Teaching Shugyo

(taken from a Teacher/Student meeting, April 15, 2022)

Student: I wanted this meeting to be not about myself.

That’s right. You wanted to talk about what I was teaching the other morning. 

Student: Yes, and it was within the frame of Ki testing. And you came to the last point where you talked about that which is unseen, beneath the form. 

Yes. “First learn the form, then learn the meaning of the form, then forget the form.” That’s Tohei Sensei’s teaching in a nutshell.

Student: Yeah. And the way you expressed it, I could totally resonate with and especially because you talked about seeing what’s behind all of that, and I think that your teaching is very, very important to me when I’m teaching art. This seems to be a tool to be able to express exactly that. So, everything you said resonated for me in the art world. And I really want to capture this so that I can teach it. 

So, if you could please try to reframe that, again. I know it’s not going to be the same, but I want to listen to you again. And then maybe we can have a session about it.

I think that what really struck you about this teaching is what I consider to be an essential part of our experience of being in a body in a relative condition, where things are manifested through us. The question is always, “What is being manifested or expressed in each form. And of course, this may be true of art, but it’s true of everything. Everything we do in every moment, including how we use our hands, what we say, how we express ourselves with our body generally, how we move in relation to another person, and what that reveals about us. 

This is such a huge subject because underneath everything is something.  It’s like, we think of written prose as being easy to understand since it is descriptive. We may even consider it to be somewhat shallow because of that. Whereas with poetry we then get this “pow!” because it is so obviously expressing something unseen, indescribable, and even inexpressible.

But I would say that everything is poetry in that way. If we really listen and notice, everything is a kind of ultimate poetic expression. In Zen, this aspect of life is referred to as “genjo koan.” “Genjo” can be translated as “immediately present” and a “koan,” as you probably know, is a question that points to something beyond the conceptual. So, life itself is an immediately present, poetic form. And the question is always, “What is it pointing to?” 

Now, we’re always looking over there, outside of ourselves to see what life is expressing. We want to see what’s underneath, beyond what we’re seeing. That’s fine. But remember, this is the Mirror Universe, and nothing is left out of that. Every experience is just taking place for our sake, everybody is just waiting for us to wake up and remember who we are.

So, we must see the source of whatever the expression is, the source of the form being presented to us. And this is not something to be parsed, not something to be picked apart and analyzed, and not even something to be realized, at least in the sense of conceptualization. Here “realization” means seeing that which is real. The point here is that the less corporal it is, the more real it is. We humans generally think the more we can touch it, the more we can perceive something with our senses, then the more real it is. We are all “Doubting Thomas’s.”  We must “stick our fingers in the wound” to believe it. But that gross or relative part of us and our life, that which we can see and touch and smell, that is only the very shallowest part of us.  That is the least real. 

The deepest part of us is in tune with what’s behind, what’s unseen. What is this an expression of? Tohei Sensei always said that the teaching is not the finger pointing to the moon, but the moon itself.  And remember, the moon is reflecting the sun. So, it’s not only the moon we want to see, but what is illuminating the moon. It’s what the vision, the wisdom, arises out of. 

And finally let me just say that it is always ultimately true that it arises out of you.  Finally, you are the very thing that you are searching for. All answers arise within you. That’s why, on the one hand, we can never leave what is most deeply real, no matter what. And on the other hand, even if we managed to leave it, it would still be here for us. 

Wherever we go, we are it. But do we have access to what we are?  That is the significant question.  That is the reason we have the teaching, and a teacher to serve as reminders. All of form brings us access to the unseen within ourselves. This reminds us who we are. 

One day, you and I were looking at one of your paintings together there in your gallery, and I could see you wanted me to say something about it. But I was already gone, so I couldn’t really say anything. I knew you wanted me to say something meaningful. But I couldn’t say what I was experiencing. What I was experiencing was not the painting. And not even what the painting pointed to. It was beyond that.

This kind of thing is very difficult to explain to somebody that doesn’t have a lot of training in this way. And so, you can’t really teach that in an art class. Not exactly. But you can infer it so that they can discover it for themselves. In the dojo, I don’t quite teach like this right here. I mean, during the Zoom classes, I’ve taught a little more in this direction. But I must be careful because students already are afraid when I stray too far from strictly teaching the form and the meaning of the form.  But of course Tohei Sensei taught me to forget the form in my teaching, so I am always leaning in that direction. 

For instance, I am going to Europe in two weeks to teach. I will boldly say that they appreciate me because I bring the unseen to them. But at the same time, if I go too directly to that, a few of them will feel something is missing. Students can have a good deal of anxiety about this. It puts them in a bit of a conundrum. They know it’s necessary for them to see beyond their conditioned perception, and they need to open up to it. But just like with most humans, much of this kind of teaching tends to contradict what humans have been taught to believe. So it can be very challenging, and as a teacher you have to be respectful of that.

So, I have a question: “Why are you here?” I don’t mean with me right now. I mean, why are you here in this body? What is your purpose here?

Student: Creation,

Creation. Creation goes on with or without you, don’t you think? Ok, you say your purpose is creation. But to what end?

Student: To be one with the creation of the universe. And then to understand how the universe creates, and then to translate it into paintings so that, you know, it gives a hint to people.

Tell me then, how does the universe create?  What about right now?

Student: Right now?

Is the universe creating right now? Yes, of course, creation is infinite. So, we don’t want to limit it to something to do with one form of expression, only the creative art of painting. Come on. Don’t be petty.

Student: No, no, I suppose it’s much bigger than that.

What I mean by “petty” is don’t limit yourself only to that. What is “the universe?” What is the meaning? How does this universe create, right now? How is it happening right now?

Student: Well, it’s creating our connection. But that is not what you want to hear.

I love to hear whatever you have to say. I just want to see what you feel, not what you think. Not so much what you have to say, but how you feel about this act of creative evolution. And I have an intuition with you always, that because you have a preferred form of creation, which is your painting, you just may have a habit of limiting your outlook to that one view.

For instance, if we imagined that love had exclusively to do with the relationship between two people (as so many imagine), then that would be too limiting. It is okay, no problem. It’s wonderful to write poetry about it that way. That’s great. But look at Rumi and his love poetry. It’s never limited to loving some one person. Right? It’s always universal, without limitation. 

So, what’s happening right now, in this moment, is universal creativity. Infinite creativity from an infinite source. And now, how is it that it is you that is being expressed through? You may someday stop painting because you won’t be able to stand it. It’s so limited.

Student: Sensei, it’s actually happening right now, you know, because of the recent injury to my hand, I have had to stop painting for now. And now I see, “Oh great.!” Well, I mean it opens me up to everything else so much. 

And I am totally enjoying this. When I’m creating my own work, there is a kind of tension, and now I can move away from that. When I let go of that, you know, suddenly, there’ was so much happening around me and I am more present than ever now. I am more, you know, in touch with people. My universe was limited, and now it becomes bigger. 

For instance, my universe is now working more with other artists. But not only that, maybe just planting flowers in my garden, simple things I now have the freedom to do. And now I see that, when I am painting, I kind of create a little bit of a tunnel vision while I’m doing it. So, I’m enjoying not having that and I like the opening. I feel somehow that it took my whole life to get down to the place where right now I’m enjoying the presence, I’m enjoying everything.

My experience is that being vulnerable and open to the moment is the greatest freedom there is. When we are open and full and vulnerable, we are always protected from being a victim. And yet, we’re completely vulnerable to everything that was created and is being created in and through us. 

It’s so difficult to accept this Mirror Universe. It is almost impossible to really see this truth, that everybody is living their life for you, because that’s such a lot of responsibility to accept. So, there’s almost no way that we can be in this small personal body and mind space, identified with who we think we are, and at the same time accept all the responsibility of the creation and purpose of this universe. 

And yet, that’s exactly what’s being called for if we want to die well. We don’t want to die poorly. And we won’t die well, unless when we die, which is always now never later, we are living well. We must be living in this open and vulnerable state. If we have a little bit of personal arrogance, personal preference, personal pride of agency running in us, then we cannot die well. Because we simply can’t give it up in that very instant, just like that. No, we want to give it up before it’s taken from us in death. 

A great teacher once said that when we get out of our car to go shopping, we must give up everything that’s in the car and even the car itself, because it may not be there when we return. And then, sure enough, one day he came back to his car, and it had been stripped of radio, tires, everything. 

Of course, it’s not just physical things we need to leave behind. Many of us want to leave a personal legacy. That can be a trap. 

Student: But you have a legacy, Sensei. You have a legacy which is your teaching, which is amazing. But maybe you see that not as your personal legacy because you see that it is only coming through you.

Yeah, I cannot help about that. I meant that I don’t want to try to shape a personal legacy that has to do with just me. Well, the books and writings are spread all over and I cannot go out and collect them all. Okay. What I mean is that we don’t want to cling to our vision of ourselves in any way.  None of this can we take away with us.

Student: Oh, yeah. I know that. I think maybe you’re right. Maybe I like what you teach because it reinforces what I know.

That’s exactly right. You recognize it. And this is the essence of how for you to teach your art classes. Yes. and you will do that no matter what because you know that.

Student: Right now, I have an older lady that wants to be my student. And she’s talking about going to France to learn to paint like the impressionists, and then she’s taking this and that course and the work is all about the form.

Hah, you better nail her down quickly, so she learns not to waste her time too much at her age.

Student: Right. She needs to hear this. Because I can see she’s all over the place in a way. She wants to go to art school and all that, and she’s not that young, you know, and I want to tell her don’t just learn all those techniques. You know, it’s okay to learn the techniques. But until you have something to say that is really true to yourself, you know, …

Oh, that’s so dangerous to tell an artist that! Artists too often think that they’re telling truths about themselves, revealing things about themselves. Their ego loves that idea. Nonsense. That’s missing the point altogether.

Student: I know what you mean. 

It is dangerous to say that kind of thing to an individual like that, because then she’s going to feel deficient if she gets a glimpse of reality. 

Student:  Oh, I see, just like Ki Testing.  It’s all in how you do it. 

Exactly. How to give the test, or the teaching, in such a way that she will suddenly be able to say, “Aha, I get it. I feel it, I know what you are pointing to here. I have this, I want to express that!” Then, okay. And then the time she spends with you will all be a process of peeling away all of that SELF SELF SELF baggage. Then she will be able to create more and more freely, more and more openly and vulnerably. And then she can live her life that way. Someday, just like you. 

Okay, I must go now.

Student: Okay. I hope sometime we can have more conversation.

Of course.

Student: This is so interesting. I remember when you once said to me, “Art is good, but, you know, there are higher levels.” You told me that. Yes, and I feel like I can do things in a way that I can communicate this to other people.  But the essence of the teaching, I think I can see what you meant now. With my years of creating, I can see how it weaves in and out, and it’s behind everything. So, I really appreciate feeling that connection, you know, feeling the connection of all the different expressions of art, how they all connect. And what you said about learning the form and then leaving the form to be freer. I can really see that. It’s so nice to have it from you very clearly like this.

Well, you have the credentials now, and that’s worth all your life’s work, because you built those credentials through so many years. So now, you don’t have to think about it to see it all.

Student: No, I don’t have to. But I like to hear it to be clear in my mind. Well, I’m looking forward to more conversations with you.

Yes, thank you very much.