Visiting Teacher Taigen Dan Leighton talk, Mon 6/30/14

Following on the heels of a wonderful seminar on Saturday, Taigen will be giving a public talk Monday night, June 30, following zazen which begins at 6:30 pm. Please join us!

taigenTaigen Dan Leighton is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.”



Qiyuan Gives Birth

Master Shiche asked his student, the nun Qiyuan Xinggang, “Buddha nature is not illusory.  What was it like when you were gestating the spiritual embryo?”

She replied, “It felt solidified, deep and solitary.”

“When you gave birth to the embryo, what was it like?”

“It was like being completely stripped bare.”

“When you met with the Buddha, what was it like?”

“I took advantage of the opportunity to meet the Buddha face to face.”

Shiche said, “Good!  Good!  You will be a model for those in the future!”


Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654) can be considered the matriarch of seventeenth-century women Chan masters, not only because she was the one of the first to set foot on the stage in that century but also because she left seven women Dharma successors, one of whom wrote a relatively detailed biographical study of her.  This is a wonderful and very unusual awakening story because the imagery used here, that of gestation and birth, are not typical of the more male-oriented traditional stories.  Those stories often entail a spirit of confrontation or warriorship, the path of the solitary hero.

The spiritual embryo is a traditional Taoist image, and I think anyone who has done any length of meditation understands that feeling of nurturing something within us.  You can call it a spiritual embryo, maybe you can call it Buddha nature, but when we sit zazen we can feel that we are nurturing something very tender within our hearts.

I like the teacher’s opening statement that Buddha nature is not illusory.  In other words, it’s not just an idea.  We really do have this very grounded, very sane, wakeful quality within us.  And then he asks the student – what’s that like for you?  What is it to nurture that part of yourself?  And her answer is very personal: solidified, deep, and solitary.  This is a practice we have to do ourselves, and while we have the support of good spiritual friends, ultimately we must go deeply within ourselves, and the practice of nurturing this quality within our hearts is indeed solitary.  We can talk about it with others, but ultimately it’s our own path and our own experience.

The image of childbirth as a metaphor for awakening is beautiful and Qiyuan’s response is certainly accurate: it is like being completely stripped bare.  When my wife was in labor with our daughter, not quite a year ago, I was completely awed by the totality of her effort.  For those who have experienced it, either as a mother or as a father present and witnessing the woman’s effort, you know what I mean.  In Zen, we talk a lot about making a wholehearted effort.  Dogen talks about our practice as “total engagement with upright sitting.”  A woman in labor is truly totally engaged.  The way I thought about it was that Jessica was “all in”.  All her chips were on the table.  There was truly nothing left out, nothing held back in her effort.  It was extremely humbling.

What is it to be stripped bare in our spiritual life?  Is that something we can do through our own effort, or is it something that just happens to us?  Can we do a spiritual practice half-heartedly?  Can we live half-heartedly?  Certainly, Qiyuan is pointing toward a particular quality of effort that we should make in our lives.  Are you up for that?

The teacher then shifts the question: “When you met the Buddha, what was that like?”.  In other words, when you have made this effort and really come face to face with this ground of reality, what is that for you?  How do you do that?  And Qiyuang tells her teacher that she met the Buddha face-to-face.

Our tradition places a particular emphasis on the face-to-face meeting with the teacher, sort of in the same way that we are taught to meet our experience directly in zazen.  The transmission of the dharma from generation to generation is often described in terms of face-to-face transmission, or warm hand-to-warm hand transmission.  It’s a very intimate meeting between teacher and student.

Continuing with this metaphor of the spiritual life as childbirth, and how we may meet that difficulty or challenge face-to-face.  What’s that like?  Is there some fear there?   Some excitement?  But ultimately here the question is: can you meet that face-to-face, and what does it mean to meet face-to-face anyway?  It also reminds me of that profound moment when you first see your baby.  Did you meet her face-to-face?  This is the direct experience of meeting your own heart.

The teacher then congratulates the student, and I don’t think he’s being snarky or ironic: Good!  This kind of effort and willingness to meet one’s own experience is exactly what will inspire future generations of students.  When you’ve had that kind of intense experience, and especially if you were able to meet it head on and not try to swerve around it, it changes you.  You become a different person, and others will see that in you.  You can see the change as a woman becomes a mother, or as a man becomes a father, and you can see it in a person of practice who has met their experience directly, over and over again.  That’s what we are practicing here.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Taigen Dan Leighton Visit to ABQ!

Zen master Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra: “Ancient Keys to Current Crises”

Sat. June 28, 2014 9:30-4:30

Chicago-based Zen teacher and renowned Dogen scholar/translator Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, PhD will lead an all-day seminar on the teachings of Eihei Dogen (the founder of Zen in Japan.) Concentrating on Dogen’s epic Mountains and Waters Sutra, we will investigateits vast perspectives and poignant applicability to many of the ecological, psychological, and spiritual issues we face today, individually and collectively. The day will be interspersed with discussion and periods of zazen (silent meditation.)

Taigen is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.

Location: Dragonfly Yoga, 1301 Rio Grande Blvd NW, ABQ.

contact for reservations.

Suggested fee: $55.00; sliding scale available (no one turned away!) Discounted pre-registration: $45

Ziyong’s Earth

A monk asked Master Ziyong Chengru, “Thirty blows – are they the actions of a man or an enlightened being?”

Ziyong replied, “Just as long as the fellow isn’t beaten to death.”

The monk said, “When you speak, the congregation assembles like clouds.  In the end, who is the ‘great hero’ among women?”

Ziyong said, “Each and every person has the sky over their head; each and every one has the earth under their feet.”

The monk gave a shout.

Ziyong said, “What is the point of recklessly shouting like that?”

The monk bowed respectfully and Ziyong said, “The dharma does not rise up alone – it can’t emerge without reliance on the world.  If I take up the challenge of speaking I must surely borrow the light and the dark, the form and the emptiness of the mountains and hills and the great Earth, the call of the magpies and the cries of the crows.  The water flows and the flowers blossom, brilliantly preaching without ceasing.  In this way, there is no restraint.”

Ziyong Chengru was an abbess from the Lin-chi (Rinzai) Chan tradition near Beijing who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.  She was also known for traveling widely and meeting with teachers and students from all around China.  This story recounts an exchange that took place with a monk at a monastery where she was visiting and had been invited to give a Dharma talk.  She was visiting the monastery to pay respects to her lineage ancestors, and it sounds like this monk is challenging her using the enigmatic and confrontational style characteristic of classical Chinese Zen.

We can imagine that after she gave her talk she asked if there were any questions, and this monk begins with a question that relates directly to the confrontational style of classical Chinese Zen.  Many Zen stories of monks and their male teachers involve the teacher giving the student 30 blows with a stick.  Usually the teacher is beating a student who has offered a response that the teacher deems to be too intellectual, not somehow spontaneous enough.  The physical beatings were apparently thought to help shift the student from an intellectual mode to a more intuitive approach.  So the monk in this story is asking a question about this kind of action – is this striking of students an expression of a truly enlightened person, or just some ordinary schlub?  Ziyong responds in a pretty down-to-earth way, basically saying, well, it’s OK as long as the student isn’t beaten to death!  She doesn’t seem interested in getting involved in this question of enlightenment or not, and we see this pragmatic approach throughout the exchange.

Then the monk says that her visit brought together the whole community, they all came to her talk, to see this great visiting teacher.  Then he asks kind of an odd question – in the end, who is the great hero among women.  Why does he ask this?  Would he ask this of a male teacher?  Clearly he is responding to her gender here.

Her response is very warm and down-to-earth: all of us, not just men, not just women, all of us live on the Earth with the sky overhead and the ground beneath our feet. It reminds me of the Buddha touching the ground when Mara asked the Buddha who could bear witness to the Buddha’s awakening, who could verify it?  The Buddha touched the Earth as if to say the Earth itself, literally the ground of where we all live, is the witness.  Awakening is our birthright just by being born on this planet.  Clearly, Ziyong is pointing the monk to a place beyond gender.

The monk then gives a good, old-fashioned Zen shout, which was a fairly common way to respond in a Dharma inquiry.  The shout is a way of pointing beyond words to the absolute.  Ziyong doesn’t play along and just asks basically, ‘Do you have to make such a racket?’

The monk bows, basically as a way of saying that he doesn’t have anything further to offer in this exchange.  Ziyong’s closing statement is so beautiful.  She is saying that the Dharma isn’t from some other realm of emptiness or some cosmic thing that touched down here on the Earth.  No, the Dharma, like us, is completely of this Earth.  It depends completely on the world.  When we speak about the Dharma, when we speak about our lives, we, like the Buddha, are immediately verified and supported by the Earth, by all beings.  It’s a tremendously validating perspective.

Now, it’s not to say that we don’t need teachers or that we don’t need feedback from our friends.  The monk in this story was probably well trained in the classical Chinese Zen forms, which place a very strong emphasis on meeting with a teacher.  In that framework, it’s very important to get feedback about our practice.  We need that, for sure; we need to talk to others because we do sometimes stray from the path and our friends and teachers can help us along.  So I want to be clear that Ziyong isn’t saying that the blossoming of the flowers and the call of the magpies is the only interaction we need with others in our practice.

What she’s talking about is the deeper kind of verification that we might understand in terms of Buddha nature.  All of us, without exception, have this sane, wakeful quality that is our birthright.  We don’t have to receive the approval of others to get this.  It’s part of the package.  And it is fully expressed in the sound of the magpie, the flowing river, the mountains, the valleys.

How many times do we feel something in our hearts but don’t honor that feeling, somehow believing that we are wrong or somehow don’t have the right to our experience?  When we sit quietly, especially in the natural world, when we walk in the hills, when we sit sesshin in the mountains, we feel this.  We hear that the sound of the Bluejay is expounding the Dharma, we see the Buddha’s teachings in the river and in that, we realize our own liberation.  Truly, as Ziyong said, there is no restraint.

I’ll conclude with a poem by WS Merwin that this story reminded me of.  As I read it, think about your own experience of validation or verification.  How has the presence or absence of the validation of others played out for you in your own life?  To what extent have you felt the inherent validation Ziyong talks about.  Do you feel that’s something you’ve had to generally look to others for?  Does zazen put you in touch with that?  What does this story tell us about our connection to the Earth?

December Night

The cold slope is standing in darkness

But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers

I came to watch these

White plants older at night

The oldest

Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon

The water flows through its

Own fingers without end

Tonight once more

I find a single prayer and it is not for men

(poem by W.S. Merwin)

–Taisan Joe Galewsky