A Mission


by Joseph Hall

Kobun Chino Otogawa came to America with a vision which he never fully articulated with words.  While Suzuki, who brought him to this country to help establish the first Zen monastery at Tassajara, had a delightful gift for translating zen into quotable English phrases, Kobun is most often described in terms of movement, grace and a sense of presence.  Zen is an embodied practice and, in Japan,  very little of it is ever explained.  Having taught the forms of Zen at Eijeiji, and being a talented calligrapher and kudo archer, Kobun was superbly trained and adept in forms, yet he often appeared to be reluctant to perform and teach them - conscious of the fact that his way might get in the way of your way.  Instead he seemed enamored of the vision of what could arise if the seeds of Zen were to take root in new ground.  

This is not to say that Kobun did not mean to teach the form of zen.  He developed monastic forms at Tassajara and then adapted various sets of form for each place where taught.   Kobun composed each teaching with a strong sense of place and the people in the room. In America, Kobun's Zen took on a jazz-like quality, an accomplished musician unfettered, letting go of his schooling and entering into the moment with virtuosity.

So the question arises, how do we follow Kobun's way?  

Learning jazz is not a matter of buying a saxophone and doing what feels natural.  We need to begin by learning the scales and developing a sense of attunement with others.   It helps to know what the instrument was designed to do if we are to be able to fully adapt it to a new age.

Until it's arrival in the West, Buddhism was always an essentially monastic practice.  Monks were gathered into monasteries or communities where they tried to create an ideal environment, a place, some thought, where enlightenment was possible.  It was possible to bring the world nearly to a stop when it was time to mediate and a set of rules could be effective in eliminating overt conflict, work demands, and the needs of family.  Once accepted by the neighboring people living in homes, the wearing of robes gave the monks freedom to maintain customs that kept them mostly separate from the hindrances of the world.  The role of 'householders', as the townspeople were called by the monks, was to support the monastics and let their example seep into village or city culture.  The monks meditated and the people lived everyday lives.

When Suzuki and Kobun arrived in America in the 1960's, something very different was happening in the midst of a social revolution.  The people who arrived at the temple had little interest in merit; they wanted to learn to meditate for themselves.  Four decades later, Richard Davis at the University of Wisconsin proved that monastic practitioners were able to rewire their brains and achieve a deepening quality of wellbeing and the mindfulness revolution was born.   That revolution, now in it's infancy, still has a ways to grow.

Buddhism, as a monastic practice has always been based on three components: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  These are considered the three legs of the stool upon which we sit and like a stool, all three legs are required to balance our practice.

Buddha is our teacher, and while the words of the ancients can give us direction, the only way to connect with a long passed teacher is to embody him.  The practice of the Buddha was to meditate.

Dharma refers to the realization of deeper truths  and reminds us that things are not quite what we think they are.  It is the idea that the gateways of our journey are actually in plain sight and we don't see yet them.  We are invited to investigate the world and see into it's depth and to take up the practice of learning. 

Sangha is community.  While solitary retreat can unveil a deep sense of meaning, it takes other people to save us from the pitfalls of the self.  Specifically, sangha refers to maintaining some sort of intentional ethics that we practice in the presence of others.  The particularly ethics are not important,  just that we try to do something in new way that requires a clear mind.  The crucial aspect of sangha is that we are open to the perspective of others and how our words and actions affect them.

  • Buddha is actualized when we meditate
  • Dharma is actualized when we learn what is possible
  • Sangha is actualized when we do something against our nature and are curious about feedback

So these days I am inspired to see that it seems like meditation instruction is everywhere and most people I meet at least give it a try.  And there's definitely more books on Buddhism, practical neuroscience, and eastern thought than a person could ever read, let alone what's on TV and the internet. So it's good that it's almost difficult not to encounter some dharma.  But there seems to be something missing and, for a Zen priest, that means something worth doing.  People still haven't seemed to figure out how to do sangha in the wild - intentional practice when we get up from the cushion.

When we sit, the neurons loosen their connections and we do get a bit of respite in our day.  And discovering new ideas usually brings a feeling of uplift.  But the moment we go back to doing the same things that we were doing before, our old habits reconnect, the same stress arises and nothing really changes.

It's time to do something different.

Kobun moved through the world with a sense of grace and stillness which inspired a generation of his students to help him found four temples in the United States and Europe.  He inspired people to enter into zen with the full force of their skill and creativity whether they were priests, artists, or technologists.  As Kobun's teachings move through a new generation of students we have an opportunity really get to know our instruments, study the basic elements of our practice, and then meet our age with a song in our hearts.