One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Showing posts with label John Tarrant Roshi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Tarrant Roshi. Show all posts

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Road to Rohatsu

Ryutan’s Candle and Kenosha

Mumonkan Case 28

The original Chinese Goang

Longtan Chongxin (Dragon-Lake): Because Deshan Xuanjian asked more and more and night arrived, Tan said, "The night is deep. Sir, why don’t you go to lie down?"

Shan thereupon gathered his precious baggage, hoisted the [door] blind, and then exited. He saw the outside was pitch dark, withdrew, turned around, and said, "Outside is pitch dark."

Tan then lit a paper measuring-candle and gave it to him.

Shan intended to accept it, but Tan then blew it out.

I was driving from Santa Fe to Crestone with Baker Roshi for my first Rohatsu sesshin. It was going to be just Baker and me for the four hour drive. I was assigned a lot of packing tasks; his instructions were very exacting. I remember quite clearly that I had to fit the large densho bell into the trunk of the car. There were other bells and zendo items that were needed to keep the schedule and turn the Wheel of the Dharma. 

It was probably between 4 and 5, and already getting dark when we drove out Cerro Gordo Road. We were due by 9 to formally open the sesshin; I thought that we might have been late, but Baker Roshi knew the route very well and had the trip planned to the second. I’d heard about his legendary fast driving, but felt reasonably comfortable.

We talked about Phil Whalen, Issan, the Hospice, and food. Then the conversation turned to losing normal mental ability, Alzheimers, and AIDS dementia. I was somewhat concerned about Issan’s losing his faculties during the last phase of his disease, and asked about the effect of meditation and the blurring of our normal sense of time. I spoke of one guy in the Hospice who couldn’t even remember the past of 5 minutes ago and was completely unable to foresee any future. Given that he was a dying man, it actually seemed to be a blessing.

Baker told me that I probably shouldn’t worry too much. He mentioned something one of his old friends in Japan, Nanao Sakaki, the godfather of Japanese hippies, said when his memory was fading after he crossed 80 years, “I can’t remember what I didn’t need to know anyway.” 

I asked David Chadwick if he remembered if he had any more details about Nanao's condition. David pointed me to a conversation he had with Nanao before he died. David talked about a mutual friend who had colon cancer. Nanao seemed to follow the conversation but asked the same question several times, “What did he have?” "Shiri," David repeated, patting his butt, but said that he’d already answered the question.

Nanao wasn't fazed. "Kenbosho," he said. "I have kenbosho." David asked if that meant senility or Alzheimer's. Nanao wasn't exactly sure. But he was quite cheerful about it.

"Ah, kenbosho is very good," he said. "No need to remember anything anyway. My mind is becoming more empty and free every day! This is a very good thing. I like kenbosho very much."

After crossing Four Corners, the last 40 miles north up Highway 17 from Amoroso to Crestone, the road becomes totally flat, level and straight for as far as my eye could take it to the edge of the car’s headlights. The night was very dark, no light for miles; the sky seemed to be painted a deep penetrating purple that went all the way to the moon, but I didn’t really notice. I thought that we must have been late, and Baker Roshi might have been driving even faster, but it also might have just been my fear. I think we were riding in a BMW, but it might have been a Mercedes. I am not interested in cars; however Roshi's love of fast cars is legendary and actually got him into some trouble. He turned the conversation towards how German engineers make sure that the mechanics of the automobile are tip top because driving on the autobahn was very fast and Germans demanded strict safety protocols and no speed limits. He joked, they at least needed the assurance of safety even if a ruse.

Suddenly the Roshi turned off the car’s headlights. It took a few seconds before my eyes adjusted. I was afraid. We were bolting up the highway at what seemed to be breakneck speed. After a few seconds, perhaps a minute, but certainly far too long in my judgment, Richard turned on the headlights again, and said with a little chuckle that we were lucky that no other driver had decided to turn out the headlights on their car to experience the beauty and depth of the dark night.  

I gradually regained my composure, but my perception of the night had changed. It opened up and I was so aware of the beauty of the night above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I was just part of a vast universe, beyond any explanation. 

The Diamond Sutra says, “If there is even a bit of difference, it is the distance between heaven and earth.” If Deshan (Tokusan) had been a better student, and actually understood before he went all out with his over the top melodramatic burning of the scripture, he would have saved generations of Zen students a lot of pain. But perhaps he thought that Longtan (Ryûtan) was equally dense, and the enthusiasm of a teaching moment simply overwhelmed him. It was I who needed to shed my unsentimental Jesuit training in order to catch the beauty of fire.

Within 25 minutes, we arrived on time to a waiting hall of people all sitting in good posture. I found my seat. The days rolled on; the sun came up; the stars appeared again. I heard the Temple bell ring, and I woke up.

I returned to Santa Fe with some other friends, and quickly fell into a round of gatherings and holiday parties. I called Southwest Airlines and postponed my departure several times. I was having fun. 

Then just after dinner at Robert Winson’s house, someone handed me the phone. It was Issan. He’d tracked me down. He asked how I was doing, and how my sesshin had been. I told him that I thought Sante Fe was beautiful and just amazing with all the luminaria and snow.

“Oh yes,” he said; I remember his words exactly, “all those cute little mud houses. You know that the effect of sesshin can be like a drug trip, and it’s wonderful, but we need you here. Why don’t you come home?”

I called the airport and booked the next flight to San Francisco. It was time to return to my immediate experience of day-to-day life at Maitri Hospice where the moment of living life was always in the shadow of knowing that it will end sooner than we might have dreamed..


Daido Loori’s verse:

Within darkness there is light;

within light there is darkness.

If you really see it,

you will go blind.

Tarrant Roshi concurs.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Intimacy in the Temple Courtyard

Last night my friend Kumar asked me to share what I understood about “intimacy.” I immediately understood him to be talking about more than just a concept, or a feeling, or the interrelationship of the lines and colors in a design, or even an attribute of human love. One might be able to lay the concept of intimacy on feelings, or relationships, or even the elements of design, and still miss the point.

I love Kumar deeply, and know that he is going through a kind of creative crisis as he formulates the final project for his degree at a prestigious design college. My immediate instinct is to help him in any way I can, but know all too well that he is the creative genius and source of his own inspiration. Trying to be helpful might just block him. I might be able to point in a direction or share my own experience, but I cannot cancel the dilemma. 

I mumbled something about my experience of intimacy being connected to my meditation practice. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve heard that meditation is connected. Can you tell me more?” He’s a young man with different sleep needs, so I begged off and said good night.

When I woke up, I found my mind flooded with memories of that period when I was trying to solve my first zen koan in the meditation hall. I can’t count the times that Aitken Roshi would try to soften the blow of my frustration and disappointment of a failed response with his gentle pointer: “Not intimate enough.” It became like my mantra that I would carry back to the meditation hall. If I tried to forge a “est” business-like plan to achieve deeper intimacy, of course that didn’t help, but it didn’t stop me. When I tried to figure out what “Intimacy” really meant linguistically, that was not much help either. Recalling instances of deep intimacy, usually sexual, lead into the deep thicket of regret and failed relationships. A feeling of intimacy, or a memory of that feeling, was not the key I needed. 

I've spent long hours in the meditation hall. Oftentimes it’s felt like a long tough haul with very few rewards. But somehow I was able to keep sitting. When I learned that sometimes, or often, or perhaps all the time, seeking the rewards of discovery actually stands in the way of practice, it helped enormously. The reinforcement of an opening is usually such a surprise, so rare and hard won, it’s almost like an archeological excavation on Mars digging for the lost continent of Atlantis. If handled well, as for example Doris Lessing writing about the Representative of Planet 8, it might bear fruit. But this is not for mere mortals. We have to deal with what we’re given, and eventually I did have a profound insight into what I have been given which perhaps I will talk about at more length another time.

But it’s the exploration of intimacy, with no agenda, that I want to pursue.

Sometimes, actually often, these few words, “Not intimate enough,” kept coming back, a deep refrain in all my meditation. And they still do.

I’ll turn to another koan (Case 37, Mumonkan): “The Chestnut tree in the Temple Courtyard,” “庭前柏樹子.” 

A monk asked: "Compared to what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Joshu (Zhou) said, "In front of the hall, a cypress tree.”

I was at the Angela Center in Santa Rosa for a long sesshin. I can’t recall if I was having an easy time or experiencing a lot of pain in my meditation, that really doesn’t matter, but I do remember exactly where my seat was, back in the far northeast corner of the hall, far from the offering table with the Buddha’s statue but right next to the main door. I had gone into Tarrant Roshi’s room twice a day, and my response became clearer and clearer. I will not speak of any “correct answer” or give away something about time honored practice, but after I responded, he just nodded and asked if I was ready to move on. Something inside said no, that there was more there for me to experience. A koan can keep lots of mysteries locked up inside.

So I went back to my seat. After dinner on the third or fourth night, we sat another long period of meditation and then the usual closing ritual. In that moment my mind was having a lot of difficulty staying tightly focused, something that I usually enjoy during long periods, I thought, well it’s the end of the day, why don’t I give myself a wide open field?

Suddenly I was back at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor attending the opening of an exhibit that honored a gift of a wonderful collection of illustrated books to the Museum’s collection by Reva and David Logan, parents of my friend Jon Logan. I was wandering through a series of small rooms, every now and then edging my way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of a wonderful illustration. The collection was rich. A sampling: 
Joan Miró’s À toute épreuve by Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso’s Le Chant des morts by Pierre Reverdy, El Lissitzky’s Dlia Golosa by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Umbra Vitae by Georg Heym.  But the attention required to make out intricate designs on relatively small book pages induced a kind of narrow, tight focus. 

I rounded a corner and had to look down to pay attention to the few short steps into the main hall, but when I looked up, in front of me, an entire wall of Matisse’s paper cutouts. The onslaught of bright color and form took my breath away. These were not framed posters you bought at Ikea, not the lavish prints that I’d treated myself years ago at MOMA in New York, these were the actual shapes that Matisse himself cut out and arranged on larger pieces of paper when his hands could no longer hold his brushes steadily enough to paint. There he was, an old man, holding his pencil taped on the end of a long stick to etch the lines of leaves, slowly, carefully, but freely, with the skill and care of a practice that traced back hundreds and hundreds of years. I had traced back their root to that legendary tree in the temple courtyard.

It was of course a kind of illusion, what zen meditators call makyō, and usually something to be handled with caution, like dreams. John was just leaving the hall after the service, and I reached out and touched his shoulder. He grabbed my hand, and we returned to his interview room. He asked me what had happened, and I blurted out a bunch of words. Then he asked me to show him the chestnut tree in the temple courtyard, and yes, really, there it was.

Thank you M. Henri Matisse for getting so intimate with your colored paper, your pencil and your scissors. Thank you David and Reva Logan for your generosity. Thank you Bob Aitken for just pointing to where I might find intimacy, Joshu for pointing to the chestnut tree, and John Tarrant for grabbing my hand as I was about to wander off. And thank you Kumar Abhishek for asking me about intimacy and then letting me fall asleep in your arms. May you shape your design faithfully, lightly and freely.

Words cannot describe everything.
The heart's message cannot be delivered in words.


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Case 5 of the Mumonkan and Step 1


Case 5 of the Mumonkan

Mumon, Wu-men Hui-hai (無門慧開), the Chinese Ch’an Master says, "If you can respond to this dilemma properly, you give life to those who have been dead and kill those who have been alive." 

Here is Case 5, "Hsiang-yen: Up Tree." 

The priest Hsiang-yen said, "It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can't touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, `What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?'”

If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?"


It has been at least 6 years since I took up the case. I told another story about Hsiang-yen in a piece I wrote about a difficult and wonderful conversation that I had with my mother a few months before she died ("The Gift of Tears"). Hsiang-yen must have been an immensely gifted teacher if he continues to inspire others to be honest and human more than a thousand years after his death.

Today I find myself totally swept up in the hanging man's dilemma as I begin to re-work Step 1 of the 12 Steps. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts the first step in simple, straightforward language: "I admit that I am powerless over [alcohol, drugs, food, sex]—that my life has become unmanageable." It's just the first step on a journey, and there is a story connected with my personal surrender.

Even if I'd never heard of Bodhidharma, there are questions in my life that I can't evade—my life depends on my answer. It might not be entirely clear to a 21st century reader that the question about Bodhidharma coming to the West carries enormous weight for anyone practicing with a Zen master. My answer unlocks the wonder of practice and the Buddha Way.

At my first 12 Step meeting, when asked "are there other alcoholics/addicts present?" I automatically said, "yes." I didn't grasp that the question was a life or death issue, that it carried all the weight of the person hanging by his or her teeth. I certainly didn't realize that it would turn my world upside down. I was about to learn that answering it truthfully meant that I was about to lose a life I'd become comfortable with, a life of deception I loved in a weird perverted way. I'd learned to talk my way around my addiction so well that I even believed its lies.

I had been practicing meditation for decades, but I missed the immediacy and urgency in that question—right now, right here, people in this room were suffering real biological and psychological effects of drug and alcohol abuse. If I'd been paying closer attention, it might have been easier to see the delusions I'd have to give up, and admit that I'd lost control of my life which is the baseline for any real conversation about sobriety. Another question follows an honest yes: could I examine the roots of my addiction clearly and move beyond denial? My sponsor was very direct, “Cut the bullshit and get real.” We all need real friends we can talk with, men and women who leave any pretense at the door.

Both the spirituality of the Big Book and Zen, I think, start from the same place: what in my experience got me stuck? It’s my dilemma, not the person on the cushion next to me, or the homeless guy stinking of urine on the bus that I can’t move away from. In zen I am never asked to believe anything outside my own experience, not even for a split second.

What transformed this question for me from an intellectual consideration about the nature of addiction and alcoholism to one with all the force of Bodhidharma's coming to the west and facing the wall for 9 years in meditation? My roommate committed suicide, and I found myself hanging from the branch by the skin of my teeth.

I came home to discover my roommate's bloated body dead for at least three days. Just the smell of the house was overwhelming. The shock sent me spinning emotionally and psychologically. The police and medical examiners suggested that I call a friend. The man I called came right over, put an arm around my shoulder and listened without any judgment to whatever came out of my mouth as they carried Dean's body down the stairs. 

My response was to lapse into an uncontrolled rage of using drugs and drinking. As I look back over those few days and weeks, Ash proved the depth of his friendship even more: he wouldn't allow me to play the victim, "Oh you poor guy, how horrible!" or indulge any self importance or fake heroism to let myself off the hook. He told me that even if I was just a guy who happened to be standing by when a tragedy unfolded, I still had to clean up the mess before I could move on. I had no other choice if I was going to choose life. He encouraged me to face the circumstances without drama, and get it done. And he took me to a meeting. Friends don't get any better.

A long meditation practice follows me into the 12-step work, not as baggage but as a friend. When I listen to someone in one of the rooms coming to terms with the concept of a Higher Power, having been told that his or her program depends on acknowledgment and surrender to Something greater than the self, I can only admire the struggle and right-mindedness of their effort. My own experience was very similar. At some point the practice of meditation, or maybe just growing older with more life experience, I dismantled most of the conceptual notions I had believed and put my trust in, but what replaced it was a far more intimate sense of how I am, at the core of my being, connected to the profound inner-workings of the universe.

And even though my own inner experience started to become clear only after long hours on the meditation cushion, I know that this path is open to anyone, even in a blink of an eye. So meditate. Just do it.

The instructions to enter the koan’s world are really quite simple: Sit down, straighten out my spine so that I can stay awake and alert, focus on my breath, pay attention. That’s enough meditation instruction to get started. Then as I settle in, if I choose, I can get real about how I respond to Hsiang-yen’s question, what do you do when you're hanging from a branch by your teeth? My life depends on my answer, where really, no kidding, I'm going to fall into an abyss when I open my mouth. I don’t believe anything, not even for a split second, that I have not experienced myself, but I have also come to trust, thanks to my teachers and my own experience, that the koan will shake an honest answer loose.

Perhaps our answer allows us to simply fall into the unknown and follow the example of the trees' own leaves in the Fall. Thank you, Lucille Clifton, for the capping verse:

The Lesson Of The Falling Leaves

the leaves believe

such letting go is love

such love is faith

such faith is grace

such grace is god

i agree with the leaves

Friday, October 11, 2019

Issan said, "I have things to do."

Originally posted April 23, 2010

Photo: ©Rick Gerharter
One night during Winter sesshin, John Tarrant opened the floor for questions and comments. He began by saying that the real point of all our meditation practice was finding a place of freedom, no, I misspoke, it is not a place, not some approximation or substitute that might be available when we experience a lesser degree of the suffering that goes hand in hand with life. The point of our practice was really FREEDOM.

For some reason, or maybe none, memories about Issan had been surfacing during my meditation. In Issan’s life, the fact that he loved was no secret and no one doubted its depth. Even though he was an open book, some aspects of his love few people could understand. Those memories formed a kind of backdrop for my work on “Little Jade.” In the koan, a noble lady utters the name of her servant just so that her secret lover can hear her voice. 

I had a friend who had been recently diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. He asked his doctor if he could postpone the only treatment they recommended, a resection followed by chemo. He said, “I have things to do.” Yes, we all have things to do, and taking care of them is exactly the crux of the matter. I am caught so often between what I really have to do and what responsibilities are just manufactured. Where in between is there any space for freedom? 

The last ten days before Issan died were such a powerful experience that I've spent almost 20 years digesting the gift that he gave me and many of his friends. With the words "I have things to do" that week sprang to life again, and I reconnected with my friend and teacher and to that brief moment of his life in a way I had not experienced or understood before.

I am trusting that I can write the story with enough clarity to allow the freedom of the moment to shine through the jumble of my words.

Issan had an appointment with his oncologist. It was to be the last time he left Hartford Street, but if we knew it, no one said it. He was quite weak. His skin was bleached, working hard to cover his bones. He was a sick man—he knew that. We all did. Steve Allen and Shunko Jamvold helped him into the beat up car that had become the hospice taxi, and off they went to General Hospital.

Two hours later, maybe it was as long as three, they returned. I opened the front door and was shocked. Issan looked ghost-like. The pain on his face brought tears to my eyes. He couldn't even look at me. He clutched onto the banister for dear life, while Shunko lifted him from step to step.

They reached the top, and I heard the door of his room close. I turned to Steve who was standing with me at the bottom of the steps and asked, “What happened?”

Steve recounted the doctor’s visit in a very flat voice. I am almost certain I recall all the details of the story, though I know that Steve’s emotions and mine certainly color what I will say.

Issan was scheduled to have an MRI. They had waited for a long time for the doctor to arrive. Steve described Issan as smiling as he was placed on the moving platform and the machine’s loud clacking began. Steve stood next to the doctor as they watched the images flash on a screen. Cancerous areas showed up as a soft glow, and Steve said that Issan looked like a Christmas tree—every part of his body lit up.

The test ended. Steve, Shuko and Issan went into a private room with the doctor. He said to Issan, “You’re dying.” Issan tried to smile and said, “Of course I know I’m dying, but I have things to do. It will take at least a month. I have to give Steve transmission, I have to ordain David and Harper.” I could almost hear his voice trailing off. The doctor looked at him and said (it is not difficult to imagine the tone of his voice. This kind of message can only be delivered with love), “No, Issan I don’t think you quite understood me, you’re dying now.” 

Steve described Issan’s response as a simple matter of fact question: “How long do I have?” The doctor told him that he could die at any time, or he might last a week, even ten days on the outside.

Issan thanked the doctor for all that he'd done. An automatic “Oh, thank you” never came from Issan’s mouth, and certainly not in this situation—they both knew that it would be their last meeting. 

That doctor was the first of a long line of people who would say good-bye—and thank you.

As Steve spoke I understood the anguish that I saw in Issan’s face. The stage had been set for the last moments in his life. He was a Buddhist priest, an abbot, a roshi, a gay man, loved by hundreds of people. And I’d seen an entirely human being, clutching onto the banister as he struggled to get up the stairs.

I usually dropped into Issan’s room before the 6 PM meditation to see if he needed anything. Steve and Shunko had been taking shifts to be with him all the time so perhaps Steve had asked me to check in that night so that he could get ready for meditation. 

I knocked and heard Issan’s telephone voice. That man loved the phone! I opened the door, and he pointed to the chair next to him. He was talking with his teacher, Richard Baker. “Oh roshi, you can’t get out here before the 10th? That is too bad, the doctor told me just this afternoon that I won't last that long. Yes, I'll miss you too. I do love you. Yes, goodbye for now. I'll call again or have Steve call if I have no energy." 

Here was a different man than the one who only a half hour earlier had been clutching the banister. And it was absolutely the same man but with a brightness in his voice that shocked me—if I said surprised, it would be far too mild to register the degree of the transformation that I felt.

I can’t remember exactly what Issan said next, but after only a few minutes, I had clear instructions to make sure that everyone coming to say goodbye would feel welcomed. 

He told me how much he liked my fresh tomato marinara sauce, and that it would be a good dish to serve because he couldn’t know how many people would stop by. There would be hundreds actually, and although he didn’t have energy to see them all, they still came.

He also asked me to please do whatever Steve or Shunko asked of me. It was clear that Issan, through Steve, would orchestrate his last days, hours, and moments to accomplish as much as humanly possible of what was on his plate, and whatever that was would be exactly enough.

He was dead 10 days later. He took full advantage of the outside limit promised by the doctor. Richard Baker did come to San Francisco to be with his student and dharma heir before he died. 

Richard told Issan how much he wished that he could change places with him. Issan laughed, “Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance.”

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.

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