In many spiritual traditions, students are discouraged by their teachers from exploring any other teachers or alternative teachings. In fact, many Zen teachers discourage or even forbid their students from attending sesshins (retreats) led by other teachers.
There are some good reasons for this.
It’s easy for students, particularly early on their path, to get confused and then ultimately discouraged. And spiritual dilettantism can be a big problem — sticking one’s toe first in this pond and then in that pond and never really getting wet.
Good reason – sure. But there is always another side. Roshi Bernie Glassman never discouraged exploration.
He honored people who studied deeply in multiple traditions and was the first Zen master to give transmission to clergy of other faiths including a Jesuit priest, a rabbi, and a Sufi sheik. All while doing this at a time when many considered it outrageous that he would give transmission to Buddhist lay people.
Wonderfully, I was privileged to make this evident in my transmission ceremony. Part of our Soto Zen ritual preparation for transmission involves the copying on parchment of documents which have been passed down from teacher to students for centuries. One is our lineage chart, in which the names of all the teachers from Shakyamuni Buddha through Bodhidharma (who brought the teaching from India to China) and Dogen Zenji (who brought it Japan) and Maezumi Roshi, Bernie’s teacher (who brought the lineage to the US).
Arranged around a circle, the lineage seemed to me to resemble the petals of a flower.
When invited by Bernie to individualize this traditional diagram, I added a stem for my flower and three leaves, one for each of the teachers whom, while not in the direct line from Shakyamuni to me had contributed enormously to the evolution of my Zen practice: Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, Roshi Jishu Holmes, and Roshi Robert Kennedy, S.J.
Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi was not my first meditation teacher, but he was my first teacher in the flesh.
My first teacher was actually the Sage of the I Ching, the great, ancient Chinese, Taoist divination guide. When I saw it first, Diane (my wife) was throwing the pennies, getting advice from the Sage. She thought I should try it. She thought I wasn’t paying enough attention to what she called my “self-development”.
For a long time, I would have none of it. This was way too hokey for me, too … It sort of left me speechless. Too new age-y. Too irrational. Too crazy.
But after a while, I tried it.
You throw three pennies, and the combination of heads and tails determines solid line or broken line.
Repeat six times.
The result — a hexagram of six lines, both broken and unbroken, lead you to a section of the I Ching text and determines which of the text’s sections apply.
You begin by asking a question, the question you want the Sage to answer.
Then you throw the pennies.
Then you consult the I Ching.
The Sage answers your question. The more honest the question — “Ask what is most important you at that moment,” – the clearer the answer.
The Sage’s responses were uncanny.
Sometimes the answers seemed unrelated to the question.
Crazily, it appeared that the Sage had answered the question which lurked beneath the surface, the question I had been afraid to ask.
Beneath the Surface
At that time, I was really struggling to develop a meditation practice. I had been looking for a Zen group to sit with and found several in Manhattan. I had gone to the open intro sessions and one, the Soto Zendo, seemed the best fit for me. I felt a good vibe from the people, and they sat on a good night for me — a night when I wasn’t seeing private psychotherapy patients.
There was just one problem.
“Come back,” they said, “when you can sit still for 30 minutes.”
That was way beyond me. Trying to sit, I would become restless. I was trying to meditate, journaling about my meditation, evaluating each morning’s effort, recording the length of time I managed to stay on the cushion. It was nowhere near 30 minutes.
Driving up to Maine to visit Jim and Linda Breslin, I stopped for picnic lunch on a grassy slope overlooking the Atlantic.
I asked the Sage how to improve my meditation.
I threw the pennies.
The Sage answered: “Stop judging.”
A life changing teaching. There was now no more “good sitting” or “bad sitting.” There was just sitting.
That was June, and by September , I was sitting for a 30-minute period every day. I began sitting weekly at the Soto Zendo.
In November, a sesshin was announced. Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, the founder and teacher of the Soto Zendo would be coming to New York in December from Japan to lead a sesshin — a weeklong, silent meditation retreat.
Kyudo Roshi was a Dharma successor of the great Soen Nakagawa Roshi, but not the first. His older brother in the Dharma had succeeded Soen Roshi as the Abbot of Ryutakuji, one of Japan’s most important Rinzai temples. Kyudo set out to share the teaching with the world.
Founding the Soto Zendo in New York City and using it as a base, he had established sitting groups in London and Jerusalem, leading sesshins in each several times a year.
But then his Zen brother, older in the Dharma but younger chronologically, had died suddenly; and Kyudo had been recalled to Japan to become Abbot of Ryutakuji. He came to New York (and London and Jerusalem) twice a year to lead sesshins.
As new as I was to sitting, I was encouraged to participate. I was frightened, but I signed up. I didn’t feel I belonged. I was not a spiritual person, had never been a spiritual person. I had no spiritual practice, no spiritual training. I would be recognized as an impostor. I would be thrown out. I pictured the gesture — the finger pointing at me and then the thumb, “out,” in silence.
But I went. In trepidation.
When I entered the Zendo, Kyudo Roshi was already seated at the head of the room. Completely still, he was unmoving as all the sesshin participants entered quietly and found places. We sat facing the wall, Rinzai style, only turning our cushions to face Roshi during his daily Dharma talks and during the chanting of the liturgy. Roshi led the liturgy and played all the instruments — a one-man band.
Each evening he offered individual interviews. We were a large group, and there was not time for him to see us all during the evening meditation. We could see him every other evening, with three individual interviews in a sesshin. I had five sesshins with Roshi over the two plus years I sat at the Soto Zendo. They were incredibly precious moments.
He Taught Me to Sit
Posture first. At my first interview, Roshi told me not to keep changing the way I crossed my legs each period. How did he possibly notice? With thirty plus retreats in the room, sitting with our backs to him? We did walking meditation in between the sitting periods. He remembered my position from the period before, and noticed the change. I am still stunned.
Terrified that I would not be able to manage the pain in my knees, sitting half-hour periods, 13 periods a day for six straight days — I had an idea. It would be easier on my legs if one period, I put my right foot on my left calf and the next reversed and put my left food on my right calf.
“If you do not keep changing your position,” Kyudo said, “Your body will adjust.”
Over the first year or so, Kyudo taught me posture. He taught me to balance so that my posture was maintained by gravity. No muscles involved. To hold a position with tired muscles was an isometric exercise.
“Sit that way and you will be in agony. Relax. Sit straight. Sit balanced.”
Only when he was satisfied with my posture did Kyudo teach me to breathe.
Twenty-five years later I am still learning to breathe.
Kyudo didn’t only lead the meditation, lead the chant, do all the Dharma talks and all the individual interviews — he was also the sesshin chef. Some of us helped with cooking while the rest of us cleaned every day. We cleaned the bathrooms, the kitchen, and the Zendo where we meditated, ate, and slept.
Kyudo taught me how to mop one side of the Zendo at a time using long strokes from the center line to the wall, one after another, from one end of the Zendo to the other, and then to the other side of the room.
But the most amazing thing about Roshi was his stillness — his complete stillness. The ease of it, the looseness. It was not a stillness of holding tight, but rather a stillness of peace. I wanted some of that.
So, I created a mantra for myself. “With inner peace, nothing else matters. Without inner peace, nothing else matters.” I dreamed of going to study at Ryutakuji.
Then, the demands of Ryutakuji seemed to increase. It became harder for Kyudo Roshi to get away. New York sesshins were either cancelled or postponed. Something was missing from my life.
In Zen, the relationship between student and teacher is crucial. I began to think that I needed a teacher who I could be with more often, more intensely. Zen is learned not from books, not even from the teacher’s advice. It is learned from being in the presence of the teacher in whatever form that being together takes. At that moment of need, strange fortune led me to Roshi Bernie Glassman in Yonkers.
I never saw Kyudo Roshi again although I thought about him often.
Years later I almost made it to a Soho Zendo sesshin. I wanted to go back. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to thank him, but there were too many demands on my time.
I wanted to thank him for the grounding teaching which he had provided. Sitting well is the anchor of Zen practice, and Kyudo Roshi gave me that anchor. It is now a teaching which share with my Zen students, especially beginning meditators. I thought many times that I needed to find a way to thank Roshi for the gifts which I had received from him.
Again, I didn’t have the time, or maybe I was too shy. Or embarrassed.
He had meant so much to me, and there was no way that he would remember me. One of hundreds of students who had passed through his interview room over the years. Each one has received the gift of his teaching.
And then, I learned that he had died without being thanked by me.
I didn’t want to make this mistake again.
And yet, I have.
A favorite English teacher, the best and most memorable teacher of my undergraduate years, died un-thanked as well.
Some lessons are not easily learned, at least by me.
Impermanence. It is a fundamental Zen teaching — nothing is forever.
Imagining that there is always time, that there will always be time, is always a source of suffering. It is at the center of our practice, to keep that awareness of impermanence present, and yet it slips away.
I am trying not to let the gratitude go unexpressed, yet how likely it is that it will happen again.
We all have lessons which confound us. We all have some things which we don’t seem to be able to wrap our heads around. Working with students, it is important for teachers to remember this.
Sometimes the stumpers seem obvious to us. Working with teachers, it is just as important.
We all have lessons which confound us.