Nishijima is Dead, Are You More Alive Than He?

by Richard Collins
1 February 2014

Gudo Wafu Nishijima
I almost didn’t come to zazen today. I had considered going to Santa Monica where Brad Warner’s group is having zazen as they always do at 10 o’clock, to be followed by a memorial service for his master, Gudo Nishijima, who died earlier this week.

I never knew Nishijima, but he was a contemporary of Taisen Deshimaru and like Deshimaru a student of Kodo Sawaki. So he was a very important teacher in a lineage very closely related to ours, and very similar to ours in the reliance on the fundamentals of the practice: on zazen and a pared down ritual. All three were known as rebels in the Zen world, especially in the official world of Soto Zen, and yet they were very much recognized by the Sotoshu, the governing body of Soto Zen in Japan.

Kodo Sawaki was known for restoring zazen to Zen practice in Japan, which had largely fallen out of favor. Monks, often the sons of village priests, would go through their training for a few years at one of the larger training temples, and then when they received their “diplomas,” you might say, they would return to their family temples to make their living performing primarily funerary rites, continuing the family business. But they wouldn’t do zazen much. This is why Kodo Sawaki was known as a rebel and a reformer, going back to the basics. No toys, he would say. Just sit. He didn’t like the use of koans. Just sit. He didn’t like the overreliance on ceremony. Just sit. He didn’t even want to have his own temple, refusing for many years to accept the position of abbot anywhere, until his later years at Antaiji. Just sit.

Sometimes this “just sit” is over-interpreted. Just sit doesn’t mean just sit. It means that whatever you do you undertake with the same attitude of mind that you use when you are sitting in zazen. It doesn’t mean not reading or thinking or studying, much less not working with your hands or practicing an art. Kodo Sawaki and Nishijima and Deshimaru, all were deeply learned. Kodo Sawaki may have been called Homeless Kodo because he did not have a temple of his own, but when he traveled he was never without his case of books, an attachment his friends made fun of. You know the depth of Deshimaru’s learning from my edition of his commentaries on the Heart Sutra. And when I first read Dogen’s Shobogenzo it was in Nishijima’s four-volume translation.

So I thought it might be a nice gesture to show up at the memorial in Santa Monica. A nice gesture, but to impress whom? Maybe if I hadn’t anything else to do. It is more appropriate that I am here for the first sitting in our new space. This is a much better way of memorializing and remembering a master who is no longer here. After all, he is just as not here in Bakersfield as he is not there in Santa Monica. And after all, our zazen is the best way of embodying what Nishijima and Deshimaru and their teacher Kodo Sawaki were all about.

We live in the here and now. Much better to do something for the living than for the dead. That doesn’t mean though that we throw out the past. It doesn’t mean we throw out the past masters of the lineage. On the contrary: Nishijima, Deshimaru, Kodo Sawaki, they were just like the Buddha, just like Bodhidharma, just men, just people, just human beings, just like us. The best way to remember them is to live our lives. The best way to live our lives is to do zazen. The best way to do zazen is as nothing special.

This is our first day in this new space but it is always the first day. Every zazen is the first zazen in a new space. Always remember: posture, breathing, attitude of mind. Mushotoku attitude of mind, no personal profit, no personal gain. That’s the entire formula for zazen, the entire secret to Zen practice, very simple. Don’t complicate it. Complications are an expression of the ego, the very opposite attitude of mushotoku. We want things to be more complex so that we can figure them out, like Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx. We want our lives to be more tangled, more neurotic, like Woody Allen, because we think that makes us more interesting. We want our reactions to be more extreme because we think that makes us more passionate and therefore more alive. But that’s not true. More complexity, more neuroses, more extreme emotions really show us how desensitized we are to the subtleties of others and involve us in our own delusions. See for yourself, though. Drop off these delusions in zazen and see for yourself whether that makes life more interesting and you more alive, or duller and deader. That’s the only test.

Nishijima is dead. The question is: are you more alive than he?


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