Friday, April 23, 2010

Issan's Jesus koan

This is a moment when I realized what I always knew—even my own experience in meditation doesn’t belong to me!

The line from the dedication in the Soto Zen service at a temple founder’s altar, “May the Teaching of this school go on forever,” sounds like a cliché. Are there really answers to what seem to me obvious questions, “What is the Teaching of this school?” and “How or why should they go on forever?” Is the founder’s teaching treated like an assumption and not really a question? I knew Issan as a friend, a man dying of AIDS, a really funny prankster, and a Teacher. I always try to be on the lookout for any expression of his teaching that feels genuine, not made up.

Last week I ran into Bruce Boone, an old student of Issan Dorsey, outside the Café Flore, only a short walk from the Hartford Street Zen Center. After the usual “bring me up to date” conversation which, sadly, included news of his longtime partner’s recent death, we began to talk about Issan’s teaching.

I turned the conversation to gathering Issan’s old students together and beginning to record our memories of  how our friend really did teach us. Bruce told a story about walking into a Catholic church with Issan. Seeing the image of Jesus crucified. Issan said to Bruce, in almost an offhanded way, “Oh, that’s me.” Bruce understood that Issan's remark was entirely serious. He called it “Issan’s koan.”

His words kicked something loose in me—cross, koan? It's been almost 20 years since Issan died, and Bruce still held a story Issan told him, and for which he had no ready answers or explanations, in a loving way. Then he said, “Even those brief moments while I sat facing the wall, when everything seemed clear as a bell, those few deep experiences have only begin to open up what he might have meant.”

Then I got it: Bruce has been sitting on my right and meditating for me, and he had handed over his zazen without a second thought. It was mine. How generous. Generosity is probably a necessary pre-condition for sharing my meditation with the person on my left, but I don't want my thinking too much get in the way. It just happens. It is the path that the ancestors use to transmit their experience to us. It's a slippery slope, so what?

A hymn in praise of meditation contains the verse: “From dark path to dark path.” Why not sing “From bright path to bright path?” I have had moments when I saw very clearly that meditation experience is not a solipsistic self-generated enlightenment. I would certainly be more than willing to give myself lots of bonus points for all the good effort that I have been making over many years in practice, but what if it ain’t necessarily so? What if the work has already been done or is always being done? Bruce has been working on Issan’s koan for more than 20 years, and all I did was to stand next to him on the street for a few minutes. The Teaching of Issan's school has lived on for at least 20 years. Wrapping my mind around “forever” seems just a step away.

And this might a good enough reason for starting to write down a new set of experiences working with the koans.

My friend Ken MacDonald added more lyricism to the Soto dedication at the closing of the founder's service:

"These teachings go on forever;
on and on they flow,
without beginning or end".

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.