by tendo zenji
“I could show you my clenched fist and open it—and bid you all good night.But that is not the way things are done in the West—and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.” (1)
It was the fifth day of this winter retreat when the storm hit. The last few days had been clear and cold with a persistent, bone chilling wind out of the west. It was early afternoon, time dragging down eyelids forcing one to struggle to remain upright. Sitting upright, eyes wide, gazing out the window at the tops of the trees at the far end of the lake. Suddenly, as if in a dream, the trees are obscured by a pale mist. Visibility rapidly decreases. What seemed to be a fog rolling in was revealed to be a snowstorm that quickly struck the windows as if it was hail. The only view now, outside any of the windows, was one of a white blur. Throughout all of this the bell was periodically struck.
“The teacher [Seppo] said: “Don’t stop until your axe cuts the very center of the trees.” He was an expert woodsman as well as a Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!” (2)
When one has committed oneself to monastic practice the options narrow. You can abide on the surface, coasting along sit after sit. Yet sit continues to follow sit and retreat follows retreat relentlessly. Struggle as you might that is inescapable. Choosing to do retreat after retreat, being fully present for sit after sit presents a different set of circumstances. Checking out is an option; not attending the next retreat is an option. Equivalently delving ever deeper, pushing ever harder, balancing on the edge of the knife; this too is a choice. In whatever manner you are able it is this latter choice that should be supported. Things can never be made easy enough for those who have checked out, but those testing their limits can always be pushed harder.
“Zen masters used to hide themselves in remote parts of the world, meditating in the deep mountains among trees and rocks, with monkeys and rabbits for companions. They did so not because they were misanthropic, but because they wanted to guard their Dharma against the dust of glory and fame. Modern students of religion are altogether too impatient. Without waiting for the fruit to ripen, they open up their stores and begin to sell their wares. Such unripened fruit is unhealthy, and may cause injury to those who do not know the difference.” (3)
It took three days hard cycling to reach the lake. It was late in the season and there were few people about. The mountains had yet to reclaim their white beards, the rings around the lake attested to the months without rain. The salmon, bright red in the clear water, struggled ever further inland to reach the place of their birth. The cold nights bring out the endless stars like handfuls of diamonds cast upon a blackboard. The cold drives the few people to retreat into their dwelling places and bedclothes. A few strange bird calls. When asked why I’m here, I have nothing to say, but futilely gesture toward the stream, the lake, the mountains.
“Yes, it is the taste that matters— the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.” (4)
Saying nothing is often the most appropriate response. It is tempting sometimes to think that explaining something— our perspective, our point of view, an experience, our feelings— is always worth doing. Being able to sit with someone and not have to say anything is genuine intimacy. This late in the history, in the west, could one just sit there silently? hold up a finger? a flower? When giving words is there a dwelling on the speaker? or the listener? or the words? If so, who is the host and who is the guest? “Have a cup of tea.”
“Now while I certainly don’t want any of you to die before you are very old, I do want you all to die like buddhas—peacefully and calmly. We are performing birth-and-death every minute, every hour, every day and every year. Whether you make yourself a three-minute Buddha or a ten-year Buddha is up to you. Only two more days remain of this seclusion week. Make yourselves at least two-day buddhas!” (5)
The rain had been coming down steadily for the last few days; the snow was fast retreating from the onslaught. The rain would slam into the building, filling the space with a bright wash of sound. Then it would just as suddenly cease, leaving only the dripping and the creaking of the old building. At night we would raise our voices in a single syllable, layer upon layer, rising and falling, extolling our connection to all things. A raindrop is born in the clouds, exists as a separate entity while it falls, then mergers with the absolute when it reaches the earth. The rains start and stop and each time countless raindrops fall. Two days left.
“To live in Zen, you must watch your steps minute after minute, closely. As I have always told you, you should be mindful of your feet, not of your head or chest, in your meditation as well as in your everyday life. Keep your head cool but your feet warm! Do not let sentiments sweep you off your feet!” (6)
There I was center orchestra, just a few dozen rows back from the stage. The symphony poured their hearts into this rich, romantic drama and my thoughts began to drift. What was I going to do that evening after the symphony? Would it be too late, or could I perhaps get in some reading? How crowded would the train be do you think? Suddenly it came to me, these are just distracting thoughts! In the same way you bring your attention back to the breath, I need to bring it back to the symphony. And so I did. Again and again. Fully present, for much more of the time, the rich music evoked so much more to me. For a piece that I had heard probably hundreds of times, it became fresh once again. Do this for all things.
“As Buddha himself was cremated, my corpse should be treated the same way. The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sūtras, may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. Silence is the best offering to me!” (8)
All the rituals surrounding impermanence are for the living. Who is to say that what will bring comfort to one, will bring comfort to others? The dead give nothing but silence. The lesson of impermanence is straightforward, but we make it so much more complex. Is it because we cannot let go? So much we do let go of without a thought: the raindrop hitting the earth, the breath leaving the body, sweat evaporating on backs, hoar frost fading in the sun, the yellowing leaves, an exclamation on entering cold water, the mosquito under the hand, each evenings setting sun. These connections are like all of our relationships and while they are a part of us we shouldn’t cling to them.
“Everything appears as if it exists, but we only recognize things in relative terms. The world is formless—simply a phenomenon of flux, consisting of various relations, conceivable only in relation to subjectivity and objectivity. Without this close relation, there is no thing, there is no world. Non dwelling means non attachment. Non attachment discourages our clinging ideas of loss and gain.” (7)
The long day is drawing to a close, only a few of us now seated under the glowing tree. Sounds become more clearly delineated. Distantly there are some sensations of form, reminders of shape. Outlines become indistinct, slow down. Sounds merge into white noise. Who is it that is listening right now? A serene light washes everything out. Silence. The sensations of form become increasingly acute. Nagging thoughts arise. The night ends before the morning star rises. Soon now there must be observances made, ritual observed, form followed.
“Remember me as a monk, and nothing else. I do not belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of the sort. I wish to be free from such trash and die happily.” (8)
All citations are from the following collection:
Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy
The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen Sensaki
Edited and Introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications Somerville MA, 2005
1) In This Lifetime, p. 144
2) In This Lifetime, p. 145
3) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 138
4) Have a Cup of Tea, p. 164
5) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 139
6) My Last Words, p. 167
7) The Diamond Sutra, p. 134
8) My Last Words, p. 168