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Baring Witness: Boundless Dharma Gates, Numberless Beings

Knots tied, knots untied, my teacher writes to me:


"Don't worry about the rope. Sometimes it is a snake. Just keep your heart and mind as open as you can, keep the schedule, keep your nose clean, and the Dharma that you are so surrounded with there soaks in gradually."


And at 5:15 AM , I heard the head teacher’s Jisha (personal assistant) walking behind me as I settled into my posture, glad to be breathing, stretching upward with the top of my head, and I thought Please, not today. But it was today and he whispered, not so gently, dokusan.


For those outside of formal Soto-zen practice, dokusan means one on one time with a teacher, usually in a little room, like a cave, except given the Zen aesthetic treatment; scroll on the wall, two or three alters, clean tatami mats, a teacher sitting and waiting, a place for you to do prostrations, a cushion for you take your seat. This varies, of course. There are sometimes bells to ring twice, sometimes three times, and sometimes not at all-depends on the temple, the amount of teachers and dokusan rooms, the level of formality. Sometimes you enter with a question, sometimes you enter to see what arises.


My questions were gone. I requested dokusan with Tenshin Reb Anderson because I had some pressing questions about Mind-only and the yogacara school, but they seemed to have vanished or settled in a month, so I had nothing pressing to ask, nothing pressing to express. This can be slightly dreadful- not so much with my own teacher, with whom there seems endless things to talk about, or comfortable silence to enjoy-but with someone who you don’t know, even if you’ve ate dinner with them many times, it can feel like a blind date.


Further, dokusan is translated as “ to go alone to a high one” and the contents, especially in the Rinzai sect, are secret. They’re secret because answers tend to differ student to student. However, there are a lot of recorded conversations illustrating this wonderful tradition, like the teacher Zhaozhou who told one monk a dog does have Buddha nature and another monk a dog does not have Buddha nature.


In my experience, dokusan ranges from seriously detailed practice discussion to therapy. It must be just as scary for the teacher, to open up and meet the student where ever they are.


I was feeling a bit torn open, as I had my first trip to the hungry ghost realm (Whole foods, Walgreens, and this hungry ghost ate a cheeseburger, rare) and I had spent sometime with in-laws, who are lovely, but where I find my own vulnerability; they don’t have to love me. So this morning, I repeated what I said to my own teacher a couple of weeks ago, because that’s what came up:


I feel knotted and unknotted. Worn and fraying. This path is as wide as it is long. I thought Mind-only was my gate. Then, back to the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. Then, opening up to the disorganization of Zen Buddhist dharma, and meeting fully what comes up, even the poison oak I ignored for a whole week, because it was going to disrupt my schedule. Then,letting go, not because it’s the Buddhist thing to do, but because you just can’t grasp every grain of sand on the beach, but it is possible grain of sand to drift through your open hands. It is possible to attend, show up, pay attention seek the truth, and be open to whatever is revealing itself.


And what reveals itself is hardly ever what I want to see. I want to taste the fruit of sutras, I want body and mind to drop off our upright posture, but I don’t want to take care of my poison oak, acknowledge, recognize, and touch the painful truth that this body is breakable, and bare witness to impermanence and suffering, like I felt the kid in Walgreens was open to, like I couldn’t be, as he followed his mother who was not so nice to him, his eyes wide open and present.


12 hours later, I’m nestled in my little room, writing, studying, thankful for the rain our farm and garden need. I might feel a little guilty for this luxury, while others can’t fathom how I put up with the forms and schedule, waking at 3:50am everyday. I wonder if I am privileged, or if this way of life is accessible to every being in every place. Two answers come, yes and no.


We’re not doing anything special, but then, this feels very special.


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