Feeding the turtles: Daido Loori and the cultivator of cultivators

An Evening at the Monastery (from The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism by John Daido Loori):

Q.  Why are so many people these days becoming Buddhists?

A. I don’t know.  I know why I did but I don’t know about anyone else…

My earliest memories of Buddhist practice are of my grandmother and I feeding turtles at the Botataung Pagoda pond.  For a few coins, you could buy a huge ball of popcorn that was fused together.  Breaking off a chunk at a time, I would throw it into the pond and watch the thrashing of the turtles as they decimated the food.  They seemed always hungry which was strange because in a day hundreds of people would feed them.  To us, it was a meritorious deed to feed the turtles especially since turtles and tortoises represented good fortune and wealth.  After the feeding of the turtles, we would sit at the base of the pagoda and listen to the monastics chanting the sutras.  We rarely chanted along.  My grandmother said it was because women were not pure enough to speak the sacred words.  I don’t think she really believed it because I would hear her muted accompaniment to the cadence of the monks.

Many decades later, after journeying with various teachers and through their traditions, I noticed that when under stress I would recite what seemed like meaningless phrases.  For the longest time I thought they were Burmese words to a nursery rhyme.

bo-tan-thatagan gai-ccami

I would repeat it over and over until the crisis passed or some other shiny thing took hold of my attention.  It never occurred to me to investigate it until I came across an audio tape of monastics chanting the Three Refuges.

Buddham saranam gacchami.

I take refuge in the Buddha

By then I was committed to the Zen path taught by Thich Nhat Hanh and fending off queries about when I had decided to become a Buddhist.  When did you take refuge? The answer seemed too hokey so I dodged the question: I’m an immigrant, not a refugee.

The truth is I don’t know when, where or how I came to this spot in my life.  I definitely don’t know who has arrived here.  And as much as I hate the why of any inquiry, it’s more likely to be the better question.

To me the “cultivator of cultivators” is zazen.  I trust zazen.  I trust zazen because I was probably the most deluded, confused, angry, antireligious person you could ever meet….  All I know is I found out about zazen.  In the beginning I did very little sitting.  Every time I finished a period of zazen, I cursed it.  I said it was stupid, a waste of time.  My legs hurt, yet the next day I would find myself sitting again.  The more I sat, the deeper I went.

Perhaps I sat zazen to connect with the lost container that was my family, my home, my culture.  Perhaps I sat zazen because it set me apart from the crowd.  Or maybe I sat zazen because it was an escape from the confusion of relationships and the consequences of my seemingly constant unskillfulness.  Perhaps I sat zazen because it was just there.

Perhaps it was all of the above.

And one day I saw a zen teacher’s assistant very gently arrange the teacher’s robes just before a dharma talk.  I knew I had sat long into that seeing.  And on another day many years later, someone said to me, How do you do that?  See things that way?

Initially I was practicing because I wanted to take pictures.  At that time I was a professional photographer, and my photography teacher, Minor White, told me that meditation helped him to “see” more clearly.  I wanted to “see” like Minor White saw, and if he had stood on his head, I would have stood on my head!  Fortunately, he did meditation.  So that is what I took up.  And it took me to the next step, and that took me to the next step, and finally I reached a point where, instead of fighting every step, I just relaxed into it and allowed it to unfold.  Zazen cultivates itself; that is why it is the cultivator of cultivators.

Now, I notice that when I arrange the robe of the Buddha’s teachings, even the turtles don’t seem to feed as frenetically.



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