Beyond Words: 2016 Fall Ango Intensive

· Sangha News

post by Robyn Ikyo Love, MRO

On Thursday night, after a period of zazen, Shugen Sensei introduced the theme of the Fall Ango Intensive weekend to the participants in the zendo. We would be studying Dogen’s Genjokoan—the Ango theme—but he asked us to examine it through the lens of faith, which he said could be cultivated through a combination of trust, confidence and honesty.  

Faith is a funny, almost unexpected, word in Zen and yet, how do we ever make our way on the path without it? I am more familiar with this notion via yoga and the Sanskrit word, śraddhā, which often gets translated as faith. It is explained in Yoga Sutra 1.20 as being cultivated through viryā (effort or vigorous practice), smrtī (memory) and prajnāsamādhi (the wisdom one develops in samādhi). Shugen Sensei’s decision to use the words trust, honesty and confidence was very intriguing. Did his choice of words really matter? Do they ultimately mean the same thing? Shugen also challenged us to think about what word we might choose to describe our zazen, if we could only choose one word. For me, the word faith was certainly a good place to start that inquiry.

Sincerity was another word that came up often during the next two days. Indeed, all of those other ideas are just abstractions without sincerity at the heart of them. Yet, as one participant put it early on in the first morning session, sincerity is risky. In one sense it is, but as Shugen Sensei countered, when someone enters into practice with sincerity, the whole notion of failure is beside the point. I often find myself embroiled in the success/failure duality and I could feel myself relax as he said that. Will I remember this point when I really need it? Indeed, memory (smrtī) was mentioned as a key part of being able to gain confidence as we recall our experiences of practice. There is no separating out the interplay between doubt, remembering, confidence and faith.  

Shugen encouraged us to share how we cultivate this relationship in our daily lives—what markers or reminders do we keep handy so that we can recall our vows in moments of doubt? How do we maintain clarity about right livelihood in this messy, messed-up world? He spoke eloquently about liturgy and its potential as a living reminder of practice throughout the day. His discussion of liturgy was strengthened by our chanting the Genjokoan in two parts over the two days, along with speaking aloud the Karaniya Metta Sutta. Again and again, we danced between speaking and doing, describing and being.

Other words came up as well: reverence, constancy, humility. In art practice, we drew our breath, literally, on paper under the guidance of Hojin Osho. Then she had us draw the breath but stop when we noticed our internal commentary being to chime in. Notice, stop, let go, then go back to drawing the breath. Over and over.  Recording zazen on paper! As we finished, she said, choose one word that describes your experience and write it down on the drawing. I must confess that all that post-lunch deep breathing made me fall asleep three times during the short exercise. My word was “sleepy.” Remember: humility. On the second day, Hojin and Shoan chanted our words, which Hojin had collected into a found poem. How many experiences were there in those ten minutes of drawing? How many people were participating? Every word was different.  

Reverence. Humility. Sacred.

Like the Genjokoan itself, Shugen Sensei and Hojin Osho used words—Dogen’s, their own and ours—to point directly at practice and realization. They created opportunities for us to share with each other how we live Genjokoan in our life and challenged us to live it right there in the moment. This text, those words, written by a man in 13th Century Japan, were alive and well on Mt. Tremper in October, 2016.

NextIn Memoriam: William Kishin Gamble