Zen teachings of Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, who died tragically while trying to save his young daughter from drowning.
Who Is Your Teacher?
The real purpose of practice is to discover the wisdom which you have always been keeping with you. To discover yourself is to discover wisdom; without discovering yourself you can never communicate with anybody. In everyday life, we can pick up some glimpse of wisdom, as the polished tool of the carpenter expresses that there is wisdom in the arm of the carpenter. It is invisible; you cannot draw it and show it.
Wisdom doesn’t come from anywhere; it is always there as the exact contents of awakening—it is always there and everywhere. What you can do is to uncover it, like going to the origin of a river. Have you been to the source of a river? It is a very mystic place. You get dizzy when you stay for a while. An especially big river has several sources, and the real source, the farthest point which turns to the major stream, is moist and misty, with some kind of ancient smell, and you feel cold. You feel, “This isn’t the place to go in.” There is no springing water, so you don’t know where the source is. Actually, such a place exists in everyone; the center of us is like that. From this place, the ancient call appears, “Why don’t you know me? Living so many years with me, why can’t you call my real name?” Unfortunately, we cannot travel into such place with this body and mind, but we feel there is such an origin, and from there everything starts. From that place you have come, actually, and whatever you do is returning to that spot. In one lifetime you can meet with other people, at least one other beside yourself. So, in other words, two of you discover. This is why you are continuing to live so hard.
The way to discover your origin is to listen to the one with whom you feel, “This is it!” It looks like you can do it by yourself, without others, but actually, by yourself alone you cannot discover that origin. Reaching that point, you never believe, “This is it.” But pointing to another’s origin directly and saying, “That’s my origin,” at that moment another finger appears, pointing at you, and says, “No, that’s my origin.” And you get dizzy. “Wait a minute, are you my teacher or are you my student?” And both say, “No, it doesn’t matter. I can be your student; I’ll be an ancient Buddha for you.” The student says this to the teacher. Without throwing your whole life and body into others you can never reach to your own true nature. The more your understanding of life becomes clearer, and more exact, and painfully joyful, the more you feel, “I’m so bad.” The one who appears and says, “No, you are not bad at all, that is the way to go,” that is your teacher. Don’t misunderstand—this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, “Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field.”
How to go with your true self is to deeply bow to yourself and ask, “Please, let me know about myself.” Because we cannot do it alone, we have to do it with someone who is able to accept our vow. Letting such an occasion occur is what supreme awakening is. It is not your creation. You just admire the place where you are and be with it, and that place is the place to meet with your teacher. It doesn’t need to be some special kind of place. When you are a little bit mindful about yourself you can create such an opportunity between your children and yourself, between your parents and yourself.
Depending on each person, there is an inner image of what breathing in sitting is. As you notice, there is also a physical element of sitting and an invisible element of sitting, which we call mind. We do mind-sitting, body-sitting, and we let the breath sit. Three aspects to sitting exist because we can observe our sitting from three angles. We breathe naturally and appreciate our breath and really understand what the breath does to our body and mind. To really connect the three—body, mind, and breath—is the point.
During sitting, your breath should be very regular, very smooth, with almost no effort, not noticing that the air is gone, or has come in. Breath has an incredible range of volume, strength and speed. There are hundreds of techniques you can use, depending on your health and emotional condition. Like playing an instrument, singing, or drawing, you breathe; there are many ways. The basic point is not to push or pull, but to let it go.
The ancient Sanskrit word for breath was prana. This is translated as chi in Chinese or ki in Japanese—ki, as in aikido. Ki is vitality. Sometimes it is called seiki: life-vitality. And this soft part where our intestines are is called hara in Japanese. Hara is also called ikai: the ocean of ki. Our vitals are here. When you have no strength in the hara you feel very weak. When you are full of energy this part is full of energy. When you chant you let your voice come out from this center of your stomach. Basically ki comes out and informs the shape of your mind. The contents of your mind is that voice.
The ideal in sitting is to forget the breath. You may breathe as you like; there is an incredible variety in the speed of breathing, and even the emotion of breathing. So if you want to observe your breathing, you should do it for months and months without trying to control it.
My feeling is that each breath is an independent thing. It arises and goes and some thoughts go with it. You cannot bring them back. That’s it. It’s the same as your heartbeat—your whole body is needing it. So if you can forget the breath then you are having perfect breath. I suggest that you keep your posture straight, upright—good posture, that naturally takes care of the breath.
From deep breath, which carries your awareness with it, to very shallow breath, which also carries your awareness, you have to choose the best breath between them. You can be aware of the texture of your breath, from rocky breath to silk-like breath, and finally to transparent breath, like a transparent string of breath. You can feel which is the best breath for your sitting.
Try to sit and pay attention to how your breath goes. Each time you sit, your body condition is different, so each time you must try to find your best breath and stay with that. Get really familiar with it. I always feel breathing is like drawing a circle.
The Other Side of Nothing
We don’t do this practice expecting to obtain something by doing it. This is a very different kind of action. In one sense, it’s quitting human business and going to the other side of the human realm. Have you noticed your face changing, moment after moment, when you are facing the wall? When you pay attention to exactly how you feel, you feel how it changes. It is such a slight change that no one would notice if someone observed you. It’s like one flame of fire is sitting on the cushion. Every moment the texture of the flame is different. You experience this from morning zazen to night zazen. In every sitting there’s a very different feeling. Each breath, all is different.
We experience some kind of dying in sitting, which relates with what’s true and what’s not true. What’s not true dies, so we suffer. We wish to hang on to the self which we believe exists. The contents of what “I” means, or the pieces of the idea of the self, are consistent, but when you sit you observe no substance in those pieces of self.
If we try to achieve some awakening or enlightenment, it doesn’t succeed. We hear that sitting is to clarify the true nature of the self, but it seems nothing is clarified, nothing happens. You just spend the time and have lots of pain and a stumbling mind. If you sit all day you have a good sitting once or twice, but when you compare the good sitting with the rest, you have a very regretful mind. “What was I doing? Drowsy, powerless sitting.”
Doubt arises in this. What is it? Is this alright? Are you okay? Your mind is in a different place than sitting. I wish you would sit alone sometime for several days. If you sit alone, although there are many dangerous situations to fall into, you feel you can clarify your right intention, your strict attitude about taking care of yourself. If we sit together like this you think, “Because other people sit, this might be alright! This must be the way!” If something more important than your concern about yourself occurs, of course you quit sitting and plunge into taking care of that. Actually, for each of us, the opportunity of sitting is the same as sitting alone.
Student: For years I always preferred to sit by myself, and every time I had to sit with a group, it was always more difficult. I had problems I didn’t have by myself.
Kobun Chino Roshi: The difficulty wasn’t sitting together; the difficulty was yourself! Wanting to be alone is impossible. When you become really alone you notice you are not alone. In other words, we stop our vigorous efforts towards ideal purity. Purity is just a process. After purity, dry simplicity comes, where almost no more life is there, and your sensation is that you are not existing anymore. Still, you are existing there. You flip into the other side of nothing, where you discover everybody is waiting for you. Before that, you are living together like that—day, sun, moon, stars and food, everything is helping you—but you are all blocked off, a closed system. You just see things from inside toward the outside, and act with incredible, systematic, logical dynamics, and you think everything is alright. When noise, or chaotic situations come, you want to leave that situation to be alone. But there is no such aloneness!
It is very important to experience the complete negation of yourself, which brings you to the other side of nothing. People experience that in many ways. You go to the other side of nothing, and you are held by the hand of the absolute. You see yourself as part of the absolute, so you have no more insistence of self as yourself. You can speak of self as no-self upon the absolute. Only real existence is absolute.
Aspects of Sitting
I’d like to reveal the natural nature of sitting fully as it is. If I put some concept on this, and make you understand what I think is an ideal way to sit, I would be a kind of special gardener who fixes boxes and lets you go through to become square bamboo. Or I would be an automatic newspaper man who runs a newspaper—whoever comes, I would just put you in the machine and make you flat, and you would come out a squished being, or something like this!
Too much talk about zazen, or shikantaza is not so good for you. It’s impossible to teach the meaning of sitting. Until you really experience and confirm it by yourself, you cannot believe it. It has tremendous depth, and year after year this gorgeous world of shikantaza appears. It’s up to you to cultivate it. Because you are buddhas yourselves, you can sit. Dogen named this sitting “Great Gate of Peace and Joy.” Simply, it is peaceful—eternally peaceful, pleasurable and joyful. Shikantaza doesn’t have the name of any religion, but it is, in its quality, a very true religious way to live.
Year after year our physical posture becomes polished. By repeated sitting our muscles become very refined, not pulling one way. When your muscles become very balanced you are able to feel almost nothing is there. Your intestines, your bones—all are in the same balance. When your body is able to take the right posture, when you sit as if no one is sitting there, you feel yourself. The way to find your best posture is to focus your attention on the feeling of your body. It’s hard to say what it is, an inner eye, an inner sensation that is able to observe every part of your body.
When you are awake, you feel every part of your body—its surface, a little bit inside, deep inside, all parts. When you take the best posture you can possibly reach, at that time you are weightless and you aren’t aware of your effort to keep that posture. The point is to have a stretched spine, with your neck straight along the spine. When you lean slightly right, or left, or backward, you can find which point is your straight posture. This is related to the incredible pull of gravity. A thousand million lines of gravity pull you down. You swing your body from left to right and finally you come to one point.
It doesn’t continue that way. We again crumble down, so we have to build it up again. Maybe every twenty minutes or so we have to re-do it. It is a very natural position, but we have incredible habits that are hard to correct. Every time we correct our sitting position we always fall back into a more comfortable posture.
To have the foot soles facing upward is very important. To have your soles going upward, with your feet pressing down on your thighs, is not an accidental discovery but a polished discovery. They should be like that because then there is a very grounded sensation of being on the earth, not flowing, or flying purposelessly in the air.
The eyes should be kept open, and hopefully they’ll see through everything, because your seeing is not “your” seeing—you should see through. It is very easy to mess up your posture just by rolling your eyeballs around. You don’t have to stare. If you come back to keeping your eyes still then something opens up. All our sense organs are finely constructed awakenings. As you notice, all information from the sense organs comes together moment after moment, and the mind-eye is always functioning. Everyone has mind-eye; it does not newly open. Your sitting still is like a person who just shot an arrow: a moment later the result is there. What you know is the sense that the arrow is moving alright. It has left your realm but you sense it’s running well. Stillness is like that. In the stillness you see intuitions are going alright; you sense every kind of intuition.
The form of the human body is a continuity of karmic force. Without parents you would not exist here; without you, your children and all future generations could not exist. So in this sense, to have a body on this earth has a very karmic reason and result. Without this karmic condition you cannot exist as the expression of ultimate force.
You can say there is a “right posture” for sitting. Many times during sesshin you hit that “right posture” and then swing away from it, then go back to it. You understand what right posture is for you. You can see it, perceive it—it relates with your mind-state at that time. Right posture in sitting creates the contents of sitting from all that you have been experiencing up to now. It requires detachment from your desire to do it; you let it happen by itself. So right posture is not that you are doing sitting; right posture itself is the sitting, and the system of your whole body is going into that posture.
The period of sitting is not your own sitting. Physically you feel that it is your sitting that you do. The inner view of one’s sitting, which is utterly an external view too, includes your personal existence. It includes everything, from which your mind is continuously working. The arising memories of whatever you’ve experienced are always there; no matter whether you deny them or accept them, they are there.
Not only that, as time passes the contents change. So posture is how to keep going. As you notice, this physical condition of existence is a very dynamic thing, which you cannot stop. It goes by itself. Maybe all things go by themselves; you are that, and you are able to experience and feel it.
Sitting is always pointless, you know. When we touch sitting with this body, it feels like putting a thumb on paper: “This is it!” Touching time/space, or creating matter in time/space. That’s how I feel when I sit. The more sitting becomes still, almost stopping, the more it feels like time stops and there is no more distinction between this body and all other things. Things feel as if they are extensions of the body. It’s not a frozen kind of realization, but a very powerful presence of the sensation that you are really there, as what you are, what things are, without naming each thing that’s there. Even not-what-you-are is also there. I mean, the thing which holds the phenomenal, the experiential phenomenon that is your own body, is also yourself. Phenomenon and noumenon are there together.
A slight move of mind causes lots of insights out of past experience and out of images that you have been making toward the future. This causes imaginings about the relationship of all people and situations in the present time, with no distinction between past, present, and future. Just the enormous dynamic of where you live, what’s there, all existing as yourself.
This body is a very fine thing at such a time, continuously pressing this sitting spot. If your mudra is perfect yet you sit slanted, this is strange. It is the same as sitting while you imagine that you are dancing somewhere. No one can see it; only you yourself can feel it. But dance is dance and sitting is sitting, so when you sit you must sit, instead of thinking of some fantastic thing. But it is not necessary to develop consciousness of the self alone. You have to release that conscious self about yourself. Otherwise “sitting very well” will catch you.
The time of sitting is timeless actually. When you take the right position, you have nothing to think about anymore, nothing to bring up from any place, past or future. That which can be called the present moment (where you are and what you are) actually is there, and the physical posture you take in sitting is a part of whole posture, where it actually is. So when you meditate, many, many things are meditating because, essentially, everything meditates in that space.
I have many things to think about and to discuss about how to live a really useful life in this new age. We’d like to look into and welcome the next century.
Dogen Zenji said, “To master the Buddha’s way is to master, to clarify, your own self. Through that, you can clarify the own-selves of all others.” So he mentioned that the focus is to clarify your own life-and-death matter, birth-and-death matter: living this subject.
The subject is so close, pointing to yourself like this. If you point outside, we can study pretty well, but when you start pointing to yourself it is almost impossible. A fresh eye is opened toward outside, so the same eye cannot be used to see the interior realm of yourselves. We turn around and make our interior world an external object, and analyze what’s happening, which is usually called psychology, or religious studies. But that kind of study, with objectified self, is not what we are. So a very important point is to be with the self who rejects analysis of any aspect.
Gary Snyder spoke of this same kind of situation as trying to grab an avocado seed. It slips…you cannot grab it! He got this American version from the famous painting, Chasing the Slippery Catfish with Gourd. Have you seen that picture? A young man, a bushy, hippy-like person, is chasing the catfish with a gourd, which has a very teeny entrance! Impossible to catch that fish! Japanese catfish have huge heads and long, long whiskers, and a tail-part that goes very teeny. The whole body is so gooey and slippery. The teeth very, very sharp, like a saw. The catfish usually lives in the pond. We call it “Master of the Pond.” When you try to catch it, this causes an earthquake! Leave it alone! If you seek the truth, this causes an earthquake! That’s how, some biographers say, many powerful people appear. When they finish their tasks and pass away, always earthquakes appear. It’s not earthquakes, though; it’s people’s sleeping minds.
Blossoms—season of blossoms—not the regular season of blossoms, but off-season blossoms, bloom when such people appear and disappear, and that which is the (earthquake) sensation of people’s minds, see that kind of blossom; they are the mind-blossoms of people who appear. We call those blossoms-of-mind “Udumbara.” They bloom every 500-year period like that.
These teachings by Kobun Chino Roshi appeared in the newsletter of Jikoji Zen Retreat Center in Los Gatos, California. The calligraphies by Kobun Chino Roshi originally published with this article were among those displayed in an exhibition in his memory at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where Kobun Chino Roshi held the World Wisdom Chair.