Good morning, everyone. At this time of year we usually do an enlightenment retreat for several days. I was told by my teacher that during a Rohatsu retreat we copy Shakyamuni Buddha as much as possible, which means no talks, no face-to-face or liturgy, just zazen. But here I am, talking anyway. Tuesday is the 8th, and it’s customary to sit the entire night of the 7th. I never did that, because I’m such a sleepy-head, but I recently talked to another teacher who did this often and told me he’d done some thirty Rohatsu retreats over a lifetime.
This year we’re doing just one day, with a talk on the 8th by Sensei. But even this one day on Zoom is a great privilege. It often implies that you don’t have small children around or that you have a supportive partner who takes care of them if you do, that you have some leisure time, and that you have a big enough house that you can close off a room for an entire day. Which in turn means that you’re probably older and a little prosperous, not squeezed in with lots of folks in a small and noisy apartment.
There are two somewhat countervailing energies here: There’s a wish for practice to be realized smack in the middle of our lives, present and conscious every moment. But there’s also the need, every once in a while, to step away from that hustle and bustle and re-member the essence of the practice, which isn’t just seated zazen but also reconnecting every aspect of life, every aspect of me, bringing it together into 30 minutes of evenness, of an equanimous attitude that no matter what--Oh, it’s snowing! Oh, the birds are out! Oh, the dishwasher is leaking again! Oh, there wasn’t hot water for a shower this morning!--we sit with everything. The most direct way of maintaining such evenness is through zazen.
In honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment I’ve chosen to talk on a koan from the Denkoroku, The Record of Transmitting the Light, koans related to transmission:
“The third patriarch was Sanavasa. He asked Ananda, ‘What kind of thing is the original unborn nature of all things?’ Ananda pointed to a corner of Sanavasa’s robe. Again, he asked, ‘What kind of thing is the original nature of the Buddhas’ awakening?’ Ananda then grasped a corner of Sanavasa’s robe and pulled it. At that time, Sanavasa was greatly awakened. “
Zen Master Keizan relates some of Sanavasa’s circumstances: “The master was a man of Mathura. In India, he was called Sanaka [-vasa], which here [In Japan] means ‘natural clothing.’ Sanavasa was born wearing clothes and, later, the clothes became cool in summer and warm in winter … When he was a merchant long ago [in previous lifetimes] he presented 100 lengths of woolen cloth to 100 Buddhas. Since then, [as a result of his acts,] he wore this natural clothing over many lifetimes.”
What is your natural clothing? Is it just Buddhist clothing? Next spring Myokan, Eika, and Soko will change their lay clothing for priest clothing. Many of us lay people wear rakusus. There are some Buddhists even here in the US who wear their Buddhist clothing wherever they go, not just in zendos or Zen centers. By the same token, there are some who never wear them at all.
Each of us has a sense of what is natural to us. For me in New England during winter, it’s jeans and a sweater. A friend in California always wears a jalabiya. When I go to Jerusalem I find myself too casually dressed for that city and when people look at me askance, I have to explain that this is my natural clothing.
Sanavasa was born with his natural clothing; all of us are. But we forget how to feel comfortable in our individual skin. We get pushed and pulled, told what’s fashionable and what’s not, we try on lots of things, read magazines, see what others wear, look at shop windows and buy things, some of which we keep and some of which we don’t. We lose the sense of our natural clothing.
A long time ago I got it into my head that I should always wear Ferragamo shoes. I don’t remember how or why, only that if I wanted to be well-dressed I should always wear Italian shoes and they should be Ferragamos. Of course, since I didn’t make a lot of money I had to look out for Ferragamo shoes on sale, so that became a project by itself.
Why did I need to do that? Who was I trying to impress? Why did I need to add things to what I already had?
He asks his teacher: “What kind of thing is the original unborn nature of all things?” Like our natural clothing, we are born with that nature, too; we are that nature. So Ananda pointed to Sanavasa’s robe, which is of the same color as mountains and rivers, the color of water and air, the color of everything.
Sanavasa’s next question was: “What kind of thing is the original nature of the Buddhas’ awakening?” If we all have our natural clothing, who needs a robe? In fact, why do we need Buddhas? Why do we need to awaken? We say that something is here that everyone already has or is, so why start a new religion? Why start an order or a lineage, with texts and koans and liturgy and rules? Why bother sewing a robe?
“Ananda then grasped a corner of Sanavasa’s robe and pulled it.” He tugged it. We are being tugged right now, that’s why we’re here: Come on! Come on!
The last koan in the Book of Equanimity reads: “Attention! A monk asked Kaku Osho of Roya, ‘If the original state is clean and pure, then why suddenly do rivers, mountains, and the great earth arise?’”
We’re being tugged, we feel the beckoning. There are many who feel no such thing, or feel beckoned to other things. They don’t put aside a day or days for sitting. They don’t make vows. They’re fine; they’re in their natural clothing. They may or may not feel comfortable in their skin, that’s an entirely different question.
Some of us are pulled to sit, to find our original home, the unborn nature of all things, the person of no rank. We have our karma. In some cases it may be past generational suffering that pulls at us, or else just a stubborn streak. Events work on us, as if someone pulls on our clothes and says: Come on. And we come. We want to fully realize and embody what is already here.
The circumstances are different from Sanavasa’s and Ananda’s, the pull may be different, but in a basic sense we are no different from them. “Do not get blocked by feelings about past and present, and do not get attached to sounds and forms. Do not spend your days and nights in vain.”
Different karmas cause this tugging, but what we’re realizing is no different from what Indian sages living long ago realized and embodied. In the middle of a time that seems unrecognizable from the time of the Buddha, in the time of covid, in the time of havoc and loss, we do what they did and ask the same questions: What is the nature of this? And since it’s this, what is the nature of this awakening?