Feb 062013

Excerpt from the Afterword written by Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogenji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Okayama, Japan and head of the worldwide One Drop Zen Buddhist Community:

“Feeling that the day was somehow unusually pleasant, I moved to the porch to enjoy the fresh air, the wafting breeze—the breeze that came across the porch, blowing through the white heavenly bamboo flowers. What a great feeling breeze! An indescribably wonderful feeling came to me, and a thought arose. In this weak, sickness-stricken body, I was struck by the question, ‘What is this wonderful breeze?’

“And then a thought occurred to me—I was so deeply struck, as if I had been hit with an iron bar! ‘This breeze! It is air!’ While this body was so ridden with sickness I could barely sit up straight, I became riveted to the thought ‘This breeze is air; there is always air!’ Everyone had abandoned me, but there is air, which never has left me alone, not even for a single second. And not just me, but everyone is held like this. We cannot live only by our own bodies; we are all embraced and given life by a huge power.

“Usually when we think of air, it is only an idea about air. This most precious air, without which we cannot live for even one minute—it is so important and yet we take it for granted! All day and all night without any break whatsoever, whether we are working or resting or sleeping or waking, we may forget it, but air has never ever forgotten us!”

Realizing this so deeply and totally and seeing how true it was, he wanted to shout it to the skies. A new energy and motivation rose up in him. Without even thinking about it, the words came out of his mouth,

Oh Great All Embracing Mind!
A clear realization,
Brought to me by this morning’s cool wafting breeze.

This is the writing of my teacher, Mumon Yamada Roshi, when he told about his own experience. These are his words that I am here putting into my own words. My teacher almost died from tuberculosis. He was on death’s edge for a long time; for years he lived with this threat. Then in this life of sickness, he discovered a deep truth he expressed in these words.

People are born, and then they live their whole life facing death. How many people are truly full of joy? Most people are melancholy and face the end of their life thinking that it is the end of everything. But life is not something melancholy. We each have received and are always receiving grace from so many others in order to stay alive—it is immeasurable.

At Enso House, grace is delivered by those people who help take care of guests nearing the end of their life. A professional doctor and nurse are on duty twenty-four hours a day. What is important there is that the caregivers and those who are dying are connected by prayer.

Zazen is prayer, and while it is sometimes done by crossing the legs, zazen is not our body sitting—it is our mind sitting. We are letting everything go except today’s life, being it completely and not looking away from it—not speaking, not doing, but seeing that with which we are born, our pure true nature—this is zazen.

Jul 272012

Excerpt from the chapter, Commitment, about “Chisan,” a Zen teacher intimately connected with the establishment of Enso House:

Priscilla Storandt (later “Chisan”) developed an interest in meditation at a young age. One day she was sitting very still in her room at home when her mother came in and said, “Priscilla! Stop that at once! You’re weirding me out!”

Despite her mother’s misgivings, Priscilla continued to explore the practice of meditation into her adult years. At the age of nineteen, she read a book about Zen and was intrigued by the connection between Zen and pottery in Japan. The connection felt like a mystery: how was meditation practice related to the stunningly beautiful Japanese tea bowls she had seen?

While in her mid-twenties, a plan began to take shape. She would go to Japan and learn all about oriental art and pottery—how to make vases, tea bowls, and tea ceremony water jars. Maybe she could also find a Zen master who would explain the connection between Zen and pottery. She figured it would take about two months, and then she would return to the States.

On her way to Japan, she stopped in Seattle, where a friend told her, “Go to Takayama. It was my favorite place in Japan.” It hadn’t occurred to her to establish some contacts in Japan before leaving. On her way to Takayama, she arrived in Kyoto, not knowing a single person and not speaking a word of Japanese.

At a bank in Kyoto, she tried to change some dollars into yen. Standing next to her was a Frenchman who spoke some Japanese and offered to help her. She knew more words in French than Japanese, and from their conversation, he figured that she must be a potter. He lit up when he learned that she was going to Takayama and said that he was on his way there too. In fact, he knew a potter there he could introduce her to.

The potter in Takayama had pottery students, and he also made teacups to sell to tourists. He thought he could use an assistant over the summer to help him make his production of one thousand teacups a week. He assumed that Priscilla was an experienced potter, so to confirm she had the skills he needed, he asked her to please make a teacup.

Undaunted, she fashioned something that looked more like a toilet bowl than something you would drink out of. Then he asked her to make a smaller teacup, and she produced a smaller toilet bowl. He must have been thinking, “Oh my god! There is no polite way out of this!” So he deferred to his father. His father studied Priscilla’s hands closely and grunted affirmatively.

Chisan remembers,

“That was the end of that. So for the rest of my time in Takayama, I was a pottery apprentice to this potter. He did teach me—bless his heart. I went through the winter and summer with no Japanese, and he spoke no English. I received ten thousand yen from him and a place to live. So it all worked out fine.”

Priscilla also sought out Zen in the town where she had landed. She found that there was a family temple there and a priest who sat zazen every morning. She started to go there and join the priest for meditation. But she wasn’t accustomed to the Japanese value of strict punctuality, so she would sometimes start work at 8:30, sometimes 9:00 or 9:30. When the priest learned of this, he gave Priscilla some fatherly advice.

“He said to me, ‘You can’t do two things at once. You either have to do pottery or zazen. Make your choice.’ But I was pretty sure I had to do two things at once. Doing zazen was more and more important to me. I really felt a deep conflict. I felt that in order to do pottery, I would have to do zazen. They were not separate. Pottery to me was my original meditation in action.”

Finally the priest suggested that she meet another Zen priest who spoke some English. She could meet him in Hokkaido, where he was going to open a new hondo, a Japanese hall of worship, at a Zen temple there. Priscilla would need to take leave from her apprentice job to attend the ceremony. Her pottery teacher assented and wished her the best.

She arrived at the temple in Hokkaido. In the hondo, there were long rows of Zen priests sitting on either side in dark robes. True to form, Priscilla was wearing a long skirt, a colorful bandana, and pigtails. The staid quality of a Japanese Zen temple met the bold energy of a young, exuberant American woman. Suddenly someone came up to her and said, “Take off your bandana.” They handed her a slip of paper and said, “Write your name on the paper and put it on the tray.”

At the far end of the hall, she saw a tiny man with a white beard perched on a huge cushion. He would have a major influence on her life. Before the ceremony started, Priscilla got the opportunity to ask her question about Zen and pottery. Even though the roshi was able to speak some English, he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. So another person helped translate and explained how she had come to Japan to do pottery, but in order to do pottery, she wanted to do Zen. She felt that pottery was an expression of her Zen. Could he help her understand the connection?

He thought for a moment and then said, “Pottery—Zen: one path.”

At the dedication ceremony, Priscilla was in tears. She remembers,

“My life had just changed in every direction, and I couldn’t breathe. I had discovered what I had come to Japan for, but I didn’t know it would actually happen.”

After the ceremony she was introduced to the roshi: Yamada Mumon, head of the Myoshinji temple, the center of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan, and president of Hanazono University.