Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the MKZC Zen Journal, Volume 12, Number 1 Winter 2007
Through the great benevolence of the teachers and sangha of Maria Kannon Zen Center, I was able to participate in a personal retreat – an individual sesshin – from May 24-30, 2006. It was a true joy to be welcomed so warmly and to be supported so fully as I plunged into the teaching stories of our ancestors in the form of the koans.
As many of you know, the Soto Zen tradition in which I have primarily trained and in which I have taken ordination, does not have a systematic program of koan study. We utilize koans as a source of wisdom in our teaching, but our central practice is shikantaza – just sitting. The Soto way is the way of careful and meticulous attention to each moment and to each thing, so we enter the Way through forms, most of which have ancient monastic roots. The longer I have practiced zazen in this way however, the more I have also been intrigued by the depth of the koan tradition. My original teachers, Blanche Hartman from the San Francisco Zen Center and Barbara Kohn from the Austin Zen Center, both recommended that I pursue koan practice. I then had the great fortune to be introduced to the immense clarity and depth of your head teacher, Ruben Habito.
The founder of our school in Japan, Dogen Zenji, lived from 1200 – 1253. He came from a noble family, but his life was unhappy and difficult, because his parents died when he was a very young boy. Their deaths lead him to contemplate the impermanence of life, and at the age of thirteen, he became a Buddhist monk. After training for nine years under the Rinzai teacher Myozen, Dogen Zenji he knew his heart was not settled, so he made the difficult and dangerous journey to China, where he studied with the great Chan masters of the time. Upon returning to Japan, Dogen established Eiheiji, the principal Soto training monastery, and is best known for his collection of Dharma essays, Shobogenzo.
Upon returning from China, Dogen wrote a particularly important and very personal piece called the Genjo Koan [often translated as “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” or “The Issue at Hand”]. It was actually a letter to one of his students and was composed in the autumn of 1233. There are many famous selections from this teaching, but I began to remember a particular section of the text as I sat in retreat and reflected on the nature of our two lineages. Here is the segment that came to mind. I think you will see why it stood out to me as this Soto priest wholeheartedly took on the Sanbo Kyodan way of practice offered at MKZC. [You may access the entire text at www.genjokoan.com]
“When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor other’. The place, the way, has not been carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.”
True practice is not about a place or a time, a lineage or a form. It is not restricted to the Austin Zen Center or Maria Kannon Zen Center. It is not Soto or Rinzai or Sanbo Kyodan. When true practice occurs, we are finding our way. This Great Way is the essential world itself, our true nature itself, and this Way is completely expressed in shikantaza as well as in each koan. Dogen continues: “Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the Buddha Way, meeting one thing is mastering it – doing one practice is practicing completely. Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of Buddha-dharma.”
Dogen joined the Chinese symbols for practice and enlightenment to suggest that they are one thing; practice-enlightenment. We do not practice to gain enlightenment, but to express it. Each thing is complete as it is. Everything is Buddha Nature. In the Soto forms we emphasize “meeting one thing is mastering it – doing one practice is practicing completely.” Our full attention to each form is a complete expression of infinite emptiness. This teaching is also powerfully presented in Case 16 of the Gateless Gate, “The Sound of the Bell and the Seven Panel Robe,” Unmon said, “The world is vast and wide like this. Why do we put on our seven-panel robe at the sound of the bell?” (p. 79). Why do we perform these rituals and wear these robes? What is the meaning of our Soto forms? In Yamada Roshi’s teisho he makes the point very clear. But, can we be this?
“There is no reason for the ‘why’ in anything! When we stand up, there is no reason ‘why.’ We just stand up! When we eat, we just eat, without any reason ‘why.’ When we put on the kesa, we just put it on. Our life is a continuous just…just…just…” (p. 81)
A final word from Dogen: “Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.”Isn’t this the truth we face over and over again in the dokusan room? As a person like me who tends to be intellectual, resting on knowledge and study, I found this to be a great challenge. Dogen reminds us that this is not the Way, and Master Mumon’s emphasizes this same essential teaching which I confronted again and again on my retreat: “The essential world cannot be grasped by intellectual contemplation or by reasoning or philosophical conceptualization. There is no way other than to realize it in our own living experience. It is, therefore, quite foolish to try to understand it by following the meaning of words. It can never be attained that way.” (p. 9)
To be most simply and completely honest, my actual lived experience during the week of retreat at MKZC was that I felt both loved and challenged. I was encouraged and confronted by the koan practice. I attempted to maintain a simple and careful way of life as I have been taught as a Soto priest. After all, if everything is Buddha Nature, what is the part of this life that can be left aside or ignored? I was also beautifully and expertly guided byt the MKZC teachers as I entered each koan. But I also found my way by meeting each of you in those small moments we were together, whether in the dokusan room, the zendo, the kitchen, or simply by hanging out between sittings. We are all complete expressions of this undivided way.
Master Momon, in his preface to the Gateless Gate, offers us his verse. He summarizes all of this very well: “The Great Way has no gate;There are a thousand different roads.If you pass through the barrier once,You will walk independently in the universe. (p. 8)May we all find our way, actualizing the fundamental point. May we be happy and free from suffering, and may we become Buddha’s Way.”