memory – Japan

Today (December 27th) is the Cold or Elder Full Moon, and the 13th Full moon of 2023. Usually there are only 12 (as there will be in 2024) but we had a Blue Moon this year. It’s a good time for introspection before we begin the new year.

With this final regular blog entry, I’d like to share the memory of my visit with Sensei in Japan in the Summer of 1994. Please feel free to post your own Sensei stories and photos here. I’ll be focusing on self-publishing his writing next.

Sensei went home to Japan as he did now and had invited me to join him. I agreed and was able to scrape up the expense by flying as an air-courier. I arrived by train at his small hometown outside the city of Sakata in the state of Yamagata directly north of Tokyo on the Western coast, called Sagoshi.

The area grows a lot of rice and was flat and green at the time, perfect for riding a bike to the grocery store.

Sensei was never in a hurry, and we mindfully kept pace together as I walked beside him for the maybe 1hr trip each way.

The sun came out on our return journey, and he casually pulled out a small towel from his bag and tied it over his head in a makeshift sunscreen.

We stayed in a house his family owned but did not use: “abandoned” as he said. It was a mostly traditional tatami mat and rice-paper screen house with some glass windows and a few appliances: a propane(?) gas cooking oven/stove and a bathtub with a similar fire underneath to heat the water directly before bathing. He had me do the cooking as was appropriate for a teacher’s student, and somehow I managed (not being a very good cook).

I was surprised to learn that while there was a washing machine for clothes, there was no drier, and that this was typical for Japan. A cultural preference it seems.

While we were there, his brother visited us for tea, and on another occasion we visited his brother’s home (the family home) across town, meeting his wife and son there.

Mostly we meditated. Here you see mosquito repellent incense. I had asked if I could take his picture meditating and he simply said, “yes. but don’t tell me; just take the picture.” Months later when I prepared the 2nd edition of WAKEFUL for publication we selected this photo and he captioned it as “(…in the Second Jhana…)”. Over meals and such, he helped me go through the Heart Sutra, translating each word and meaning. Months later I wrote a “Physics parallel” for fun called the Heart Symmetry. Here’s a PDF of both.

One day, his nephew, Ko-san drove us to a nearby mountain temple called Haguro-san, nestled at the top of a long stone staircase through a cedar forest. No one else was there it seemed.

The call of Cookoo birds echoed through the forest, and soon a fog enshrouded our walk.

We arrived at the top where Buddhist and Shinto buildings drew a few tourists under the towering trees. Here you see Ko-san and Sensei (above two photos) and me and Sensei (below two photos).

Sensei led us back down the mountain, with me amazed at how the Cookoo bird call is so classically “coo coo”.

His sister offered us a night at her hot springs resort in another nearby city as my last night there. Our room had an ocean view and traditional accommodations.

Finally, Sensei saw me off at the train station, waving as is polite, but not lingering as would be sentimental.

While my time meditating with Sensei and discovering jhana over the 2 years previous had set my relationship with him as my teacher, my time visiting him in Japan that Summer was the start of our close friendship for the next 28 years.

I’m so grateful and wish everyone to be as lucky as I. And I hope he comes this way again after his time meditating in the bardo.

memory – Oregon

This weekend is the Mourning Moon, the last full moon before the Winter Solstice, a good time to let go as the new year approaches. Earlier this month was Sensei’s 1-year memorial date, and I’m so grateful for his wise and gentle exit. Many deaths are a surprise and many people are unprepared for the loss, leaving them with grief for years to come. Sensei’s inner strength, resolve, and contentment carried his message to us.

I’m reminded of his words while I was saying a heartfelt goodbye to Carole at the airport in Boise, leaving him to stay with her in Oregon as I returned to work at UCI: “Don’t be sentimental”. The words echo in my mind every time I feel some personal drama beginning to play out in my thoughts, and I tell myself: “Right. That way leads to a spiral of sadness. It is what it is, and there’s no need to exaggerate it.” In 2005, Sensei accepted the offer to stay in a spare cabin on Carole’s remote ranch in eastern Oregon, and after getting him settled I flew back to California to “house sit” his place at the temple, while I taught a physics class at UCI.

Well, the story of his time in Oregon continued, just as my work for UCI continued to take me back and forth from California to a lab a few hours away in Washington. I changed my mind about moving there, but he stayed on, wintering over as Carole’s guest and was interviewed for the local paper (article1 and article2). After some time, Rose “adopted” him and he relocated a bit to the West to her small ranch in the John Day area. We’d met Rose at a local hot springs and she was immediately taken by Sensei’s insight and practice. Some time later, she brought him back to the temple in LA via San Francisco where he met with Blanche Hartman of the San Francisco Zen Center and gave a lecture at One Taste where Rose had settled for a time. It was very easy for him to wander in a lifestyle of “rent-a-monk” as he once joked, for the year that he was away. Everything was just as it is. Simple.

memory – San Jacinto

We had a partial lunar eclipse on the October 28th full Hunter’s Moon, celebrated these days as Halloween. I associate this time of year with my first experience of jhana in meditation at a group retreat at Yokoji temple, where I had taken precepts in the Soto Zen tradition. I had been practicing a great deal with Shibuya Sensei for about a year and was determined to get it, whatever it was. After that particular period of zazen, we did Oryoki (ritual meal on the cushion) and pumpkin soup was served in honor of Halloween. So naturally, years later, I thought it would be great to bring Sensei to Yokoji. So on a Summer weekend around 2001, I arranged with Tenshin Sensei (who’s been abbot there since Maezumi Roshi passed away) for us to stay over for a couple days’ private meditation retreat. We meditated and slept in the room under the Summer Zendo, which I had helped excavate some 5 years previous during retreat Samu. Sensei often quoted Buddha, saying the best place to meditate is where you sleep (meaning home). And we took that literally. Early in the morning I’d open my eyes to see Sensei preparing for zazen, and roll myself up onto my cushion at the foot of my bedroll. An hour later I’d stumble into the bathroom to wash up before another hour. It was hard. It was casual. It was really wonderful practice. After we completed our retreat, and were driving down the dirt road to the highway, Sensei pointed out the ridge line calling it the 7 sisters peaks, and we pull over to go for a short walk. Hours later we return to the car invigorated by our hike up to Apache Peak and back, thirsty as we hadn’t prepared, thoroughly satisfied by our efforts, breathing on and off the cushion. Sensei wasn’t interested in Buddhist academic study, and often said that meditation itself teaches you. His catch phrases of “Just Meditate” and “Breathe Nicely” years later became “Be Happy and Strong”, which of course comes from breathing meditation.

memory – Whitney Portal to Death Valley

September 29th is the Harvest Full Moon. Sensei acknowledged that we have to indirectly kill in order to eat, whether its plants or animals. Our life depends on others, and it’s sad. He then said, “at least, we should not be greedy”.

In the Summer of 1998 after our moon-gazing trip, Sensei had the idea to go see the tallest mountain in the continental US. So one weekend I drove him up to Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierras. I’d heard of the place, but it was quite an adventure for me. After the 3 miles of switchbacks rising 2,000ft to elevation 8,400ft we had the most amazing view looking up at the 14,500ft peak. The desert was far below and we were surrounded by lush trees, and a chilling stream over granite boulders; an abundance of life and fresh air was invigorating!

As we considered our return route, the detour through Death Valley looked interesting and our adventure continued “free and spontaneous” as he said. We stopped at the store and remarked how the common ravens strolled one foot after the other in the extreme heat instead of hopping like they usually do, probably conserving energy. I’m sure Sensei said something like, “They are smart”. We made it to the lowest point in North America, called Badwater Basin (elevation = 282ft below sea level), and this photo shows the mounds of salt from the ancient seabed. We both thought it was magnificent to have experienced the high and the low in the same day, the bleak lifelessness and the vibrant life.

memory – Moon Gazing

August 31st was a Blue Moon because it’s the 2nd full moon in the same month. Sensei appreciated the poetry of the Full Moon symbolizing enlightenment as it does in Buddhism. Sometimes when we traveled, we’d meditate outside at night “moon-gazing”. Once in 1998, I drove him and two other students (Chintana and Judy) to some undeveloped land they owned in the wilderness of Sequoia National Forest (between Mojave and Lake Isabella). It was a 4 hour drive from the temple, half on many miles of challenging dirt roads past Jawbone Canyon, so I rented a nice 4WD. I was enjoying driving 4WD too much and he simply said, “the passengers’ comfort is the driver’s responsibility” and I’ve been a slower, safer driver ever since (thank you, Sensei). We camped in tents where we found a level spot and meditated outside for maybe an hour; beautiful moonlight filtering through the branches to the forest floor. The next day we came across this beautiful shady pool.

At the end of his autobiographical epic, When It Stops Sinking, he wrote the following where the main character (himself) was perfectly content under the full moon in the wilderness like he was for years in Hokkaido.

(end of last chapter)
Now the moon reached the zenith of the sky
Illumining by itself, dominating the space
Without any hindrances or comparison
It was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant

There was no more shadow of the figures
The entire space was bright with golden blue
As immaculate as joyous children
As serene as blooming evening primroses

The end

(end of epilogue)
The Bhikkhu sat on the top of the hill
As long as he wanted to remain there
He came back to the lone house
He knew that it was the time to go back to his teacher

The Bhikkhu dropped in his home
After five years’ non-communication
He met his parents and Diamond and his wife
He treated his parents and Diamond

Mr. Adamant Grand Augustus was surprised;
The Bhikkhu’s entire body was illumining
He was perfectly peaceful and contented;
His treatment was better than any professional therapists’ were

The Bhikkhu went back
To the home monastery
After five years
He stood at the entrance as a newcomer

The Master, Bodhisattva Enzui Jikai
Just smiled broadly as usual without any utterance
The Bhikkhu was happy to come back home
The only home in this samsara

There were innumerable full moons in the world

memory – Catalina

August 1st was the Full Sturgeon Moon, reminding me of the varieties of fish at Catalina Island (Garibaldi, Calico Bass, etc) and my trip there with Sensei and Dhammika in about 1996. Dhammika and I were two of Sensei’s students from UCLA and the three of us set off one weekend “in search of aranya” or a good wilderness to meditate in, as Sensei would say. After the couple-hour boat ride over, we walked around the town of Avalon and stayed over in an old and simple one-room hotel. Sensei wanted to know all the details of the island’s history and namesake, Saint Catherine. The next morning we decided to hike around the south/east rim trail past East Peak, and set off for a half-day hike. Here are some pictures I found online as I didn’t take any that day myself. Hiking along with Sensei was great for conversation and invariably led to discussions of deep meditation, life and enlightenment as well as history and Buddhist stories. Then we’d notice a cactus growing twisted around a rock and study it for a while before continuing the hike. Later, we waited on the pier for the return boat and sat down to meditate with the small waves lapping at our backs.

memory – Joshua Tree

July 3rd was the Thunder Full Moon which reminds me how we live so protected from the elements. Having lived in Bodhgaya India and the wilderness of Hokkaido for years, Sensei was a man with few if any needs. I think he enjoyed the overnight excursions we made on occasion over the years, though he’d never admit it. Instead he’d say we were on a search for a good meditation place in the wilderness (aranya). I think it was sort of an excuse because he’d often quote Buddha saying the best place to meditate is where you sleep (i.e. your home), and that there’s no need to go here or there in search of ideal conditions.

But one such excursion was pivotal in my own life. The two of us went camping in Joshua Tree National Park in the middle of Summer in 2002. The landscape there is really interesting, and we got to experience it first hand on our way home via a 4WD-only road called “Geology Tour Road” which we followed through Berdoo Canyon all the way back to Palm Springs. There were three times when I had to drive over large boulders and get out to check the car and the rock, rock and car, then move forward a foot and repeat a few times. Sensei probably thought I was crazy and I was a little, having had no experience with this sort of thing and being so isolated there. But we made it out with just a couple scratches. We had camped the night before at Jumbo Rocks, where Sensei slept in the back of my Ford Explorer and I tucked myself into a sleeping bag/bivy sack combination on the ground. It had been an exhausting and transformative day for me, so I fell deeply asleep. Hours later in the dead of night, I was startled awake by the sounds of a dozen coyotes yipping and running all around within a couple feet of me. After a few minutes of sheer panic, I discovered they were chasing a rabbit and not attacking me. The next morning over a light breakfast, when I recounted the story, he just laughed kindly before we headed out Geology Tour road. We had arrived the day before in the mid-day sun, set up meditation cushions in the shade of one of the Jumbo Rocks and sat for one or two hour-long periods. I couldn’t do it. I was restless and couldn’t sit still any more. Something was eating at me and I was determined to face it. Sensei told me, ‘If you can’t sit then walk. Walk until you sit.’ So I put on my hat and set off in a random direction across the open desert with no plan. I love hiking in the heat and was at home despite my directionless mind. Several hours later, in some small valley somewhere it hit me; somehow what I was struggling with became clear. I just said to myself “huh” and sat down where I was standing for a half-hour meditation. While there was no action or decision to follow the insight, I had released something and life and meditation became easier. I wandered back to dine with Sensei who was happily meditating in the evening shade as he had been some 4 hours previous.

How did he know? So grateful for his insightful guidance. I’d been struggling with meditation the previous 7 years, and within about 6 months of this epiphany, my practice was more serene than it had ever been. I’ve been so lucky. Thank you, Sensei!!

memory – Jikoji

June 3 was the Strawberry Full Moon and I found myself making a matcha latte. Sensei was particular about tea in the afternoons, but enjoyed a simple coffee in the morning. He’d scoop some instant Nescafe powder into a cup, pour in the boiled water, stir, then stir in plain Coffee Mate instant creamer powder. But when it came to tea and matcha, he knew the details. The big one he explained one day was the difference between Tea Powder and Powdered Tea. When you buy the green matcha you can get the cheap Tea powder which is collected from the debris of the tea processing or you can get the finer quality powdered tea where the tea leaves themselves are powdered intentionally. He also insisted that water heated almost to the boiling point tasted different than water boiled then cooled slightly as it should be.

When I think of Sensei and tea I remember taking him to visit Gerow at Jikoji in the Bay Area for a few days in late January 2004. We meditated all the time, walked around the hills, and a few other persons joined the three of us for some of the time. Then one day Sensei did a simple tea ceremony for us (with matcha) on the doorstep grassy area like a picnic. We headed into SF city for the day, and found a delightful Chinese tea house where you bring your bird in and hang the cage at your table while you order from maybe a hundred different teas. We walked around a bit and noticed the Mandarin Oranges given for luck in the Chinese New Year (a few days previous). Sensei explained he was a (Water) Monkey in Chinese Astrology and this year was the year of the (Wood) Monkey — auspiciously his year.

Later we met up with a friend who was a serious tea ceremony practitioner. I forget his name but I’m so grateful as this was my first and only true tea ceremony experience with the custom tea room and everything. Later we had Indian food and Sensei pointed out the difference between real Indian Chai (milk tea) and the American knock-off (tea with milk). A year later I made my way to India and understood what he meant. The milk is boiled and the chai seasoning is steeped in it; there’s no water involved. Well, after all that caffeine I found myself talking and unable to stop myself even after Sensei and Gerow pointed it out to me. It was hilarious, but I really don’t care to overdose on caffeine again. At the end of the trip we stayed in a Japanese style hotel downtown and were a little let down by the western bathtub in place of Japanese ofuro. I think he really enjoyed being in a Japanese place, and I really valued spending the few days at his side. With all the meditating and serious philosophical discussions, I was ready to sleep deeply in my futon on the floor beside his (caffeine really never keeps me awake). lights out. “oyasumi nasai” (good night). a minute silence. then Sensei starts chatting about the most common things (like the people we met, stores we visited, etc), taking me totally by surprise. A good time, indelibly indexed in my memory under Sensei and Tea.

memory – Vesak, Lake Shrine

Today is the Vesak Full moon when Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and pari-nirvana will be celebrated by hundreds of millions and recognized in today’s press release from the United Nations. I remember many times I was visiting Sensei, talking and practicing meditation, and on the Vesak Sunday well over a hundred lay persons in white and perhaps a couple dozen monks in various shades of saffron, brown, and red robes would gather for lay ordinations, lectures, and dana (ritual offering of lunch from lay persons to monastics). It’s been one of the largest celebrations at Dharma Vijaya temple. Although it took him from his meditation practice, he was grateful and very happy to serve the temple and community at these events as part of his monastic obligations.

Another memory, recently shared by Pawin, is captured in these photos of a field trip with Sensei to the Lake Shrine Self-Realization Fellowship in LA in September, 2011. It was always such an interesting occasion, an honor, and a pleasure to take Sensei to lunch or someplace near or far. Generally he would accept an invitation from someone he knew, and was particularly fond of investigating places that might be good for meditation such as Lake Shrine.

Sensei in the Bardo

We scattered Sensei’s ashes among the wild poppies of Antelope Valley on April 8th. Over the years, many of us brought him to view the poppies (about 4 times myself) so we felt it was a good place for him. While Buddhists believe a variety of things occur after death, one is that we go into an intermediate state of consciousness called the bardo, until our next rebirth. I believe that Sensei is in a realm with long periods of silent oneness, and I wonder if he has enough attachment to return or if he attained Anagami. April 8th was the perfect timing, as that is Hanamatsuri, the Japanese flower festival celebrating Buddha’s birth. This month (April 6th) we also had the Pink Moon, named for the N. American wildflower – Flox, and with all the rains we’ve had, the wildflowers are everywhere now. Then the next day was Western Christian Easter, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus and provides hope for spiritual salvation.

Sensei told me of a Japanese death poem of a defeated man forced to his death that went something like: “Lightning cuts the Spring breeze”, indicating that he cannot die because he is a Spring breeze. We often referred to merging into Nature with that metaphor, so in one of my last conversations with him, I told him he would be a Spring breeze. I put together some of his writing for the 7 of us at this occasion which you can read here. May we continue to live Sensei’s message to meditate, just breathe nicely, and be happy and strong. Many bows.