This will be my last piece on chapter one of Transmission of the Light by Keizan, which ends with an early poem in the spirit of Wabi Sabi:
A splendid branch issues forth from the old plum tree. Thorns come forth at the same time.
Wabi Sabi has three primary features, including appreciation of: imperfection and irregularity; age; simplicity and naturalness.
In my last piece I spoke about imperfection. Now I will discuss age and simplicity/naturalness.
In Japanese Zen, an older teacher is generally referred to as a Roshi, an honorific title reserved for people who have steeped themselves in meditation practice for many years. On the down side, as we age our cognitions slow, our memory fades. On the up side, long-term practitioners have learned to see habit patterns within themselves, have learned to dis-identify with these patterns and can help other practitioners do the same. They can help folks learn to say to themselves, “Oh, I’ve seen that movie before. I can enjoy old movies without getting hooked on them or charged up.” Once I was visiting with Suzuki Roshi’s son who was a barber in San Francisco. I said something like, “It must have been wonderful to grow up with a father who was so supportive and easy going!” His son replied, “That man you know is not the man I grew up with. He’s a different man.”
One of the best-known Zen haikus by Basho honors age:
the old pond /a frog jumps in / plop!
The frog jumps into something huge and old, so ancient that it’s before time. It contains all life within it- algae, microorganisms, fish, and amphibians, living interdependently.
This valuing of age we find in many of the records of exchanges between teachers and practitioners in China and Japan. Take Case #52 of The Blue Cliff Record, for instance:
The travelling monk says to Zao Zhou, “The stone bridge of Zao Zhou is widely renowned. But coming here I only see stepping stones.” Zao Zhou replies, “You do not see the stone bridge. You only see stepping stones.” The monk asks, “What is the stone bridge? Zao Zhou again replies, “It lets horses cross over and donkeys cross over.”
At this time in China there were three well-known stone bridges. This one was so ancient that it didn’t stick out and announce itself. The monk made a long journey to both see this world-renowned stone bridge and the famous Zen master who lived by it. But he both missed the beauty of the carefully placed stepping-stones and the piercing eyes of the simply dressed man living by the water.
The teacher’s second response is so artful, “It lets horses cross over and donkeys cross over.” He is saying that both he and the bridge welcome everyone who wants to visit, even if they are judgmental as this monk is. Either you shrivel up when you become old or your meditation practice enables you to become both more authentic and accepting.
The final feature of Wabi Sabi is simplicity and naturalness. The monk misses the simplicity and naturalness of the placement of the stones. It doesn’t even look like a bridge. And as for the teacher who is not wearing elegant robes, looking very ordinary, but able to compassionately reflect back the monk’s frustration without criticizing or judging,“You do not see the stone bridge, you only see stepping stones.” He completely enters the monk’s world without one upping the monk or giving unsolicited advice. As Suzuki said about another teacher, “I wish I could be like that!”
Here’s another example of simplicity and naturalness from Case #7 of The Blue Cliff Record:
A monk named Ekko asked Zen master Hogen, “What is the Buddha? Hogen replied,“You are Ekko.”
When we are just who we are, we are free from any image of who we should be.
For my final example of simplicity and naturalness I return to another haiku by Basho written about 600 years after The Blue Cliff Record.
a butterfly also / comes to sip the vinegar / from mums and pickles
He also explains the context of the poem:
“While I was staying in Awazu, a man who liked tea ceremony very much, invited me and served vinegar boiled chrysanthemum flowers picked from a nearby beach.”
Our heart mind or Buddha nature is very simple. It doesn’t need any adornment. A final haiku of Basho’s that speaks to that is:
wake up wake up / be my friend / sleeping butterfly
When we emerge from our cocoon of meditation practice, we can find our own grace and naturalness, just like the butterfly finds hers.
The splendid branch, (thorns and all) issues from the old plum tree.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher