The Walls Disappear:
What it Means to be a Soto Priest Training Rinzai Style
Karen Maezen Miller, sensei
There are two lines from The Identity of Relative and Absolute that we chant in our Saturday morning service:
Among human beings are wise ones and fools
But in the Way there is no northern or southern patriarch
We may know it by heart, but do we really know it? Do we really see what it is pointing to?
I asked myself this question recently when someone introduced me as a Soto Zen priest. What is a Soto priest? What does that mean? And more particular to our lineage here at the Hazy Moon, what does it mean to be a Soto priest training in the Rinzai style?
We don’t merely answer it by appearances or definitions. This question points directly to the inescapable role of lineage in Zen.
Lineage narrows the gap
Lately I’ve become fascinated with lineage. This seems true of many aging baby boomers. As we age the gap between ourselves and our departed kin narrows. We come face-to-face with our own mortality. We recognize our parents in our appearance, voice and mannerisms. Websites and reality shows about genealogy are very popular these days. We’re eager to find out that we really are the overlooked heirs in a royal line!
We each have a biological lineage and a spiritual lineage, even if we don’t recognize it. Anything and everything that comes to us comes through a lineage, because that’s how life works. It can’t come into existence any other way.
On the surface, it’s about walls
First, let’s look at the superficial distinction between the Soto and Rinzai sects of Zen. On the surface, it comes down to walls. The Soto school is the school of “silent illumination” or “gradual enlightenment.” These are the so-called wallgazers. They face a blank wall in meditation as we do most of the time. The Rinzai school is the school of “sudden enlightenment.” They face away from the wall when they sit, as we do some of the time. Are they really opposite in approach, as they might appear to be? To find out, we have to trace our line back to the root.
We are the direct heirs of Maezumi Roshi, who was truly a radical in Zen. He had transmission in three lines: from his father, Hakujan Kuroda Roshi; Yasutani Roshi; and Koryu Roshi.
You might think that transmission through his father Kuroda Roshi, a high-ranking Soto functionary, was just a formality or rubber stamp. After all, Zen was the family business. But Maezumi was one of seven brothers and not the first son. He knew growing up that he would not inherit the family temple through patriarchal custom.
I think that this might have been the most significant relationship for Maezumi. His father was the honorary founder of the temples Maezumi established, and after he died, he was memorialized in monthly ceremonies just as we memorialize Maezumi. One time I watched Maezumi officiate at a memorial for his father, and he recited this verse by Dogen:
Midnight. No waves,
no wind. The empty boat
is flooded with moonlight
I could see Maezumi’s profile in the candlelight, and he was crying. This was a deeply felt blood-and-bones connection.
Maezumi was unique for his time and ours — he took the practice of Zen seriously. And when you take something seriously, you have doubts. When you don’t take something seriously, you’re self-satisfied and even self-righteous. We see a lot of that.
So Maezumi wasn’t satisfied with his clarity and he sought other teachers. While still a teenager he took up koan study with Koryu Roshi, a lay Rinzai practitioner. Here he chose a teacher who wasn’t a priest, a teacher who made you look past the institutional priest craft, the brocade robes and high ceremony, to the root itself. Later, he would receive transmission from Koryu Roshi.
Next he studied with Yasutani Roshi, who was a Soto priest practicing with Rinzai koans. Yasutani took this style from his own teacher, Harada Roshi. So you can see the transmission of this “radical” approach.
Harada and Yasutani were drawn to the genius of koans as experiential self-verification. As we all know, it’s not enough to tell yourself you’re doing it. OK, I’ve got it; I’m just sitting. You have to experience it and then express it in living form. You have to bring that realization to life.
Radical is the opposite of radical
We are the living heirs to this radicalism. But radical may not mean what you think. Webster’s first definition of radical is “of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.” In a way, radical is the opposite of radical. It means original. Originally, there were no such differences as schools or sects. The teachers in the Tang dynasty of China, in the years 600-900, all shared pupils. They just had different teaching styles. They had different ways of pointing to the same thing, just as we all do. Let’s not confuse the pointing fingers with the fundamental matter at hand.
Tozan, the founder of the Soto school, and Rinzai, the founder of the Rinzai school, were contemporaries. Rinzai’s style was vigorous and active. He used shouts and sticks to spur a sudden realization, the living expression of Buddha nature. Dogen said about him, “His idea was to show that ordinary events are not imitations.”
Tozan was the exemplar of silent illumination, or gradual enlightenment. He instructed his disciples, “Don’t make a great commotion over nothing.”
These two traveled the same roads meeting the same teachers. They were just like you and me. They were Dharma brothers in the same fundamental lineage. They were radicals, giving their own unique expression of the same original truth.
No lineage, no transmission, no enlightenment
Nowadays there’s a movement to codify, regulate, and even certify Zen teaching in America. The people behind this don’t believe in lineage as its own intrinsic organizing force. They don’t believe in transmission, which means they don’t believe in enlightenment. And even though they may chant the same verse we do, “In the Way there is no northern or southern patriarch,” they clearly believe otherwise. There is a whole assortment of self-styled, self-certified, self-made Zen schools and monastic orders. It’s entirely entrepreneurial — the American way. In the name of tearing down walls, they are putting more walls up.
Here at the Hazy Moon, we do not mistake the walls of this room for the room. In Soto style, sometimes we face a wall that is a blank wall, where we’re looking at nothing. In Rinzai style, sometimes we face a wall that it is not a wall, it is the world in front of us, where we’re looking at everything. Fundamentally, we see that there are no walls and no separation. We see what Bodhidharma saw:
Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures pointing directly to the mind of man.
When the walls disappear we still sit here, minding our own business, because we are Soto priests training Rinzai style.
Read more about Maezumi Roshi and our lineage.
Karen Maezen Miller, sensei, is the author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, available now at Amazon.com