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Lions Roar : May 2015
I WAS SITTING my first seven-day re- treat with my Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. This was in 1968, when I was twenty-one years old. I was nervous, my legs hurt, and the meditation periods were long. After lunch I was relieved to go downstairs for an afternoon lecture, where we could rest our aching legs and sit in pews, remnants of the synagogue the building had once been. Suzuki Roshi came to the front, stood behind a lectern, and began his talk. A few stalwarts sat on cushions on either side of him, cross-legged and stoic; these were the tough ones who, I imagined, would be get- ting a leg up on enlightenment by sitting through pain. As Suzuki Roshi continued his talk, I realized that there, among the floor sit- ters, was a person acting rather strangely. He wasn’t sitting still. He gestured, waved, grimaced, and squirmed, making fun of the stiff, solemn Zen sitters to either side of him, holding his hands up high in a mocking caricature of the meditation hand posi- tion the others strove so hard to perfect. I glanced nervously at Suzuki Roshi, wondering what he would do. He appeared to pay the clown no mind, going on with his talk as though nothing was amiss. I glanced around at the old-timers on either side of me. Were they concerned? Suppose this crazy guy jumped up and tried to hurt Suzuki Roshi. Was he or we in danger? As my paranoid thoughts raced, the clown continued his charade, the whole room frozen in Zen silence. There was a candle burning on the platform behind and above Suzuki Roshi’s head, and the clown decided that he would try to blow it out from where he sat some distance away. He twisted his mouth up this way and that and made loud blowing noises. Still nothing happened. Nobody moved. Suzuki Roshi kept talking. And I kept worrying. At last the talk ended. Suzuki Roshi did his ending bows and made as though to leave. Suddenly he whirled around, robes flying, strode quickly to the candle, and blew it out with a loud huff! Then he turned and walked up the aisle, laughing so hard that he could barely stand up. I learned three vital lessons that day: Zen Lessons for a Lifetime Zen teacher LEWIS RICHMOND, author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice, passes along three lessons he learned long ago. Don’t be so serious. Suzuki Roshi said this often to us over the years. “Life is serious enough,” he would say. “You don’t need to add anything. Just be yourselves.” We were all so serious that day—all except the clown and Suzuki Roshi. They were, each of them, just themselves. Take care of everyone. What was Suzuki Roshi laughing at that day? At the clown, at all of us so-serious Zen folks, at his own creative response? I don’t know, but he had a teaching for each of us that day. What he did met and transformed the whole situation and everyone in it. Everyone acts from their buddhanature. In Suzuki Roshi’s book Not Always So, he says, “A Zen teacher must recognize that everything the student says or does comes from their buddha- nature. If the teacher doesn’t know that, he can’t be a Zen teacher.” This is deep teaching, and I saw it in action that day. Maybe to us the man looked crazy, but Suzuki Roshi saw in him something more fundamental. He saw the man’s buddhanature and acted to honor it. In time, I became a Zen teacher myself. I’ve taught and written about Buddhism for nearly forty years, but I have never forgotten these lessons learned at my first retreat, when Suzuki Roshi showed me what real teaching is—the kind you can’t learn from books. ♦ Peter Coyote on his ordination day with fellow priests and their teacher, Chikudo Lewis Richmond (to Coyote’s right, holding ceremonial Zen whisk). PHOTOCOURTESYOFPETERCOYOTE SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 69