Free Preview: Excerpts from “Making Zen Your Own” by Sensei Janet Jiryu Abels

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From the Introduction:

“A Generic Zen Master on a mountain top–when I began doing koan work in my formative years of Zen training, this is how I generally perceived the Chinese Zen masters whose paradoxical teachings I was trying to break open. All the major Zen koans are based on the insights of Chinese teachers who lived primarily between the sixth and tenth centuries. These teachers were, for me, shadowy figures with strange names–sometimes Chinese, sometimes Japanese, depending on which source I was reading–and they were seemingly devoid of individuality, life history, and social context. To be sure, there was biographical material on them in the various koan books I was using, largely presented in the commentaries on the koans, written by modern Zen masters. But the biographies didn’t mean much to me, since I knew little about Chinese history and geography and had no interest then in finding out more because–well, working through the koans was hard enough.

All of this began to change as I moved more deeply into koan study and especially after I began to teach.  In the spring of 2001, faced with the daunting task as a new teacher of having to write four talks for the annual weeklong summer retreat of New York City–based Still Mind Zendo, which I founded and where I am now co-resident teacher, I hit upon the idea of focusing on just one of the Chinese masters who had appeared in the koan texts I had worked on. The first one I chose was the ninth-century master Deshan Xuanjian (J. Tokusan Senkan), because the koans that came out of his teachings seemed to reveal an interesting figure. I decided to present Deshan’s insights in the context of his life story, which I pieced together from biographies in the koan texts and personal research–and then filled in a bit using my imagination. I connected Deshan’s teachings and life story to the practice challenges and life issues faced by those attending the retreat at which I was teaching about him. In subsequent years I chose a different Chinese master for each of my summer retreat talks, and it is these talks that I have adapted into this book. Accordingly, though grounding in the facts as known by scholars, I encourage the reader to meet this book not as a work of scholarship but as Zen teaching expressed through the life stories of these ancestors.”

From Chapter One, Bodhidharma:

“Zen is about exploration of the unknown. It is about leaving the safety of one’s accumulated mind-based knowledge and its sense of certainty, and moving ever so slowly into the unknowable, unimaginable experience of “absolute” or “essential” reality, which is none other than one’s very self. Exploration of the unknown, is never easy, whether it is physical travel to a new land, psychological travel into the complex layers of one’s psyche, or travel into the limitless mystery of one’s essential self. It requires a strong sense of longing to find or realize “something other” than that which is familiar. It requires willpower, focus, discipline, and determination. It requires facing fears and proceeding regardless. It requires faith. It requires resolve.

Such an exploration, then, such a journey, could have no better metaphor than the sea voyage undertaken by the man who brought the essence of what came to be called Chan (Zen in Japanese) from India to China.  His mane is Bodhidharma, and though his history is unclear, one characteristic seems to stand out: Bodhidharma did not turn away from the unknown–he sailed right into it.

The earliest record tells us that around the year 475, a Buddhist monk in his early thirties, born into privilege as the son of an Indian rajah, crossed the sea from India to China. Bodhidharma’s voyage took three years. Nothing much has been written by scholars about this voyage, primarily because there is very little documentation of it, but we have the freedom to look at the trip imaginatively and learn a great deal from it for our own journey of self-discovery. Lacking details, it is easy to have the impression that Bodhidharma sailed across effortlessly and without challenge. But did he? What about perilous seas, pirates, unfamiliar languages, strange lands, and different customs? Who was there in china to encourage him? There were no teachers around, no family, and no servants. He was young and he was alone. Was he scared? Did he feel lost? It is hard to imagine that he did not. Could romantic visions that he might have formed in India about the Buddha Way have crashed mightily on such a journey? Could he have had doubts about his desire to bring the essence of the Dharma to China, doubts about his capability to carry it out, and perhaps even doubts about the Dharma itself? Surely he must have lost his compass more than once. One is reminded of Andre Gide’s words: “In order to discover new lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” “

Making Zen Your Own is published by Wisdom Publications and is now available for sale at the Zendo (at a discount), your local bookstore, and on Amazon.com.

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