No Choice But Radical Acceptance

When you understand that this present moment is all there is, you have no choice but radical acceptance. Two teishos by Eido Shimano Roshi

By Eido T. Shimano Roshi

Photo by Robert Wnuk

Obaku Bangs His Staff

The Master (Rinzai) was dozing in the monks’ hall. Obaku (Huangbo) came in. Seeing this, he struck the platform with his staff. The Master raised his head. Noticing it was Obaku, he resumed dozing. Obaku again struck the platform. He then proceeded to the upper part of the hall. Seeing the head monk in zazen, he said, “The youngster in the lower part of the hall is doing zazen. What kind of delusions are you indulging in here?” The head monk said, “This old fellow, what are you doing?” Obaku struck the platform once more and left.

Later Isan (Weishan) asked Kyozan (Yangshan), “What was the intention of Obaku’s coming to the monks’ hall?” Kyozan said, “One contest, two victories.”

—From Rinzai Roku, Book of Pilgrimages, Chapter VI

This is an extremely important dharma presentation with the combined effort of three Zen men, namely Obaku, Rinzai, and the head monk. Before delivering my commentary, I would like to mention that the most important teaching of Master Rinzai is buji. This term appears more than twenty times in The Book of Rinzai, but there is no English word that reflects exactly what buji expresses.

Bu means no or negation. Ji is event, matter, action, phenomenon, affair, or thing. Literally, buji means to negate all ji. What does that mean? Life is ji. Getting old is ji. Sickness is ji. Passing away is also ji. In fact, from morning to night, we are ji itself. We have a tendency to think that by doing various practices (ji), we can reach a point where delusions disappear and there is nothing further to seek. This view is a deception. How could reality be altered by practice? Yet you may ask, if buji implies doing nothing, then why do we have to practice? Isn’t “doing nothing,” in the usual passive sense of the phrase, enough? At the same time, isn’t our very being one of ji? And isn’t our very being the source of all our problems and suffering? Can we negate or transcend our own limited being?

When we completely realize the true nature of the universe, what seems to be ji is in fact none other than buji. There is nothing to do, no matter how hard we try. From a slightly different perspective, the closest English word to buji is “now” or “as-it-is.” Right now, can you improve now-ness or as-it-is-ness? The answer is obviously no. At this very moment, can you or your circumstances be otherwise? When you understand that this present moment is all there is, you have no choice but to come to a radical acceptance. And it is this radical acceptance that is none other than true peace and composure. Buji means to be one with suchness, the unconditional nature of “let it be,” with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous.

Also, I would like to warn you that one of the most dangerous delusions we have is the idea that good and evil exist. This is a major reason why people today are so confused. In the ordinary world, however, this is quite common, and we use these expressions very frequently.

So one day, while monks were doing zazen in the zendo, Master Obaku, carrying a staff, came in to check them out, which is known as kentan. When this kind of thing happens, everybody straightens up and pretends as though they have been doing deep zazen. Rinzai was one of the monks, and he was dozing during zazen (don’t say this is bad!). There is a koan that goes, “When you are asleep, someone comes and asks, ‘What is the essence of buddhadharma?’ How would you answer?” This simple and rather interesting question defies all philosophical presentations.

At any rate, Rinzai was dozing in the zendo. Obaku struck the platform loudly, not merely to wake him up but also to test how Rinzai would react. Also, he is silently saying, “This is IT!” Rinzai raised his head, and as soon as he noticed that it was his teacher, Obaku, he went back to sleep (don’t say this is rude!). It was as if Rinzai was saying, “I don’t depend on you, teacher; I don’t depend on Buddha; I don’t depend on dharma; I don’t even depend on zazen. I only depend on my present being.” Obaku struck again, this time as if to say, “I understand your silent statement.”

He then proceeded to the upper part of the zendo, where the head monk was doing zazen. Obaku said, “The youngster in the lower part of the hall is doing zazen. What kind of delusions are you indulging in here?” This is a different way of testing the head monk’s state of mind, beyond concepts of good and evil. If he were to address the head monk in a mere ordinary fashion, Obaku might say, “Your zazen is great, but the youngster over there is terrible. You need to train him more.” But they were both beyond addressing each other in such a conventional, elementary way. All three of them were in a realm of buji. The head monk scolded his teacher Obaku: “This old fellow, what are you doing?” i.e., “Shut up! Get out of here!” (Don’t say this is rude!) Obaku understood. He struck the platform again, as if to say, “I understand. Great!” Then he left the zendo.

Many students of Zen are inclined to make a distinction between fundamental reality and phenomenological reality and thus have various interpretations of this koan. But as the saying goes, “Walking is zen…sitting is zen.” There’s no action that is excluded from this practice. In this story, three Zen men simultaneously enjoyed a buji state of mind and expressed themselves in an unconventional manner.

On an ordinary level, learning and practice are quintessential. The teacher teaches and the students learn. But here, The Book of Rinzai shows us a different perspective. We can see how these three Zen men are free from dualism and know that good and evil are mere illusions. Examine this within your own practice, and you can transcend being deeply bound by notions of “deep samadhi is good” or “dozing during zazen is evil.”

The danger of this particular koan is that beginners may think they can do anything, even scold or ignore their teachers. But one can only do so when, through years and years of practice and karma purification, there is no disinction made between discomfort and comfort, and the student truly realizes that life and death are in fact inseparable. That’s why, in Isan and Kyozan’s dialogue, Kyozan said both were winners. I would like to add that Obaku must have been happy to see his beloved students both attain the same state of mind as he had. Thus, quite spontaneously, these three men presented the beautiful Zen Mind with a playful spirit.

The Golden Wind

From about the middle of September to the middle of October, the color of the leaves around Beecher Lake and Dai Bosatsu Mountain changes from green to yellow and red. This has been true for countless decades. The wind becomes chilly and crisp, and this particular wind is called the Golden Wind.

A monk asked Master Ummon, “What will happen when the trees wither and leaves fall?”

Ummon replied, “The Golden Wind blows.”

In the past, I have spoken on this koan many times, but today I am examining it from a slightly different perspective. It goes without saying that the monk was not asking about trees and leaves in the literal sense. Naturally, he was talking about our state of mind. When we are young, just like the trees in the mountains, we have many green leaves, such as ambition, anxiety, desire, and uncertainty, as well as hopes and dreams.

When we experience a certain amount of human life and have confronted difficulties and disappointments one after another, these leaves fall one by one, like the leaves on the trees in the mountains. But when we become almost leafless, amazingly enough, we discover that we still have many hidden leaves, such as attachment, fear of death, regret, and others.

Whenever I read this koan, particularly in the autumn, I am compelled to ask myself, can I honestly say the Golden Wind blows in my heart?

So far the answer is, “Not yet…not yet.”

When will I be able to say the Golden Wind blows in my heart—at any time throughout the year—without experiencing the things I mentioned above? If there is any objective in life, this one is mine.

The other day I received an e-mail with a short article about a therapist in Hawaii who had the ability to heal mentally ill prison inmates without even seeing them. At first, I was half-believing, half-doubting. But as I continued reading the article, I couldn’t help but agree with this doctor’s methods.

The article talked about “total responsibility.” In general, it means that we are ultimately responsible for what we think, speak, and do, and beyond that things are out of our control. We are responsible for what we do, but not what anyone else does. Thus, we live in our own separate, individual worlds, and within these small worlds we cry with sadness and loss and we smile with happiness and gain.

But having practiced zazen for almost my entire life, and having experienced many difficult things, such as bitterness, accusations, and unbelievable surprises, particularly as a foreigner coming to the United States, my personal definition of total responsibility has changed from what I used to think. To me, total responsibility means that everything—literally every single phenomenon inside and outside of my being—is wholly a projection of myself.

It is entirely my responsibility when things happen, including witnessing some troubled students come and go. We find it easy to blame them or dismiss them: “He’s crazy.” “She’s a piece of work.” But this is just a mere expression of our own frustration, and we don’t realize that by saying such things, the situation often becomes even worse. We don’t have the guts to accept that the problem isn’t with them, but it’s within us. There is only one way to truly help others, and that is to improve ourselves.

More and more, I think and feel that we all live in three concurrent worlds: the smallest one is our own separate, individual world—the world of intimate things that only we ourselves know, such as our childhood, school experiences, memories, friendships, and so on. For each of us, this is our personal world, which nobody else knows as precisely as we do. The second world is the world that encompasses our society: the common cultural interests we share and the basic feelings that we all experience together. The third world is the entire universe as one immense realm.

Within the first world, it is very easy to take personal responsibility, as its contents are solely of our own construct. We built these worlds from our own unique thoughts, feelings, and experiences. There are also layers of karmic conditions accumulated over many lifetimes, even though we do not have a conscious memory of them. Whether we acknowledge it or not, these are still the result of our own deeds.

Within the third world, it is also relatively easy to take total responsibility, because as Zen practitioners we are able to cultivate a state of mind through deep zazen in which any gaps or boundaries between ourselves and the vast universe often disappear.

It’s within the second world that it’s the most difficult to accept and acknowledge our personal responsibility. For example, consider the current president of the United States. Is he also a projection of ourselves?

In The Book of Rinzai, there is a saying: “Whether you are facing internally or externally, whatever you meet, kill it. If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch.” Now in reality, as long as you live within the second world, do you think you can expect to meet a buddha or a patriarch on Broadway? No. But without fail, from dawn to dusk, you are always meeting yourself. What Master Rinzai is saying is kill yourself; in other words, change yourself. Everyone you see, whether they are a buddha, a patriarch, the president, or whomever, these figures are none other than mirrors, reflecting your own self-image.

People often say zazen is difficult because of the concentration required, having to endure excruciating pain, and so on, but that is not the point. Zazen is difficult precisely because it is so hard for us to accept that these seemingly external phenomena are our own projections and reflections, or even our own creations.

We often speak of compassion and wisdom. But concretely, what are they? Getting back to this Hawaiian therapist, when he was asked how he healed his mentally ill patients without ever seeing them face-to-face, he replied, “I just keep saying, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’ over and over.”

Some of you may agree immediately that this is it. And some of you may laugh at me. If you agree, the Golden Wind is already blowing in your heart. If not, your leaves are still attached to your tree.

Years ago, while I was attendant monk to Gempo Roshi, I went up to his quarters one day and witnessed a strange sight. He was kneeling on the floor, bowing deeply, and saying softly, over and over, “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”

When I asked him what was the matter, he told me that while entertaining a guest, he accidentally said something insensitive and hurt his visitor’s feelings. So he was apologizing to his guest by kneeling in the direction of his house and expressing his deep regret at having been hurtful, however unintentionally.

When I heard this as a training monk, I didn’t get it. I thought he could wait until he next met the person face-to-face and then work to recreate a harmonious relationship. Or he could write an apologetic letter or make a telephone call. But once the guest’s heart was hurt, Gempo Roshi felt it very deeply in his own heart, too.

This story about Gempo Roshi, and the story about the Hawaiian therapist, are the same as Master Ummon’s Golden Wind: it is always blowing in their hearts, as they live in the world where there are no boundaries between “self” and “others.” They have the guts to say, “I am sorry,” and in this way are expressing deep love for each one of us. To accept this love and say, “I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you” is far more difficult than attending Rohatsu sesshin. But we have to do this; otherwise the world cannot be changed.

I must mention one caution: in the Zen tradition, we often hear expressions such as “suchness” and “accept things as they are.” While these statements are true, they may be a bit misleading. There is an unspoken, underlying truth that things are changing moment by moment. Accepting suchness does not mean that no effort is necessary on your part. A spinning top appears to be stationary, despite being in motion. It is precisely this motion that keeps the top suspended upright. In much the same way, the man of buji is the busiest man, as he needs to change himself and improve himself moment by moment. This is the significance of our practice.

Thus the Golden Wind blows throughout the year and throughout our lives.

Eido T. Shimano Roshi

Eido T. Shimano Roshi

Eido T. Shimano Roshi is the former abbot of the New York Zendo in New York City, and of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.