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Buddhadharma : Spring 2016
68 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 6 edWard eSPe BrOWN is a Zen priest ordained by Shunryu Suzuki roshi. For nineteen years, he lived and worked at the various practice centers that comprise the San Francisco Zen center. he is author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by Suzuki roshi. told Roshi that I wasn’t sure whether my inner life was truly engaged or not. “Please continue your practice,” he replied, “and you’ll find out.” Years went by. In 1984, I was a serious, committed Zen student, ordained as a priest for twelve and a half years, keeping my head shaved, wearing Buddhist vest- ments much of the time, living in residence at the Zen Center, sitting meditation several hours a day, eating vegetarian meals, aiming to talk the talk and walk the walk. After all, if you did it right, you’d get the ultimate stamp of approval: enlightenment and dharma transmission. Or so it seemed. Then you would be beyond criticism—wouldn’t you?— and from the safety of your well-credentialed com- mand post, you could tell others where it was at, and they couldn’t tell you. That was the myth, in any case. Many have bought into it. Earlier that spring morning, around 4 a.m., I had walked through the darkness palely illuminated with kerosene lamps, stopping at the three candlelit altars along the way to the zendo, at each one my attendant handing me a stick of incense, which I raised to my forehead, praying, “Homage to the perfection of wisdom, the lovely, the holy,” before placing it as upright as possible in the well-tended incense burner. These were the daily protocols of spiritual practice, and I was performing them with warmhearted devotion. A wooden mallet striking a wooden board (the han) marked my arrival at the meditation hall, a cascading sequence culminating in three final hits sounding as I reached the bowing mat positioned in front of the altar—one foot, the other foot, a stand- ing bow. I had arrived. I offered incense, made three bows, and circum- ambulated the zendo, a ceremonial greeting of each student. Returning to the altar I bowed, walked a few steps before bowing toward my cushion, and then away from my cushion, each bow being accompanied with the resonant note of a bowl bell. Sitting cross-legged on my zafu, I put my right foot up on my left thigh and arranged my robes just so, took two or three deep breaths, and positioned my hands in the Mahamudra posture, sitting—as the teacher—facing the room. As though starting at the beginning, I considered how to proceed: What shall I work on today? Fol- lowing the breath? Counting the breath? Noting the breath? Concentration? Mindfulness? What would be most beneficial? Compassion? Joy? Ease? Focus- ing on a koan? Then the voice from elsewhere, Why don’t you touch what is inside with some warmth and kindness? The tears that followed would seem to indicate that I had been busy with other projects. Even though Zen Master Dogen encouraged students to “take the backward step that turns your light inward,” I had instead been busy aiming to attain enlightenment, or at least establish an especially calm, spacious, luminous mind. Taking a backward step may be well and good, but shouldn’t you have some progress to report on? Some experience that will look good on your spiritual resumé? The world I encountered inside was both famil- iar and alien. Often, I had been able to follow the flow of sensations rather than the darting of words, the attempt to manufacture a story line. And while I had certainly encountered anger, fear, sorrow, despair, desire—a whole host of emotions—before that morning, I had spent little time recognizing the amorphous feelings that seemed to have been await- ing my attention. Perhaps it was about time. Still, I needed to lead the practice period. I fol- lowed the schedule, practiced the forms, held the space, and maintained presence. Meanwhile, my inner life seemed grateful for the attention it was receiving. A couple of weeks after the end of the practice period, Katagiri Roshi, our interim abbot, came for a visit, and I took the opportunity to have dokusan with him, bowing formally to the altar and to Roshi before sitting face to face. mitsuenaGase Without your story, who would you be? Are you lighter? Or lost?