Monday, April 29, 2013

Sanga Visit: Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji

While staying at a Tendai temple in Lake County for a few days, I spent an evening visiting the Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji temple, just north of Cobb, CA, for their weekly public program. It was my first exposure to Rinzai Zen practice and an interesting introduction to the Rinzai sanga in California.

Sai Sho Zen-Ji is perhaps more of a retreat center than a temple. The resident community is very small, only four at the time of my visit, and two of them were out of town. I came with another Soto practitioner and we were the only visitors. The Zendo has seating for at least 32, and they hold sesshins here in the Rinzai tradition, when a teacher is available. The four of us had room to spare for the evenings program.

Rinzai Zen practice revolves around koans, the Zendo forms and meditation practice aren't wildly different than Soto as practiced at SFZC but the relationship with the teacher is almost completely focused on the student working on a koan and the master confirming their understanding in Sanzen, which is related to Dokusan. Soto emphasizes shinkantaza, or 'just sitting' while Rinzai practitioners spend much of their time in the Zendo working on a puzzle given to them in an effort to advance their progress towards enlightenment.

Both Soto and Rinzai place emphasis on samu, mindful work, or samu but the key difference is in the level of strictness and the marital aspect of Rinzai practice. The Japanese have a saying, "Rinzai for the Shogun, Soto for the peasants" which reflects the relationship between the two schools. The Samurai were chiefly patrons of Rinzai while the farmers supported Soto temples, and the two schools reflect this difference in their practice. Walking meditation is a slow and deliberate process in Soto, in the Rinzai Zendo we were in a tight formation, moving quickly and precisely, concentration focused on not running into the person in front of you or stalling the person behind.

A Dinner Koan

We arrived early and were invited to join the residents for dinner, a low carb meal featuring hamburger patties with no buns, and a smoked turkey soup. I was happy to have dinner (the Tendai temple observes the precept of not eating an evening meal, substituting a snack) but was surprised that it wasn't vegetarian as is typically the case in most Buddhist practice centers. Standing around the grill I made an observation about the first grave precept (not killing) being somewhat open to interpretation. Given the notorious violence of the samurai, who were required to wear two swords at all times which was necessary because any affront to their dignity was immediately punishable by death, a burger seems like a small thing.

Into the Zendo

On the drive over my companion gave me a brief introduction to the differences in form that I should be aware of: the mudras for gassho and shasho are diffrenent, one holds gassho while going to their seat, the forms for kinhin are much closer to the fast kinhin practice of Soto, and if you move there is an officer in the Zendo who's job it is to correct you and administer the encouragement stick if necessary.

I can imagine a full Sesshin feeling much more like boot camp than a Soto retreat of similar length. This is Zen for warriors, focused on delivering the sudden enlightenment of Kensho and tailored to an audience for whom stricture and obedience where critical to surviving day to day life. Sitting perfectly still for 25 minutes (vs. 40 in most Soto temples) is good practice for having to be perfectly composed in front of your lord, who could order you to commit ritual suicide at the slightest provocation.

A Singular Koan

In the months since my visit a scandalous story broke and has gotten the usual response in the small echo chamber of Zen in America: a flurry of blog posts and news articles and finally a set of statements issued by the larger organizations, including the Zen Center. I don't have anything to add to that debate but I do think that there's a more interesting story about the Rinzai School in America: there is no lineage.

Lineage is the blood line of the Buddhist tradition, we chant the succession of ancestors going back to Sidharta and the Buddhas before our great original teacher (they are given credit for achieving enlightenment but not for teaching, which is critical to the development of capital-b Buddhisim), during ordination we receive a document listing the lineage that carried the precepts to us. Within the relatively short history of the Zen Center the lineage has become complicated by the relationship between Baker Roshi and the Sanga, as he was the only student of Suzuki Roshi to receive transmission directly (a number of others were given transmission by Hoitsu Suzuku after his death).

The process of dharma transmission is an esoteric and a rarely bestowed gift which gives the receiver permission to teach and, in the case of a priest, to then ordain new members of the tradition. We have modified the form somewhat from the Japanese tradition at SFZC, only offering the rite to those with decades of experience in the community and a long track record of upholding the dharma, but nobody is perfect and there have been a number of scandals similar to the current one brewing with Sasaki Roshi.

The catch is that Sasaki Roshi is, at this writing, 106 years old. Withouth an appointed successor the lineage that he brought from Japan will not be transmitted through him. Given the current scandal and his reportedly failing health, transmission seems unlikely. Leaving the entire Rinzai-in Sanga with a critical and poignant koan to solve: 

What is the sound of one teacher passing into Nirvana?