Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 20, 2006

by | August 31, 2006 at 7:16 PM

Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 20, 2006 Fuji Kawaguchiko, near Mt Fuji, Japan

At Eiheiji our meeting with Hyakujin was "significant" (this was the word he used as we parted company). He's respectful of but fundamentally frustrated with the formality of Eiheiji Zen and imagined I guess that I'd be critical of the practice there ( I suppose my reputation preceded me). But, I told him, my ability to be free, to be experimental, depends on Eiheiji's formalism and strict sense of tradition. The Eiheiji way, however beside the point it may seem from the inside, or the outside, legitimizes and inspires our San Francisco Zen Center's practice, and mine. Without it behind us I know we'd have less confidence and far less ability to go on. So it takes all of us working together in our different ways as one to make an offering of Dharma to people: there is no right or best way and all the ways are needed. This Hyakujin found illuminating and important. 

Lovely at this point in my life to return to Eiheiji and to make contact now with leaders there who are younger than I am and who welcome dialog and influence. When I was at Eiheiji in 1989 Rev. Masunaga was the International Head and I was younger and greener, without so much of my own experience to draw on. Masunaga, who'd lived in L. A., had good English, and was, to some extent, Americanized, was a very nice man too, and sympathetic to Americans, but somehow the connection with Hyakujin is much more immediate and certainly different for me now, because of my age and experience. 

Hyakujin and I had the conversation reported above in Eiheiji's reception room, a huge tatami room with a ceiling, painted in the 1930's by many artists, full of panels, each different, fishes, mountains, flowers, birds, etc., a spectacular art piece I hardly noticed, so rapt were we in our conversation.

Going into a small temple off the street here in Fuji Kawagutchiko on a walk yesterday I realized somehow freshly what I suppose I'd already known but had not appreciated so clearly: that Japanese Zen is mainly about the creation of sanctuary. Streets (and life!) may be messy and confusing, but when you step off the street into a temple compound you'll be sure to experience some peace and to feel a sacred feeling. You'll find a strong, quiet, clean and open building, a beautiful image presiding over it, and there will certainly be a perfectly kept garden, with moss and stones and probably a pond or small waterfall. Here and there, in whatever corner you examine, you'll find some quiet unexpected beauty. And should you encounter a priest in such a place, his demeanor and carriage will match the decor: he'll be quiet and kind, and his robes and shaved head will evoke a whole ancient world of courtesy and compassion, To encounter this world gives a profound feeling of timeless holiness, a relief from and an alternative to the crazy world outside. The monks at Eiheiji are learning how to be such priests, how to present to parishioners this alternative world. However much Japanese and Americans complain about the state — past and present — of Japanese Buddhism, this sanctuary feeling is alive and well here, however irrelevant it may seem to day to day life. 

How different is my practice from this. I have no place, no sanctuary at all. I rent funky church camps and retreat centers. For me it's only about practice, there's no place to visit, nothing to see, other than to come sit, listen to the Dharma, try to apply the practice to your life. Nobody can get any good out of my practice unless they come join me, sit regularly, and try to change the way they live every day in the world. (Unless, of course, all the chanting we do to benefit others is actually effective!). 


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