Happy Birthday to Kankin, The Sutra Reader

Last Thursday, April 15th, was my birthday. I am 68 years old. Shit. Who would have guessed? My brother died before he was 60. My dad died as a young man in a plane crash, training young men to fight in the war. My grandfathers on both sides didn’t live real long either. Lee and I were in San Antonio on business, and we spent my birthday evening--a low-key dinner at the Cove Restaurant--with our son Andy Byrd, his daughter Emma Birdie and Joe Hayes, my good and close friend all these many years. Joe’s been like a Godfather to each of our children. It rained most of the day and the San Antonio air was humid and cool, like silk, the smell of honey suckle and roses and pittosporum. I like Dogen’s comment about the sutras, holy text, being “transmitted and retained on trees and rocks, are spread through fields and through villages, are expounded by lands of dust and are lectured by space.”

After learning in practice as Buddhist patriarchs, we are barely able to learn sutras in practice. At this time the reality of hearing sutras, receiving sutras, preaching sutras, and so on exists in the ears, eyes, tongue, nose, and organs of body and mind, and in the places we go, hear, and speak. The sort who “because they seek fame, preach non-Buddhist doctrines” cannot practice the Buddha’s sutras. The reason is that the sutras are transmitted and retained on trees and rocks, are spread through fields and through villages, are expounded by lands of dust, and are lectured by space. --From Chapter Twenty-One, “Kankin, Reading Sutras,” in Volume One of the Shobengenzo by Zen master Eihei Dogen (13th century), founder of the Soto sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism as translated by Gudo Wafu Nijishima and his student Chudo Cross.

On April 3rd I took the vows during the Shukke Tokudo (aka “the Home Leaving Ceremony”) to be a Zen Buddhist teacher, or priest (I like the word teacher better), in the Soto Zen lineage, the Order of Clear Mind Zen. My teacher is Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi. He gave me the Zen name of “Kankin,” based on the Dogen’s text quoted above. The story of my Zen practice is long. I could even date it back to my high school days when, with Harvey Goldner, I’d got lost in daydreams about Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the essays of Allen Watts and the poems of Gary Snyder. But the particular history of receiving this name Kankin is a much more particular story, an abbreviated version of which follows. I starting writing this as journal notes, but since it’s important to me as a poet I decided to publish it on this blog.

Three old men in the shadows: 
Ken Hogaku Hogaku McGuire Roshi, Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi
and Bobby Kankin Byrd

I’ve been sitting zazen for a long time. In the beginning it was off and on, fits and starts. Being in El Paso for the last 30-something years, away from so many things, I stumbled along my own way. Finding things here and there.
“The path has its own intelligence.”
I agree with that. That’s what you learn walking up and down hills in the desert or the woods, the streets of a city even,  no matter where. Some animal--a deer, varmints, cats and dogs, some unknown Buddhist, a little kid, whatever--has gone before you. Like even this quote itself I found on a business card that the poet and performer Joy Harjo gave me in Tucson. I hadn’t seen her in years. Our kids had gone to daycare together way back in the mid-70s at UNM in Albuquerque. So wonderful to see her. She gave me her card so I’d get in touch with her. And yeah, it was on that card I saw the statement, “The path has its own intelligence.”

Yeah, that's right. The path has it's own intelligence.

So at first I did zazen by myself, sort of catch as you can--five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 and even 20 minutes--, not knowing exactly what I was doing, looking from one book to the next for instructions, but definitely wanting something. A friend told me about Phillip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen and that book in particular invigorated my practice. And of course Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind which I've probably read five or six times by now. But without others to sit with, my practice lurched along, bouncing off the walls. Sometime in the 1980s I attended sesshins with Rinzai teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, first a weekend in Santa Fe and later several week long sesshins at the Bodhi Manda in Jemez Springs. Joshu Sasaki Roshi is an astounding man (he’s 100-something now). My journals are full of memories of him and his words I heard from him, either in Sanzen or during his teishos, even for the little time I spent with him. He enlivened my practice. Illuminated it. I drove north to Santa Fe and Jemez Springs / Bodhi Manda to attend those sesshins, but as time passed I never felt at home there. Roshi was lost behind the rustling of student robes. The Sangha never felt welcoming to me. The people there were into their own rhythms and habits. The trip was a long journey away from family and job. I quit going. My sitting became irregular, sporadic. In the mid-1990s I started sitting again, strongly in fact, although again by myself, sparked by a strong sense of sorrow and hunger for something other than the man I felt myself to be. Ironically, my wife’s Christian practice--it was important to her, I could see her mature, especially in her works of compassion--made me realize that I needed a spiritual discipline to practice. Just not Christianity.

Then sometime in the early 2000s I happened to hear about the Las Cruces Zen Center of the Soto variety. I didn’t know much about the difference between Rinzai and Soto. The usual things. The Soto sit facing the wall, the Rinzai have their back to the walls. According to the legends, the Soto tradition comes out of a rural, farming mindset, the Rinsai have the taste of soldiering, of the samurai in their institutional memory. I just wanted to sit, and I didn’t much care if I was facing the wall or not. The LCZC Sangha met on Monday evenings at Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert’s house on Baylor Canyon Road below the Organ Mountains. Harvey was a disciple of Ken McGuire Hogaku Roshi who received transmission from Soyu Zengaku Matsuoka Roshi. I started driving to Las Cruces every week. An hour back and forth. An hour and a half of practice. At first I was cautious. I’m not a good joiner. But I enjoyed the services--the bells, the chanting of the Three Refuges and Four Great Vows, the Heart Sutra in English and Sino-Japanese along with the beating on the wood fish (mukugyo), but especially the two meditation periods separated by kinhin. Sitting zazen with others is powerful. And the sangha was friendly. They let me be but accepted me. They were happy that I was there. And Harvey’s dharma talks were very special. Good food for my home practice.

The services included a nice incense ceremony before tea was served.  A piece of charcoal is lit and sits in the incense bowl at the altar. Each practitioner, if she or he so wishes, can approach the altar, bow to the Buddha, take some kernels of incense and drop them on the charcoal, bow again to the Buddha and then bow to the teacher. For a number of weeks I didn’t participate. I stood there, watching, my hands in gassho. It didn’t feel right to me. Bowing to a statue. Watching the smoke. Bowing to a guy I didn’t much know. I didn’t understand it so I didn’t do it. That was okay. After maybe a month or so, I did it. Something was happening in my life--I forget exactly what now--but I wanted to say a silent prayer.I bowed to the Buddha, which is a bow to the emptiness, the absolute, the dharmakaya. I let myself go. Just a little bit. The air felt good. I  dropped a number of incense kernels on the charcoal and watched the smoke curl up into the air. I said my silent prayer. And I bowed again to the Buddha and I bowed to SoDaiho. It felt very right. I slowly began to meld into that community of practitioners.

A few years passed. My home practice became stronger. I was sitting 25 or 30 minutes in the mornings, lighting a candle, a stick of incense, doing abbreviated chants and a few prayers for my family and our communities, making vows for my own practice, sitting zazen. Perhaps a little bit at night. I was reading a lot of Zen literature and attending weekend sesshins as much as I could. I felt at home in my practice. It became a necessary part of my life. If, like when I traveled, I couldn’t find the time or place to sit, I would get nervous. There’d be an odd hunger in my head and heart and body.

Things change, of course. They always do.

The LCZC, through the help of Judy Daishin Harmon, had begun renting a small house on Mesilla Avenue for services and practice. Harvey Hilbert and his wife Judy finished their place off the grid above Cloudcroft and moved up there. Judy and then Mike Gozen LaTorra received their Shukke Tokudo ordinations and became priests. After a while they shared responsibilities as co-abbots of the LCZC. On several occasions Harvey SoDaiho asked me to receive the precepts, to do the Jukai ceremony. I treaded water until on April 2nd, 2005, after a weekend sesshin at the LCZC, I took my vows during a Jukai ceremony with several others. The name he gave me was Hen-shin, which means transformation or rebirth. There really wasn’t a lot for me to do by then. I had read all the books, talked with Harvey SoDaiho, talked with others. Being in El Paso I was sort of on my own leash. But I did have to sew my own rakusu. A black one, of course, to signify that I had received the precepts. I had sewed the thing together with my own hands. Thick clumsy hands they turned out to be. That was a task. The rakusu pattern is complicated and confusing. The directions were a puzzle by themselves. The whole process was a koan in itself. In the evenings and on Saturdays I sat there at the dining room table and sweated and even bled over that rakusu. Nothing makes a man more mindful than jabbing a needle into his ungainly fingers. Lucky for me Lee gave me advice with the pattern and even did some of the sewing for me when I thought I might weep.

The life of the LCZC, Clear Mind Zen and Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi its founder is a story I want to tell another time. But its history has not always been a smooth boat ride along a wide easy-going river. Nor has my relationship with Harvey. There were disappointments. “Confusion,” a good friend told me once, “is a relatively high state.” Like working on a koan, the relationship between a teacher and student. A few years ago, there was a riff in the sangha. The usual gunk that goes along with being human. It happens, no matter how long we sit and stare at wall. This goes for roshis, this goes for students and priests. The sangha bifurcated. The dance of an amoeba. The division process was not easy. By then Judy Harmon had gotten a divorce from her husband and as part of that difficult process she quit her position as co-abbot and left the Zen Center. Mike SoGozen LaTorra had remained at the LCZC as abbot. He and Harvey Daiho had a disagreement. Or “quarrel” would be a better word. The clash, on one level, was about practice and understanding the dharma. The word “enlightenment” was one of the sticks thrown on the flame. It was also about the teacher and student relationship. Zen in America stuff. And finally it was about very personal disagreements. Two men who perhaps understood the same thing differently. The sangha bifurcated. Like an amoeba. The division process was not easy. By then my friend Judy Harmon had gotten a divorce from her husband and as part of that difficult process she also left the Zen Center. Mike Gozen LaTorra had remained at the LCZC as abbot and Harvey Daiho went on his own way, formalizing his Clear Mind Zen organization which he had been talking about for years. Mike and Harvey--student and teacher, close friends, fellow Zensters--quit talking to each other.

It was not a fun time. But things change. The Buddha said that. You can quote me, he said. Mike SoGozen retained his position as Abbot of LCZC and he continues teaching there to a strong sangha. Harvey Daiho Roshi cemented in his mind and heart the Clear Mind Zen organization which he had been talking about for years. Zensters took sides, going this way or that. With others I tried to heal the riff, but that was not to be. At least, not immediately. The three pillars of Zen practice--Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Effort--really made sense during this time.I kept in contact with Harvey Daiho, although at a distance. He was my teacher.
I realized this fact deeply. I felt really at home with his understanding of the dharma.  I just didn't make the weekly drive to Las Cruces. Something in my practice had changed. His understanding of the dharma was and is crucial to the growth of my practice. I had started, with his blessing and sometimes participation, a small sangha in El Paso. I called it the Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community. I wanted practitioners from both sides of the border to feel at home there with us. At the time El Paso or Juarez really didn’t have a place to come together as a group and sit zazen.

And “small” is a good word to describe what we were doing. We sat at the home of Richie Barajas and Briana Armendariz, which also served as the office for Richie’s practice, Black Tortoise Acupuncture and Herbs. We sat there--many times just me, Richie and Briana, sometimes only two of us, sometimes only me--for over a year. Train tracks run behind the house, and I always found it interesting when a train came rumbling by during our zazen. Its long whistle provided good resonance in my body. Then, a couple of years ago, John Fortunato began sitting with us. He offered the sangha his home. He’s a bachelor, and he had, he said, a large sunroom that would be perfect for sitting. He was right. We’ve been sitting there for two years now. And our sangha has begun to grow. Any Saturday (services begin at 330pm in you’re in town) we’ll have six to eight people sitting with us.  Several times during these years Harvey suggested to me that I take the precepts to be a teacher (aka, a priest), do the Shukke Tokudo. No, I didn’t want to do that. I don’t like the words like priest and disciple, I don’t like robes, I’m uncomfortable with the entire hullabaloo. I was happy sitting, helping to keep the doors of our sangha open and acting the part of a lay teacher.

During these years, besides reading, I had the opportunity to talk to others who were practicing in one way or another. Three, in particular, were providential and nourishing to my own practice. One was Claude Anshin Thomas, whose book At Hell’s Gate is probably the best book I’ve ever read about the struggles of being non-violent. Claude Anshin, with a small sangha, was walking the U.S./Mexico Border from Brownsville to Chula Vista, CA, on a pilgrimage for peace. (I wrote about him and his pilgrimage here.) He and his fellow pilgrims stayed in El Paso for a few days, I arranged a talk for him at the Unitarian Center and we had a gathering for everybody at our home. It was good time and a good chance for me and others to hear Claude Anshin and to witness his practice. Also, Mike Gozen LaTorra worked it out to bring punkster roshi Brad Warner to Las Cruces and El Paso, and then last year we brought him here again. Brad’s books have been important to me, not only for his ideas(he was certainly the best guy to open the door for me into Dogen’s Shobengenzo) but also for his iconoclastic rhetoric and tetchy rants about the touchy-feely practice of Buddhism in the U.S. That same rhetoric and his practice of Buddhism has helped me immensely in reconciling my poetics to my practice of Zen. (I’ve written about Brad here and here.) And finally there’s my good buddy and fellow poet JB Bryan, who can be as happily cantankerous as Brad when he’s talking about Zen (or poetry or whatever). JB is a leader at the Three Stones Zen Group in Albuquerque. The Three Stones folks are a delightful sangha, and they practice a non-denominational, anarchistic (aka "chaordic"), egalitarian and homegrown Zen, although their roots can be found in the work and teachings of Charlotte Joko Beck. (She has likewise been very important to me. It's wonderful to read a wise woman write about Zen practice.) The Three Stones is a perfect fit for JB. He’s always delighted to preach to me about institutionalized, hierarchical Zen with all its bells and whistles and bowing and scraping. His Zen heroes are old patriarchs like Han Shan, the Cold Mountain poet, and Hotei, the Happy Buddha.

So every week we rang the bell, we chanted and beat on the wooden fish with its eyes that never close, we lit incense, we sat on our zafus and practiced zazen, we did the silent kinhin dance, we sat some more, we chanted the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese (our voices so much stronger after sitting), and we sipped on our tea. It’s been good. Late last year, one of the men who had been practicing with us for some time told me that he wanted to receive the Jukai Precepts. I was delighted for him. But I said, “You’ll have to go find a teacher to practice with.” He looked at me and said, “I think I already have.” I was both startled and honored. But of course that meant, if I wanted to do things rightly, I had to take the vows and become ordained—to receive Shukke Tokudo. After much thought I went up to Las Cruces and told Harvey this story about the man who wanted to receive the precepts. I asked him if he would ordain me.

“Of course,” he said, laughing so hard I wondered if he would fall off his zafu. He said I wouldn’t need the robes. I could buy the brown rakusu. I had done my duty of making the black rakusu.

So this is how I came to receive the name Kankin on April 3rd. Before the ceremony we had a modified Zazenkai (one day sit) from 8:30 to 2:30. I sat strong. It was so good to sit with my friends. It’s the best way to be alone. Then people started showing up. We had about 35 in all. My family was there, folks from the sangha, friends and kids. Harvey’s teacher Ken McGuire Roshi and his wife Fern McGuire Roshi. Ken and his wife Fern both studied with Matsuoka.You can see photographs here that Lee took.

Tokudo means ceremony, and Shukke is leaving home. Thus, “The Leaving Home Ceremony” or “Home-leaver’s ceremony.” In the old days monks-to-be left home and went into the monastery. Not so much anymore. Especially for American Zen Buddhists. Here Zen is much more a householder practice. But “leaving home” is still a very important concept. I like to think of “leaving home” as leaving that comfortable place called home or the ego to serve something greater than ourselves. In a way we all leave home, we leave the ego, when we do our home practice, the wall in front of us, alone with our breath and the universe in which we live. No separation--the absolute, the universe, the breath, breathing together in and out. We do this too when we come together to sit and practice as a Sangha. And we do this when we climb off our zafus and take our practice out into the city,  the place of our life, where the 10,000 things thrive and multiply.

During the ceremony I vowed to practice and to teach others, if they so wish, the Way of the Dharma as I understand it. I vowed to appreciate my whole life as the life of the Three Treasures--the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and I vowed to serve Family, Sangha and Community and to practice right livelihood.
I take Refuge in Everything That Is (Buddha)
I take Refuge in Reality and its Teachings (Dharma)
I take Refuge in Humanity (Sangha)
I vow to cease creating evil
I vow to do good
I vow to work to create abundant good for all beings

So this is my birthday present to myself. Good luck, huh?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Inspiring. Yes, good luck. Much good luck to you.