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    Kobun Chino Otogawa Paid Member

    By the time I reached graduate school in 1970, I was a born-again Zen Buddhist. After minoring in Asian religions and cultures in college and meditating sporadically at the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan, I was determined to shave my head, don long black robes, and head off to the monastery for the rigorous training I’d read about in books. I chose Stanford over Yale when I learned that Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first (and at the time, only) Zen monastery in the West, was situated just down the California coast from Palo Alto, in the wilderness near Big Sur. With grad school as leverage, I figured, I could gradually transition to more full-time practice. After a monthlong cross-country odyssey in my VW bug the summer before school started, I ended up at the San Francisco Zen Center just in time to attend a seven-day sesshin (retreat) with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. It was the most intense, painful, exhilarating experience of my life; I felt like I had arrived. I wasn’t sure how long I would last at Stanford before heeding the call to the monastery (as it turned out, I lasted a year), but in the meantime I planned to sit every day at the local Haiku Zendo, where Roshi had been offering regular talks, and drive up to San Francisco every few months for sesshin. As it turned out, Roshi had decided to stop offering lectures at Haiku Zendo and instead had appointed a young monk, Kobun Chino Otogawa, to take over the post of resident teacher. A star student at Kyoto University, where he received a master’s degree in Mahayana Buddhist studies, and a preceptor at Eiheiji, the Soto Zen training monastery, Kobun had been invited by Suzuki Roshi to help establish the training program at Tassajara. Kobun was known there for his gentle manner, his caring attention to detail, his penchant for solitude, and the long, somnolent spaces between his words. Once, according to a story corroborated by several witnesses, he had fallen asleep during his own lecture. Although I was disappointed by Suzuki Roshi’s unexpected change of plans, I quickly warmed to this bright, energetic young monk and became one of his closest disciples. Along with several other Zen students, I moved in just down the street from the brown Craftsman where Kobun and his American wife, Harriet, and two small children had made their home; I would often see him working in his garden when I passed. Most mornings he would attend the 5:30 zendo sitting, and his evident dedication to the practice of zazen deepened the meditation for the rest of us. I was captivated by his every action—the way he handled a stick of incense or bowed to the altar or adjusted his robes—as if soaking up some ancient code. Because he lived so near, I had the opportunity to stop by from time to time for individual interviews in his living room, frequently joined by his two toddlers, who would climb all over their patient daddy as we talked. Kobun gave weekly talks that I found enthralling not so much for the words themselves, which could be difficult to decipher, but for the devotion and sincerity that infused the words, and for the long silences, which invited us to be especially attentive and attuned to the mystery that the words couldn’t possibly reveal. Kobun would pause for what could seem like eternity, as if reaching into some deep wellspring of wisdom, then speak slowly and painstakingly, with a thick Japanese accent, often with a little laugh at his own inability to express his thoughts clearly in this strange new language. Kobun shared his deep understanding not only of Zen, but also of the “roots of Zen” in the Indian Mahayana tradition, as expressed in scriptures like the Lotus Sutra and the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra. He was also especially fond of Bodhidharma, whose version of the precepts we studied, and of the Sixth Patriarch in China, Hui Neng. Kobun considered the conventional Buddhist distinction between sentient and insentient beings misleading and taught that everything—rocks and trees just as much as humans and animals—was alive and endowed with buddhanature. (“A carrot cries when you pull it out of the ground,” he told me when I asked about becoming a vegetarian.) Despite his difficulties with English, or perhaps because of them, Kobun was fascinated with finding new and innovative ways of expressing traditional truths, and his talks, with their idiosyncratic word choices, often sounded more like poetry than prose. For many months, a small group of us met with him weekly to translate the Zen precepts, the four bodhisattva vows, and the robe chant into language that he felt expressed their true spirit, even though San Francisco Zen Center already had its own versions, approved by Suzuki Roshi. In particular, Kobun wanted to make sure his students understood that the precepts were not ordinary ethical rules of conduct, but a description of how an enlightened person naturally and spontaneously behaves. More »
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    Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852) Paid Member

    In April 1837, twenty-four Sanskrit manuscripts arrived in Paris, sent from Kathmandu by Brian Houghton Hodgson, British Resident at the Court of Nepal. They were Buddhist sutras and tantras, long lost in India but preserved in Nepal. The Société Asiatique instructed two young scholars, both named Eugène—Burnouf and Jacquet—to examine the texts. Burnouf began with the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas. He had no idea of its importance; he only knew that it was one of the “nine dharmas,” the central texts of Nepalese Buddhism. But he didn’t like it, writing to Hodgson, “I saw only perpetual repetitions of the advantages and merits promised to those who obtain prajnaparamita. But what is this prajna itself? This is what I did not see anywhere, and what I wished to learn.” Burnouf kept reading. More »
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    The Likably Unlikely Monk Paid Member

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    Chocolate Cake Paid Member

    When you were a child you loved and craved chocolate and cake, and you thought, “When I’m old like my parents, I’ll have all the chocolate and cake I want, and then I’ll be happy.” Now you have so much chocolate and cake, but you’re bored. So you decide that since this doesn’t make you happy you’ll get a car, a house, a television, a husband or wife—then you’ll be happy. So now you have everything, but there are more problems: The car is a problem, the house is a problem, the husband or wife is a problem, the children are a problem. You realize, Oh, this is not satisfaction. More »
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    Down East Roshi Paid Member

    “He’s the quietest Zen master in America,” said Huston Smith, the famous scholar of world religions, as we sat in a Japanese restaurant near his home in Berkeley, California. “And he was the first American to go to Japan and receive full dharma transmission in the Rinzai lineage.” We were talking about Walter Nowick, who once shepherded Huston around Kyoto for a season in 1957, after Huston’s friend D. T. Suzuki recommended that Huston study with Nowick’s master, Goto Zuigan Roshi.“Never heard of Nowick,” I replied.“Few have. Everyone’s heard of Suzuki—and many are familiar with Nyogen Senzaki, another pioneer of American Zen, but Nowick gets left out of most accounts.” Huston looked up from his bowl of Udon noodles, a favorite dish of his. “And what’s interesting about this is that Nowick has some of the best Zen credentials around.” More »
  • The Original Ray Paid Member