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Early Monday we were startled awake as someone swept into the dorm ringing a bell and flipping on the lights. Settling onto my cushion a few minutes later, I could hear a few sleepy birds chirping as Lucy, the black-and-white temple cat, nonchalantly strolled through the zendo. The assistants served hot green tea and then it was down to business. For the day’s first period of zazen, the zendo’s head monk used the wooden keisaku (sometimes called “the encouragement stick”) to give two stinging, energizing blows on each shoulder of any student who was slouching or falling asleep.
It was still not light out when the administrator rang the bell, summoning students to sanzen. The zendo erupted as a handful of people leapt from their seats and raced for the exit, jostling one another to be first in to see the teacher.
My turn came and I bowed into the sanzen room. Roshi was sitting in a low chair, surrounded by vases of fresh flowers, a hanging scroll, and some statues. I approached him and performed another deep bow, then I knelt.
“Hai. Koan,” Roshi said in his low, gravelly voice, a cue to tell him what koan I had been working on since the last sesshin—koans being the puzzling riddles that students of Rinzai Zen contemplate as part of their training. I announced my koan in a loud voice, since Roshi had grown hard of hearing in recent years. He cupped his hand to his ear and I repeated it. What followed was all too familiar. He posed some questions, which I failed miserably to respond to. He said a few more things in his heavily-accented English, but one phrase came through loud and clear: “Still thinking.”
Yup, he had that right. It often takes me a couple of days at the start of sesshin to get my head clear, and Roshi always has an uncanny ability to tell when I’m lost in the realm of conceptual thought. In Zen Buddhism we practice directly realizing the nature of reality, dropping our ordinary discursive thinking to see things freshly—as they really are. But that is surprisingly hard to do, and Zen teachers constantly look for ways to shake students up, jostling them out of conventional, conditioned mind. Joshu Roshi is particularly good at this; many of his students tell similar stories of sanzen encounters in which he was so attuned to their state of awareness that he seemed to be reading their minds.
He picked up his little brass bell and rang me out. Chagrined, I made a thank-you bow and returned to the zendo.
Joshu Roshi does not confine himself to the classical canon of Chinese koans passed down through Japanese Zen. He often uses koans of his own devise that he feels are suitable for Americans. He might ask a student, for example, “When you see the flower, where is God?” He changes or rewords koans frequently, which tends to keep the student off balance. Rather than strive for a momentary experience of enlightenment, he wants his students to learn to consistently manifest (his word) true love—a poetic expression for unification or nonduality.
Oscar Moreno says that Joshu Roshi nurtures in his students a slow process of ripening that naturally leads them deeper and deeper. “The maturation, the wisdom, happens slowly and I find it very deep,” Moreno says. “All the time he leads you through a contradictory process, where you say, ‘Oh, now I know what enlightenment is.’ But then he shows you the other side.”
After a brisk formal breakfast in the zendo, we returned to the dorms for a few minutes of personal time, during which students catnapped, brushed their teeth, or showered. Many stretched to relieve stiff backs and legs. The first few days of a sesshin are when you remember just how hard it is, and you may ask why you’re putting yourself through it. Thankfully, the mood usually passes.
One of my companions in the dorm was George Bowman, a respected Zen teacher in his own right whose original teacher, the late Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim, first encouraged him to sit a sesshin with Joshu Roshi in the late 1970s. “It was a really life-changing experience,” Bowman says, having sat several sesshins a year with Joshu Roshi ever since. Describing what he laughingly calls a “love-dread relationship,” Bowman says that working with Joshu Roshi keeps him humble and honest: “It’s always digging deeper, climbing to the top, getting knocked down, and starting over.”
The next morning Roshi entered and, with help from his attendants, he slowly climbed to the high seat, where he read the opening section of the subject of this week’s teisho: “Hyakujo and the Fox” from the Mumonkan. At first he barely mentioned the familiar koan. Instead he spoke of God, something that would surprise people who think of Buddhism as nontheistic. Buddhism doesn’t deny God, Roshi told us, but it doesn’t personify God the way other religions do. Like everything else, he said, even God must obey the law of impermanence and cannot be a fixed entity.
Anicca, the Buddhist principle of impermanence, plays a key role in Joshu Roshi’s teaching, a model in which two equal and mutually opposing activities endlessly meet and separate. The instant in which they unify is variously described as true love, equality, zero, or emptiness. It is the unification of subject and object. But when these two activities separate, the objective world—the world of self-and-other—appears. Joshu Roshi uses a variety of synonyms for these two opposing activities, referring to them as expansion and contraction, plus and minus, mother and father, or male and female. Joshu Roshi calls his style of teaching Tathagata Zen, Tathagata being one of the names for the Buddha. While the teaching may sound abstract, Roshi wants his students to manifest it in their zazen and, whatever else it may be, it is a very sophisticated guide to meditation.
An hour into teisho, the administrator rang a bell. We hadn’t heard much yet about Hyakujo or the fox. “I’m not feeling well,” Roshi said. “I feel a little woozy.” But later, after a period of hot, sleepy zazen, we found ourselves filing off to sanzen.
Already on this first day, some people were so sleepy they forgot to bow when entering the zendo, or they moved when they weren’t supposed to. Groggy myself, I would relax into my breathing, only to drift involuntarily into micro-sleep. Catching myself, I’d sit bolt upright and straighten my back. But the sleepiness returned and the cycle would repeat itself. A fresh breeze cooled things off in the evening, and as the sun faded, a police helicopter circled overhead and a passing ice cream truck played “Für Elise.” No gunfire, though. Soon enough we were back in our dorms.
The next morning, one of the priests opened the first period of zazen by hitting the first six monks—including me—with the keisaku. Good morning! This is sometimes done to set a more rigorous, energetic tone in the zendo. I found the blows relaxed the tense muscles in my shoulders and upper back.
Roshi talked in teisho about plus and minus, mother and father, birth and death, fluidly shifting from one to the next, and in sanzen he assigned me a new koan, which I would wrestle with for the remainder of the week. After breakfast, I noticed the kitchen staff had brewed coffee. A small blessing.
Another ice cream truck came by after dinner, blaring a repetitive ditty. As it happened, we were doing a practice that involved walking slowly around the zendo, chanting one syllable from The Heart Sutra with each step. This wholehearted chanting in unison was creating a powerful sound that filled the zendo and drowned out the extraneous—random thoughts and ice cream trucks included.