Today is the Worm Moon, and I think of how Sensei would often say “All flowers are beautiful.” Their nature is to be beautiful. Why are we so selective and opinionated? Flowers were always a part of his life, symbolically and literally. He told me his family crest was upward-growing Wisteria (here’s all I find online about Shibuya and family crests). Visiting the Carlsbad Ranunculus or better yet, the California Poppy Reserve was a ready excuse for an adventure with Sensei. Here’s a sweet story of morning glories from when he was between high school and college in When It Stops Sinking:
“The early morning in June Dews are sparkling on the green leaves Nobody yet awakens Only the sparrows
Pearl walks around the back garden Strolls on the mossed knoll Passing between the twin zelcova gigantic Descends down the stone steps
Goes under giant chestnut trees Spreading branches over the half of the backyard Plain blossoms smell semen Strewn around the step stones on the neatly swept ground
He strolls through the backyard Goes to the east end of the garden fringed by moat, Water flows slow in the half dark Irises are sleeping sound
Hydrangea is drowsy Fireflies stay in their beds Tiny lights brink blue and violet Dreaming a party with the fairies
Pearl bends over morning glories Entangling in supporting reeds Many buds are swelling Sucking the subtle twilight of the quietude
Crouching over the pots of varied colors He chooses one of the biggest ones; He hangs over and stares at it He focuses on the subtlest changes of the unfolding process
Little by little It unfolds Little by little It blooms It bursts With a voice —
Pearl is amused Smiles at The morning glory Deep purple unfolded
Many buds are bursting
Pahh! Pahh! Pahh!
Pearl laughs He’s happy He feels alive He feels fresh
He is opened He is alive He is joyful He is natural He is spontaneous
The tiny voice of the morning glories has broken Pearl’s depression, frustration, stagnation His heart is buoyant now His body is alert now As the shouts of the morning glories”
Today is the Snow Moon, and I think of Sensei’s decision to go to Bodhgaya around the age of 45 (in the late 1970’s). Why did he go? He said he wanted to understand the Buddha’s original teachings in contrast to the more modern Mahayana of Zen in Japan. Remember Bodhgaya is where Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree until he was enlightened. Many countries have representative Buddhist temples there including Japan, and Sensei taught meditation in that one until around 1980. One day Sensei told me to memorize “Khantī paramaṁ tapo tītikkhā” (patience/perseverance is the greatest virtue). Well it turns out that this full moon day is celebrated in Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc as “Sangha day” or Māgha Pūjā, and commemorates Buddha’s Ovāda-pāṭimokkha teaching which includes that statement. Here, Buddha, 10 months after enlightenment, refers to the plural Buddhas, meaning all Awakened ones:
Patient forbearance is the highest austerity. (Khantī paramaṁ tapo tītikkhā). Unbinding is highest: That’s what the Buddhas say. He is no monk who harms another; nor a contemplative, he who oppresses another.
The non-doing of all evil, the performance of what is skillful, the cleansing of one’s own mind: This is the Buddhas’ teaching.
Not reviling, not injuring, restraint in line with the monastic code, moderation in food, dwelling in seclusion, devotion to the heightened mind: This is the Buddhas’ teaching.
Today is the Full Wolf Moon, and I think of the things Sensei shared about the few years he lived in the wilderness of Hokkaido in his late 30’s. He said that the sounds of nature became sounds of imagined people, like the stream of melting snow near the abandoned hut he stayed in. At one point it sounded like a group of people talking — perhaps reflecting a desire to not be alone which he confronted at that time. Years later he told me “I am alone but not lonely”. That stream also was featured in a remarkable story of his daily routine that he spoke of and wrote about in his When It Stops Sinking:
“The Bhikkhu got up in the dawn
Stripped him to nakedness
Took the cooking pan and put on shoes
Open the door and ran to the only place of un-frozen stream
Scooping water from the hole dug into the snow
The Bhikkhu splashed the water onto his body
Splashing, splashing, splashing twenty times onto his blue black body
He felt that he was purified
The water was warm for him
It was even steaming
Certainly it was warmer than the atmosphere
Which was ten to fifteen degrees below zero
He was extremely happy with the fact that
Not all nature was severe and hostile at him
But some part of it was mild and gentle to him
At its most delicate and essential part of it
He did not feel any cold at all
He was just joyous of this daily routine
Which was totally secret from the villagers
Even from animals and birds from around
It was even sacred ceremony to him
To keep his body and mind clean and pure
To maintain his good health and inspiration
To persist in the lone life in unprotected nature
Even if he succumbed to the desires;
Even if he was polluted by the practice and memory of the past
By the desire and ignorance of the present moment
By fear, insecurity, diffidence, uncertainty for future
He was resurrected and refreshed
From the nocturnal ordeal of murky confusion and desperation
From the daylong fighting with endless pain and incapacity
From the monotonous and tedious transition of time in the seclusion
He recovered his childhood innocence and energy
Imagination, vision, dream, hope;
Body, mentality, behavior, attitude
When he finished his ablution, he was triumphant
He was joyous to the extent that
He wanted cry out to the mountain
He just dashed back to his lone house,
Raising a line of violet smoke.”
Today is the 49th day after Sensei left his body. It is significant in Japan (shijukunichi traditional interment) and among Tibetan Buddhists (49 days in the Sidpa Bardo between lives). However, it’s roots go back to Buddha’s enlightenment. Thanissaro Bhikkhu noted: “The texts say that the Buddha spent a total of 49 days after his Awakening, sensitive to the bliss of release, reviewing the implications of the insights that had brought about his Awakening. At the end of this period, he thought of teaching other living beings.” You can read about Buddha’s first 7 weeks after enlightenment in Bhante Piyananda’s “Thus We Heard” chapter 9. Here he describes how Buddha spent 49 days sustained by the milk-rice offerings of Sujata and Punna at the foot of the trees after he reached enlightenment through breathing meditation. He looked in gratitude at the Bodhi tree for a week, was sheltered from a storm by a giant cobra, and was silent for the first four weeks. At the end of 49 days, he started his 45 years of teaching up to the age of 80. We are so lucky that during those 49 days, he decided to teach.
We are so lucky that Sensei decided to leave the wilderness hut of Hokkaido in ~1970 and teach as well. Recently we’ve contacted his friends and students far and wide (France, Germany, the UK, Japan, Sri Lanka). Certainly he helped many realize their true nature. But we should realize that Buddhas and Buddhas-to-be are not unique. Sensei wrote in Wakeful (p13) “Originally and ultimately, we are never isolated beings at all. We are creatures of the environment. Therefore, the environment itself hides the secret and Nature retains the key to the solution. While we are wandering in the forest of life, certainly we encounter good luck, like a stray person coming across unlooked-for sign posts, or a person who knows the way such as: a hunter, a woodcutter, or a hermit. Moreover, we could be endowed with the opportunity of encountering truly good friends, wise teachers, and awakened masters who have faced, struggled, and solved these problems and know the method and practice for solving them, because serious and sincere truth seekers definitely, deserve them.”
Eclipses come and go according to the Moon’s orbit and are predicted by cycles called Saros. Wise teachers also arrive and disappear, as do their teachings. The volumes of teachings of the Buddha’s 45 years were preserved by the Theravada school in the “3 baskets” Tripitaka. As a service and effort to share Sensei’s wisdom further, I’ll be self-publishing his writings in three forms:
The 3rd edition of Wakeful with minor changes he requested
The 2nd edition of One-inch Buddha, which he wrote around 1980, with edits in the 1990’s
1st public printing of his epic, When It Stops Sinking, which is his autobiographical story from 1932-1970
With Sensei’s departure, we are left to fend for ourselves, unable to go to our teacher for advice and confidence. But then, he taught us to rely on ourselves all along. He noted that the actual fact of our experience supersedes all representations, reifications, and reflections. The moon in the water is not the moon, just a sign leading us to True Nature and Eternal Time. We can do it!
Dear friends, Sensei crossed over Tuesday afternoon November 8th, while asleep or meditating. Following the full moon total lunar eclipse that morning, it’s almost a beautiful coincidence for our dear poet-meditator.
He caught a moderate case of COVID Sunday and was comfortable with oxygen and IV fluids, and no need for pain medication. Five years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and this year with terminal cancer. Although his symptoms from both were mild, he became weak and slept a lot. “No energy, no interest,” as he would say over the past 7 years in nursing homes. He remained mentally sharp with clear memory through his last days.
He knew he would pass in the near future, and remained content and accepting of it as a result of practicing relinquishment. A deep practice of meditation throughout his life revealed his golden true nature as an example of immense contentment and confidence.
A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, December 4th at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara (see announcement here). With metta, Bodhi
“This is the end of my life. I’m very happy. Don’t worry about it.”
In February we discovered he has cancer and he went on Hospice. But 6 months later, his condition was very stable and he was discharged back to normal care at the nursing home. Khema and I continue to watch over him with his doctors and the facility.
Mantis and I separately visit him every couple weeks. He calls us “my protectors”. He spends all his time in bed now. Sometimes he’s weak and barely talks, but other times he’s more engaged and responsive. For years, when I ask how he’s doing he says, “same condition”, and without fail when I call or visit and tell him I’m so happy to see him, he always says thank you. I bring him different flowers every two weeks.
April 29th advice to meditators: “Better be happy and strong. Don’t worry anything. The conditions are same, therefore don’t too much worry. Don’t…don’t want any more. Just be satisfied at this moment and constant practice.”
He continues to be content and calm, a true example for us all. (September, 2022)
Sensei’s nursing home has seen 108 of the 300 residents with active COVID-19 infections at the end of December, a very scary number given their vulnerability and how it rose from 41 residents in two weeks. The facility responded really well by treating everyone as if they were in the isolation ward, and completed voluntary Moderna vaccinations on Jan 6th (350 residents and staff including Sensei). Yesterday they also provided it to 25 staff at Sakura who’s delivery of vaccines is expected later this month. The second dose is needed 28 days later to provide good protection from the virus.
As Sensei continues practicing relinquishment, he participates in the physical therapy and other health care activities requested of him. But he is declining as is natural, and spends most of the day in bed. The “major symptom” from the Parkinson’s that he has said over recent years is “no energy, no interest”. For example, when I called him on Christmas he greeted me with a weak voice and said he didn’t have the energy to talk. After I spoke for some time he thanked me.
Decades ago, Sensei would laugh joyfully when we showed trepidation with things like swimming in cold water, meditating all night without standing up, or of needles for blood tests or injections. On that last one he said once, “Children are afraid of needles. It just feels like a little pinch. We shouldn’t be disturbed by it.” He put this sentiment nicely in his book, Wakeful:
“From common sense or a medical point of view, however, the persistence of pain like a headache or rheumatism is an ongoing problem; there is little or nothing we can do about it. The conquest of pain therefore requires medical care. Although this opinion sounds rational to an ordinary person’s ears, it seldom covers the entirety of the situation. It keeps people reacting like over-protected children who never develop their innate strength to overcome pain.” (p62)
And now, there is such strength radiating from his fearless passivity at this stage of his life. May we each discover, maintain and embody such confidence.
Sensei officially retired in January 2015, and has spent the last five years living in the Sakura Intermediate Care Facility. He has Parkinson’s disease but has otherwise been in excellent health. In October he moved to a full-care nursing home where he doesn’t have to walk to meals. We called him often to check in on him and let him know what to expect, and he was excited to hear the Dodgers won the World Series “finally”. He now has 2 roommates but says he has “no disturbances”. We were able to visit him in the parking lot through all the COVID protocols, and he was happy to get outside and see us.
He has been practicing relinquishment over these years. In explaining relinquishment to us, he refers to “our life is not our business” which he wrote about previously, and explains that no matter what happens he is not disturbed, that he is OK. He recently said that this is (generally) the end of his life, and that all is OK because he has no expectation. He reminded me that Nature is best and that really nothing is needed.
PS: I discovered today that the Sakura Facility may be demolished. Please sign the petition to keep it open, as it has been so very good for Sensei while he was there and is so much better than any other nursing home I’ve been to anywhere. http://chng.it/nr5NpMxRqY
If you’ve been around Buddhist centers for a while you probably have heard of dharma names. The idea in times past was that a person who became a monk/nun left home and let go of their old life and family. Part of that process was shaving the head bare and part of it was receiving a new name. Generally the teacher gave the student a name reflecting something in their character that they were facing. For example, Sensei’s names Koun and Subhuti are his dharma names in the Soto Zen and Theravada traditions respectively. Koun means “drifting cloud”, and truly at that young age in Japan he was a drifting cloud…from the southern islands to the northern wilderness he wandered. Subhuti is a historical name — one of Buddha’s ten disciples who was particularly strong with lovingkindness.
So Sensei started giving out insect dharma names, and I’m sure there is a story behind each one; perhaps a funny story or perhaps a very personal story. He told us that Nature is the message. That all the words and conversations we experience are just reifications of the truth. The truth of experience-of-nature-itself. Nature in the wilderness, nature in daily life, nature deep inside each of us. Nature is everything. Nature is this moment. He explained that every part of nature conveys this message, even insects! and so we became “message bearers” with insect names. Expressing our nature in every moment.
“Then what is your insect name, Sensei?” “I am Scorpion, or maybe Gokuraku-tonbo (Paradise Dragonfly).”