This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Kobun Chino Otogawa
What is zazen, shikan-taza? What kind of sitting are we doing here? There is a little misunderstanding about so-called Zen or Buddhist life; I'd like to clear it up a little bit, and reassure your sense of basic confidence that however you are is the way it should be. I mean daily life, however you manage your daily life, that is how it should be. For a long time this sitting was done only in a closed society like a monastery. It was the traditional way of protecting the quality of this practice. My basic intention is to really open this sitting opportunity to everybody who is ready to do it and enjoy it. No division between monks and nuns, young and old. I want you to understand this kind of practice. Some people trained in a monastery or communal situation with well set schedules and regulations may have a quite a difficult time with almost no rules. People come and go and there is no scolding and no one carrying a stick to beat you like an old rug or dumb man. Many people say that's not sitting, but I believe this is the real sitting! Whoever sits, that person's mind embraces the whole situation, centered by that person. So each person has full responsibility and full understanding by themselves for what sitting means to them. The teaching is within that person. Each person's sitting includes how they live, how they think things, where they came from. Nothing is missed, nothing is needed to change from how you are actually living to how it
should be. There is no "should be" kind of thing. In one sense, it's a terrible state, the hardest kind of operation. There is no crunch, nothing to hang onto to order your mind. I say you cannot call this Zen or Buddhism. Then what is it? People get mad at me! They ask, "Then what are you?" To have no identification is so insecure in one sense; people are very shaky sometimes. But as you notice, no one forces you or orders you to do this. My great hope is for success in a real sense, for satisfactory practice in this sitting. I'd like to reveal the natural nature of sitting fully as it is. If I put some concept on this and make you understand what I think is a ideal way to sit, I would be a kind of special gardener who fixes boxes and lets you go through to become square bamboo. Or I would be an automatic newspaper man who runs a newspaper whoever comes, I would just put you in the machine and make you flat and you would come out a squished being, or something like this! In Japan there is still a strong force of tradition where monasteries closed people out from sitting. Now it is like a secret teaching has been brought to us from a deep secret place; no one knows how valuable it is. People in Japan still feel strongly that sitting shouldn't be done so easily. A sort of hoarding of teaching is going on. But even if this treasure is brought to us, this kind of treasure is not seen by people, so there is actually no danger. The only danger is if you guide people the wrong way with it. In this sense, Dogen Zenji was very right, if you want to do zazen or any kind of practice properly, the only way to master it is to study with the right teacher. Too much talk about zazen or shikan-taza is not so good for you. It's impossible to teach the meaning of sitting. Until you really experience and confirm it by yourself, you cannot believe it. It has tremendous depth, and year after year this gorgeous world of shikan-taza appears. It's up to you to cultivate it. Because you are Buddhas yourselves, you can sit. Dogen named this sitting "great Gate of Peace and Joy". Simply, it is peaceful, eternally peaceful, pleasurable and joyful. Shikan-taza doesn't have the name of any religion, but it is, in its quality, a very true religious way to live.
Year after year our physical posture becomes polished; by repeated sitting our muscles become very refined, not pulling one way. When your muscles become very balanced you are able to feel almost nothing is there. All your intestines, your bones, are in the same balance. When our body is able to take the right posture, when you sit as if no one is sitting there, you feel yourself. The way to find your best posture is to focus your attention on the feeling of your body. It's hard to say what it is an inner eye, an inner sensation which is able to observe every part of your body. When you are awake, you feel every part of your body: its surface, a little bit inside, deep inside, all parts. When you take the best posture you can possible reach, at that time you are weightless, and you aren't aware of your effort to keep that posture. The point is to have a stretched spine, with your neck straight along the spine. When you slightly lean right or left or backward you can find which point is your straight posture. This is related to the incredible pull of gravity. A thousand million lines of gravity pull you down. You swing your body from left to right, and finally you come to one point. It doesn't continue that way. We again crumble down, so we have to again build it up. Maybe every twenty minutes or so you have to re-do it. It is a very natural position, but we have incredible habits which are hard to correct.
Every time we correct our sitting position, we always go back to a more comfortable position. To have the foot soles facing upward is very important. To have the soles going upward, with your feet pressing down on your thighs, is not an accidental discovery, but a polished discovery. They should be like that, because then there is a very grounded sensation of being on the earth, not flowing or flying purposelessly in the air. The eyes should be kept open, and hopefully see through everything, because your seeing is not "your" seeing. So you should see through. All our sense organs are finely constructed awakenings. You don't have to stare. As you notice, all information from the sense organs come together moment after moment and the "mind eye" is always functioning. Everyone actually has it, it is not newly opened. It's very easy to mess up your posture just by rolling your eyeballs around. If you come back to keeping your eyes still, then something opens up. Your sitting still is like a person who just shot an arrow, and a moment later the result is there. What you know is the sense that the arrow is moving all right. It has left your realm, but you sense it's running well. Stillness is like that. In the stillness you see intuitions are going all right; you sense every kind of intuition. The form of the human body is continuity of karmic force. Without parents, you wouldn't exist here; without you, your children, all next generations could not exist. So in this sense, to have a body on this earth has a very karmic reason and result. Without this karmic condition, you cannot exist as the expression of ultimate force. You can say there is a "right posture" for sitting. Many times during sesshin you hit that "right posture", then swing away from it, and then go back to it. You understand what right posture is for you. You can see it, perceive it. It relates with your mind state at that time. Right posture in sitting creates the contents of sitting from all that you have been experiencing up to now. It requires detachment from your desire to do it; you let it happen by itself. So right posture is not that you are doing sitting; right posture itself is the sitting, and the system of your whole body is going into that posture. The period of sitting is not your own sitting. Physically you feel it is your sitting you do. The inner view of one's sitting, which is utterly an external view, too, includes your personal existence. It includes everything, from which your mind is continuously working. The arising of memories, whatever you have experienced, is always there. No matter whether you deny them or accept them, they are there. Not only that, but as time passes, the contents change. So posture is how to keep going, how to keep the posture you have taken. As you notice, this physical condition of existence is a very dynamic thing which you cannot stop. It goes by itself. Maybe, all things go by themselves; you are that, and you are able to experience and feel it. Sitting is always pointless, you know. When we touch sitting with this body, it feels like putting a thumb on paper: "This is it", touching time/space, or creating matter in time/space. That's how I feel when I sit. The more sitting goes still, almost stopping, the more it feels like time stops. At that time there is no more distinction between this body and actual things. Things feel as if they are extensions of the body. It's not a frozen kind of realization, but the very powerful presence of the sensation that you are really there as what you are, what things are, without naming each thing that's there. Even not what you are is also there. I mean, the thing which holds the phenomenal, experiencial phenomena as your own body is also yourself. You may say time/space, or space/time, or simply void, or something like that. Phenomenon/noumenon together are there. A slight move of mind causes lots of insights out of past experience, and out of images you have been making toward the future. It causes imagination about the relationship
of all people and situations in the present time with no distinction between past, present and future, just the enormous dynamic of where you live, what's there, all existing as yourself. This body is a very fine thing at such a time, continuously pressing this sitting spot. If you sit slanted yet your mudra is perfect, it is strange. It is the same sitting while you imagine that you are dancing somewhere. No one can see it; only you yourself can feel it. But dance is dance and sitting is sitting is sitting, so when you sit you must sit instead of thinking of some fantastic things. But it is not necessary to develop consciousness of the self along. You have to release that conscious self – about – yourself. Otherwise you will be caught by "sitting very well". Those kinds of wave of mind are not necessary. The time of sitting is timeless, actually. When you take the right position you have nothing to think about anymore, nothing to bring up from any place, past or future. That which can be call the present moment, where you are and what you are, actually is there. So that the physical posture we take in sitting is a part of whole posture, where it is, actually. Many, many things meditate because, essentially, everything.
We complain about our sitting that sometimes we suffer with so much pain in our legs, necks, or backs. But pain is always there. You have just noticed it. When you walk on steep hills it shows up. It's not something you just produced. It is there. When you stop climbing the mountain, that pain goes away. But you know, it is still there. We call it pain, but it is simply a force which came along with our existence. In that force there is always pain if there is any sense able to feel it. When I let this stick down, it touches the ground, and both feel pain. But they don't say so. When something grows up, when something is born, that intensity of force lets us feel that pain is there. Along with pain, there's very incredible joy, too, like a change of color. So if you just see the good part or pleasant part of an activity and wish to avoid the pain of cutting cold or heat, then actually you are limiting yourself by not letting the force swing from one end to the other. So what happens is, your scale of sensation gets smaller and smaller; finally you feel that you come to a painless place, a very comfortable place, not hot, not cold, not high, not so deep. You stay about in the middle – and discover there is incredible pain in there. Not to be able to get out of it causes lots of pain again. Often when pain begins to control your mind, your visions of a painful situation begin to occur because your whole body is reacting and your breathing starts fluttering without your noticing it. In an exciting situation deep breath will help when you have so much pain. I call it the silver thread. It goes straight down from the tip of your head through your spine to the tail bone. This is very important. In breathing, the out-breath is like pouring water to wash your pain. As it goes slowly through your body, you let it slide out from your legs. You can see this when a woman is in labor, making a groaning sound. That is how you go with pain. Maybe you shouldn't groan in the zendo! But it's very natural. We all groan, as the breath goes. Without actually making that sound, you can breathe in the same way.
CONDITIONS FOR SITTING
Protecting zazen is like raising your own child: you raise zazen. Especially when you understand that your formal existence as a man or woman actually is a big question. Because you have such immense energy, such desire, you beat yourself up, you mistreat yourself. And if you are seeking some kind of fantastic experience to straighten yourself, again you are mistreating yourself. So
the important thing in doing zazen is to protect zazen. When you sit in the street, for example, you discover that siting in the house is protecting zazen. If you sit naked on the beach, tides continuously come to your body and in ten minutes you'll understand that's not a place to sit. Direct wind where you're sitting is not so good. Clean air is very important to sit in and breathe in. Plants are very important for that. Mountains and woods are very good places to sit. Fasting is not so good for a long sitting of a week or a month; it is a kind of radical thing to do. Also not so good is eating a big meal or taking some kind of chemical right before you sit. Light is important for sitting. You can sit any time – midnight or daytime. The best is indirect sunlight, not direct. You can swing from one extreme to another to find how far you can go. Just remember the middle way.
You cannot really tell what breathing is. We are very interesting existence. As soon as a mother gives birth to her child, a separate body, the child starts to breathe by himself or herself. Before that, the mother is breathing for the child. What kind of breathing you do while you sit is an important issue: How the inside of your mouth, your tongue, your teeth should be. You should keep no air in your mouth. It sounds strange to say this, but can you do it? When you tighten the upper and lower rows of your teeth, using your jaw muscles, the teeth firmly touch and press each other. Your alertness gets very strong. But don't force the jaw muscles as some students do. Let your tongue touch the upper dome of your mouth. Let your breath go through your nose and straight to your lungs. This helps especially when you become drowsy. Naturally, saliva comes into your mouth, but you shouldn't swallow it all at once. Little by little you should let it go down without noticing it. If you notice it, it comes more and more and you have a problem. Saliva is very important. If you really sense the texture of the inhalation, when the air comes in and how you feel when the air goes out, you will have a different feeling. If you just count the breath, you miss it all. That's too bad. This is a very important moment you are living. There really is no time to count. Counting is a skill you use to quiet a restless mind, a fast mind, or a cluttered mind. It's very helpful to finish up your breath just before you move into the zendo. "Finish up" means to take your finest breath for sitting instead of crashing into the room and starting to sit and beginning work on your breath. That's too late. Kapleau Roshi's book The Three Pillars of Zen made counting the breath a popular method of sitting in this country, because it was one of the few readable texts years ago. But as you sit and get more familiar with your sitting posture and the dynamics of your body and mind, counting your breath becomes a very small part of practice. It is like knitting a sweater during sitting. It's better not to do it. I mean, definitely, you have to do it some time. It can be used as a crutch before you sit. Maybe ????????? the zendo you can start counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, straighten your breath, then drop counting right there, and sink into sitting. I'm not denying the instructions you had; the means of counting is what I'm talking about. Depending on each person, there is an inner image of what breathing when sitting is. As you notice, there is also a physical element of sitting, and invisible element of sitting which we call mind. We do mind-sitting, body-sitting, and we let the breath sit. Three aspects of sitting exist because we can observe our sitting from three angles. We breathe naturally and appreciate our breath and really understand what the breath does to our body and mind. To really connect the three: body, mind, and breath, is the point, not counting breathing. As Suzuki roshi mentioned, you should not go all the way in exhaling. You inhale about 80%, with the sense that you could go a little bit more. With that strength you
come back. So, it is like drawing a circle with no gap between exhaling and inhaling. With the contracting of the diaphragm and expanding of the stomach sometimes the whole body expands and contracts. The important point is to have no gap between the end of exhalation and the beginning of inhalation. It's like a hand pump. Water always goes the same direction, but the pump handle goes almost all the way up like this, and almost all the way down. During sitting your breath should be very regular, very smooth, with almost no effort, not noticing that the air is gone, or has come in. Breath has an incredible range of volume, strength, and speed. There are hundreds of techniques you can use, depending on your health and emotional condition. Like playing an instrument, singing, or drawing as you breathe; there are many ways. The basic point is not to push or pull, but to let it go. The ancient Sanskrit word for breath was prana. This is translated ki in Japanese, or chi in Chinese. Ki, as in aikido, ki is vitality. Sometimes it is called seiki: life-vitality. And this soft part where the intestines are is called hara in Japanese. Hara is also called kai: the ocean of ki. Our vitals are here. When you have no strength in the hara you feel very week. When you are full of energy this part is full of energy. When you chant you let your voice come out from this part center of your stomach. Basically ki comes out and informs the shape of your mind. The contents of your mind are that voice. The ideal, in sitting, it to forget the breath. You may breathe as you like; there is an incredible variety in the speed of breathing and even the emotion of breathing. So if you want to observe your breathing, you should do it for months and months without trying to control it. My feeling is that each breath is an independent thing. It arises and goes and some thoughts go with it. Your cannot bring them back; that's it. It's the same as your heart beat; your whole body is needing it. So if you can forget the breath, then you are having perfect breath. I suggest that you keep your best posture: straight, upright posture – that naturally takes care of the breath. From deep breath, which carries your awareness with it, to very shallow breath, which also carries your awareness, you have to choose the best breath between them. You can be aware of the texture of your breath, from rocky breath to silk-like breath and finally to transparent breath, like a transparent string of breath. You can feel which is the best breath for sitting. Try to sit and pay attention to how your breath goes. Each time you sit your body condition is different, so each time you must try to find your best breath and stay with that. I always feel breathing is like drawing a circle. It is best to get really familiar with your breath.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
We don't do this practice expecting to obtain something by doing it. This is a very different kind of action. In one sense, it's quitting human business, and going to the other side of the human realm. Have you noticed your face changing moment after moment when you are facing the wall? When you pay attention to exactly how you feel, you feel how it changes. It is such a slight change no one would notice if someone observed you; it's like one flame of fire is sitting on the cushion. Every moment the texture of the flames is different. You experience this from morning zazen to night zazen. In every sitting there's a very different feeling. Each breath, all different. Student: For years I always preferred to sit by myself, and every time I had to sit with a group, it was always more difficult. I had problems I didn't have by myself. Kobun: The difficulty wasn't sitting together; the difficulty was yourself! Wanting to be alone is
impossible. When you become really alone you notice you are not alone. In other words, we stop our vigorous effort towards ideal purity. Purity is just a process. After purity, dry simplicity comes, where almost no more life is there, and your sensation is that you are not existing any more. Still, you are existing there. You flip into the other side of nothing where you discover everybody is waiting for you. Before that, you are living together like that; day, sun, moon, stars and food, everything is helping you. But you are all blocked off, a closed system. You just see things from inside toward the outside, and act with incredible systematic logical dynamics, and you think everything is all right. When noise or a chaotic situation comes, you want to leave that situation to be alone. But there is no such aloneness! It is very important to experience the complete negation of yourself which brings you to the other side of nothing. People experience that in many ways. You go to the other side of nothing, and you are held by the hand of the absolute. You see yourself as part of the absolute, so you have no more insistence of self as yourself. You can speak of self as no-self upon the absolute. Real existence is only absolute. We experience some kind of dying in sitting, which relates with what's true and what's not true. What's not true dies, so we suffer. We wish to hand on to the self which we believe exists. The contents of what "I" means, or the pieces of the idea of the self are consistent, but when you sit you observe no substance in those pieces of self. If we try to achieve some awakening or enlightenment, it doesn't succeed. We hear that sitting is to clarify the true nature of the self, but it seems nothing is clarified, nothing happens. You just spend time and have lots of pain and a stumbling mind. If you sit all day you have a good sitting once or twice, but when you compare the good sitting with the rest of have a very regretful mind. "What was I doing. Drowsy. Powerless sitting." Doubt arises in this. What is it? Is this all right? Are you ok? Your mind is in a different place than sitting. I wish you would sit alone sometimes for several days. If you sit alone, although there are many dangerous situations to fall into, you feel you can clarify your right intention, your strict attitude about taking care of yourself. If we sit together like this you think "Because other people sit, this might be alright! This must be the way." If something more important than your concern about yourself occurs, of course you quit sitting and plunge into taking care of that. Actually, for each of us the opportunity of sitting is the same as sitting alone. Student: It seems like my best sitting is when I'm having a lot of difficulty. Kobun: That's right, because lots of problems wake you up. Student: So is it good to have problems, then? Kobun: If there is no problems, people begin to sleep in zazen, and that state is a little bit funny. Energy goes to the opposite direction when you are always peaceful, there is no way to wake up. By seeing into the broad distance, by stretching your mind to a very far place to understand what is actually going on, there is no way to sleep in zazen. But personal exhaustion is another subject. Some people only choose an exhausted time to sit, and then they fall to sleep. That's isn't so good. Continuously I suggest to you that you have good posture. That is because posture is a sort of proof of your mind situation, a reflection of the invisible part of your life which penetrates your body, your physical condition. It helps to start with good posture, and let your mind ride on good breath, on smooth, deep, even breath coming in and going out, which keeps you from
slipping from the present moment. As soon as you forget your breath, mind-phenomena color your breath, and all sorts of movies go on in that breath, and your body continuously reflects whatever goes on in those personal movies. We like to just let these movies go and forget them, or maybe finish them, but I don't want to say just forget them.. The one who keeps watching, who keeps letting the whole thing happen is a very important part of yourself. It is not necessarily the judgmental part of yourself, but just the observing part. Student: I've been feeling I have a zillion problems and that if I work I'll just explode. It's hard to sit if you really have something to work through. Then I'm afraid of sitting. Kobun: Where are you going, doing so many things? There must be a reason to choose many things to do. Are you going somewhere? Student: No. Kobun: Then you can start sitting first, then do things one by one afterwards. If you want to go somewhere and have so many things to do, sitting is foolish. You should go and do them. Sitting is the rediscovery of your basic strength and your clarity. When you begin to do things, actually there are note so many choices. What you really want to do is always one or two things. Student: I think I know that if we have the right attitude and good effort, that our practice extends to everything we do. Nevertheless, I still find myself feeling guilty at times when I don't sit when sitting is scheduled, because the children want to do something else, or I don't feel good. The guilt doesn't seem natural. What attitude is right not to feel this distinction between our all-pervasive practice and our sitting practice? Kobun: Guilt isn't actually what is involved here. If you are sorry to you, that is all. If a sitting opportunity comes, but you have lots of obligations which you wish to be involved with, if you do them, you have to miss the sitting. This struggle goes on always, actually. In other words, most of the day we feel sorry about missing sitting. We feel like little mice running around and around. If you didn't do that, you could do the real thing that you want to do. So there is very deep suffering. The right attitude is to develop your faith in the contents of zazen. You cannot get out of this zazen, even if you jump on a jet plane to fly away from zazen. Alas, in the jet plane jumped Buddha. Zazen mind is an enormously big thing. Getting up and taking care of things is in that big mind. You cannot attach to zazen while you are not doing it. Do you understand? It seems that if you cannot do zazen it is alright. Don't do it. To enjoy what you are doing is the most important thing. Instead of looking a zazen with mournful eyes while washing the diapers, you enjoy what you are doing, and when the chance comes, you sit. Often while we are sitting a call will come from someone asking for us to relate to them. When important things call you, this opportunity to sit is almost impossible to have. So you are deeply involved with others, and most of the time you don't regret not doing zazen because you are doing something else. Zazen doesn't draw you from what you are supposed to be doing; simply, you miss the opportunity to sit because there is so much emphasis on the importance of communication. You often feel guilty when you take off from your daily activities to join sitting. You feel you are doing a personal thing, and at the same time you doubt if there is time to do it. The best way to live is to consider the people who relate with you in your day to day life and emphasize how they feel
about your absence. Their tremendous kindness makes you able to join this sitting practice. Usually you don't think about your situation this deeply, since you have such an urgency to discover your true nature. On that level the people you are concerned with, the people who are, concerned about you, let you go to come waste time here. And they literally say, "wasted time," when you come back with a shabby face! We think we know things very well, but the things we know are still very small. What this sitting does to the whole situation is my question to myself and to you, too. There are advantages and at the same time great disadvantages, too, because when we are actually sitting we cannot do other things. Actual sitting requires our entire involvement, so whatever we really like to do besides sitting cannot be done at the time. That is a great disadvantage. We have to remember that, and make this disadvantage turn to a great advantage . That is the important point. Once is enough to sit in this life, if the sitting is a real one. Many sittings are better. And whole life sitting is the best. But it is rare to have such luck. Student : You mentioned protecting zazen the context of concentration because when we sit we are not doing one thing; we are open to other people, protect zazen. Is that because we are going into a situation where it's not safe? Kobun: The context in which we protect zazen is the force of samadhi. Samadhi is a symmetrical pattern of energy. If you are not careful though, symmetrical energy begins to split like broken glass, and you find unexpected results. In other words, once in a while you begin to feel very well-centered; whatever you say, whatever you see is perfect. At such a time, you get so high that you begin to preach to other people. After about five minutes you discover that you are at the wrong place, because non one understands you. Many people begin to say that you are in a strange state. Preaching is not necessary to do at all; you become blind about others if you begin to preach to them. Joriki is the subject. Riki means power, like the force of wind itself. When you grasp something, your grasping strength and the thing grasped which pushes it back balance together. If the is not enough force, the thing will fall off. If there is too much force, it will push the thing. That kind of balance of force in whatever to do, whatever you speak, whatever you think, all go into the situation. So you have to be very careful about what kind of wish you send to other people. This is a kind tantric teaching, though you don't have to name it that. Thought itself, imagination itself, is a manifestation of that force. So keep a kind spirit toward yourself and toward others, and try to balance all things as they all should be. That is a necessary process, in order to use that power. If your power is scattered in five things everyday, maybe some day the five things will come together, thirty years from now. But it is a very big job. The wisest way is to choose one, one you really want to do. Consign every other thing to the background and you will begin to observe that your doing in itself is completed, not waiting for tomorrow. The jo in joriki means a stable strength. Usually it appears as a capacity for accepting other people or situations as they are, without wanting to control them. By such acceptance you finally become yourself. Joriki is a very strange thing. Unless you sit, it never grows.
Concentration is not sitting. Concentration is mind. The mind and the conditioned situation which the mind is dealing with are one thing. So concentration is actually another word for
samadhi. In other words, if you a doing something, and utterly devoting yourself to it, that is what concentration is. So in a larger sense, sitting itself is perfect concentration. But in general, you cannot say sitting is concentration, because there are hundreds of millions of concentrations The problem here is any kind of concentration makes you ignore anything other than that concentration. So when you concentrate on something, don't become afraid of your ignorance. You had better now that you are going to become ignorant about hundreds of things, because you picked this one. The reason I said sitting is not concentration is that concentration still involves the self who maintains self-tendency. Sitting is to destroy hat kind of thinking. Just be there, exist there as something that was from beginningless beginning. From beginningless beginning everything grows, and now will be so. So there are dimensional differences between sitting and concentration. When you cook something, you do not concentrate you attention on a particular thing. Concentration is like clear blindness, you are acting in it; when the work is done, the food is there. If you concentrate , saying, "I'll cut this squash in a real nice way," with that kind of mind you cannot move your knife so well. If you forget the idea that, "I'll do a good job," then the surface consciousness may be blind, but a very intuitive, very clear order is always working. So you naturally know when to cut, when to stop the fire, and when to stop cooking. In this sense, practice and repetition of training are always needed for concentration. Meditation is very different. Many times people mix up meditation and concentration. In meditation you cannot control yourself. If you try to control yourself, you never get into meditation. Your concentration is controlling you when you are "doing" some form of meditation. Instead, you have to ask your meditation, "please, please come to me. Please work for me." Otherwise, if you chase to get it, it will never come to you. Even if meditation is always is covering and accepting me, whatever I'm doing, I don't feel it. Recognition of the feeling of meditation is like feeling our inhalation and exhalation. Air is everywhere and you just breathe a very little amount of it. When you inhale, your whole life is exhaled by air. If you exhale, you are inhaled by the whole air. So there is no conception of small and big : "I am small and meditation is big," or "Meditation is small and I am big." And there is no you, there is no sense of inside or outside. In the big world of meditation, when two or three elements are communicating, that is concentration. If you concentrate on every direction, that is meditation. You do not do it, but it happens when you are ready to accept it, or when you are ready to be accepted by it.
SE!F AND OTHERS
To be born on this earth is to have the whole thing. From the beginning there are precise distinctions between thing, but the whole thing is yourself. That is how it started. When we become deeply involved in precise discrimination between things for a long time, we forget our original self. We don't lose that original nature, but we forget. To sit is to recover that original nature fully, and to stay with it for a while. To get up from sitting is to gain excellent relationships with other selves, many dilemmas, people, plant, birds, jobs. Suzuki roshi talks about this original self as the "Big Mind" in which everything exists without exception. Dogen Zenji said,
"To master the Buddha's way is to master, to clarify your own self. Through that you can clarify he own-selves of all others."
He said your focus is to clarify yourself, you presence. He also said,
"It is the greatest living subject, to clarify your own birth and death
The subject is so close, pointing to yourself like this. If the subject is outside, we can study it pretty well, but when you start pointing to yourself like this, it is almost impossible. Our fresh eye is opened toward the outside, so the same eye cannot be used for the interior realm. When we turn around and make our interior world an external object, and analyze what's happening, we usually call this psychology or religious studies. But this kind of study of an objectified self is not what we are doing. How to be with the self which rejects analysis in every way is a very important point. What zazen causes in you is what you already have and how you actually are, not something different from your actual existence. Everyone of us has some deep concern about ourselves, a wish to be a valuable being both for ourselves and for those about whom we are concerned. We want to be truly important being for all. It seems that meditation practice gives some way to clarify yourself as an important being, as a seeker of deep understanding about where and how you exist and what is actually going on. You came quite naturally to sit, without knowing that this action has some unclear ambition in it; it points to a very natural, unconscious confidence in your being. To desire perfect enlightenment is the biggest ambition you can have. As long as you sit, you have to have such ambition. It is also very ambitious to want to understand other existences. How do you experience the existence of others? It is very difficult to really know that others exist, are a different existence from yourself. Usually what you see in others is who you are, so what you experience is when and where you existed. Actually we don't care whether others exist or not, but when you reach an ultimate understanding of yourself, a big question appears. Is this just me existing, or are there some people on this earth? The model of primitive experience is children's consciousness when they are two to three years old. Small children don't have a sense of past and future, only the present, and the only existence is themselves. Even though we become a member of society and see and are taught that there are other existences, that children's consciousness stays with us. The turning point comes when we begin loving other people. Do you remember when you began to love beings when you were small? Its was a very big event. It's a kind of opening up of other worlds with your capacity, and opening yourself at the same time, opening up to accept other existences. A very difficult person to meet with and understand is actually our own self. The whole experience of getting to know others is actually to have a standard to reach to yourself. Endlessly approaching the matter of oneself is the focus of zazen practice. Clarifying your own existence is actually expanding your own self endlessly. Whatever you experience becomes yourself, and you see into yourself with the existence of others, which is not different from yourself.
The great pleasure, the great accomplishment of your way-seeking is in the realization of sitting. This form of sitting, this place to sit on this earth, this time to sit, the twentieth century, all have lots of problems. The shikan taza way is giving birth to the Buddha seed. It is not a person becoming a better person, it is the actualization of what we are. To sit in shikan taza is very uncomfortable at first. It's rather more peaceful to sink into a warm soft couch and have a nice drink. That's peace, we may say. But to recover our basic view of sanity and clarity, to see how everything actually arises and falls moment after moment is how take this sitting posture. Awakening, continuous awakening is nothing but our basic nature. Putting that awakening into some form as so-called being, as a man or a woman, explains what shikan taza is. When you
jump into the Buddha's world, you place yourself in the center of annuttara-samyaksambodhi. That is shikan taza's real meaning, real action. Shikan-taza is immeasurable, it's unthinkable. You can use your entire system of knowing, but it is impossible to completely understand it. Shikan taza sounds very strong. Shikan is understood as identical to zaza. Shikan means "pure", "one", "only for it". Ta is a very strong word. It shows moving activity. When you hit, that movement is called ta, so "strike" is ta. Za is the same as in the word zazen, sitting. To express the whole character, shikan taza is actually quite enough, but not enough until you experience it. Shikan taza is sitting for itself. You may say pure sitting for itself, not for something else. Shinjin datsu raku is the same as shikan taza . Shinjin is "body/mind". Body/mind is nothing but our whole life. This cannot be seen in two ways; body/mind is one thing. Datsu is "to refrain", and "to drop from". When you are dreaming some terrible dream, and the dream is cut off, that is called datsu. When you get rid of that dream, that also is called datsu. When you have a sword, the action of pulling a sword from its sheath is called datsu. So datsu has a very strong meaning of freeing from something. Another way to express it is: to have conquered something which hindered your existence, like attachments, delusions, or misunderstandings. Zazen itself is cutting off those conditions. When we are dreaming, even if it is later called a dream, while we are dreaming it is a real thing. This night is almost the same as last night, but you cannot call last night back. You can remember how you were yesterday, but at this point, we don't have yesterday. Yesterday only gave time and space for now, so we can be completely in present time. Datsu is the succession of time from today to tomorrow; datsu of now is the next moment. This moment is the next moment. This is the way our life is going on. It sounds like an intuitive, ordinary philosophy of life. Everyone can feel it: "Oh, it is, it is!" Usually no one pays attention in that way, being with the present and seeing and feeling that yesterday is behind us like a rope. We are on top of the rope, or karma, and it just goes on and on like knitting. So last year someone might have said, "You are crazy", and you thought there was something to it. A strong impression makes unreal existence real and real existence unreal. Shikan taza is not what we usually think, it is truly personal deeds, because only if one decides to sit does it appear. Sitting cannot be fully experienced by imagination. Shikan taza has a kind of slippery feeling to it. This means that it is easy to slip off of it. It's quite slippery because it relates to your everyday condition. In each sitting you have to sense it without anyone's help. There are no techniques; there is no measuring stick with which to evaluate it. There is no way of knowing what it is or what you are doing. All kinds of conceptualizations, ideas, hopes fall away from it. They cannot stay in your meditation. Sitting on your cushion is not relaxation, it is the result of all your knowledge. Every experience you have come through sits there each time. It is very serious. Otherwise, you sit because it feels good, and you are comfortable, and once in a while you feel an ecstatic sensation in your body. You feel calmness, stillness, clarity, and forget there are hungry people on this earth. You forget there are lots of diseases which are killing people. If you do not observe that in your sitting, you are just escaping into your desire. It happens if you mistake or limit the focus of your sitting practice. Sitting shikan taza is the place itself, and things. The dynamics of all Buddhas are in it. When you sit, the cushion sits with you. If you wear glasses, the glasses sit with you. Clothing sits with you. House sits with you. People who are moving around outside all sit with you. They don't take the sitting posture! Sitting shikan taza does not depend on human intellect. It is not something you understand. It's indescribable. We say the contents of sitting are beyond our thinking system or our sensations. Belief or confidence is not what we usually think it is. Doing shikan taza shows utter trust and belief in it. If you explain shikan taza it becomes something which you don't understand, but you can experience
sitting with everything with the understanding that everything is there, is there with you. Buddha's sitting is way beyond purity and impurity, holiness and unholiness. It is beyond Bodhisattva's sitting, which is endless. Bodhisattva's sitting is like a seed which never stops flourishing; it always come back.
This biography was put together, mostly by Angie, from accounts and contributions from a number of old students of Kobun. If you feel like adding something, please feel free to write. Depending what it is, we can incorporate it into the bio, add it to the annectode section or poste it for further discussion and comments … thank you. Kobun was born on February 1, 1938 in the small town of Kamo, Niigata Prefecture, in northwestern Japan, to a family from a long line of Soto Zen priests. The youngest of six children, he spent his childhood at the family temple, Jokoji. When he was eight years old his father died of cancer. It was during a time when Japan had been devastated by the Second World War, and there were continuing food shortages. His mother somehow fed her family, sometimes cooking stems of pumpkin when the pumpkins were gone, and using plants foraged in the woods. Ordained at age thirteen, Kobun was adoopted at fourteen by Hozan Koei Chino, Roshi, whose temple, Kotaiji, was about a mile from Kobun's family temple. Chino Roshi, without heirs, trained Kobun so that, in the Japanese tradition, Kobun would inherit the abbacy of Kotaiji. Chino Roshi had a deep, resonant voice, and chanting, not zazen, was his main practice. Kobun's training often took place as he followed his teacher through the fields as they walked to households in need of their ceremonies and prayers, chanting as they went. He received Dharma transmission from Koei Chino Roshi in Kamo in l962. Kobun attended Komazawa University from 1957 to 1961 in Kyoto. From there he went on to Kyoto University from 1961 to 1965 for a degree in Mahayana Buddhism, where his masters thesis subject was a study of Mahayanasmgraha. In part he chose to study in Kyoto to be close to Kodo Sawaki Roshi, with whom he had sat sesshin since high school days. Sawaki Roshi strongly advocated revitalization of zazen as the central practice of Soto Zen, a subject of particular interest to Kobun. During his years in Kyoto Kobun also trained in Kyudo with the archery master, Kanjuro Shibata Sensei. Also, from an early age, he was an intuitive and skilled calligrapher. After university Kobun trained at Eiheiji monastery, for three years from 1965-1967. Toward the end of this time, he was asked to train incoming novices. He broke tradition by getting permission to put aside the kyosaku, the practice stick which had sometimes been misused as a tool for cruelly hazing young monks. In 1967, while at Eiheiji, Kobun received a letter from Suzuki Roshi, who had been teaching in San Francisco since 1958, where he founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The letter was an invitation for Kobun to come to California to help establish Tassjara, the first Zen monastery in America. Kobun later said this was a dream come true for him. But when he asked his master's permission, Chino Roshi three times said "No." Ignoring ancient tradition, which required him to accept a third denial, Kobun took ship for San Francisco. This was 1967. He brought gifts from Eiheiji for the new monastery: A huge drum, a bell, and a mokugyo. (In the Tassajara fire of 1978 these gifts were destroyed. All that was left of the bell was a puddle of bronze.) He contributed many of the forms still in use today at Tassajara and San Francisco Zen Center, among them the sounding of the han, the drum, the bells, and the taking of meals in formal oryoki style. He was a resident priest at Tassajara until 1969. "I don't think people realize how important he was in establishing Tassajara Zen Center," says Bob Watkins, who studied with Kobun for thirty-five years. "There were only a handful of us there at the time, sitting on army blankets in the old building we used as a zendo. "In the beginning Kobun taught us everything: How to put the
zendo together, breathing, posture, how to do oryoki meals in Navy surplus bowls." Haiku Zendo, a suburban offshoot of San Francisco Zen Center, was created in Los Altos, California, in 1966. Suzuki Roshi, and later Katagiri Roshi, traveled the 30 miles from San Francisco to lecture and teach there. In 1967 this sangha raised the funds for Kobun's journey to America, with the idea that he would become their resident teacher. Suzuki Roshi, however, first needed Kobun at Tassajara, so it wasn't until 1970 that Kobun became the resident teacher at Haiku Zendo. This small zendo was a remodeled garage with seventeen seats. Located at the home of Marion Derby, who later moved to Tassajara, it was then purchased and maintained by Les Kaye and his family. Kobun and his new wife Harriet soon moved into a house one block away. The interior of the zendo had an authentic, Japanese feeling, having been constructed with carefully chosen materials and designed with a raised sitting platform. It was eventually too small for the sangha which grew rapidly under Kobun's guidance. His style was informal. He preferred to be called Kobun, not "Sensei," and never "Roshi," and he encouraged his students to think of him as their friend rather than their master. His unpredictable and subtle style resonated with the times as he emphasized life-in-the-world, encouraging his students to marry and have children. During those early days he was almost always available to his students, night and day, even after his two children were born, Taido in October, 1971, Yoshiko in May, 1973. Kobun gave workshops and courses through Stanford University, Foothill College, and U. C. Santa Cruz. The course Kobun taught at Stanford, offered through an extended education program open to the entire community, was called The Roots of Zen, and focused on Indian Madhyamika and Yogachara philosopies. He was also, after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971, on call to San Francisco Zen Center, helping Baker Roshi with teaching the forms of Zen, including instructions for ceremonies, translations of chants and sutras, funerals, and ordinations. Kobun also did the calligraphy on Zen Center rakusus and on stupas marking ashes burial sites. During this time, too, Kobun became a close personal friend of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had made a pact with Suzuki Roshi to establish a Buddhist university in the United States. After Suzuki Roshi passed away, Trungpa Rinpoche asked for Kobun's help in establishing his vision in Colorado. He needed Kobun to help instruct his students in zazen, drumming, bowing, oryoki, and calligraphy. Kobun introduced Rinpoche to Shibata Sensei, and that relationship became the source of kyudo practice in the Shambala tradition, still led by Shibata Sensei today. Kobun taught at the inaugural summer sesshion of Naropa in 1974 and returned to what is now Shambala Mountain Center and Naropa University every year to teach and lead sesshins. The Santa Cruz Zen Center was founded in 1971 by Kobun and local students, with Jim Goodhue as the first director. Kobun led sitting practice and lectured every week in Santa Cruz for over ten years. He also helped found Spring Mountain in Mendocino County north of San Francisco in the early 1970s. A small residential community, it underwent several transformations in the Ukiah area, until practice there came to an end in the 1980's. Trout Black, Stephan Bodian, Buff Bradley, Elmer Caruso (who headed the Spring Mountain effort), Jerry Halpern, and Phil Olsen were among the first monks ordained by Kobun, in the early 1970s. Four seven-day sesshins a year and many weekend and one day sittings were held in a youth hostel a few miles from Haiku zendo on the Duveneck ranch, Hidden Villa, in Los Altos Hills. After a few years of hauling cushions, food, mats, tan and pots back and forth, the sangha decided to look for a permanent place to practice. The sangha was incorporated in the State of
California as Bodhi. At Kobun's suggestion, it was stated in the bylaws that all beings are members of this sangha. Funds were raised while several practice sites were being considered. Eventually the sangha decided to buy both an urban city property and one in the Santa Cruz mountains. The city center, Kannon-do, was established in Mountain View with Keido Les Kaye as chief priest, who was recognized in 1986 as a Zen teacher and dharma heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Kobun named the site in the mountains Jikoji, meaning Compassion Light Temple. His elder brother, Keibun, abbot of the family temple in Japan, came to America to inaugurate the new temple with a Dai Segaki, a Hungry Ghost Ceremony, in 1982. Kobun and his wife, Harriet, separated in the late 1970's and finally divorced in the 1980's. Kobun helpled Harriet move with the children to Little Rock, Arkansas where she had family roots and could continue her graduate education in nursing. Missing them greatly, he wanted to be within at least one day's driving distance of his children. Taos, New Mexico, in the American Southwest, met the requirement, so he settled there, and his children visited him on school vacations. At that time, Kobun's student, Bob Watkins, was looking for land on which to create a small monastery. A property was found under the brow of El Salto mountain, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, in the Sangre de Christo mountains near Taos. It included a small adobe house and a garage that could be converted into a small zendo. Kobun named it Hokoji, founded in 1983. He translated the name as Phoenix Light Temple. Hokoji can also be translated as Wisdom Light Temple. For the past 10 years, Stanley White has been holding the position of Osho or head priest. Here, Zazen pratice on a daily basis and regular sesshins have been going on for over 25 years by now. In 1984 Kobun himself bought a piece of property down the road from the zendo, and began to build a house in the forest, a coiling dragon of embedded colored stones encircling its foundation. Meanwhile he rented a house in Taos, which he named Saiho-in, after the dharma name of his close friend and companion, Stephanie Sirgo. Kobun returned often from Taos to California to lead sesshins at Jikoji. Kobun began to be known as a traveling teacher as he divided his time among Jikoji, Hokoji, and Shambala sanghas in the United States. Late in the 1980s he began visiting Europe to help friend and former student from Tassajara, Vanja Palmers, who was leading groups of Zen students in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Over the course of 15 years, Kobun helped Vanja lead sesshins and they taught and ordained many students together. With his help and encouragement, Vanja and his European Zen friends established several new centers, particularly Felsentor and Puregg. In 1991 Vanja received Dharma Transmission from Kobun. During this time Kobun also met his future wife, Katrin, at Puregg. Because Kobun's former master, Chino Roshi, had realized that Kobun would never return to Kotaiji, Chinos temple in Japan, he formally separated from Kobun. Kobun was then re-adopted into the Otogawa lineage and took his original family name. Consequently his first two children have the surname Chino, while his second family has the name Otogawa. In the 1990s, long since reconciled with his master, Kobun met the monk whom Chino Roshi had adopted to inherit the temple in his place. He said, "Now I have a little Dharma brother in Japan who is taking care of my master. It feels very good... Togo is his name. Togo means satori." Kobun and Katrin moved to Santa Cruz in the 1990's where they lived with their three children, Maya, Tatsuko, and Alyosha in a home Kobun named Raigho-in. It was a centuries-old style Japanese farmhouse newly built and owned by Ken Wing and Hollis DeLancy. They had helped
support Jikoji and Kobun for many years, and had hosted him on trips to Japan, India, and elsewhere. After his divorce from Harriet, Kobun, while he continued to sit zazen with his students, considered himself in retreat from formal teaching. But after the birth of Alyosha, his third child with Katrin, he came out of retreat to teach again. This motivated a move to Colorado, where he was offered a position on the Naropa faculty. The family lived at Shambala and Kobun commuted to his classes at Naropa. In 2000 he was appointed to the World Wisdom Chair. Martin Mosko, a landscape architect and garden designer based in Boulder was a long time student and friend of Kobun. Martin also trained with Kobun's brother, Hojosama Keibun Otogawa, abbot of the family temple, and received dharma transmission from him. In 2001 Kobun consecrated a Zen center and garden Martin had created as Hakubai Temple. Martin Hakubai Mosko was installed as abbot in a Mountain Seat Ceremony in the Spring of 2004. By 2000, Kobun had given the precepts to over one hundred students. Most of the ceremonies were Zuike Tokudo, or lay ordination. Several were Shukke Tokudo, or novice priest ordinations. On July 26, 2002, Kobun drowned in Vanja’s swimming pond in Switzerland while trying to rescue his five-year-old daughter Maya, who also drowned. Following Kobun's death, Vanja Palmers, as his most senior heir, completed transmission for Angie Boissevain, Caroline Atkinson, Jean Leyshon, Bob Watkins, and later, Michael Newhall, the current Resident Teacher at Jikoji. He also transmitted the dharma to Ian Forsberg in Taos. Angie Boissevain had served as Director of Jikoji under Kobun for almost two decades, and began teaching with his encouragement. She now leads the Floating Zendo in San Jose. Carolyn Atkinson founded and leads the Everyday Dharma Zen Center in Santa Cruz. Both Ian and Jean are active at Hokoji, each leading at least one yearly sesshin, and also traveling to lead sesshins at other centers. Jerry Halpern, wrote, "Possibly Kobun's finest quality as a teacher was that he required his students to live their own lives, and he encouraged them to become free to do so."
An%&'ot%( )#o* St%$han Bo'ian Kobun was like an elder brother to me, as well as a teacher. When I left for Tassajara, he gave me warm woolen underwear he had worn at Eiheiji. When I returned on winter break between training periods, I stayed at his house, though I’m sure Harriet wasn’t happy about it. As we all know, Kobun was unconventional and did things in his own unique and spontaneous way. When he ordained me a priest in 1974, he didn’t order new robes from Japan, as was customary. Instead, he gave me his own koromo (outer robe), okesa (ceremonial robe draped over the left shoulder), and an ancient silk rakusu he had received from his master. The rakusu was brown, a color generally reserved for those who had received transmission, but Kobun didn’t seem to care. Later he said to me, “When you wear this robe, you’re invisible.” When it came time to shave my head in preparation for the ordination, a task generally delegated to one of the other monks, Kobun offered to do it himself and then forgot to leave the small patch of hair (called shura) that was to be shaved off during the ordination itself. The head shaving was a very intimate prelude to the ordination. I felt like I was being stripped down to bare essentials. Kobun was a good friend of Chogyam Trungpa, and the two would often spend time together when Trungpa visited the Bay Area. One day the two met in Sonja Margulies’s living room to drink tea and do calligraphy, with several of us in attendance. As one teacher looked on, the other would spread out a large piece of paper, kneel down, gracefully stroke some words of spiritual wisdom (Trungpa in Tibetan, Kobun in Japanese), and then translate what he had written. After a pause the other teacher would do the same. Before long the exchange became a kind of playful Dharma combat, with each man responding to what the other had written. At one point Trungpa, who was dressed in his customary suit and tie, leaned over and inscribed the phrase “Mindfulness is the way of all the Buddhas.” Kobun, with the billowy sleeves of his monk’s robes tucked under his arms, picked up a large brush, saturated it with black ink, paused, and then wrote with a mischievous flourish: “Great no mind.” Everyone in the room broke out in uproarious laughter.
An%&'ot%( by +oan Ha,i)a- Ro(hi "The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally we sit down for a while." Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi (1938-2002) • Kobun Chino lived for some years in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, near his zendo and overlooking Taos. One day he was alone in a house, kindly offered to him by an old Zennie named Jonathon Altman, when a knock came on the door. Kobun answered it and there was a young man who said that he came for help because his life was a mess. Kobun said that his life was a mess too and that he didn't think he could be of help. The young man pleaded for Kobun to talk to him so Kobun let him in. Once inside he told the fellow to take a seat and excused himself for a moment to go to the bathroom. The man waited and waited but Kobun did not return, so finally he went across the room and knocked on the door that Kobun had entered. There was no answer so, still calling Kobun's name, he opened the door slowly. The door wide open, the young man looked inside to see an empty bathroom with an open window. Kobun was nowhere to be found. • Once my previous Zen teacher, Tim McCarthy, was with his teacher Kobun Chino while Kobun was giving a talk about Zen. Someone asked Kobun about flying saucers. Kobun told him, "You should ask Tim about that. He reads comic books!" • Kobun Chino asked: When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher? The student replied: Everything Kobun, paused, then said: No, you……. • During a shosan (a formal public question-and-answer session) Angie Boissevain came before Kobun Chino Roshi with a question that had been burning within her all morning. But after she made the customary three bows and knelt before him she found her mind utterly blank, the question gone. She sat before him in silence for a long time before finally saying: "Where have all the words gone?" "Back where they came from," replied her teacher. • Shortly after September 11, 2001, Kobun was the honored guest at the weekly meeting of the sangha which would become Everyday Dharma Zen Center. After meditation, Kobun asked for questions. A visibly distraught young woman asked, "How can I deal with the enormous fear and anger that I feel about what happened?" Kobun replied, "Do one kind thing for someone every day." • As a master of Zen archery, Kobun was asked to teach a course at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The target was set up on a beautiful grassy area on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kobun took his bow, notched the arrow, took careful aim, and shot. The arrow sailed high over the target, went past the railing, beyond the cliff, only to plunge into the ocean far below. Kobun looked happily at the shocked students and shouted, "Bull's eye!!"
An%&'ot%( by Cita O#t%ga About this time to which I'm referring, Kobun had developed a round, US $quarter-sized skin problem on the back of his neck, about 1 inch (sorry don't know metric yet) below his hair-line in the center. He would frequently touch & "worry" this. I'd had lots of karma w/ a prominent guy on the Taos Pueblo, a classic shaman, a former governor of the Pueblo, a healer, seer & kiva man. I suggested to Kobun we go see him, so one day we did, with him driving. Once on the road in the Pueblo, we saw an old grandmother walking & gave her a ride to the central part of the pueblo, near where my friend (Joe) lived. The grandmother ("Recita") sat in front, passenger side. Kobun showed her his bad neck spot & he kept touching it. Recita finally slapped his hand quite energetically & told him to leave it alone! We arrive at Joe's (& his wife, Francis') home & Kobun bows & presents to Joe a big box of fine incense of the sort used @ Eiheiji. Francis is in another room, & I feel like I'm with two brothers who rather look alike, mumble alike & have the same quiet yet spacious energy. Though they've never met, there seems to be an immediate fondness between the two, a recognition. Joe has Francis mix up a thick paste to apply to the neck. I ask about the contents, but Joe won't tell me. He gives Kobun instructions, gratitude is voiced, & we're ready to leave. Then Kobun notices a bow & set of arrows hanging on the wall. He walks over and bows deeply to them. Off we go. Once, during that time period, Kobun & I were at his little "camp", a place to which he would retire not infrequenly. It was a clever little 'primitive' area which had a fire pit atop which was a grill with a pot for heating water. We were sitting on the ground before this fire pit with water heated for tea (powdered, green), & when it came time to stir the brew, he casually reached down, barely looking, came up with a ponderosa pine cluster & stirred botyh of our cups with its long needles. (I recall no more elegant moment in my entire 58 years!) I asked him about Venus enlightening the buddha. Without looking up, he said, "Oh yes, many generations, this." Period. Sometime later, after a 3-day sesshin, as we sat in the house where Bob Watkins lived next to the zendo, Kobun gave a short talk. At one point, he referred to buddha's enlightenment, about his looking up at Venus (usually called the 'morning', but sometimes the 'evening' star). Kobun said: "He looked up at that star, and it took him. " I realize this is not exactly 'definitive', but you know how it was with him: a taste was offered, a hint. One often had to wait for more.
An%&'ot%( by +a*%( Ha#'y Upon learning of Kobun's passing, it was with a heavy heart that I remembered a sesshin which I sat with Kobun at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in the summer of l978. During this practice session (seven days, I believe) , two remarkable events occurred. During my interview, Kobun expressed, through posture and, more importantly, through his eyes, perhaps the most compelling and moving expression of empathy- sadness with friendship and understanding- I have ever experienced. His willingness to acknowledge pain, suffering and friendship with me and others, continues to touch me. Also, during the practice session, he chose to speak on the theme of the Greek heroic figure ORPHEUS, his journey to the underworld to retrieve his heart/love EURYDICE. To retrieve her from the underworld, and death, Orpheus had to obey one condition set by Hades, the ruler of the underworld: not to look be hind him, towards her, until she was safely back under the light of the sun. This, Orpheus failed to do, and lost her forever. This story clearly moved Kobun, who saw it as a model or guide to practice and the path. During our journey, faith was essential, to retrieve our spirit, our bodhi, our true heart. Imagine my shock when I learned that Kobun was not only unable to retrieve his daughter, but lost his life as well. This stunning enigma has haunted me since learning of Kobun's passing. He was truly a wonderful, beautiful spirit and friend.
A Light in the Mind
Kobun Chino Roshi as remembered by Carolyn Atkinson
by Carolyn Atkinson
the final chapter in her book A Light in the Mind: Living Your Life Just As It Is © 2010 by Carolyn Atkinson. All rights reserved.
We’ve been talking at Everyday Dharma about the question raised by the Dalai Lama after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even as he was being feted by the whole world, he found himself wondering if his efforts truly had been enough. When we slow down, when we stop and pay attention, it’s possible to feel the wish arise that somehow we might do more, or do better. Perhaps it seems we should be doing something else, something other than this life we find ourselves experiencing. Are we getting it right? Most of us want to feel accomplished, to seem worthy in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. And it’s easy to long for life to have transcendent meaning always. Couldn’t we just be certain that what we’re doing is enough, or is the right thing? The feelings are often just a quiet moment or two away from consciousness. We could say that, in its most general form, it’s a desire for our lives to be extraordinary somehow. So, here at our Zen Center, we’ve been considering what it might mean for each of us truly to accept and to allow ourselves to be something else–to be ordinary. What if we’re not really special at all? What if we’re quite ordinary? For some of us, this can bring a sense of deep relief, because there’s no need to strive so hard, to feel always dissatisfied and fearful of criticism; it’s actually all right to just be ourselves. For others, being ordinary can feel really disappointing; the words that come to mind are boring, dull, uninteresting. We look around at others in the world, and it can seem that, here and there, some people truly are different–larger than life, we might say. So why can’t we also be one of those very extraordinary people? I remember the many years I felt a deep longing to be special, to be extraordinary. Growing up in post-World War II America, I, along with many of my generation who came of age in the sixties and seventies, wanted to be anything but ordinary. Looking back on my life, I’m sure that this was involved in my desire to practice Zen Buddhism. It looked so special–there were mysterious ways of talking and sitting, and the monks all had striking black robes to wear. The retreats were heroic, with very little sleep, cold feet and brutal conditions. Surely if we undertook all these special practices, we could be extraordinary, even luminous perhaps? Couldn’t we then reach an ideal, transcendent state of mind?
When I first met my teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, it seemed that all my wishes to find transcendence came together in his very presence. He appeared to be absolutely extraordinary. This slight Japanese man was, for us, the perfect expression of mystery. He moved silently, except for his rustling robes; he chanted in ancient languages; he gazed at us with large, luminous eyes; and it felt to me as if, merely by looking at me, he could penetrate into my very heart and mind. He was incredibly exotic; he wore white tabi socks and carried a teaching stick. He’d grown up in a Zen temple family in Japan, and we knew he’d begun to meditate when he was less than six years old. I think I believed that simply being in his presence would somehow help me transform my life into something extraordinary. I suspect most of us who were his students felt this way in the beginning. Fortunately for us, Kobun was an amazingly kind person. He didn’t take advantage of our adoration; he was very accepting of us at our little zendo in Santa Cruz. We were a motley gathering of hippies, graduate students, short-order cooks and carpenters, and, nevertheless, he was willing to be completely present with us in our ordinary lives. He gave us the great gift of living his life in our midst. We who were his students spent time with him when he was glorious and inspirational, and we felt inspired simply by being around him. In looking back on this time, I think that we felt touched by his reflected glory. But there was this also: because he was willing to stay connected with us, slowly, gradually, by paying close attention, we could also begin to see not just the glory in his presence, but also sometimes the sadness in his eyes. Occasionally, he seemed isolated, even in the midst of many people. We began to notice that his life didn’t always work out so perfectly; he too sometimes seemed to fall apart. He couldn’t hold everything in his complicated world together all of the time. Apparently, life for him was also what we might call “ordinary.” It could be painful and difficult for him, too. I experienced Kobun as being incredibly present and accepting of us, an amazingly kind man. I also realized gradually over the years, that he was, just like all of us, a very ordinary, flawed human being. He made mistakes. He suffered. His life story looked quite different from ours in the details–more glamorous to us perhaps–but it was the same in effect. We are, each of us, ordinary human beings. We all carry the weight of our family and our personal stories. We all make mistakes, and we all suffer. This seems to be built into being alive. I think this was his greatest gift to me, actually. Finally, I understood that there was no other, more perfect life to reach, beyond this ordinary embodied experience. If Kobun couldn’t do it–if he couldn’t attain a blissed-out state of permanent wisdom and serenity that would protect him from pain in his life–then it was very unlikely that I would find such a place myself! When I recognized this, I saw that there was nothing else to wait for: this life is it. Right here and right now. This is what there is. Rain on the roof. Newspaper soaked and muddy. Unopened mail, unfinished lives. This is what we have–birth and death and everything that lies between. The nature of this life is that it is flawed, it is modest, it is often unsatisfactory. And, also, this life is of enormous value. Nothing is special. And yet everything is unique. This is what we have in these very ordinary, embodied lives. I learned this, in being with Kobun.
Knowing what we have–all we have–are these ordinary lives, I feel now how important it is to not take what we have for granted. Let’s not think that everything will always be the way it is when life feels good. No one person, no particular thing, no place of practice will always be waiting for us. When Kobun died, I was incredibly shocked. I had thought that he would always be there for me. I must confess that when i learned of his death, my first thought was horror that he had died; and my second thought was, “But what about me?” I realized, as I sat with his death, that I had taken him very much for granted. Having learned this painfully with Kobun, I want to say, let’s try not to do that. Don’t think that everything will always be the way it is now, that we can always count on life being the way we want it to be. This is the only time we have, and this is the only life we have, so let’s not take anything for granted. Now, say we really don’t want to wait to live our lives, and we truly have the intention not to take things for granted, the the question is, how exactly can we do this? If we look at our ordinary lives, what might this mean? Certainly I have asked this question for years. How do we do this thing of being alive? What are we doing? In fact, I would say that, as a group of students around Kobun, we asked that question of him more frequently than we did any other. We phrased it in many different ways, but it came down to something like this: “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we do this practice? Why do we meditate?” Over and over, for thirty years or more, we returned to this most basic question. In looking back through the many years that I knew him, I can see that Kobun’s answers grew and deepened over time, just as his life changed and transformed. When he arrived here in America, he was a single, young Japanese man who had grown up in a traditional Asian temple world and had undertaken Buddhist training and studies. His spoken English seemed to be largely scholarly, and his conceptual framework was fairly abstract. I must confess that I found him very difficult to understand in the early years. Here is a portion of a talk he gave that illustrates this time period. As usual, we were asking, “Why do we do this? Why do we sit?” He replied, “The stage of purity go endlessly and so-called ‘Nirvana’ comes very end of it. Nirvana is literally ‘death,’ perfect death is what Nirvana is, and we accomplish it before this body reach to end–still functioning remain we reach to that end of the purity.” I really didn’t understand what he was saying! I had trouble retaining the words. I noticed instead that, for me, the real importance of what Kobun taught was in the way he lived with us; still, I longed to “understand” what he was saying. When, occasionally, he would utter words that i could actually absorb, I felt how precious they were. I suspect it was that way for most of us who were his students. We hoarded the few words we understood. In retrospect, I realize that, over the years of his teaching, his English became much clearer, and his expressions were increasingly less abstract and more grounded in his experience. Here is the way he answered this same question, “Why do we sit” in the middle years of his teaching: “The main subject of Denko-e [a particular retreat period] is how to become a transmitter of actual light. Life light. Practice takes place to shape your whole ability to reflect the light coming through you and to generate, to re-generate your system so the light increases its power.” Now, that was much clearer for me than his earlier statement! It was an image that I could really understand and remember. There are two aspects to this description that I’d like to mention. One is the emphasis on light– this was a very important, recurring image for Kobun. He used the word frequently in his dharma talks, and also in conferring names. Ko is the Japanese sound for “light,” and he named
his two practice places Hokoji and Jikoji. My dharma name also has the word Ko in it, as well– Eiko Joshin. The possibility of light was very important to Kobun. Transforming and enhancing light was his goal. The second aspect is the feeling of power and strength he conveyed when he spoke about “generating, re-generating [our] system so the light increases its power.” He spoke about this in the prime years of his teaching; he was strong and pursuing a life of doing it all. He was committed to having a family and, at the same time, being an available and connected teacher. He traveled from place to place; he took care of his children; and he ministered to his large sangha. He believed–we all probably believed at that time–that it was possible to do everything we set out to do. In fact, Kobun seemed actively to embody this principle for many of us. When he said, in effect, practice is about taking the light that shines into us and making the light even stronger, it felt as if he were actually casting a bright light of inspiration directly upon us, his students. We each drew comfort and clarity from him; he truly seemed to lighten the world around him. We’re told that the Buddha, in his final teaching words, used a similar image. Sometimes it’s translated as, “Be a refuge unto yourself.” But often his words are rendered in this way, “Be a light unto yourself. Make of yourself a light.” Maybe we can understand it as this: make a greater brightness in the world–find your own way. I’ve mentioned that when we asked Kobun how to do something, how to do a ceremony for example, he would reply,”You figure it out. We’re making it all up as we go along.” And, if we really understand that, then of course we have no choice but to find our own way in this life. We must find the light within ourselves. We must be our own light. Kobun liked to say that our effort to find our own way, to create a greater brightness in the world, was a natural impulse. In this same teaching about being a transmitter of light, he said, “We face such a big task, so naturally we sit down for a while.” We were constantly asking him, “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we practice?” His answer was that, facing such a big task as living our lives, naturally, we sit down for a while. So, here is this practice that we do, this deceptively simple activity: we sit down; we slow down; we reduce the stimulation in our lives; and, for this period of time, we give up distraction and entertainment. We simply sit still, making the effort, over and over, to just be here, in this present moment. As you know, this is amazingly difficult. I think that’s why, for so many years, we all kept asking Kobun again and again, “Why do we do this?” We might have been saying, “Why on earth should we do this, at all?” It’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, finding the willingness, over and over, to sit down again, to be present in my life, just as it is. Actually, we could also say, just as we are. And when we just sit down, this is what happens: we experience the pain that we’ve been suppressing, the grief we haven’t had time for, the anger we’ve hidden away, the fear that constantly shadows us. We discover that our minds do their absolute best to escape being here; and we also realize that we–whoever “we” are–are not in charge at all. Over time, we begin to
notice also how much we can actually love others and perhaps finally ourselves. We begin to see that we can turn directly into our pain; we can feel it fully and, even so, we can still survive. When we walk toward our fear we discover that we are no longer controlled by our fear. The fact is that however much we are able to be present–exactly that much is what we are able to bear. Even the death of a most beloved teacher is finally bearable. This was exactly what I found with Kobun after his death. Sitting down–practicing–gave me a way to hold all the feelings so they didn’t destroy me, and I didn’t have to run away. With practice, we can begin to see our lives more clearly, and to live these lives with greater freedom because we are learning to be present. This is truly a revolutionary secret. In “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” Mary Oliver describes the final teaching from the Buddha: “‘Make of yourself a light,’ / said the Buddha, / before he died…. / An old man, he lay down / between two sala trees, / and he might have said anything, / knowing it was his final hour.” The teaching of a lifetime comes down to this one suggestion: “Make of yourself a light. Be a light unto yourself.” Find your own way, we might say. Mary Oliver concludes her poem by speaking in her own voice: “clearly I’m not needed, / yet i feel myself turning / into something of inexplicable value.” In fact, although clearly none of us are needed, amazingly enough, as we quiet our minds and open our hearts, we can truly feel ourselves turning into something of inexplicable value. Kobun pointed us, his students, in this direction. He said that practice is about receiving the light that comes into us, and increasing the power of this light. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” Be of value. In the 1980s, Kobun moved away from northern California, from us, his students in the Bay Area, but he would sometimes come back, perhaps once a year, for a sesshin, a retreat. Most of us carefully kept our calendars clear for his return, and carved out the time to go to see him. I certainly did that. I found that I might have the opportunity to talk with him perhaps for one hour a year during that time when he was gone. That was all. I treasured that one precious hour so much; I would remember for months afterward what he had said to me. Then, in the late 1990s, something amazing happened. He actually moved back to this area, and lived quietly for several years right here in Santa Cruz, up in the small community of Bonny Doon. He settled with his new wife and second family into a traditional-style Japanese farmhouse, only about five minutes from my home. It was quite startling and wonderful to have him so close once again. After he had been here for several months, I asked if it would be all right to get the old-timers together to sit with him occasionally; he quietly nodded his assent. There were about ten of us who had sat with him for many years, and we began to meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon at my house, just to have the opportunity to sit together again as a sangha, and to be with Kobun. I look back now and I realize how unique this time was. To use Kobun’s own words, it was “a rare and precious opportunity.” We did this as a group for maybe a year and a half, perhaps two years, until Kobun and his family moved to Colorado.
Death comes unexpectedly, doesn’t it? At our last meeting with Kobun–we didn’t know it was our last meeting at the time–someone once again asked that old familiar question, “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we do this?” Now, you’ve already heard two of his answers– the first one abstract and perhaps difficult to understand, and the second one inspiring and dynamic. At this final meeting, he gave us a third answer, the last one I heard from him. It seems to me that this response expresses his mature reflections, gathered over a lifetime of living. What he said was concrete and easy to understand; and it was, to my ears, humble and deeply touching. I don’t know if anyone else wrote down his words, but I did, as soon as I could find pencil and paper. I’d like to share his precious final response to our perennial question, “Why do we do this practice?” “We sit,” Kobun began slowly, “to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” He looked down at his hands as he spoke. He was quiet for a long time. Then he continued, “We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” Again he waited, as he perhaps reflected upon his own life. “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” Once again, he paused, so long at this point that I wondered if perhaps he had finished. But finally he continued, “If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” He stopped and looked around at us in our small circle. He moved from face to face with his eyes, seeing deeply into each one of us, his long-time, oldest students. Finally, he nodded slightly, and concluded, “Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.” Here it was, Kobun’s conclusion to a lifetime of practice and teaching.
“We sit to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing. We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are. This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do. If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light. Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”
It’s so simple, isn’t it? We sit to make life meaningful. Practice brings a modest light into our minds. Yes, a simple teaching. And, for me, the most profound one. I had listened to Kobun speak about Buddhist practice for thirty years, and, as I reflected at that last meeting upon his teachings, I finally saw and felt something of the sweep of his life. It seemed to me that his mind had transformed in a phenomenal way. He had moved from the traditional abstract Zen way of speaking in both content and presentation, all the way, we could say, to the practice of the tender heart. It was an amazing journey for him to take. It was a profound evolution. When I considered how far he had traveled in his experience, beginning in the very traditional Japan before World War II, I was incredibly inspired. And the fact that he would talk about it–this very private man–made it an enormous gift to us, his students.
Let’s look closely at his words, this final teaching. He begins, “We sit to make life meaningful.” We practice to understand our lives, we could say, to find a meaning or a purpose in our lives. Actually, we sit so that life has meaning. We sit in order to love our lives, to treasure this transient life. And then he goes on to say something so important: “The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” I looked at Kobun’s quiet face, the sadness that sometimes was visible in his eyes, and I knew that the significance of Kobun’s life was clearly not in what he had created, not in some perfect thing, but was simply in who he was. He certainly didn’t create a perfect life. In many ways, it was a life of chaos. But that wasn’t what mattered. We loved him for who he was when he was with us. And this is what mattered after he died. Not some perfect thing he’d created, but simply his willingness to be with us, to love us unconditionally. He continued by saying, “We must start with accepting ourselves,” and I knew that Kobun spoke from his own experience. There were profound ways in which he suffered in his life, and I considered it one of his greatest teachings that this man we loved so much, who held us with such great kindness, also had to struggle to accept himself. It was difficult even to see that this was what was happening. It was difficult to believe it. And, yet, it was true. He went on to say, “Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” In other words, when we sit down, when we sit still, we find out what’s really going on. We experience what’s true in our lives. Then he continued, “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” He was talking about the minute-by-minute willingness to be who and where we are, without turning away, without blotting out our consciousness, without judgment and without despair. This is really challenging. Then he came back to the image of the light, and you’ll notice that this time it was not as a great transformer; rather, it was as one small candle. “If we cannot accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” If we can’t accept ourselves, he was saying, we are living in darkness, a great darkness of the mind and of the heart. It is a big task, learning to accept ourselves, so, naturally, we sit down for a while. And, then, his last sentence came back to our old, perennial question: why do we sit? Why do we make this effort to sit down, to quiet the mind and observe what is happening? Because, “Practice,” he said–this meditation, this effort, this awareness and stillness–”is this candle in our very darkest room.” Practice creates the smallest light in our darkness. This effort at awareness and stillness is our single candle in the darkness of our minds and hearts. You know, when we have all the electric lights turned on, a candle doesn’t seem like very much light. But when the power goes out, have you noticed how much light a single candle brings? This is what he finally came to in the course of his life: practice brings us one small candle in the darkness of our minds and hearts. Here’s what I would suggest: we don’t have to be huge floodlights. Let us just be small and ordinary candles. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” We sit down in the darkness of our lives, and our practice is this one small candle that helps bring us light and clarity and understanding. We sit and sit, knowing that we’re not needed–knowing how ordinary we finally are–and yet, gradually, ever so gradually, we find ourselves turning into something of inexplicable value. Ordinary, yes. And priceless too, each of us.
Kobun was my teacher of inexplicable value. With his life, he lit one candle in the great darkness in which we all sometimes found ourselves. I miss him so much. Once again we light our one ordinary candle, each of us, in our darkest rooms; every day, this day, we discover a small light within ourselves when we naturally sit down for a while. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” Let us each care for our one small candle in the darkness of our minds. This is the light of practice, the light of awareness and of stillness–one small light of inexplicable value. Practice creates a light in the mind.
Concluding Teaching from o!un Chino Otoga"a Roshi:
We sit to ma#e life meaningful$ The significance of our life is not e%&erienced in stri'ing to create some &erfect thing$ We must sim&l( start "ith acce&ting oursel'es$ Sitting !rings us !ac# to actuall( "ho and "here "e are$ This can !e 'er( &ainful$ Self)acce&tance is the hardest thing to do$ If "e can*t acce&t oursel'es+ "e are li'ing in ignorance+ this dar#est night$ We ma( still !e a"a#e+ !ut "e don*t #no" "here "e are$ We cannot see$ The mind has no light$ ,ractice is this candle in our 'er( dar#est room$