Book Review: Grass Flute Master Yokoyama & the fragrance that spread a thousand ri

I saw zazen as a posture bestowed upon me by the Buddha
Sodo Yokoyama

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama is a long-awaited work by American author and translator, Arthur Braverman. Epitomizing the essentialist philosophy of Zen, Yokoyama is known for his ascetic life, living in a bamboo grove of Kaikoen Park in Komoro City, Japan, writing calligraphic teachings for any passerby who wanted to receive them. Braverman wrote of his connection to Yokoyama in 2005 and the undertones of his longing to pass on the ineffable beauty of Yokoyama’s life are compelling.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.” (Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2005)

Later Braverman’s interview with Yokoyama’s only student Jôkô Shibata offered further insight into his diligent if austere practice.

Antaiji, a small temple in the northeast corner of Kyoto, was under the charge of Uchiyama Kôshô Roshi, a long time disciple and dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, when Jôkô joined the practice there. He had read Uchiyama’s first book and decided to become a monk and study under the master. Yokoyama Roshi had lived together with his younger brother disciple Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji for eight years and then in 1957 moved to Komoro. He visited Antaiji once a year from then on for the memorial celebration for Sawaki Roshi. It was during one of these visits that Jôkô met his future teacher for the first time. ‘I saw my teacher in zazen posture,’ he said, ‘and made up my mind immediately to study under him.’ (from: Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change)

Yokoyama appears to have this effect as both Braverman and Shibata feel drawn to him because of the utter simplicity of his life. I wrote about this attraction in a review of The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications).

Yokoyama and (his teacher) Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies. (108 Zen Books, June 17, 2015)

Braverman’s book begins his arranged meeting with Shibata in Komoro City and in good zen style, he begins with the waiting. Waiting for his order of noodles as he waits for Jôkô. Waiting for the memories to flow in their typical unordered way, waiting for pockets of sensibility to fall into. Waiting for a teacher is the underlying theme, running parallel with the searching and the longing. In Braverman’s words there is a longing to understand – how was Yokoyama influenced by his own teachers, by artists and poets of his time – and to understand only that the wanting is neither sufficient nor satisfactory. However, the side trips to the poet Toson and the various people who populate the surroundings of Kaikoen Park give life to the container in which Yokoyama lived his practice, literally outside in the park and outside of the institutions of Zen. In that, Yokoyama is not different from his teacher, “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki and other lineage teachers Hakuin and Bankei. For them, the marrow of practice is the only requirement for living. Braverman writes:

Truly creative teachers can do nothing else. So it was with other great teachers like Hakuin and Bankei, to name two from the other major Zen sect in Japan. What eventually happens, once institutions are formed to follow the ways of these masters, is a slow decline of the original spirit and a dependence on forms and dogmas that water down the true teaching of the founders (p. 39).

The Grass Flute Zen Master is a slowly winding journey through Braverman’s connections and memories of Yokoyama, interspersed with his views of Zen. However, the heart of the book is in his reproductions and exploration of Yokoyama’s waka.

Years ago
meditating in the mountains
a pheasant appeared
and stared
at my zazen.
p. 83

Braverman notes that “my”, being assumed in the Japanese version, is an insertion for (Western) clarity. I wondered if that is the subtle cause of the myriad problems Western Buddhism has.

Yokoyama also brushed poems for his dharma brother, Kosho Uchiyama, a poignant humbling of what he may have felt were his shortcomings

Mother and Father
Brothers and Sisters 
Forgive me
A child without a home

More than mother
More than father
More than brothers and sisters
I love the mountains and rivers
How pitiful!
p. 85-86

Still, the question Braverman takes us to, the question that hangs over all our heads as we sit zazen in all our postures, is perhaps the heart of practice: Why bother? What does a homeless monk, an itinerant teacher in a park, a wandering mendicant contribute? It is reassuring to see the answer is no different from Bodhidharma’s to the Emperor: No merit.

And yet… there is a fragrance that spreads a thousand ri – everywhere.

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.
Sodo Yokoyama

sawaki kôdô & yokoyama: unexpected mercies of homelessness

Perhaps one of my most beloved source of teachings comes from the story of Yokoyama Sodô roshi, the grass flute monk. Arthur Braverman wrote of his life here. There is something ephemeral about the life and teachings of Yokoyama, a simplicity and dedication that often escapes us in our plunge forward into making practice something. Following the bloodline back from Yokoyama, we encounter his teacher Sawaki Kôdô roshi known as Homeless Kôdô. This moniker was not just a reference to his tendency to wander Japan teaching but also – if you read The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications) – is reflected in his very perspective of the dharma. Yokoyama evokes a tender compassion for his approach to offering the dharma freely to everyone who walked past his corner of Kaikoen Park in Komoro; we feel ourselves leaning into that bower of leaves to hear his teachings. Sawaki evokes a fierceness born of his own experiences as a soldier fighting for the emperor and that he believed was right to do so as well as his ardent rejection of all things institutional. This determined attitude is in his words (leeway given for translation) on the purpose of the Buddhadharma:

A religion that has nothing to do with our fundamental attitude toward our lives is nonsense. Buddhadharma is a religion that teaches us how to return to a true way of life. “Subduing non-Buddhists,” or converting people, means helping them transform their lives from a half-baked, incomplete way to a genuine way. ~Chapter 2, Having finally returned to a true way of life, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura.

No minced words here. Left to themselves, Sawaki’s teachings can seem harsh, strangely naive, and yet necessary truths about our “stupidity”. The structure of this book however offers different intonations for his words. Each chapter is presented with Sawaki’s teachings in a pithy quotable quote followed by his dharma heir Uchiyama’s commentary and then his heir Shohaku Okumura. Both Uchiyama and Okumura place Sawaki’s teachings in the context of post-war Japan and the culture that arose after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They make no apologies for Sawaki rather pointing out that even in a great master’s teachings there lie the foibles of constructed perceptions. And there is a sweetness in seeing three generations of thought evolve. Should you wish to walk away now thinking this is a book of teachings by an irascible, aged, male, grumpy, old Zen Guy, turn into that particular assumption. Not that we judge but rather that the judgement arises from a reactivity to some very real truths in being told we can be deaf, dumb, and blind about our motivations that transcend gender, culture, and time.

Sawaki: Heaven and earth make offerings. Air, water, plants, animals and human beings make offerings. All things make offerings to each other. It’s only within the circle of offering that we can live. Whether we approach this or not, it’s true.

Uchiyama: Heaven and earth, all the ten thousand things freely give us 99.99 percent of our necessities. Only 0.01 percent of the things we need are subject to our decisions whether to be greedy or not. (And even that) we should make efforts to reduce.

Okumura: However, Buddhism is not merely a teaching of social morality. If our deeper motivation is greed, then no matter how much we give our actions cannot be dana paramita, the perfection of offering… Yet if we take bodhisattva vows, our whole life becomes an offering, even if we have no material possessions to give.  ~Chapter 63, The blessing of the universe, ibid.

Yokoyama and Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies.

mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.

writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.

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(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK

a thousand hands of compassion – book review

Thousand-hands1

Some time ago, one of my dharma friends sent me this lovely book. A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean Spirituality and Enlightenment by Seon Master Daehaeng¹. I was strangely moved. Strangely because I have never really believed that people who haven’t met face to face actually have the capacity to activate a resonance that one might call a bond, a quiet joy, a sense of being considered kindly. More strangely because I thought I’d done enough work on my own walls and thickets, been the recipient of enough gifts from people I’ve not yet met and those I may never meet to have these walls become porous enough for kindness to flow in.

But there you have it. I am one gnarly, snarly nut to riddle with holes.

Kindness is an interesting thing. It’s one of those behaviourally-based activities that is only known when seen. I do find it easy to be kind. Ultimately it doesn’t cost anything and there is a feel-good factor when all is said and given.

DSC_0006

Compassion, however, is something else all together. It costs everything. And it requires that we are willing to be in the presence of everything. There are no options or substitutions allowed.

My one mind is the root of all things.
All things arise from it,
so all things I completely entrust to it.
This letting go
fills my heart with light. (p. 36)

This book is an amazing opportunity to practice just that fortitude. Taken from different sutras, it is compiled as a single text and chanted daily in Korean temples. The verses call on us to devote ourselves to that one mind that is the mind of all Buddhas. Some read as short recitations that almost evoke a full prostration. Others are slightly longer tracts that evoke an inner call-and-response. Each page carries a verse, Korean on one side, English on the other, and is enriched by the stunning art of Hyo Rim.
DSC_0007

The minds of all Buddhas are my mind.
Nothing I see, hear, or do
exists apart from
the truth they realized.
My one mind itself is the Buddha-dharma,
present throughout all aspects
of my life. (p.24)

Tomorrow Frank and I leave for our respective retreats. He’s off to something somewhere that hopefully won’t have him terrorizing other meditators with his death stare. I’m off to learn a bit about self-compassion. It seems an oxymoron this term “self-compassion” but I do recall spending about two years on the first two lines of the Metta Sutta.

May I be free from suffering
May I be at peace

So I’m taking this book and my mala beads and an appreciation for T.S. Eliot.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

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¹You can read more about Seon Master Daehaeng here.

robai-shin: entering the heart of ancestral recipes

robai-shin“You understand all of Buddhism, but you cannot go beyond your abilities and your intelligence. You must have robai-shin, the mind of great compassion. This compassion must help all of humanity. You should not think only of yourself.”

I can’t find the source of the quote attributed to Dogen, who apparently said it to the Third Patriarch of Eihei-ji. Upon the arrival of our Gr’Kid, a dharma sister sent me the quote welcoming me into the the community of Grandmothers. Robai-shin, wrote another. It will bring you deeper into the heart of compassion.

Dogen wrote in Instructions for the Tenzo that “in performing our duties along with other officers and staff, (we) should maintain joyful mind, kind mind, and great mind.” Joyful mind arises from our gratitude for being born into this human form. More so that “we have the good fortune of cooking meals to be offered to the three treasures.” Now that I immediately understand because cooking is the heart of my family, its compassionate ground, and the source of all healing. The curries, dahls, rice. The desserts of glutinous black rice and agar jellies. The pungent fermented tea leaves and pickled ginger digestives. Dogen’s exhortations in the earlier sections of Instructions read like a day in my own grandmother’s hotel on Sule Pagoda Road in Rangoon. Well, maybe it was a bit more frenetic than Eihei-ji because my uncle and aunt who helped there were just as likely to swing cleavers at each other as at the chickens.

dahl

My mother, despite not knowing how to cook (why would you need to when your own mother owned a hotel and simply delivered the food each day!), developed her own skills ultimately crafting a pilau rice that earned the title “Gamma’s Rice.” And, the deterioration in its edibility was what first raised the alarms of her encroaching dementia. I’m not sure what dishes will identify my place on this earth but that is the nature of being parent – and now grandparent. I delight in an eclectic range of textures and flavours, only coming into the ancestral recipes later in life. Interesting how I can now say “later” although it’s never been an avoided or hidden idea that aging grants me many somewhat unearned privileges. My own curries are finally edible and I turn more towards the Indian styles of cooking and taste. And yet, my signature dishes tend to be Burmese, likely more for their rarity than their actual craft.

Robai-shin. Grandmother-mind. Kind mind. The second of Dogen’s doors to community is that quality of kindness. Not just kindness but a stance of protectiveness of the present for the future. Kaz Tanahashi¹ translates it as a parental mind. We develop this kindness for our children to the extent that we “do not care whether (we ourselves) are poor or rich; (our) only concern is that (our) children will grow up.” In principle, it is our only concern: that they survive. Of course, we harbour hopes that they will live carefully, in good health, making wise choices, respecting others as themselves, and knowing that the bloodline extends through them but doesn’t end there. The tricky part is that our kindness is offered against this backdrop of hope but cannot be directed by it. Robai-shin is an offering “without expecting any result or gain.” It simply unfolds as that hand reaching for the pillow in the night, the bow that evidences transmission beyond words, the sound of the single hand at death. It holds, it honours, it transcends form as it is called to do so.

Both my grandmothers were iconoclasts in their own right. My paternal grandmother was a rather severe character but with a sharp sense of humour particularly about her love of oversized cheroots. Devoutly Buddhist, she was the quintessential pragmatist. She never cooked, cleaned, or otherwise engaged in tasks that someone else in her life was already doing. I saw her weekly but never among family. She arrived each Sunday to take me to the Botataung Pagoda (while my parents entertained their friends at poker and various gambling games). I don’t recall any words of wisdom or special gifts. That is, until one day I overheard an intense argument she was having with my father over the damage he was doing karmically by exposing me to his high society lifestyle. She was formidable and, as I understand from the family myths, would not have been above picking up a wooden shoe to whack sense into him at any age – his or hers. I never knew her name until I was an adult but it didn’t dim the connection.

dahl-riceMy maternal grandmother ran the Piccadilly Hotel in Rangoon. Now she, along with her only surviving son, was all about food. I lived in the hotel with my  five male cousins and we all became little cook’s helpers. Unfortunately, only I escaped the epigenetic change that enabled the boys to become great cooks. As “Ma,” she made sure we roamed the hallways as a little gang, thereby protecting us from certain characters who lodged there in transit to Bangkok or Delhi. She set the rules for riding out into the Night Bazaar on my uncle’s scooter, clutched to his flapping, open shirt. Being the only girl (at the time), I was forbidden to go though my uncle found ways around that senseless rule. Apparently robai-shin meant something different to him. As “Belle,” she swept through the evening society parties in shimmering gowns with a hairstyle of braids wound upright over her head like a dark halo and an eternal eye cast on negotiating the family’s best future.

robai-shin2Out of joyful mind and robai-shin arises great mind. “Like a great mountain or a great ocean,” it is the nondiscriminatory mind. It is the vast, boundless space which is also robai-shin and joyful mind because it contains everything. Instructions for the Tenzo is a simile wrapped around a metaphor at whose heart lies a mirror. It’s a discourse on how to wash rice, pointing to principles for living a life of deep practice, penetrating that deep question of who we truly are.  In the teachings of the three minds, Dogen reveals the components of both community and the Great Matter, leaving it up to us to craft a recipe that honours why we have been held in robai-shin and are called to embody robai-shin.

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1. Tanahashi, Kazuaki (Ed.), Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. North Point Press, NY.

Ryokan – the passage of wind in a vast sky

sky above, great wind (Genju 2013)

Reflection on leaving the household

I came to the mountain
to avoid hearing
the sound of waves.
Lonesome now in another way –
wind in the the pine forest.

Ryokan, from Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan, Kazuaki Tanahashi

Ryokan is likely my favourite in the imposing genre of Zen Master poets. Kaz Tanahashi offers a delightful exploration of his life and, more delectably, his art. This is a companion book to carry with you and dip into as the moment arises.

There is the simple in Ryokan’s words, a feature that likely gave rise, along with his own demeanor, to the sobriquet of “The Zen Fool.” And perhaps that is fitting because to surrender all manner of contact, comfort, and conventionality would require adopting or cultivating a simple-mindedness about what matters. Like the Divine Fool Nasreddin before him, Ryokan challenges me to re-perceive my life through his subtle teachings.

Falling blossoms.
Blossoms in bloom are also 
falling blossoms.

That preferential mind, holding onto one phase of the continuous flow through life and death. I notice this in every shift from health to illness, that desire for the ease of movement, of the quickness of thought. And he too reveals his own clinging:

Dancing the bon dance,
with a hand towel
I hide my age.

Simplicity of body, speech, and mind reflects a deep self-knowing, an awareness of how we fit in this fleeting world. It’s the honoring of that fit which causes me trouble.

It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
playing alone.

And then in counterpoint, so human, Ryokan reassures me as he writes,

Were there someone
in the world
who feels as I feel,
we would talk all night
in this grass hut.

 Being in world, connecting, becoming open, vulnerable. And all the time, seeking solitude, re-connecting with what matters.

skyabove, great wind (Genju 2013)

If someone asks
about the mind of this monk,
say it is no more than
a passage of wind
in the vast sky.

{Edit: It is with great spacious humour that I admit having mixed up the script for “sky” and “great.” One continuous mistake! These calligraphies are hopefully corrected in the right-minded direction.}