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I was coping with a familiar pain beneath my right shoulder blade, an ache that intensified until it felt like someone was twisting a knife in my back. I knew it was arising from mental tension and prolonged sitting in a fixed posture. The genius of sesshin, I reflected, is that it offers many different ways to squeeze you and make you uncomfortable. You’re stuck in a hot, sweaty, aching body with no escape: what do you do? I’ve learned that the only thing that works is to unify with the discomfort. And one way or another, unification is what Roshi always teaches.
In sanzen the next morning Roshi sized up my response. “Ego,” he spat, and rang the bell. Later, in teisho, he talked about the old man in the koan who approached Hyakujo and begged to be released from a particular error he had made, which had caused him to be reborn 500 times as a fox. The old man in the story was a “monster,” Roshi said, because he couldn’t manifest unity with his students. I was feeling a bit monstrous myself.
On Thursday we reached the sesshin’s halfway point, and fewer and fewer people were making enthusiastic sprints for the door at the start of sanzen. Maybe I wasn’t the only one confounded by my koan. More than once, the head monk had to bark, “Sanzen!” to get people to leave the zendo. Stuck though I was, in afternoon sanzen that day something I did seemed to resonate with Roshi; at last I felt I was moving in the right direction.
Things changed on Friday, as newcomers joined us for the final three days of sesshin. Among them was Paul Karsten, a student of Roshi’s since 1973 and the president of a Seattle acupuncture school. Karsten sees his study with Joshu Roshi as the practice of making relationship with others. “My studies have made me a more effective health care practitioner,” he says. “I’ve trusted Roshi to help point me to what’s important.”
Roshi took a long time with people in sanzen that evening, and I felt I was having a more freewheeling encounter with him, letting go of some of myself. I felt energized as we left the zendo that evening, and for a while, sleep wouldn’t come.
Despite getting no more than four hours of sleep, I felt pretty good on Saturday, day six. The city around us was quiet, and it occurred to me that people were thinking about going to the beach. During teisho, Roshi told the famous story of how, as he grew old, Hyakujo’s students stole his gardening tools so he’d have to rest from his labors around the monastery, and how Hyakujo stopped eating in protest. A good bit older than Hyakujo himself, Roshi told us he’d been suffering from sciatica for twelve years. “Now, if I sit for more than fifteen minutes, it hurts,” he said. And yet, I reflected, he spends an hour a day in teisho and at least six hours a day sitting in sanzen. That tremendous effort in the face of pain inspired me.
Two days after sesshin ends, a translator and I would sit down for an interview with Roshi in his apartment. Wearing a white kimono and reclining in an upholstered chair, Roshi was in a relaxed mood, at one point teasingly pinching the translator’s earlobe to make a point.
“How are you this morning?
“Tired,” he says. “After sesshins I need two days of rest. I used to not need anything. One day is not good enough—I need two days. By the third day I become vital again.”
“You call your teaching Tathagata Zen. Where did the teaching of Tathagata Zen originate?”
“Chinese Zen defined tathagata and tatha-agata. One is ‘Thus-coming,’ and the other is ‘Thus-going.’ It originated in India—Indian Buddhism already had this concept. It’s a moving activity, so it is ‘Thus-coming, Thus-going.’ Even we contemporary people are asked how we define this moving activity. It is a very essential thing.
“This moving activity never stops. And then, all the time it’s smoothly proceeding. Though it is moving all the time, when it proceeds forward, it’s the activity of forward moving, and when it comes back, it demonstrates the activity of coming back. Here, we have to understand the concept of difference or discrimination. What is the concept of difference or discrimination? That is called kyo and rai. Kyo is ‘to leave.’ Rai is ‘to come.’”
“Will Roshi find American successors?” I ask.
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “It’s not in my consideration. It does not help me to know who it would be. Some might say, ‘I have received your Tathagata Zen teaching, and I will continue your activity,’ but that can be a lie. If someone comes around saying, ‘I’m going to throw my whole body into continuing your activity of Tathagata Zen,’ then I would say, “Oh, is that so?’”
The seventh day dawned clear and cool, and I enjoyed spacious sitting in the zendo. Late in the afternoon it was announced that we would end a little early and then go to see Roshi for a final interview—a formal goodbye.
It was then that I finally got what Roshi had been driving at all week. It had literally been staring me in the face all along. Roshi smiled and rang the bell.
Until next time.
A longtime student of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Zenshin, Michael Haederle is a lay monk living in New Mexico. He has contributed to Time, People, Tricycle, Discovery Channel Magazine, and other publications.