At the risk of discriminating all other activities on the schedule zazen including, Dharma talk was one of my favourites. This is when Reb was sharing his teaching and understanding of the dharma, when we could ask questions and the only time of the day when we actually could hear people talk and therefore get a clue as to what others were feeling or thinking.
Although Reb’s vocabulary was quite down to earth it was hard to understand what exactly he meant by those words. On the very first day for example he talked to us about the significance of ceremonies. For Westerners ceremonies are often associated with religion and something stiff and devoid of meaning. It took me a while to understand Reb’s message: a) our every day life is full of ceremonies that we perform without even realising it and b) we don’t need ceremonies for the sake of ceremonies but we need them because we cannot fully comprehend reality and we only realise it by performing ceremonies.
To be frank, it made very little sense to me when I first heard it but there was continuity to Reb’s talks throughout the week and little by little it I started getting it. When I was thanking my window cleaning partners bringing the palms together in gassho I became aware of the fact that I was thanking them. Without doing that – the act, the very ceremony of thanking – I would not be aware of that. It was harder to understand that I would be thanking them even if I did not formally thank them.
Reb encouraged questions but referring to the old tradition of addressing the teacher directly in front of the group by the end of every Dharma talk he placed a mat with a zafu right in front of him so the person who wished to ask a question would have to walk through the room, bow in gassho (bringing the palms and fingers of both hands together), and sit on the cushion right in front of him but with the back to the group. Alternatively, one could place the cushion next to Reb, facing the group. As I understood, Reb made us to perform the ceremony of asking the question so we would become aware of that we were doing, of our feelings and wanted us to learn to relax with those feelings. Asking questions from one’s seat is a usual in the West form but this simple ceremony made me think before opening the mouth and practice the art of right speech on the spot: was that which I was about to say helpful, kind, honest, timely?
I admired the courage of those who walked through the room to meet Reb, thus accepting to be with the doubts and the discomfort of speaking in front of the group and facing the teacher, who was sitting in the center, smiling, waiting patiently. Some people would sit with Reb for a while in silence, bow in gassho and then return to the seat. It occured to me that although only one person at a time went to sit with Reb each and every one of us had to sit with our feelings as a response to what that other person was saying or doing. In a way we were all involved and had to deal with our reactions. As to what exactly was happening – without going into details about what we witnessed and went through together as a group – even more advanced practitioners had to drop their ideas of what would be “allowed” in a zendo. Every time Reb sensed what was needed for the moment and would go along with it. Yet I never had the feeling he “lost it”, that he was at a loss as to how to handle a tricky or sensitive situation. (What made me think of a certain situation as sensitive if not my own ideas of it?)
Reb addressed each and every person differently but always with patience and a smile, from the place of giving. That was how I perceived it but later I realised that not everyone equally appreciated his way of talking to people.
A few times I heard Reb say that “he used to do so” (e. g. tell people what to do) or “teach that” but he doesn’t do it any longer. It struck me then that teachers too grow and develop, despite our preconceived ideas of what a Zen master/roshi could or even should be like. We all of us were learning, even our roshi.
By the way (hope this does not reach his very special ears), Reb reminded me of Yoda, the Jedi master (yes, the fictional character from the Star Wars movies), at an older age, when Yoda did not need his sword any longer. Reb too gave impression of a fearless person despite his not very impressive size.
The teacher was very easy on us with the Zen ceremonies which I in a way was looking for. On the other side, I guess other ceremonies outside the zendo were as good: the ceremony of silently greeting a person on the path, the ceremony of doing the dishes or cleaning the windows. We did get loose on the very last day though and to my greatest joy chanted a few chants including my favourate Prajna Paramita (Heart of Great Wisdom Sutra) to the beat on the funny looking wooden figure of a Japanese fish the name and the story of which I still don’t know.
May all beings be happy, healthy and free from suffering!