A personal blog by a graying (mostly Anglo with light African-American roots) gay leftist leaning liberal progressive fit married college-educated former Baha'i NPR-listening Professor Emeritus now following the Dharma from California to Minas Gerais, Brasil.
Monday, November 30, 2015
Via Tricycle: The Good Fit A student's candid recollection of the intricacies of practice with one of the pioneer teachers of Zen in the West Andrew Cooper
On the final day of my first sesshin—a seven-day
Zen meditation retreat—at the conclusion of a six-week training period, I
asked the presiding teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, if he would accept
me as a student. Formal interactions have never come naturally to me,
but I felt it important to do this with as much formality as I could
muster. I went into my last dokusan—a private, highly
ritualized interview with a Zen teacher—with that mix of excitement and
anxiety that comes with sensing one might be about to turn a new page in
I entered the dokusan room, gently closed the door behind me, did my bows, sat on my knees Japanese-style, in seiza, and scooted up as close as possible to sit face-to-face with Maezumi Roshi. I got right to the point:
“Roshi,” I said, “I feel a deep connection to you and your
teaching and I would like to continue to study under your guidance.
Please accept me as your student.” Or words very much like those. It was
a long time ago—1977, to be exact.
While my memory of my words is imprecise, my recollection
of Roshi’s response is more accurate. He was silent for some seconds
(uncomfortable ones for me), staring ahead impassively with the stern
frown that is something of a characteristic among Japanese Zen masters. I
assumed he was rolling the matter around in his mind, but it soon
became apparent that he was rolling around something different.
“Are you Jewish?”
I wondered if maybe I hadn’t heard him correctly, but
really I knew I had. In that case, however, what the hell was going on?
My mind raced. Was this some kind of Zen question, like if I say yes I
get slapped and if I say no I get hit with a stick? Do I walk out of the
room, as in the old koan, with sandals on my head? Maybe, but no. It
didn’t seem to have been asked in that kind of spirit.
Was he a bigot? That didn’t fit either. To accompany him
for the training period, which took place in Boulder, Colorado, Roshi
had brought along three senior students from his home base at the Zen
Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), and two of them were Jewish. Plus, I had
been his attendant for the previous six weeks and I’d seen no indication
of any such sentiments. So bigotry toward Jews wasn’t behind it.
Maybe he had somehow, with some preternatural insight,
tuned into my deep inner conflicts about my Jewish identity, and he was
going to shine a light on them. That kind of guru story was extremely
popular back then, but as appealing as the thought was, it seemed
entirely to miss the mark. Besides, Maezumi Roshi just didn’t seem to be
that kind of teacher.
Or maybe I was a character in a Jewish joke set in my own
life. This was a familiar feeling that made it seem like a plausible, if
nonsensical, conclusion. It didn’t actually explain anything at all but
only reflected my own skewed sense of myself. On the other hand, it at
least offered the possibility of a good punch line.
But really I hadn’t a clue about why Roshi asked the question, so I just answered in the affirmative: “Uh-huh.”
Roshi smiled and kind of shook his head good-naturedly.
“So many of my students are Jewish,” he said. I had no ready response
for this, but that was fine, since he didn’t seem to want one. He went
on, “Genpo is Jewish, and so is Ryotetsu.” Genpo was one of two priests
who had come to Boulder with Roshi, and from our conversations I knew he
was Jewish. Ryotetsu was ZCLA’s tenzo, or head cook—a very important
position in a Zen practice community—and had come to fill that same role
during the Boulder training period. I had a pretty good sense that he
too was a fellow tribesman. So while I still didn’t get the point, I
gave a slight nod to show I understood at least something.
Roshi then added, “Maggie’s not Jewish, but that’s OK.”
Now I was lost again. I was, of course, glad to hear it
was OK that Maggie wasn’t Jewish, but, you know, who was Maggie and why
was her not being Jewish even an issue? Such questions seemed off the
point, however, as Roshi seemed to be taking this all somewhere:
“Tetsugen and Yuho keep the Jewish holidays.”
Tetsugen I knew by reputation; he was Maezumi Roshi’s top
student. I surmised—correctly, as it turned out—that Yuho and Tetsugen
were married. I can’t remember with much exactness how the conversation
went after that, but the gist of it was Roshi talking, in his accented
and idiosyncratic English, about his Jewish students, kind of like this:
“Kakushin and Myoku are Jewish. He’s a lawyer. I think
they are both from Brooklyn. Their son Ryokaku, see, he’s a monk.
Kakushin and Tetsugen, they are cousins. It’s kind of a nice thing, huh.
Ryoshin, he is engineer. He just moved into the center. Genmyo’s
family, very religious. He can’t tell them what he is doing, but they
are in New York anyway. Yuho is also from a strict family.” And on it
went. The thing about it was, once we got past the cook Ryotetsu, I
didn’t know any of these people. Yes, it was true: I was Jewish and so
were they (except of course for Maggie, but as I’d been informed, that
was OK). If there was a point to all this, I wasn’t getting it.
It was summer and the small room was hot and thick with
incense smoke and beads of sweat were now dripping down my sides and
Roshi continued talking about Jews at the Zen Center. He was into it.
Eventually it occurred to me that what was going on was that he was just
following out the thread of something that had struck his interest. He
was just talking. A few moments later, Roshi seemed to notice this as
well. He stopped abruptly, let out a “Hrummph!,” rubbed his bald pate—a
punctuating gesture I was to see him do upwards of a thousand times over
the years—and said, “Where were we?”
I tried not to laugh, but I did, a little. So did Roshi. A
little less. Then I said, “Well, I had asked if you would accept me as
“Oh, that’s right,” he said, nodding in recollection. “Sure. Sure.”
Then he picked up the small bell used for signaling the
conclusion of dokusan, rang it, and I did my bows and left. And that was
that. It sure wasn’t the sort of penetrating exchange that makes it
into the koan collections. It didn’t even have a good punch line. But
there was something about it that, in its oddball, unintended, peculiar
way, fit perfectly with the imperfect fit that shaped our affinity.
A few months later, I moved to Los Angeles, where I was
fortunate to be given a residential staff position in the growing Zen
Center community’s small publication department. I spent the next seven
years—six at ZCLA and one at a recently formed branch temple in upstate
New York—as a full-time Zen student, rising before dawn for two hours of
meditation and liturgy and ending the day the same way. Work all day,
communal meals, and a day and half off each week. At the end of every
month was sesshin, alternately three or seven days.
It is no secret that Zen practice can be quite demanding,
and it certainly was for me. I was not what you might call a natural.
But I took to it somehow, to the completeness of it, and this was new
for me. I had come to Buddhism by way of the Theravada tradition, and
after several years during which I rode the rails of the Vipassana
retreat circuit, I moved to Boulder to study in the community of the
Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. These were formative
experiences for me, though the good fit that so many others found always
eluded me. But that good fit—I felt that at ZCLA, and it meant a lot.
To live in a manner that draws together one’s energies and joins them
with those of others, and to do this in pursuit of one’s best sense of
purpose—this is surely something to be prized.
Right near the close of morning and evening liturgy, the leader, or ino,
chants, “May we realize the Buddha way together.” There is a sense of
life’s wholeness conveyed by this simple phrase. “Realize” and “Buddha
way” and “together” seem to be each fully implicated in one another, as
though one could kind of reverse the order and say that “together” is,
from a certain perspective, the Buddha way realized. This sensibility
helped carry me when my own strength to meet the rigors of training was
insufficient. I was carried as well by the rhythms of daily life and
practice. All of these gave practice a background, a wider field that
could contain its mental and physical hardships. And, as if by accident,
with time this field found a tendency to peek out, of its own and
recognized only by sidelong glimpses, into the foreground.
I studied closely with Maezumi Roshi for those seven
years. Typically, I, like his other residential students, saw him in
dokusan two or three times a week to present my koan, and during sesshin
that many times a day. No less important were unplanned encounters,
informal interactions, administrative discussions, and the countless
observations and impressions that are the stuff of community life. To
say I studied closely—this is not a comparative claim. I was not a
top-tier student by any means. I am speaking, I suppose, mainly of a
kind of shared understanding, something elusive and hard to get a handle
on. It is like the resonance of a note so low you can’t hear it but you
know it by its effects: water in a glass ripples, a wooden armrest
vibrates, a herd of elephants appears at the front door. This resonance
can’t be pinned down, but its very unpindownableness is of a piece with the world made present in practice, and close study, to some degree or another, helps usher one into it.
A good fit is not the same as a perfect fit, if such a
thing even exists. Rather, a good fit contains good imperfections,
things that don’t fit, problems you can sink your teeth into. One
circles around them, going a bit deeper with each turning. My good fit
with Maezumi Roshi and the Zen Center community was rich with
imperfection, some of it—but not all—for the good. I think that chief
among these creative conflicts was my antipathy toward ritual.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Japanese Zen
knows well that it is a highly ritualized form of practice. Like many
others, I imagine, I was by turns put off, confused, suspicious,
flustered, or just frustrated because of all the ritual. It is not hard
to see how I came by this attitude. With an outlook shaped significantly
by the assumptions of modern secular culture, these traditional forms
appeared to me, self-evidently, as a kind of extraneous baggage carried
over from Asian culture. It did not occur to me until much later that my
own attitude was anything but impartial, that it was in fact the
baggage of my own culture.
My skepticism was also, no doubt, augmented by my
particular background in Buddhism. The Vipassana tradition as I
encountered it is itself an adaptation to modern sensibilities, one that
strips down Buddhism to what it has constructed as a meditative core.
Although Trungpa Rinpoche was in the highly ritualistic Vajrayana
tradition, a virtual signature of his teaching was a deeply cautious and
questioning attitude toward the tendency to render exotic or
romanticize Asian forms. By contrast, Maezumi Roshi, like most other Zen
teachers at the time, taught his tradition with rituals intact and with
little explanation. It was pretty much Chant this, ring that, and when in doubt, bow.
Despite my reservations, I participated in the ritual life
of the community fully, or at least as fully as I was able. I wanted to
train in Zen and, well, this was just what you did. Over time, and
mostly without my noticing it, these forms came to make a kind of sense
to me, and they did so in their own way. If one takes up a musical
instrument or a sport, there is certainly much learning to be gained by
instruction and the conscious pursuit of goals, but there is also much
that is learned less directly, largely through repetition and
absorption. A sense of things—of timing and spacing, of how things work,
of howthings fit together—insinuates itself through the action of the
body and the connected work of imagination. I found that ritual life was
affirmed not through reason—in fact, where reason was concerned I long
continued to be pretty skeptical—but through meaning as it was absorbed
through doing. A whole, irreducible world of meaning, including an
attitude commensurate with receiving that world, is condensed and
transmitted through symbolic action. Ritual appears as the tradition
My appreciation of ritual was still pretty rudimentary when I asked to take jukai,
the ceremony in which one “receives” the 16 bodhisattva precepts and
thereby formally acknowledges the guidance of the three treasures—the
Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Still, I very much wanted to do it.
One aspect of jukai is receiving from one’s preceptor a rakusu,
a garment worn around the neck as an abbreviated version of the
Buddha’s robe. A few days prior to my jukai, Maezumi Roshi offered to do
a calligraphy inside the cover of my rakusu. I of course said yes, and
he handed me a photocopied stack of papers entitled something like “Zen
Phrases,” which I then took back to my room. There were, as I recall,
hundreds of these sayings, most of them quite short—between five and
fifteen words. They were typically used in conjunction with koan study,
as jakugo, or “capping phrases,” with which students might
demonstrate or be tested on their understanding. Having to select one
saying from so many was at first unsettling. Knowing that I am the type
of person who can go into a market and easily spend 20 minutes comparing
different types of salsa and come out having bought nothing, I feared I
might get sucked into a wormhole of indecisiveness. But it wasn’t to
be. As I read them through, one saying just jumped out and grabbed me:
“To wash a clod of earth in the mud.” If you had asked me what I found
so compelling about this particular saying, I would have been
hard-pressed to answer. But meaningful things often begin with such
I brought the saying, along with my rakusu cover, to
Roshi. He smiled and nodded when he read what I had selected. Roshi was
not generally given to dramatic demonstrations of approval, so this
seemed, by normal-people standards, pretty extravagant. But the moment
passed in the time it took to notice it, and with a gruff “OK,” he
signaled me to leave and returned, head bent, to the papers before him.
During my jukai ceremony, Maezumi Roshi took a few minutes, as he
generally did, to speak about the meaning of my dharma name, Shugaku
Taido, character by character and as a whole. He also, though, made an
unusual detour to talk about the saying he had calligraphed in kanji—Chinese
characters—in my rakusu cover. He spoke of “to wash a clod of earth in
the mud” as the practice of the Bodhisattva way. He said a little more
than that, but that is the part I remember. It struck a chord, and it
has stayed with me and has worked on me ever since.
As with any teacher, Maezumi Roshi’s different students
met him and learned from him in various ways. For me, “To wash a clod of
earth in the mud” became a touchstone of Buddhist life. And when I
received it as a teaching, it came not only in the words; it was all
bound up together in the living—in choosing the saying, in showing it to
Roshi, in receiving the calligraphy, in his words about it. There was
something resonant in the shared recognition—nascent in me, mature in
him—that we encounter the Buddha way not by means of our individual
purity but through our mutual support. Which is to say, in our aspect as
bodhisattvas, we muddle ahead together, whole in our virtues and
failings, with no one and nothing left out.
As we at ZCLA were well aware, in matters of purity
Maezumi Roshi did not set a high bar. On days off he drank excessively,
and though married himself, he occasionally had affairs with female
students. For some, his conduct was troubling; for others, not so much. I
myself was pretty permissive about such things. I’d been to Woodstock
when I was 16; at 18 I’d backpacked around Mexico searching for
psychedelic mushrooms and shamans; I’d studied with Trungpa Rinpoche;
and for my first couple of years at ZCLA, I’d done my own share of
drinking. It was true I was in a monogamous relationship, but I knew
that was as much the result of my own ineptitude with women as it was a
moral decision. Looking back, I’d say that many of us were naive about
the destructive effects of alcoholism and the harm done when sex
involves a dramatic imbalance in power relations. I sure was. We most
definitely should have been more attentive to the needs of Roshi’s own
But even so, I was not looking for a teacher whose conduct
was morally pure or exemplary. I found little inspiration in such
notions, and I was suspicious of such claims. Even now, I think it is
not nearly as hard to follow a strict set of rules as it is to not
become rigid or prideful in doing so. I found Maezumi Roshi to be a
deeply inspiring guide and teacher, even an example, but not by any
conventional measure of his conduct. He had a bottomless love for the
tradition of the Buddha way as he had absorbed it through a lifetime of
study— it filled his being—and he was completely devoted to sharing with
others his dynamic and nuanced appreciation of what had been given him.
If you looked at his failings, you’d be partly right, but you’d miss
him completely. It was the generosity that was the thing.
You met Maezumi Roshi most fully, I found, in the formal,
one-on-one setting that was dokusan. Like his revered dharma ancestor
Eihei Dogen, Roshi’s particular genius as a teacher was a matter of
subtle appreciation. He might take a phrase from a koan or a passage
from Dogen—or just one character from one of those—and work it up and
down, backward and forward, and maybe, at some point, you’d feel like
something had cracked open and now glowed. You’d feel as if, alongside
him, you’d touched upon the world the text carried and, alongside him,
had been touched by the line of Zen folk that stood behind him.
Maezumi Roshi was well aware of his failings, at least
some of them, and on one occasion he spoke candidly with me about them.
The Zen Center was starting to make preparations to host a visit by a
large contingent of Burmese monks, including some of the most esteemed
meditation masters in Southeast Asia. Because of my background, I had
become a kind of unofficial middleman for Theravada affairs at the Zen
Center. This particular visit was shaping up to be a highly complicated
undertaking, and I went to speak to Roshi about some of the issues that
concerned me. In particular, there were more than 200 rules of conduct
for Theravada monks, which our future guests would observe strictly, and
which the Zen Center community would be committed to honor. But with
little connection to the monks or their traditions, hosting them would
be new territory for ZCLA; it would be demanding, most likely puzzling,
and possibly a source of resentment. I wanted to explain to Roshi the
lay of the land and get his take on how best to handle things.
I broached the subject of strict adherence to the rules
with a tone that was more than a little apologetic. As I was saying
something about how Theravada monks understand their precepts in a
highly literal way, Roshi cut me off.
“That can be a good thing,” he said, “I admire that.”
This took me completely by surprise. While the rules of
Zen monastic training are indeed strict, these are rules of the training
hall. As for the precepts, in Zen—at least in Japanese Zen—the precepts
are approached less as rules of conduct than as a source of inspiration
and guidance. For Maezumi Roshi to take a stand for a literal
interpretation of the precepts was, to say the least, an unexpected
turn. And he went on, now with a decidedly rueful note in his voice.
“Maybe if I followed the precepts more strictly I wouldn’t have such poor behavior.”
It was an unvarnished statement of deep disappointment in
himself. Roshi was better, and more at home, being strong than not being
strong. I don’t know how much his disappointment weighed on him, but I
imagine he felt very alone with it. He was more ready to give support
than to receive it, and I think we his students preferred that
arrangement as well.
I wanted to say something, to somehow give a word or gesture that would convey something—appreciation,
support, understanding, or just acknowledgment that I had heard him.
But I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do. And then the moment was gone,
and I had failed.
Things resumed their familiar footing. Roshi kind of
shook his head, as though to get rid of the thought, and said, “Anyway,
Taido, I want you to take good care of things.”
A measure of disappointment with oneself is not
necessarily a bad thing, and it might well be a good thing. We live in
the gap between our aspirations and our failure to live up them. One can
try to plow ahead through disappointment, but what then? Achieving
one’s goals—whether some outward sign of success or an inward victory
over one’s shortcomings—may solve one’s disappointment but leave one
saddled with arrogance. More likely, any achievement will not be
sufficient anyway. The pain that inheres in the gap between what we
would like to be and what we are asks less for self-mastery, it seems to
me, than it does the support of others.
In the spring of 1984, the Zen Center of Los Angeles went
through a wrenching upheaval. By that time, I had been gone from L.A.
for a year. I had become disheartened by what I perceived as a growing
rot in the community, especially among its leadership. I moved to a
branch temple in the Catskills, which had been started a year or two
previously by friends from ZCLA. My hope was that distance and a new
setting would allow me to keep my connection to the Maezumi Roshi
sangha. For a while it worked; then it didn’t.
Maezumi Roshi saw community as central to Zen practice,
but he had little interest in the endless messy details that are the
stuff of any community’s life. Because they were experimental, the
practice centers of the time with a significant residential
component—such as ZCLA, San Francisco Zen Center, Trungpa Rinpoche’s
Vermont center Karme Chöling, and so forth—were always in the midst of
finding their way. They were not quite monasteries, not quite communes,
not quite temples, not quite retreat centers, but mixes of all those
influences and others. Residents were not quite monastics in any
traditional sense, but neither were they traditional layfolk. It was
exciting, creative, confusing, and riven with conflict, all mixed
together and all needing a lot of care and attention to sort out.
A Buddhist temple in Japan, a Franciscan monastery in
Italy, a Methodist church in the United States—each of these subsists in
a well-established niche in its society. But for the residential
Buddhist meditation communities of the time, no such niche existed. This
left them open and innovative, but also shaky and without much
foundation. Materially and organizationally, this was obvious; less
obvious, but no less significant, was that the belief structures on
which these communities rested were delicate and brittle. With just a
generation or two of experience behind them, they had had little time to
develop the cumulative wisdom of a mature collective enterprise.
were organizations whose collective outlook was shaped, to an inordinate
degree, by their founders and just a handful of others.
Maezumi Roshi seemed to prefer to stay with what he knew,
and what he knew were the traditional forms of Zen Buddhism and what
these forms carried. His focus was the meditation hall, the dokusan
room, the lecture platform. He was neither a skilled nor a willing
administrator, and he left the hands-on running of the center, for the
most part, to his students, especially his senior students. He believed
in the kind of hierarchical structure that was familiar to him from his
upbringing, and he valued the putting aside of individual disagreement
to maintain group harmony, even when that was no more than appearance.
He believed in following the chain of command.
Above all other things, Maezumi Roshi was principally
concerned with thoroughly training dharma successors. It is not hard to
see why he would see things this way. Dharma transmission is at the core
of Zen Buddhism; it is one of its defining characteristics.
for one focused on transmitting Zen across cultures, the need for
well-trained teachers to carry on the work is self-evident. But it was a
focus that was not up to the complexity of the situation.
Like all Buddhist traditions, Zen’s transmission narrative
freely blends legend, historical fact, and fiction to provide an
account that attests to the authority and reliability of its teachings.
Understood symbolically, as a myth, it opens up the imagination to
apprehensions of what is most valued and meaningful in the tradition.
But transmission is also a social institution, and as such, it is
subject to the full range of human motivations, virtues, and
shortcomings. To elevate the symbolic aspect to literal status and to
obscure the social dimension is a mystification, with great potential
for harm. At ZCLA, we had little cumulative institutional wisdom to draw
on for negotiating the minefield where spiritual meaning met practical
At times Roshi’s way of doing things worked; at others, it
didn’t. As the community grew, Roshi grew isolated at the top of the
hierarchy he had done so much to create. Seniority in spiritual training
added to the stratification of the organizational hierarchy.
became conflated with it. Roshi lost touch with the community. Outside
the context of formal training—and sometimes even within it—he became
remote, opaque. Critical discussion became anathema.
When the Zen Center imploded, I think it was less the
result of news of an affair he was having or his drinking—as it is
generally said to have been—than it was a blow to so many people’s faith
in the integrity of what we were all doing. Roshi’s poor behavior was
not new, but the atmosphere of secrecy and manipulation and bullying and
deceit—that had grown and festered like a boil ready to burst.
It was not just that Roshi had an affair; it was a matter
of the particulars: a hidden affair with a married woman who was a
dharma successor and clearly his most favored student at the center.
Soon after, it also came out that the most authoritative figure at the
center after Roshi, a married man who was also the center’s head
administrator, had had a long string of secret affairs of his own. In
the eyes of some—and I was certainly one—Roshi had come to rely almost
entirely on these two dharma heirs and priests, who mediated between him
and the rest of the community and thereby augmented the proper
influence they wielded. Dharma succession was one of the main orienting
ideas on which ZCLA rested. It is no easy thing to square one’s
conviction in following one’s best sense of purpose with the recognition
that the project through which one is doing that has grown rotten. In
Yeats’s famous words, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
We had allowed ourselves to betray what was best in ourselves, and that is hard to live with.
I visited ZCLA for a few days just over a year after the
upheaval began. The dust had settled, but there was a desolate feeling
in the air. The center was drained of its once abundant vitality.
Mornings and evenings, the zendo was nearly empty. Many, both residents
and non-residents, had quit the community; many others were sorting
things out as they prepared for the next step. There was a lot of pain.
Things had not gone so well for me either. A few months
after leaving the Catskill center, exhausted and dispirited, I spiraled
down into severe depression, the kind William Styron describes as “a
veritable howling tempest in the brain.” I made my way to the Bay Area,
where I had friends, to ride out the storm and try to regain my
bearings. I settled near the San Francisco Zen Center, going to the
zendo in the mornings and filling shelves in their grocery store during
the day. Mainly, though, I was finding a way to grow through crisis.
I was doing a good deal better but was still shaky when I
went to see Maezumi Roshi. I could see he was glad to see me. I think he
was surprised. He was seeing the backs of so many, and having a student
return to pay greetings and respects might have been something of an
oddity. The fact that the student was me might have made it more
unexpected. In the year prior to my leaving for New York, things between
us had often been strained, with me questioning his judgment and him
questioning my loyalty. But I never felt there was a fundamental breach
in our relationship. He was always my teacher, even when we didn’t get
Roshi’s demeanor was kind of upbeat, but there was
something off about it. He seemed ill at ease. I’d never seen him like
He spoke openly about his regrets, about so many things he
had done wrong, about the damage he’d caused, about how he was trying to
do better. He seemed to really mean it, or more accurately, he seemed
to really want to mean it. I think, more than anything, he was saying
and doing what he thought he needed to in order to restore the community
and the practice.
As we spoke, Roshi brought up one of his senior students
who had denounced him bitterly. He said he understood her feelings and
bore no grudges. Suddenly, though, anger broke through, and while his
words said one thing, his emotions said another:
“If she wants to step on my head to lift herself, I’m
glad. I don’t need anything back from her. Let her take from me and go
ahead. That is how it should be.”
It was just a brief storm, a little lightning, a little
thunder, and it was over. But it cleared the sky. He seemed more himself
There was something Lear-like in his anger. More than
that, there was something Lear-like about all that had gone so wrong. A
kind of vanity had got the better of Roshi—vanity of talent, vanity of
authority. He didn’t recognize the diffidence mixed in with the respect
he enjoyed or the ambition behind the flattery he rewarded, and he lost
something of what was best in himself. But it was not him alone. We his
students lost something of ourselves as well, becoming calculating in
our words and affections, more Goneril and Regan than Cordelia.
But what soul is without its bit of Lear? Vain and
foolish, out on the heath, howling at the storm, needing others to
restore us to ourselves.
We are the howl. We are the storm.
Sometimes we fail each other so thoroughly that the only
way we can find to support each other is by hurting each other. Still,
without the help of others, we’re surely lost. Over the years since, it
seems, from my place of remove, that the Maezumi sangha, now far-flung,
has done much to restore itself. And all of us—we followers of the
Buddha way—have had no shortage of error and foolishness to learn from
as we’ve muddled ahead together.
We are the clod of earth. We are the mud.
Andrew Cooper is Tricycle’s features editor.
Image 1: Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1994. Photograph by Peter Cunnigham, c/o Stephanie Young Merzel. Image 2: The author's rakusu cover with calligraphy by Maezumi Roshi that reads "To wash a clod of earth in the mud."