Monday, November 01, 2010

Now and Zen

"All Buddha Tathagatas who individually transmit inconceivable dharma, actualizing unsurpassable, complete enlightenment, have a wondrous art, supreme and unconditioned. Receptive samadhi is its mark; only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off."
Whenever I hear that a Buddhist has spent fifty years of his life working on one project, I want to know about that project -- even if the project involves Zen.

Zen Buddhism is not something with which I have much of a connection. My brush with greatness and smallness came in the 1960s, when my teacher sent me to Suzuki Roshi. 

"This guy is supposed to be enlightened," said Rinpoche. "So, I want you to go over there, and see what an enlightened guy looks like. Maybe you should be studying with him, not with me, because I am not enlightened. Anyway, I want you to go over there and find out for yourself."

"What shall I tell him?" I asked, in all innocence.

"Well... they say he's enlightened," Rinpoche replied. "So, try to get some money out of him, because we're flat broke."

Thus chartered, I made my way by bus to San Francisco's Zen Center, managed to get my inflated sense of self-importance through the front door, and was greeted by a very nice woman named Yvonne Rand, who was something like our agent-in-place in those days. You have to understand there was an amusing sense of friendly rivalry among Bay Area Buddhist groups in those days. I will try to give you a sense of how it was by the tone of this post. Anyway, Yvonne was always trying to help us, and always very diplomatic about how that might occur.

 Yvonne Rand: an early force in Bay Area Buddhism

"Roshi is in the backyard, working in the garden," she said. "But, from time to time he will come in the kitchen to get a drink of water. So, you wait in the kitchen, and when he comes in, whatever happens.... that is whatever happens."

I should explain that at this point in life, I was already conditioned by what I like to call Tales of the Nyingmapa. These are a collection of what might ordinarily be described as highly sectarian and chauvinistic homilies on just about every topic under the sun -- all tuned to demonstrate how the Nyingmapa have repeatedly suffered, and triumphed.
All Nyingma lamas and teachers will hotly deny that such things exist. Then, they will lock the door, pull down the curtains, and fill your ear with Tales of the Nyingmapa. 
In one such tale -- the specifics of which I will omit out of sensitivity -- an extremely famous Nyingma personage relates what happened when he discarded his various and sundry negative views. I will spare you the complete recital, and mention only this ---

"And, when I cast off ego," he is reputed to have said, "Some fools who are easily impressed picked it up and called it 'Zen.'"

I had of course heard of Zen before all this, and I confess to having read Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, and a few others when I was about fourteen. But, for me, Zen held no lasting allure. To be candid, at the time, the whole idiom seemed a bit too quaint for me.

Anyway, I loved Rinpoche like there was no tomorrow, and I had no intention of jumping ship.

Instead, what I vaguely understood at this point was that I was going to go put a Zen master on the arm for money, and that Zen masters would put koans to you; or in the alternative, whack you with a stick, or maybe put up some eccentric proposition and invite you to take it down. In between, there was a lot of eye-twinkling, leaning on brooms, watching sparrows fight, and poetic excess about stuff in the mountains.

No problem.

I was seventeen, and had it covered.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: "Dogen is too difficult for Americans to understand."

After a time, Suzuki Roshi indeed came in the back door and got a drink from the faucet in the kitchen. He wiped his mouth, and then said, "You are waiting here to see me. What do you want to see me about?"
"My teacher told me to come," I answered, and of course I told him my teacher's name.
"So," I replied, "It seems like you are doing very well over here, so I want you to donate some money to help us get started."
"You what?"
 "Probably, if you remember back to when you first came to the United States, things were not so easy, right? So, that is how it is for us, and right now we could really use a hundred dollars, and I guess you will want to help."
"I what?!?"
"Of course, if you can only give less, I suppose that will be O.K. too."
"Please sir, I really need for you to do this, because Buddhists ought to help Buddhists and I cannot leave here without it."
I remember he sat down rather quickly at this point.
"How many students does Rinpoche have?" he asked, and I replied that there were about ten, which might have been an exaggeration.
"Are they all young like you?" he asked, and I replied that I was the youngest.
"Do you always do everything he tells you?"
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I always do."
I had the answer all ready. "Because Rinpoche is enlightened."
I want to tell you, that I left the San Francisco Zen Center in a really good mood that day, because Suzuki Roshi had Yvonne Rand (who was probably embarrassed she had let me through the door) write us a check right on the spot. That was not the last time I saw him, but it was certainly the most memorable.

Later, when I handed the check to Rinpoche and told him the whole story, he laughed until the tears rolled down his face. 

We had really good soup that night.

Please understand that while the whole of the above is close to the sum total of my experience with Zen, I nevertheless find myself pleased to learn that Kazuaki Tanahashi, pictured at top -- who also, in his youth, made his way via the same buses to see Suzuki Roshi -- has just completed his fifty year effort to produce an English translation of Dogen Zenji's  thirteenth century masterpiece Shobo Genzo, or "Treasury of the True Dharma Eye." One wishes to note that Dogen himself only lived to age fifty-three, so maybe Roshi was right -- this seems to have been a difficult translation.

Tanahashi also lived in Berkeley in the Sixties, and I probably passed by him many times without giving him much thought. But, the distance from here to there really doesn't matter, does it?

In the interval, all of us have softened up considerably -- hopefully I am not too bound by Tales of the Nyingmapa to pick up jewels where I find them -- and all of us are at long last beginning to think less in terms of This Buddhism or That Buddhism, and more of Buddhism. In this context, Shobo Genzo is an extremely important work, and this translation is really a substantial, and in many ways magnificent achievement in which we may all rejoice. 

Shambhala has published this in a nice, slip-cased, two volume edition at USD $150. while they last. 

As I recall, that is precisely the amount of the donation Suzuki Roshi gave us, back in the day.

These guys do not miss a trick.


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1 reader comments:

Eva said...

Obediance requires a lot of courage, I guess.