Regardless of our past wounds or traumas, we can each tap into a quiet joy which is not of time or space; a joy which is just as present even in a year like the last one as it was when Buddha tapped into it more than 2500 years ago.
As a Zen teacher, my goal is to help you open up to this quiet joy, sometimes called “enlightenment.” Buddha’s teaching about a path to do this has three simple parts: understanding/wisdom; and the two legs of ethical behavior and meditation. We begin with our initial understanding that the small self is a component of a huge, interconnected web of being. We then exercise the legs of ethical behavior and meditation to transform our initial understanding into a wisdom which we come to embody. But no one ever completely embodies this wisdom. Instead, it’s a spiral: by exercising the leg of ethical behavior as well as the one of meditation over and over and over, our trust in the process becomes more and more rooted in quiet joy and a deep and authentic wisdom emanates from that joy.
The 12th century Zen teacher Hong Zhi refers to this as “the illumination of the empty field.” By exercising our ethical and meditative legs repeatedly, gradually we release our need to be anyone or anything than who or what we are already. We are no longer frozen into gazing at an image of ourselves as young the Greek god Narcissus, did, when he became captivated by his image in a stream. And we no longer need to use others to enhance our self-image in the way a monkey does in Basho’s 17th century haiku:
year after year-
on the monkey's face,
a monkey's mask
That’s not to suggest we shouldn’t try on and become adept at using different masks/images. I worked with a student I will call Bob for a while. Bob was a successful attorney, fiercely competitive and argumentative, both at work and at home (not entirely unlike my own father). When he had to attend a family reunion, his wife encouraged him to put his best face on, smiling more, being friendly toward everyone, and biting his tongue when necessary. At the reunion he did his best to stifle the urge to argue or debate, but when he got home, he was frustrated and exhausted because this had been so difficult for him. He and I discussed how healthy it was for him to try on a new mask even if it had been difficult. And as he continued with his practice, he began to see that he didn’t need to live within the confines of any single mask or persona.
The fiercely competitive and argumentative face that Bob generally wore he developed as a child and adolescent to feel safe in a world that often seemed hostile. Most of us learn what monkey faces work best for us- whether it is a naughty or nice one, a competitive one or a cooperative one-to project a sense of adequacy or even competence, even though we may be feeling anything but. The ones that work like Bob’s did for him, become solidified through conditioned learning. But for the family reunion, Bob put on a very unfamiliar face, a friendly mask, and a smile to cover his clenched teeth.
The famous 10th century Zen master Wu Men continually asked his students to show him their original face before they were born. My hope is that as you continue to exercise the two legs of the Buddhist path (ethical conduct and meditation), you too will open up to the face behind your face, the face behind all the faces. Maybe during a meditation retreat, you will suddenly experience something deeper than any of your different personas- something more alive- a sweet spot: the luminosity of Hong Zhi’s empty field.
I have talked a lot about the two Japanese teachers who helped me shed my masks and live more authentically: Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. But a third teacher who helped me just by being himself was a Chinese teacher named Tu Lun. I remember Tu Lun for his radiant ear-to-ear smile and brilliant saffron robe. I started gravitating to his small meditation room in his apartment when I was getting a little bored with Suzuki, who seemed to say the same thing over and over again (which any good Zen teacher does).
Tu Lun was not boring, he was exciting, and a little trippy. One night he pulled up the top part of his robes and proudly showed us his scars from burning moxa on his chest. Another time he talked about living in a cave and being visited by a wolf, who spoke to him and showed him images that led him to come to the U.S.
Tu Lun told us that he knew nothing about the U.S at that time, but following the wolf’s lead, was able to stow away on a boat coming to San Francisco where the Chinese population had been increasing dramatically over the previous 20 years. Unfortunately, he spoke only Mandarin and in those days most of the Chinese immigrants to San Francisco only spoke Cantonese. But my friends, Betty and Shirley, Chinese Americans who were fluent in Mandarin, translated the weekly talks he gave. His stories mesmerized me, and his delightful and childlike transparency warmed my heart.
I remember him talking from a book of teachings by Lin Chi, the founder of Rinzai Zen and extolling us to follow Lin Chi’s advice to, “let the person of naked flesh come forth.” He and Suzuki were from very different cultures and talked about Buddhist practice very differently, but they shared a lightness and effervescence I had never experienced with any of my Stanford professors. Hanging out with either of them I found delightful and refreshing. Both seemed to have shed their masks or personas, so they could just be who they were.
I yearned to put the different personas or masks I had learned to wear aside and just let the person of naked flesh come forth the way they both seemed able to do. When I asked Tu Lun about this, he suggested I meditate on the Wu Men question, “What was your original face before your parents were born?” I did that but I found it hopelessly confusing. My frustration from his continued insistence that I do this coupled with having heard all his stories two or three times, resulted in the fading of his luster.
I still couldn’t sit in right posture or quiet my chattering mind in either teacher’s meditative space, but I returned to Suzuki’s. At least he spoke English and I could be part of a community of meditators surrounding him, not the case then with Tu Lun. I re-committed myself to twice daily meditation as well as regular retreats and continued to long for the childlike naturalness that I’d witnessed in both to these teachers. More on that next time.
[As an interesting side note, during the years which ensued, not only did Suzuki become a major force for the development of Zen in America with the establishment of both Tassajara Zen Monastery and Green Gulch Practice Center, so did Tu Lun, as he went on to create, the City of 10,000 Buddhas in northern California, which has trained scores and scores of monks and nuns over the last 50 years.]
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher