Mondo by John Daido Loori, Roshi originally printed in Mountain Record in the issue Spiritual Calling (2008)
In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are several ways of engaging with a teacher and one of them is mondo, an informal question and answer session on some aspect of the Dharma. This mondo was held with John Daido Loori, Roshi, the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, at Zen Mountain Monastery in 2008.
As our work with the creative process evolves and we see how creativity extends beyond art into our lives, we may notice barriers that keep us from seeing in a way that’s unhindered by ideas or attitudes. These barriers pop up as we struggle to find equanimity in our art and day-to-day activities.
It is critical that we acknowledge these barriers, and work through them. To be willing to find our own freedom, blocked though it may be, is the first breath of that freedom. We have to be willing to turn toward the barrier and be intimate with it. As long as we think we can run away from it or deny it, the barrier stays with us.
WHEN I MET DAIDO, I WAS living in a yoga ashram and working part time in an art gallery. Daido would come into the gallery to have his photographs framed. He had just resigned from International Flavors and Fragrances and was starting to go into the advertising business. He needed a model for a shoot that he was doing for a little department store in Middletown; I told him I had worked as a model before and could help him.
The Prolouge Confined in a cage, up against a wall, pressed against barriers—if you linger in thought, holding back your potential, you will remain mired in fear and frozen in inaction. If, on the other hand, you advance fearlessly and without hesitation, you manifest your power as a competent adept of the Way. Passing through entanglements and barriers without hindrance, the time and season of great peace is attained. How do you advance fearlessly and without hesitation? Listen to the following.
Editor’s Note: The following are entries from a journal Daido Roshi kept shortly after attending a photography workshop led by Minor White at the Hotchkiss School, prior to his involvement in Zen. The Images are roughly from this period, too.
The last record was concluded and this one started because of the transitions that took place during the 1971 Minor White Hotchkiss Workshop. I shall attempt to record those things that are remembered from the workshop and identify them as such. Other information or records will be dated at the time they were recorded.
Learning how to turn the conscious thinking mind off and let the inner mind, the feelings, work free and open seems to be one of the major keys to heightened awareness.
In this drifting, wandering world, it is very difficult to cut off our human ties. Now I cast them away, and enter true activity. It is in this way that I express my gratitude. As I shave my head, I vow to live a life of simplicity, service, stability, selflessness and to accomplish the Buddha’s Way. May I manifest my life with wisdom and compassion and realize the Tathagata’s true teaching.
Entering the marketplace barefoot and unadorned. Blissfully smiling, though covered with dust and ragged of clothes. Using no supernatural power, you bring the withered trees spontaneously into bloom.
Arriving at the tenth stage, you enter the marketplace. This is nirmanakaya, the physical body and the teachings of the Buddha manifesting in the world for the benefit of others.
In the ox-herding pictures, the youngster who started out on this search returns to the world as an old sage. By the time the journey is over the child has disappeared. Obviously, a lengthy period of time has passed. Although the moment of realization is just that, a moment, the process of studying the self and clarifying the nature of reality doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t even end with the old sage. It continues endlessly. The spiritual path of Zen is a ceaseless practice.
As I spent time at Dai Bosatsu, I began to suspect that the key to the profound qualities I was seeing in Zen art was Zen practice, and that zazen— Zen meditation—was its foundation. I had heard that as a young man Soen Roshi used to sit zazen high up on a tree to train himself not to fall asleep. It was said that once, when Soen was sitting at Dai Bosatsu Mountain in Japan (for which the monastery is named), he fell out of a tree and his head was pierced by a sharp piece of bamboo. Yet this incident didn’t stop him from sitting.
During an intensive meditation retreat at Dai Bosatsu, I witnessed Soen Roshi’s amazing capacity to sit perfectly motionless in zazen for long periods. I saw him sit through the day, into the night and then on through the next day. Curious, I got up in the middle of the second night to see if he had finally gone off to rest, but there he was, still sit- ting in the empty zendo. Peter Mattheissen, in his book Nine-headed Dragon River, wrote that when he was assigned to clean the zendo for work practice, he sometimes had to dust around Soen sitting in meditation.