The Practice of Zen

Zen can offer something very simple, very direct and readily accessible to anyone seeking inner peace, seeking healing in some form, or seeking answers to questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ‘How can I find meaning in my life?’ ‘How can I live in a most authentic way?’

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Foreword to Flowing Bridge: The Miscellaneous Koans

by Ruben Habito

Invitation to an Inward Journey

Escher_PuddleMKZCThe Zen experience of kensho, or “seeing one’s true nature,” is a pivotal point in a practitioner’s spiritual path. While for some it can be a spectacular event that takes one entirely by surprise, accompanied by spontaneous outbursts of laughter and tears, or both, for others it can be simply an unobtrusive, yet nonetheless momentous and life-changing, quiet, internal event. In any case, a genuine awakening experience marks a significant shift in a person’s view of oneself, of the world, of reality.

This awakening experience, crucial and pivotal as it is, however, tends to be romanticized, idealized, and over-emphasized in some popularized accounts of Zen. It can be depicted in ways that give a rather misleading impression of what Zen is all about.

The awakening experience is set in better perspective as we look at it within the context of the “three fruits” of Zen practice and the Zen way of life. These are, first, deepening of one’s “power of single-minded concentration (joriki),” second, “seeing one’s true nature (kensho),” and third, “the embodiment of the peerless way (mujodo no taigen).”

This first fruit of Zen is about “con-centration.” Here I use the word deliberately with a hyphen, to differentiate it from the usual meanings of the word “concentration.” The part after the hyphen, which has to do with “coming together toward the center of one’s being,” or “centering,” is emphasized here. In other words, as one continues and deepens in Zen practice, the disparate pieces of one’s life begin to come together, and one is able to move in the direction of a greater integration of the various facets of one’s life and one’s being. From a condition of being dispersed and rootless, one learns how to be centered and grounded, in all that one is and does. More or less, that is, for one always can run into snags, backslide a little, or fall into lapses along the way.

Yet even with all these twists and turns, or ups and downs, one nevertheless begins to have a deeper appreciation what it is “just to be,” and not feel always measured by how one performs in others’ eyes or by the results of what one does. One tends to be less concerned by thoughts of meeting up to certain ideals of oneself, or by pressures of conforming to the expectations of others, and so on. Rather, one is enabled to go about one’s tasks with a greater sense of inner freedom, able to be more truly oneself, “just as one is.”

The first fruit can begin to take effect in a practitioner’s life within a short time after one engages in seated meditation practice on a regular basis. One finds a sense of greater focus in the various things one normally does in daily life. One learns more and more how to live “mindfully,” and develops a capacity to “be in the moment,” able to simply relish each sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought that comes up, just as it is.

As one continues Zen practice, enjoying the different manifestations of this first fruit in one’s life, there may come a moment, unexpected, unprepared for, whereby one is hit by a sudden flash of realization. “This is it!” As noted above, this could be a spectacular event accompanied by “fireworks,” or it could be a quiet, externally unremarkable, simple moment of recognition. “Aha.” It is a moment that ushers in deep peace, unfathomable joy, inexplicable gratitude. The experience of awakening entails all the above. This is the second fruit of Zen practice, of the Zen way life.

Each individual comes to this experience in a mode that is unique and unrepeatable, with different degrees of intensity and from varying points of entry. It can be a visual stimulus, such as the sight of a flower, the clear blue sky, or a tree stump. It can be with a sound, such as the tick-tock of a clock, a musical note, a bell, the bark of a dog, the chirp of a bird. It can be tactile, as the whack of the encouragement stick upon one’s back while sitting in the meditation hall, the sudden pain one feels as an unshod toe hits a pebble on an unpaved walkway, or a soothing massage on one’s stiff shoulder.

This is a refreshing, breathtaking, and exhilarating experience indeed. It can be like floating up in the sky, free as a feather. It is an experience that brings forth tremendous joy, as it opens one to a glimpse of the infinite horizon of one’s own being, the vast unfathomable riches of one’s own true self.

Yet, as it is an initial glimpse into such untold vistas, such an experience can tend to make one lose one’s bearings, and become somewhat disoriented. It can dislocate one from a given and previously determined trajectory, or cause what one thought was the “solid ground” under one’s feet to disintegrate. It is like having the rug pulled from under one’s feet, making one lose balance, and even fall flat on one’s face.

Kensho is a realization, in all immediacy, of what the Heart Sutra affirms: Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form. But one given such an initial experiential glimpse can easily get disoriented, lost, in the vastness and infinite horizons of Emptiness, and find it hard to come down to earth, back to one’s daily life and its ordinariness. At this point there can be a tendency in those graced with this initial glimpse, to want to hold on to it, to stay there and continue to float in those dizzying heights. This is where the phenomenon called “Zen sickness” can take hold of one. One is so excited at the “discovery” of this world of Emptiness that one talks about it all the time to everyone around, saying how wonderful it is, and so on, without regard for the persons being addressed or the situations in which such talk is imposed.

Also, soon after the glimpse of Emptiness, the delusive mind can again come in and “claim” it as one’s prized possession, and perhaps put it in a neat little frame to hang on one’s wall. “I’ve got it.” “I’m enlightened.” And the very moment that such thoughts come, one has thereby separated oneself from it. Or, the more philosophically inclined will find it hard to resist waxing profound on the tremendous conceptual implications of the notion of Emptiness and how it relates to the world of Form, and so on. Zen sickness can take various modes and come in varying degrees of intensity, some kinds taking a longer time to overcome than others.

There is a word in Spanish, aterrizar, used in referring to airplanes as they gradually approach the earth (terra) and land safely on the ground. This term is most apt to describe what needs to happen to the practitioner who has been graced with a glimpse of the world of Emptiness. The third fruit is about this process of touching ground again, after soaring the lofty heights of the vast Empty sky. It involves a process not only of finding one’s ground, but also of taking root, and blossoming, and bearing fruit in abundance, fruits of wisdom and compassion actualized in one’s day to day life. It is a never-ending journey that continues throughout one’s life.

The third fruit relates to the actualization of the awakening experience in all that it entails in every nook and cranny of one’s daily life. While the second fruit may take but a moment, the flash of an instant, to manifest itself, the cultivation and maturation of this third fruit takes an entire lifetime.

This is why continuing practice after the initial awakening experience is so vital and crucial in a practitioner’s life. The glimpse of the infinite horizons of one’s true self, given in the initial awakening experience, can leave one dazed and dislocated, that it can take some time to be able to land safely back on earth again, to return to one’s normal senses.

In our Sanbo Kyodan Lineage, based on the teaching and practice of three founding Zen Masters, Harada Daiun (Great Cloud), Yasutani Hakuun (White Cloud), and Yamada Koun (Cultivating Cloud), who together form the “Three Clouds” (San-un) of our home practice place, San-un Zendo, located in Kamakura, Japan, we have this small treasure box called the Miscellaneous Koans, culled from the various koan collections handed down from the Zen Masters of China, Korea, and Japan. A practitioner confirmed in the kensho experience is given a little booklet with this collection of miscellaneous koans, as the next stage of one’s practice, to help one in the process of settling back on the ground again. It contains twenty-two items, many of which have subheadings. For a practitioner who goes regularly to the face-to-face meetings (dokusan) with the teacher to “work” on these miscellaneous koans, it may take from several weeks, to several months, or up to a year or two, to go through this collection.

After having worked through this initial set of assorted koans, the practitioner is led koan by koan through the major collections, the Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan) or Gateless Gate, the Piyen Lu (Hekigan-roku) or Blue Cliff Records, the Ts’ung jung lu (Shoyoroku) or the Book of Serenity, the Denko-roku or Transmission of Light, and as the capstone, the Five Ranks, the Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Prohibitions.

This program of koan study (shitsunai shirabe, literally, “in-the-room investigation”) provides us with something like an elaborate tool kit for the ongoing inner work involved in Zen practice. The practitioner is thus invited to take a path forged through centuries by countless individuals who have traversed the same road before, with each koan as a new pointer along the way. In taking up this invitation, one ventures on a fascinating journey inwards, wherein one scales the depths and breadth and heights of that infinite realm that is one’s own true Self, wherein one keeps on finding new treasures and precious gems each step along the way.

This program of koan study involves repeated and frequent one-on-one encounters with the Teacher, who herself or himself has gone through the process with a Teacher, over a period of many years. It thus forges a bonding between Teacher and practitioner, an auspicious karmic connection of such depth and breadth that can never be adequately put into words.

The “end result,” if one can talk about results here, is to enable a practitioner to come back full circle and reclaim one’s humanity, with a renewed sense of acceptance of one’s gifts and strengths as well as one’s shortcomings and weaknesses. One is able to see things more clearly with equanimity, and find peace within oneself. One is able to embrace the world, with all its pains and sufferings, as well as joys and hopes, and offers oneself, with a heart of compassion, to the world of sentient beings, to help in the healing of its wounds, with one’s unique gifts and talents and interests, from one’s particular station in life. The three fruits of Zen, in other words, are all about becoming truly human, in all that this entails.

It is about smelling the aroma of coffee while sipping it from one’s cup in the morning, getting up and taking a walk, smelling the flowers, patting a dog as it wags its tail in glee, greeting a stranger along the way. It is also about getting tired after a hard day’s work, feeling pain at a muscle strain, being indignant at the way the world is being run by so-called leaders, writing a letter to one’s senator on an issue of concern. It is about getting sick, growing old, and eventually, dying. But through all this, at each turn, in each and every encounter, one is fully there, tasting to the brim. As one goes along this path, one continues to deepen one’s appreciation for all that is there, given, in this precious yet fragile condition of being human. One thousand blessings, ten thousand blessings. Gratitude, only gratitude.

The various items in this collection of Miscellaneous Koans present a sampling of the gems that await one in that journey inwards, toward becoming fully, truly, human. Zen Master Sr. Elaine MacInnes has given the world a great gift in presenting her comments on these koans in published form. There are now a good number of books available in English by different Zen Masters with their commentaries on the main koan collections, such as The Gateless Gate, The Blue Cliff Records, and so on. This book of Sr. Elaine is the only one so far that takes up these Miscellaneous Koans, a small but very important collection that can play a crucial part in a practitioner’s landing back on solid ground after an initial glimpse and soaring high into the sky of Emptiness.

Persons in their early stages of the Zen path will find in her words helpful guides for the journey. Practitioners who are well into the path will find fresh insights into these koans, and also recognize themes that they may already be familiar with from their own experience. Readers who are not yet practitioners may find here enough enticements to want to try this practice of Zen meditation for themselves. May it inspire you to accept this invitation, perhaps locate a practice center near your area, check it out, and start sitting. Come, taste and see!

Ruben L.F. Habito
Keiun-ken (Grace Cloud)
Maria Kannon Zen Center
Dallas, Texas
Spring 2006