It’s not enough for the zendo merely to be ‘living’… A ‘true Zen spirit’ must now be breathed into it. It is important, in other words, for the living breath of Zen to be pulsing away in this zendo. ~ Koun Yamada Roshi
On one of my first trips to Germany I had the good fortune to open up an old issue of Kyosho, the magazine of the Sanbo Kyodan, and find folded within it three yellowed typed pages. They turned out to be the text for a speech given by Koun Yamada Roshi at the inauguration of the Ring of Bone Zendo in California. In the talk he addressed both Gary Snyder, the center’s founder, and Robert Aitken, who taught there regularly, and it was an interesting snapshot of Zen’s history in America.
He also quoted an old Japanese saying: “Making the Buddha and forgetting the soul.” I’d like to look at this proverb in two ways.
First, on the day of the speech Koun Roshi used it to make the point that just because a fine zendo had now been built and inaugurated, that did not mean the work was over. “It’s not enough for the zendo merely to be ‘living’,” he said. “A ‘true Zen spirit’ must now be breathed into it. It is important, in other words, for the living breath of Zen to be pulsing away in this zendo.”
A fine building is not enough. Indeed, if the true Dharma is flowing, facilities are hardly needed. A profound Zen training can be undergone in very inadequate circumstances. Yasutani Roshi used to teach people in his small family apartment in a Tokyo suburb, where dokusan had to be held on top of a board placed over the bathtub in the bathroom.
Here at Mountain Cloud we have a remarkable and beautiful zendo. Yet soon after it was built, in a sense the center languished anyway, for quarter of a century – a quiet, peaceful and lovely backwater, but without true Zen being able to really take root here. This is not to belittle the great achievements of various people who kept the place alive. It is really remarkable that it never withered, but continued to stay open for sitting. But the fact is, when its founder Philip Kapleau was obliged to leave within a year of its opening, things were not the same. In his speech Koun Roshi went on to say that a zendo must have “a central figure.”
But things have now changed at Mountain Cloud. The center has demonstrated that it has a chance of finding a new kind of life, and many people are now involved in the enjoyable project of bringing it back to its true purpose, which is to be a home for the real spirit of Zen.
I hope I’m right in believing that Mountain Cloud is becoming what it was originally founded to be: a flourishing place of peace, joy and love, for all human beings who have the good fortune to find it. A place of well-being, where the well-being is founded on the simple practice of being still and quiet and observing the processes of being alive — all within the guidance of Zen’s immemorial, ancient Dharma. A place where individuals can find hope, and a path to peace; whose goodwill fosters an ever-deepening sense of community, brotherhood and sisterhood, among those who are blessed to be able to sit together here; and a place whose deep and ever more powerful practice of the Dharma emanates out into the wider community in tangible and intangible ways.
The second sense of the proverb I would like to explore, different yet profoundly related, is this: in our practice we come to discover that we ourselves are Buddha. Our very substance is none other than the substance of the whole universe. What is that substance? “Indeed it has no form, much less a name,” as Daio Kokushi said.
To discover this clearly, to experience it with utter intimacy, is what we call the “second fruit of Zen,” or the experience of awakening. It may engender a radical humility and gratitude, and great peace and joy; and from these, compassion naturally flows. But actually Zen does not stop there. The best harvest of all comes with the “third fruit”: actualising what we have come to discover through Zen training in our everyday lives. It is here that the energy, love and devotion to helping others that arise from the core of Zen experience, can start to be manifested in every moment and each encounter. This is the real soul of Zen – when our hearts are engaged in everything we do.
Whatever else our practice may bring, it surely creates more space in which to open our hearts and love the people around us, as well as the things we come into contact with. Let’s not overlook this: meeting the world, opening to beauty, living out of love rather than rigidity – this is the “soul” we might forget if we are too focused on practice on the cushion, and on the insights and experiences Zen can open up. Let’s not make Buddha but forget the soul.
As Yamada Koun went on to say in his inauguration speech for the Ring of Bone zendo: “It is my sincere wish that you will all now do you best to furnish these facilities with a soul.” May we all continue trying to do the same thing not just for our center, but for the lives around us and the world we all share.