Koryu Roshi, Koans, and Being One with Our Life

(Genpo Roshi recorded during the “Masters & Mensches” Retreat, June 9, 2020)

I think it is really important that we realize we are a part of a lineage. I don’t really know or understand how it all works. I don’t think anybody does, but there’s something very real, and you hear it. You heard it in Genno Roshi’s comments; you hear it in others, like Chris sensei’s comment. There’s something very powerful, that we’re part of a lineage. There’s something that comes through.

Young Maezumi with Koryu Roshi at Hannya Dojo

Koryu Roshi was Maezumi Roshi’s teacher. Maezumi Roshi spent his college days with Koryu Roshi, and began his study with him. When I met Koryu Roshi, in 1972, walking into that room, which we call the dokusan room, walking into that room for the first time, was the first time I saw him. I made my bows as I was told to do, it was my first dokusan with any teacher. I kneeled down in front of him, and this man, the impression I had, was this was a monster of a man, of a human being. Not monster in a negative sense; he was just enormous, he had such power, such samadhi power, that it kind of took up the whole room. That afternoon after lunch I was out taking a walk, and he was walking with one of the women who was like his attendant, who’d been with him for a number of years. I saw him walking next to her and he couldn’t have been more than five foot tall. At the most he was five foot one, two at the most, and I couldn’t believe that this giant of a man was such a small person. It was his power.

And I remember he told me, “I want you to work on the koan mu.” His own practice was he always sat with mu. So he would start off his sitting practice always counting his breath first for about twelve to fifteen minutes, and then he would just go to mu and he would just penetrate mu deeper and deeper and deeper. He did it in a way that resulted in such a power, in such a presence, that fifty years later I still remember it, it was so much. And he said to me, “I want you to penetrate mu.” So I went back to my seat and I sat there, and I Iooked at the koan, and I realize, “This is nonsense, this is crazy, this is stupid. Why am I focusing on mu? It’s my life. It’s my life, what do I have to do with mu? I know who I am.”

Koryu Roshi

So I went back and I said “I’m done with mu, I finished.” He said, “What do you mean? What’s the answer?” I said, “I’m done, I’m finished. It’s enough. Do you have another thing to work on?” [Laughs] I still laugh at my own stupidity and arrogance, but I felt like this was a detour, that working on these case koans was kind of a detour. The real practice was my life, which Dogen Zenji calls genjokoan. And I didn’t see the place for koans at that point.

Now when I look back I can see that the case koans that we work on in the practice allow us to learn how to become that, to become one with that, one with whatever it is going on in our life. And it is our life that is the real koan. But there are different times, different things are going on in our life, and sometimes we’re really suffering or we’re really mourning or in grief, or we‘re in pain, or we’re in anguish or we’re in disappointment or we’re felling rejected — all those things are koans.

They’re each a koan. How do I become one with my own depression? How do I become one with boredom? How do I become one with my anger? And these case koans, like ‘How do you stop the fighting across the river?’ are all about how to do that. Because we don’t know, simply we don’t know how to be one with ourself. We don’t know how to be ourself. In fact maybe it is very rare for us to ever meet someone who knows how to be themself. Who is just truly themself. I don’t even want to call it “authentic.” It’s just oneself. It’s authentic or not authentic, doesn’t matter. Sometimes authentic, sometimes not authentic, it’s like the hazy moon. But one with who we are in that moment. Because we know it’s changing continuously. And how to go in and be that, and juice that, like we would an orange, and squeeze all the juice out of it. How do we do that? We learn that by going into the koans one by one, the case koans, so that we can learn to do that in our life.

So there are two approaches of course. In the Soto school the emphasis is on genjokoan, or sitting, just sitting, and our life as the koan. In the Rinzai school it’s more about the case koans and realization, satori or kensho. But they complement one another. In reality, at the apex it’s all my life. Every case koan, and why they hit us, and why we feel, ‘Wow, this koan was exactly right for me in this moment, absolutely perfect for me in this moment,’ is because it’s exactly what I’m going through. Well of course it is, because it’s just your life. Every case koan just represents your life. And we learn that it is OK to become whatever is going on. It’s OK to work with our depression, or work with our aggression, or to work with our delusion, or to work with our shadows. All this is OK because it’s really not selfish to go in and become one with it, because we bring that out to the world and we become better human beings.

4 thoughts on “Koryu Roshi, Koans, and Being One with Our Life”

  1. BigMind Is a process that helps me when in perplexity. I came across the point that I thought was exposed. All the secrets I call mine were exposed.. because words in the area were too small that they resound across my secrets.. but language I use is being structured piece by piece.

    I would like more guidance, because as I paraphrase Genpo “all my life koans have like a kick on the head” Second Quadrant of Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber started to make sense now and I feel like I need more guidance.. In South Africa

  2. WOW….that is immensely powerful and meaningful. Thank you so much for sharing direct experience in such a clear and immediate way. I deeply appreciate this gift. Thank you so much Genpo Roshi.
    Peace, Mike

  3. Thank you, Roshi, for sharing your life and heart with us in this way. It feels like sitting close, hearing your voice, and seeing your face again. And as always, turning to look into my own life and heart. Deep appreciation!

  4. Thank You Roshi. You brought Koryu Roshi`s heart through your words really in a very alive way. I never met him but I feel him deeply within me. Doubt and questioning were present in my life and practice always as much as faith in our reach lineage containing both. It brings tears and deep appreciation to Maezumi Roshi, to contain all three lineages in one life, and to you for transmitting it. Deep bow.
    Yours sincerely,


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