Teachers, Part II

The Driftwood Shrine was dedicated to two profoundly influential teachers in my life: Dr. Michael Atkinson. Michael Atkinson and Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi.  Below is an excerpt from the book about Myoyu Roshi.

At some point about fifteen years ago, I traveled with a friend to Indiana, sent there by a former teacher, to study with Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi.  I arrived at dusk on a beautiful spring evening and was standing on the porch when she arrived.  The trees seemed to slide into a dark silence as she silently floated from the car to the house.  She seemed transfixed.  I didn’t want to interrupt her deeply concentrated state.  But as she floated up the steps of the porch, I suddenly blurted out an introduction.  She turned and gave me a radiant smile.  Even in the dim light, her blue eyes glinted.  “It’s nice to meet you,” she said, and then she was gone into the house.

I cannot convey the full range of spiritual gifts of trust, harmony, joy, and gratitude that I received from Myoyu Roshi, but will just acknowledge here a single one: acceptance of myself.  One of the ways that Myoyu Roshi taught me to accept myself was to be a stickler for the details of zendo etiquette—the formal proceedings of ceremony, chanting, eating, and other activities of monastery life, themselves the legacy of her 20-year discipleship under Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.  Following such forms was not just Zen boot camp behavior but a matter of practicing the traditional “perfections,” or paramitas, especially kshanti-paramita (patience, or forbearance) and virya-paramita (effort).  From this I learned that tradition, when viewed in the right way, is neither a set of arbitrary constraints nor (as is often popularly believed about Zen) a “militaristic” demand for conformity.  When viewed in the right way, tradition is the means by which our real personalities are revealed.  When our habits of projecting an idealized personality are temporarily suppressed by the tradition of form, a more genuine, authentic, and unique self—an exquisitely beautiful, natural self —appears in its place.

In actuality, that true self is always there; it is only that its presence is obscured by the curtain of self-centered delusions that are perpetually cast over the mind by a desperate ego.  A roomful of people who are eating in exactly the same way, from identical sets of bowls, and in accord with a traditional set of manual maneuvers (the oryoki ritual meal), may at first appear to be supper with choreography.  But closer inspection reveals that each person is blossoming out of the soil of tradition in a way that is unique.  At time, this phenomenon of psychological transparency is so pronounced that each person’s thoughts and feelings come into sharp relief.  And because each person in the sangha is connected to every other by the same formal tradition, their unique qualities intermingle and harmonize, producing an atmosphere of serenity and reassurance.  In that kind of environment, one more readily sees just how reasonable and natural it is to accept who we are, just as we are.

The enso, or Zen circle (Image copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.)

After my first retreat with Myoyu Roshi, several months passed during which we had no contact.  When I thought about this gap in our contact with one another, I thought of the enso, a traditional circle that represents the Zen path.  The enso is usually painted with a gap in it, which suggests that one can never really complete the path.  But I had also seen the enso painted with no gap at all.  In fact, at Mt. Tremper, New York, where Diado Loori Roshi used to teach, I once saw a t-shirt with a closed enso image and the words, “No gap!” painted above it.  So at my second retreat with Myoyu Roshi, I asked about this.

“At the Mountains and Rivers Temple,” I said, “they teach ‘No gap!’  What do you teach?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Myoyu Roshi said, “It’s so wonderful to see you again.”

Image of Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi
Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi


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