This is a retreat to awaken. Awaken together.
Bernie had total faith in the oneness of life, that everything manifests oneness. Recently I read an article written by the scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in which he said that the Buddha didn’t talk about oneness, but of course did talk of interdependence. In some way it comes down to the same thing. Bernie’s faith in the interdependence of all things came out of his two major enlightenment experiences, both of which were confirmed not just by Maezumi Roshi but also by other Japanese Zen masters.
This happened early in the development of Zen in the West, when much of the Soto Sect in Japan didn’t believe that gaijins in the West could study and practice something as subtle as Zen. Maezumi Roshi, Bernie said, wanted to show them that this was not true, but for this purpose he needed other Zen masters to validate Tetsugen’s experience in addition to himself.
So it was significant that Koryu Osaka Roshi said that Tetsugen’s was one of the profoundest openings he’d ever seen. After Bernie’s second great awakening experience he and Maezumi Roshi went to Japan where he had an interview with Koun Yamada, who tested him on this opening and confirmed it as well.
But the rest of Bernie’s life kept on confirming the oneness of life, in fact more and more all the time. You could hear it not just in what he said but how he said it. He didn’t have a doubt in the world about it. It was as clear to him as day.
At that early time sitting practice was everything to him and he was a harsh taskmaster in the zendo. I laughed in reading a post by Roshi Myoyu Anderson, Bernie’s dharma sister, in which she recalled that he recommended starting sesshin at 2:30 in the morning rather than at 4, their usual beginning time. He was then Tetsugen, very different from the Bernie who, in his later years, insisted that practice was everything, not just sitting meditation. Much later he would shake his head sadly whenever he heard someone refer to sitting as practice. Of course it was practice, but so was everything else.
This retreat is in that spirit. We start sitting late, around 8, and we stop at 6 so that we could go home and take care of our families. I began such a schedule after Bernie got sick because I didn’t know how else to take care of him. We go home to take care of people and life, we go to bed, get up, prepare and eat breakfast alone or with others, and then come to the zendo.
When you practice this way you must really plunge into whatever life presents you—stroke, cancer, caregiving, children, grief, loss. You can’t do that without letting go of your conceptual conditioning surrounding these things.
When Bernie died, he plunged into death. A moment after the doctor said that he died I couldn’t see him in his body at all. I noticed his ears had changed color; he was gone. We brought him home and some people said, he looks peaceful, he looks at ease. When his daughter arrived and saw him for the first time, she said That’s not dad.
People ask me if he appears in my dreams. They say: “Don’t you feel he’s always with you?” There’s no doubt that he’s an integral part of me. But is he with me? Does he visit in dreams? Frankly, no. When it was time to be gone, Bernie was gone. No halfway measures for him.
I sometimes think that we get lazy when it comes to the koans of our lives. We get involved in memories, abstractions, speculations, analysis. All these certainly have their place if you wish to investigate certain karmic elements of your life. But we also have to be here and now, breathing in the moment even when it’s filled with anguish. Bringing my attention down to my belly makes breathing in those moments a lot easier.
Bernie had two great awakenings. He may very well have had more, but he only talked of two. The first was when he worked on the koan Muwith Koryu Osaka Roshi. The second came when he worked on the koan What is the source of mu? He had already passed that koan twice with two different teachers. A personal situation came up that troubled him so much that he brought it up with Maezumi Roshi. He told me that that was the only time he ever brought up a personal situation in formal dokusan with his teacher. Roshi didn’t respond directly; instead, he suggested to Tetsugen that he work once again, for the third time, on What is the source of mu? And that’s what Tetsugen did.
One morning, while carpooling to McDonnell-Douglas with other engineers, he had a major breakthrough. This time, he said, he saw all the hungry spirits of the world and made a vow to feed them all.
Did he succeed? Of course not. He tried to fulfill his vows in different realms, in areas of poverty and homelessness, in areas of illness, business, and of course, working with students in the zendo. But he couldn’t feed all the hungry spirits, there was karma, there were always limits.
Still, the man had confidence. He was the most independent man I knew, but when the big stroke rendered him dependent on others, he could let go of independence and plunge into needing the help of others. That was his not-knowing. He was ready to receive everything.
It’s really important to let go as much as possible of our story lines, of the mantras of our lives, the same old same old. Not to dwell in some abstract night but to come by day, as the koan says it.Close that gap, be this incredible life that we’re given, and do what comes up. That is this retreat, and it doesn’t end on December 8, it goes on forever.
“Attention! Master Joshu asked Master Toshi, ‘When a man who dies the Great Death revives, what then?’ Toshi replied, ‘Going by night isn’t permitted. You’d better arrive during the day.’”