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 Richard Baker Roshi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Baker Roshi. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

An Unauthorized Death

When Maylie Scott’s mother died at home in Berkeley, she called me. Apparently after my stint at Maitri Hospice, I had the reputation as the go-to person for dealing with Buddhist death rites. Personally I found the designation of hospice priest slightly uncomfortable. I had done my best to distance myself from any sacred ritual after spending several of my Jesuit years fussing over post Vatican 2 updating. But as we say, that was my personal issue.

Actually I made it up as I went along. I had to. I’d fallen into my role taking care of men dying from HIV without any formal hospice training. The crisis trained us all, often brutally. The same for taking care of the Last Things. If there was a handbook, it was untranslated or came with tons of cultural baggage. This is a story about some of what we did, why we did it, and where our hands were tied.

When Issan died, Steve Allen asked Kobun Chino Roshi to perform the exacting Soto ritual done at Eiheiji for their most revered priests. Kobun had served in an official capacity there, teaching ritual and chant. He himself had been well trained; his seemingly endless chanting was mesmerizing but certainly beyond our language ability not to mention voice control. He could not train us. I drifted off and realized that it probably wouldn’t make any sense to translate it anyway. It was perfect for that moment, and that was enough. It had to be. Later there were a few odd ceremonial gestures, like pouring salt on either side of the doorposts, that I understood even less. The salt heaps seemed to be Japanese superstition, perhaps to ward off marauding Yōkai. I didn’t want to believe that they had crossed the great waters with the Dharma, but I might be wrong.

Issan had arranged for his own cremation with the Neptune Society. We followed their car to the crematorium. It was a bare, ugly industrial space; the workers were dressed for work around the hot furnace. Though not disrespectful, it was utilitarian which came into sharp contrast when Kobun, Philip, Steve, Shunko Jamvold, Angelique Farrow, David Schneider and David Bulloch put on their formal Okesa. The usual work of burning bodies was interrupted by our chanting. I could see that this was outside the usual practice, and it cost extra. 

Steve and Shunko returned several hours before Issan’s body was reduced to ashes. Usually the crematorium would grind any remaining bone fragments into a powder in what looked like a giant food processor before returning them to the next of kin. Steven had requested that Issan be spared this process so that he and Shunko could sift through his ashes with ceremonial chopsticks, looking for small gem-like fragments to keep as relics.

Several weeks later there was an elaborate funeral at Zen Center. Hundreds of people gathered; Richard Baker Roshi, Issan’s teacher, was the head priest, but Kobun, as well as Mel Weitzman, Blanche Hartman, Norman Fisher and Reb Anderson were also present. Towards the end Richard Schober, the chair of Maitri and not a Buddhist, turned to me and said it felt like high mass for a bishop.

Between 1989 and 94 I was part of so many services for men who died in the hospice as well as others for Issan’s friends that I lost count. Almost 90 men and one woman died during Maitri’s first years. I tried to school myself, attempting to discover an appropriate level of formal ritual. Issan, Steve and Phil performed the Soto memorial service that included food offerings, and chanting, particularly the Daihi Shin Darani, an invocation for the compassionate intervention of Avalokitesvara. There was also a period of spontaneous sharing about the person’s life and loves, something that Richard Baker may have added at San Francisco Zen Center. Several times I helped gather a minyan so that we could recite Kaddish, and there was one Roman Catholic Mass in the zendo. On at least 4 occasions Issan, Steve or Phil performed Tokudo for men who wanted to join the sangha and shave their heads before they died.

The Book of the Dead

In 1989 at Lone Mountain College, I went to a teaching regarding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö, coupled with the bardo initiation. There were only six to eight of us who attended all the teachings. The lama sat on a high throne in the neo-gothic chapel for three hour sessions twice a day for three days. Despite all this formality he was very approachable, answering questions in an informal, personal way. I remember a long argument he had with an animated, forceful Jewish woman who said she could not forgive Hitler but felt she had to. Jamgön Kongtrül’s resolution, as I recall, was if the Talmudic leaning woman could stop harming herself no matter what she wanted to hold onto, opinions and positions would inevitably fall away.

When on the evening of the last day, time came for the empowerment of passing through the bardos, the audience swelled to overflowing, mostly gaunt men with HIV. I knew in my heart that many of these men were engaged in some kind of magical thinking. The fear of death was palpable. Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö performed the ritual in the manner of someone steeped in tradition. Perhaps death’s sting had not dissipated by the last chant, but if the pain of the men who lined up for his blessing was even slightly mitigated, it was a success. In my own life, the sting would linger for years, a kind of survivor guilt. Along the way ritual became less important, though it did not entirely vanish.

Normally an initiation ends with some practice instruction. On that last evening Jamgön Kongtrül concluded with a plea for everyone to live their lives as fully as possible for however many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years remained. He said that would be the best practice; that bardo practice was noticing what happened in the “in-between” gaps in our experience. Many of these men would be dead in a few months. His instruction was a kind gesture of compassion.

Joshi, Kennett Roshi, and bending the law to death’s favor

Paul Joshi Higley was the first Zen priest in the community to die after Issan. He was one of two men and one woman Issan ordained. Paul had been a student of Chogyam Thrumpa, and held some level of Shambhala Training. He came to the hospice with a six month life expectancy and lived for nearly two years. He became part of our community, and my friend. In his late 30’s, dying of AIDS, he had a strong will to live fully. Determined to take full advantage of anything that medicine could provide during that first terrible decade of the epidemic, he didn’t die in the hospice but at Garden Sullivan Hospital out on Geary Ave after an experimental treatment.

The hospital called early in the morning, perhaps 1 AM. I’d promised Paul that his body would not be embalmed and that it would remain undisturbed for at least three days before cremation, but I was not at all prepared to find a way to transport a dead body from a hospital back to what looked like an ordinary San Francisco house in the dead of night. In those days the hospital afforded you 4-6 hours to have a funeral service to pick up “the remains.” I called Paul's father who met me at the hospital and provided the signature required for the release of his son’s body. Then I had to convince a tiny African-American mortuary to transport his body to “a Temple.” This was not entirely a fiction as Maitri was still part of Hartford Street Zen Center, but it was pushing the limits. It was against the law for a body, certainly an unembalmed body, to remain in an ordinary house, not a licensed funeral home, for three days.

We returned Paul’s body to his room at Maitri between 4 and 5 AM. I began to wash it carefully with sweet tea and a few drops of alcohol added, the astringent to help seal the pores; then I inserted some cotton balls into his anus. He’d been my friend so this was both a labor of love and extremely difficult. Issan once told me that in the time of AIDS, we were at war, and the ravages of Paul's last struggle with the virus were visible on his body. I imagined that I was washing them away. It was sunrise when finally Paul’s body, properly dressed, lay undisturbed in his room, dominated by a huge Tibetan style shrine. I turned and saw the last calligraphy that he’d done on large pieces of fine paper hanging on the wall. They read “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

Over the course of the next three days, friends, family and admirers came and went. It was a kind of Buddhist wake.

Phil sent me to Jiyu Kennett Roshi’s Selling water by the river: A manual of Zen training, to review what she wrote about a priest’s funeral. Together he and I sketched out the full ceremony, where everyone would stand, the placement of the altar table, the food offerings, the order of the chanting. Phil was a Soto priest performing the cremation ceremony of a Soto priest. He wanted to make sure that we omitted no part of the ritual performed in the crematorium in Emeryville.

Paul had kept $25 dollars in his pocket to pay for his cremation. After the ceremony, we used it to buy lunch in a Japanese restaurant. It didn’t quite cover the entire bill.

What did we keep?

A few appropriate words!

After all my experience and hard won lessons, I might expect that I could say something definitive about The Last Things. I cannot. As far as ritual, the first thing that comes to mind is Aitken Roshi’s counsel to Joel Katz, Ken MacDonald and me when we carried Dan Dunning’s ashes to a long boat at Queen’s Surf to be spread out beyond the reef. The Old Man said, “a few words would be appropriate.” Dan had been a dear friend for years. As I took the lid off the urn, I mumbled, “I loved you immensely, and I’ll miss you immensely.” Joel and Ken saved the day. They chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, banging rhythm on the gunwale as we rode the waves back to shore. I’m sure Dan loved that professional musicians did the honors, especially since he’d seen Phantom half a dozen times.


Washing the body

Frank Ostaseski taught me the practice of washing a body for the final time. It is an intimate gesture of love and respect. It is also a difficult practice. When not left to morticians or hospital nurses, it can be an act of friendship. It is also a physical act, reminding us that death is real. Thank you Frank.

Don’t touch anything for a while

I had a Japanese friend whose partner died of AIDS. Yoshi wanted to keep the man’s body undisturbed for three days. He bought all the dry ice available in his small Marin town. Early on we decided that Maitri also ought to allow a resident’s body to remain untouched for three days. Cultural conventions certainly did not influence me nor do I have any particular beliefs about the soul traversing to a nether world, but I did sense that trying not to interfere with a natural process was probably a good thing, akin to not interfering with the natural process of thought in meditation. 

I certainly wanted to be respectful. Working in the hospice, I'd become keenly aware of a delicate balance between pushing to get something done and leaving things alone. Although it may feel like a good idea for personal relationships to be as loving, complete and even as robust as possible as death approaches, there may have been damage which requires more healing time than what’s available. On the other hand, having a formal will in place as well as written instructions about funerals etc., is something that has a definite time frame. Sometimes I had to push through denial and procrastination to get papers signed. Thankfully I had the assistance of very well trained social workers from Visiting Nurses and Hospice to help.

But more of a problem was the legality of not removing a body immediately. The law required that we not keep a body more than 24 to 48 hours without refrigeration or embalming. Luckily I found a funeral director who helped with the legal forms, the death notice, so that we could keep a body in the hospice for as long as possible. After some experience we realized that though we didn’t need dry ice, we did need a lot of ventilation. We always seemed to be pushing the limits.

One of the social workers called it “lying in state” when she would ask patients how they wanted their bodies treated after they died. Many, if not most, chose our Buddhist wake. Their friends did come by. It always took its own form. Sometimes there was chanting or some spiritual practice, but it didn’t have the religious formality of visiting hours with the obligatory rosary of my upbringing. Most of the men in the hospice would have rejected that anyway. In almost every case I can remember, it just seemed to fit.

As I sat with many bodies, I began to notice that dying is not instantaneous. Like any process of saying goodbye, life doesn’t just end when the breath stops. It’s not like walking out and closing a door. The legal definition of death may be that the heart no longer beats, but hair and fingernails continue to grow. The skin seems to continue to breathe. Bodies actually change. Over the course of several days I could actually see life taper out. I was not imagining something. It is a reality that I can no longer escape.

Full Circle

After Maylie Scott’s mother Mary died, I'm sure Maylie washed her body with love. Then she called several of us who’d been close to her mother during the last years of her life. We came and sat up with Maylie through the night. Three days later she called the Neptune Society. Within the hour they arrived accompanied by two cops because there had been an “unauthorized death.” Maylie thought that her mother would have been very amused by the ruckus she caused.

Mary’s ashes are kept in the ancient Malling Benedictine Abbey south of London where her other daughter, Sister Mary John, was the abbess. From Eiheiji, through Kaddish and The Book of the Dead, to a small Buddhist Hospice in San Francisco during the time of AIDS, and onto a small abbey of cloistered Anglican nuns. Perhaps a bit wobbly, but full circle. Life and death continue to circle on and on.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Now Phil was dying. Perhaps as long as a year before, he’d reached back for his chair which wasn’t there and fell breaking his assbone. Thus began a slow decline. I was alarmed. It’s hard to say that a Zen Master, especially one that I loved, had given up on life, so I won't. But progressive blindness had stolen the delight of seeing words on a page, physical pain made the formal posture of zazen impossible and now immobility obliterated the comforting routine of meditation, gabbing, study, jokes, and food. Not physical therapy with Baker Roshi’s student Joe Muscles, not Chinese food with taro root, not even gummy bears, could turn the tide. The ever present good cheer, except when it suddenly disappeared, felt concocted. The veneer was wearing thin. I didn’t feel the bitter resignation of a person fed up with life. It was more a sense that he’d just had enough. He invited the dying to begin, and the invitation had been accepted. It would be long and slow.


Some sages claim that this was a good way for a meditator to die, as if waving a long slow goodbye to everything that had been assembled to make you--a precious death. In a way I feel that this is a bit like sticking a smiley face on a Hallmark condolence card. It masks the uncertainty of each piece tumbling into oblivion. Phil was always so kind to those who were helping him, but on the other hand he couldn’t hide the day to day frustrations. 


He would rail at the dying steps prescribed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, saying "I have to decide if I’m at the bargaining stage or the resignation stage.” But he seemed to be following them exactly, or at least that was the framework that I carried into my conversations with him. I actually felt that he’d only taken baby steps away from the anger stage, but all that is extremely subjective. Perhaps I was still angry with him for ending the Maitri experiment, or screaming at me in the hallway, or harping on that old time religion. 


Zenshin’s mind had always been clear as a bell, much clearer than his vision. His memory for words, phrases, even pages in a book, had been almost photographic. I wonder how much of this was compensatory.


Once when I was entertaining some weird questions about presumed Kundalini energy in meditation, what Phil called the “squigglies,” he said, “Ol’ Luk Luk has something to say about that.  ”Middle case, third shelf, second from the left. (I think it was Charles Luk’s “Secrets of Chinese Meditation, but it might have been “Empty Cloud.”) Page 63, middle paragraph, beginning at the forth sentence. That’s the interesting part. Read back to me. Then he gently told me that focusing on the heart might be good practice rather than chasing swirling whirling wisps of energy all over the place.


Another time when we were reading “Scenes from the Capital,” we got to a part where he talks about Gerald Manley Hopkins. He started to recite “The Windhover” not with his flat voice, not with his whimsical voice, but reverently, almost like plainchant. When he stumbled, he pointed to the first case, second shelf, 12th book from the right, page 43, “Just start reading.” 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.



When I was sitting with him in a bright room of the Zen Center Hospice on Page Street, he asked me, “Do you see them?”

“Who?”

“The angels.

“No actually, I don’t. Where are they?”

“Right there, floating around,” pointing towards the upper corner to the left of his bed.

“No, I still don’t see them.”

“Look, goddamn it.” His voice sounded plaintive, perhaps wistful.

“What do they look like?”

“Just like the ones on the Macy’s gift bags.”

I can’t see them Phil, what would you like me to do?”

“Call the police, they’re reliable.”


Together we looked. I could see nothing while at the same time I wondered where his mind had gone. The Mind is a terrible thing to waste, he used to joke. What mind? Here we were using what was left to search for angels.

The angels on the Macy’s bag too “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


When he died I arrived late to the crematorium in South City. Baker Roshi read from one of his poems a line about eating delicious raspberries. Then we filed past, bowed and placed a raspberry in the plain box that held his body. 


Contrary to Zen custom, I visualized dumping buckets of crimson raspberries gashing gold-vermillion. I couldn’t stop myself.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

"One day not work, one day not eat," 一日不做一日不食

The renowned revolutionary Chinese Master Baizhang Huaihai ( 百丈懷海; Hyakujō Ekai) is perhaps most well known for introducing manual labor to Zen Monasticism. From his rule book comes the oft-quoted phrase, “One day not work, one day not eat.” Modern western students can thank him for samu, chopping vegetables and cleaning toilets during our retreats.

 

Legendary teachers create legends. Some of Suzuki’s students came upon him cleaning the public toilets at Zen Center. Not exactly what they expected. Perhaps their surprise was at least partially the result of some lingering guilt for leaving a dirty job undone.

 

One asked, “Roshi, what are you doing? Why are you cleaning the toilets?”

 

“Because they needed to be cleaned.” And there was still time before meditation and dinner.

 

It is said that Suzuki gave Issan his name during samu. Someone tells the story of Richard Baker climbing the stairs at the Page Street Center with Suzuki Roshi and coming upon Issan balancing a large industrial floor polisher, keeping it close to the floor to do its work. Machines have a mind of their own. Suzuki Roshi admired his tenacity, and said “Issan, One Mountain,” I think pointing to some determination to quell the bumpy forces at work in our nature, or that is my story.

 

There are several versions of both these stories floating around to amuse, edify or even prod us. Zen students love a pious yarn. They circulate like the wind, picking up little particles from each teller, sometimes veering so far from the facts that they become jokes or even lies. That is the nature of stories. I will add a few more.

 

Issan loved to cook and clean. We have to learn to sit zazen correctly but Issan knew samu in his bones.

 

At Christmas the first year I lived at Hartford Street, I wandered into the kitchen to find him carefully inserting cloves of garlic into a pork loin. There must have been 50 shiny white slivers obeying Issan’s careful, meticulous thumb. Raw pork, raw garlic—meat was only allowed in the kitchen on special occasions; I thought I caught a fierce look of concentration as if to wrap it more quickly in aluminum foil.

 

“What are you doing?” along with the unasked question, what is it? “Oh” he said, “I’m trying a roast Cuban pork with mojo sauce for JD (the first resident of the hospice). He told me that he loved it, and it is Christmas.” He could never say No to JD. Many people complained that he was just continuing to spoil a spoiled child. But in my heart I feel that Issan knew there'd be no miracles in the last few months of the young man's life. It was just cooking a tricky Cuban dish with a lot of garlic. 

 

For most of us in the Castro, “Come out the the closet” meant to be honest about our sexuality, to banish all secrets about being gay. It had connotations of a difficult process for most white middle class gay men of that era, difficult conversations with backward, prejudiced families, about why we weren’t going to marry. Coming out of the closet opened the possibility of losing not only family but long time friends, jobs, inheritance. I certainly had to deal with all those scenarios. It took years. So when Issan told me that if he was depressed, he cleaned out the closet and almost immediately felt better, my mind immediately latched onto every Gay Liberation catch phrase.

 

At the bottom of the stairs that led up to my attic room, there was a shallow closet with shelves next to the door to Issan’s room. One morning I came rushing down the stairs, probably late for a meeting. The door of the closet stood open; Issan stood behind his ironing board, neatly pressing his worn underwear. He smiled and said, “Oh, I feel so much better.” He really meant cleaning out the closet. Just that. No time for my middle class preoccupations, well maybe the nanosecond between jokes.

 

Issan often said that Maitri was difficult work, taxing, and demanding. Once he even compared it to war, telling me that he’s been to war, on a ship during the Korean conflict, and it was not fun. But he also said that what made it bearable was to laugh a little and have some parties, tell a few jokes between the deadly serious bits. One of the most delightful samu tasks was baking chocolate chip cookies for the parties, wigs and skirts optional.

 

I came into the living room looking for Issan, needing to ask about some mundane detail. I asked Phil where he was.

 

“Probably cleaning the toilet with a toothbrush.” Yes, just cleaning a toilet bowl can be that difficult. I saved the joke for last. And I'm not lying.

Below is Ken MacDonald, Issan's heart student, joking, I hope. But he has an important environmental message which might help inform our samu.

Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.

In the developed world we take our supply for granted, flushing it away mindlessly. But BRITA’s latest ads seem to imply that since the water we use for all our purposes “comes from the same source,” it’s as if we are drinking sewer water. Do you think that’s tasteless?

But if you do buy a BRITA filter, don’t expect it to protect you from anything…it doesn’t filter bacteria,

Friday, October 1, 2021

Sex, death, and food.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi admonishes Issan!


This life we live is a life of rejoicing, this body a body of joy which can be used to present offerings to the Three Jewels. It arises through the merits of eons and using it thus its merit extends endlessly. I hope that you will work and cook in this way, using this body which is the fruition of thousands of lifetimes and births to create limitless benefit for numberless beings. To understand this opportunity is a joyous heart because even if you had been born a ruler of the world the merit of your actions would merely disperse like foam, like sparks. from Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo by Eihei Dogen zenji 


Let’s talk about death while we’re still breathing. Talking about it after we’re dead might  be challenging.


A dying Isaan told me something Katagiri Roshi said to him when they were both very much alive. I find myself revisiting this conversation about impermanence and death. And while I’m at it, can I also include a conversation about sex? They’re both dead and can’t have that conversation, or we’re not privy to it, but I will try to do it for them. 


And I’ll even stick my tongue out at you, Katagiri, even though you may only be a ghost.


And now, in reverse order, sex, death, and food


During one practice period at Tassajara, Issan ran the kitchenthe position of tenzo is highly respected in Zen monasteries thanks to Dogen weaving a spell about the cook’s practice of making food. Issan told me he’d been working night and day in the kitchen. According to the Founder of Soto Zen, this is really good practice: “Day and night, the work for preparing the meals must be done without wasting a moment. If you do this and everything that you do whole-heartedly, this nourishes the seeds of Awakening and brings ease and joy to the practice of the community.”


But Katagiri Roshi called him in. 


Of course he went. The Roshi asked him why he was missing so many periods of zazen. Issan said he felt he had to explain himselfhe was terribly busy; there were a huge number of students to cook for; directing the preparations required an enormous effort; and, cut to the chase, Issan  admitted that he was challenged working with some of the students as well as not complaining about foodstuff he didn’t think was terribly wonderful to begin with. 


Katagiri sat stone-faced. Then he said, “Yes, we work hard long hours. Then we die.” That was it. And as they say in the koans, Issan bowed and left. A true koan exit.


Issan told me this story just months before he died. In both his smile and the bright tone of his voice, I could sense his gratitude for the decades old warning. The certainty of death added urgency to his story. HIV was ravaging his body. He knew he was dying. His body felt it. Denial was no longer possible, but I didn’t hear even the faintest note of resignation in his voice, rather a note of surprise that seemed as fresh as the day of that meeting. Past and present seemed to merge.


He never forgot those few words. They changed his life. They were a blessing. They shook something loose. They turned every excuse and explanation upside down, and released unexpected wonders.


A conversation about food ended in death. Issan spoke honestly. He was dying as the direct result of a sexual encounter with his longtime boyfriend. What did he have to hide, and how could he hide it anyway? Despite the fact that many people loved Issan, they also found his relationship with James troublesome, not particularly because it was gay love, but the love of his life was a man addicted to methamphetamines. 


I began to look for other things Katagiri might have said about death, and found several. The old horse always found his way back to the barn. The words of a beloved and respected master have a way of creating their own currency. In Zen the phrase “turning word” points to a phrase that helps a student refocus his or her attention, perhaps even prompt a realization. In turn students circulate a good turn of phrase. 


Steve Allen told me that when Katagiri visited Suzuki Roshi just before Suzuki died, Katagiri cried out, “Please don’t die!” Another version of his plea is more personal and direct, “I don’t want you to die.” I had also heard that Katagiri’s last words were, “I don’t want to die,” but that may just have some sincere student either misquoting, conflating or confusing time and place. I can find no solid confirmation, but none of these statements are what you might expect from a Zen master. They certainly don't fit any sentimental notions of a master’s death poem.


But each version of the story rings of something real, gut emotion crying out. I accept the invitation to get real. 


Onto Questions about Sex!


Dosho Port quotes you, Katagiri, as saying: "After my death I will come back and haunt over you, checking on your practice."* Yes, for me, Roshi, even though I was not your student, you have come back to haunt my practice, but not checking it as you did Issan’s work as the tenzo. I find myself weighing the value of your words. They have some punch, but is it a strawman? If I deflect the impact of your admonition about dying with the volatile ammunition of sexual scandal, am I ducking the question?


"But I kept my mouth shut"

Can I take you seriously? Revelations about your sexual misconduct have come to light after your death. I am unsure if you actually lied about your relationships with women in your community, and there was no accusation that you were abusive. But keeping your mouth shut is not entirely honest either. I get that your reputation did depend, to some degree, on the perception of your being a steady family man. Perhaps you felt that if you were not directly confronted, your silence would serve the dharma. You are often quoted as saying that a good Zen student kept his or her mouth shut, followed directions, and sat upright. Roshi, I am told you were a good sitting monk, that you followed directions, well mostly; your form was good; and you certainly kept your mouth shut.

I have also tried to keep my mouth shut. I have not commented on your sexual dalliances, Roshi. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even judge themif it were left to me, I would allow you any sexual expression you felt drawn to as long as it didn’t hurt others. But you were not fully transparent about your affairs. Did you really think that they would not come to light? Your naivete has come back to haunt us.

I am obliged to add your name, Katagiri, to the list of teachers who have abused their position. Of the more than 450 Zen teachers in the United States, the amount of oxygen taken up by the small proportion who have been involved in sexual scandals is enormous. The distraction alone gravely harms the teaching.

I will name names: Issan’s own teacher, Richard Baker,* Joshu Sasaki, Taizan Maezumi, Eido Shimano, Dennis Merzel. High profile Tibetan teachers whose names have been dragged into the same mud include Sakyong Mipham and Sogyal Rinpoche. These men, and they are all men, truly hurt us in real ways.


Po-chang and Huang-po: "The Buddha-Dharma is not a small affair”*


When the hurt goes away, does it mean that we have understood? I’ll stick out my tongue!


One day the Master [Po-chang] addressed the group : "The Buddha-Dharma is not a small affair. I twice met with the Greater Master Ma's 'K'AAA! ' It deafened and blinded me [for] three days."


Huang-po hearing this, unconsciously stuck out his tongue saying "Today, because of your exposition, I have been able to see Ma-tsu's power in action. But I never knew him. If I were to be Ma-tsu's heir, afterwards I'd have no descendants." 


The Master Po-chang said, "That's so, that's so. If your understanding is equal to your teacher's, you diminish his power by half. Only if you surpass your teacher, will you be competent to transmit. You are very well equipped to surpass your teacher."


Roshi, you were saved by the queer guy! Issan fished some sound practice advice out of a muddy pond and passed it on. He wasn’t blinded or deafened by a few words. but he wasn’t blindsided either. He carried them in his heart for more than three days. In fact he used them till the day he died.


Your dharma heir, Teijo Munnich, quotes you, Katagiri, “Please don’t call me ‘Zen Master.’ No one can master Zen.” And you also said, “Do not make me into a god after I die.” 


Don’t worry, Roshi. I won’t. Thank you.


Maori Haka


The Maori people of New Zealand have created a ritualistic dance, the Kapa Haka,
in celebration of light triumphing over darkness.

_______________________


* Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo by Eihei Dogen zenji 


*Dosho Port,  Me in Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri


* Bivins, Jason C. “‘Beautiful Women Dig Graves’: Richard Baker-Roshi, Imported Buddhism, and the Transmission of Ethics at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 17, no. 1, [University of California Press, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture], 2007, pp. 57–93, https://doi.org/10.1525/rac.2007.17.1.57.


*following the Ming version as translated by Cleary. Also quoted in Zen's Chinese Heritage

The Masters and Their Teachings by Andy Ferguson 





Friday, May 7, 2021

When the Breath Ends

The case: Hekiganroku Case 3

Master Ba Is Ill

Great Master Ba was seriously ill. The temple steward asked him, "Master, how are you feeling these days?" The Great Master said, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."


I knocked on Issan’s door, and heard a faint “come in.” He was on the phone. He waved his hand towards the seat next to him, inviting me to sit down.

“Oh,” he said, “let me write that down.” And he picked up the small ballpoint on his desk and began to write carefully in his neat hand.

"The inbreath is the first breath of my life."

"The outbreath is the last of my life." He paused.

"Just to make sure that I have this correctly: when I breathe in it’s as if I were taking the first breath that I’ve ever breathed, and when I breathe out, it’s like the last. And soon it will be the last one.” He laughed. “I’ll probably be terrified.”

“Good bye, Roshi. Thank you. I love you too.”

As he put down the phone, he looked at me and said, “It’s important for me to write these practices down. They’re so simple but I’m not quite myself these days. Sometimes I'm confused or forget. I have to try to do my best.”

Yamada Kuon fills in some of the detail for Case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record: The "sun-face Buddha" is the 202nd Buddha who is supposed to have a life-span of 1800 years. The "moon-face Buddha" is, on the other hand, the 858th of the thousand Buddhas, and has the extremely short life of just one day and night, only 24 hours.

Objectively speaking Issan was towards the moon-face Buddha end of the spectrum. He would be dead within 10 days. But he was also 57 years old, and Richard Baker Roshi had just counseled him that his whole life changed with each breath. What changed? The memories? I know that Issan cherished some and perhaps regretted others. The cells, diseased and healthy? We know that the disease was winning. Loves lost and forgotten? All very present. The pain of the moment, or the cessation of that pain? Yes, that too. Just follow the breath.

My friend Jakushu Gregory Wood jaywalked into this koan conversation and started talking about last breaths and cutting off emotions. He cited Chan Master Shen, imperial attendant of the western capital. Shen picked up a quill, and wrote this poem for Case #36 of the Book of Serenity*:

When the breath ends, it cuts off emotions
Arousing the mind there is no path of mind
Without even the strength to bat an eye
Never do I go out the door


Issan was not prematurely or artificially cutting off any emotion, but on the other hand I didn’t see him exaggerate them either in a kind of swan song. I did hear the faint note of nostalgic farewell in those moon-face days, but he’d been a professional drag artist so that might have just been for the limelight. The practice just indicated following the inbreath as the first breath and the out breath as the last. There is no instruction to stop anything. As Master Shen points out that’s not a roadmap either.

I stood up to leave, and as I opened the door, Issan asked if I would be back before lunch to remind him to take his medication. He invited me into this last part of his life. I tried to breathe with him, residing as he often said, in our “breath-mind.” That gesture of friendship changed my life.

Hakuin warns, “There'll be a lot of fatalities if people take a view of emptiness to be the Sun Face Buddha.” Don’t worry old man, Issan didn’t allow for any confusion. He wrote it down very carefully with a ballpoint pen.

Thank you, Issan. Your best was wonderful.

 

Issan Dorsey (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990) with Ken Ireland (May 26, 1944 to ...)


Hotetsu's Verse:

Listen, I will tell you the good news: you're going to die.
You don't have to get everything fixed, figured out.
It's not up to you. You're off the hook, Dead One Walking.
You only have to be present to the sky's shining faces.
If you say, "no time soon, I hope," you might as well be dead already.
1800 years is just the same as one day.
Right now, the only eternity there is, they're just the same.

 

 


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.



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