[Asked for his reflections on turning 75 (on June 3rd), Genpo Roshi recorded his thoughts about it with his fiancée, Charlotte Juul. This is an excerpt from that conversation.]
C: Your birthday is coming soon, and I know that every five and ten years in your life has normally been a big shift. So I’m wondering if there’s anything that comes up for you now, as you are about to turn 75?
G: . . . In two weeks it will be 20 years since I created the Big Mind process, so now I have an opportunity to see how it’s evolved and developed, and I’m kind of looking at well, what’s next? I was sitting with this just the other day, and in a way absolutely nothing came up. And I thought, “Aha! Maybe that’s what’s happening on my 75th birthday — nothing!” Maybe that’s what I’m adjusting to.
Since we moved to Boulder I’ve been reflecting a lot on Maezumi Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche, and how very young both of them were when they died. Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987 at 47, and Maezumi Roshi died in 1995 at 64. So here I am 75-to-be, and I realize that in some ways they didn’t have the opportunity that I have. I’ve been gifted this chance, this opportunity, to actually grow older.
And I think our practice, really, is like the two wings of a bird. One is our direct experiences, kenshos, all kinds of insights and realizations, which always come suddenly of course. The other is always in the realm of time and space, and it just simply takes time and maturing. Of course those insights and realizations changed my life 180 degrees. I went from being a school teacher and a lifeguard, always working towards fame and gain and so on, to my life being more about helping others and serving others and waking up and gaining clarity. But what I see is that a lot of the things I realized back in ’71 and when I started koan practice in ’73 with Maezumi Roshi, a lot of things I realized then, I’m living and actualizing now.
So what I feel now is, I’m not practicing something in particular, I’m not seeking anything; I’m just being and relaxing in my old age. It’s a lot about relaxation, and I mean at the deepest level. I don’t mean just an old man sitting on a park bench — which I do too — but it’s a lot about a deep deep relaxation, right down to the cellular level. And it’s somewhere between being alive and being dead, being awake and being asleep, being attentive and being inattentive, being focused and being unfocused. All the polarities are present. It’s like sitting as the apex, where I’ve got Zen and free-from-Zen, self and no-self, mind and no-mind, thinking and not-thinking and so on. I probably — I definitely — enjoy it more than sleep. This state, I don’t even know what to call it, it’s more joyful, blissful, serene, peaceful, clear, calm than any other way of being. And it seems to be emanating in my daily life more and more.
It’s also about exploring a question that has become more and more significant for me. I’ve often mentioned to students that although Zen is rich with stories of powerful and inspiring characters, it is very rare to find one speaking from what I would call the fourth or fifth of Master Tozan’s Five Ranks, the path of the human being. In other words, from the perspective of a person who has come down from the mountain of oneness with the absolute, back down into the muddy water of the relative, the human reality. How many of the old masters can we name who have spoken about the nitty-gritty of their descent? Very few, if any. It’s not very sexy, maybe people don’t want to hear about it. Tokusan when he humbly defers to a young monk who chides him for showing up too early for dinner. That in itself is a wonderful teaching. Joshu, Hyakujo, Tokusan perhaps. At any rate, very few, and it occurs to me that this is a crucial perspective that now I am privileged to experience, and I feel challenged and perhaps even obligated to explore and to share.
. . . I’m at the age of a grandfather, and it’s like with grandparents, you can enjoy your grandchildren and leave them, whereas a parent is there all the time with their children. These days, as a teacher I don’t feel like I need to be there all the time with students. I feel more like I can offer years of experience, years of mistakes. As Buckminster Fuller often said, we don’t learn from our successes, we only learn from our mistakes. I really, really agree with that, that the biggest learnings I’ve had have been all around mistakes I’ve made, and owning what was causing or creating the problem; versus the insights I had that just inflated my sense of self. Every enlightenment, every opening, every insight kind of inflates our ego more and more. Great enlightenment is just great ego inflation. The ego is so inflated that it becomes this full round ball, and it’s ready to be pricked. And the fuller it gets, the more expanded it gets, the easier it is for something to prick it, like a little pin. Which is what has happened to me several times in my life, realizing I have gained nothing, attained absolutely nothing after years of study.
So the biggest, most meaningful experiences for me have been when I realize I’m just an ordinary guy, I’m not special. In the beginning practice is all about being special. Now it’s about coming to terms with not being extraordinary, not special, just being true to myself.
One of my favorite koans is “Joshu’s Stone Bridge.” When Joshu was in an old man, over a hundred years old, a monk comes to him and says, ‘I came here expecting to find the great stone bridge of Joshu. And all I find is a broken down wooden bridge. Where’s the great stone bridge of Joshu?’ And Joshu says, ‘right here in front of you.’ The monks says, ‘I don’t see it, show it to me.’ Joshu says, ‘it’s right here for asses and donkeys like yourself to cross over.’
That one really hits me, because he’s so straightforward in his old age, his teaching so powerful, direct and clear. It’s not being shiny any more, it’s not being extraordinary any more. This world right now is full of extraordinary people. I mean I look at our young people, men and women both, who are amazingly intelligent, sharp, brilliant, and doing great things and wanting to do great things. I want to give them as much support as I can. It’s enough just to be me, I don’t have to become anything else. Maybe that’s what this 75th birthday is.
C: Yes, it’s enough to be you. I can see that brings up a lot of emotion.
G: Do you want to say something?
C: Well, you’ve said a lot, but just holding the question of your 75th birthday and it’s being enough to be you, I was thinking of what you’ve said about coming here to set roots. And I guess now it’s time to set roots because now it’s enough to just be you.
G: What’s your perspective? You’ve been with me all these years, what’s your take?
C: I have been thinking about this a lot, and my take is, I do believe that everybody has a contribution to make in life, some people’s become more significant, other’s less, depending how we look at it. And I think you are making a huge contribution with Big Mind. Like Ken Wilber has his Integral vision, Maslow his hierarchy of needs, and others, we can go on. I think you have Big Mind Big Heart. I really feel your contribution is that. It started with the transcendent voices. Then it moved into awakening, owning and embodying our shadows. And then it ended up with the apex, how you include both and you are both. I feel that as an expedient means, a skillful means, it will continue to evolve and spread in ways that perhaps even you cannot foresee.
And it makes sense in the time we are living in, when everything is falling apart, all systems are falling apart, political systems and everything else is falling apart — when what is needed is that everything can fall apart but still be whole. I feel the Big Mind process and the image of the triangle are amazing for this, that each part can be as it is but can also be held from the apex, not having to become the other, that the ‘self’ doesn’t have to become the Buddha, from the apex it already is. That the ‘self’ can prostrate and honor the Buddha, and the Buddha can love and have compassion for the ‘self.’ I feel that is the new shift the world is moving into, and I think Buddhism and whatever we know will move into that as well.
So I can see what you’re saying about letting it all go, just saying ‘here it is,’ and you just settling into that. It’s like you gave it. And now you’re here, now you’re free. I feel you’re free.