Zen practice is. Mr Dake, you have done well. Please give my best regards to your wife."
I felt incredibly light and alive. The familiar landscape appeared so fresh, it was like a different world altogether. Step by step I walked back home.
"I am back," I shouted as I opened the door.
My wife and two children came out to welcome me. They looked puzzled, not knowing what to make of me. I smiled at them in silence. My mind remained still. For the first time, I could sense how each of my family was feeling.
They had been very worried about me, as my sesshin took place during the worst cold spell in several decades, so they were happy to see me well, and the warmth and love of my family felt very precious.
However, there still remained something discordant between my family and myself. My family was not centered at all; their minds were endlessly noisy with no focus. It would be merely a matter of time before I lost this stillness of mind. A part of me wanted to keep a bit of distance from my family.
After the sesshin, I started my take-away restaurant without any hesitation. Once, when I had sought Roshi's advice about my new venture, he had said, "You will end up being under the extra pressure of money, people and time." But the sesshin had given me the self-confidence to take decisive action. I did not have to bother to ask for advice. I did everything my way. Living the moment meant single-minded concentration on my plan. I was engrossed in my business and worked incessantly.
On the twenty-fifth of February l984, Daichi Rohni passed away. Her death was an immense loss for Roshi.
On the twenty-eighth of February, my new take-away restaurant opened. It did extremely well from the beginning, and I worked from the crack of dawn to midnight. I never slept more than five hours. I did not need to. I was fundamentally very healthy and had a lot of stamina. I was delighted that I had no spare time, just work, work, work. The idea that 'the business is my living Zen practice' was even more exhilarating.
I started to lecture my part-time employees, "You must focus only on the present and work with the greatest mindfulness. When the mind is settled in the moment, I can guarantee that your work will become more interesting, and every moment of your life more satisfying." I picked on their work habits and, drawing on my sesshin experience, kept giving advice. I took every opportunity to preach to my wife, my children, and even strangers.
Now and again, Roshi dropped over to my restaurant to see how I was doing. He used to give me tips about managing my employees. That added more prestige to what I preached: I often quoted his words as if they were my own. I was turning into a proper teacher of Buddhism, which tickled my ego no end. I felt I was rising above others, talking about sophisticated stuff that no one else knew. I was very pleased with my new role.
On the third of July, my father died. While he was dying, once again I ended up preaching to my family and relations who had gathered around. My behaviour must have been unbearably irritating, especially to my wife and children. For some time, I had been aware of the change in my seven-year old daughter; she had not only lost her open intimacy with me but had started to stare at me with suspicion. But I had no idea how exhausted my wife was, completely burnt out from helping with the restaurant, looking after our children, and, on top of that, organizing the funeral.
On the tenth of July, her anger finally exploded. "What was all that zazen about? You are nothing but a mad egocentric! I am leaving you!"
It was as if I had been suddenly hit with a sledge hammer. Up to that moment I was convinced that through my Zen practice, I was winning her respect and trust. What a gross misunderstanding! In fact, all this time she had been deeply scornful of my empty eloquence. It was as though I had been spreading toxic gas, polluting the family.
I arranged for my wife to have a week off. But the restaurant had to keep going, no matter what. Taking up extra work on her behalf meant self-sacrifice, a sort of martyr mentality on my part, which was yet another mega-ego manifestation. 'If only I can endure,' was my attitude. I still did not bother to think much beyond that and believed this was my Zen practice.
Now, even though I often attended Roshi's sermons, his words did not inspire me as they used to. Roshi continued to urge me to practise zazen, but my zeal had faded. Ironically, I was far more passionate preaching about Zen than practising it myself. I knew I was deviating from the path but could not get back to serious practice. Part of me was in agony, chasing in vain after the stillness of mind I had once had. Roshi and my Zen friends used to warn me, "Once you step out of the Seminary, hell awaits you." They were absolutely right.
In mid-July, Roshi invited me to accompany him on a trip to a Zen Seminary in Kyoto. It would be a refreshing opportunity for me to practise zazen in that historic zendo. Soon I would be back in the stillness of being present.
As it was Sunday, there were fifteen sitters, all older than me, and some of them had been practising for several decades. But it was obvious, even to me, that none of them were focused on the moment nor were awake to this moment. I asked myself, 'Isn't there something vitally lacking in this Seminary? What is Zen for, if the students forget to concentrate on the immediate present? What is the Zen teacher teaching in this place?' I grew suspicious of the quality of their zazen.
Roshi began a mondo with one of the sitters, a Zen discussion between master and trainee.
"What do you do when thoughts arise?" asked Roshi.
"I cancel them by thinking of something else," answered the sitter with confidence. He looked like one of the oldest members of the Seminary.
"I see." Roshi simply acknowledged his response, and quietly retired to his place.
Without the right teacher, students copy forms but have no experience of the essence of Zen, of being genuinely in the moment. Once again, I was quite impressed with Roshi's calibre. I felt very sorry for the rest of the sitters who had clearly been taking their zazen seriously; I wished I could teach them the essence. If I were Roshi, I would immediately have picked on that response and lectured them on everything I knew, with seamless fluency.
In contrast, Roshi only said, "I see, " and nothing more. I found no trace of self-righteousness in him; there was no desire to impose his understanding on others. Suddenly I saw there was no point in incorporating Zen into the narrow confines of the egocentric self and owning it as 'mine.' Shame on me! That was exactly what I had been doing. From now on, I would not inflict 'my version of Zen' on others. I pledged to practise zazen with unfaltering commitment when I returned to the zendo.
"Let us call on the master and pay our respects before we excuse ourselves," Roshi murmured and walked out. After a while, I followed him.
In the Zen master's room, I found Roshi sitting extremely close to the old teacher, who had a somewhat ostentatious, majestic air about him. It seemed that I turned up just as they started an intense dialogue.
"Oops! I shouldn't have come into the room!" I knew what happened when Roshi sat extremely close to someone; it was one of his tactics to hold that person at bay. Roshi must have challenged him with an incisive question. As he saw me coming in, however, Roshi moved away from the master and thanked him for having us. The old master was in a complete flurry as he received our farewell greetings.
After the trip, I got right back into my heavy work schedule again. Soon the stillness of mind that had temporarily returned was taken over by stifling restlessness. Always pressed for time, I had no time for zazen. Instead, I tried to 'just drive' when I was driving, and made sure to turn the car radio off. I also tried to 'just listen' if people were talking to me. At the end of each day I went over what had happened, then tried to 'just sleep' with an empty mind.
Still, to claim this was the best I could do was a compromise. I knew that. The truth was, no matter what, I needed to make time for zazen my top priority.
After I did my sesshin, a few of Mr Kozumi's employees followed. Mr Nishitani was one of them, and he kept up his practice after sesshin. Every morning, he drove nearly forty minutes to sit for an hour at Kaizoji. Whenever I saw him, I was stunned by his steady progress. The only way out of the doldrums was to start practising zazen afresh at the zendo, like a novice. I finally made up my mind and resumed my practice at the zendo every morning.
Deeper, on-going practice at the zendo allowed me to realize I was applying myself only half-heartedly in my daily routine. I pretended I was making an effort, but my efforts lacked any focus. When sitting, there mustn't be anything more important than just sitting. The zendo, after all, was the best place to sit intently.
Early each morning, I went to the zendo and saw a couple of students sitting diligently. Although we hardly knew each other, I could sense their intensity and zeal. Each of us pathseekers must practise alone. There is no shared journey. It's entirely up to me; if I fall back, I suffer the consequences. Simple! But when my mind loses its centeredness, even such a simple truth becomes blurred.
On some occasions, I came across Roshi's young students at Kaizoji, all lively and pleasant young men, who seemed very fond of Roshi. Back in their high school days, they said they used to be avid sitters. But I could find no trace in them of 'the mind that seeks the path,' the mind that Roshi values most.
Clearly they were not calling on Roshi to find Buddha-nature within themselves. They seemed to get together simply out of close friendship for Roshi. How much they had practised zazen in the past was irrelevant; as long as they remained attached and took pride in what they had done in the past, their present moment was dead, and they were wasting their time at the temple.
Nevertheless, Roshi always treated them as important friends. Even if they had been seized by the neck and shaken hard, they would not have been ready to wake up. Roshi must have been fully aware of this and incredibly tolerant.
I could appreciate Roshi's deep compassion for them, especially because I had been exactly like them until recently. Perhaps the more I started to reflect upon myself, the greater was my understanding of the depth of Roshi's compassion.
As soon as I stepped out of the Seminary each morning, I was straight back into the whirlpool of the secular world. The faculty of mind that had been nurtured through zazen was often inconsistent with an ego filled with secular ambition. It was confusing and painful.
One day, when Roshi and I were climbing uphill to the Seminary, he gave me a sharp look and said, "Mr Dake, remind yourself of a sense of humility, at least when you are walking towards the Seminary. Remember you are stepping into a sacred place. Offer reverence. You need to notice those actions and thoughts that impair your dignity. You need to be in touch with your remorse. Then that sense of remorse will lift you up and strengthen your resolve to seek the path, and cheap ambitions will gradually have less of a grip on you. Your mind once touched a higher level of consciousness. It is sad to see you slipping down day by day. Concentrate with heart and soul on each single step. Do you understand?"
Any lingering confusion dissipated in a flash. Roshi's words were a shock, akin to ten thousand volts of power short-circuiting through me. For a moment I almost lost consciousness and could not move. Then suddenly that purity and simplicity of mind that I had experienced during sesshin came back to me as real bodily sensations. Once again, lightness and stillness were with me. When I arrived at the Seminary, I did not even think what to do next. I followed Roshi. He took no notice of me and began to cook lunch.
I watched him chopping vegetables with the proficiency of a professional chef, fascinated by the rhythmical movements with which he handled the kitchen knife when, out of the blue, Roshi thrust that knife in front of me and asked, "What is this?" I was suddenly wide awake. I snatched the knife from Roshi, took over chopping, put all the ingredients in a pot, turned the stove on to cook, and set the table, flowing from one thing to another.
I remembered Roshi had told me some time ago, "Let your action act through you. Give your entire being to what you do in the moment." I thought this must have been what he was trying to point out. I was very pleased that I could get back to that state of mind.
Since that day, I became more attuned to the Seminary. In my everyday life, I was growing more flexible. I realized my behaviour had been fettered by a set of rigid stereotypes. For instance, preparing a meal, cleaning, putting the futon in and out of the cupboard - those chores used to be definitely my wife's work. Now I found myself doing them naturally with her.
However, my own psychological patterns were far more difficult to deal with, at times impossible, so deeply ingrained that I was not even aware of their presence. I faced up to my self-centered thoughts, delusions, or judgements only when they were out in open. By the time I accepted their disruptive consequences, it was too late. What I had already done was done and could not be corrected. I guess most people go through similar experiences. Slowly, I was becoming more self-aware through these ups and downs.
Roshi said, "In your deep yearning to be on the path, you will start to see it emerging in front of you; conversely, you will become less interested in worldly affairs and your need to project your ego will diminish. Basically, setting your feet on the path means no ego blockage from being who you truly are in your everyday life. Then you will respond appropriately in all circumstances.
In devoted zazen, 'you' are not 'doing' zazen; 'zazen' is 'zazening' through you. You realize through zazen that there is nothing 'out there confronting you or waiting for you'; the only reality is this moment of zazen. You realize you have been wasting time chasing your busy thoughts and imaginings, living either in the past or in the future, but not in the present. Suddenly you awaken to the reality that sitting itself is being in the eternal present. Zazen is not a cause with which to achieve an effect. Cause and effect are simultaneous.
In this oneness of zazen and yourself, you are being a Buddha: zazen is the realization of your Buddha-nature. Restlessness and unease are dispelled, and calmness and peace settle in your mind. This is because once you perceive that your frenzied search - both emotional or intellectual - to find peace within yourself is fundamentally flawed, you can settle your mind on being wholly present.
Just do zazen. Just focus on a single breath. Just walk. Just see. Just listen. The whole purpose of Zen practice lies in awakening to your Original Self.
The next step for a true pathseeker is to forget about your self - both body and mind - by being thoroughly present. Freed from your small self, you are suddenly hit with the insight that every single being in this universe manifests Buddha-nature and that you too are already endowed with all the teachings of the Buddha within yourself.
There is no fixed entity, there is no self, no doctrine, no enlightenment. You are simply living the world of mu where subjects and objects merge into oneness. You reach the depth of 'The willow is not green. The flower is not scarlet.' Usually we are taught that the willow is green and the flower scarlet. But in the absolute world of no-self - where you become the willow tree or the flower - they are no longer either green or scarlet. Only then is your mind liberated to truly appreciate green or scarlet as they are."
Roshi's sermon were always mind-expanding. Just listening to him had some cleansing impact and gave me a deeper insight into my practice. Today's sermon was especially nourishing. He continued.
"What happens day-to-day in the world is not predicated on a set of principles and theories. Each of us has many self-serving rationale and perspectives, which we combine arbitrarily to defend ourselves or judge others. If you look at any conflict of interests, the rationale both parties present often end up tightly entangled and create more confusion. And, by the end of the day, no one knows what the truth was any more. As long as their focus remains on their local interests, conflicts are doomed to escalate into ever more serious battles and warfare. What we need is a perspective that leaps beyond our egocentric interests. True religion endows each individual with the capacity to leave this narrow perspective."
Now I understood what Roshi was pointing to.
"All religions, if they are authentic, witness the same universal truth. This truth brings unadulterated peace of mind. And true religion must be able to clearly point to the concrete steps to experience that peace and truth.
This truth cannot be fully conceptualized in words because it is not a construct of your thoughts or imagination. When a religion does not clearly spell out that our day-to-day life itself is a manifestation of the universal truth and that the truth is right here and now, people become disconnected from reality and dream about a heaven out there. Then this religion provides a mega-delusion, a fantasy world to indulge one's inflated ego.
Once we stop clouding our life with pettiness and value judgements, our life is in touch with infinity and truth. Each of our beings are equally precious and uniquely different. Seeing this, we do not encroach on one another and thus live in harmony. That is the principle of life lived in harmony with the universal truth, and in religions, those principles are mirrored in the precepts. You cannot find any truth other than in your everyday living; there is no other access road to the truth. The solid, irrefutable awareness of this fact is the lifeline of Zen practice."
Books cannot offer this most crucial experience. Novices are bound to be led astray if they depend solely on reading; new students, without any vital experiences of their own, have not yet cultivated sufficient discriminating power to assess whether the writer has got right to the essence of Zen or if it is simply intellectualized Zen. In the latter case, students are inevitably drawn into an even more confusing maze.
Likewise, the length of time spent practising zazen is secondary to being utterly present from moment to moment, since it is that experience that cultivates spiritual strength. I must emphasize the role of the teacher in pointing to the shortest way for each student, teaching us ways to overcome impediments, and guiding us, even from a long distance away.
Once students have been taught the right way to practise, they can continue practising wherever and whenever; the joy of polishing one's Buddha-nature is available everywhere - walking, driving, eating, at the local temple, bushwalking, on the bench, in the park, and above all, while working.
Still, we need to remember that the teacher is another human, not super-human. And more often than not, enlightened minds are not bothered with their public appearance, and they might appear to students as eccentrics with nothing great about them. This is where the student's discerning power for the Dharma is tested. And there must also be readiness on the part of the student to form a relationship with the teacher at that point in time. Considering all the intricacies, encountering the right teacher is itself a very special gift to the student.
To me, Zen is about a charged life. Roshi once said, "When you are less befuddled with your tumbling thoughts, you gain greater simplicity in life and more clarity in the moment." At last I have a fair understanding of what he meant.
I now have a sense of natural reverence for my ancestors, the Buddha and masters of old. It is now routine for my family and me to visit our ancestors' graves. Before Zen practice, I used to be nonchalant about decorum, for instance, at the temple, but now it all flows out of me naturally. I think grace and good manners fundamentally evolve from purity and simplicity of mind, when mind is no longer invested in selfish thoughts and emotions.
I am also much more comfortable with who I am, more confident with myself.
At the moment, Mr Tomosada is going through intense practice at the Seminary. He came all the way from Tokyo to sit while his colleagues went on a special company holiday to Hawaii, organized by the firm he works for. For him, time in the zendo was much more precious. His commitment as a path seeker is truly inspiring. I have no way of knowing where he is in his practice, but I can sense he is less blocked by his ego than me, and with that he has gone deeper in understanding the Dharma.
Mr Nishitani, my other Zen friend, is keeping up with his practice every morning in the zendo. I also do the same.
Although the wind is still chilly, the Seminary garden is signalling that spring is around the corner.
I feel acute embarrassment going over my story of sesshin; I can sense the underlying implication that I attained some higher self-awareness. Exactly one year and nine months after sesshin an unforgettable thing happened which I am going to confess. I am still struggling with my pain and shame to even talk about the incident, but it shows the potential danger of Zen practice. So under Roshi's instruction, I am going to share it with you readers.
It was a pleasant spring, when the beauty of cherry blossoms brought people out of their houses. One evening I was with Roshi at the Seminary when someone called in and asked me to take up the presidency of the Parents' and Teachers' Association of the primary school where my daughters had been attending.
When I sought Roshi's advice, he said straight away, "It will be damaging if your life becomes even busier than it is now. On top of your time constraints, you'd better ask yourself whether the P.T.A members will accept your confrontational style and support you. If they do, you will be able to make a contribution. But I expect that most members will turn against you. Then you will end up overpowering them with your forcefulness and dedication. You'd be better not to accept this offer; if you do, you will be confronted with many obnoxious conflicts."
I declined the offer, at least the first time. But, after repeated requests, I accepted the post. Roshi then said, " If that is the case, you need to ask Mr Kozumi to be the vice-president. I cannot think of anyone else who would support you." So I did. Mr Kozumi said, "That's a huge responsibility!" but agreed to work with me on the spot.
In spite of his partnership, I was pressured into resigning after only one year. I was completely unaware of the repercussions caused by my unintentionally insensitive comments. Here again, I assumed that every member accepted me and openly recognized my competence. Puffed up with pride and arrogance, I often said, "You cannot compare me with the past presidents" - meaning, I am by far the best. Criticism against me grew stronger and stronger, which became apparent even to me. I felt rotten; my frantic life was reaching its limit. On the whole, it would be good for me to resign, though to resign for being disliked by the members would be an absolute disgrace. During my term as president, the school had gained a swimming pool, storage for the gym, a tunnel in the sand pit, and unicycles but I hardly received any appreciation for these achievements.
Even more pathetic was that my resignation was not a cure for my arrogance. I did not believe I was arrogant; I was simply confident. Whatever I was involved in, I could clearly see what needed to be done, could point it out articulately, ignore peripheral comments, and push forward.
One day as I dropped in at Kaizoji, I found Roshi serving tea and talking to two young guests - both social chit-chat and teachings of the Buddha. I could not bear to keep my mouth shut and just listen. So I began interrupting. "Roshi, that is only your opinion, but I think ..." His remarks sounded too simplistic; I thought I could structure and present the same material much better than he could. So I went on and on. All that time Roshi listened to me in silence. But after the guests left, he said , "No matter how well you put the Buddha's teachings, it does not make sense for those who are not ready. Though you might not be aware of it, my guests and I were reaching out to the depths through our dialogue. I hope you realize people who come and visit me are my guests."
Roshi's remark did not awaken me to my mistakes; rather, I was grumpy that Roshi did not praise me for my intervention.
Over and over again, I did the same thing. I was constantly at loggerheads with others in discussions.
Another time, I was with my classmates at a reunion. Just when everyone was having great time with some beer and sake, one of my classmates hit my face quite hard, and it was very sore for the next few weeks.
When I told Roshi about this incident, he said, "There must have been a good reason for him to do that; it is highly unlikely that a decent adult would not only hit you, but hit you in front of other friends for no real reason. You may have hurt him in the past. Take stock of yourself. That's what this incident is demanding of you."
However, this time as well, Roshi's words were no motivation for self-reflection.
A few weeks later, when my facial pain was finally disappearing, I was helping Roshi prepare block copy for his manuscript. I kept nagging him about the way he worked.
"Roshi, your modus operandi is inefficient. Let me show you a better method."
"Mr Dake, this is so simple. All you need to do is cut and paste the typed characters. It is just a matter of concentration and practice," said Roshi.
I contradicted him, "It is easier if you paste the characters on lined board."
"Mr Dake, I am speaking to you from years of experience. If you want to ensure the lines are straight, you can use a special ruler for that. Suppose you take the trouble to prepare a pasteboard as you suggest. You have to cut and paste the characters anyway. You just add an extra process to pasting that board in an accurate position. That's redundant."
I answered him back.
"Isn't your practice to just do the work in peace without picking and choosing?" said Roshi. But I still retorted and said, "Practice is practice; but it is clearly more efficient to use a pasteboard."
At last Roshi prepared printed pasteboards especially for me but, to my disappointment, it did prove less efficient than his method.
Only few days later, when I was helping him on the same work, out of the blue Roshi asked me, "What do you do zazen for?"
I stumbled to give him some reasons and turned to look at him, when he gave me a good slap on the cheek. My goodness, it hurt!
"Can't you see?! You have forgotten your original aspiration. You have lost your sense of the living present. Follow the teachings of the Buddha with humility. Stop wasting your time being argumentative. Your zazen is a complete fake."
These were very strong words. His unexpected anger utterly threw me off balance. The situation worsened after this. What I had said and did started to reach Roshi from a number of different sources - stuff I had dismissed as minor issues.
"How dare you say you are a Zen student! Your zazen has only prompted your descent into smugness. You have been humiliating people. You are nothing but an inflated ego. You are polluting the teachings!"
So began an ongoing and thorough rebuke. Severe scoldings continued over the phone, in front of other Zen friends, at the Seminary and at the temple. I felt my heart was being stabbed. I could not bear it and begged for his forgiveness in tears. But he refused to forgive me.
He said, "My time is precious. I have no time for toddler taming! Out! You are expelled! Your story of zazen is going to be deleted from the book. Your behaviour invites only misunderstandings of the Dharma and gives the wrong idea about zazen! You do not deserve to be called a pathseeker! Come back to me only after you leave your mega-ego behind!"
At that time we were planning to publish stories of Zen practice written by Roshi's students; originally my story was going to be in it. The completed book, however, entirely obliterated my story. I desperately sought sympathy from my Zen friends, but they took no notice of me.
Finally, I went to Roshi, and, with my hands on the tatami, my head down, and tears streaming down my face, begged him to allow me to sit in the zendo.
"What are you talking about? Mr Dake, you have been and always are in our circle of cherished Dharma friends. But your complacency presents a major distraction in practising the Dharma. That is why I ask you to stay away from us while you work on your smugness. Sit fervently and you will be a pathseeker before long." Roshi was not only happy to give me his approval but also some encouragement, enough to sit through evenings in autumn and winter in the zendo all alone, away from other friends. It was agonizing for me to reflect upon myself, especially when I had lost my self-esteem. In the calmness of zazen, I had to confront and admit the mistakes I had made in the past. No more excuses, no more blaming. I loathed myself for what I had said and done. On many nights I was in tears while doing zazen, overwhelmed with the sense of bitter failure.
In retrospect, I am grateful for this opportunity for self-reflection. Had I not had a huge sense of self-defeat, I would never have examined myself with that thoroughness and rigour. Now I could appreciate that the ordeal Roshi had challenged me with came from his compassion.
Throughout that winter I often visited Kaizoji to listen to his Dharma talks and to ask him questions. As long as it was on the Dharma, Roshi was always available and spared no time and effort for me. Now I could comfortably listen to Roshi or anyone in the conversation until they had finished talking. When attending meetings, I would more often than not just listen without interrupting. It was not because I was trying to hold myself back. I was much more at peace with myself. If someone expressed their opinion, that was their opinion; I need not to get befuddled or agitated, or attack them. I learned that on many occasions, just quietly listening to what others had to say was more appropriate for a pathseeker.
Gradually Roshi started to invite me to mix with my Zen friends again. This time round, I found myself more easily attuned to them; this meant I could hold a conversation without 'me' having to be right all the time. That shift allowed me to be much more relaxed than before.
Another new insight about myself was my tendency to 'own' any new knowledge or understanding I gained as if it belonged to me. In the past, every new learning used to feed into my pride and tickle the temptation to show off how smart I was. Basically I was in a constant competition to prove I was ahead of the rest. No wonder I was always anxious, even when talking about tranquility. I learned from my own flaws that knowing about Zen must never be confused with the living Zen experience.
"You are the only person who has experienced expulsion from the Seminary. I am sure your experience will be helpful to other people. Why don't you write about it?" said Roshi. So, to get the sequence right, I went over what I had written previously. It was much too pretentious for the shallowness of my experience. I was shocked at my audacity and had to force myself not to stop reading in the middle. However unacceptable it might have been, that clearly was a part of my journey.
"Roshi! I am truly grateful to you. You have been always my guide. You have never forsaken me. Without the experience of expulsion, I would never have learned about humility," I said to him, raising my hands palm to palm to express my gratitude.
"Daichi Rohni used to tell me that the more muddled the path, the greater is the Buddha that emerges from the mud," said Roshi, with that big childlike smile which I had not seen for a long time. I knew he was very happy for me.
I do not know how to close my story with a true expression of remorse but I do know it will be the catalyst for my ongoing practice. Just being, being wholly in the moment, will continue to be the prime focus in my practice. I hope my everyday Zen practice, under Roshi's instructions, will eventually guide me to an ever-clearer awakening.
Discovering My Diamond Life
president of an accounting firm/ born in 1941
The flight from Taipei to Japan was quiet and without turbulence. My two week trip to Peru, Brasil, and Taiwan was coming to an end.
I had met many wonderful people and especially loved the enthusiasm of the Peruvians.
I remembered Peruvian President Fujimori spraying water from a huge hose over a crowd of villagers during an inauguration ceremony, celebrating the turning on of the first tap at the summit of Los Andes.
Joy and gratitude shone on the people's faces as they enjoyed the feeling of fresh water drenching their bodies.
At last they had access to tap water.
Their cries of joy echoed through the mountains of Los Andes and into the clearest blue sky, a magical moment of beauty, interweaving nature, human beings, and all that is sacred.
There were radiant faces and tears of gratitude for this time of grace.
Just looking at those faces was so healing and nourishing.
Didn't we once have the same sparkling eyes and big smiles as those villagers in Peru?
But when, exactly?
The first time I saw that same big smile ...
seemed many years ago ...
Oh! It just kicked."
"Must be a healthy baby."
"I hope it is a girl."
"As long as it's a healthy baby, I am happy with either."
"But I have a feeling 'it' is a 'she'."
"Well, you may be right."
I hear the voices in the distance, gentle comfortable voices, for which I somehow feel great nostalgia.
Voices of a woman and a man.
What are they talking about?
They sound very happy.
[Please talk louder so I can hear you!]
No? My voice does not seem to reach them.
[Can't you hear me? Please, I am talking to you.]
Doesn't seem to work. But O.K.
Soon I will talk to them.
I don't know how, but I know it's going to happen.
With warm, soft water surrounding me, I am light and floating.
Though naked, I am not cold at all.
It is so cozy here.
I want to stay here forever.
My goodness! What a strange sensation!
The warm water around me is starting to move.
My body is rolling.
Something is about to happen.
Forming a gentle swirl, the water is being sucked into a tunnel.
The swirl is carrying my body down, slowly.
No, I don't want to leave here.
I want to stay here, floating forever.
But I am being pulled down by an incredible power I cannot resist.
The swirl is growing stronger.
I had better let myself go with it.
"Congratulations! It's a beautiful girl. She looks very well."
People are welcoming my arrival into this world.
Everyone around me is smiling with joy, that same big smile of the villagers in Los Andes.
Someone in a white dress holds me in her arms, wipes my body, and wraps me in a new cloth.
She then puts me close to a woman who is lying down, looking exhausted, a woman with a kindly face, glowing with tears of joy.
"What a lovely, healthy baby! Thank you for coming to us, baby."
[I had heard her voice before. Oh! Yes, the couple who had been happily talking ... that woman's voice.]
"So glad to see you, baby. I am your mother."
[Mother? Now I know that woman was my mother.]
"Bravo! So it is born!"
[Oh! That man's voice ... I had also heard it before.]
"Darling, our baby is a 'she'!"
"Well done, sweetheart!"
"I knew it was a girl."
"You were absolutely right. I'm glad everything went so well."
[Both of my parents are extremely happy; everyone is delighted.
But I am still not used to this bright light; its stimulation is too strong for me.]
"Congratulations! Well done!"
"Pardon? What did you say just now?"
"I heard you say 'it's beautiful.'"
I awoke from a dream. I remembered I was on the flight back to Japan.
"No, nothing really. It's an old memory ..."
Mr Yazaki, who was sitting next to me, stopped marking the thick book he was reading.
"Azusa-san, I bet you've been enjoying your dream. You were talking in your sleep. You'd better give me hush money so I don't tell anybody. Ha! Ha! Ha!" he said with hearty laughter.
"Not again, Mr Yazaki! I know what you're alluding to. By now, I've learned to live with your jokes. Isn't it strange how I listen to whatever you say? I guess it is because I feel you're like my father!"
Spontaneously I linked arms with him.
The warmth coming through felt like a father's touch.
There was something mysterious about this trip. I had found myself seated next to Mr Yazaki on every flight and bus trip. And, for some reason, he kept talking passionately about Inoue Kido Roshi, the Abbot of Shorinkutsu Seminary. Unlike those somebodies famous in name but not in substance whom we often come across and get disillusioned by, this Roshi sounded like a nobody, but with real substance.
But why did he always talk about Roshi? The instant I asked myself this question, I was struck with an insight. 'Azusa, perhaps it's your own yearning to hear about Roshi that encourages Mr Yazaki to speak of him?'
Of course. That was it!
"Yes, Azusa-san. What's the matter with you? All of sudden you look so serious!"
"Please, let me meet with Inoue Roshi."
Amazingly quick to respond, Mr Yazaki opened up his diary on the spot.
"Azusa-san, when are you available? You had better leave one week completely open."
"Eh? One whole week? The only time I can take time off would be between the year-end and the New Year holiday. I will check with my office when I return."
Once Mr Yazaki got back to Japan, he would probably forget about my request because of his imminent trip to Australia. Mr Yazaki is deeply committed to the education of future generations and is continually on the run, making visits all over the world. So I took his response with a grain of salt.
I never expected that our conversation would find me dashing along the path towards enlightenment.
The rapture I had witnessed in the people of Peru belonged to a clear, unclouded spirit; it was a quality that the Japanese had long forgotten even existed. The enthusiastic reception that we received from first-generation Japanese entrepreneurs in Brasil was also very moving. And people we met in Taiwan, too. I felt I was being thrown into the huge, invisible vortex of a larger resonance.
"I know a new door is opening for me," I murmured to myself.
Already, our plane had started to make a big circle. Beneath us were the million sparkling lights of Tokyo, looking like the galaxy. The illuminations on the runway were getting closer, and the plane would soon land at Narita Airport.
I changed trains from the Shinkan-sen to the Kure line at Mihara station. There were hardly any passengers on this local train with only two cars. The train ran along the coastal edge close to the Seto Inland Sea, and the views from the train were just splendid.
Does the sparkling sea resemble a bright diamond? I mused, looking out the train window, or is it the diamond that reminds me of the sparkling sea? Is our fascination with its radiance because our spirit is inherently as bright as a diamond?
Initially, I couldn't appreciate the serenade of gentle waves and lights. I had just squeezed time out of a very busy year-end schedule. But so glorious was the scenery of the numerous islands and calm water that I was eventually captivated by its exquisite beauty, forgetting for a while the austerity of Zen practice that awaited me.
I had been holding some unresolved questions - I don't know for how long - that I knew could be taken care of only in the realm of my soul. Over recent years, I had a growing need to address them and, hopefully, let them go. Jumping into an institutionalized religion was not on my agenda. However, I wanted to be totally honest in addressing my needs. To me, making a sincere effort to reach for a deeper level was basically the same as religious practice.
Any indoctrination or blind acceptance of ideas is ephemeral, for it contains the inherent risk of collapse. When ideas are imposed by someone else, they lack the authenticity of ideas which rise from within. What I wanted was to learn a truly workable process that could help me delve into the essence of my being, into my authentic self. So the karmic relationship that later unfolded between Roshi and me was by no means accidental. It was a golden thread I had consciously drawn in to be interwoven into my journey.
At noon I arrived at Tadanoumi station. Roshi and his disciple, Mr Yusetsu, kindly met me at the station to take me to Shourinkutsu Seminary. Freed from my super-tight work schedule, I was grateful for this opportunity; it felt like attending the sort of workshop I had never attended before. There was neither fear nor anxiety; during their warm welcome, the only thing in my head was that I was going to do my best to honour this opportunity.
My professions are tax accounting and management consulting. Our busiest season is from December to the end of March, yet, here I was about to start my sesshin from the twenty-second to the twenty-ninth of December. The time must surely have been ripe for my encounter with Roshi.
The reason I could take this break without any worry were my great employees, whom I could trust entirely; I felt extremely fortunate and appreciative of them.
My employees are my treasures. I sincerely wish to share a life of integrity and happiness with them. My employees are my family through work. As we have shared the longest span of our lives together, we have naturally become life partners.
I can remember as if it were yesterday, studying for the national examination to become a licensed tax accountant, while raising my young children, then five and three, as a single mother. There could be no room for self-doubt; I just kept working at it and passed the exam. But not a single accounting office would give me an interview because I was a woman and, on top of that, I had young children who still needed a lot of care.
The only choice left for me was to set up my own accounting firm. Thus, I was able to continue raising my two children, whom I had always regarded as my mentors. Inexperienced as I was, I had to make a leap and become an entrepreneur from the outset of my career.
Because I dared to take up a management role, I had to be doubly serious about my own growth. And I also had faith that, if I asked, there would be always an encounter with the right person at the right time.
So I was grateful for the series of events that led me to meet Roshi. As he led me to the Seminary, I raised my hands, palm-to-palm and, in silence, spoke to his back, "Roshi, I am looking forward to your compassionate guidance."
I was assigned a three-tatami room to the left of the Seminary entrance; the room had only one old desk, no curtain on the window, and a sliding paper door. My immediate response was, "Oh! It's freezing cold!" But soon I forgot about that as I changed into a kimono and hakama. These traditional costumes, although not practical and hardly worn these days, seemed to have a mind-calming effect.
After changing, I walked quietly to the Roshi's interview room at the end of the corridor for his talk on the basics of Zen practice.
He said, "You must detach yourself from your small self to reach your own depths. Being thoroughly absorbed in what you are doing right this moment is the way to detachment. You become one indivisible whole with whatever you are engaged in. You become simple, perhaps a complete fool, wiping away all your intellectualising processes, your own judgements and opinions. Be just as you are and simply do it. But I warn you, it isn't easy to relinquish your deeply entrenched habits. Any slackness will pull you back to old patterning. So you need to be absolutely serious about bringing your mind into focus."
Most of what Roshi was saying was commonsense and easy to follow. But was it possible to stop intellectualising activity and make no judgements at all? Wouldn't it disrupt our everyday lives, if we did that?
Naturally, if we did slow down our intellectualizing activity, we would carry less of a mental burden. But mental burdens can be alleviated by distractions, while the causes of mental burden remain unresolved. I wondered how Zen would address my question.
Roshi went on, "The first and most important key to Zen practice is where you focus your mind, the right orientation to your practice. Even with the slightest deviation, you will not get to your final destination. The second key is sincere application. Without each step taken, there is no progress whatsoever. The last key is continuity of application. Let me ask you, who ensures this continuity?"
The first two keys were what we entrepreneurs talk about all the time in achieving a business target. But the last key made me flustered. Of course, I had anticipated that Roshi was going to challenge me with some confronting questions. They came, however, too soon; this question was too difficult, and my own reasoning was inadequate.
"Isn't it myself?" I responded with some vagueness. What was the matter with me? Usually I would be much more definitive.
"Who confuses yourself?"
"I think it is myself."
"Then, who saves yourself?"
"I think it is also myself."
"Right! Then when is the time for your salvation or confusion?"
I had never heard any theory in the past that addressed states of mind through the perspective of time. It was mind-boggling and quite persuasive but I felt I needed an entirely new circuit in my brain to integrate it.
"Everything begins with oneself and ends with oneself. The mind is free and flexible and goes through ceaseless transformations of bringing yourself into being and passing away, from one moment to next. The mind is fully available to everything and attached to nothing. It is impermanent and unfixed in nature. When you realize that is the essence of your mind, there is nothing that binds you. This is enlightenment ... you move beyond your small self."
I had a gut feeling about the authenticity of his remarks and made up my mind on the spot to surrender to his guidance.
Roshi continued, "The question is how to attain enlightenment. This is where the battle starts. So I want you to listen carefully. You will need to break away from the control of your intellectualizing process that sees everything as separate. To do this, you will need first to draw a clear boundary between the absolute reality of the present moment and the limited reality of your conceptualizing mind.
Zen calls for you to be completely absorbed in the moment. Or to put it another way, complete absorption is both the goal and fruit of Zen practice; and Zen teaches you a method to get to that state of intense concentration. When you are completely absorbed, you are merged into a single unity with absolute reality at any given time. When you are merged into a single unity, you are so simplified that you become identical with the things around you and you forget about yourself altogether. When you forget yourself, you awaken to the truth of the universe, right at that instant. When you awaken, you realize your freedom from suffering and delusion through seeing each thing, just as it is.
You become capable of drawing a boundary between the past and present, and by so doing, you can remove the barrier that separates you from the rest. That is all there is about attaining oneness. With enlightenment, you have a heightened awareness of this essential reality.
Rather than endlessly letting your mind churn with random thoughts, just absorb yourself in a single breath.
Keep up your intense concentration with every single breath and you will be fine.
Focus your mind. This is a life and death matter. That is all I need to tell you now."
I was afraid I could not fully understand Roshi's statement that drawing a boundary between the past and present is basically the same thing as removing the barrier that separates me from the rest. 'That's normal,' I said to myself; I would not be able to appreciate everything from Day One. Better to hold fast to a single breath, as he said.
We were served a bowl of hot noodles for lunch. I was happy to feel the steam from the boiling pot, giving off precious heat. The five of us ate intently; other than the noise of blowing and supping hot soup and noodles, an enigmatic silence prevailed, with no conversation. It was like a wake. But the mystery was quickly solved.
After lunch, a just few steps along the corridor, Roshi shouted, "Give your whole attention to each step!" As I had known from hearsay, he was very strict, and not just strict. His deep, strong voice was scary. I did not know when or how my attention had slipped as I walked, but I knew I was not fully alert. I renewed my determination to sustain my concentration.
I sat from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the zendo. Five hours of zazen went by very quickly. But paying attention to each single breath was far more difficult than I had thought; I had been so used to breathing without any awareness. 'It isn't impossible. I just have to keep trying,' I said to myself.
After supper from 7:30 to 9 p.m. I went into the zendo to sit. The temperature went down further at night; it was biting cold.
When I returned to my room at 9:30 p.m., I was too cold to undress, and slipped into my futon in my kimono. Please excuse my negligence.
I got up at 4:30 a.m. and started zazen in the zendo half an hour later.
The hard, piercing throb of the percussive wooden board penetrated my entire nervous system; I felt as if each throb was building up a certain momentum in my heart and body, and soon I might disintegrate. With exquisite timing, the thumping was followed by the temple bell from the bottom of the Seminary and, though freezing cold, I became enfolded in the pleasant tension of a Zen temple, with no option but to strive to do my best. Even with the gloves Roshi had lent me, my hands were numb. There was no way to make myself warmer. I regretted that I had not given serious thought to the coldness of the Zen temple and prepared myself for it with adequate clothing.
At 6 a.m. we started morning practice in the main hall of the temple. I tried to follow and chant the sutras as well as I could.
At 7 a.m. we ate breakfast consisting of steamed rice, toasted nori, pickles, nattoh, kelp cooked in soy, and himono (cured fish). I was relishing my breakfast when Roshi's stern words suddenly startled me.
"Ms Kakeno, you need to be truly focused on each bite, rather than just eating casually. That is the only truth you need to know right this instant. If you slacken your attention from 'just eating,' you are missing an opportunity for knowing the truth."
A new insight struck me suddenly. Roshi's earlier comment on my walking was pointing out exactly the same thing. 'Settle into the absolute reality of this very moment. Do not digress from the purity of the experience,' was his point. In spite of my resolve to apply myself to my practice, the reality was that it was incredibly hard to sustain such scrupulous focus on the moment. I was used to being scattered.
Up until 8:30 a.m. I cleaned up the zendo, so absorbed that after I finished, I had no impression of what I had done. It was refreshing to have nothing to dwell on.
I sat for four hours in the morning and five hours in the afternoon in the zendo. Although I could not concentrate at times because of my aching legs, the zazen posture itself was not a major effort. I was used to sitting. The only annoyance was a persistent mantra I had been taught ages ago; this mantra kept coming back, no matter how much I tried to cut it off. I tried to be mindful of each breath, to be in tune with my breath, and to merge into my breath. Still, my breathing was not steady, sometimes fast, other times slow, and at other times completely taken over as thoughts sneaked in. How hard it was to be truly focused solely on the present, because my mind was not aligned with stillness. That was why I had come here to practise. If I could settle into profound stillness, my mind would not be the source of confusion any more. Anyway, I had no choice other than working on myself by myself.
'Focus on this instant. Direct your attention only to each single breath,' I kept reminding myself. I tried to muster enough concentration to resist my old habit of drifting into random thoughts.
'That's it! That's brilliant!' The moment I praised myself I was already pulled into another labyrinth of thought. I found this repetitious challenge quite fascinating. Perhaps I was weird to be so fascinated by such a simple process.
After supper, Roshi said, "I expected you to reach the limits of your zazen today. Honestly, I was looking forward to seeing you slip back into confusion. But the truth is, you have moved beyond that stage. Already you are well on the way."
I told Roshi that I had had some glimmer of understanding in the past and described that moment, four years before, when I had felt my mind suddenly explode and with it, everything - judgements, frustration, resentments - spin away into eternity and dissolve forever. An inexplicable experience! "I was stuck at an intersection in a heavy traffic jam in downtown Osaka," I told Roshi. "It all happened unexpectedly, and I had no idea what it was about. Once the traffic signal changed, I had to keep on driving. I was too overwhelmed even to worry about it. Tears rolled down my cheeks. The revelation that streamed up from the unconscious was that everything - every sentient being - is a manifestation of love, and I have nothing to fear."
I explained to Roshi that at the time, I had been confronted with a serious problem. It had dissolved in an instant, transformed into an opportunity for 'love and appreciation'. What a phenomenal blessing! I told Roshi that I had no teacher at that time, but that I believed one day I would meet the right teacher and the implication of that experience would be brought to my full awareness. That right teacher was Inoue Roshi, now sitting before me.
"Ms Kakeno, just pursue your breath single-mindedly," said Roshi finally. I did not realize we had continued our dialogue for well over two hours; the time went so fast.
That night as I slipped into the futon, I repeated the words I had pledged to Roshi earlier that evening - "I am determined to practise with my highest commitment." I whispered this to myself again and again. While whispering, my focus held fast onto every breath.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and went to the zendo at 5 a.m. This morning it was exceptionally cold, most likely well below zero degrees Celsius. I was 'just' listening quietly - to the sound of the percussive wooden board. Why was my response so different from yesterday? There was profound stillness through the zendo, except that I was still struggling with my thoughts and breath.
After breakfast, I went back to the zendo and sat from 8 a.m. to noon. I decided to do something about my aching legs. Rather than persevere with the pain, why not use three mats and a round cushion, as though sitting on a chair? Roshi's flexibility about sitting positions was a saving grace. Now my zazen was easier physically and allowed me to sustain a more distinctive focus on each breath.
Lunch was a bowl of steamed rice and stew.
"Ms Kakeno, what is the taste?" asked Roshi abruptly.
"It is very tasty."
"No, that's not what I am asking. What is the taste?"
"It is the taste of stew and steamed rice."
"What is the taste?"
"Stop messing round with your thoughts. What is the taste?"
"It is the taste of this moment."
My mind had gone completely blank and I could no longer eat anything.
"Can't you just be and simply eat it?" Roshi shouted at me and left the room.
Vexed, I found no words to say. He was relentless. I had tried to make sense of his question but he would not accept my response.
Taste was taste. If asked what was the taste right this moment, the only response ought to be 'just eating'. Away with my old habits! No more conceptualizing!
I should have just eaten single-mindedly - just eating, not thinking, just eating, not intellectualizing. By the time I realized the appropriate response to his question, it was too late. Meanwhile, I had been swayed by ceaseless thoughts, attempting to find the right answer. I went back to the zendo.
At 3 p.m. the beating of wooden clappers called us to the dining room again. I gave my undivided attention to each step so I could remain intimate with the state of zazen.
Concentration and diligence seemed to be the foundation of Zen practice.
It was encouraging to notice my progress. Compared with the first day, when I had found setting my mind on each step insurmountably difficult, my mind was now completely in focus with each step as I followed Roshi's instruction and kept up my practice.
Other than calmness and peace, there wasn't anything extraordinary. I had finally settled, feeling deeply in tune and at home. I did not know when I had entered this realm. It was miraculous.
What? Goodies! A cake and a pot of tea on the table. Then, another miraculous moment unfolded. The moment I saw the cake, everything - all my personal feelings and ideas - suddenly dissolved and disappeared completely, an experience of emptiness. Roshi would scold me for my arrogance if I said it was an enlightenment experience, but the experience was really clear and powerful.
No longer there was any vestige of emotion or thoughts. Just myself, my pure essence. Similarly, everything I saw was its pure essence. As my hand picked up the cup of tea, and brought a piece of cake into my mouth, it was as if my hands had absolute autonomy. There was no 'I' who was moving my hands or relishing the cake, only the luminosity of being fully present in each moment.
This experience brought a complete renewal of my senses; the familiar scene was startlingly fresh. I truly tasted cake for the first time in my life. Yes, now at last I could 'just breath' as well.
Unleashed from thoughts and feelings, there was nothing to block me from attaining oneness with breathing. It was a reassuring, calming, and somewhat inspiring revelation.
I went back to the zendo immediately after tea. Breathing was incredibly easy. I could cut off myself from any thoughts, let them go, and return to breathing. Fantastic! Zazen had turned into a most fulfilling process.
By 6 p.m., with darkness falling, the zendo was getting freezing cold. Something clicked as I sensed the chilliness.
With no exaggeration, it was my second experience of realization. Needless to say, I still had a long way to go before attaining the Great Enlightenment of the Buddha or the masters of old. But to me, this was crossing into a new realm.
'I am alive. Therefore, I am breathing' is commonsense knowledge. While it is a scientific and valid piece of knowledge, that knowing only comes from the level of consciousness that interprets and conceptualizes reality.
The new realm that had opened up for me in this instant was where I was just breathing, and where each breath was dynamic and flowing. Unhindered by thoughts, the realm of 'just that' was fully alive in its own right.
To express 'the glory of aliveness', we usually tap into our feelings and emotion and we resort to our emotional capacity to feel its breath and depth. However, 'the glory of aliveness' that filled me then was both the solid sense of being and the transparency of being just as I am, beyond layers of emotion, and even beyond any feeling of glory.
I'd better not be euphoric. It would not be an authentic experience until Roshi recognized it.
So I reported to Roshi. As I sat in front of him and talked, my gratitude streamed through me, and I wept with joy.
"Where you have reached is the result of hard practice. But you have only begun to have a clearer awareness of the moment. Be attentive to each moment. The level of concentration you have attained is still tenuous and could get easily disrupted, if you relax. You cannot afford to be pleased with your progress; you are only at the entry point of real practice," said Roshi with absolute severity.
Beneath Roshi's strict words were his unspoken compassion and wisdom pointing to the much larger life which had quietly trickled into my heart. My tears dropped on his black wooden table as I felt embraced by the largeness of his being.
"It's Christmas Eve tonight. Let's have a joint celebration of both your effort and Christmas Eve, so the celebration can further motivate you to be attentive," suggested Roshi. It was my mid-sesshin treat.
It seemed Roshi already knew in advance exactly what was going to happen with my practice. In recognition of my effort, I had the privilege of being the first person to take a bath that evening. As it was my first bath this sesshin, it was especially pleasurable. The sound of hot water as I poured it over my body, the sensation of gently immersing my body into the warm bath - each single event was startlingly vivid.
'I am truly alive!'
Enjoying a warm bath in total tranquility heightened that sense of aliveness. A moment of deep happiness.
I was aware that Mr Yusetsu, Roshi's disciple, had prepared this bath for me by burning wood outside the building in the cold. I was appreciative of his quiet support for my practice. Mr Yusetsu, a graduate from the prestigious Kyoto University, had been well on his career path as a laser beam specialist but, knowing the career would not ultimately fulfill his aspirations, he had quit and begun practising zazen in search of his life path. One day he came across the first edition of Roshi's book, Zazen - the Way to Awakening. With this book as a trigger, he vowed to practise Zen under Roshi's guidance and was ordained to the priesthood. His singular zeal was an inspiration to me.
I went back to the zendo after supper. The evening must have been the coldest this year. Indescribably cold. But zazen brought me to an ever deeper level of concentration. My practice was becoming an increasingly simple, pure, and satisfying experience.
At 5 a.m. I went to the zendo.
While trying to settle my mind in zazen, Roshi came into the zendo and quietly put a blanket around me. Then he whispered, "You need to sustain your attention on your breath."
'Gracious! How does he know?' I was braced by his penetrating observation.
During the morning service, Roshi asked, "Ms Kakeno, what is walking?"
In response, I simply walked.
At last, I had passed his test. It was so simple. But if I had muddled about with words, even something as natural as walking could turn into a source of confusion, ending up in 'the trap of our own imaginings and reasonings', as Roshi described it.
I could now discern the clear boundary between reality-as-it-is and theorized reality, the product of intellectual constructs. After removing theory, opinions, judgements and imaginings, the only thing left is reality-as-it-is.
Roshi said, "If we want to liberate ourselves from our old habit of displacing reality with theory and containing ourselves in a world of virtual image, we must direct full attention to each moment. For instance, when we see, we tend to become a captive of what we see. Why? It is because of our habitual patterning; a certain visual stimulation immediately triggers encoded knowledge and cognitive responses like a conditioned reflex, and that reflex often tends to be confrontational, separating the seer and the seen. That is the essential feature of the ego."
Roshi continued quietly, "But that particular piece of knowledge triggered by a certain visual stimulation is merely the product of the past. When we interpret present reality by dwelling on the past and extrapolating from the past, we live in delusion, in an imaginary world where reality is turned upside-down."
His last comment especially went like a bullet to my heart. "Strengthen your resolve to experience the truth of reality-as-it-is. You must never sidetrack your attention away from the moment. Concentrate unremittingly only on the moment, on every single breath. Do you understand?"
That was the most compelling sermon I had yet heard to make me focus on each decisive moment.
Inspired by Roshi's encouragement, I threw myself into zazen. Insights came one after another. Zazen was becoming a supreme joy.
As there is a beginning, there is an ending.
As there is an ending, there is a beginning.
Each moment is a start and at the same time, a completion.
Delve into the depth of this truth.
Grasp this original truth.
With the eye, see my self, see my true self, see my heart and soul in this very instant.
I am the wall and I am the sliding door. It sounds absurd. But how else can I describe the intimacy of merging with them as they come into sight.
With each exhalation, I release, leave behind and break free from my ego. There, I see the truth.
With each inhalation, I become one with the air I inhale as I let my self go. There, I see the truth.
My ears have been given to hear the truth. If my ears fail to listen to the truth, nothing is true any more. Rip away my ego.
Like the weather, our life has fine, cloudy, rainy, or snowy days but whatever the weather for the day, 'wanting to have a piss' is reality-as-it-is. (Sorry for the metaphor. I just happened to have an urge to go to the toilet right that moment.) Allowing truth to be truth, I finish pissing, and then I no longer have any urge - e.g. the truth of that moment disappears, and I move on in the grandeur of emptiness, which is spontaneous, flowing and transforming to the next moment.
I see the green bamboo from the window, and marvel at its beauty. That bamboo isn't man-made. It is a creation of nature. Likewise, I, Azusa Kakeno, also belong to nature. Nature gives me everything I need, and nature assigns my role in this world.
Azusa! Live every moment in mu and be totally open to new possibilities. Remember?! Just like when you started studying to become a qualified tax accountant.
Clouds in the sky constantly change their form; even if a part of a cloud insisted on remaining fixed in one place, it wouldn't be feasible. Life is exactly the same.
However, we are susceptible to attachments of all sorts - social status, role, authority, schooling, money, possessions, theory, beliefs, on and on. As if validating our self-worth, we imprint the information of our attachments in our consciousness and use them as our own power source to constantly pass judgements on others. Unseemly as it is, I have not quite broken away from that pattern of behaviour. But at least I am far more aware of my unattractive side. My sincere thanks to Roshi for heightening my self-awareness. I am truly grateful to him.
As I went deeper into zazen, my body and mind became focused on what I needed to do right this moment - just pursue each single breath scrupulously. I was experiencing a stream of insights, but I let them go immediately and returned to one-pointed inhalation and exhalation.
We humans are all given a certain number of breaths for the whole of our lifetime. Regardless of whether we are conscious of this gift or not, we die when we have consumed our ration. The greatest happiness lies in just breathing. The greatest happiness lies in just taking this one step. The greatest happiness lies in just drinking and eating. The greatest happiness lies in just pissing, just shitting.
But most people look for the greatest happiness somewhere else, while they already have it with them right here. Only when we gain insight into this cardinal truth does the whole world of truth start to reveal itself.
Whatever arose in my zazen - a thought or sensation - disappeared quietly and I came back to each single breath. I went deeper and deeper and felt as if my entire being was orchestrated into breathing.
We are often caught up with our attachments to money and material things. But money cannot buy a single breath.
Simply inhale, complete. Then, exhale and complete. One truth completed surrenders itself to another truth. Truth is revealed in just being as is. I realized for the first time that the only permanence that existed was this perpetual cycle of a beginning being an ending; an ending, another new beginning. It was profoundly peaceful to embody this eternal flow.
Whether we are humans or plants, we are all like air. Yes, air. All things are essentially empty, like air. What we perceive as phenomenal existence is insubstantial. It is nothing more than a constellation of karma. Yes, I was touching the world of the Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. Tears welled up as another layer of my consciousness was lifted. I am not maudlin. It was just that each time a layer of consciousness was stripped off and I came closer to my essence, I was struck with a sense of liberation, inspiration, wonder, and I guess, gratitude. And I ended up in tears.
There were three guests for dinner but I just ate without even greeting them. I was absorbed in the world of ku where all sentient beings are essentially insubstantial; I felt like a monk who had just become enlightened. I told myself I must not indulge in the delirium of joy. I must not leave space for anything other than just eating. But the truth was, even if I had been told to leave some space, I still wouldn't have been able to do it. The world of ku is well beyond the dichotomy of either leaving or not leaving space. All of us had come to Roshi to experience 'just being'. Compared with the vital importance of that, the trivial affairs of the external world really did not matter.
As I finished eating, I said to myself, 'I wish I had a cup of tea now.' The moment I thought about this I was rebuked by Roshi.
"Ms Kakeno, watch out! Your attention is drifting. You are about to move into full-fledged practice. You must not slacken your concentration on the path. Imbecile!"
How on earth could he always catch me out? He is incredibly quick and strict.
I was assigned to clean up the kitchen. I washed the rice bowls single-mindedly - a very rewarding experience because it was on-the-job practice; I could grasp the moment when my attention was diverted for other thoughts, and immediately leave them behind, while continuing to wash dishes. Yes, it's only when our minds are drifting that we break dishes.
"Ms Kakeno, it's a pity you have to leave on the twenty-ninth of December, while you are making such good progress. Why don't you stay longer, do midnight zazen on New Year's Eve, and return on New Year's Day?" said Roshi.
Great idea! I agreed on the spot. I had to be back on the second of January as I was expecting guests that day. But other than that, I was more than happy to give up my New Year holiday for zazen; the holiday did not mean much compared to the richness of being that I was experiencing through Zen practice.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. I was finally getting used to Seminary life without heating. Under a sky full of stars and crunching frost, I walked down the steep hill from the Seminary to the main hall of the temple to attend the morning service starting at 6 a.m. It was very dark and hard to believe that in forty minutes it would be daybreak.
The striking feature of the main hall in a Zen temple is its plain simplicity matching the austerity of Zen.
All the students, between five and ten of us each day, chanted the sutras with heart and soul. In spite of many unfamiliar words, it was deeply nourishing for me to chant; as my mind became more focused, with greater clarity, I was more open to appreciate the richness and depth of the world depicted in the sutras.
I think hymns are also beautiful and inspiring. But the rather monotonous melody of sutra chanting, with almost no emotional expression, definitely engenders solemnity, each intoning voice a manifestation of the natural essence of each person. With our voices flowing together through the huge, bare hall, the slow and serene rhythm of chanting creates a powerful resonance. It evokes pure beingness, making me ever more open and peaceful and rising into infinitely larger realms of no-thing.
The solemn morning service ended with three prostrations, casting the whole body away. The hall with no lights was like a huge cave - its profound quietness was echoed in the stillness of my mind, which highlighted the luminosity of soul like a bright diamond in the dark.
Honouring the diamond of my Buddha-nature, I was more meticulous than ever taking each step.
Out of the main hall, the Seto Inland Sea loomed dimly. The Zen temple stood grave and enigmatic against the dark mountains. Not even a bird was awake. In this profound stillness, the 'clack-clack' of wooden sandals, for which I always had a special affinity, took me into an ever deeper realm.
Roshi was waiting for me on the hill to the Seminary. I was instantly on guard.
"Ms Kakeno, how many steps were there up to this point?"
"How many steps did it take you to get here?"
Oops! Goodness! Too late! My mind was not wholly on each single step but diverted, busily searching for the answer. But the moment I realized I was lax, I brought my focus back to my footsteps.
"How many steps were there up to this point?" Roshi repeated in a somewhat sharp tone.
"One step," I said. This was clear evidence that I had presented the meaning of 'step' on the level of consciousness, but not of undivided practice. Oops! I then took a step immediately. Although I was dumfounded by his unexpected questioning, I recognized the inadequacy of what I had done, and my body had spontaneously responded by taking a step. Not spot on, but still I should say I made some progress. Roshi gave no comment to my delayed response, and I took his silence as tacit approval. I was glad at least he did not say "No!"
In the brief time before breakfast, I decided to visit Roshi's room to discuss the Dharma. There I saw a most striking scene.
Roshi was bowing down before the pictures of his teachers, hung in the tokonoma, in exactly the same dignified manner as he did during the morning service. Clearly, his teachers were in the room; whether they were alive or not, Roshi's reverence for them remained vividly alive.
Indeed, Roshi's prostration was the infinite heart, manifested through ritual. Seeing this, I followed Roshi and bowed down before them, too. I had no other choice. This small episode persuaded me that the authenticity of any religion had its origin in the authenticity of spirit.
Later, Roshi sat at his table, swiftly preparing a cup of gyokuro, refined green tea, for me. He shook a tiny teapot to get the last drop of tea into the cup. He did it again and again, and I smiled spontaneously, no-thing in my mind.
"Amazing, isn't it? You are making good progress," said Roshi.
He was right. I had not the slightest idea what Roshi saw in me now. I had not intended to smile. I had no mind, no emotion. So there was no 'I' to be the subject of his observation. I was just smiling because of the mystery of communion with Roshi; each movement Roshi made in serving tea felt so intimate - as if I was doing it.
Previously, I would have been startled by his comment. Perhaps Roshi knew exactly why I smiled and tested me with his comment. Anyway, there was no question that his eyes were penetrating and saw into the state of my internal world, moment by moment.
"To the extent that the feeling of separateness disappears, you can understand there is actually no gap between self and others. What you are experiencing now is the world of one ku mind meeting another ku mind, the original unity of self and others. You experienced that sense of oneness just now, the sense that you were shaking the teapot. You have reached the point where you can experience that unity.
When you are completely cleared of your foggy mind, you can awaken to your pure beingness - the world exactly as it is, the world that is available for every person.
Remember, the purpose of practice is to awaken! Give all your heart and soul to your practice," said Roshi, glaring at me.
This time I clearly understood what he was telling me. Every time I listened to his Dharma talk, there was increasing clarity and certainty.
"Ego, by its nature, invites confrontation and conflict. Zen practice is solely focused to dissolve your ego, the source of separateness and opposition."
When I had first heard this, I could not fully appreciate his remark. I thought there should be more to persevering with this arduous practice than just obliterating one's ego.
Now it was different. I knew from my heart of hearts that was it. It was both uplifting and deepening to listen to the same talk again. I was no longer resisting, questioning, or criticizing. I just listened. That way, his talk was potent purification for my soul in the immediate present. This must be the ego-less state of mind in which two minds have mutual direct access. I realized that a dissolution of the boundary that separated my small self from the outside world engendered the best possible milieu for the human psyche to function. Our minds can operate in the depth that transcends the apparent differences of personality and disposition.
No-mind must be the state of complete openness. No-mind must be the instant of surrendering all my resistance. No-mind must rest in the present, free from the memory of the past and the anticipation of the future. How amazing that these insights came to me naturally! Dropping the ego seemed to be the key for a larger life.
"Roshi, all was ku," I reported. Needless to say, Roshi already knew.
"Exactly. But simply having knowledge of it does not give you any real strength. You need to embody the experience of being ku yourself. Unless you die to yourself thoroughly and transmute your knowledge into your own experience, your understanding is not authentic," said Roshi, again with glaring eyes.
Even Roshi's fierce look did not affect me anymore. It was not because I had become blunted or diminished my intellectual alertness; rather, it was because I had acquired the strength to see things exactly as they were through zazen. No longer did I imagine his piercing look was a threat to me.
I realized that a large part of my day-to-day mental activity had been quite destructive, imagining and reacting to my own imagination, instead of accepting and dealing with reality as it is. The truth was that once delusions started to breed more delusions, their sweeping power and speed were beyond the reach of my intellect to contain. I could now appreciate why zazen must be central to my life.
In the course of our dialogue, Roshi, out of the blue, assigned me an extremely important mission. I am not ready to talk about it at this stage. But the mission felt too big for me.
In tears I asked Roshi, "How am I going to do it?"
"I know you can do it." was his simple answer.
If it was meant to be my mission, I had no choice but to accept my responsibility and just do it. No time for tears. After a while, I felt energized, with a new sense of motivation welling up.
After breakfast, I cleaned up the zendo; I was mindful to remove the dust from each piece of mesh of the tatami mat. A sense of serenity and clarity pervaded as I swept, then wiped the floor with a wet cloth. I said to myself, 'I will cherish this sense of bliss, whenever I do cleaning from now on.' Previously, I had no idea that cleaning could bring me such happiness. I relished the unlimited sense of unity as the skin of separation fell away.
At 9:30 a.m. I went into the zendo. The moment I lit an incense stick, I realized its smoke simply ascended without any striving. The meandering smoke eventually disappeared into the air. Up to that moment, I had never given serious thought to smoke rising; I had taken it for granted.
But the stream of smoke I was gazing at in the zendo clearly had its own will, endowed by nature. It even had its own personality. The smoke was alive, moving, definitely existing.
The smoke of the incense stick continued to merge into the air, and when it disappeared, only the ashes remained. The mystery was that the ashes that were left behind had their own natural place, too, an irrefutable reason to just be there. They were not the end, the waste from a burnt-out stick of incense.
I was doing zazen on a tatami mat. The tatami mat could not become human, and vice versa, a human could not become tatami, no matter how much they wished to interchange their being. Tatami existed as tatami, human as human. The truth was that they were simply the way they were from the beginning.
The universe in which we live is already the world of truth. Delusion and resulting anguish arise only because of arbitrary human constructs.
After lunch, Roshi asked,
"Ms Kakeno, would the ratio of random thoughts to your focus on breathing be about fifty-fifty?"
It was a strange way of asking a question.
"I assume your attention on the breath lasts longer than your random thoughts. You can drop thoughts now, can't you?"
I knew something was going to happen, but I answered anyway. Sure enough, my zazen after lunch was bombarded with ceaseless waves of thoughts. Now I understood what Roshi's question was pointing to! Goodness me! I ran away, and there fell into another ambush of thoughts. I purposely moved away, and there they were, waiting again. By the time I cut off one thought, I was already assailed by another. It seemed that nothing could be done.
I was desperate. In the end, I tried tilting my head, blowing those thoughts up to the ceiling, but all in vain; the raging thoughts were always poised to attack again. At last I gave in and decided to have a break.
Although that was the most disturbing battle ever, I knew I could find a way through. At 3:30 p.m. I went to the kitchen and had a cup of hot water so I could shift my modus operandi to fighting off thoughts.
Refreshed, I went back to the zendo, this time determined to win the battle. Good gracious! As I sat, huge armies of thoughts, much larger than before, stampeded me, while laying a trap on every pathway of my breathing. I had given in earlier, but that was by no means a withdrawal. I had confidence that my spiritual strength would sustain me and, no matter how huge the armies, they could not inflict decisive damage.
At around 5 p.m. I finally came out of the battle. I had to admit that my understanding of 'all is emptiness' was still very shallow. The reality was the world of delusion had not lost its potency, but was only in hiding, waiting for the chance to overtake me at any time. It was as if my higher consciousness was whispering to me, 'You only experienced a glimpse of realization, nothing to be elated about. The real, challenging part of your practice is yet to come.' Exhausted and confused, I broke down again.
How many times had I cried since I came to the Seminary? One of my constant thoughts was about my future mission and the conflict between my yearning to live up to my mission and the insurmountable difficulty which I anticipated on the way.
It was hard to explain why I was wailing. It only made sense to me. Tears kept streaming down as I thought about the mission Roshi had hammered into my mind. But it was both refreshing and nourishing to be able to just cry, either because I was immersed in the world of 'tada,' just, simply, only, or else I intuitively felt crying was acceptable at Shorinkutstu Seminary.
Without any warning, someone turned the light on in the zendo. Again I had an insight. If I kept my eyes closed, I would not be able to see anything, even with the light on. That was exactly what happened to us in the world of mumyo.
In our daily life, our mind's eyes remain closed in just the same way as we shut our eyes, so we cannot see the truth and the beauty that the world is offering to us. This insight was like strong lightening passing through my whole body. Locked in our blindness, we still pretend to see the infinity of the universe. No wonder we constantly have problems and cannot resolve them, because we are not seeing.
The light illuminates all, without any bias. If I can have that gift of the mind's eye, I vow to make the right use of it, with total openness and humility.
Bodai-shin is the mind that seeks the path, the mind that strives to cultivate self, the mind that perseveres. If I place bodai-shin at the heart of my practice and pursue my practice, I know I can get there. I wish to make my best effort - in total openness and humility.
I believe the ultimate state of the human mind is bodai-shin. Roshi once said if we apply bodai-shin single-mindedly, then hell can be transformed into nirvana. I have faith in my bodai-shin which gives me enormous strength. Roshi, I ask for your compassionate guidance. I promise to be a ball of bodai-shin.
At 5 a.m. I started to sit in the zendo.
But now, suddenly, the whole experience of zazen, which had been so satisfying, became an infuriating exercise.
That insensitive Mr S! I wanted to grab him and give him a good slap. 'Students in the zendo need to respect a few rules. It's common sense, boy. If you are going to continue that sickening sighing in the zendo, get out! Furthermore, you're always going in and out of the zendo, running around. I am fed up with your noisy footsteps!' My anger was inflamed; I felt as if Mr S's insensitive behaviour was jeopardizing the serenity I had found.
I was appalled by the intensity of my uncontrollable rage - an emotion I rarely experienced. Then I recalled that Mr S was scheduled to leave the Seminary today. 'Let's put up with him a few more hours. This must be part of some challenging practice assigned to me,' I worked hard in my zazen so I could accept this trial with appreciation.
At supper time, I heard that Mr S had changed his mind and was now going to stay on. Behind his tempestuous behaviour must have been a painful internal struggle. Now he had finally found some focus in his practice, and leaving the Seminary at this stage would be out of the question. That was excellent. I was very pleased for him.
"If you continue your practice," I said to Mr S, "you must honor some minimum rules in the zendo. I have been so angry with you. I haven't felt such strong anger as this for many years." The words flowed out of me.
Roshi asked, "Is the anger still there?"
I searched my mind, but there was no trace of it, just a wondrous lightness and freshness.
"You cleared it completely. Your anger was not personal but arose from the Dharma. The Dharma made you speak that way to Mr S for his own sake and for the sake of all of us. The Dharma shouted at him through you." Thus I learned that anger could also result from practicing the Dharma.
This morning I tried to recall the anger I had felt with Mr S yesterday. Then I had thought his behaviour was absolutely inexcusable. But now I was clean and clear, with no vestige of anger, almost to the point of asking myself, 'Was I really infuriated last night?' The power to chop off past and future must be a manifestation of the Dharma at work. Though expressing anger, I was not controlled by it. This is how we all aspire to function.
Zazen in the afternoon was focused just on each breath. My body and mind were nothing but bodai-shin. I strove fiercely and went into deep concentration.
"Would you mind giving us a hand to help with supper?" one of the monks came to ask me in the zendo. As I stepped into the kitchen, I was flabbergasted to see a huge octopus that had just arrived as someone's gift. It was still alive in a pot as big as a baby's bathtub, its enormous legs moving in the boiling water. No wonder even the veteran monk found it hard to handle all by himself. I quickly picked up a stick and held the octopus under the water, until it no longer moved. I made an effort to just see it and hoped the octopus had left this life in peace.
A meal for eight people, including some guests, was soon ready, and we all sat around the table to eat. With some sake served for the first time, a lively conversation went back and forth. In the midst of the feast, however, my whole body was dying to return to the zendo. At last, I begged Roshi,
"Would you please excuse me? I'd like to go back to the zendo now. I really want to do zazen. I cannot resist it."
"Ms Kakeno, at last your true bodai-shin is being evoked, isn't it?"
Initially, I had tried to be respectful and patient until the dinner was over. But my body could not wait any longer. Not that I was driven by a sense of intense urgency, but I was anxious to enter the state of mind that I had coveted for so long. I was replete and I could not drink anyway so it was not worth sitting around the table. And above all, I had come here to practise.
I dedicated myself to zazen well past midnight.
The wind was strong outside. An empty bucket went clank-clank from time to time, but the sounds were sucked into deep silence again.
Another pleasurable sound was the rustling of leaves. How refreshing nature was; the simpler and more spontaneous I grew, the more open I was to its nourishing energy.
I sank into zazen, deeper than ever. My body had transformed into a hollow through which breath flowed right through - in and out. I lost the sense of my body as a boundary. I no longer had a stomach or intestines. The sound of each single moment went right through me, and I became the sound. I melted away with each breath into the universe. No trace of anything left behind. I would report this to Roshi tomorrow. No, he would already know it anyway.
I said to myself, 'Treat yourself with the utmost respect. And at the same time let yourself go each day. You are practising so you can totally believe in yourself.'
This morning I read a poster on the wall in the room next to mine.
'Tada' - just being - is the Buddha's world, beyond thought. Your existence keeps unfolding in relationship to endlessly changing conditions. Knowing you will die anyway, strive to practise now with your heart and soul. Original Self is whole in itself. Musing over this and that are nothing but impediments. Diligence! Diligence! Your diligent application is the manifestation of your bodai-shin. Strive scrupulously to let your thoughts go. That is all there is to the practice. Kaatz! Kaatz!
While thinking of stopping to think,
still thoughts keep arising.
How pathetic that you keep thinking
not to think!
Tips for sesshin
1. Empty your mind and always act in accordance with the Dharma.
2. Be mindful of every movement. Live wholly in the present.
3. Refrain from chatting. Be careful of not disturbing the concentration of other students' practice.
4. Zazen is the life of the Buddha and the masters of old. Devote yourself thoroughly to zazen in the zendo.
5. Have a private interview or dokusan with Roshi at any time you have a question.
After having practised for a few days, it was much easier to appreciate the message in the poster than before. I loved Roshi's vivid calligraphy.
I went into the zendo.
To belittle myself and say 'I am just another ordinary person' would be a real insult to this solid sense of presence I was experiencing in zazen. Breathing was naturally guiding me to being , and that being-as-I-am was truly a miracle.
Time and time again, insights rose up in my mind. In contrast to the process of step-by-step thinking, they emerged spontaneously and helped me to understand the essence of highly abstract ideas in a flash. These insights most likely emerged because they were already ingrained in me.
"Soon you will be sweating blood with your insights. Ms Kakeno, you must not acknowledge and validate your insights during zazen," Roshi had said earlier.
This must be exactly what he intimated. But I was fascinated by my seemingly limitless insights, illuminating one sophisticated idea after another. Having my own insights was a far more concrete and valuable experience than, for instance, reading hundreds of philosophy books and extracting their keywords.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I had lost track of simple breathing. Why ? It had been going extremely smoothly up to now.
I knew why. It was because I was enthralled with my insights. What a fiasco!
Why was it then that I could not go back to steady breathing? The answer was not hard to find. It was because I was trying to manipulate my breathing. That was wrong. Breathing was teaching me everything I needed to know. Just breathing and only breathing was all I needed to do. As simple as that. But my mind was distracted first by my insights and by then trying to impose them on reality. I told myself to leave them behind.
I must admit that the full meaning of Roshi's comments often went unappreciated until I became entrapped in the very situation he predicted. Still, they were useful guidance. Without them, I would remain forever confused with my own reasonings, let alone my own rationalisations.
I felt sleepy. It's all very well to say drowsiness is a natural phenomenon, but it's very hard to fight. Roshi always said, "Lazy people would never bother to come all the way to do zazen here. When you are very sleepy, you must be tired. Go and have a short sleep. You will be amazed with your progress in zazen afterwards."
It was wonderful that Roshi encouraged us to be gentle on ourselves and flow naturally, without straining our body.
Later in the morning I had about one hour of sleep. After this, I went back to the zendo.
This time zazen was smooth. Each of my breaths was clear, distinct, and in the moment. Let it be. Let it be. When thoroughly focused on each breath, it was the breath that was guiding and nourishing me. I now began to understand the infinitely profound meaning of Roshi's remark - "Be totally mindful of each single breath." Yes. I was on the right track.
Kaizoji, Roshi's temple, was about five minutes by car from the Seminary. All of us went there in the afternoon for a major year-end clean-up.
The scenery of the Seto Inland Sea from Kaizoji was strikingly beautiful. There was no boundary between myself and the scenery as I merged into its freshness.
Although the Seto-Inland Sea looked calm, I was told the currents were very strong. The layers of mountains across the Sea belonged to Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku Island. Although once famous as the historic site of a spectacular battlefield, the whole area was infinitely peaceful, and I hoped it would always remain so.
I was assigned to clean up the main hall and the area behind the hall. I wiped scrupulously with a wet cloth; the whole exercise was a most fulfilling experience. I said to myself that I must cherish this.
The bun with bean-jam filling we had after the clean-up was so delicious that I will not forget it for the rest of my life.
From 5 p.m. I did zazen in the zendo.
My breathing took me into deeper stillness. It moved from my belly, chest, throat, nose, eyes and forehead to the crown of my head. When I let it be, the breathing was infinitely calm. Two hours went quickly.
Knowing the difficult mission ahead of me, Roshi suggested I stay and continue my practice. At dinner, he said, "Ms Kakeno, you will be all on your own on New Year's Day, if you return tomorrow. You will not have any food. The kitchen will be cold. How about staying here a couple more days?"
I was grateful for his thoughtful offer. I also wanted to make the best of this opportunity and my fortunate encounter with Roshi. So I tried to contact the guests who were coming to visit my house on the second of January, but there was no way I could. Inevitably, I had to leave on the first. But I had Roshi's permission to come and practise zazen for three days every month, starting from January.
After dinner I went to Roshi's room.
He said, "After you go back, make sure to allocate time for zazen every morning and night. It does not have to be long but it should be absolutely high quality zazen. Concentrate as if your life is at stake. Deepen the current state of openness that latches onto nothing. Then your sharpened intellect will help you see the suchness of things around you. It will be an amazing experience for you."
He spoke no more. And I did not ask anymore questions, though I knew he foresaw everything about me.
His rigorous, unspoken message to me was 'what was the use of hearing and having word knowledge?' Unless I had insight through my immediate experience, I could not grasp the true nature of reality anyway. If I pursued 'just being in the present and that only,' I would be able to access the essential for sure. But the only way I would get there was through my own effort.
Fortunately, diligent application and self-improvement had been built into me since my childhood and had become second-nature. This helped me immensely.
I realized living in the moment itself was truly a sacred experience; living in the moment required no inconsequential rationalisations to validate its sacredness. Every experience was vibrant, and nothing was wasted. It felt great to be alive.
I was happy Roshi listened and nodded to each of my remarks.
Perhaps because of the few cups of fine gyokuro tea Roshi served me and the nap I had during the day, I was wide awake and could not sleep that night. Usually in a similar situation, I would become too eager to sleep and attempt a few techniques in vain. But not this time. The only thing I did was pursue each breath with tranquility of mind and let my breathing take care of the rest. I was grateful once again for being taught the right way to practise.
But my breathing could do nothing to block the draught coming into the futon, so I pulled it over my head. Contented, thankful for everything, and trusting tomorrow would be a happy day, I eventually fell into a deep sleep.
Ninth Day (the thirty-first of December)
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. At last, the final day of the year had arrived. Could I have anticipated my present practice twelve months ago? No. Absolutely not. This was innen-muryo at work - meaning an innumerable succession of incidents taking place depending on countless direct and indirect causes, that had led to my practice right this moment. In both time and space, the universe is boundless, and everything is interrelated. Roshi, you are quite right, when you say "How could you dare claim that this infinite vastness is knowable through your limited scope of mind; you have enough trouble knowing who you are, let alone the working of the universe."
Above anything else, I must do zazen. I was in the zendo by 4:50a.m. The temperature was well below zero.
Soon I brought my focus back to a single breath.
Morning service down at the temple was cancelled; instead, we were told to continue zazen. Most likely, the change was made so I could sit longer. Challenging thoughts were rising in relation to my mission. I gave no thought about how to address them. I trusted I could handle them in time. I could now cut off my thoughts without any difficulty. But still, noises were noises. I thought Roshi's penetrating eyes had caught me thinking, and that was why he extended the time for zazen this morning. Oh! This thought itself was another random thought! Stop! Stop thinking!
Suddenly all thoughts were gone.
There was no way I could afford stop zazen now.
My whole self was absorbed in a single breath, in a single moment.
After breakfast, we spent three more hours doing the year-end clean-up for the Seminary. Then, I went back to the zendo at 11 a.m. It was a practice of ease - a practice of playfulness and delight. The breath was me. I was the breath. Both my breath and I were immersed in the world of mu. This must be the ultimate crux of Zen practice.
Zazen in the afternoon was not as equanimous as the morning zazen; perhaps my eagerness to experience the same degree of serenity had become an attachment, and thus a hindrance.
That evening I took a bath. Since I had come to the Seminary, all my senses had expanded enormously and I particularly relished bathing. I sank my body into it. The water was lukewarm, and it was too cold to get out of the bathtub. I wanted someone to burn more firewood to boil water. I was naked and unsure of whether to ask for it. But what about the next bather? And what if I caught cold? For these two reasons, I shouted, "Excuse me! The water is too cold." Fortunately there was someone outside, but it took time to heat up enough water. "Is it getting warmer?" the voice asked from outside. "No! No improvement at all!" I shouted back with unintended honesty. Staying in the lukewarm bath longer than usual, however, helped keep my body warm after getting out of the bath.
A healthy tension pervaded the whole Seminary that evening. With the last minute of the year l995 nearing, each one of us felt a special need to go deep into ourselves and made an extra effort.
At 7:00 p.m. I went back to the zendo. I applied myself fervently and focused on each breath. A powerful momentum was building up with thirteen of us sitting intently. Mr S's progress had been especially remarkable. He had turned into a different person. There was more clarity and even a sort of dignity in his presence now.
Roshi's compassion for Mr S was immeasurably deep. Roshi guided him inch by inch, while Mr S slowly recovered from his pathological behaviour. He used to scream and cry in the zendo; his noisy footsteps and unpleasant sighing had been extremely disruptive to other sitters. Now he had almost turned into a healthy Zen student.
Mr S had arrived at the Seminary five days earlier than me, and I knew nothing of how he was then. What I witnessed was a highly intelligent young man writhing in excruciating pain. How distressing it must have been to find himself incapable of handling ordinary life.
According to Mr S, he had searched for his spiritual salvation in countless religions. The history of his journey was staggering, including his devotion to that notorious Aum Supreme Sect. He had wandered from religion to religion and went as far as India and Tibet. Possessed by an inner drive, he had been making an extraordinary effort. Inoue Roshi was his last resort. He trusted Roshi and struggled to stay in the practice. A whole spectrum of modern medicine, including counselling, had failed to bring him back his wholesome state of mind. Now, Zen practice was offering a process for saving himself and was eliciting real change in him. I was often touched by his improvements.
Unlike many men of religion, Roshi has an extraordinary analytic mind and can articulate his observations in logical steps. Mobilizing these strengths, Roshi patiently kept unraveling each of Mr S's twisted brain circuits, which had been overloaded with excessive and incoherent pieces of knowledge.
"Mr S, I haven't had a challenging student like yourself for quite a while. Interacting with you alone is the equivalent of teaching well over ten Zen students. But I also give you credit for your perseverance and diligence. You have been really gutsy. Stick with me and push yourself through under my guidance. I assure you, you will get well," Roshi continued.
"Mr S, don't expect there are people 'out there' who can save you. Most importantly, there isn't anyone who can penetrate your extremely complex and distorted view of reality.
When a student makes a promise to me and breaks it, usually the best solution is to expel him or her from the Seminary. It is especially important to do this for the sake of other striving students. However, I could not abandon you when you broke your promise. I could not let you go without giving you an opportunity for your mind to start softening. Because I know you are a highly intelligent, serious, honest, and tenacious young man."
Roshi was totally committed to offer his best guidance to Mr S. His commitment arose from his compassion to care for and nourish each person.
One morning, rather unusually, Roshi began talking in front of everyone during zazen.
"Mr S, you have to respect your need for sleep. Up to now, the disorder of your autonomic nervous system has kept you over-stimulated around the clock. You could neither have a good sleep nor be alert. You were always tired and could not get rid of your fatigue. But now that your body and mind are starting to be in tune, you can have a deep sleep. Enjoy it thoroughly. Now the alternate states of relaxation and healthy tension will become more distinct, allowing your cerebrum to rest accordingly. As a result, your perceptiveness will grow sharper; you will be in control of your behaviour through your own consciousness. So, have a good sleep whenever you can."
That was Roshi's guidance when Mr S was dozing off in his zazen. In a similar situation, an average Zen teacher would have hit him hard with the kyosaku with the intention of awakening him from his torpor. And this would have further shattered his self-esteem and hardened his already distorted mind. 'Mr S, hang in there. You will genuinely experience your own salvation here,' I silently sent my encouragement to him, feeling like a mother.
A couple days later, Roshi praised his progress with gentle humour, while pretending to look serious.
"Mr S, you have evolved from reptile to primate. But still, dogs and cats have a lot to teach you. They do not think of their death; they are free from any anxiety and they just live in response to the present.
Our imaginings are the product of human intellect. Our imaginings can frighten us. But it is also through human intellect that we anticipate the consequences of our behaviour. Foreseeing undesirable consequences, we can consciously choose a set of behaviours to prevent this from happening. But you haven't quite reached the stage of understanding the consequences of your own actions. Your brain circuits need a few more steps to qualify you as fully human. At least you are finished with your reptilian stage of evolution, a period of total separation from what goes on around you."
With his use of humorous metaphor, Roshi encouraged greater self-awareness in Mr S. His stooped posture became upright. Previously when he held chopsticks and a bowl of rice, he looked exactly like a chimpanzee - with no trace of any human intelligence. Now he was eating with grace. I had witnessed Roshi's commitment in guiding Mr S so that he could regain his sense of authority.
Nothing pleased me more than seeing Mr S now able to start the new year afresh, as the new person he had become through practice. Now he could truly appreciate the ordinariness of each day, no matter how simple or routine.
Close to midnight, the bell of Shounji Temple began to ring. Just that sound, 'boom'.
Twelve o'clock - the moment the new calendar year started. I had no emotion. Temple bells all over Japan rang one hundred and eight times simultaneously to signal the end of the old year and the coming of the new. This traditional ritual, I think, is important as it serves to draw a line between the ending and beginning of time, which, otherwise, would just be a continuation of another day. Five hours of zazen went in a flash. I must have sunk into zazen.
'Boom, boom, boom.'
'Boom' and I merged into oneness; 'boom' was my being, and with another 'boom', my being was emerging again.
Roshi suddenly broke the silence of zazen and said, "For those who wish to take this opportunity to ring the bell, please feel free to do so." I gathered that a few students had left the zendo to ring the bell. As for myself, I wanted to stay and relish the experience of my whole being participating in the sound of 'boom'. But contrary to my intention, I became sleepy and dozed off. Without a moment's delay, Roshi clouted me with the kyosaku.
Crack! Oh, boy! It hurt, especially on my left shoulder. I would probably develop a big blue bruise there. But I was pleased I had no emotion about it.
At 1:30 a.m. the small bell rang to signal the end of zazen. We prostrated to the old teachers, bowed down to Roshi, and exchanged greetings ourselves. Then we gathered in the dining room. It was packed with people joining our feast for the new year. It must have taken lots of time and effort to prepare this gorgeous meal. In my heart, I bowed to the people who had cooked for us.
"Happy New Year!" We all toasted.
There was plenty of sake and beer together with a big hot-pot cooked at the table. The leeks in the hot-pot were beautiful. Mr I, who was sitting with us, grew them on his farm. Their exquisite taste was truly a reflection of his loving care. I spontaneously expressed my thanks to him.
It was 3:30 a.m. when we finished the clean-up and went to sleep. And one hour later, at 4:30 a.m. we were up again. In no time, I was ready to go back to the zendo as I had not even taken my jumper off to sleep. I started my zazen at 4:45 a.m.
A few people sounded as if they had fallen asleep during zazen. I heard the regular breathing of sleeping sitters - ssss, ssss, ssss. Though admittedly sleepy, I kept telling myself I must stay awake. But soon my attention drifted away from my breathing and was lured by the sleepers' breathing. Having had only one hour of sleep, that was my strange first period of zazen of the New Year. The high spirits of the sitters were nonetheless quite inspiring. Even with some occasional nodding off, their fierce determination to sit through to the dawn of the first day of the year was contagious. Roshi would have probably shouted at us, if he was with us. " Sleeping zazen is not effective. Don't do it! Go back to your room and have a good sleep!"
At 8:00 a.m. we had a bowl of zohni, a traditional New Year's breakfast of rice cakes boiled in soup, my favourite food.
After breakfast, Roshi and all the other students went down to Kaizoji-Temple for the New Year's service. I was the only one left in the zendo.
Having the zendo all to myself, my New Year zazen was invigorating.
I totally forgot myself in the act of breathing. Had anyone told me to divert my attention from breathing, it would not have been possible. I was just breathing, nothing else.
Suddenly, I heard a voice, "Ms Kakeno!"
It was Mr Yusetsu calling me from outside.
"We are going to have lunch at Kaizoji. Please come and join us. We will drive you down to the station so you can catch the 2:53 p.m. train," said Mr Yusetsu. He had come to fetch me. "Thank you." How thoughtful of them. I quickly changed out of the hakama into my suit. I then brought in the sheet, pillow cover, and kakefuton cover that I had hung on the washline in the morning. My body moved with flowing lightness by its own volition. Every movement was as natural as air flowing. This must be the act of the emptiness emptying.
On the table was a New Year's feast prepared by Roshi's wife and Kaoru, his daughter - my favourite sweet black beans, kidney beans, sunomono, salted herring roe, and sashimi, just to name a few. It was hard to express in words the joy of being surrounded at the table with Zen friends. While enjoying the innumerable number of dishes, we all engaged in lively conversation. Even the landscape felt intimate as I thought I would not be able to see this beautiful scenery of the Seto Inland Sea for the next few weeks.
After having our photos taken in the garden, I left Kaizoji-Temple. Everyone stood by the gate and saw me off. With Kaoru's driving, it took only two minutes to Tadanoumi station, full of people beautifully dressed for the New Year's celebrations. But I had no need for special clothes. I was celebrating the New Year with a completely fresh way of being.
Mr Yusetu, who came with us to the station, handed me Roshi's present, a set of navy blue samu clothes. I figured this was Roshi's encouragement to further my practice.
I bowed to both of them through the train window until they were well out of sight, feeling a surge of deep emotion.
On the train, I was absorbed in just looking at the passing scenery outside. But soon my mind was fantasizing - 'Suppose I buy a villa on such a scenic spot, wouldn't that be great for my relaxation? Not just that, my employees would be happy to use the facility, too.' The moment I was aware of my delusion, I felt Roshi's glaring eyes and roaring shout, "You, fool! You have already fallen to prey to your delusion!" 'Azusa, stay away from desire and attachment!,' I warned myself.
After having changed from the local train to the Shinkansen at Mihara station, I fell into a deep sleep. I must have been fast asleep throughout the trip. I only woke up as the Shinkansen was nearing Shin-Osaka station. 'Back to the big city - a stifling and at the same time, quite interesting place for me,' I thought with a sense of liberated detachment.
I renewed my absolute commitment to focus on the present and to really follow through each breath in the moment. I worked my way step-by-step through the din and bustle of New Year's Day in Osaka. Nothing interfered with me - neither the streaming crowd nor the incessant arrival and departure of trains. The diamond of my heart and soul was my only focus; I pledged to honour it. As I arrived home, I was grateful for all the blessings that life had given me, that Roshi had given me, that practice had given me. I bowed deeply to express my gratitude and appreciation to them all.
What a refreshing leap I had made since the day I left Osaka on the twenty-second of December last year. I gave a big hug to my invisible breath - in the dusk of New Year's Day , l996.
My Second Sesshin
On the whole my life has not particularly changed since I started Zen practice - at least on the surface, though there is definitely a sense of inner freshness. It feels like the very cells of my body have been rejuvenated through the practice.
Though how I choose to live each day might not be readiIy visible, I have become more conscious of the absolute preciousness of each day being like a thread woven into my life fabric.
This clarity of being alive right this moment is the diamond of my life which I discovered in the practice.
My whole body kept yearning for this unfading clarity of spirit - the fully-oxygenated spirit of here and now. Working on the foundation of my being and pursuing further self-purification became my most pressing needs. And that led me to return to the Seminary for another five days' practice soon after my first sesshin.
If asked what was the purpose of my sesshin, I would categorically say it was to penetrate the present moment. As Roshi said, "There is no starting point nor ending point in Zen practice. To utterly live the present is the beginning and the goal of Zen practice. There is nothing outside the present instant. You become wholly available to that very instant which is extinguished completely in the next instant. You awaken to the reality of things just as they are in the moment, as your mind and body are cast off. The whole point of zazen is to embody this awareness."
I can appreciate this essence of Dharma, at least partly. I would not claim I have fully incorporated it in myself. But I am conscious that the real world has nothing to do with my concepts about it.
My entire life is enlivened; this is all very new to me. A sense of mental and physical well-being permeates; this is derived from my awareness that there is truly nothing other than this moment. I am afraid I cannot fully describe this sense of well-being in words.
With zazen, my mind was becoming infinitely more transparent; filled with child-like joy and wonder. Quiet breathing was guiding me into a sphere of vast openness; the consciousness of 'I' was fading naturally with my breathing. It felt warm and comfortable - nothing to struggle with. This natural state felt like being in my mother's womb.
Having reached my mid-fifties, I should say it was about the right time to pause and reflect on my life passage. So far in my life, thinking ahead and being proactive had been important to my survival. I had committed myself to being fully alert so I could discern what lay ahead. Surprisingly, the greatest challenge that I was yet to address turned out to be my own being - the self that runs my life. After all, the ultimate question boiled down to this self, and nothing else, for all the choices I made or will make in future.
Moreover, I had some vague uneasiness about my mortal, ephemeral existence. There was no telling when, where, and what kind of tragedy might be waiting for me - in the flickering time of only 70 or 80 years of my life.
Unless I resolved these fundamental questions they would always float in my subconscious, inflicting unnecessary anxiety, fear and suspicion. Not only that, I might end up affecting the life of those around me with my poor judgements and expectations.
Also, I had seen too many cases of those at the helm of their businesses trapped by their obligations and self-interest, who eventually fell into disgrace through illegal conduct. I could not just dismiss them and say that was their problem. I knew I too could be lured into exactly the same trap. Although I was not fully conscious about it then, this fear might have been my primary motivation in taking up Zen practice under Inoue Roshi.
I had not known zazen could be such a delightful experience until I did my second sesshin. This sesshin left me with a sense of spaciousness, even a tinge of playfulness. I could tune into what others were up to. So, now and again I was tempted to get up to innocent mischief and enjoy a good laugh. It was like wanting to play a game of mind catchball where the ball I throw is returned to me with equal strength and speed.
But my playfulness did not always work. One day, someone called me on the phone and asked for my address. Teasingly, I said my address was in the cosmos. He was confounded. I wished he had shared my playfulness and said, "Yes, that was what I was after. Please tell me your cosmic address!" Without openness and playfulness of mind we tend to operate in the mode where things can only be thought of in opposites - gain-or-loss, or friend-or-foe. That is an impoverished way to use our minds, where relationships tend to be brittle and flat.
My second sesshin highlighted this understanding. After a few weeks I went on to do a third sesshin, with hopes for further deepening and refreshing myself.
My Third Sesshin
One cloudy winter morning I stepped once more through the elegant wooden gate. The space beyond the gate - the stone garden, the bamboo shrub, and the modest meditation hall - was serene and settling; this space transcended time and the pettiness of the secular world.
As I went into Roshi's room, I was greeted by those penetrating eyes and the soothing fragrance of an incense stick. Smiling, Roshi made a cup of gyokuro tea for me.
"It is a beautiful cup of tea," I said spontaneously. But the instant I heard myself saying it, I knew something was going to happen.
"How beautiful is beautiful?" asked Roshi.
I was struck dumb by his piercing question. I smiled to conceal my confusion - the typical behaviour of a Japanese woman buying time. But I was not flustered.
Roshi pushed me further "Precisely who is it who says the tea is beautiful?"
Roshi's glaring eyes were scary. But I was not constrained by his words. The transparency of my mind helped me to understand the essence of his question. I smiled with renewed confidence. Poised, I stretched my hand, simply picked up a cup of tea, and quietly drank it.
"Oh! Beautiful! Roshi, you make a beautiful cup of tea," I said and stared at him.
I was wholly in the moment. Roshi's questions were checking my being 'just' in the absolute now. A gentle smile returned to Rosh's eyes. That was a good reminder. With all my reverence and feeling of closeness for Roshi, I could never be lax with him, and there was always an underlying healthy tension in every moment shared with him.
On the surface, the trainee monks and students of the Seminary did not appear to be pursuing a rigorous practice, each of them casually doing his or her own task. But this impression only reflected my lack of capacity to penetrate and comprehend what was actually going on. Now I could clearly see each of them striving to be absolutely in the moment.
A typhoon-like gusty wind was blowing outside. But inside the meditation hall, everything had fallen silent. Zazen was guiding me to sink further into tranquility and almost melt into it. Suddenly, the sharp shriek of a bird broke out. But the tranquility remained just the same - I was peaceful.
I looked outside after zazen. The trees -bamboo, chestnut, and camellia - were dancing fiercely in the strong wind, the dynamic movement of their leaves a choreography matching the intense energy of the wind. But I felt profoundly still, undisturbed by the surroundings, struck by the spectacular harmony of nature; trees were dancing, clouds were floating free of all concerns, just scudding with no-mind. In contrast to this harmony in nature, the secular world was full of absurdity, people uptight chasing after big money, possessed by their wealth, or entrapped by their lust.
Our life path is treacherous though it may appear smooth on the surface. Very often, we lose track of the road ahead. It is because our attachment and greed obscure our mind's eye. Many journeys of heroes and heroines in history are good evidence of this. One day their discriminating wisdom starts to dwindle, and they go slowly off the rails.
But in reality it is the other way around; heroes and heroines let themselves go off the rails, and as a consequence, their discriminating wisdom starts losing its power. I often find a similar pattern in the rise and fall of successful business people. They are endowed with discriminating wisdom and given the capacity to persevere and overcome many ordeals. The truth is that wisdom is given to them because life requires them to achieve their mission.
Their success only brings them to the 'starting station' so they now have vehicles to work on the real mission assigned to them in their life journey. But as soon as they arrive at the starting station, they tend to be surrounded by an admiring entourage who are keen to take advantage of their success. All they hear is how brilliant they are. Hubris sets in. Imperceptibly, they begin losing their discriminating wisdom.
They choose that path. They invite their own decline. But pressed by their super-tight schedule, they may not even realize what their choices and its consequences are. Their hectic routine does not afford any quiet time for introspection.
To me the lesson is about reminding myself that I am always at the starting station of my life journey, irrespective of success and any status I might achieve. Without that self-awareness I am bound to go downhill, wasting my effort in futile activities.
The point is to sustain an unceasing aspiration to reach a higher level of consciousness. Although books and lectures by eminent academics might help to refine my intellectual comprehension, that is not sufficient. They may provide the framework for a sophisticated explanation. But it is not a final resolution. It cannot offer nondualistic access to my being. As long as I resort to my own reasoning, I am constrained by my own perspective. It could be likened to an army marching without knowledge of an ambush up ahead. The limitations of intellectual understanding imply that I will remain inherently restless and unsure of myself, and have reservations about fully trusting and loving others.
Definitely, there is a way to overcome that limitation. It is not about building a broader knowledge base or learning more conceptual frameworks. It is about waking up to the absolute reality of life beyond thought - directly experiencing the realm of pure suchness.
Zazen practice, under the guidance of the right teacher, gives us the discipline of mind to return to the realm of what is. And when we pursue the right path, the step we take will bring about beneficial results in future.
One morning after breakfast I was quietly sitting in the zendo. Just by chance, my eyes caught the corner of the tatami, covered with thick dust. 'What an embarrassment for us Zen students!' I said to myself. The next moment I was up and cleaning with Mr Kawao who also happened to be in the zendo. We quickly stacked all the mats away, vacuum cleaned, and wiped the whole floor with the wet cloth. Obviously the zendo had not been cleaned for a long time.
I would have thought cleaning should be one of the natural duties of Zen students using the zendo. But there were no rules in Shorinkutsu Seminary except attending the morning service and eating three meals together. Basically, Roshi left us completely free; we could go back to our room for a sleep if we were drowsy, or else we could do zazen as long as we wished - well beyond midnight. Typical of free-spirited Inoue Roshi, he was not interested in petty formalities. But at the same time he was very strict and demanded that we sustain an unrelenting concentration on 'now' by practising exactly as he taught.
So it was not because of Seminary rules or because somebody had told us to do a cleanup. Catching sight of the dusty tatami simply flowed into my action of cleaning - with total spontaneity. There was not a trace of myself wanting to be smart and useful. This straight-forwardness of just doing, I thought, must be the essence of the fully functioning, lively mind.
Both Mr Kawao and I simply cleaned the place, doing what needed to be done. We did not even need to decide who did what. In silence, we just did one thing after the next.
In contrast, the clean-up I had done during the first sesshin with Mr S was hilarious. He kept asking, "What shall I do?" so I could assign him a certain task. He was clumsy, but did what he was told. If I were to score his performance, I could not give any more than 50%. Nevertheless, he would come to me again for instruction, asking "What's next?" This went on for the whole time, and his cleaning performance showed no improvement.
As Roshi put it, his mental make-up remained under-developed; it was as if each element in his nervous system was separate and compartmentalized. He could not find any link between the intention to clean and the action; identifying what needed to be cleaned, planning the step-by-step procedures, and acting on them. So, if he were to follow his visual perception, the only thing he would do was to stand by idly. No wonder he found it hard to adapt to an ordinary working environment.
Roshi must have immediately understood the cause of Mr S's maladaptation. Having worked with Mr S, I appreciated the enormous patience with which Roshi worked on his fragmented thought process so he could develop the capacity to function in real life situations. Roshi's task was like that of the meticulous weaver finding an almost invisible cut-off thread and mending it carefully to weave it in.
However, when Mr Kawao was my cleaning partner, it was totally different. We complemented each other; if Mr Kawao had already started a certain area, I left it with him and cleaned somewhere else. We were at ease with each other as reliable partners and thoroughly enjoyed working together.
This gave me renewed insight into the requisites for living and working together in harmony. Needless to say, mutual trust and respect were important. But in no way could we expect to be trusted or respected unless we had that substance within ourselves worthy of trust and respect. Only then, could we mutually recognize the unique attributes of each other and work on developing a complementary relationship. And that was where the spirit of Zen could come into full play; things that need to be done get done, and we move onto the next thing. It all starts from self-cultivation which then allows our effective contribution to the whole. Upon fulfilling our responsibility there, we fade out and move on to the next thing. It is a life of constant renewal, a very simple but refreshing way to live.
My zazen after the clean-up was the best ever; I slipped into deep concentration. I thought I understood what the inscription in the zendo was saying. It read 'If you wish to search for the true meaning of life, experience it through zazen.'
Now that I had learned that cleaning could be an illuminating experience, I seriously began to think of doing a clean-up of my own house. I have always had a cleaner because of my extremely busy schedule.
On the last day of my third sesshin, Roshi gave a Dharma talk after the morning service.
"Zazen is all about resolving our being at the core. That is about seeing ourselves simply as we are - being in touch with life as it is. After all, we are here only for seventy or eighty years. There is no center of life outside our everyday life. Our life here now is an inestimably precious, unique gift.
Everything you see, hear, become aware of, is reality manifesting suchness in the present. What your eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind - gen-ni bi zes-shin I - perceive - colour, sound, scent, taste, touch, thought - shiki sho ko mi soku ho - is not separate but one and the same. Resolving our being at the core is about gaining a clear awareness of this nondual present.
Ms Kakeno, you have managed to do three sesshins over the past ten weeks. Given your extremely busy life, your effort deserves praise. And you have been making good progress.
Keep on practising, Ms Kakeno. Your mission will start unfolding in an unexpected way. You are called to serve. You don't have to bother with when, where, or how you will die. We illuminate the world and disappear when the time comes, like blossoms going with good grace.
Birth and death are an integral part of the natural cycle, a part of the one wholeness. And nature-as-simply-is is the absolute reality beyond human consciousness and emotion. It is much larger than the world of ego claiming its authority over others.
Unless we develop the strength to notice our emotions and thoughts and let them go, we are bound to run into conflict in one way or another. We set ourselves against others, insisting that our reasoning is superior and inviting endless confrontations. 'Know-alls are trapped by the question of whether there is Buddha-nature or not, whereas enlightened ones remain uninterested,' is the saying of one old patriarch. Enlightened ones understand that 'this is it'; there is no room for 'is or is not', 'like or dislike', 'true or false'. On the other hand, know-alls congratulate themselves on the supremacy of their own reasoning. In the end, they can even justify warfare.
So I advise you not to set yourself up as being righteous. Then you are an unbounded self, free to engage with the infinite, boundless realm of the universe. Do not indulge in reasoning. Cut your thoughts off. Penetrate the present moment. These are the essence of the teachings of the Seminary."
Roshi went on,
"Ms Kakeno, greater clarity in the orientation of your life is emerging from your practice.. You know what the primary focus is, what is yet lacking, and what is fulfilling in your life.
Remember, searching for your own happiness alone is too small a focus. Keep the 'Four Bodhisattva Vows' close to your heart.
The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them,
greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them,
Dharma-gates are countless, I vow to wake to them,
Buddha's Way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.
(translation by Robert Aitken Roshi)
We need to look after ourselves, as our body and mind are the agents for realizing the Dharma. And let us all strive to practise and be true to our Bodhai-shin.
Everywhere, ominous signs are suggesting the ultimate downfall of human beings. Can we turn it around? The answer is yes, but only if we start working on ourselves and dissolve our mind habits.
There are too many polemicists who only stir up and confuse other people. Don't be distracted by others. Just concentrate on cultivating your Bodhai-shin for the Path."
That was a long sermon, but now that my three sesshins had removed a lot of dross, Roshi's words filtered through my mind with no effort. Ten weeks ago, I had come to the Seminary holding some unresolved questions. Perhaps my questions had been superficial and not that essential to me after all. They had resolved themselves and disappeared completely from my mind during the process of my three sesshins.
Certainly, addressing any problem can be an opportunity for stretching one's mind. However, attaching some meaning to problem-solving itself is an act of reasoning. As long as we are caught up with this and that reason, the mind is inherently restless. The restless mind continues to compare, analyze, and often ends up criticizing others. But what is this mind itself? What is at the very core of the mind?
Inoue Roshi's guidance is exclusively focused on this ultimate core. Roshi points the way so his students can cut through to this core through their own effort. I must confess that initially my mind was too busy trying to resolve 'my problem,' instead of just listening to Roshi's words. Had I let my mind go, had I let 'my problem' go, I could have gone deeper into the realm beyond reasoning more quickly. Problems arise from only one source; they arise because the mind gets trapped by the virtual world of our own opinions. What is more, the mind is misled to believe that is the real world. The Zen teacher's role is to awaken students from the self-inflicted delusion of this virtual world. But, for that fierce battle of deconstructing our false imagery, the right teacher is an absolute requisite; we all need the right teacher, capable of shaking off our intellect with his or her piercing questions. We need to be confounded, not knowing what to say. At times we even need to be condemned and slapped on the cheek a few times - to extricate ourselves from the delusory world.
Just a few hours before leaving the Seminary, Roshi offered to take Mr Kawao and me for a ride. As we stepped into his old car, he said to us teasingly, "Now that your minds are clear after sesshin, I would like to stimulate your delusory mind." Off he drove down a narrow steep road like a roller coaster.
"Watch out! I am going to take you to the place where your mind will be definitely stirred up by your fantasy. Ha! Ha! Ha! Empty your mind and stay focused in your practice. Do not create any fantasy through your thoughts. Engage in just seeing." A weird warning, I thought.
Roshi drove along the scenic coastal road in bright morning sunlight. The numerous small islands made a delicate contrast of light and shadow, the islands overlaying and separating from one another as he drove along. It was hard to just see, but we tried. Then Roshi turned uphill. 'Hm! This is ominous.' I said to myself. The further up he went, the more breath-taking the panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea turned out to be. Excited by its scenic beauty, my mind started to lose focus. Roshi stopped the car at an open space on the edge of a cliff, looking out to sea. The moment I stepped out of the car, I could no longer resist keeping silent. "Wow! What a beautiful place!" I shouted. The words rolled out of me. Mr Kawao was in the same mood. He trotted busily here and there, and I followed him. The place was covered with wild plants. 'It's probably vacant land, without an owner.' As soon as this thought passed through my mind, I was enchanted by a stream of fantasy. 'Wouldn't it be a fantastic place for a holiday house? What about my company holiday house and the training center? There wouldn't be any better place; a new hot spring was recently discovered right under this cliff, and a deluxe health retreat is going to be opened here this autumn which will have the best seafood restaurant in the area.'
Roshi must have taken us here knowing exactly how we would behave.
"You two are going to be evidence of Zen students who get easily caught up in their fantasies," said Roshi, while taking our pictures. Too late, we had been set up. But now our frailty was fully exposed, I thought we might as well enjoy our euphoria.
On the way back, Roshi quietly began his Dharma talk.
"While in the Seminary, you are keen to practise around the clock. The whole place is dedicated to practice, and the teacher is always available to see how you are progressing. So as long as students follow instructions and practise intently, everyone can eventually rest in the awareness of undifferentiated self and others. But once you step out of the Seminary, you are immediately confronted with the world of the separate self - the world in which self and others are often at odds, contriving, manipulating, clinging and controlling. It is extremely difficult to sustain the sense of pure oneness of self and others in that defiled milieu. Without significant spiritual strength, it is impossible. That is why you need a place like the Seminary to retreat from the secular world. Otherwise, the mind remains entangled, without any chance of liberation."
Roshi's words penetrated and calmed us straight away, leaving no trace of any delusion in our minds. Then, he said, "A holiday house itself is not a bad idea." I wondered why Roshi would say things almost as if to wake up the children who had just fallen asleep. There was always this inconceivable rigour underpinning his presence.
He continued, "Although you may be unaware of it, the chronic fatigue from the stress of everyday life accelerates your mental aging and pulls you down into an infinite spiral of negativity. That is why a healing milieu such as a holiday house is essential to charge your body and mind.
But before pursuing such a milieu, you need to decide what is the right direction for your life. Without that sense of where you wish to go, you are bound to be drowned in the ease and pleasure of the holiday lifestyle. For an experience to be truly nurturing, you need the higher and deeper level of awareness, embracing pleasure and at the same time transcending it.
What else could we do, other than nod? In the end, Roshi repeated, "Remember you only have the present. Live fully in the present. With one-pointed concentration just engage yourself in the present. I assure you, that is the best prescription for your life."
When we returned to the Seminary, I cleaned up my room and washed the bedding, giving mindful attention to each act. This sesshin being my third, I knew exactly what to do and moved flowingly from one thing to the next. I would say good-bye and Roshi and the other students would see me off. Everything was simple and unpretentious here.
I went to Roshi's room to say good-bye. He gave me a final Dharma talk, his way of saying goodbye. As Roshi lived the Dharma, whatever he was doing was Dharma practice. Similarly, I was not interested in anything other than the Dharma, as my sole purpose in visiting the Seminary was to search for the Dharma.
"Give all your attention to each breath. Give all your attention to a single step. Give all your attention to each moment. That is the essence of Zen practice."
Reflecting on my three sesshins, they brought me back in touch with the higher wisdom of the universe and the innocence of a baby. The whole experience was about my reintegration into a larger universe.
How many days had I actually spent under Roshi's guidance? The first sesshin was eleven days, the second five days, and the third four days. Only twenty-one days. Thanks to his guidance, I was able to embody the depth of Zen mind.
Many people yearn for peace of mind. Many people aspire to a higher self. I give my word. If you are enthusiastic about this path, seek the right teacher. Realization is absolutely within your reach if you commit your life to the right practice. And your enlightenment has a boundless impact on society as you illuminate the lives of people around you. To me this is a powerful reminder that I keep close to my heart; my ongoing practice has enormous bearing not just on me but also on my employees and their families.
Slowly my being is opening through practice, and I am acutely aware of the preciousness of the experience for myself. For anyone managing a business, I can emphatically say that working on purifying your own mind is the quickest and most effective way to instil unique qualities in your business. When an entrepreneur loses his or her wholesome mind, their damaging impact can be limitless, not only on employees working in the company, but that individual can also erode the wholesomeness of society.
I have seen countless numbers of competent entrepreneurs eventually disappear into oblivion. At the zenith of their business, they are proud of their super-tight schedules. But somewhere in the frantic rush of being in demand, the seed of arrogance is sewn. It grows rampantly, while their spirit remains unattended. In the end, they collapse and vanish from sight. It is a real pity that they forget to care for their inner world.
That is why I believe that entrepreneurs need a philosophy which will force them to constantly scrutinize the essential meaning of their activity beyond the trivial, and raise their self-awareness. Entrepreneurs need to think through the long-term benefit of providing goods and services, not just for the present but for future generations. They need to cultivate fine statesmanship so they can effectively contribute to society. And entrepreneurs need to encourage consumers to develop a sense of autonomy so they can stop their desires running amok. If entrepreneurs have no philosophy, ordinary consumers may be confused about their desires and real needs. Entrepreneurs need to develop the discerning mind of educators and religious pathseekers, so they can become creative designers and planners to help make this world a better place.
Doesn't it boil down to aspiring to grow into a whole person - a person who is warm, kind, caring to all, who is capable of making brave decisions and executing them, who has the strength to abide by his or her profound belief? I believe if we have this aspiration for a higher and deeper self, we have already met the teacher inherent in each of us.
And this aspiration to bring out our essence in its fullness is an absolute requisite, whether running a business, making choices in life, or raising the consciousness of employees. As long as my primary focus is on laying down the conditions for this aspiration to eventuate in a wholesome way, the rest, according to the law of the universe, will take care of itself and deliver an appropriate outcome. So, all I need to keep offering is plenty of appreciation, thoughtfulness, and trust.
As my company's president, as a tax accountant, and as a management consultant, I believe in sound business as the most important principle. The health control of any business starts from the basic vision of top management. Business, by its nature, pursues profit through legally acceptable means. But, if focused only on maximizing profit, it is nothing more than legal plundering.
However, if management upholds an inspiring vision, then business is capable of offering some of the benefits of civilization back to the community through its support of research, cultural, or educational activities.
There are two ways of looking at customers. The first merely targets them as consumers and purchasers. The second originates from the understanding that we are all part of each other living this life - the clear sense of an undivided whole and the interdependence of all things. We live together in the blessing of nature on this earth, and together we manage this world. The vision a business upholds will inevitably result in decisive differences in management quality.
Even though cheerfulness and appreciation of each moment pervades my personal life, it is my concern for the future that impels me to strive to the utmost in my practice.
There are many signals emerging to point out that our planet earth is dying. As an entrepreneur and member of the global community, I feel genuine concern for the shadow being cast over the future of our community.
In recent years, the rising incidence of nervous breakdown is pervasive in almost every age group in Japan, and people who develop it often do not have any awareness of their pathological behaviour. School children are no exception, and schools are often criticized for being ineffectual.
In principle, child-rearing is the responsibility of both parents, though there are certain stages of child development that demand on enormously delicate sensibility of the mother in particular.
It is critical that parents bestow plenty of attention, discipline, and gentle affection upon their children so that the children's necessary instincts and sensibility can grow in abundance.
I feel quite devastated when I think of those children who have missed the opportunity to cultivate these attributes getting married and having their own children. That is why I am anxious. I wish to remind people that the joy and hope that comes with child-rearing cannot be compared to any other activity. Child-rearing, to me, is the greatest creative art of all.
Roshi has been pointing out some of the fundamental issues of education through his unique approach, which differs greatly from that of academics. He elucidates what it means to grow into being fully human through his analysis of the essential mechanism of mental development - the conception of life, the role of DNA information accumulated throughout the process of human evolution, birth, relationship with parents, language, and environment. He believes that most problems of education basically stem from the decline of spirituality.
If we wish to see the twenty-first century as an age of deep spirituality, we have no choice other than our own persistent practice. The effort we make will bring the clarity of mind we need to cut through to the essence of things. It is awesome to discover this spiritual strength within ourselves. But that strength is never for display, rather, it is this strength that underpins our compassion, faith, peacefulness and joy.
Lastly I offer a prayer for people to live with true peace of mind and in full possession of unshakable self-esteem. With this prayer, my endless practice goes on.
My Search For Self-liberation
high school teacher / born in 1942
I was forty years old, and a high school teacher, when I first stepped into the Zen temple, Kaizoji, one summer holiday. The students' photography club, to which I was an adviser, had organized a summer workshop at Kaizoji. One of the club members happened to be the daughter of the Zen master who had made the temple available for the workshop. This was how my first encounter with Zen began.
Until that time, not only had I no interest in religion, rather, I believed religion could have a poisoning effect like drugs, inviting anti-social behaviour, and misleading people who are incapable of rational thinking. Though my impression of Zen was vague, it did not quite fall into the category of such religions.
Thus, one hot summer night, I sat meditating for the first time in my life with my students in this small Zen temple. I was slightly nervous. Burning incense, combined with the dim candlelight illuminating the Buddha statue, created a religious atmosphere.
Our Roshi, or Zen teacher, looked relatively young, perhaps in his early forties. Wearing luminous white robes overlaid with a dia
phanous black robe, he spoke with that fullness of spirit that can come only from someone who knows from personal experience what he is talking about. It was a refreshing experience and left me with a sense of peace, although I could not comprehend many of the things he touched on. They were way beyond what we usually talk about in daily life.
Roshi said, "The whole purpose of zazen is 'just sitting'. You focus on your being, just sitting in this very moment. Zazen is a practice to become awakened as your Original Self. It is through this awareness that you see truth, hear truth, and think truth; in other words, you embrace life as it truly is. There is a oneness between your Original Self and truth. The Original Self is free from vanity, malice, hypocrisy, lust and self-pity. This is the path of self-liberation and enlightenment. Since ancient times, thousands of path-seekers have dedicated their lives to finding their Original Self. This search is the most rewarding pursuit there is. Up to now you might not have been fully aware of the Original Self within yourself, but now you can know its presence. Start your practice right this moment. Apply yourself to find this Original Self through becoming one with your breathing. Forget your self through being totally in the moment."
As Roshi revealed the essence of Zen to me for the first time, I understood far more clearly why I had had this vague impression that Zen did not quite fit into the ordinary category of religion.
Roshi gave us a technique for sitting, or zazen. "The key to experiencing no-self is to be one with each inhalation and exhalation. If you can do this, you can penetrate the root of all your suffering." Following his instruction, I made an all-out effort to sit.
It dawned on me much later that even though I thought I was doing zazen with determination, my effort was inconsequential. My mind kept spinning with busy thoughts. Time went by extremely slowly because my mind was restless. I tried to concentrate on breathing, but not a single breath was free from thoughts. The restlessness of my mind was not because of zazen; it happened all the time in daily life.
After the meditation, I purposely did not set time aside with my students to discuss their impression of zazen, although this would usually be beneficial. But I thought it would be better for them to keep their experiences at the temple to themselves.
A few days later, I visited Kaizoji with my high-school colleague, Mr Waki, to thank Roshi for his assistance during the workshop. Roshi introduced us to Mr Kozumi, who also happened to be visiting. Mr Kozumi sat with a beautiful straight posture, and spoke clearly and confidently about his recent experience of sesshin, an intensive schedule of zazen and physical work. He impressed me as a vivacious, good man. He told us he had only just reached the gateway to Zen; he described the unfolding process of his mind during zazen, the bliss and wonder of being in the moment.
"At times I thought I might go mad. Here I was stepping into a totally unknown world all alone. I was visited by delusion after delusion. In the end, I no longer knew who I was. I had no choice but to believe in Roshi's words and keep on trying 'to be one with my breathing.' In my business I almost went bankrupt twice, but I tell you, it was nothing compared with the agony I went through in zazen." Mr Kozumi was very open about the most trying moments of his practice, so I could see how zazen had demanded that he go beyond his limits. I was enthralled by this insight into Zen practice. It opened up a new world for me.
Mr Kozumi's sincere respect for Roshi was evident in his every gesture and word, quite different from cosmetic politeness or courtesy. In his forties, he was at the peak of his business career, a competent man with a high social profile. I said to myself, 'What was it that turned Mr Kozumi on?' If what I was observing was authentic, Roshi must surely have some astounding quality to attract respect from people. Still, I was not sure what was so special about him.
Mr Kozumi's direct experience of zazen was so convincing that I no longer had any excuse to run away from Zen. So, I made a decision on the spot to practise zazen. As I reflect now, it was Mr Kozumi's enthusiasm and self-assurance that gave me the courage to overcome my anxiety; without him, I do not think I could have been so decisive. It is wonderful how a personal encounter can act as a catalyst to spark off experiences totally beyond one's imagination.
Roshi said, "If you want zazen for a hobby, you had better go somewhere else. If you come to me, you had better be serious and ready to meditate around the clock."
According to Mr Kozumi, "The first three days were hell; I wept everyday. It was too painful. Frankly I wished someone could have sent me a fake telegram saying that a member of my family had died, and that I needed to leave this place."
These comments made me nervous. Could I endure sesshin? But now that the date was set between the seventeenth and twenty-fourth of August, I did not want to stop halfway. I wanted to get something out of this experience.
I started to practise zazen at home, as I still had a week before the sesshin. I tried to focus my mind on a single point, thus hopefully avoiding any diffusion of attention. I tried, as advised by Roshi, to concentrate on this very moment of inhalation and exhalation and hold on to it. I tried in vain. Still, one hour of zazen was refreshing.
My wife and two children were baffled; they must have sensed the intense energy around me when I was meditating, but they seemed to respect the space I needed.
On the seventeenth of August at 1:00 p.m. I arrived at Kaizoji. Roshi and Kaizoji are there to guide people on the path. I, too, was coming to this temple for the single purpose of finding my Original Self. I braced myself for the journey. As usual, Roshi served cup of green tea when I arrived.
Although it was a hot day, I did not feel the heat. There was neither noise nor tranquility. The only thing I felt was this indefinable tension about setting out into an unknown world. I was the only one in the zendo. Roshi looked at me with piercing eyes, and spoke with tremendous passion and energy about the purpose of zazen and the way to practise it.
"The purpose of zazen is enlightenment. Enlightenment is attaining true liberation of mind by removing blockages. Life reveals its meaning when one can act in harmony with the truth and gain deep satisfaction from it. Life is not worthwhile if one cannot act in harmony with the truth and gain true satisfaction from it.
What blocks the mind? Blockages are your ego, your superiority or inferiority complex, your false self-image, opinions, and the ideas you are holding onto. They affect your perception; they hamper you from experiencing this immediate present and living in its fullness. These blockages will trip you up anytime. Do not allow any space for them. Concentrate on the moment in your zazen, and you will eventually surrender your body and mind and fuse with the experience of zazen. Where are your blockages then? They are all gone.
What is the practice for if you come out of darkness and go back into darkness again? Practice without strong aspiration will not endow you with the spiritual strength to stem the roots of your attachments and often ends up in the mere pursuit of a cosmetic lifestyle. Above anything else, you must work on your spiritual salvation first. Focus on attaining and then sustaining a state of mind without any thoughts, fantasies, or needs. Zen practice asks you to be totally focused in each moment, whatever you do. Do not divert your attention from what you are doing, be it sitting, standing, walking or sleeping. Train yourself to just be the moment with the precision of one-hundredth of a second. When you learn to focus on one breath, then the next breath and the next, your busy mind will start to quieten down, and eventually you can simply be in whatever you do, moment by moment. When you leave reasoning behind and are at ease with the very moment, the Original Self starts to emerge. This Original Self is free and spontaneous without any restraints. Be absolutely serious and concentrate on each breath. In the end, it becomes clear that there is nothing else other than the present moment.
When your feet are hurting, change your zazen position. When you cannot resist dozing off, have a sleep. If you are strongly committed to seek your Original Self, you will wake up refreshed after sleep. Apply yourself. Make an all-out effort."
His guidance was thorough, though I only came to appreciate Roshi's teaching capacity much later. Roshi is capable of empowering any student to step onto the path of Zen as long as the student trusts him and practises under his guidance.
I thought I had full trust in Roshi and accepted his guidance without any hesitation. In retrospect, I must admit I only listened to and accepted a fraction of Roshi's teachings, let alone understood them. What I thought I understood at that time had either the wrong focus, was too superficial, or was a gross misinterpretation. In short, I was screening his teaching through my own preconceived ideas and listened only to what I wanted to hear.
Following his instruction, I wore kimono and hakama, a pleated skirt for kimono; this made me feel more inspired to start zazen. Worldly desires, attachments, and sloth already seemed remote.
"There might be some visitors coming into the zendo. You can politely ignore them and concentrate all your attention so you do not get distracted." Having said that, Roshi disappeared. I was left feeling both abandoned and relieved at the same time.
I was not ready to start zazen right away. I walked around on the tatami mat and then lay down. I was waiting for something to happen next, just like being on a train and waiting for it to leave the station. About thirty minutes went idly by. I grew increasingly unsettled.
The moment I stepped into the zendo, I should have started zazen immediately. In reality, I wasted thirty minutes till enough tension rose to push myself into doing what I had come here for. This was pathetic. Unless I grew out of this slackness, there was no way I would find my Original Self and live an enhanced life.
At last I was ready to apply myself seriously. I lit a stick of incense and sat right in front of the Buddha statue. Initially I tried to place my attention on the breath passing through my throat; then I remembered that Roshi did not recommend this. So I tried to focus my attention on breathing and breathing only. Concentration on the moment was not easy. My mind drifted away, and thoughts started to run amok. Even worse, I got caught up in them and it took me a long while to realize my lapses in attention. I kept telling myself, 'Go back to the present moment. Concentrate on breathing', but soon my mind was distracted again. The process of bringing my attention back to the breathing was repeated endlessly.
The fact was that nothing helped bring the present moment under control. Willpower, aspiration, resolution, knowledge, all these things I should have been able to count on, had no direct impact. In spite of my meticulous effort, my mind could not stay with 'just breathing' even for a second.
I knew this stage full well through my preliminary practice at home. All beginners go through this stage; so I did not have to be disappointed with my performance. The first day had gone by without my getting the knack of zazen. I woke up frequently that night; I could not sleep well.
I woke up charged at 4:00 a.m., and this time was ready to do zazen. My pursuit of the present moment seemed more smooth this morning. While I was more poised, incoherent thought after thought kept raging through my mind with great vigour. Not only did they emerge, but I almost drowned in them. Thoughts kept attacking me with their kaleidoscopic forms and appearances, leaving me not even a moment for a breathing spell. Desire and emotions took control of my mind completely. I could appreciate how Zen practice at this stage was a battle; my mind would either fall prey to illusory thoughts and emotions or it would stand firm and fight them off to establish a sense of my Original Self.
"Remember Zen practice is geared to focus the mind in the present moment." Roshi's words were an illuminating guidepost, pointing in the right direction. I kept them close to my heart to bring my attention back to just breathing, here and now. Had I not had his words as a reminder, I do not think I would have even noticed my mind was being distracted by thoughts and emotions.
Roshi seemed to know exactly when to turn up in the zendo. I was starting to feel weary, and there he was to give me some encouragement. "You must never ever back off in the struggle against attachments to the small self. You must be in power instead of letting them control you. Otherwise, practising zazen means nothing. Practise being the present moment completely. The present moment is eternity. All we have forever is this very moment; thus, eternity is made up of now and only now. This immediate moment is clearly distinct from the immediate past and future. However, when the boundary between them is blurred, you are blocked from your Original Self. Drop the past and future; rid yourself even of the immediate past and future. Then the Original Self unfolds and can fully function in the present so that whatever you are doing, you can be totally mindful. The Original Self is without any confusion and self-doubt; it leaves no space for anything but meticulous attention to the present moment.
We get so caught up with our attachments to memory, opinions and judgements that we can no longer distinguish our entangled mind from the Original Self, and we suffer with our own delusions, clouding the clarity of just being here and now. This happens all the time; when it does, go back immediately to focus your mind on the moment, through your breath, and thus sever any thoughts of the past and future. Direct experience of the present lifts you beyond suffering, and your mind is restored to its original freedom and luminosity."
Roshi kept giving me encouraging suggestions to bring my mind back to the present; his remarks motivated me to apply myself harder. To be honest, I could never have imagined that just being in the present could be so difficult. It was an insurmountable challenge to go beyond noisy thoughts; thoughts continued to rush through my mind. I was out of sorts, disappointed, and ready to quit.
Somehow, I managed to hang in there. With my mind quietening down, I became more aware of each physical movement I made. I was also more aware of the loving care of Roshi's wife in preparing each meal, and was able to feel that her food was nourishing my life.
The toilet happened to be at the corner of the main hall. I had to pass by Roshi's room to get there. As I walked along the corridor, I concentrated on each step, leaving no space for thoughts to sneak in. Still, Roshi shouted at me from his open room. "You are not being mindful with your steps. Pay a hundred times more attention to each step!"
The moment he shouted, I focused all my attention and checked whether I was 'just walking.' To my frustration, there was always room for more concentration. How could he shout at me and tell me the same thing over and over again at exactly the same spot? If he had not pulled me up, I would not have known. I would have remained complacent, thinking this was my best effort. Only when told could I realize that my focus was still diffuse and remote from the reality of 'just walking.' It was annoying to think Roshi only had to glance at me walking along the corridor to know the state of my mind. I could not evoke extraordinary concentration and stillness of mind all on my own; perhaps this is one of the reasons students must have Zen teachers to guide them. In simple movements like walking, I was completely lost as to what I should be focusing my attention on. In order to walk, hands and legs move simultaneously. Accordingly, not just the whole body, but whatever comes into vision also keeps moving.
What did Roshi mean by 'just be and walk,' while there were so many movements that made up walking? I had not the slightest idea exactly which part of my walking movements I ought to concentrate on. Roshi had said, "When walking, just walk, leaving no space for thoughts to sneak in. Put yourself in that one step completely." But how could I apply myself completely while I was engrossed in the details of what made up each step? It seemed the only way I could find the answer was to keep trying to focus on each step. There was immense tension between the mind that wanted to run away and the mind that was determined to focus on each step.
Even when I was on the toilet, I wondered what to centre my mind on, because unless my mind was fixed on something, it was immediately swept away with endless thoughts. And, when it ran rampant, it tended to remain agitated, forever disrupting the sense of centredness. Unless I could bring this mind habit under control, there would be no progress.
As I understand it, Zen practice opens the way to return to the Original Self, an authentic, luminous existence. The Original Self is free from any craving for recognition; it is happy to give credit to others for its achievement. The Original Self is content to take life on its own terms; it lives in total dedication to the relationship it forms here and now. However, our small self perpetually blocks the awareness of the Original Self. Or, to put it another way, the small self is the very source of distractions that defy the presence of the Original Self, not taking what we are seriously.
If I gave up zazen, and quit this quest for my Original Self, I would be forever stuck with my small self. Unless I could just be this very moment, free from the past and future, I could not live as my Original Self. As long as my mind was trapped in its habitual spinning, there was no sense of centredness, no access to my essence. Above anything else, I needed to quieten my turbulent mind.
Although I tried to apply myself more consistently, there was no progress on the second day. At best, I was slightly more settled. Was I lacking in effort? Was I ill-focused? Or was I not suited to zazen? My whole body was stiff and aching. I was exhausted, and felt barren and miserable. I could not bear it anymore. Tears kept rolling down my cheeks and I wondered if tears ever helped to prepare the ground for self-transformation.
Had I slept at all during the night? When I noticed I was already doing zazen at dawn, it seemed that my body had moved of its own volition. The room was still dim. The small light of an incense stick looked much bigger than I thought it was.
I wanted to leave this place as soon as possible. Spinning thoughts, whirling thoughts assailed me with growing intensity. But it was too early to quit! It was only the third day. What else could I expect to attain in life if I gave up on zazen on the third day? Stay with it. I might be on the verge of clearing the first hurdle. With renewed determination, I mustered all my vital energy and kept on practising zazen. It was my firmest intention ever.
And it made a wonderful difference. I could let go of noisy thoughts with greater ease and bring my mind back to concentrate on my breath. I could observe a single breath with much more clarity and precision. What Roshi had been trying to teach me yesterday suddenly rang a bell.
He had said, "You start breathing in, continue to breathe in, and finish breathing in. Then you must clearly acknowledge in your mind that the inhalation is complete. And together with that awareness, shed all thoughts and emotion. Leave them all behind. Your mind is cleaned up with nothing to hold on to. In this state of nothingness just breathe out quietly. Breathe out thoroughly. Then just breathe in. Breathe in thoroughly. Practise with single-minded concentration. When the mind-noise starts, use breathing to let it go and just be the present moment."
At last his instructions made sense. Being fully determined to have another go, I breathed with the utmost care and stillness. I was breathing in. I was breathing out. Then breathing in and breathing out. Great! I could breathe naturally without any difficulty. It was incredibly easy.
The mind-noise appeared and disappeared like flashes on a screen. But I could watch it coming and going from a distance, remaining totally detached. It was no longer obstreperous. I didn't have to fight, but simply let my mind flow with the breath. My mind could stay focused on each inhalation and exhalation, although not for long.
It was completely different from 'concentration' in the ordinary sense. It was 'mindless mindfulness.' This was a major breakthrough. I could let the breath guide me, instead of struggling with thoughts.
As usual, Roshi came into the hall unexpectedly. Almost as an automatic response, I straightened my spine. I was apprehensive. I had no idea what he was seeing in me. He sat in front of me face to face and abruptly asked, "What is walking?"
It was self-explanatory. "Walking is taking steps forward."
"It is to step forward by moving alternate legs."
What did Roshi want me to say? "Walking is mu, or freedom without any restriction."
"No, don't ruin your mind with concepts. You have been walking all your life and you mean you still have not figured out what walking is about? Tell me! Tell me what walking is!"
With glaring eyes he shouted and drew even closer to me. I was utterly confused and embarrassed, and lost for words.
"You will never understand walking by analyzing and theorizing about it. Concepts must be given up!"
Suddenly Roshi slapped me on my cheek. "Tell me, what is walking!" My mind went blank. I was disoriented. I could not think straight. I lost my sense of who I was. It was as if I was floating in the air, weightless, without any resistance of body and mind. All the tension was gone. Without any thought I stood up and started walking. It was an unconscious move, but the moment I walked I was convinced, 'This is it. There is no other answer.'
"You've got it at last! That is what walking is about. All of your descriptions are merely images of walking and have nothing to do with the reality of walking. When you focus on images, you lose sight of the simplest reality, such as walking. There is nothing other than reality. Reasoning is useless in the face of reality. The intellectualizing process does not own the reality of walking."
Roshi's words were unravelling my self-entangling thought processes. Now he challenged me with another question. "What is sitting?"
Only a few seconds ago, I had grasped the reality of walking. I knew all I needed to do was to simply sit without any explanation. So I sat spontaneously.
"If you do not resort to reasoning, reality is manifested as it is, in its fullness. And that is all there is. Nothing special."
The moment I heard this, I felt as if a curtain had risen. This time I was able to share the depth of his words. I nodded with profound agreement. Just walking or sitting without any thoughts brought me back to the total spontaneity and innocence of a baby.
"Reality is just doing what you are doing in the present moment. You must be devoid of interpretations; rather let the reality of each moment manifest itself. Zen is a discipline to drop the self and be wholly present. And by so practising you cut off the roots of delusions, attachments, and false thinking, you forget yourself utterly and completely. Your Original Self will then unfold and teach you. This is the state of satori or enlightenment in which the mind is freed from delusions. This is Buddhahood. Someone who has actually got hold of the suchness of the present moment through direct personal experience is a truly awakened person.
However, the moment the mind is distracted from just being, Buddhahood eludes you, and you are one billion light-years away from the enlightened state. When you strive and practise to be awake in the moment, your meticulous attention brings you back to Buddhahood and fills you with the luminosity of the Buddha."
Roshi was sharing the essence of the Buddha's teaching, and I felt convinced for the first time that they could lead to radical liberation. Once again, I felt fortunate to have Roshi as my teacher and guide and renewed my great respect for him. Mr Kozumi was right. Now I understood what he had been talking about.
The reality of the present moment was right here within my reach when I dropped everything, thoughts, opinions, reasons, and judgements. My sense of despair and failure transformed into relief, fulfilment and stupendous joy. Roshi and I looked at each other and burst out laughing, genuine, spontaneous laughter from the belly.
I rang up Mr Kozumi immediately. As if he was waiting for my phone call, he asked, "Have you got hold of the present moment?" I said, "Yes!" again with happy laughter.
Then I was allowed to clean the hall for the first time. 'What a blissful state of mind!' I said to myself as I started cleaning. As usual Roshi appeared out of nowhere. "What is the purpose of cleaning?" he asked abruptly.
Knowing he accepted no explanation, I simply said, "It is to keep the place neat and tidy."
"Yes, you are right. But once you start cleaning, are you still reminding yourself of your intention to clean up?"
"No, I am not."
I was stuck for words. Then I said, "Because I am focused on
"Exactly. The intention to clean is an aspiration. It directs your energy to achieve a desired goal. But once you start, there is simply doing. You don't need to keep thinking about it because you are already doing it. Most people mix up intention with practice. The time when you thought about your intention and the time when you translated your intention into action are not the same. Yet the distinction is not clear; therefore you cannot completely engage yourself in what you are doing. Let me ask you, what is cleaning?"
In response, I simply swept the floor with the broom I held. It was remarkable. I wasn't even thinking. But I had a gut feeling that sweeping was absolutely the only thing I needed to do.
"Fine. Then how many times do you need to sweep to finish the cleaning?"
Again I tried not to analyze. This time I didn't know what to do. I faltered. I tilted my head slightly in embarrassment. Suddenly Roshi slapped me. It was amazingly quick. I became more anxious to find an answer but I knew full well that giving him an estimate would not do. The answer must have something to do with practising moment by moment. But what was it?
"When do you sweep?" Roshi asked.
"How many times can you sweep now?"
Oh! Yes, it had clicked at last. Because my mind had been caught up in figuring how many times I would need to sweep to finish, I failed to realize the whole process was made up of what I did each moment. Each moment right here and right now is the only time I have. It is the absolute moment without past nor future. As long as I am totally engaged with what I am doing right now, there is no room for false thinking and suffering.
Roshi left saying, "What is truly real, right in this moment, is the single act of sweeping. Just be totally mindful in each act of sweeping."
I continued to sweep and then began to mop the hall. I mopped slowly and meticulously. It must have been a fair amount of time but it went like a flash. There was an incredible quality of clarity as if I had direct access to the universe and the universe was working through me. I wrung the cloth in total stillness; with it, I mopped the floor from left to right and right to left. It was a deeply purifying and refreshing act. After cleaning the whole place, I stood there, taking stock of myself. To my surprise, there was no trace of 'I-am-ness' or what 'I' had attained. This must be what Roshi described as 'emptiness at work.' I would not have had the nerve to claim that I had experienced a state of complete emptiness; but at least I was convinced that when the mind gives total attention to whatever one is doing, there is no longer any separation between the self and the activity.
I put all the cleaning gear back into place. While washing my hands, I casually glanced out the window at the ocean.
It was stunningly beautiful. Could it be the same landscape I had been seeing for the past forty years? Now I understood what Mr Kozumi meant when he said, "You start seeing things as they are, in their absolute glory, as your mind gets clearer." All these years I had not been really seeing; now everything around me was intimate because I could experience its full presence without analyzing, interpreting and judging. It was seeing the essence of things beyond the level of consciousness. As Roshi put it, "When you can just let yourself be, you and the universe are an inseparable part of the whole." Yes, that is exactly what I was experiencing. How liberating to be in the present.
Breathing was surprisingly easy. Previously, each breath had been heavy and uncontrollable simply because I had no feel for being one with the moment. The reality was nothing complex, just simple breathing. Whatever I was doing, scrubbing, sweeping, or walking, I was touching the same truth as long as I was solely concerned with the present moment. I was thrilled with this insight.
Then I saw Mr Kozumi walking into the zendo. With total spontaneity we bowed with our hands on the tatami floor, a gesture only done on special formal occasions.
"Congratulations!" he said.
"Thank you," I said, and really meant it.
My guard had dropped, and I felt much closer to Mr Kozumi. I was delighted with his friendship, his coming to congratulate me on gaining a glimpse of being in the moment. Perhaps because my mind was less blocked, I felt a spiritual connection to him, my co-traveller on the Zen path. Our minds were much richer and bigger than I had ever imagined. I was glad that I had persisted.
Roshi came in with his wife. She bowed politely and gave me warm congratulations. I could genuinely express my gratitude to her for her support. Everyone looked so radiant and beautiful. I was filled again with laughter and we all joined in a great roar.
That was the best celebration ever. While drinking sake, we shared our Zen experiences on the sunny verandah. From our conversation it became clear that Roshi's wife also had direct knowledge of Zen. No wonder she struck me as having an extraordinary quality while doing ordinary things.
Roshi said, "Mr Jyuraku, you have only reached the gateway to the Zen path. Don't be too pleased with your progress. Previously you had not the slightest idea of how to practise zazen, whereas now you have an inkling. To tell you the truth, even reaching the level you have is extremely difficult. If students start from the wrong path, they could spend forty or fifty years without getting anywhere."
I did not care if it was just the gateway. To me the difference was like night and day. I was absolutely exhilarated and also knew I could never have reached it had I not met Roshi. Most people, including myself, tend to think we know ourselves best. The truth is, once we step into our inner world, what unfolds there is quite unlike how we thought we were. It is like walking into a dark jungle of confusing thoughts, illusion and fantasy. The right teacher provides a map and a torch. With extraordinary alertness, a Zen master can read from the tiniest gesture where a student is at, what he is confused about, where he is about to go, and what guidance needs to be given.
Tranquility returned after Roshi's wife and Mr Kozumi left. Seeing me on top of the world, Roshi warned me to stay focused. "Mr Jyuraku, the state of mind you are in does not yet have sustaining power and will not give you lasting inner strength in life. The noises of your mind have quietened down, just as dirt sinks to the bottom of water. But once you are exposed to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, your mind will immediately lose its stillness, like dirt being stirred up. You are only at the gateway to the path, the starting point for real Zen training. So there is no time for complacency. Keep up your yearning for the path."
Roshi made me feel the time I had left was extremely precious. I returned to the zendo immediately and continued zazen. My mind retained the same stillness as before. I had clear awareness of being in the present. My thoughts had almost receded, and in between were moments of none at all. If they did emerge, I could readily let them go and return to the present.
In the afternoon, I had permission to sweep the garden. I could totally immerse myself sweeping with a broom from side to side. There was no 'I-am-ness' trying to achieve something; the whole process was blissful.
The third day marked a milestone for me. I was able to act with the total spontaneity of a baby, which then opened up a world free from any thoughts, judgements, and opinions. I felt deep appreciation to Roshi for the experience, and went to sleep in peace.
I woke up completely refreshed. It was 4:00 a.m. and I started to practise zazen immediately. After a while I suddenly knew that another layer of personal barriers had dropped away. This gave me a sense of intimacy and interbeing with everything that surrounded me. It was a cataclysmic change that happened in a flash. I did not have any overwhelming emotion but felt lighter and grounded at the same time. Doing zazen was no longer a gruesome effort.
Drinking the mugicha, wheat tea, Roshi's wife had left for me, I could appreciate it with total mindfulness. My whole being was committed to the moment, just drinking tea. Now it was crystal clear to me that, as this rigid self fades away, we make space available to illuminate the Original Self that is free and spontaneous.
Roshi gave me forewarning that I should expect some breakthrough and, if that happened, I should come to him immediately. I could not wait to see him, and rushed to his room. Even before I started, he said "So, a new development." I told him of my experience of interbeing with my surroundings.
Then Roshi knocked the desk and asked, "What is this?" With total spontaneity, I knocked the desk the same way as Roshi and said, "This is it."
Without a pause, Roshi picked up a glass and asked, "What is this?" Amazing! I understood the gist of his questions with great ease when my mind was 'emptied,' with nothing to take hold of.
Usually, when we gain knowledge or form an opinion about something, we examine it as an object, as something or someone to understand. By so doing, we create a separation of subject from object and block ourselves from fully knowing what it is, as it is. As soon as 'it' is identified and defined by the intellect, the artificial manoeuvre of 'it' is underway. However, we are mistakenly led to believe that limited definitions represent 'it' in its totality.
In truth, to know anything in its wholeness, we need to first let preconceived notions and emotions go; we cannot do this without breaking through the limited confines of the small self. The mind, when focused here-and -now, is available to let 'what is' speak to us.
Roshi was there to guide us to experience the wholeness of what is, as it is. That was why he repeatedly challenged us to make sure our understanding was in our bones, not just our heads.
"I can see you are more at peace with yourself," said Roshi.
Yes, I was blissful; it was as if there was nothing to hold onto, and yet I was blessed with abundance. It was much more than gaining stillness of mind; a totally new vista suddenly opened up with vivid intensity. Roshi looked pleased with the process I was going through.
"Let's take a bath," he said, out of the blue.
It was my first bath since I had come here. The bathroom was spacious enough for two people. While I was scrubbing my back, Roshi abruptly shouted, "What are you doing now?"
With Roshi one cannot slacken even for one instant. "I am doing this," I answered, without stopping scrubbing my back with vigour.
"Why are you doing this?" Roshi pressed me further.
"Because this is this. There is nothing else other than this," said I, still scrubbing my back.
Roshi came right in front of me and this time stuck his hand out deliberately. "Do you see what I mean?" Then he turned his hand and showed me its back. If Roshi had done this to me the previous day, I would have been distracted, could not have controlled my thoughts and been totally flustered. However, today I no longer needed any words to respond to him. Roshi continued. "Be as it is. Just be." His words calmed me and made me feel even more grounded. It was my most valuable practice experience so far. Roshi seemed to know exactly when to create triggers to help me break through reason and move into a state of transparency.
After taking our bath, we sat together at the small table, enjoying the breeze of an electric fan. Watching Roshi quietly serving tea for me, I realized there was no boundary between us; his flowing movements felt like my own. This, I thought, must be what Buddhists call jita-ichinyo, or unity of self and others. Clearly, Roshi and I were present as two individuals, but our beings were so blended in harmony that there was no separation of my self from his self. There was not even any space left for me to be grateful to Roshi for the experience he was guiding me through. 'I-am-ness' dissolved; so did Roshi as a separate identity.
I drank my tea with natural elegance, sitting up straight and holding the teacup with both hands, as in the Japanese tea ceremony. But why was this happening with no effort? I had never practised tea ceremony in my life.
Was it because, as the mind grew purer and more in harmony with beauty, anything I did mirrored that state of mind? Throughout zazen the focus of my attention was on my mind; I had never thought that zazen would visibly affect my external behaviour. Now I realized I was more mindful of the way I talked, walked, or sat; my posture had improved enormously and, with my mental blocks dissolving, my face looked alight. Readers might laugh if I said I even looked more dignified when I saw myself in the bathroom mirror.
Now I understood why Mr Kozumi always drank tea so gracefully. 'Why bother with the onerous manners of the tea ceremony?' used to be my attitude. But now it was clear to me that the crux of the tea ceremony was 'being fully in the moment.'
Afterwards, whatever I did seemed to flow naturally. Walking to the bathroom, I saw across the corridor the tiny backyard covered with fallen leaves. Previously this backyard had looked cluttered, and the leaves messy. Now, the same fallen leaves gave me a totally different impression; they were neither making this place messy nor adorned; by the same token, they were neither dispensable nor indispensable. Their stunning beauty did not leave room for any duality. I was thrilled by the profound and subtle colors of the withered leaves, the multiplicity of their unique shapes, and the random yet perfect arrangement of those leaves on the ground. Their beauty was breathtaking. In that instance I needed nothing beyond this beauty; the truth of nature was unfolding in a way I had never imagined before.
Close to the backyard was a mountain slope with lush vegetation. The place was filled with a sense of abundance. The denseness, versatility, and uniqueness of each tree absorbed my attention.
Roshi had been enjoying this great landscape all by himself. I decided to tell him about my new awareness and completely forgot I had intended to go to the toilet. I rushed back to his room and shouted, "Roshi, I had a breakthrough." I told him I knew exactly what wabi and sabi, elegant simplicity and tranquility, stood for. "Wabi and sabi are everywhere in ordinary things, but without the practice of zazen, I don't think I could ever have seen this!"
I laughed with delight. In response, Roshi quietly said, "Life remains illusory and empty for people who rush to fill their time with activities. They take up hobbies and pastimes; otherwise they are bored and restless. The truth is that living in the present is the most fulfilling experience. There are many ways to express that sense of complete fulfillment. Wabi and sabi may be some of them. They basically point out that whatever and whoever you encounter right here and right now is pregnant with meaning. With nothing lacking and nothing excessive, it is just right and in its proper place. You do not have to make it happen. You do not have to look for it somewhere else. You do not have to get rid of anything. If your mind is non-attached and free-flowing, you can experience the fullness of each moment as it is.
People might say it is too warm today to even talk about tasting the elegant simplicity of life, but this heat is itself elegant simplicity. Can you see what I mean?"
I interpreted Roshi's meaning to be that a high temperature is just that; experience it without thoughts and the mind is at peace. If we can simply live the circumstances of life as they are, that itself is absolute reality.
Later, I was sweeping the garden. I thought it would look beautiful if I left sweeping marks on the white sand in front of the main temple. I must have been walking from one end of the garden to the other and repeating this sweeping rather casually.
Suddenly I heard Roshi's angry voice. "You are slack! You are not mindful of your steps!" Without a pause I responded, "I am focusing on just sweeping."
"How dare you say that! Don't you see you are lazy? Just because zazen is easier for you does not mean you can be complacent. If you are focused in this very moment, there is no room to relish the sweetness of your progress. When sweeping, concentrate thoroughly on sweeping and sweeping only. Do it with the greatest care; otherwise you will never ever find the illuminated path. You have to forget yourself completely and make yourself totally available to what you are doing right at this moment. If the practice appears easier, you have to double the intensity of your attention and sharpen your focus on the present."
I realized I had misunderstood the whole process of Zen practice. In the beginning, it was difficult and painful; I had no idea how to concentrate my mind on each breath. After I had figured it out, it was not so hard and I could see my own progress. So I assumed that the practice would turn out to be an increasingly easier experience. But it was not that simple. With only a glimpse of what is real, I had led myself to believe now my mind was liberated and had touched the Original Self. That itself was already a self-centred delusion. 'Peace of mind in being the present' was taken over by the thought of 'I now have peace of mind.' As a consequence, this thought had hindered my practice; I had grown slack about giving total attention to the immediate work right in front of me. The truth was that my mind had not freed itself from deluded thoughts at all.
Roshi then said, " The practice of Zen is always focused on 'living fully in the moment.' Regardless of whether you are a beginner or experienced, it requires persistent training to bring your mind back to this moment. In the beginning, you struggle to abandon your thoughts and return to what is happening now. With practice, the mind acquires the strength to let thoughts come and go without distracting your concentration. You gain profound equanimity. With further practice, you can catch the exact moment when the thought appears and disappears. Then you experience with certainty, 'Aha! This is the very moment!'
This original state of mind can be likened to the mind of a newborn. It is the stage of development before any formation of self-consciousness, stereotypes, or value judgements. This is the state of mind enabling shikan, or 'single-minded concentration in the present moment.' This is where the fully- fledged practice of Zen starts.
Once you get to this stage, you will require less effort in aligning your mind. But you must not slacken your effort. Shikan must be practiced non-stop so you have direct experiences of shikan not just in zazen but in everything you do. This practice of complete mindfulness is an ongoing purification process, stripping off fantasies, prejudices, opinions, and judgements. This is extremely difficult because the source of what gives rise to these thoughts is still active in your mind. It is bound to be caught up by distracting thoughts unless you make a conscious and constant effort to bring your mind back into the present.
Once you own the experience of realization, it stands in your way, separating you from your Original Self. Your very thought of having had an enlightenment experience blocks you from being free-flowing. Instead of holding onto it, you must leave this thought behind and continue rigorous practice so you are freshly born and reborn into the present.
Only through persistent practice can your enlightenment become a solid and authentic experience. Therefore you need to step up your practice, especially after you have had a glimpse of your Original Self. Zen practice after enlightenment is all the more important because you are in a continual process of renewal; the past experience of shikan must be continually broken through, dropped, and replaced with the immediate experience of shikan. And when you even forget you are striving to be mindful and instead, just purely experience, everything you engage in becomes a manifestation of the Original Self. This is called 'great enlightenment' where every moment represents the eternal present, transcending life and death. It is an identical experience to the ultimate and supreme enlightenment the Buddha attained. In other words, his or her enlightenment experience is the same as the Buddha's. Those who reach this stage are called awakened ones.
Students of Zen must not relax and indulge themselves in the world of elegant simplicity. They need to consciously make their life simple so they can keep up the momentum for their single-minded commitment to pursue the path. Otherwise, the bliss and exhilaration that unfolds with the practice of zazen will be dazzling and may carry you away from the original intent of practice. That is why having a Zen master as a guide is critical - students are encouraged to move on without getting caught up with their initial enlightenment experience."
Thanks to Roshi's words, by the time I had finished sweeping the garden, my euphoria was gone and my mind calm.
After a while, Mr Waki, my colleague from high school, came to visit me. I could not figure out whether he came to give me support or to check out my progress. Being anxious to know more about Zen, he bombarded me with questions. The only thing I could tell him was that Zen is not fully describable nor intellectually understandable to anyone without the actual practice of zazen. The only way to Zen is to practise for oneself.
Like myself only a few weeks before, Mr Waki rushed to conceptualize Zen while not having the slightest idea of what he wanted to understand. He might ask me detailed questions on the internal changes that come with the practice, but no matter how I responded, they would be mere words to him; and words would be dangerous at this stage as they may prevent him from having any real experience of zazen.
It was amazing how I could read Mr Waki's state of mind so clearly; it was different from guessing or speculating; I could see through it as if it was my own mind.
I raised this with Roshi and he said, "It is nothing special. When you grow more self-aware, you acknowledge you actually have every human attribute in yourself and therefore are more capable of relating to what is going on in the mind of others. So, if you want to understand others, it is essential that first you know who you really are."
Roshi is always to the point. What Roshi said in my first sesshin serves to this day as a powerful insight in my everyday interaction with my students. With Mr Waki, all I could do was sincerely wish that he do zazen, and I am pleased to note he actually did start practising zazen later.
If we can gain more understanding of ourselves and others through practice, then what about Roshi, who has been practising most of his life? Roshi must have penetrating insight into whatever or whoever forms a relationship with him. However, he openly admits that he is still confronted by one unresolved issue. I believe his honesty about this is a manifestation of his dedication to the teachings of the Buddha and perhaps a reflection of self-confidence. What if he resolves this last unresolved issue? Somehow it is both awesome and delightful to think about it.
That night I was fascinated by the tactile sensation of everything I touched; I roamed around, touching the sliding paper door, the tatami mat, a wooden pillar. Each object had profound presence; each had an uniquely different touch, yet they were all one and the same to me. It sounds illogical, but this is the only way I can describe the reality of the experience, a reality beyond reason.
Around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., I could no longer stay still in the temple, and roamed through the town of Tadanoumi. Not a soul was on the streets but I did not feel lonely. With no boundary between my self and everything else, the space I was in was infinitely nourishing and inviting. The whole town loomed like an exquisite artificial flower, beautiful and surreal.
I was wide awake; my mind was absolutely clear and my body free from fatigue. For next few days, I never felt sleepy. After returning to the temple, I continued zazen till dawn. As the sky was turning lighter, I swept the sand garden. Dark lines made by the broom on the sand appeared distinctive and alive against the white background. The lines were dramatic; yet there was no heightened emotion and I was totally with what I saw and absolutely calm.
Thus, on the fifth morning in the temple, I started sweeping the garden. Once the sun was out, it was steaming hot. After finishing the garden, I cleaned up the zendo and started zazen right away. Thoughts still kept coming up at random but my mind was hardly distracted by them. Because I did not react to them, they faded.
My mind still carried its old habit of diffusing attention with constant chatter. The old roots were still alive underground; unless they withered, the mind would not be truly liberated. But if I left them alone and did not attend to them, they would eventually wither. It was different from passively waiting; when time matures, I know withering will be the natural course of events.
In the afternoon, an acquaintance of Roshi came to visit the temple. I joined them in Roshi's study. He was an inquisitive fellow and kept asking me questions. "What do you do for work? Oh, you teach in public high-school. So you are a public servant. Aren't you lucky you have no fear about going bankrupt. How much do you get paid? What about bonus payments? How many people in your family? What about your wife? You mean she is also a public servant? Two incomes must add up to a huge sum. I bet you earn so much that you don't know what to spend it on. Does zazen help you to make more money?" So it went on.
In the beginning, his voice was just meaningless sound passing through me. Gradually mere sound transformed into the voice of a person, and his words started to have meaning and arouse emotion. Soon I was carefully choosing my words to respond to his questions. I asked myself, 'What's the point of asking all these questions? He has no manners. Isn't he a bore?'
The moment these thoughts came in, the equanimity of my mind was gone; it started whirling again. How could I be disrupted so easily? I had only spent a little time talking about this trivial stuff. I knew I would completely lose the tranquility of my mind if I stayed any longer. But I was not sure if it would be polite to excuse myself. Then Roshi, sensing my embarrassment, said, "Mr Jyuraku, you had better go. It doesn't do you any good being here."
Later Roshi said, "The serious pathseeker must deliberately choose the right relationships so he or she can get to the path. You need to look for relationships that support you and benefit you in the process. At the same time, you have to be firm and brave in avoiding obstructive relationships. By relationship I mean both relationship to people and things."
He continued, "When you don't want to be seen as impolite, you do things just to keep up appearances. Meanwhile, your sense of being in the present quickly slips away, and you lose sight of the path. It is totally acceptable for students who are in the middle of sesshin to divorce themselves from what is considered socially appropriate behaviour."
I did not need to worry whether excusing myself in the middle of a conversation would be impolite. The pathseeker must focus only on the path and nothing else. If I know that the relationship is disruptive to my practice, I need to leave it immediately rather than waste my energy worrying what others might think of me. This would be an important reminder when I went back to my daily routine.
Soon I started to do zazen again but I had lost my tranquility. I tried to settle down but without success. I thought trying in vain was a waste of time and went to Roshi for advice. He said, "Lie down and relax every part of your body. Be gentle with yourself. Stay still and keep staring at the ceiling."
For the next hour or two, I did exactly as he said; I focused on the ceiling while breathing slowly. After a while, it appeared as if the ceiling was breathing. There was no more self; no trace of disrupted mind; only the reality of being here as it was.
"Roshi! I've got it!" I was so pleased I had to let him know immediately, even though he was in the middle of taking a bath.
The way these seven days of intense Zen practice was structured was very useful for me. Roshi was available whenever I needed his guidance. Each time he inspired me and encouraged me by sharing the profound wisdom of the Buddha which is hidden within all of us.
Roshi said, "You lost the equanimity of mind. But that is already a thing of the past. If you are wholly in the present, the past has no room to come in. You need to let the past go. The capacity to let go gives you the capacity to live moment by moment in fullness."
Roshi's advice to just lie down, breathe slowly and stare at the ceiling was very effective in ridding myself of restlessness and returning to a point with no accompanying thoughts.
Next day I wanted to see Mr Kozumi, so I got permission from Roshi to call on him. However, the moment I saw him, I felt the whole purpose of my visit was attained and I wanted to leave. Within only a few minutes of chat, the disquieting thought of losing my groundedness took over.
I said to him, "I must go! I am losing the sense of being in harmony with the present. It's slipping out of me. I am restless again." I dashed back to do zazen in the zendo.
If my mind started spinning as soon as I left the zendo, what was I going to do when I went back to normal life? That was an awesome challenge. That night I stayed up and did zazen the whole night.
Both Mr Kozumi and Mr Nagaoka, who had started to practise zazen right after Mr Kozumi, warned me that the sense of total mindfulness in the present may slip out of my mind within a matter of thirty minutes after leaving the temple. I already knew what that was like even while I was in the temple. So I spent the rest of my time training my mind to stay focused on the moment.
Especially when I walked on the street, I tried to concentrate on just seeing or just hearing, without being distracted by aural and visual stimuli. In order to avoid my mind becoming prey to external stimuli, I worked on myself to abandon thoughts the instant they emerged. This gave me some confidence in controlling my mind.
At last the day had arrived, and I was to leave the temple. "Mr Jyuraku, where you are standing now is only the gateway to the path of Zen. Don't ever think you have found a special passport to cruise along the path. You have just only found the main path to Zen practice. Unless you have total dedication and thorough commitment to keep practising, you will lose all and return to restlessness and confusion.
I say this, because 'this moment' is nothing but this immediate moment. Likewise, your state of mind in the moment is only valid in the moment. With the passage of time, the state of mind keeps changing. Being wholly present means accepting the reality that nothing stays the same; everything is impermanent and we cannot be attached to certain states of mind. That is exactly why being fully present is so liberating. This very moment is an ever-purifying and renewing moment; its only permanent truth is impermanence. You must be determined to continue to practise and walk along the path of Zen.
Wherever you go or whatever you do, you are yourself, experiencing what is in that moment. So, be totally mindful, moment by moment. As dedicated practice builds, eventually your mind will experience great enlightenment." These were his last words before I left. He had made himself totally available for one-on-one guidance, and moreover, I had been privileged to use Kaizoji for my practice. The seven-day sesshin was like standing at the junction of heaven and hell. Thanks to Roshi and his wife, I could leave this place feeling totally invigorated. Seeing Roshi so pleased with my progress made me feel even more grateful to him.
Late in the afternoon, my wife arrived with our two children to pick me up. "Dad, your face looks refreshed," said my children. We were delighted to see each other. After paying sincere tributes to Roshi, we left the temple.
As soon as I said farewell, I made a conscious effort not to lose the sense of being in the moment in the new environment. As I looked through the car window, everything - trees, ocean, houses - was sparkling; it was as though I saw this familiar landscape for the first time.
I was also aware of the inquisitive eyes of my family but I knew I could not share the experience of 'just being' with them. They were remote from what I had been through. That did not mean I felt lonely; on the contrary, I was more aware of their clear presence and preciousness.
I had been away for only a week. While nothing had changed at home, it was all new to me. In our family, we tease each other and laugh at light jokes. But I did not feel like doing this anymore. Obviously a gap had opened up between my family and myself. I knew it and they knew it. I was so anxious about losing my equanimity. More than ever now I was aware of how much they meant to me, but if I expressed this, would I align myself with their scattered minds? Would I lose the groundedness of just being in the moment? Would my mind start spinning and spreading thin? Of course, after a while, even though I worked hard to remain in focus, my mind was being slowly eroded by waves of emotion.
First Day after Sesshin
Next morning I woke up early. This was my time of solitude in the family. I started zazen immediately. It was exciting to discover I could still experience the sense of being totally alive in the moment. It did not wither or fade. I called up Roshi to report this pleasing outcome. Before my call, Roshi had assumed that I had completely lost it. So, as soon as he picked up the phone, he said, "Tell me your impression of hell!" "No way, Roshi!" He was delighted to know how I had gone with my practice that morning.
Following my example, Mr Waki also joined an intense zazen sesshin. Like myself, he was able to experience being in the absolute moment of now through his practice. That was encouraging for me; now I had a colleague with whom I could share a common interest.
The summer holiday was over, and school started. While commuting, I was stunned by the beauty of landscapes which I had never noticed before. There was a sense of bliss.
Moreover, I realized driving was much easier; this, by the way, was echoed by other Zen students as well. I had not anticipated Zen practice could relax the mind and improve one's driving. Previously I must have been wasting energy by being too tense. I suppose stillness of mind facilitates seeing the whole picture and what needs to be done with minimum effort.
Zen practice had an immense impact on my professional life as well. In my first class after the holiday, as I stood in front of the class, I felt a close affinity with each student. I could, without any effort, embrace who they were as they were in their uniqueness. My underlying fear and anxiety of being inadequate had dissipated. It was like a mirror which had been cleaned; I could see the emotional and mental state of each student with much greater clarity. This led me to be more relaxed and self-confident and enabled me to talk to students without reservation. The distance that used to set me apart from my students had narrowed. As a result, they started to drop in for guidance or counselling, which I consider a great privilege. I know all these changes stem from the power of being in the moment.
I still get distracted easily, due to inadequate inner strength; this happens especially when mixing with large numbers of people; I start to judge, analyze, and project rather than be free from thoughts. In my desperate attempt to protect 'just being,' I sometimes avoid chatting with my colleagues in the teachers' room. I turn away from them and practise deep slow breathing. I must appear inaccessible at times.
When moving between the teachers' room and the classroom,, I am absolutely serious about completely being 'just that step.' One day, I was so absorbed in each step that I did not realize my students were walking with me , keeping time with the pace of my steps, and saying "one, two, and one, two." To date, they still do this for me while I practise concentrating on each step.
During breaks, I do zazen in the school warehouse. Sometimes, if Mr Waki is sitting there ahead of me, I go to another warehouse so I won't disturb his practice. Seeing him sitting with such persistence is silent but strong encouragement to keep up with my own practice. I am glad to have a like-minded colleague around me. At other times, I do zazen on top of my desk in the teachers' room. Others must think I am mad.
Letting go of disturbing thoughts still feels excruciating at times. I even thought I might develop an ulcer. Roshi's advice was, "Maximize your stress. Maximum concentration is derived from maximum stress. Think that this is the only chance you will get in life to return to this very moment. Then, even if you lose yourself in thoughts, you can come back to the moment quickly and restore clarity and peace of mind." He was again right to the point.
As I look back over the two years since I first started zazen, the changes are clearly enormous. Now, I hardly ever get disrupted by whom I meet or where I am. My mind can rest in stillness and equanimity. My concentration has improved by leaps and bounds. It has become my routine to visit Roshi. Even when I feel restless and out of focus, I settle down by just visiting him. He is generous with his time and energy, sharing the wisdom of Buddhahood. Thanks to him, I am more familiar with the concepts and ideas embodied in Buddhism. What is most pleasing is that in the last two years more than ten dedicated students have knocked at the gate of the temple, asking for permission to do intense zazen practice.
It is only a matter of making a week available for practice. Anyone can do it. The hard part is to continue to practise when we re-enter normal life. If the practice had ended for me after one week in the zendo, it might have been nothing more than one of those unusual experiences in life that fades over time. Unless we constantly renew our awareness of the importance of caring for our spirit and keep up with our practice, we will not cultivate inner strength.
What are the absolute requisites for Zen practice? The most important driving force for us students is the yearning to search for the path and the determination to live moment by moment with utmost mindfulness. It is also imperative to just listen to what Roshi is pointing out to us and practise in good faith. Lastly, we need to find the right teacher who can guide us by the most direct route to the path; we need a guide so we can personally experience being on the path. This, I think, is the hardest of all the requisites. However, provided that they are met, I can say with every confidence that the path to liberation of mind is open to all of us.
Every so often Roshi's students get together; we enjoy sharing our experiences, ranging from how each of us manages to set time aside for zazen, to what unfolds as we progress in our practice. One day, we all agreed that listening to each other's experience was extremely useful and stimulating for our own practice.
That is how we decided to write our personal stories of our Zen experience. Having listened to Roshi's sermons many times, I was confident that I could quote him and convey the real essence of what he intended to say with a fair degree of accuracy. So Roshi only skimmed through my notes before they were sent to the printing house. Actually these are only excerpts of countless sermons; I deliberately kept them brief because eloquence does not mean a thing if we do not practise zazen.
Before I finish, I would like to quote a few more lines from Roshi's sermons that have made a strong impression on me.
"All you need to do is to be totally in the present. There is nothing else. If you believe this and commit yourself to 'just being,' that is all you need to know. The core of practice is 'just sitting.' Sermons are better if kept brief. The reason why I talk it through is because most people cannot trust that doing zazen or just sitting is the essence of practice. So I use words as a vehicle to open them up and instil faith in their practice."
"Honouring the path of Zen means revering those pathseekers and explorers who have opened the path before us. Only those who take the path seriously for themselves can embrace the full meaning of their teachings."
I should also add a supplementary comment to a quotation of Roshi's when he said, "Maximum concentration is derived from maximum stress." I am afraid I might have been too brief to convey the whole scope of what he meant by that statement.
Zen students like us live in the hustle and bustle of everyday life; we get easily carried away by people around us. We only have a glimpse of becoming present, and that is not powerful enough to pull our minds back from thinking this and that. Some thoughts linger on; we are left in anguish because we want to get rid of them but they persist. Roshi's comment dealt with a practical way to deal with such a situation. That is, when we are haunted by guilt, anger, grief, anxiety, bitterness, depression, attachments to illusion, and any churning thinking, we ought to stand on the cutting edge, and maximize the stress so we have no choice but to be in the moment and come back to the path. Then we regain clarity of mind.
At first it puzzled me why people with problems started to come to me for help after I started zazen, but when I am totally committed to my practice, I can offer them clear-cut and candid advice. However, when I am stuck and out of touch with my self, I muddle and mumble in hesitation. This is because when I lose the clarity of my own mind, I am unable to see the mind of other people clearly. These experiences make me humble and, every time they happen, I renew my resolve to go deeper into my practice.
Epilogue - Awakening to Ultimate Truth
There is always an effective approach to any practice, which makes it more accessible and definitely rewards the effort made to achieve the goal within a relatively short span of time. Zen practice is no exception. To awaken in Zen practice, you need to calm your scattering mind, cut off your random thoughts and continually return to the single-pointedness of the present. This is how Zen practice starts. Naturally the process varies, each individual reflecting the differences in perseverance, faith and concentration. And similarly, any difficulties depend on the various habits each individual has formed. But once the false boundary of the separate-self disappears, everyone seems to exhibit the same characteristic - a mind of clarity, simplicity and openness.
The crucial requirement is to thoroughly investigate your mind until the fundamental great doubt arises. You must avoid being complacent with your small successes. And you must refrain from any temptation to arbitrarily attach your own definition to the Dharma, enlightenment or Zen.
The two most important approaches to Zen practice are first, just sit, and second, ask your teacher about the Dharma in detail. Listen to what is said, work over it, and revise and improve on your understanding; then have your teacher check your understanding. If any doubts remain, then be sure to ask further questions so you can confirm your understanding of the Dharma. When you feel confident about your understanding, then without a particle of doubt, apply the teachings to consistent practice.
The following ten steps are a rough sequence of spiritual unfolding in Zen practice with the caveat that the process varies with every individual and that the mind may or may not undergo this sequential transformation. But my teaching experience seems to suggest that transformative process follow a certain sequence. So I present them as a reference.
1. Enlightenment is about the spirit of the Buddha, realized as your spirit - the embodiment of the Dharma as your life experience. To do Zen practice, abandon your distracting desires. Vow resolutely to the buddhas and to yourself to attain the Way. Show great reverence and affection to all the past teachers and strive to find the right teacher.
2. When you meet the right teacher, have faith in what they teach and solely put it into practice.
3. When doing zazen, continuously cut off random thoughts, observe and sustain your focus on each single breath. Each breath is the self in the present moment. The habitual patterning of your mind still holds a tight grip, and you tend to lose sight of your present self very quickly. This is the time you need to apply effort above and beyond the power of acquired habits. Doing this can be most excruciating.
4. After each breath, twist your body gently once left and right. This helps to get rid of random thoughts, relieves stiffness, improves the energy flow of both body and mind, and arrests sleepiness in sitting.
5. When you begin to differentiate moments of thinking and the reality of what is right now, it becomes easier to bring yourself back to the present. Strain is no longer necessary. Any suffering in sitting ceases. Seeing the border between the real world and thoughts, zazen instantly turns into enjoyable experience.
6. Before long, your scattering mind calms down. You are not taken by thoughts even if they arise, leaving them as they are. Around this time, you can trace the instant when thoughts and consciousness begin to rise. Then you begin to see the source itself of cutting off thoughts, where nothing exists. Zazen becomes inspiring. And it is possible to be clearly conscious of each moment throughout your daily activities. Your mind is no longer easily distracted. But it is still necessary to remain on guard, not allowing your mind to be stolen by senses and perceptions, because random thoughts do continue to rise.
7. Then you attain thoughtless thought - the realm of no before and after. You begin to appreciate your original nature, confirming that you must do absolutely nothing. If you do, you know it is driven by an ego-self, thus defiling the Dharma. It is the realm of suchness, the union with the Original Self. You are simply that awareness, resting in serenity. From here, you merely penetrate. Authentic practice is just the present moment. Your emotion quietens, and you abide in profound tranquility. It is the realm of the senses and perceptions as they are. You understand what enlightenment is, what your present reality prior to thoughts and words is. All doubt disappears. The teachings of the past masters appear strikingly clear. Unaware, this can stimulate your intellectual satisfaction, therefore reading needs to be avoided at this stage.
8. You penetrate the reality of life, plunge into selflessness and reach emptiness. It is a moment of exhilaration. With the false boundary disappearing, you now realize the separation itself was imaginary. This is Nirvana and enlightenment - being wholly in the present where the past has fallen away. You are free from any anxiety or preoccupation. This is the realm in which all the faculties you are naturally endowed with simply function according to conditions and circumstances. Because your mind is operating in response to conditions of the immediate and utter present, there is nothing that exists. It is a decisive insight. You are just this; you experience the message of 'Form is emptiness; emptiness is form'. The true meaning of 'as-it-is' becomes yours. For the first time you can live out of your Original Self without any need to be otherwise. You have direct access to your Original Self, free from ego. But you need to remain vigilant; there are still remnants of ego rising like small flame out of ashes.
9. Now begins practice after enlightenment. With enlightenment itself comes exceptional conviction and strength. However, acknowledging enlightenment becomes a hindrance. Now is the practice of letting go even enlightenment. Whether thoughts or enlightenment, if you perceive and own them, both turn into delusion. If there is nothing to hold onto, you can become anything according to life circumstances. That is true freedom. The knack of letting go of even enlightenment is, whatever you do, just do it. You practise letting everything go, be it the Dharma, enlightenment or Buddha. You transcend the awareness of just doing by just doing. Endeavour to dwell in the present without ever backsliding.
10. When you let go of enlightenment and the Dharma, you attain the great accomplishment: Great Enlightenment. Great Truth is void of what is labelled truth and not truth. Here you reach the realm of spiritual development equal to Shakyamuni Buddha, the world of "In all of heaven and earth, I alone am the world-honored one." You illuminate the world; you live and die willingly and with dignity, surrendering yourself to be part of the eternal flow of life. Empowered with boundless faith and peace of mind, you save people and the world. National Teacher Daito said, "Having achieved the Great Enlightenment, I transcend the Buddha and patriarchs and continue my practice to become this moment." Profoundly enlightened, he utterly threw that away, too, and continually refined where there was nothing more to refine. Going beyond words, he forgot about words and never opened his mouth. Not even Buddha himself could find him. But, for sure, Buddha honored him.
The beauty and power of the Way always unfolds with true endeavour. This is because results befittingly accompany their causal actions. For as much as the revered teachings of old masters do exist, anyone who practise them can be saved. The Dharma permeating the Dharma, truth fostering truth, mind penetrating mind: all is the Way. Thus, we practise the Way for the sake of the Way. This is Bodaishin, the mind that seeks the Way.
Human being love and value truth above anything else. Every human life is utterly sacred, and this sanctity lies in our inherent capacity for repentance and transformation. Core of our being is, in all respects, in our mind and spirit, which, in turn, finds its center in the True Mind, the mind of aspiration and compassion, together with self-reflection, repentance, vision and perseverance. It is a mind free of deception and betrayal, possessing the dignity which values, above all, the Dharma.
Together with the people from all over the world, I earnestly pray for the peace and well-being of our future generations.
More than any other time in history, I am reminded of the pleas of the patriarch: "Fate strikes like lightning, time passes quicker than an arrow." And his encouraging words for all of us: "Others are not me. Do not wait." Time is urgently calling for the rebirth of the patriarchs. Where is such a person?
ZAZEN - THE WAY TO AWAKENING
GLOSSARY OF ZEN BUDDHIST TERMS
bodai-shin; way-seeking mind, the mind aspiring toward enlightenment
dokusan; personal interview with the Roshi
Dharma; the way, the ultimate truth, the teaching of the Buddha
innen-muryo; an innumerable succession of incidents taking place, depending on countless direct and indirect causes
jita-ichinyo; unity of self and others
kaatz; a great shout transcending words and concepts used by Zen masters to wake people up from delusions and attachment
ku; the original unity of self and others, emptiness
kyousaku; wake up stick used to encourage Zen students
mondo; dialogue between Roshi and student/s
mu; literally 'no-thing'
mumyo; literally the absence of light; the world of spiritual ignorance, suffering, delusions and attachments
Prajina Paramita; lit. 'perfection of wisdom'; term for Mahayana sutras, the essence of which is chanted daily in Zen temples
roshi; Zen Master, literally 'venerable teacher'
samadhi; profound peace, stillness of mind
samu; work practice around zendo
satori; the experience or condition of enlightenment
sesshin; Zen Buddhist retreat of 5 to 7 days
shikan; lit. 'nothing but', single-minded concentration in the present moment
tada; things just as they are
wabi, sabi; elegant mature simplicity
zazen; seated, focused meditation, formal Zen Buddhist practice
zendo; Zen hall, Zen Buddhist centre
A Synopsis for the Backcover
Three newcomers to Zen practice offer personal journals of their first sesshin experience, and of how their lives were subsequently transformed. The book, full of fascinating insights, will encourage people to take their own first steps on the road to awakening.
Kido Inoue Roshi
Born in 1940, he took his first religious vows at thirteen. In 1962, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Oriental Philosophy at Aichi University. From 1962 to 1984, he practised at Shorinkutsu Seminary under Gikoh Inoue Roshi and Daichi Inoue Rohni. In 1981, he was appointed to be head priest of Kaizoji, and in 1984, he became the Fifth Abbot of Shorinkutsu Seminary. He has written several books on Zen in Japanese; Zazen - the Way to Awakening is the first of his books to have an English translation.
Shorinkutu Dojo, 2-10-1 Tadanoumi-tokonoura
Takehara-shi Hiroshimaken, zip 729-2314, Japan