Spitting Out the Bones

“Spitting Out the Bones, A Zen Master’s 45 Year Journey” by Genpo Roshi. (The new book is due to come out in September)

Excerpt from Spitting Out The Bones
One thing I’ve been adamant about for some time is not to get attached to the idea that a specific practice is ‘it,’ whether it’s sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting or bowing or Big Mind, or whatever. Because then if we’re not doing what we think of as practice we don’t feel OK or good about ourselves. This is a pitfall J. Krishnamurti pointed out very perceptively — how we believe that because we meditate or we do yoga or some other practice we’re OK, and if we don’t do it we’re not OK. It’s not dealing with our life as it is.
Actually, I see this as one of the points where I’m critical of some of the followers of Zen Master Dogen. I love and appreciate much of his teaching, but I think it’s led some people and even certain schools of Zen to believe that if you’re not sitting you’re not practicing, that sitting is practice. It’s true that sitting is practice, and practice is sitting, but that doesn’t mean that sitting has to take a particular form such as the lotus posture. Or that if we are not sitting then we are not practicing Zen, or that others are not practicing because they’re not sitting.
In a world that has much greater problems, such attachment to particular forms can become very narrow and small-minded. Form does have its place and can be very helpful and supportive — at the proper time, place and amount under the right conditions —for us students of the Way who need some structure and discipline, not necessarily Japanese, to assist us in overcoming certain unhealthy habitual patterns. The key is distinguishing what is essential from bones that are to be spit out.
From one perspective it is true that practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice. However we shouldn’t forget that whatever we do from morning till night is practice, is enlightenment. Bowing, walking, cleaning standing up and sitting down are all “It.” It has gotten to the point where in some Zen communities the thinking is if we are not doing sitting meditation many hours a day we aren’t practicing true Zen.
I think that goes back to our experience with the great Japanese teachers who came to America in the early days. The occasions where they could introduce and present their teachings were the intensive retreats, sesshins, they conducted, so for many of us Westerners that became our idea of Zen practice. Sitting ten hours a day or more was Zen, and everything else was not Zen. So we would come and we would practice Zen, do a retreat, then go back into our life, which didn’t look or feel like our idea of practice. This to me is one of the bones we are spitting out. What constitutes practice, what constitutes Zen if it’s not our life itself and every moment?
Another bone from the Japanese tradition we were raised in that I feel we need to spit out is the inability to think differently from our teacher, or to go against the teacher’s inner attachments. In the time I studied with Maezumi Roshi there were a lot of things we students didn’t feel good about, even disapproved of, but we wouldn’t discuss them with him. We wouldn’t be transparent with him. You just couldn’t do that. At the time we just accepted it. Looking back, it might have been better for him and for us, no matter what the short-term consequences, if we had been truthful with each other, but that really wasn’t the way, particularly the Japanese way.
In hindsight I would say it would have been better, but frankly I don’t think it was possible to be open with him and be taken seriously as a student capable of receiving Dharma transmission, Shiho, and advancing to being a successor and teacher. Just before receiving transmission at the end of September 1980, I went to conduct a retreat in Phoenix, Arizona, and during that retreat I had a profound experience. I was giving a koan lecture, a teisho, on the Sixth Zen Patriarch, and in the lecture I became one with the Sixth Patriarch. I mean, it was like I was him, I was in the abbot’s room receiving the transmission from the Fifth Patriarch, and it was a total body experience. I broke down, sobbing, right in the middle of my talk.
When I came back to Roshi, I wanted to tell him two things. First, I had this experience of being the Sixth Patriarch, that I am the lineage, that’s who I am! He was furious with me. “DON’T FORGET ME,” he demanded, “I’m the connection, I’m the coupling, I’m what connects you to the lineage.” The second thing I hesitated to say, because I knew his reaction was going to be negative, was that I was having doubts about being worthy of receiving transmission. But I decided to go for it, and the moment I said it he did exactly what I was afraid he would do. “NO TRANSMISSION FOR YOU! YOU’RE HAVING DOUBTS. I’M GOING TO CALL IT OFF!”
I did receive transmission a week or two later as planned, however at the time it seemed he would not allow me or others to be honest, we couldn’t doubt. The whole practice is about questioning and doubting — great doubt, great enlightenment, little doubt little enlightenment, no doubt no enlightenment — yet it seemed he didn’t really leave room for doubt. And I don’t think it was a negative doubt. Am I worthy of being a Successor in the Buddhist lineage? No, I’m not worthy. Why didn’t he just say, ‘You know, it’s true you’re not worthy,’ and we go ahead? But it was so difficult to be transparent with him and share misgivings, or any kind of doubt in oneself, or even just criticism of oneself. It seemed at least to most of us that it wasn’t allowed.
There were a lot of things we students couldn’t disagree with our teacher about, but we wouldn’t want to share it with him, because there wasn’t room to be personal, or what might be called transparent. I remember one time we were in his house, he was clipping my hair — we took turns of course — and complaining about how American students think they can be your ‘buddy.’ I felt terrible. It would have been different if I’d been clipping his hair, but while he’s clipping mine he’s telling me, “You can’t be buddy with teacher, must be vertical, must be teacher-student.” That would be getting into the personal, and he didn’t have space for that. He also didn’t have much patience with what we might call transparency or honesty. ’Stupid honesty,’ he called it, ‘idiot’s honesty.’
It struck me a few years ago that the time I really connected with him was in 1972-73, when I moved into the Zen Center and he was having so much trouble after being divorced from his first wife. His pain had made him uncharacteristically open and accessible. He had just become a master, and his vulnerability was still very apparent. That’s when I fell in love with him and we really bonded.
His big criticism of me as a teacher was that I interacted with students in a way that was too egalitarian, too much on the same, horizontal level. I can see now how right he was and how important it is for us teachers to be clear about boundaries. As teachers we need to be able to engage with students on a horizontal level, but always respecting appropriate boundaries in the context of teacher-student. We must be discerning about position, place, time and amount. When we are not, there is a strong chance for confusion and misuse of power.
In April of 1978, when Maezumi Roshi went to Japan for Tetsugen Sensei’s Zuisse, the ceremony of Appreciating the Founders of the Soto School of Zen, he left me in charge of the Zen Center and had me doing formal interviews with students for the first time. These are supposed to be private interviews between a student and a Zen Master who has received final seal of approval, Inka. But I was not yet a teacher, a Sensei, and hadn’t yet completed koan study, though I was very close, and finished the following year. There had been a big issue between Roshi and his teacher Koryu Roshi about doing interviews before one is a Roshi, so Maezumi Roshi didn’t want Koryu Roshi knowing about me holding interviews back at ZCLA.
Then when he came back a number of people told him how much they appreciated me holding interviews, that I was so personal. He summoned me into his private room, and he was irate. “ZEN IS NOT ABOUT BEING PERSONAL, IT’S BEING IMPERSONAL,” he said, and really came down on me for being too personal, too horizontal. That was often his complaint with me, that I was ‘too much buddy-buddy’ with the students. Of course now I can see his point; but it has taken me many years, several rises and falls, to be clear about the very sensitive relationship between student and teacher.
A few years ago, in 2011, I was talking to a group of students about my relationship with Maezumi Roshi. I recalled that in all the nearly twenty-four years I was with him, there were only four times after ‘73, maybe five, when he seemed to drop the role of teacher and we really connected on a horizontal, heart level. It was so rare for him to step out of that role, and for me the whole horizontal was missing, the love, the heart connection that I had experienced earlier.
We did have a heart connection, but we seldom met at that place. For me it was only while I was traveling with him, usually in Europe, that we would really connect in that personal, intimate way. There’s a photo I’m very fond of, taken of the two of us sitting together on a train coming back from Poland to Amsterdam, both of us smiling, relaxed. That was one of those rare moments when we were meeting on a heart level, not just as teacher and student.