Updated: Dec 25, 2020
Twice in as many months, I had been reminded of the Buddhist teacher who sparked within me something significant. Both reminders came in conversations with friends.
My first friend and I visited the Soto Zen Mission on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. We spent some time chatting with the temple priest, a transplanted Japanese priest assigned to the mission. As I browsed the temple's back room, I saw lying on a table near the kitchen an English translation of the Buddhist precepts.
Three Pure Precepts
Cease from evil.
Do only good.
Do good for others.
Ten Great Precepts
Do not kill.
Do not steal.
Do not covet.
Do not say that which is not true.
Do not sell the wine of delusion.
Do not speak against others.
Do not be proud of yourself and devalue others.
Do not be mean in giving either Dharma or wealth.
Do not be angry.
Do not defame the Three Treasures.
I recognized instantly that the translation was the work of that teacher. I realized it by the way she had translated one principle in particular: "Do not sell the wine of delusion." Most translations I've seen phrase it as a prescript to avoid intoxicants. This teacher greatly expanded the meaning of the word. I believe this is a unique English expression of the precept. While I think this Zen master never intended to place her personal linguistic stamp upon the Buddhist precepts, she had, and I recognized it at once.
Some American Zen adherents have regarded Reverend Master Houn Jiyu Kennett (Peggy Teresa Nancy Kennett 1924-1996) as a maverick and a bit of a strange bird. The temple priest of the Soto Mission on Kauai clearly conveyed a contrary impression. Albeit a woman, Reverend Master Kennett was indeed a Soto Priest. She was an orthodox product of the orthodox Japanese Soto Zen Church. The temple priest maintained that the Soto Church acceptably regarded her work in America, not least her English translation of Soto liturgy and Buddhist scripture.
This acceptance is a big deal. Prejudice against foreigners--any foreigners, Asian or otherwise--is part of Japanese culture. That Kennett was a woman, who studied for and attained Soto Zen priesthood, gilds the bias. Yet, the temple priest expressed clearly in his limited English significant regard for Kennett as a priest and as a translator and educator in Soto Zen.
Later, in a small café in the sugar town of Koloa, my friend and I ate a lovely breakfast. We conversed about this and that; Zen and nothing. Somewhere in the intercourse, the subject of teachers arose. My chest tightened. I could feel tears welling. I felt as though someone close to me had died, as though I had lost a spouse, a lover, someone intimate. Indeed I had. That significant teacher departed life twenty-four years ago.
The second reminder came in a conversation with another friend. She stated how fond she was of her teacher, who was old and terminally ill. They planned to drive together to a meditation retreat in a neighboring state. The one-on-one time they would share felt precious to her. At the last minute, another couple of students asked to ride along. The teacher said, yes. My friend felt robbed.
The story pained me, partly because I wanted my friend to have everything she wanted or needed and not a little because I felt a bit jealous. I regretted that I spent no time with my significant teacher; zero, nada, zilch! At the time, I, too, felt robbed. But, my spirit has come to understand that nothing has been taken away, and quite a lot was given.
I never met this teacher face to face. I heard her voice only through a recording. Her most effective words to me came from the page of a book, and they weren't even really her words!
Kennett was an English woman. After a couple of years in Malaysia, ten years in Japan, and about that many in America, she retained and maybe amplified her English-ness. I heard her voice on a cassette recording of a lecture to a university audience that coincidentally contained words I had seen quoted in another book on Zen.
"If you don't wish to be grabbed by God, don't stare at a wall. Above all, don't sit still!"
Those words tinkled a little bell in me. I was mystified; God and Zen in the same sentence? What's up with that? But it is the word "grabbed" that rings loudest in my recollection. She rolled the R off her tongue in a delightful staccato, a machine gun sound, like the startling rat-a-tat of a stout stick across a sewer grate. I wondered, why would God bother to grab me? I remembered my grandmother's admonition against childhood boredom and idleness: "Keep moving, and you'll outrun the Devil!" The music of both expressions seemed to harmonize.
I must have been ripe. After years of study and reasonably diligent meditation, I was browsing Reverend Master's book Selling Water by the River, an overview of a little Zen of this and Zen of that, and I came upon the passage "the koan appears naturally in daily life." Koan literally means a legal document, a judgment. I think of it as more like the spiritual puzzles one encounters in daily life. Solving spiritual puzzles requires assessment and adjudication. Here's an excellent recent restatement of the natural koan:
"[In Soto] Our koan is noticing what's getting in the way of just doing what needs to be done; what gets in the way of just walking; your doubts, your criticisms of other people – that's the natural koan. Which can become quite extreme. And it's not uncommon in the life of a meditator to come to where those sorts of things that get in the way can take on quite a powerful and obstructive appearance – should I continue on? What's this all about? This isn't getting me anywhere. It's usually some form of doubt, or criticism; or doubts of others. And that's the koan when it really has arisen in the way we mean when we talk about the koan arising naturally."1
Considering the natural koan can be done anytime, anywhere. It's meditation in action.
The little bell inside me rang quite loud and clear. "The koan appears naturally in daily life." Those words solved something, resolved a whole lot of things. The experience, the feelings, the echo of that little bell has not dissipated since. Its effects are as strong as ever, and parts of what caused me to choke up during the conversation with my first friend and feel jealous of my second.
I found out later that the words "the koan appears naturally in daily life" were not the words of my teacher, but her expression of the essence of the venerable Japanese Soto Zen Master Dogen Zenji (1200-1253). Dogen is the heart and soul of Soto. Dogen transmitted the essence of Chinese Zen to Japanese culture.
So, who rang the bell? Was it Reverend Master Kennett or her teacher Koho Chisan? Or, was it Dogen or the Chinese masters before him? Does it matter? That's a philosophical question. Whatever its genesis, the essence was transmitted through that teacher, her Soto Zen form, her sharply rolled Rs, in a taped recording, and from the pages of her book; that is enough. For that, I am forever grateful to her.
An oft-repeated saw asserts masters and pets come to resemble each other. I believe there is some truth to it. The masters of bulldogs often look puggish and jowly. Poodles and their escorts often preen. Persians purr, and those who stroke them appear to as well. Nervous little Mexican dogs often have anxious owners.
Through monk's tonsure, simple hygiene, and priestly robes, Kennett neutered herself. She appeared neither male nor female. Unfortunately, in the last years of her life, disease bloated her, fattened her cheeks, and puffed her eyes into slits. Despite serious health problems, I
heard from older students that she laughed easily and frequently. Once I saw a picture of her laughing. Round-faced and smiley, she resembled her master. They both resembled a laughing Buddha. That's the memory of her countenance I hold most dear.
Nowadays, meditation teachers can tend to students by e-mail, telephone, and video conferences on computer. The mythology of Zen practice particularly emphasizes face-to-face contact and mind-to-mind transmission. Zen also emphasizes the principle of skillful means. Reverend Master Houn Jiyu Kennett, well before the ubiquitous use of digital pathways, reached across the distance between us in print and audio. She administered the spiritual "dope slap" that I needed, precisely when I needed it: Wake up! Get on with it! Time is short! Solve the natural koan!
PS. Thank you all--a veritable spate of you--who joined this modest blog as friends! Blessings to you all!
Rev. Master Haryo Young, The Vessel and Its Contents, an edited version of a transcription of a talk in Portobello Priory Newsletter January – April 2018 and published in the Winter 2018 issue of this Journal.