True Zen Man II

No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen by Jakusho Kwong.  Edited by Peter Levitt.  Shambhala.  256 pp. $19.95.

I like what I think of as the original teachers, the people who were prominent where I first began practicing Buddhism in 1991.  My all-time favorite is Shunryu Suzuki, whose Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was the first Zen book I ever read.  Kosho Uchiyama, whose books were around then, and who was still alive at the time, was also a great favorite, especially Opening the Hand of Thought and How to Cook Your Life, which was then titled, and is now subtitled, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment.  I read and reread the two great books of Joko Beck, Everyday Zen and Nothing Special.  When I strayed from Zen I read the books of Suzuki Roshi’s great friend Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

If I had never read any other books, I think those would be enough, and I’ve read them all multiple times.  I’ve never been drawn to the work of Suzuki Roshi’s dharma heirs, Richard Baker and Reb Anderson because of various things I’ve heard about them.  I’ve read Pema Chodron, who has become the Joko Beck of her day (the woman Dharma teacher whom everyone reads), and she is very good; she has absorbed the teachings of Trungpa and made them her own, but somehow—though her work is more ordered and settled than Trungpa’s—I prefer the original fire of his, though I don’t always understand it.

I would certainly read any book by Sojun Mel Weitsman, whom I consider to be the true heir of Suzuki Roshi, but so far he has not written one, except for a small memoir that was locally published.  I’ve heard him talk on many occasions; I’ve read his dharma talks wherever I could find them, and I’ve read back through the newsletters of the Berkeley Zen Center, looking for his old talks, or even snippets of his teachings.  I believe one of his students could create a great book out of his teachings.  I’m not sure why no one has.

The closest thing to such a book that I can imagine is this book by Jakusho Kwong, who is slightly younger than Weitsman and was Suzuki Roshi’s student for roughly the same period of time.  Diane Di Prima said something to the effect that she began studying Zen because she met Suzuki Roshi and was so impressed with him as a person; if he’d been a bricklayer, she’d have taken up bricklaying.  Kwong seems to have been struck in the same way.

“I hardly missed one day in eleven years, sitting every morning.  When I met Suzuki-roshi, it was the first time I encountered someone’s complete presence, someone I felt I could trust completely.  Because I trusted this person, I could also give to this person.” [57]

The teachers in this tradition are characterized by modesty, and genuineness, and simplicity.  They are not charismatic people, as Trungpa seems to have been, and are not given to grand gestures, as he often was.  (In that way it seems surprising that he and Suzuki Roshi were so close, but they seem to have found some common ground deep within each other.  They were close almost immediately.)  Weitsman describes such a person beautifully in talk entitled “The Heart Sutra and the Mantra of Our Life.”[1]

“I used to think of Suzuki Roshi’s life as a mantra. . . . His life had a very obvious form. Every day at the old Sokoji Temple at Bush Street (in San Francisco), I would see him enter the zendo from his office and light the incense, sit zazen and do service. Every day he did the same thing, which was amazing to me. I had never seen anyone do that kind of activity before. His life was devoted to sitting zazen, bowing, lighting incense, and the various other things that he did.

“When there were so many other things to do in the world, here was this person simply doing these things over and over again every day. And he had been doing them over and over every day for most of his life. I never thought of myself doing anything like that in what seemed like such a narrowly disciplined way of life. So I was impressed by it. . . . He was always concentrated and went about his activity in a light and easy manner. Somehow, it was not just repetitive. It was a dynamic that was always producing light. One way to produce energy is to have something going around in a circular path. If you hook up a conductor to that energy producer, the energy flows from it as a dynamo. That’s why he had so much spiritual power.”

This absolute devotion to zazen is the other thing that characterizes the teachers and students of this school, Suzuki-roshi entering the zendo every day, Jakusho Kwong going to the San Francisco Zen Center every day for eleven years and later setting up his own center, Mel Weitsman sitting in Berkeley every day even when no one else cameZazen is the anchor to their lives, as Kwong says:

“After a very long while, supported by your vow not to give up, sitting will become one of the most intimate parts of your life.  The river really does long to return to the ocean, and so just like Bodhidharma we face the wall and allow the light to turn inward toward our mind source.”  [75]

It sounds like a life of renunciation, but Kwong knew that not to be true.  “Renunciation does not mean turning our back on the world.  It means turning our back on the conditions that cause suffering—greed, anger, and ignorance—and rediscovering our natural confidence through seated meditation. . . . It’s the gentlest and kindest way to live in this difficult world.”  [46]

It is not a way of stepping out of life.  It takes you into life.  “Probably the things you fear most will happen.  What is it for you?  For most people it is death.  But if you fear death, you fear life, being engaged in life.  I was a slow learner.  Even with Zen practice, it took me fifty, sixty years to begin, to not be preoccupied, not self-concerned, not dreaming, not spaced out, but to be engaged in life.”  [107]

And it leads to a much larger life.  “I want people to experience this greatness, this vastness, what may be called this mysterious universe that, without doubt, is within each one of us.  It’s pretty hard to describe, but when we use a phrase like ‘cultivate your own spirit,’ the word spirit includes the whole universe, and this is what I want to share, with the hope that people may experience it for themselves.” [32]

A used copy of this book sat on the shelves at our Zen Center for months or even years before I finally bought it, but I was glad I did.  Kwong’s student Peter Levitt edited the book, and they whittled it down from an original 1600 pages of dharma talks.  That massive labor was worth it; they produced a true gem, worthy to sit on the shelf with the best of the Zen books.

[1] Available at the Chapel Hill Zen Center’s website.