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One Inch Sitting,
One Inch Buddha
When the sun first comes up and shines on you, he said, your shadow is big behind you. But as you continue to sit, your shadow gets smaller and smaller, until finally it's just Buddha sitting there.
In the early 1960s, at the Zen Center in San Francisco (which was also known as Soko-ji), there was a Buddhist priest from Japan who became discouraged because he couldn't speak English very well. He felt so badly about this that he was thinking of giving up and returning to his country. He told this to Suzuki-roshi, who responded by inviting the priest to a talk he was giving the next day. But during his lecture Suzuki-roshi used only a total of about twelve English words. He started off with something like, "Today is today." And then he said something in Japanese. Then he said, "Today is not tomorrow." And he followed that with something in Japanese again. Then he said, "Today is absolutely today." And so on. But all the time he was expressing himself with complete confidence from a presence beyond our thinking, conceptually limited mind.
If you come to listen to a talk as if you are going to hear something great from somebody else, this is a big mistake. The word teisho means something you already intimately know, and it is during the teisho that the roshi makes the Dharma, or truth, come alive. So the Dharma talk is really going on twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it seems like it's with Roshi. Sometimes it's with the sound of an airplane. Sometimes it's with the heater turning on. Sometimes it's with roosters crowing across the way or the sound of wind and rain. But the Dharma talk is going on continuously, without interruption, realized or not. We should remember this. It's usually very near at hand, preciously close, and always with you.
During a recent visit Hoitsu Suzuki-roshi, Suzuki-roshi's son and a very good teacher and friend of ours here at Sonoma Mountain, was describing a calligraphy he did. A rough translation of the calligraphy is "One inch sit. One inch Buddha." It's interesting to note that the word Buddha comes from the Sanskrit syllable budd, which means "awakened." When he showed us the calligraphy, he mentioned that it had to do with shadow and light. When the sun first comes up and shines on you, he said, your shadow is big behind you. But as you continue to sit, your shadow gets smaller and smaller, until finally it's just Buddha sitting there. Just the sitting Buddha. You are exactly the same as the sitting Buddha.
Our sitting style is called "silent illumination," but just because it's silent doesn't mean that nothing is happening. Or said another way, literally Nothing is happening! This illumination shines throughout your body, breath, and mind and dissolves your delusions based on greed, anger, and ignorance. And that's exactly how the light and the dark interact. In the case of sound-for instance, when the heater turns on or a cell phone rings-the ears hear the sound and an interaction takes place. Just as it does when I strike my stick on the floor: Bam! And though, again, it is beyond our thinking or conceptual mind, there is an intimate communication here. This is Nothing is happening. No one can pinpoint exactly what, or where, or when. As you sit, you'll discover this for yourself, and you'll also discover that through your sitting practice you will develop some kind of stability in your life. There's something very deep and immovable in yourself that was always there, just like right now there are some buds on the trees and plants, little ones. And if you were to look, even in the deep snow you'd discover some small sprouts already growing.
There's a Japanese word, anshin, that is very important for us to understand. Basically it means "calm, serene, undisturbed." But its meaning also reaches much further than those words. Anshin implies that the question of the self has been settled. The question of life and death has been resolved, and your spiritual question has been fulfilled. That's true liberation. Even to translate it as "calm and serene" doesn't quite touch it, because these words actually refer to their source, the empty essence from which the whole universe springs forth.
One way to express this idea is to say that this "something," which is so deep, immovable, and pervasive, always lies within you just like an unseen sprout in the snow. Small as it is, in time this sprout will stand as a whole tree. And of course, since it is rooted in anshin, as the sprout grows, we naturally come into our own presence at the same time.
Suzuki-roshi's temple in Japan, Rinso-in, is a five-hundred-year-old temple with a mountain behind and a valley below. Through the trees on the temple grounds you can see glimpses of Suruga Bay. When Suzuki-roshi came to America in December 1959, he had to leave many, many people, actually hundreds of people, because Rinso-in is a mother temple to many other temples. In general we don't easily understand people leaving something they love and treasure to do something they feel they must do. When Hoitsu became the abbot of the temple after his father left, he was very young. He may have been in his early thirties. Some of the people it served were ninety years old, and Hoitsu was three times younger than some of the members of the sangha. Needless to say, it was a little daunting. He was confronted with how to perform the ceremonies for four or five funerals on a winter day, one after the other, or how to meet with elders of the temple who were seventy to eighty years old. It wasn't easy, but while Suzuki-roshi was over here, Hoitsu had to do it. It was like being thrown into the lion's den. But isn't each one of us also thrown into this life where it's either sink or swim? What will help us float? That's what we want to know, even though sometimes we need to sink a little bit. Sometimes we may sink a lot, and sometimes we may even touch the bottom. Bam! But touching the bottom makes for change.
One day an old woman came to Hoitsu for advice. During their discussion she said, "When I die, I'd like you to sing a song for me." Hoitsu was surprised and maybe even a little afraid, because the song the old woman requested was a pop song. He didn't know what to do, so he said, "I cannot do it because I don't feel comfortable. I'm not ready to sing a pop song at a funeral." Usually at funerals the priest wears red robes and leads a formal ritual, but since that was her request, he said to her, "In ten years when you die, I can sing the song, and when I do, I'll sing it from the bottom of my heart."
That decision may have made the woman's life ten years longer, because she had to wait. It also made Hoitsu ten years stronger, because he made a promise. So in this way we give life to each other, and the life we give is based on something. It's like being in a sangha. One way to understand what sangha means is that it's like stones rubbing against each other until they all become smooth. Zen is not about being nice. We don't strive to be nice people, because we already are. We should know this, even though some of us who are studying Zen have become nice people and do good things. But we do rub up against each other. That's real intimacy, real respect, real compassion for one another. Sangha life is just like a pearl; there's much rubbing, and the more agitation there is, the more pearl-like our lives become.
Since Zen came to the West from Japan, it's somewhat easy to confuse what is culturally Japanese with what is Zen. There's been quite a bit of discussion about this issue in recent years. One thing that is clear is that it's important that we don't become Japanese but that we become American or Polish or Icelandic or whatever we happen to be. In my own case, because I studied as a young man at the Zen Center with Suzuki-roshi for many years, I identified with him and wanted to become Japanese. One day he came to me and said, "You're Chinese. You should remember that." And I said, "Hai!" just as a Japanese person would. But that's the Japanese style. It's a very good style. It means "I'm open to it. I'm willing, without hesitation." But here in the West we have to adapt it. We have to find a way to express what's inside that Hai! Yes!
When the meal is served in the dining hall at the Sixth Ancestor's temple in Shaoguan, China, the woman who cooks the food comes out from the kitchen and says, "My meal is not very good food. I'm sorry." In the West we come out and say, "My meal is great. I hope you like it." But somewhere in between there is a way. As the East meets the West, the way these two come together is very important. Just like the great historian, the late Arnold Toynbee, said, one of the most important things in the twentieth century is the Buddhadharma coming west because of its approach to mind. What is it? is the eternal question. This is its greatest gift, and we have been given the gift of having an opportunity to fathom it and use it to help others.
Maezumi-roshi was the founder of Zen Center of Los Angeles and a significant person in the transmission of Zen to the West. After he died, I was given the opportunity to participate in the funeral ceremony by being the person who formally answers the questions in the auditorium. And so without hesitation I said "Yes!" to Bernie Glassman-roshi, who had offered me this opportunity, even though afterward my heart was almost in my mouth. But what else could I say; it was going to be Maezumi-roshi's funeral! So I said, "Yes!" My duties included sitting in front of eight hundred people to answer questions, and the first person to ask a question would be his daughter, Michi. What would I say?
Before the ceremony started, a group of us met in Maezumi-roshi's house. His younger brother, Junyu-roshi, who considered Maezumi his teacher, was there, and he sat at one end of a very long table talking with Bernie Glassman-roshi. I was sitting with my wife Shinko and some others at the other end of the table. It was a very hot day, and we were all being served some cold beer. Without any introduction all of a sudden Junyu-roshi leaned over the table, looked at me with a smile, and said, "How long can you live?" Because of the circumstances of how far away we seemed to be sitting from each other, and people talking, and the heat of the day, I didn't feel that I heard exactly what he said, though I strained to hear the words coming from his direction. I became aware that all of a sudden things seemed very slow, almost like in a dream, so I leaned forward and said, "Do you mean that you're asking me how long can I live?" Now there was a great silence at the table, and everything stopped. Then, lucky thing, I had a glass of beer in my hand. I stood up, walked over to him, leaned in, and clink, that was it! This was a spontaneous response just before Maezumi-roshi's funeral ceremony. Or perhaps I should say, the funeral had already begun.
From the Hardcover edition.