Absolute Belief in Zazen

Embracing Mind: The Zen Talks of Kobun Chino Otogawa. Edited by Judy Cosgrove and Shinbo Joseph Hall.  Jikoji Zen Center.

Kobun Chino Otogawa came to the United States for the first time to train the novice monks at the Tassajara Mountain Monastery, which had just been founded.  After a couple of years he returned to Japan but later made his way back, spreading his influence all over the West coast.  He was the Resident Teacher at Haiku Zendo in Los Altos, founded numerous sitting groups, helped start Zen centers in Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and New Mexico, met Chogyam Trungpa and taught at the Naropa Institute, even taught some classes at Stanford.

He was famous for a Zen archery exhibit in which he took elaborate care at setting everything up, went through an intricate ritual slowly and with extreme care, took aim at a target that he had set up, then shot his arrow off a cliff or into the ocean, and shouted, Bullseye!  I’ve heard that story from three people at least.  He also once led a sesshin attended by my own teacher, Larry Rosenberg, and fell asleep while he was the timekeeper for zazen.  He really conked out; everyone in the room stood from their cushions and tiptoed away but didn’t wake him.  Apparently he came to and found no one there.  He never mentioned the incident to the group.

He died tragically and shockingly, trying to save his young daughter from drowning while they were in an alpine village in Switzerland, another place where he had started a center.  For a number of years, the only of his teachings of his that I could find were some short excerpts on the Internet.  The Zen Center where he finally landed posted more of his teachings on their website.  And now they’ve put out this book, publishing it themselves.  I’m not sure how widely it’s distributed, but it’s available on Amazon.

I’ve come to rely on all the teachers associated with the San Francisco Zen Center, but there’s nobody quite like Kobun.  Those teachings I first found on the Internet seemed perpetually just out of my grasp, but I pondered them endlessly.  A similarly tantalizing short teaching was among the things that the teacher at our Zen Center gave us when we took the precepts.  For years those scraps were all we had to go on, other than Reginald Ray’s account of knowing the man, and Caroline Atkinson’s wonderful short book about studying with him, including the gradual evolution of his thoughts on zazen into one final statement.

    “We sit to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing. We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are. This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do. If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light. Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

One striking thing about this new book is Kobun’s casual knowledge of world religions, and the way he dropped mention of them into his talks.  He had learned zazen from his father when he was three, become a monk when he was thirteen, but in no way comes across narrowly as a doctrinaire Japanese Buddhist.  Take this passage, for instance, from early in the book.

“Humans began to count their age of history from the recognition that others’ existence is important, as well as our own existence, and this is reflected in the historical existences we call Shakyamuni Buddha, or Moses, or Christ, or Patanjali, or Lao Tsu.  Many prophets were sending a signal to the whole fluid energy of humankind, ‘It is time to awake.  You fight and kill each other because of a piece of wheat.  That’s not the way.’”

Fighting to the death over a piece of wheat sounds a little strange, but we know what he means.  He also speaks more specifically.

“The concept of Brahman and Atman in Hindu tradition is the same.  The Godhead, God, and yourself is one piece of existence.  All that exists is God and you, and others are part of you, so to speak. . . . God dwells in you and God is impossible to measure, what it is, who it is, what it is doing to you.  To some extent the life of you and God is simultaneous. . . . The more we think about this kind of strange condition we’ve got, the more mystified we feel.”

He says things I’ve thought but have never heard a teacher say.

“Facing Buddha in this galaxy is similar to facing Christ, as a medium to God.  Your life is in a similar relationship to Buddha, and to the cosmic truth, so to speak.”

Other times he speaks quite personally.

“From mythological times, we have believed God existed.  So I do not have any question or doubt about it, even though I haven’t met Him.  There are many names, but the actual one doesn’t have a name.  It is present in the future, and fills wherever space and time is.  It is that kind of presence, I have no doubt of that.”

The most striking thing about Kobun is his absolute belief in the practice of zazen, his feeling that everyone, from every religion, can profit from it, his insistence that, finally, the practice itself is a mystery, as mysterious as life itself, and his understanding that it is a profoundly personal and private experience: no two people experience it the same way.  Kobun himself obviously relied on zazen and went deeply into it, sent messages back about what he had discovered.

He speaks pointedly about our endless wish to know things.

“Life has to be freed and lived, instead of being known.”

“We may feel that sitting only brings us questions instead of answers.  But if you settle on an answer, and feel it is the end of your questioning, that is not so good.  . . . Buddha’s sitting is beyond pure and impure, holy and unholy.  It is not something you understand.  It’s indescribable.”

He mentions various kinds of realization.

“It seems that all koans are related to the basic pattern of one’s self-realization.  The relative self is related to the absolute presence.  It is a constant interest.  In your innermost place this meeting with the Absolute is the essential subject.  When you succeed in it, at that moment you feel your life is perfect.  It’s supposed to be perfect.  But it doesn’t, of course, continue its perfection moment after moment.”

“Your physical body is the ground where knowledge and understanding arise. . . . Teaching doesn’t come from outside of you.  Your heartbeat, your breathing, are not all that are within you, some cosmic reality is there and you are experiencing it.”

He also startles us with his personal discoveries.

“In the very beginning, [the Buddha] uttered the words saying that all living things of the great earth, at the same time, in the same way, accomplished the bodhi, the awakening.  Unusual as this may sound, if you keep open your eyes from the deepest night, between two and three o’clock, just before sunlight you sense a kind of shaking of the earth, trembling of air, and you see how fantastic this is.”

Those words remind me of his Internet teachings on the other side of nothing, or about the vast depths that sitting can take you to.

I think the most remarkable thing about Kobun is his willingness to speak so personally, to talk so intimately about his practice of zazen and assume that his idiosyncratic experience is somehow universal, which it is.  I’m not sure why the Jikoji Zen Center chose to put out this book on their own instead of sending it to a major publisher, but they’ve produced a beautiful volume, one I know I’ll return to for the rest of my life.  Kobun is one of the most profound and fascinating teachers ever to make his way to this country, and it’s wonderful that more of his teachings are now available.