Jakusho Kwong Roshi
(Sounds True Audio)
At first these tapes --- there are six of them, twelve programs in all --- are somewhat off-putting. It may be Jakusho Kwong's breathy, intimate style --- close to the microphone, as if he were hovering just above your ears.

But then there are the stories, and they begin to catch one up. Like his friend, the brown moth that, he claims, returns to his garden every year, every year looking a bit more worn. He says the moth knows him, perches on his finger, and Kwong chants to him. Chanting to a moth!

Or the time at Tassajara, when he twisted his foot and could no longer sit zazen. The only chair they could find for him to meditate in was a beach chair, so he used it, and he thought, "They will think this is very California --- a monk meditating in a beach chair!"

Or the tale about one of the masters that came to see him at the Sonoma Zen Center (that's where he teaches now) and that particular day there were triple rainbows in the sky, something none of them had ever seen before. Kwong tried to find a present to give the roshi from his collection of Zen mementos, but the master refused them all until Kwong's son found a discarded paper rainbow in the parking lot. He accepted that one.

He tells many a tale out of traditional Zen. There's the one about the young seeker who goes on a journey to find a roshi and it is night --- this is hundreds of years ago --- and it gets so dark he has to crawl on his hands-and-knees and he develops a burning thirst and he thinks that he would give anything for something to drink and he stumbles over a cup and the cup is full and so he drinks it and then he lies down and goes to sleep.

When he awakens he sees that he was drinking from a skull, and what he thought was water was, ugh, bugs and blood and creepy-crawlies and he throws up ... and finds himself enlightened.

Actually these tapes get to where you have to ration yourself --- you grow so fond of Kwong you want to go through them all in one day. I ignored his directive telling me to listen to these in a quiet room, not while doing anything. I commute three hours a day so I figured I would have to break my teacher's rule rather than miss out on anything he had to tell me. Sometimes the car noise would blot out his words --- he mumbles a lot --- but it doesn't make that much difference because what he says and the way he says it is so soothing and hypnotic that I sometimes would catch myself nearly running off the road.

Even when he gets to the paradoxes, they make good sense, in a paradoxical sort of way, if you know what I mean. "The Sourceless Source," for example. He tells us that if he just called it "The Source," we'd figure, "OK. I know what that means." But "The Sourceless Source." It's not so easy to grab on to.

Of course, Zen is built on paradox. And intense meditation with its very specific rules sounds to some of us to be overdoing it: there are rules on how you should sit, how you should walk, how you should cook, how you should make rice gruel, how you should beg, how you should serve tea and how you should sew. They are so exacting, Kwong says, neither to punish us nor to give us pain but so that we will know that this is serious business.

The job of Zen is to get us away from "what our education, what our culture teaches us --- that is, duality." When you begin, says Kwong, you think of "the mountain over there." But when you say that you are separating it from you even though, in truth --- you are it, it is you. "If you see the mind and the body as one, you are wrong," he says. "If you see the mind and the body as two, you are also wrong."

And when sitting, he tells us, remember "It's not you sitting, it's the Buddha sitting." When you sit, he explains, if you have one thought that's a thought. But if you have two thoughts, that's thinking. That is the time to return to counting the breath, and even when one becomes calm, one must always continue to count the breath. On the exhale: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 --- and then back again to 1, although, for most, if you get to 5, you've made good progress.

§     §     §

The key phrase, drawn from his first teacher, Suzuki Roshi, is "Things as it is." I'm hearing that I can't figure out what he is saying. And more than that it's bad English. But after not thinking about it for awhile, I figure that if he says it's important, then I'll go for it. "Things as it is." It means just that. It's not unlike the unborn. "If something has never been created," he tells us, "then it cannot be destroyed."

He tells stories, wonderful stories, about his roshis. One of them decided to do begging practice on the streets of San Francisco. He put on his robe and the straw hat that hid his eyes and picked up his begging bowl and told the sangha that he was going out to beg in the Fillmore, the black section of San Francisco.

The students were concerned, but he refused to take anyone else along with him. Kwong wondered how the people of the area would respond to this tiny man in his robe with his great straw hat and his begging bowl. When he returned several hours later, he had in his bowl "two silver quarters and a pomegranate."

There are times when Kwong has the ability to make us merry --- he comes across as a very merry person --- as well as touch the heart, touch it deeply. One night he was returning to San Francisco with his family and they arrived at a street corner where a car had just overturned, virtually split in two. One of the two passengers had been thrown out, and was lying in the street, on his back, lying in a pool of blood. Kwong ran to his side and knelt down. He tells us that the young man's eyes were open and bright and he was looking up at the skies. He looked at Kwong and said, "The stars are bright tonight." Kwong responded, "Yes --- they are very bright."

This is good stuff. The key message he has for us is that he is not teaching us something we don't know already. It's all there in our minds, just waiting for us to access it. When we are ready.

--- Carlos Amantea

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