A rose is a rose

Today we’re going to start studying from the relatively recent reissue of ‘The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo’, a collection of teachings by Kodo Sawaki Roshi, along with comments from his dharma descendents Kosho Uchiyama Roshi and Shohaku Okumura.  Kodo Sawaki was an iconoclastic Japanese Zen teacher who relentlessly emphasized the practice of zazen even as he always insisted that zazen is ‘good for nothing’.  Through his students, his style of practice influenced American Zen quite a bit, and while we now recognize that we need a whole range of practices in addition to zazen, Sawaki Roshi’s emphasis on zazen is refreshing and continues to inspire us today.

Kodo Sawaki was born in Japan in 1880. He was the sixth child and both his parents died when he was young,  Sawaki was then was adopted by an aunt whose husband soon died,  After this, Sawaki was raised by a gambler and lantern maker named Bunkichi Sawaki.

When he was 16, he ran away from home to become a monk at Eihei-ji, one of the two head temples of the Soto Zen sect, and later traveled to Soshin-ji where he was ordained in 1899 by Koho Sawada.  However, he was drafted to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

After being discharged in 1906 Sawaki practiced with several different teachers, but eventually began studying Dogen and practicing zazen with the great Oka Sotan Roshi, who was also the teacher of one of Suzuki Roshi’s important teachers, Kishizawa Ian.

Sawaki later became a Zen teacher, and during the 1930s he served as a professor at Komazawa University. In 1949, he took responsibility for Antai-ji, a zen temple in northern Kyoto.  Because of his regular travels throughout Japan to teach zen, and against tradition his not becoming a conventional abbot of a home temple, he came to be known as “Homeless Kodo” (“homeless” in the Japanese referring more to his lack of a temple than a residence). Sawaki died on December 21, 1965, at Antaiji. He was succeeded by a senior disciple,Kosho Uchiyama.

Instead of the customary large-scale funeral services, Uchiyama Roshi decided after Sawaki Roshi’s death to conduct a memorial sesshin for him – 49 days long. Thus he emphasized Sawaki’s stress of Zazen, which can never be replaced by rituals and services. The 49 day sesshin also became the start of what is now called the “Antaiji style” sesshin: Sesshin without toys – no dharma lectures, no sutra reading, no talking, no kyosaku, no samu.  This style of practice is continued today in several Zen centers around the country.

One of the things I love about Sawaki-Roshi’s teaching, which I also love about Suzuki-Roshi’s teachings, is that they are an expression of his understanding, straight from the heart, not focused on a formal teaching of some particular sutra.  Instead, these teachers were steeped in the practice from the time they were little children, and they were able to express something about the dharma that was original and clear and true to the Buddha’s teachings while at the same time simply expressing their own lives.  I see some of this spirit in our great contemporary Zen teachers, and I think it’s one of the contributions of our Soto Zen tradition to the larger Buddhist dialogue in the west today.

I wanted to begin our study with this teaching from Sawaki Roshi:

To practice the Buddha way is not to let our minds wander but to become one with what we are doing.  This is called zanmai (or samadhi) and shikan (or “just doing”).  Eating rice isn’t preparation for shitting; shitting isn’t preparation for making manure.  And yet these days people think that high school is preparation for college and college is preparation for a good job.

Each moment of our life is exactly an expression of what is called our dharma position.  We spend so much of our lives focused on the next thing and how we’re going to get it that we don’t actually live in the reality of our lives right now.  Of course we should make plans.  Of course we should pay attention to school and getting a good degree and getting a good job.  Sawaki isn’t saying we should ignore those things.  But we shouldn’t get so swept up in our plans and schemes that we lose the preciousness of what’s happening right now.  Even if we’re in school preparing for the job we want, we can be present to the richness of our lives right now.  We shouldn’t disengage from the present moment in favor of our fantasy about some better moment down the road.

This is exactly what Dogen is writing about in Genjo Koan:

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future. . . . Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

When we are in the midst of winter, we don’t say “Ah, Spring is now starting!”.  Winter is completely winter.  Firewood is completely firewood.  Suzuki Roshi famously, and enigmatically said “When you are completely you, zazen is completely zazen.”  This is a subtle teaching, but I think it’s so important for us in our modern busy world, so full of plans for the future.  We can learn something of this when we relate to our elders, settled into their lives and embodying this teaching.

Uchiyama Roshi expands on this:  You don’t need to get good grades.  It’s not necessary to go to a famous school.  Just do things naturally and straightforwardly.  As a violet, it’s enough to bloom as a violet.  As a rose, it’s fine to bloom as a rose.  It’s meaningless for a violet to think being a violet isn’t good enough, that you should work hard to produce a rose.  However, if a violet doesn’t become a violet, you spoil your life force.  This is absurd.  Try to express your life force to the fullest.  You want to know whether you’re a violet or a rose?  I don’t know and you don’t need to know.  Life is a possibility; it’s not fixed.  You don’t need to decide what you are – just live your self and naturally bloom your own flower.  Instead of studying in order to get good grades, you should bloom as the flower of this time here and now, because this is the time to study.  If you’re sleeping, reading comic books, or eating lunch during class, you can’t bloom the flower of this time of studying.  Open your eyes wide to read the textbook, and listen carefully to the teacher.

Do you see what Uchiyama Roshi is saying?  He’s not saying that grades are unimportant, but that the motivation to study in order to get good grades is misplaced.  What he’s advocating requires a great deal of maturity.  If we’re only studying in order to get good grades, or if we are practicing zazen only to get enlightened, we’re missing the point, and more importantly we’re missing our lives.  Moreover, if we do these things in order to get something else, we are unlikely to stick with them for very long.

We study at the time of study because that is the expression of our dharma position, that’s what is happening right now.  We sit zazen at 6:30pm because that is when zazen starts and we are occupying our dharma position in the zendo.

I will leave you with the great question from Case 16 of the Mumonkan, a collection of Zen stories compiled in 1228.  This question gets precisely to the heart of Kodo Sawaki’s teaching:

Ummon said:  The world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your robe at the sound of the bell?


–Taisan Joe Galewsky

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