Dharma Talk

The Richmond Zen sangha is beginning a 90-day Practice Period or Kessei Ango which is almost always held at a residential center or monastery where participants practice together with a full-time practice schedule of zazen, study, work, traditional oryoki meals, and Dharma talks, done together as a community, and without leaving for 90 days. Coming together and practicing like this is based on the rainy season retreats from Shakyamuni Buddha’s time. This 90-day period is still observed in Buddhist monasteries around the world as a kind of ritual replication of the “rains retreat” which was originally observed by monks in ancient India during the three months of the monsoon. In Japanese the word ango means tranquil shelter or peaceful dwelling. For me, what makes it “peaceful,” is following the schedule, making practice my first priority. The word, kessei has the meaning of binding, or restricting one’s activity, but what it is really aimed at is restricting distractions – of simplifying our lives – in order to really focus on practice, for a set period of time. And, of course, this is especially difficult for those of us who are house-holders, often with jobs and a family. To embrace a full-time practice schedule, I recommend a 3-month practice period at Tassajara or a shorter practice period at Green Gulch, in California. These are about 3-8 weeks long. But the practice periods we have can give us a taste for what this might be like, although, again, I think it’s more difficult here, because we have more responsibilities and more choices.

What has been created here, at Ekoji, coming together to practice as a group, often in silence and over many years, is something like a Buddha Field, where, through our collective intention and presence, we mature in practice. I think it’s pretty unusual to have the support of a group to practice with, and that most people in the United States – actually, in the world, don’t have a meditation group nearby. So, I feel extremely fortunate and grateful for the Chapel Hill Zen Center sangha, as well as this community, and the support it gives me to practice.

You probably know that Shunryu Suzuki or Suzuki Roshi was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara, which was the first Buddhist monastery in North and South America. The book, Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick is a biography of Suzuki Roshi that conveys his way of practice and teaching. When he was a boy, Suzuki Roshi decided that he wanted to become a priest. Just before turning twelve, he left home and began his formal training with Gyakujun So-on, a priest who had trained with Suzuki Roshi’s father. The book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is dedicated to Gyakujun So-on. Suzuki Roshi was the youngest of about five or six teenage boys that were training with So-on. In the beginning, Suzuki Roshi said that he had a hard time getting up for zazen, which was pretty early in the morning, I would guess around 3:30 or 4:00, but he said that he discovered he could do it if he jumped out of bed before he had a thought. Eventually he found that he could get up on time without even using a clock. He said that this made him trust his body and mind to take care of himself. Just getting up when the alarm rings, or when the wake-up bell is rung, is a way to practice, to act, before thinking engages and we have time to begin making excuses to justify not getting up.

Because Suzuki Roshi was doing monasatic practice as a teenager, his high school education was delayed. Eventually, Suzuki Roshi went to a Soto Zen Buddhist college, which is now Komazawa University. One of his professors told them that “Formal education is to explain what is and what it means. Actual education is to let it be, whatever it is, without explanation.” Suzuki Roshi had a hard time accepting this at first, but he came to see the connection – that one had to begin practice without knowing way-seeking mind and for ‘a long, long time go round and round... until you get tired of trying to understand.’” Another time he said that “the way is to have ‘a complete experience with full feeling in every moment,’ not to use each moment to think about the past or future, trying to make sense of it all.” But “To let it be...without explanation.”

After graduating from college, when Suzuki Roshi was about twenty-six, he trained at Eihei-ji which was founded by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century, and it is one of two head training monasteries for Soto Zen. Eihei-ji is in the mountains near the China Sea. At Eihei-ji, Suzuki Roshi was an attendant to Kishizawa Ian, who was one of the leading teachers of Dogen’s work the Shobogenzo, and he was also one of the best-known Buddhist lecturers in Japan at that time. Suzuki Roshi practiced at Eihei-ji for only a year and then he practiced at the other head training monastery, Soji-ji, for six months. His temple and Kishizawa Roshi’s were nearby in Shizuoka Prefecture, only about three miles apart. Suzuki Roshi continued studying with Kishizawa for twenty-two years, attending Kishizawa’s weekly talks on the Shobogenzo, until Kishizawa stopped teaching around age 82.

Eihei-ji is located on about 79 acres and now has many buildings, and monks come from all over Japan to train there. Suzuki Roshi said at Eiheiji, “Cleaning is first, ...then zazen.” He said, “We must take care of our surroundings before we use them: polish the wood, polish your mind, wipe down the floors, cover the cosmos.”

According to Crooked Cucumber, first thing in the morning before zazen, the monks at Eihei-ji washed at a long sink, with each person filling his individual basin 70% full. And when the monks were finished washing their faces, they poured the water out of the basin toward themselves. This is based on the practice that Dogen had established centuries earlier near a bridge just outside the current monastery gate which is called “Half-Dipper Bridge.” When Dogen was alive, he drew the water he needed in a pail and when he was finished, whatever was left over, he returned to the same place in the creek, pouring the water toward himself out of gratitude and respect, rather than just pitching it in somewhere. Suzuki Roshi said that “You may think it doesn’t make any sense to return the water to the river. This kind of practice is beyond our thinking. When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it this way. That is our nature.” I think of this when we clean our bowls at the end of the zendo meal, the servers collect the left-over water, and we pour the water into the container toward ourselves, I imagine based on this tradition.

In one of Suzuki Roshi’s early talks after coming to America, he referred to an exchange that Dogen had with an elderly monk when Dogen was in China. This story is told in Dogen’s teaching, the “Tenzokyokun.” The story is, a monk was drying mushrooms along a monastery wall one hot summer afternoon. When Dogen encountered him, he asked, “Why are you out here in the heat? Why not go in and rest until the sun is lower in the sky?” The monk replied, “This is what I’m doing now. It’s my job and no one else’s job. Why would I try to be somewhere else?” After telling this story, Suzuki Roshi said, “The time is now. What we are doing is now. There is no other time. This is reality. I am here now. You are here now. That incident with the old monk taught Dogen what a Buddhist life is, what reality is. It is not for another time or another place or another person.”

Another story in Crooked Cucumber took place when Suzuki Roshi was in elementary school before he practiced with So-on Roshi. One of his school teachers told him that the way to be a great person is not to avoid difficulties but to use them to develop one’s greatness (or perhaps strength of character). And later Suzuki Roshi developed this line of thought saying, “A person who falls on the earth, stumbling on a stone, will stand up by means of the same earth they fell on.” He said, “You complain because you think earth is the problem, having caused your fall. Without the earth, you wouldn’t fall, but you wouldn’t stand up either. Falling and standing up are both great aids given to you by the earth. Because of mother earth you can continue your practice. You are practicing in the zendo of the great earth,... (or) the problem. Problems are actually your zendo.” In Zen practice, we face the wall when we sit zazen, but facing the wall also means facing our difficulties open-heartedly without squirming – surrendering to our difficulties and trying to learn from them, rather than resisting, ignoring, or justifying them.

Another teaching that is emphasized, that I think characterizes Soto Zen, but which is hard to really understand, not to mention practice, is the attitude of non-gaining. When we practice in order to achieve or possess something, our practice becomes a means to an end, and it is operating in the conventional realm of cause and effect, driven by desire or grasping. Suzuki Roshi taught that we should practice because it is the best way to express what he sometimes called, universal nature – the emptiness or fundamental truth of everything. He described zazen as “just sitting and being aware of universal activity.”

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, he said, “Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in our mind. It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of our mind without any effort.” He said, “We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make. In this realm there is no subjectivity or objectivity.... it is necessary for us to encourage ourselves and to make an effort up to the last moment, when all effort disappears.” Ordinarily, I think, our effort is dualistic in terms of creating separation between ourselves and the result we’re trying to accomplish. But when this kind of separation disappears, we, our effort, and our activity become one holistic experience.

After coming to the US, when Suzuki Roshi began sitting zazen with Westerners, he said that before long they began bringing him questions, asking “more questions everyday than he’d been asked in thirty years as a priest in Japan.” His American students passionately wanted to understand Buddhism, Zen, themselves, life, death, enlightenment, truth. But Suzuki Roshi wasn’t quick to define things and he said, “If I give you an answer, you’ll think you understand.” He wanted people to learn for themselves in their own time. I think this is typical of Soto Zen. We’re given instruction in how to do the forms but not why. The “why” is left up to us. And how we come to understand this is often nonverbal. For example, in the instructions for zazen, we are encouraged not to move and we are told how to hold our hands and what to do with other parts of our body, but not why. We really only know – deeply know – through our own experience. The longer we practice the fuller our understanding becomes, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we can put it into words and explain it – it’s too close.

Suzuki Roshi came to America without a plan or an idea that he would do anything special. He put up a sign on the building saying when Zen meditation took place, and he began sitting zazen and giving short talks, sometimes only 15 minutes long. Soon after this, he introduced service by chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese – the Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo. For at least several years, service consisted of chanting this one chant three times, and his instruction was to “Chant the sutra with your ears.” But sutra chanting begins and ends with floor bows which was a problem for some practitioners who “complained that prostrations were too Japanese and, like begging, not appropriate for American Zen.” But Suzuki Roshi told them that he had been taught by his teachers that bowing was a central practice of Zen. It was Buddhist, not Japanese.” In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he said, “By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas.” He said, “Usually to bow means to pay our respect to something ... more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha.”

Then he changed the form of service from beginning with three floor bows, as it is done in Japan, to beginning with nine floor bows. And we continue that practice for the longer services. One thing I like about doing floor bows – is that I can’t think and do floor bows at the same time. Bowing engages my body, breath, and attention, with nothing left over to think with or to think about. When you do zazen at home, before you begin, you might try doing three or nine floor bows to help open your mind and engage your bodily presence. Suzuki Roshi also said, “Bowing is a very important practice for diminishing our arrogance and egotism. It is not to demonstrate complete surrender to Buddha, but to help get rid of our own selfishness (or self-referential perspective).”

Many of us begin practicing zazen with the attitude of trying out practice as a kind of experiment to see what it’s like or how it might change us, which I think is natural. But another level of engagement may occur some time later, where you begin taking responsibility for the practice here at the zendo by cleaning the meditation hall or bathrooms, by making tea or cleaning up, ringing bells, trimming the altar candles, sifting the incense ashes, sweeping around the building, and so on – doing whatever is needed to support practice for everyone. At some point, to get past certain barriers or reservations in practice, we need to commit ourselves to practice for the rest of our lives, regardless of what it does for us personally. The commitment itself becomes a great support that allows us to continue our practice without the need to objectify it, to look outside our practice in order to measure our progress. When this commitment is enacted, practice is no longer something we “do,” instead it is our life.

I will leave you with Suzuki Roshi’s words regarding the old monk who was drying mushrooms, “what a Buddhist life is, what reality is..... is not for another time or another place or another person.” Only we can do it; if we don’t do it, who will? So, I invite you to join this endeavor.

Copyright © 2023 Josho Pat Phelan