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Posts Tagged ‘Kensho

The Divine Spark

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Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa (Photo: Thomas Merton)

The ‘spark’ which is my true self is the flash of the Absolute recognizing itself in me.

–Thomas Merton

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Written by MattAndJojang

February 11, 2019 at 7:04 am

The Woman at the Inn

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Painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The radiance serenely illuminates the whole vast universe…

–Zen Master Zhangzhou Xiucai

A woman ran the inn at a station on the pilgrimage route at Hara, a village under Mount Fuji. No one remembers her name, but she had a great awakening in her own kitchen. Her eyes looked directly at you, and she made up her own mind about things. Both men and women felt at ease in her company. Her turn of thought was practical and she liked to cook, clean, sew, and do. Every year she salted plums. She made vinegar out of persimmons from her old trees. She cut up radishes and cucumbers and put them in pickle jars, adding vinegar, spices, and seaweed that she gathered. She enjoyed the smell of rice cooking and the vigor of steam. In autumn there were pears; in late autumn, chestnuts.

Light seeped through the paper windows, the old brown wood wrapped around her like the fabric of a well-worn kimono, and she was happy. This was the point of being human, she thought—to have her hands inside the world, moving its colors and shapes. Her children grew and her life unfolded, placid, then shocking, then placid again. A son died of tuberculosis, a daughter sang beautifully. When travelers tied on their sandals in the mornings, they departed into the stories they had come from, and sometimes she longed to step into a story herself. Her thoughts went out to Edo, as Tokyo was then called, and even to Holland, home of the foreigners who were allowed only onto an island in the harbor of Nagasaki to trade.

One year there was a cold spell and the life she had known began passing from her like autumn leaves. She didn’t know why—perhaps her older children growing up and leaving home left a void, perhaps there was no reason. In any case, the plum blossoms stepped back behind an invisible barrier so that they didn’t pierce her heart that year. Slights enraged her; she woke fuming in the small hours. When a guest asked for a small service she told her, “Get it yourself.” Her husband worried about soldiers breaking down the doors, and about a killing at another station up the road, but she was inclined to laugh. Sometimes she felt so much that she could hardly breathe. Her husband thought it might be grief over the loss of their son. But it wasn’t grief. If she had known a spell to undo her pains, she wouldn’t have said it.

What she felt was not an accident. She had always known that sooner or later she would have to face such a moment. She knew about the poet Basho, a wanderer who walked the Tokaido Road fifty years before. When she opened one of his books, the first thing she read was a poignant account. Basho had come upon a two-year-old running along the highway in distress, crying and hungry. The child’s family couldn’t feed another mouth and had turned him loose until his life should vanish like the dew. Basho wrote, “I threw him some food from my sleeve as I passed,” and he wrote this poem too—as a gravestone:

You’ve heard a monkey shriek—
for this abandoned child,
what is the autumn wind like?

The poem released something in the innkeeper. She hugged her breast and felt the cry in her own body. She thought that although she didn’t want to go down the road her guests took, a journey was definitely called for. As she went about her work she listened for a voice, a direction.

The inn had one treasure, a piece of calligraphy with the character for long life, given to someone by the local Zen teacher, an eccentric named Hakuin. The writing was beautiful though amazingly rough, and she felt alive when she looked at it. “The person who understands that roughness,” she thought, “might know what is happening to me.” When she went to hear the old man the hall was packed, and he made her laugh. It turned out that he was famous, though not, apparently, pious. She began meditating a bit, sitting and breathing, or concentrating on washing the endless dishes that made up an innkeeper’s life. This meditation didn’t seem to be a new direction but perhaps it was a condition for a new direction. She found a little more space between her thoughts, the trees began to step near again, and she calmed down for a while. But she knew that it was a temporary lull and that her journey, not yet begun, waited inside her.

Hakuin’s talks were a mixed bag. They confused her, she went to sleep, she grew sullen and argumentative. Her skin itched. Hakuin gave advice to great ladies and local lords, to samurai, fishermen, and rice planters. But it didn’t sound like advice. He said things like, “Straightaway, the rhinoceros of doubt fell down dead, and I could hardly bear my joy.” He had a lot of experiences like that. Sometimes he talked as roughly as a soldier and ranted about something that annoyed him—a rival teacher, say. He had a high-flying mode too, and one thing he said went straight to her heart. “They say there’s a pure land where everything is only mind, and that there’s a Buddha of light in your own body. Once that Buddha of light appears, mountains, rivers, earth, grass, trees, and forests suddenly glow with a great light. To see this, you have to look inside your own heart. Then what should you be looking out for? When you are looking for something that is only mind, what kind of special features would it have? When you are looking for the Buddha of infinite light in your own body, how would you recognize it?”

The Buddha of light wasn’t interesting to Hakuin’s funding sources, but he was someone the poor country people prayed to for a good rice harvest, for freedom from bandits, for children and grandchildren, and for lower taxes. For the innkeeper, the words were spoken just to her. She said to herself, “This isn’t so hard.” She had finally discovered a wish that had been secret even from herself. She wasn’t confused any longer, and she didn’t try to think through what Hakuin meant; she just wanted to spend time with the koan.

She told her family, “I feel that happiness is as near as my skin,” and she brought Hakuin’s words to mind when she was awake and even during sleep. “Inside your own heart. Trees shine with a great light.” The words accompanied her everywhere. Her husband asked if she had become a fanatic, but she wasn’t in the mood for jokes. “This isn’t about you,” she muttered, and he knew that she was right. After that, he tried not to get in the way and to help unobtrusively. He hoped that she would find what she was looking for.

Meanwhile, if the trees emanated a light she certainly couldn’t see it. But gradually she began to feel a connection with the things around her—a wooden rice bucket quivered with life, the doorway made a perfect doorway. At birth she had been given a doll, made just for her and, as a child, she believed that her doll danced at night. She could never catch it dancing, but in the morning it was more alive. The rice bucket was like that; whenever she looked, it had just stopped dancing. This connection wasn’t really a light, but wasn’t not a light either.

One day as she was washing a pot, she had a breakthrough. Breaking through into what, into where? She had washed thousands of pots, but her life was in this one. She was just scrubbing, actually, when she completely forgot herself, forgot her chapped hands and her wet clothes and what kind of thoughts she was having. There are dreams so deep that on waking the dreamer can’t at first remember her name or where she is. Or even what she is. It was like that for her: the walls, the bowls, and her own hands were utterly strange and new. The moment had no end, and she didn’t know which of her worlds was the dream.

She saw daylight coming out of the bottom of the pot and reasoned carefully to herself that this couldn’t be true. The sunlight wasn’t just in the pot; when she looked around, everything was bright: the paper screens, the tatami mat floor, the sound of a harness jingling outside, the smell of daylight. That was the particular feature of her change of heart—she saw things glowing with light. It was as if they had a song of their own, and that song was light. She began to laugh and couldn’t hold it back. Her youngest child came in to stare at her enthusiastically, wondering if she had gone mad. But the woman’s laughter set her moving out of the kitchen at a run. She tossed the pot aside and rushed to see Hakuin. She couldn’t wait to tell someone who understood. By the time she got to his place she had settled into a jog. Hakuin happened to be sitting on the steps outside his room, looking at nothing in particular. As soon as she saw him, she began waving her arms. As if words would bridge the gap that was still to be covered, she shouted, “Hey!” and started babbling.

“I’ve met Buddha in my own body—everything is shining with a great light! It’s fabulous!” It occurred to her then, as she ran, that she could test each thing she saw against her happiness. She could test digging the ground on a cold morning and the happiness was there. She could test her sorrow over her lost child, and when she did, she felt the warmth of her love for him, and then his life seemed complete. Brightness fell about her. She tested an angry soldier. Fine. She tested a dark, bent cypress. Each thing she saw had become perfect, and without flaw. She looked at Hakuin’s face, and saw the creases of age along with the amusement that often seemed close to the surface with him. The light was in him too. She danced with joy.

Hakuin had the general attitude, “If you’ve seen one enlightenment, you’ve seen them all,” but he liked what was irrepressible, including this woman. He stopped looking at nothing in particular. She felt him open to her and meet her delight with his. He came straight at her, “Is that so? But what about a pit of shit—does it also shine with a great light?”

She jumped up and down like a child. A test! A test! It was the test she had just given herself. “Of course, of course,” she thought, “even shit gives off light, there is nothing that doesn’t And he pretends that he doesn’t see.” She enjoyed Hakuin’s mind so much that she went up to him and slapped him and said, “You still don’t get it, you old fart.” Her thoughts were not really thoughts; they just appeared without her intending them. They formed themselves a little like this: “I see you, I see you. So, does my slap give off light?”

Hakuin roared with laughter.

***

Do you notice whether you can see the light in the most ordinary of places. Can you find the light in your own kitchen? Can you find it in your own body? Where is the light in your own face? At what point in your life are you certain that there is no light? Is it painful to hold that belief?

Hakuin’s question about the pile of shit is just a version of, “Can you bear to be this happy?” And, “Can you find this beauty in all circumstances? Or, is there instead some part of your life that you think of as a pit of shit, a place where you never expect to meet happiness?”

— John Tarrant

Written by MattAndJojang

August 8, 2017 at 9:22 pm

The Snow Leopard (An Excerpt)

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The Snow Leopard

An excerpt from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, A National Book Award winner. In this excerpt, Peter Matthiessen writes about his Zen enlightenment experience and the death of his wife, Deborah Love, whom he affectionately calls D in the book. A year after her death, upon the invitation of the famous naturalist George Schaller, he travels to the Himalayas to  seek for the snow leopard, which also becomes a metaphor for his spiritual journey as he searches for his True Self. The book, The Snow Leopard, is based on his five-week journey to the Himalayas.

In November 1971, I attended a weekend retreat at the New York Zendo. All-day meditation in the lotus postures can be arduous, and D, who had been suffering for two months with mysterious pains, decided to limit herself to the Sunday sittings. On Saturday evening, when I returned to where we were staying, she opened the door for me; she was smiling, and looked extremely pretty in a new brown dress. But perhaps because I had been in meditation since before daybreak and my mind was clear, I saw at once that she was dying, and the certainty of this clairvoyance was so shocking that I had to feign emergency and push rudely into the bathroom, to get hold of myself so that I could speak.

Before dawn on Sunday, during morning service, D chanced to sit directly opposite my own place in the two long facing lines of Buddha figures — an unlikely event that I now see as no coincidence. Upset by what I had perceived the night before, by pity and concern that this day might be too much for her, I chanted the Kannon Sutra with such fury that I “lost” myself, forgot the self — a purpose of the sutra, which is chanted in Japanese, over and over, with mounting intensity. At the end, the Sangha gives a mighty shout that corresponds to OM! — this followed instantly by sudden silence, as if the universe had stopped to listen. And on that morning, in the near darkness — the altar candle was the only light in the long room — in the dead hush, like the hush in these snow mountains, the silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part: in my journal for that day, seeking in vain to find words for what had happened, I called it the “Smile.” The Smile seemed to grow out of me, filling all space above and behind like a huge shadow of my own Buddha form, which was minuscule now and without weight, borne up on the upraised palm of this Buddha-Being, this eternal amplification of myself. For it was I who smiled; the Smile was Me. I did not breathe, I did not need to look; for It was Everywhere. Nor was there terror in my awe: I felt “good,” like a “good child,” entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes so overwhelming that even now, struggling to find a better term than “Smile” or “Presence,” the memory affects me as I write. For the first time since unremembered childhood, I was not alone; there was no separate “I.”

Already the Buddha-Being was dissolving, and I tried to convey gratitude, to inform It about D, but gave this up after a moment in the happy realization that nothing was needed, nothing missing, all was already, always, and forever known, that D’s dying, even that, was as it should be. Two weeks later, describing to Eido Roshi what had happened, I astonished myself (though not the Roshi, who merely nodded, making a small bow) by a spontaneous burst of tears and laughter, the tears falling light and free as rain in sunlight.

One intuits truth in the Zen teachings, even those that are scarcely understood; and now intuition had become knowing, not through merit but — it seemed — through grace. The state of grace that began that early morning in the Zendo prevailed throughout the winter of D’s dying, an inner calm in which I knew just how and where to act, wasting no energy in indecision or regrets: and seemingly, this certainty gave no offense, perhaps because no ego was involved, the one who acted in this manner was not “I.” When I told the Roshi that I felt this readiness and strength, even a kind of crazy exaltation, he said quietly, “You have transcended.” I think he meant “transcended your ego,” and with it grief, horror, and remorse. As if awakened from a bad dream of the past, I found myself forgiven, not just by D but by myself, and this forgiveness strikes me still as the greatest blessing of my life.

In those last months, it seemed that love had always been there, shining through the turbulence of waves, like the reflection of the moon in the Zen teachings; and love transformed the cruel and horrid face that cancer gives to death. One day, knowing she was dying, D remarked, “Isn’t it queer? This is one of the happiest times in all my life.” And another day, she asked me shyly what would happen if she should have a miraculous recovery — would we love each other still, and stay together, or would the old problems rise again to spoil things as before? I didn’t know, and that is what I said. We had tried to be honest, and anyway, D would not have been fooled. I shrugged unhappily, she winced, then we both laughed. In that moment, at least, we really understood that it didn’t matter, not because she was going to die but because all truth that mattered was here now.

After D’s death, I wondered if the specter of remorse might overtake me. It never did. In the grayest part of the empty months that followed, my heart was calm and clear, as if all that bad karma of the past had been dissolved on that early morning of November.

Toward that Presence who prepared me for D’s death I was filled with gratitude, quite different from the thankfulness I felt toward Eido Roshi and toward D, toward kind family and friends and children. It was not that I felt grateful to myself, yet the question seemed inescapable: where could that vast Smile reside if not in my own being? In chanting the Kannon Sutra in such desperation, I had invoked Avalokita, but I had been paying no attention to the words, only to D, who sat in the line of Buddha forms across the way. And so it was hard to identify Avalokita with that Presence unless He was also D, also myself — in short, what Meister Eckhardt meant: “The Eye with which I see God is the Eye with which God sees me.” Or Jesus Christ: “I and my Father are One.” Surely those Christian mystics spoke of the Lord-Who-is-Seen-Within.

That year I was a new student of Zen, expecting nothing, and almost another year had passed before something said by an older student made me realize what had happened. I went to Eido Roshi, who confirmed it. But a kensho, or satori, is no measure of enlightenment, since an insight into “one’s True Nature” may vary widely in its depth and permanence: some may overturn existence, while others are mere tantalizing glimpses that “like a mist will surely disappear.” To poke a finger through the wall is not enough — the whole wall must be brought down with a crash! My own experience had been premature, and a power seeped away, month after month. This saddened me, although I understood that I had scarcely started on the path; that, but for D’s crisis, which had cut through forty years of encrustations, I might never have had such an experience at all; that great enlightenment was only born out of deep samadhi. In this period the invitation came to go on a journey to the Himalaya.

— Peter Matthiessen

Written by MattAndJojang

April 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen

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An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants with the Zen master Kubota Roshi (middle). (Circa 1999)

An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants during a Zen retreat conducted by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi (middle) in October of 1999.

When you pick up the whole great earth, it is as small as a grain of rice.

–The Blue Cliff Record

It was sometime in March of 1999 when I attended a one-week Zen retreat. Up to that time I was practicing Zen meditation on-and-off, mostly by myself, for almost 20 years. I attended the retreat to simply jump start my Zen practice. Never did I expect that something wondrous was going to happen to me.

The retreat started uneventfully. The Zen teacher was late. She explained that the traffic was terrible. It started with an orientation talk. But, because I had attended Zen retreats in the past, I was already familiar with what she was saying.

It wasn’t easy sitting in meditation for about 5-6 hours daily. I spent most of the time putting up with the physical pain (at one point I was sweating because of the almost unbearable pain) and battling with mental distractions. I mentioned this to the Zen teacher. And she told me: “The reason you’re in pain is because you are fighting your thoughts.” Somehow when I followed her advice not to resist my thoughts, but, instead, just letting it be – letting it come and letting it go – I felt better.

By the 4th day I was achieving a certain level of stillness and depth during our meditation sessions. It was during this time, as I was holding a piece of biscuit, during our morning break, that something extraordinary happened to me.

In a flash, the world as I knew it collapsed! Time stood still, and space disappeared! There was no time and space, no I and you, no inside and outside! Touching a piece of biscuit, I had a glimpse of the world of Zen. I could only describe it as a thunder-and-lightning realization that the universe is a palpable Whole!

    Touching a piece of biscuit,
    Heaven and earth are recreated.
    Sipping a cup of coffee,
    Whole rivers are swallowed in a gulp.
    Emptied of notions of “self” and “other,”
    In a flash, the True Self revealed!

Initially, I was filled with trepidation and fear. I thought I was hallucinating, going crazy and losing my mind! I shared this with the Zen teacher. She reassured me: “This is as close as you can get to experiencing your True Self.”

After the experience, I viewed the world in a fresh way. It was as if scales were peeled off my eyes and I saw the world for the first time in all its splendor and beauty! Each object was luminous and charged with energy! And I saw each object as precious, and having an absolute value.

This was accompanied by a deep peace which I haven’t experienced before. To use biblical language, it is what probably what St.Paul meant by “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I experienced, too, a freedom and spaciousness in my life that is “as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament,” to borrow the words of one of the koans of The Gateless Gate.

The after-effects of the experience lasted for weeks. And just remembering those days gives me an exhilarating feeling of joy!

In the meantime, I began to ask myself what the experience meant to me as a Christian.

I had three questions:

1. What is the relationship of the Zen enlightenment experience to the Christian mystical experience?

2. Can we consider Zen meditation as a form of Christian prayer?

3. Is the Zen enlightenment experience similar to the mystical experiences of the great Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross?

Fortunately, as I was surfing the internet I came across a website of a Christian theologian and Zen practitioner, Jim Arraj. (Later, I found out that he wrote a number of books addressing these issues – God, Zen and the Intuition of Being; Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain; Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue).

I started corresponding with him through email. And he was kind enough to accommodate me and answer my queries.

In a nutshell this is how he explained it to me:

Zen enlightenment is a deeply spiritual experience. We could even say from a Christian perspective that it is a mystical experience of God as the author of being. But it is not identical to the Christian mystical experience, as described by St.Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. And it is not also good to call it prayer in the Christian sense of the term, either.

Zen enlightenment is a deep seeing into the isness, or existence of things. As such it is a certain contact and union beyond concepts and beyond the distinction between subject and object, between our own selves and these things, and with God who is the author and sustainer of their existence. We could say that it is a mystical experience of the very mystery of existence, and in some way embraces all that exists: ourselves, the piece of biscuit, and in an indirect but very real way, God who is existence Himself.

That sounds like a mouthful. But this is the way he puts it:

In the center of every soul, in the deepest part of our being, is that place where we come into existence. Somewhere in the depths of our self, in the depths of our souls, there’s a point where we touch God and God touches us. But we’re NOT talking about when God makes His presence felt in the center of the soul through grace and then this sharing of His own life.

Normally, we spend our time looking out, and we spend our time on the superficial level with all our ideas. We don’t even see the things around us clearly because our ideas are getting in the way and we are looking out through them. The Zen practitioner tries to quiet all this, but there are layers and layers of our ideas and thoughts and emotions, and he starts going down through these layers.

So what happens is if the Zen practitioner practices long enough and hard enough, that house of cards is like all these different layers, and they begin to collapse and are no longer operative in the same way. And he gets down, and finally, when all the collapse is done, when all the layers have fallen, he experiences what is at the center.

What’s at the center? Existence is at the center. What does that mean? At the very center is the point where God as the author of existence is touching the soul and bringing it into existence. If we could get back to that point, dig down far enough where we no longer have any ideas, and we get back to simply THAT – that THAT is the very point where God is infusing existence into the soul. Or put another way, that very center point is the existence of the soul inasmuch as it is springing forth from the hand of God.

On the other hand, the heart of Christian mystical experience is a contact with God who as a loving person makes himself present to us, and calls us to share in his own life through Jesus. It is the experience of the Father and lover of the soul who wants to transform the soul by love so it shares in his own nature.

In other words, in the Christian mystical experience God is transforming us into Himself, so that we are becoming God – certainly not like our nature, our being, because we are just limited creatures – but by being transformed in knowledge and love. We are directed towards God because He is where our knowledge and love are going. So there is this tremendous mystery of transformation we hear about all the time, and St. John of the Cross is trying to say that in the Christian life we actually experience this becoming God. That’s the only way you could put it – participation in God’s nature.

You don’t get to contact with God by this kind of contact through Zen practice. You don’t arrive there by technique. No matter how elevated and spiritual the technique is of controlling the mind, or controlling the breath, and concentrating, you can’t arrive at God’s inner nature.

Why? Because there’s such a difference between the level of our being and the level of God’s being. The only way you can arrive there is not because it is due to us. That would make us God by nature, and we know enough about ourselves to see that’s not true. The only way you arrive is through God’s gift and through the transformation that comes through knowledge and love, that transformation that comes from grace.

The whole Christian mystery revolves around that distinction. Zen is not Christian mysticism in that sense. It doesn’t sound like it. And the Zen practitioner doesn’t go around praying and thinking about God and trying to be transformed into God.

This is why the accounts of Zen enlightenment and Christian mystical experience do not sound alike.

There certainly cannot be any opposition between Zen enlightenment and the Christian mystical experience because to oppose them would be to oppose God as the author of being, and the Trinitarian God that the Scriptures teach us about. But at the same time we have to make a distinction between these two kinds of mystical experience, and I think there is a need to because they demand different means to arrive at them.

I’m profoundly grateful to Jim for his insightful explanation. He has helped me to reflect on my Zen experience in a way that makes sense to me as a Christian.

This happened many years ago, and looking back now I can see that my Zen experience has transformed my life in a way that I could not have imagined. In the end, what Zen means to me is summarized in these words of Goto Zuigan Roshi:

What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.

— Matt

Note: Seven months later, during a one-week Zen retreat, this experience was confirmed by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi as kensho, i.e., a Zen enlightenment experience.

Written by MattAndJojang

February 27, 2014 at 9:30 am