ZEN KOANS No Imitation and Beyond Reason


As some of you may be aware, I am in the process of completing the Bright Dawn Lay Ministry program. Bright Dawn Center for Oneness was founded by Rev. Gyomay Kubose and spiritual leadership was passed on to his son, Reverend Koyo Kubose in 1998. The Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship mirrors their teachings of the Way of Oneness. 

When my lay ministry sangha reached our 1 yr mark recently it gave me pause. What have I learned? What have I actually remembered? How has my practice changed since beginning the program? What in the world will I do upon completion of the program?

This introspection seemed to bode very well during a time when we’re attempting to decipher Zen Koans! What is a Koan? – Well, according to Google, it’s a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.  

This week, one of the Koans that really spoke to me was an encounter between a priest and a farmer when the farmer’s wife was entering the next stage of life: death. 

“A Tendai priest was asked to recite sutras for a farmer’s wife who had died. The farmer asked, “Do you really think my wife will benefit from all of this?” The priest replied, “not only your wife, but all sentient beings will benefit.” The farmer protested, “You say all sentient beings but my wife may be weak and others will take advantage and receive more benefit. Please recite the sutra just for her.

The priest explained that it was Buddha’s wish to offer blessings to all living beings. The farmer agreed that that was a fine teaching. “But, “ he said, “I have a neighbor who is rough and has been mean to me. Couldn’t you just exclude him from all those sentient beings?” 

During daily Morning Meditation with members of the SLBF, we end the formal portion with the recitation of the Bodhisattva Vows. 

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them. 

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them. 

Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them 

The Enlightened Way is unattainable. I vow to embody it fully. 

Last Sunday, Christopher Sensei discussed the importance of being present when making offerings despite how many times we have repeated them over and over and over again. “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them”. While lately this has been on my mind A LOT due to the rising numbers of COVID-19 hospitalization cases in Idaho and having discussions with patients who are adamant about not wearing masks or getting the vaccination yet demand ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine when they do get sick, when reading this Koan, I thought of the oldest living spiritual leader of the Bright Dawn lineage, Reverend Koyo who recently experienced the transition of his wife from her earthly body. No, it’s not because I think Reverend Koyo is like the farmer in character and made a selfish plea. It is because I imagine that he was quite the opposite despite the pain of losing his life companion. 

Thinking of Rev. Koyo lead to even further contemplation of who he is today compared to decades ago. His influencers (not to be confused with social media influencers) were obviously his father, Rev. Gyomay Kubose and the Enlightened One, Gautama Buddha. But who or what influenced his father.  His father’s spiritual teacher was Rev. Akegarasu, who was the disciple of Rev. Kiyozawa. Who or what inspired Rev. Kiyozawa. Because I am unable to follow the spiritual path of my blood ancestors or even where my family originated, the next logical step is to learn more about my spiritual ancestors whose principles and philosophies have accompanied me during my own unique journey towards understanding the absolute Truth. 

This process of going down the rabbit whole led all the way back to one of the philosophers respected dearly by Rev. Kiyozawa: Epictetus. Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who was born a slave and later freed. 

Stoicism focuses on personal ethics. It theorizes that the way to happiness is being present in the moment and accepting it as it is:relative truth vs. absolute truth. It also promotes working as One and treating one another justly. Sound familiar? 

Despite his early life conditions, Epictetus’ determination and perseverance inspired Rev. Kiyozawa and, therefore, he studied his Discourses. Now, obviously, Rev. Kiyozawa was inspired by other philosophers like Shinran sans the patriarchy! However, I focused on this particular influencer, Epictetus, to magnify the importance of having an open mind or a broad view of the world and people regardless of societal-imposed caste systems. In other words,  as the sky, be boundless in your pursuit of freedom.

All sentient beings have Buddha nature, even the farmer’s neighbor who may have been “mean to him”. The path to liberating the neighbor or the stubborn patient or the challenging friend or spouse,  is by showing them grace, compassion and offering deep listening. I must remember the Bodhisattva Vows regardless of whether or not I have formally taken the vows through the Ti Sarana ceremony. When on this path towards liberation from suffering, remembering these vows, the Four Noble Truths and the 8 fold path holds me accountable for how I treat myself and others. This is the Natural Way to Oneness, to the cosmos and interbeing. 

I’ll end with this excerpt from The Center Within written by Rev. Gyomay Kubose, one of many of my spiritual ancestors. 

Pg 35-38

“Our lives should not have such artificiality. We should be ourselves, just as we are in our everyday lives. However, this everyday or natural self tends to imply a carefree, undisciplined way. To be natural does not mean to be able to do whatever one wants. Most of us think of “self only in terms of the ego self. In Buddhism, the natural self is not the ego self. The natural self is the self that is never defiled or controlled by the environment. It is the self expressed in a poem by Rev. Akegarasu (Rev. Gyomay’s spiritual leader and disciple of Rev. Kiyozawa): 

My thought is thought, It is never myself. 

I had thought that my thought is myself,

 but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

My experience is experience. It is never myself. 

I had thought that experience is myself, 

but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

My feelings are feelings, they are never myself. 

I had thought that my feelings are myself, 

but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

My will is will. It is never myself. 

I had thought that my will is myself, 

but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

My wishes are wishes, they are never myself. 

I had thought that my wishes are myself, 

but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

My deeds are deeds, they are never myself. 

I had thought that my deeds are myself, 

but now I’m aware I made a terrible mistake. 

But then who am I? Yes, it is true, 

that through thought, experience, feeling, will, wish, and deed

 I manifest myself, but also I manifest myself when I break out of all of these. 

I am not such a limited self, conceptualized self, 

as to exist apart from others! I alone am the most noble: 

I embrace the cosmos. 

What an indescribable, subtle existence I am!—

I cannot in speaking or writing put down who I am! 

I always touch this indescribable self, always follow this indescribable self. 

Truth is here.“

There is something beyond our feelings, experiences, or wishes. This is the life or self that lives the natural Way. Expressed in a concrete person, it is the Buddha. The natural Way is the Buddha’s Way, your Way. Since we are all unique individuals, expression of this Way is different for each of us; yet, the essence is the same. “

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s