Jakusho Kwong-roshi is the abbot of Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, a country zendo and retreat center in Northern California. Kwong-roshi is a dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and also had a close relationship with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In this video,
Kwong-roshi discusses his own path of becoming a Zen practitioner and eventually a teacher.# vimeo.com/24608664 Uploaded 2,004 Plays 19 Likes 2 Comments
Vast is the robe of liberation,
A formless field of benefaction.
Wearing the universal teaching
I realize the one True Nature,
Thus harmonizing all being.
Each morning in Zen temples and monasteries, as the bell rings to signal the end of zazen, the practitioners remain in their seats and those who have taken precepts or priest ordination place their precisely folded robes on their heads and chant the verse above. The chant precedes putting on the kesa (formal priest's patchwork robe) or the rakusu (less formal bib-like robe). At one level the chant and ritual are statements about the significance of these religious garments and their meaning. These are Buddha's robes and represent the very body of the Buddha and also the community or practitioners which represent the living body of Buddha. The many strips of cloth sewn together in a beautiful pattern suggests this interweaving of lives, causes, and conditions which manifest as life - our lives - life as it is.
But the chant is also invoking more than a statement about the fabric of a robe or its symbolic meaning in Buddhist ritual. These lines are also calling us to include the teachings and practices as the very fabric of our lives. When I would sew with my ordination teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, she would tell me wonderful stories about Joshin-san, the Japanese woman and devoted student of Kodo Sawaki Roshi who taught her how to sew the robes. These were Buddha's robes. In fact, Joshin-san would say that each robe was "the whole body of the Buddha" and therefore should be treated as such. Maybe our lives are, in fact, the whole body of the Buddha and should be treated as such. Let's take a look at this chant and this embodiment.
Buddha Nature - Human Nature
In the traditional story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the young Guatma was sitting under the bodhi tree deep in contemplation. There comes a time in the story when Mara, the tempter, has nearly exhausted his many strategies to move the young monk from his steadfast seat. In his frustration, Mara gathers his energy one last time and confronts Guatama by asking him on what basis he could possibly verify his liberation or confirm his enlightenment. In response, the Buddha says nothing. He does not implore the heavens for protection, nor does he does mount an intellectual or theological challenge to defeat Mara. He performs a very simple act. He touches the earth.
In this story we are offered a powerfully elegant symbol which can be seen as the newly enlightened Buddha’s very first teaching. By touching the earth he counters Mara and demonstrates clearly that enlightenment is not a special state of mind, a sophisticated concept, a holy event, a new philosophy, or core belief. It is a reality closer to the earth, to our bodies, to what is ordinary, whole, and simple. Liberation is freedom from all that we habitually use to define ourselves as separate and special and therefore opens us to the vast, interconnected, impermanent world we live in. And this liberation is found right in the middle of this mysterious, never-ending dance we call life and death. It is no other than nature – Buddha Nature, human nature - our nature.
Like many of you, I am sure, I spend an inordinate amount of time indoors. I sit at a desk, work in front of a computer, speak with clients and students, or teach in classrooms and retreat centers. I sit in a zendo, which is climate controlled (thank goodness!) and sleep protected from the elements (for which I am deeply grateful). However, in our conventional, comfortable, protected world, we easily become entranced and forget that we are vulnerable animals living on a planet that does not consult us about its changes. Most of the time we imagine we are safe and secure from the randomness and violence of nature’s impersonal movement until something like a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami reminds us that we are not in charge. The teachings we are exploring on the path of Zen express the reality of nature. They are not abstract concepts to ponder. They must be touched and known intimately, just as the Buddha reached down and touched the earth on that clear morning.
Stephen Mitchell, commenting on the path of awakening said, “On this journey, going means letting go. It’s not all that hard to get enlightened; what is difficult is to keep giving up our sense of the world so that the world can come to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence. At the end of the journey, we return to the simplest things with an immense recognition and gratitude...” (p. ) It is much easier to become entranced by the possibility of gaining something special, called enlightenment, and enjoying exotic states of consciousness which we fantasize must accompany such a radical transformation. But actually, we are called to relinquish everything, not gain anything. Our challenge is to "give up our sense of the world so the world can some to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence." As we enter practice wholeheartedly we come to learn what it means to let go of “my” sense - the relinquishment of me, my self, ego. We then investigate, through ongoing practice, what this “sense of the world” is that both maintains the self and is created by the self. This is a tangled knot that is not easily released.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to lead a week-long retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii where, as many of you probably know from your own experience, the raw forces of nature come together in dramatic and powerful ways. I have led retreats in Hawaii for many years and always enjoy the beauty and intimacy with nature that living in that kind of tropical environment affords. However, I had never been to the Big Island and had never seen an active volcano. The day our group planned to hike to the lava flows was a beautifully clear day. The volcano was flowing with great force and we were excited by the opportunity to walk, with our guide, over wild and primitive old flows to reach the coast where the lava met the ocean and actually creating new land. We set out late in the afternoon from the retreat center on the south part of the Hilo side of the island, driving only a few miles to reach the edge of the lava that marked the furthest reaches of the last destructive eruption which had slowly and relentlessly moved across this part of the island. We parked on hardened black rock that, when molten, had devastated farms, homes, and businesses. Highway signs stuck up through the gray folds of cooled lava. We drove on asphalt that disappeared under the flow and reappeared in places that were spared. Finally we reached a place to park. It is hard to describe what it was like being on what seemed like the edge of the earth. We looked out across miles of what a prehistoric landscape must have looked like. This was a world that was unfamiliar, blank, and apparently devoid of life. As far as we could see, there was nothing but the undulating folds of crusty, hardened lava. In the distance to the right we could see the volcanic mountain towering above this wasteland. On the left, we could barely make out the coastline marked by plumes of steam in the distance where the lava was pouring into the ocean. We planted long bamboo poles topped with flashing lights so we could find our way back to the cars in the dark and set out on a two-hour hike to reach the active flows.
As daylight faded, what had been shadowy valleys on the volcano’s slope began to glow red. The white plumes of steam rising from the ocean's edge began to take on a pink glow. Hiking steadily, we fell into a rhythm, looking for ways to move across the uneven landscape in the fading light. It evolved naturally into a form of walking meditation. For long periods we fell silent, picking our way along the ridges and through the shallow valleys. At other times we spoke about the landscape we were encountering, our weariness, or whatever friendly conversation came to mind. Now and then we would come across a tiny fern tucked in some crevice, growing vulnerable and alone. Other than these tiny immigrants, there were no signs of life and certainly no human reference aside from our small band of hikers crunching along. We were walking across land that was new. Very likely no human had ever walked exactly where we were walking. We were not on the National Park side of the flows and we never saw another human being. At one point I jokingly said, “When do the dinosaurs show up”?
Finally, we began to feel the heat. We approached the outflow of lava coming off the mountain where it plunged into the ocean. We watched it roll into the waves, dive under the cliffs, cool, buckle and explode. The waves didn’t think about what it would mean to pound into the red magma. The molten rock didn’t consider what would happen as it rolled into the cold water. Nature simply moved. The entire primitive scene didn’t mind our witnessing nor did it take us into account. At one point, along with a few other foolish souls, I decided to walk toward a second tower of steam further up the coast. It was completely dark by this time and we walked by the light of our flashlights. Only a few hundred yards along the way I stopped and slowly turned, shining the beam of my flashlight all around in a large circle. I could then see that we were completely surrounded by small steam vents. The earth was getting hot under our feet and the sulfurous smell was stronger. We were walking directly on top of cooling rock covering rivers of lava. There was no way of knowing how stable the earth was under our feet or if we might fall through the crust if we walked on.
At that moment I felt a terror and a vulnerability that I had never felt before. This anxiety wasn’t some neurotic worry racing around in my head. It wasn’t even a fear in response to some ordinary outside event. This was a primal knowing that I had no idea if the very ground under my feet would support my weight. My “idea” of all of this didn’t even really matter. It was just exactly as it was. I could see and feel, undeniably, that nothing was permanent or solid around me. Everything was in violent flux and moving perfectly and beautifully along with everything else. I wasn’t special and nature wasn’t particularly concerned about “me”. I was standing there, vulnerable and very alert in the midst of the steam and the wind and darkness. The three marks of existence taught by the Buddha were the simple, concrete truth of that moment – the truth of relentless unfolding of life as it is, the profound dependence of each thing on everything else, and the raw fact of impermanence.
Fortunately, our little band safely returned to where the more sane members of the group were sitting and joined them. We silently watched the beauty of the shoreline being formed in front of our eyes. I reached down and touched the earth. Splinters of crystallized silica stuck into my fingers as I picked up a small chard of broken lava. I bled a little, a small price to pay for the reality that nature had shown me. It is said that on his deathbed the Buddha admonished his followers to not base their faith on what he had said, but to wholeheartedly investigate for themselves the truth of the teachings through practice. I am grateful for the teachings that were offered that night. I was fine despite a few lava splinters, some fatigue, and several uncomfortable blisters on my feet. The two-hour return hike in the dark was challenging, but we eventually found our way to our cars, patiently waiting.
We had touched and shared something beyond our ordinary lives that night, and the treasures we were offered were verified by the ways we touched the earth – that unpredictable, beautiful, terrifying, life-giving earth. This was "life as it is" without a filter, with no protection, and no promises. The deepest invitation discovered in practice is to “keep giving up our sense of the world so that the world can come to us on its own terms, with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence.” The volcanic eruption was not personal. It was doing what volcanos sometimes do, and it was doing so in precisely the way that the current geological and oceanic factors surrounding that part of the island prescribe. It was a dramatic version of “the world coming to us on its own terms.” The problem is that we don’t always like the terms offered by nature. We reject nature. We turn away from life as it is. We relinquish Buddha and cling to our own, small sense of the world. We renounce the reality of Buddha Nature and wonder why we suffer. And we call this habit, “everyday life.”
Pause and Reflect:
Everyone can tell stories of life's challenges and the lessons that emerge through meeting these challenges. What is often missed is the ways in which the transformational aspects of these challenges are integrated — digested and incorporated into our lives — so that we no longer think of them as difficult events or even "lessons." They become who we are, just as food, when digested and incorporated, literally become our body. In this path we are often called to practice by suffering and confusion. If we choose to step onto the path we are asked to turn toward and then admit our actual lived experience. To do so requires profound acceptance, without which we just circle back into self criticism, shame, and self doubt. We have the Buddha's core teaching to help us both see and soften the self-centered cycle of suffering. At this juncture the robe chant suggests that we have an opportunity to become the teachings as we ingest them, wear them, and embody them. This is harmony. The practice of paying attention and accepting what you see is harmonizing. Can you see how you are "wearing the universal teaching" in some way that is new or surprising? What is softer, more easily accepted, more fully expressed, or gently released through practice at this point?# vimeo.com/23542567 Uploaded 2,484 Plays 4 Likes 0 Comments
Instruction on posture and technique for Zen meditation practice (zazen). The first video in the Victoria Zen Centre's Orientation to Zen Buddhist Practice Online Course. For details zenwest.ca/online-zen/84-online-orientation-to-zen# vimeo.com/39749369 Uploaded 4,647 Plays 43 Likes 0 Comments