The gift I received from this practice and from Maezumi Roshi

(Genpo Roshi recorded during the “Masters & Mensches” Retreat, June 8, 2020)

     I remember over and over again when Maezumi Roshi was going through his hard times like back in the end of 83, he said to me, “If, if, everything falls apart, I lose everything, if you get it, if you learn from this what you’re supposed to learn, it will be worth it. It will be worth it.” Wow, reflecting on what that meant and how I received it — I couldn’t really get it. It was too big for me to get that, what that meant.

     So I found I had to make my own mistakes and my own failings and my own troubles and learn the hard way. And I think it is true of Roshi and of all great masters and teachers. We hope, we do our best to help the students manage the territory without stepping on all the mines and all the minefields. I think we all feel that we’ve done a pretty shabby job, that we haven’t been able to share and to save others from the mistakes we’ve made.

     Maybe that is just human nature, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s the stubbornness that I see in myself and many around me. But I think it is a wish of Roshi and others that we save people from the same mistakes, and how much when we want someone to grow into their fullest potential, as he and other great teachers wanted us to grow into our fullest potential as human beings, as genjokoan, how much that lifts us up, inspires us to face the difficulties, the challenges, the hard times.

     I think we’re in for some hard times. Before they get better they’re getting pretty difficult for a lot of people, very challenging. I feel very privileged and very fortunate not to be right out there in the middle of it all right now, and yet with the greatest respect for those who are. But somehow the gift I received from this practice and from Maezumi Roshi is we can face anything. We can face anything in our life, anything that arises, including death, from the stability of zazen.

     I don’t mean it has to be just sitting or sitting in a certain style or a certain fashion but from the mind of zazen from the samadhi where our capacity is to take anything in, to bring anything on, like a mirror doesn’t stop anything reflecting in it. But actually taking it in and juicing it too. That’s the difference between the mirror and us: the mirror doesn’t get stained by anything; we allow ourselves to be stained and messed around with, so that all that becomes juice, to come out in our life, as our life, in our path.

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.

The Middle Way is not a fine line

The way I look at it is, we talk about the Middle Way or the Middle Path, right? And I think for years I saw and thought the Middle Way was a fine line between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ And at some point I realized, no that’s too narrow. The Middle Way is everything between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ I mean you embrace ‘this’ and you embrace ‘that’ completely, and then when you walk the Middle Way you walk it in the terms that you’ve got a lot of latitude, but you stay true to the moment, to what is appropriate in the moment.  And within that you’ve got all the way from everything you do is perfect, complete and whole — Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi — to there’s a very definite right and wrong way to be in a certain situation, and everything in between.  So you have to be aware of your position, the very time, the very place that you’re in, and then the amount, how much.  And to me that’s Mahayana, and that’s the Middle Path.  Mahayana stands for the Middle Path.  And that’s the apex.

 

 

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Suffering … and Joy

One of the things that I think is so obvious, though it seems we miss it growing up, is that basically everything we do and every decision we’ve made is to protect ourself from pain. We distance ourself from pain, and this creates suffering for ourself and also for others. Seeking to protect ourself, we imprison ourself in painful conditions, all to avoid our pain, to avoid being our pain. This is the cause of suffering.

Our suffering is not caused by pain itself; it’s caused by our trying to avoid or escape from pain. That’s where the suffering comes into effect. So what Buddhism teaches is the cause of suffering is our self. We form this ego-self, this façade, in order to protect our self from our pain. What Zen says is, you don’t have to go through all these steps, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and so on; you can do it all suddenly, at one time. Be one, be one with your pain.

So all the first koans are about being one with: be one with the sound of a distant temple bell, be one with a distant sailing boat, be one with the fighting across the river. You could just as well say, how do you stop suffering? How do you stop the suffering from your pain, or of yourself, how do you stop that suffering? Well, the secret is just be it, just relax into it. Just like with the distant temple bell, be one with it, ‘bong, bong, bong,’ be the sound, be the sailing boat. You be the pain, and when you’re the pain there’s no suffering, because there’s no self to suffer.

So the self and our suffering are created precisely by our trying to escape from pain. All our attachments, our addictions, all of them are coming from the desire to escape what is, which is pain, it’s painful. And the joy comes when we allow ourself to just be one with the pain. And there’s joy in the midst of the pain, because there’s no-self. When there’s a self, it’s not true joy; when there’s no self, then there’s joy. It’s really quite simple, but somehow it takes us forever to figure it out. I mean, there’s the whole Buddhist teaching right there.

— From The Six Paramitas Workshop, August 2019

 

Trust in Letting Go

Maybe the most important thing that we can learn is the ability to let go, and trust that it’s all OK, to relinquish, to let go.

There are certain things that are harder to let go of, of course, than others, and one of them is our mind. Somehow we’re very attached to our mind, and most of us don’t really like the idea of losing our mind. But that’s the problem, because — what mind? What we’re talking about is just a bunch of thoughts. We put those thoughts together into concepts, and we put those concepts together into belief systems, but to begin with, there was nothing there, just empty space. And these thoughts appear, and then we start accumulating these thoughts into concepts and ideas.

But when we let go of the so-called mind, all we’re doing is letting go of our attachment to our ideas, concepts, notions, beliefs and thoughts. That’s all. Nothing changes, except we’re freed, we’re liberated. From what? The fear of losing our mind, or going out of our mind.

I think it’s the same thing with what we call ‘life,’ or ‘body.’ You know, we have this fear of losing this body, dying. I have a sense it’s the same thing. What do we lose? We just return to our original nature. This body is just something that’s put together by the five skandhas, and it dissipates, it deteriorates, what would you call that? It separates. But there’s nothing lost, except that heap. That’s why it’s called five heaps. It’s just a pile of stuff.

And then we’re free.

— From The Six Paramitas Workshop, August 2019

Fear, Fearlessness, and The Buddha’s Original Practice of Mindfulness

 

 

“ … Just recognizing a fear as it arises, noticing it’s a fear, labeling it as a fear, letting it go: that’s mindfulness practice. In fact that was the Buddha’s original practice … Basically what he came up with was mindfulness practice. I think it’s moved on from that, but that was his original practice. It just means noticing an emotion or a feeling or a sensation or a thought. Noticing it, seeing ‘oh, fear’ or ‘thought’ or ‘emotion’ – letting go. It’s that simple. The moment you notice it like that, it empties it out. It no longer has a content to it, no longer has substantiality to it, it’s empty. I call it bubbles. You notice the bubble arising called fear, and it pops. … At some point it’s not even mindfulness, as I said. It just becomes a pure awareness and you just let it go. You just let it go … The willingness to face our fear is what we call fearlessness. Most of us have fear about fear. We fear our fear, and that’s the problem.”

— Excerpt from Retreat with Genpo Roshi, September 2019

 

On Losing Our Mind

Students, friends and people who have read my writings know that I often refer to my first opening that led me to Zen as ‘losing my mind’ and ‘going sane.’  In Big Mind work, we also discover that the fear of ‘losing my mind’ is one of the great obstacles to realizing our true nature, a deeply rooted fear that prevents us from what Zen teachings point to as the key to enlightenment, relinquishment of our attachments, the most fundamental of which is our attachment to our identity, our mind.

I recently was privileged to be read this account over the phone by my partner, Charlotte.  It was written by a colleague of hers and a friend of mine, William Swanson, an intern who works with participants in a program for elderly people with dementia.  I found myself crying most of the way through it because it was so beautiful.  In this day and age, when more of us are becoming aware of the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s, his account of his experience offers both a compassionate insight into this feared and stigmatized condition, and an illuminating perspective on what we might call ‘losing our mind.’  With William’s permission, I would like to share it with you.

I Cannot Believe My Good Fortune

So…I started my internship in June at Care Link Elder Day Program here in Boulder.  Participants, as they are called, are elders with a dementia diagnosis who gather for social time with others experiencing this new and unsolicited mindscape.  Participant’s time spent at Care Link also provides their caretakers with much needed respite.  The staff maintains a fun and friendly environment that promotes a lot of laughs between participants – and not a little flirtation!  Everyone is kind and we have a good time.

From the moment I interviewed in March I have been struck by the comradery of these elders, the staff, and my supervisor, all who have made me feel welcome and all who have supported my work in every conceivable way.  There is a daily staff of four, three co-directors, and my supervisor who comes in once a week to meet with me.  As the only overtly therapeutic component on the team, my task has been to support the staff in their daily tasks, facilitate or co-facilitate group activities, and invite participants of my choosing to join me in a therapeutic relationship.

I now have eight participants who I work with individually as my therapeutic clients.  Because of confidentiality, I am not allowed to post photos of any participants.  But I sure wish I could so people would see these amazing souls who model what it means to age with grace and audacity.  Each one has lived a stunning life (I’ve had the honor of reading their personal histories in their files) and each one is living a stunning life still.  Past accomplishments include careers in astrophysics, seismology, New York City school district superintendent, social work, nursing, radio deejay, and haberdashery, just to name a few.  Hobbies have included mountaineering in the Alps and Himalayas where nights were spend sleeping in a tent suspended from the cliff side.  These people seize the day.

They also are adjusting to the fact that their minds are in a state of radical change defined mostly by short-term memory loss and a state of timelessness – hours, days, seasons, and years no longer present chronologically.  But there are others factor as well such as images appearing they know are not real but which they cannot resist being drawn into.  Much of our dialogue lacks a cohesive narrative – or any narrative at all – but instead is highly abstract where our relationship rests more in an energy exchange than in story.

It is particularly impactful that there are few people who can relate directly with these dynamics.  Generally speaking, our culture does not prepare us to deal with entering into this mindscape whether it’s our mind or the mind of a loved one manifesting dementia.  Social stigmas marginalize these individuals while family members struggle to relate to someone whose personality has shifted, in some cases to the point of seeming unrecognizable.  There is deep shame in believing you have become a disappointment to the ones you love.  Many chose not to disclose certain aspects of their experience in order to lessen their perceived burden on others, leading to deeper feelings of isolation and irrelevance.

But here’s the deal:  there is wisdom in dementia.  Poignancy emerges to a point where that which is non-essential is let go.  The futility of clinging to that which is transient is replaced with the stunned silence of realizing that so much of what defines ordinary life is pure illusion.  Though time is scrambled, time is of the essence because so little of it remains.  Forget the names, the dates, the places.  Don’t pester me with data, and away with your petty squabbles.  What is your experience and how does it feel?  Are you feeling pain?  Tell me.  I can hold it with you.  Are you feeling confused?  It’s okay.  I’m confused every day.  Are you in bliss?  Express it.  I have been there, too.

Two participants met at Care Link and discovered they had fought on the same battlefield in Germany during WW2, one on the German side, the other on the American side.  Now they enjoy each other’s company over coffee and conversation.

Yesterday as I walked one of my clients back to the group in the main room, we passed one of the co-directors in the hall.  I look at her and silently shook my head.  When I came back down the hall she said, “Are you ok?”  I looked her in the eye and replied, “I can’t believe I get to do this.  I can’t believe my good fortune.”  She said, “Oh!” and came in for a hug, “We are all so glad you are here.  You are doing great work, William.  Your clients are so lucky to have you.  We all are.”

And so the mind of dementia is not unfamiliar to me and I can rest in it and move through its terrain.  At times I feel like Virgil or perhaps even Beatrice.  But then I realize that it’s me being escorted by my clients, those who are living literally in the mindscape of dementia, navigating its swirling levels and feeling its full force.  Together we are making meaning by asking questions and sharing perceptions of its nature and purpose.  We hold out possibilities for the things we cannot understand.  We laugh, we cry, we do both simultaneously.

For me it all gift.  I now know the population I want to work with as a future therapist.  I don’t yet know how it will all unfold, but that’s just one lesson I have learned in this mindscape: I cannot know anything for sure and that’s okay.  You simply move through the rooms, down the halls, and over the thresholds that appear.  Someone will be there to greet you.  Someone kind who wants to share your company, your support, and your insights.  And who wants to have some fun while we’re at it.

Truly, I cannot believe my good fortune.

Seeing through Koans

I find koans very helpful and useful when I am trying to make a teaching point, using a koan to bring out a particular point. So I might be talking about, let’s say, karma, and then talk a little bit about how Hyakujo used the fox and related it to cause and effect and karma.  So I will quote that koan and give my understanding of it, but the koan system I’ve never been that happy with.

In 1978 or so, Roshi said to me, ‘I want you to revitalize the koan system.’  In 2008 I kind of found a way to do that: I started doing Big Mind with koans.  And that has evolved through ten years now.  I feel my way of revitalizing koans is the way that I work with them in Big Mind.  In fact I feel that by taking a voice, say Pride, and then asking to speak to its opposite, the opposite of pride, unawakened — that’s a koan.  Because nobody knows what that is.  Why? Because you can’t.  When there’s no pride, there’s no understanding, it’s ungraspable.  So to me, this is what Roshi asked me to come up with, but not how either he or I had thought of it.  He could not have visualized it, nor could I, but I do feel it’s an answer to his request to come up with a revitalized way of doing koans.  And I feel in some ways it’s superior, and in some ways not.

I still feel traditional koan study is important, and the way we do it can be important.  But it complements the Big Mind work, and the Big Mind work complements the koan work.  I don’t feel either one replaces the other; they are complementary, along with shikantaza, or sitting.  Nowadays when I sit, I often sit shikantaza.  Sometimes I work with something in the Big Mind way.  And sometimes I’ll even look at a koan I did back in the 70’s, and I’ll come up with maybe a different or a new way of appreciating it that I couldn’t see back then.  I mean in the 70’s I was in my twenties and thirties.  Now I’m in my seventies, so of course I see it differently and appreciate it, I feel, from a much deeper place.

So I don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on koans.  And I hardly have anybody working with me on them, maybe two, three people occasionally.  Not regularly, like we did at ZCLA or Salt Lake where it was every day.  So people have not been working with me in that way recently, probably because they sense that I’m not all that excited about koans. But I do love koans, just not the way we used to work on them.  It’s more an appreciation of individual masters, seeing through the eyes of the master, seeing through the koan that comes out of the master, like say, when a monk comes to see Joshu, and Joshu is somewhere between eighty-four and one hundred twenty-four, and the monk says ‘I came here expecting to find the great stone bridge of Joshu, and all I find is a broken down wooden bridge. Where is this great stone bridge of Joshu?’  And Joshu answers, ‘right here in front of you.’ And the monk says, ‘well I don’t see it.’  Joshu says, ‘it’s right here for asses and donkeys like yourself to cross over.’

Now, I have great love for what it took for somebody like Joshu to get to the place where, one, he’s not shiny any more like a great stone bridge, he appears to be just an old broken down wooden bridge.  And, at the same time, with such a beautiful way of expressing the teachings.

(from a Zen Teacher Retreat, November 2018)  

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