Entering Your Life

Summer Ango 2011 was special for Kannon Sangha for many reasons: the return of Kwong Roshi after a year’s absence, the hoshi ceremony for dharma holders Kuun and Sanko, and the integration of the Kąciki site as our future home. We also accepted 11 new sangha members, some returning from long hiatuses and others arriving with that distinct smell of beginner’s mind. I would qualify as the latter and it’s my privilege to contribute to Mountain Wind on behalf of the Polish community.

My route to Kannon in Warsaw has been unconventional, having lived most my life in America and resisting the tug of Zen in such notable communities as Boulder, San Francisco, and Santa Fe. I spent ten years of searching existence in these cities and rubbed shoulders with many practicing Buddhists but was never compelled to sit zazen. When my searching ways carried me across the Atlantic to the heart of a Catholic country, I thought I left Zen behind for good. Little did I know a branch was waiting for me here.

Regardless of how one finds the threshold to the local zendo, it takes people to shatter the ideals garnered from Zen books and make the practice original and alive. Two of those people on my journey are Ewa Orłowska and Jerzy Dmuchowski, Kannon’s newest dharma holders. Ewa was the first person I met at the zendo on Turecka Street. The zendo was located down a staircase to the basement level of a non-descript block, and upon entrance, I felt most out of place. Ewa approached me with familial ease. She took me inside the sitting area and gave me my first lesson in zazen. She demonstrated how to envision my breath, with the exhale narrowing to a point at a far distance, and told me about counting breaths and why we begin on the exhale. When I told her my preference for following my thoughts, she just laughed. The moment certainly didn’t feel like the onset of something grand, as in surveying a trail at the base of a mountain. Rather, it felt like I stepped directly into the middle of the trail, as I had been here before and was picking up at some point left off.

In the summer of 2010, I participated in my first Ango. I learned soon after arrival that I was responsible for han and that it needed to be struck within the hour. This is how I met Jurek. He took me to the station and did not express the worries I harbored for myself. Jurek showed me how to stand, and in motion with his breath, how to strike the wood. The sound he made in that first blast was rounded and secure. He went into the accelerated rhythm. Slowly, each beat rippled until consummating in breaking waves close to shore. Jurek collected his breath and told me simply, “It’s not a performance. Just do what comes natural to you.” He watched me make a few clumsy strikes, and satisfied, walked away. Later I noticed how his pace never altered, whether he was approaching the samu circle or preparing to take Roshi to the airport. His presence, like Ewa’s, was warm and natural, full of playful energy, and shrouded by a word cloud, unspoken, speaking, “there’s nothing to worry about.”

Ewa and Jurek expressed in these brief encounters a whole being, easily embraced, nothing left out and nothing in excess. Their manner taught Zen better than the dharma collected in books. For that reason they are called dharma holders, or hoshi, and for sangha members who have watched them grow imperceptibly as students for the last 24 years, it was a great moment to observe their dawning of the robes that distinguish them now as Zen teachers.

My impressions of the ceremony were filtered with a pleasure that comes with the witness of anything unpretentious. Kuun and Sanko were guided through their prostrations by Uji, who read the ritual instructions from a slip of paper. Sometimes the instructions had to be clarified and it did not bother anyone if a step was improvised. Then there was the improvisation of nature itself. At the very onset of the ritual, the skies darkened and lights within the zendo flickered. Thunder struck and the wind rustling through the trees became apparent to each member of the sangha. It happened too suddenly for me to grasp at a meaning. But for Kuun and Sanko, the moment was clearly wonderful. The transformation of the skies coincided with their movements, rising and falling to the floor, and rising again. A gentle power huddled all around us and some smiled while others breathed in.

I watched as Kuun and Sanko diligently arranged their robes with an intricacy of folds and wraps and then placed them in fluid motion over their heads. Kwong Roshi broke from his governing posture to dapple the new dharma holders’ scalps with a branch of willow. His expression was austere, as he was aware of the long line of Zen present in this outstretched touching of hand to head. I looked for signs in Kuun and Sanko to measure what they might be feeling. What I saw was the practice itself, which was concentrated and unflappable.

Members of the sangha read congratulatory messages from Sonoma County Zen Center, then took turns offering their own remarks. Przemko Radwański spoke of the inspiration taken from the examples of Kuun and Sanko.  Both, like himself, were 20something university students when Kwong Roshi came to Warsaw for the first time and answered the group’s eager request for a teacher with the challenge: practice for a year. Now those 20somethings are 40 and 50somethings and have helped found the tradition of Kannon, with Kuun and Sanko joining Uji as a first generation crop of dharma cultivated and grown in Poland.

The hoshi ceremony was not the sole reason for this year’s Ango to have an elevated feel. The sight of Kwong Roshi entering the zendo the first morning of sesshin immediately rarified the air. Kwong Roshi was of course absent from last year’s summer Ango due illness. I recall much discussion about how the sangha might carry forth without a teacher. It was a bit demoralizing on a personal note, as I was finally ready for a teacher and even traveled as far as Poland to find one, but now he was apparently gone. I had wondered openly what it meant to have a teacher. As far as I knew, zazen was the great teacher, and my own mind was the teacher. And the members of the sangha, they were my teachers. Why did I need a roshi? Would he get me up each morning to sit? What could he tell me during dokusan that I didn’t already know? And was it my aim to become enlightened, or merely improved?

I directed such questions to Uji during our daisan. He spared no pontification in reply: if you want to deepen your experience in Zen, you need a teacher. This is the way. I was left to wonder how I would get anywhere in Zen when I lived in Warsaw and Roshi lived in Sonoma, and perhaps would not be coming back.

So when I sensed his entrance to the zendo and turned to glimpse his bare feet scraping the surface of the wood floor, it seemed an unfinished puzzle was suddenly in place. Perhaps it was due his absence that the collective breath of zazen was thicker, the lines paced during kin hin more taut, and the chanting of sutras full of volume and vitality. Roshi’s presence was savored on every level. And the meaning of having a teacher was so apparent, like a word that exists when spoken, that I entreated Kuun for acceptance into the sangha immediately. The path to Zen may have been under my feet all these years, but it was never truly chosen. It lacked outline.  Underneath the dusty tracks was something of real substance.

Kwong Roshi told us during one of his talks that his doctor did not advise him to make this trip for it might diminish his strength. Yet by the first Monday of sesshin, Roshi had already completed a major talk in Warsaw that he characterized as his biggest crowd. He spoke with the Benedictine Monastery in Lubin and concluded his stay with talks to packed rooms at the Shambala center in Warsaw and Kuanum in Falenica. During sesshin, he gave several talks that unwound what was knotted and softened what was coarse. His spirit was rejuvenating. Being with the sangha seemed to give Roshi strength rather than take it. He managed over 70 dokusans. I was grateful my first was among them.

It was pouring rain while I walked to Roshi’s house that evening. I spent the previous half hour hastily putting together a scroll from computer paper, with a drawing of Daruma’s lidless eyes, his staff and sandal, a coffee ringed “enso” and my own haiku. The scroll was tucked into a box of incense. This was my gift for acceptance into the sangha. But my familiar anxiety followed me on this next segment of the trail. I was aware that I was trying to make an impression. And I worried that Roshi wouldn’t open the box.

First I had to bow. I held the incense tightly while bending and let my eyes wander, judging if I was in the right part of the room. Then I broke the silence and asked Roshi if I was in the right place. Certainly. Which part was unsure? Roshi coached me over to the cushion and I clung to the incense while attempting my prostrations. Three times? Three times. Then I nudged the box forward on the floor, as this were a formal gesture. Roshi picked up the box and immediately opened it.  He wanted to know what the incense smelled like.

The scroll popped out and Roshi appeared confused. It resembled a tightly rolled cigarette. After explaining my production, Roshi accepted the stained paper and unraveled it. He asked, “What’s that? Is that a sandal?” Then he spoke about the fallacies of the Daruma legend and I worried he would never get around to reading my poem. When he did, he asked me to read it aloud, for my handwriting was not clear. The last line had to be repeated, as if on the second turn the impact would be better felt. There was a pause. I read Roshi’s consummate expression. What did I really come here for? What was underneath the self-conscious offering? That was only my mind, wasn’t it? Sometimes the mind is a very poor teacher.

I tried to tell Roshi my long tale, to say everything in fact, while a second part of me  was slow to recognize what was possible. To begin by being here. To bow. To breath the incense. In the dim-lit setting of Roshi’s room with a rainstorm outside, and the altar where I misplaced my prostrations, the smoke streaming out as from a nostril, and Roshi smelling it, I reckoned quite uncomfortably where I stood.

Without a teacher, there is no student. No dharma holders. No dharma. My question of a teacher’s value was answered and developed over the course of the week, through Roshi’s insightful talks, his occasional scoldings, his laughter, creaky knees and enthusiastic chanting. Perhaps it was most clearly underscored when Roshi said goodbye to a teary-eyed zendo on the final day of sesshin, and told the group, “I love you all. Whether you’re a good Zen student or a bad one, each one of you has entered my life and given me so much joy. I am so grateful for that.” A few moments later, as the sangha crowded together for its annual picture and escorted Roshi’s car down the narrow drive, Roshi offered one more word to sustain us for the coming year. With his fist held out the window, his voice from inside yelled: “Kąciki!”

The path was clear.


July 2011

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