NOT SO FAST
I would have no beef with Genpo Roshi (“Introducing Big Mind,” Winter 2008) if he presented his Big Mind technique merely as a tool for helping to deal with psychological issues encountered during the course of practice, but he doesn’t. He maintains that by practicing the Big Mind method one can radically speed up the time it takes to attain Buddhist enlightenment.
Genpo Roshi’s quick road suggests that we access the mindset of zazen by cultivating a singular perspective of non-seeking, non-grasping awareness. This ignores the deeper implications and true power and purpose of zazen as Zen practice.
Zazen comes to us from our teachers as the practice using all forms and all awareness as vehicles for the relinquishment of all forms and all awareness. This relinquishment must be total and does not allow for some detached, aware perspective to continue at all, much less be owned or cultivated. Through zazen, we don’t seek to become “fully functional human beings,” we seek to die to our human condition and be reborn as bodhisattvas: agents of compassionate impermanence.
Zen’s “Sudden Enlightenment” does not refer to a realization, from the perspective of Big Mind, that I have no boundaries or there is nothing that is not me. The “awareness” referred to in the article, however insightful, still lies squarely in the realm of cognition and is just generated from a bigger mind. If Zen insight were so easily accessible, the history of Zen would not be built upon the bones of individuals who sweated blood for decades before realizing its truths.
Genpo Roshi’s article and the exercise it contains sound to me more like a satsang from Hinduism’s Advaita Vedanta tradition than a teaching from a Zen Buddhist. Some ex-Buddhists who begin to study Advaita Vedanta often relate how much easier and more quickly they arrived at their insight with their new practice. After some (relatively short) time at the guru’s feet, Bang! One perceives the nondual nature of awareness, the atman. Insights into the atman are often mistakenly confused with Buddhist insight. I do not seek to pass on the relative merits of these two traditions, but they have fundamental differences that should not be ignored. For anyone interested, Tricycle’s interview with John Peacocke (“Investigating the Buddha’s World,” Fall 2008), expresses beautifully how the insights of Buddhism and Hinduism (especially Advaita Vedanta) differ.
We read in the Blue Cliff Record, “Only after having run the race can one rest in peace.” Although the activity of the cosmos does not vary within individuals, our understanding of it does. To learn takes effort. Running the race is not pointless, nor is the race won by abandoning the race or trying to find a way to win by cutting across the field.
It’s not my intention to disappoint all those who are impatient for enlightenment or those who have found solace in Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind method, but I am very skeptical that the long and difficult road of Zen practice can be made easier by such diversions.
Seigaku Kigen Ekeson, Osho
West Hollywood, CA
GENPO ROSHI RESPONDS
I want to thank Kigen Osho for giving voice to the skeptic. I know he is not the only one in the Zen Buddhist world who has had doubts about the Big Mind process. In the past 10 years others have had similar reservations until they actually experienced or observed it themselves. Many of these former skeptics now are using Big Mind in their teaching of Zen and other practices and are enthusiastic advocates for it.
The great Dogen Zenji of the Soto school advocated sitting in zazen with no goal. Rinzai practitioners usually sit with a koan and do not practice shikantaza, sitting without a goal, until completion of koan study. I myself sat with koans until completing koan study in 1979, and have been sitting since then in shikantaza in the voice of non-seeking mind. As a lineage holder in both the Soto and Rinzai schools, I have worked with thousands of students for more than 30 years, both on koan study and shikantaza.
Big Mind is meant to be not an end in itself but the third leg of a threelegged stool. I have witnessed hundreds of Zen students clarify their koan study using Big Mind and sit shikantaza in a much deeper samadhi. They have shown more openness and compassion in their daily life as well as less of the rigidness that often occurs in traditional Zen training.
Kigen Osho is correct that our relinquishment must be complete. Great enlightenment is the realization beyond any doubt that there is absolutely nothing to be attained, and even this must be transcended. The bodhisattva embraces all of his or her human qualities and transcends them—not stays dead to them—thus living as a fully integrated, free-functioning human being among us, liberating all sentient beings he or she encounters.
Kigen Osho is absolutely right that Zen practice is built upon the bones of individuals who sweat blood for decades. I too am one of those individuals. The Big Mind process is built standing on the shoulders of our predecessors, not on their heads nor in their shadows. Koan study as we practice it is also one of these skillful means that is no more than 300 years old. As the great Zen Master Rinzai himself said, “Followers of the Way, you take the words that issue from the mouths of old teachers, saying, ‘This is the True Way, this old sage is wonderful; I am but an ordinary fellow and dare not compare myself with such great masters.’ Blind fools! Your whole life you hold such views, going against the evidence of your single eye, trembling like asses on ice, your teeth clenched with fear.”
Salt Lake City, UT
THE TRUEST LESSON
When I read the article about the elusive Walter Nowick (“Down East Roshi,” Spring 2009) I was overjoyed to see his picture, reminding me of mornings on the farm when he would address his students about the day’s work ahead. The biggest Zen lesson was working the farm with him. He was the first to awaken and the last to leave the farm chores. During rohatsu [the practice period celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment], after the first meditation period, he would cook breakfast for his students, return to the zendo for interviews, and—with little help— take care of the cows, poultry, pigs, and calves and finish the evening meditation period. His summer concerts in the barn were renowned. He would fly off the tractor, wash up, and be on the Steinway in minutes, performing for and with his music students for the townspeople and remaining students.
Walter used humor to enlighten, music to inspire; he mirrored you so you could see your absurdities. He was gentle and reverent, puckish and totally impossible to predict, yet his responsibility was always focused on his students and practice. His work ethic was his teaching. He knew well what we all had to learn.
I remember his stories of taking his master, Goto Zuigan Roshi, to see American Westerns, which he loved, and I remember Walter’s favorite record was Jimmy Durante and the operatic soprano Helen Traubel singing a pop tune together.
Walter was everyday Zen, making every day an opportunity to become awakened.
Carol Brunt St. Pierre
El Sobrante, CA
Dana Sawyer’s “Down East Roshi” fails to mention Moonspring Hermitage, which evolved into the Morgan Bay Zendo in 1985. A number of Walter Nowick’s former students (including me) live nearby and founded the Morgan Bay Zendo, the land having been signed over to us by Nowick himself. Sawyer could easily have approached a dozen former students living within a half-mile range of Nowick’s farm.
The Morgan Bay Zendo has over 650 members from all over New England; many attend retreats and workshops throughout the year. Our website is morganbayzendo.org.
It was good to see Walter Nowick—the quietest Zen man in America—getting some of the recognition he so richly deserves.
In the Spring 2009 issue, we incorrectly identified Philip Novak’s most recent book as World’s Wisdom. His latest, however, is The Inner Journey: Views from the Buddhist Tradition (Morning Light Press, 2005).
In “Down East Roshi” (Spring 2009), we misspelled Alan Wittenberg’s first name. It is “Alan,” not “Allen.”
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