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Zen Mind, Christian Mind - This is My Body
Listen to this talk:
Zen Mind, Christian Mind - This is My Body (32 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Helen Cortes
March 30, 2014 - Dallas, Texas

Helen: Good evening.

ChiSing: Good evening.

Helen: So I see some familiar faces, although I see a lot of new faces. Good. And as I said earlier in the introduction, it is good to be back. We were sitting here around 3 years ago, and this was one of our zendos. Our main zendo was at the Honeycutt Zendo, but now we have sold the place, so we asked Brother ChiSing if we could come back here, and he was very gracious and accommodating to allow us to be a part of this Dallas Meditation Center. So as you step out of the room and go exit this building, you will see the sign there, Maria Kannon Zen Center. So that is where we will be sitting. And we will be sitting together probably in different forms, but in one breath.

So, I don't need to introduce myself. ChiSing has already said something. And in the calendar, I think he put there Zen teacher Helen Cortes will be talking about Zen and compassion.

ChiSing: You can talk about whatever you want.

Helen: Zen and compassion. So I said, oh my gosh.

ChiSing: Sometimes we just make up things.

Helen: Yeah. I know. You make up things.

ChiSing: But you can talk about whatever you want.

Helen: The first time I was here, I had thoughts about Zen and compassion, so for today, what I decided to do was read this article that I wrote way back in 1995, and the reason why I want to do this is one of the teachers was actually present in this conference. We call it in interfaith conference. Ruben Habito, who is my Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center, he put it together with Susan Postal. I don't know if you're familiar with Susan Postal, but she is a Zen teacher who eventually landed in the Soto tradition in San Francisco, and she has always been sick with the flu. Unfortunately, a month ago, that is when she passed away. So I reread the article or the report that I did on the conference, and I was looking at it, and I said to myself, I think this would benefit a lot of people who would be here today.

So the title of the conference was "Zen mind, Christian mind," the reason being that there were different people from different faith traditions who went all the way to Wainwright House in New York just to participate in this Zen mind, Christian mind retreat, which was of course facilitated by Ruben and Susan Postal. What was very unique during that sesshin is that there was a dharma duet. So usually in the Zen retreats, we have one person offering the—what you call it?—the dharma talk, in our terms. So in this particular case, we had Susan and Ruben responding, so it was a very, very unique retreat participated by at least around 35 people, and this was way back in 1995 in New York.

So the title of the paper was, "Zen Mind, Christian Mind: An Interfaith Retreat and Conference." So this was the second interfaith retreat conference for Zen practitioners across religious traditions, and this was held at the Wainwright House, a newly renovated conference center in Rye, New York, in June of 1995. This was led of course by Ruben, resident Zen teacher of the Maria Kannon Zen Center here in Dallas, and the Reverend of that that time was just Reverend Susan Postal or Susan Ji-on Postal, Zen teacher of the Meeting House Zen group in Rye, New York. So there were about 30 participants coming from different faith backgrounds who participated in this three-day retreat/conference.

So the highlight of the event was actually what we call a dharma duet, in which both teachers gave a talk on the text, "This Is My Body." This particular text was chosen by Marilyn because of its response in the experience of Christians with the Eucharist and Buddhists' Hakuin Song of Zazen which we will recite at the end of the talk, in which it is repeatedly chanted, "This very body, the body of awakening," or, "This very body, the body of Buddha." So in Ruben Habito's words from a three-dimensional perspective, to come to a focus and not as two parallel things, we offer one text, "This Is My Body."

So, Susan Postal opened her talk by reciting lines from Hakuin's "Song of Zazen." "Sentient beings are primarily all Buddhas. It is like ice and water. Apart from water, no ice can exist. Outside sentient beings, where do we find the Buddhas? How boundless the clear sky of samadhi. How transparent the perfect moonlight of wisdom. At this moment, what more need we seek as the truth eternally reveals itself? This very place is the land of purity. This very body, the body of the Buddha."

She emphasized not only the importance of experiencing awakening, but the embodiment of that as the essential matter. Having also studied under Abbot Tetsugen Glassman. I don't know if you're familiar with Glassman, but he has this community, and he also leads intensive retreats in Auschwitz, Germany, you know, where the Jews were killed. They eventually—he's a funny Zen teacher. He ended up becoming a Zen clown, so that is what he is doing right now. He's a quite interesting person.

So having also studied under Abbot Tetsugen Glassman, she recalled two kinds of eye openings from the thoughts of his, the first one being the wisdom eye where one sees the non-separation of things, and seeing clearly, one is at one with all things. The second eye opening she called the dharma eye, which involved understanding uniqueness or difference. And that kind of realization, one sees their own life as all I have.

Having been afflicted with systemic lupus, she describes her earlier life is going up and down like an inconsistent roller coaster. The 1980s, as a single mother with two children, she struggled with her own anxieties as well as with her physical condition afflicted with an incurable illness, which is lupus. In this situation, attacked by fear, she said she was able to experience two gifts. The first, she said, was through a dream in which she saw a large Buddha, a Buddha, who was touching and healing her. Suddenly she woke up from the dream and said, "These are my hands."

This was her first direct experience that it was her hands that were giving healing to her. The second experience came while she was meditating one night, and she was filled with sorrow. She longed for her mother. Usually when we are sitting, she said, our first impulse is to look for our mother. She went back to sit and kept meditating on that wish for her mother. She described a sudden shower of unconditional love that washed over her, yet it was much stronger than what her mother could have given her. She felt totally held, she said, and supported and cared for. She felt as though the whole universe was filled with love and energy. These were her two ways one may experience this is my body.

So Ruben started sharing. So he goes. He offered three events in this life that brought the text home in a special way. After having been ordained as a Jesuit priest in Japan, he returned home to Manila, where he is from, to celebrate mass with his family and friends in his hometown.. The center of the celebration was this is my body given for you. He offered communion to each of the parishioners at the mass. After the mass, as he met his guests at the reception line, his parents introduced him to some people who were responsible for his parents meeting one another, and to persons who held him in their arms when he was a baby but whom he had never met.

I realized in a very vivid way how each person celebrating the mass together at that time was part and parcel of who I am, and recognizing those persons is the "re-cognizing". Those persons unleash a sense of gratitude. There came the realization that I am all that I am precisely because each and every one of these persons were there in my life as they are. So this is my body.

The second event he related occurred where he trained as a Jesuit priest and at the same time trained as a Zen student. While he was attending a sesshin or an intensive retreat with this teacher, the late Yamada Koun. Normally there would be 50, 60 participants, and of those, 15 to 20 were Christians. At that time, they had 15 to 20 priests and nuns attending this Buddhist sesshin in Japan. The Christians were allowed to celebrate the Eucharist in the morning, while the Buddhists chanted sutras. The Eucharistic celebration centered on the words of consecration. This is my body, given for you. While these words were being proclaimed, the Heart Sutra was being chanted, and it served as a steady pulsating background for the Eucharistic celebration.

There was an interior symphony resounding while the Catholics were saying communion and sutras were being chanted. It was only during that particular part of the day, said Ruben, that the Christians were there in that room and the rest of the sangha chanted the sutras. The rest of the day, both Christians and Buddhists were doing the same things: waking up the morning, dozing off, experiencing leg and back pains, falling in line for dokusan, or the practice interview. Ruben said it all became for him a manifestation of one body. That sangha was one body. The resonance of those words in the Eucharist sought itself being realized in what was happening during that intensive Zen retreat. This is my body.

The third events occurred at a worship service in the chapel of the Perkins School of Theology, where he is teaching right now, when some visitors from Central America spoke of how many of their friends were under oppressive conditions when they became victims of military brutality, bleeding to death, or disappearance. The service was done in the context of the Eucharist, and there was a strong sense of solidarity with the Central American brothers and sisters in struggle that was heightened during the service.

As each person went to receive the Eucharist, each was given a cross made of two sticks and a small slip of paper with the name of the person who had disappeared. Back in their pews, each recipient was asked to stand up one by one and read the name on their paper, saying, "Presented, while raising the cross with their other hand. As the names were called, Ruben related, those persons became present in their needs. This is my body. So that is what happened during the exchange at this particular Zen retreat in the Wainwright House in New York.

At this point, I would like for us to read together what Susan was talking about, and that is Hakuin's "Song of Zazen." And then I will just give a few commentaries on chants. It is on page eight, if you can. Can I borrow your bell, ChiSing?

ChiSing: Mm-hmm.

Helen: And the gong? So we will chant this together and just follow the tempo.

(Everyone chants) Hakuin's Song of Zazen. From the beginning all beings are Buddhas. Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas. How near the truth, yet how far we seek. Like one in water crying, "I thirst!" Like the son of a rich household wandering poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds. The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion. From dark path to dark path we've wandered in darkness, how can we be freed from the wheel of samsara?

The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi. Beyond exaltation, beyond all our praises the pure Mahayana. Observing the precepts, repentance and giving, the countless good deeds and the way of right living, all come from zazen. Thus one true samadhi extinguishes evils. It purifies karma, dissolving obstructions. Where then are the dark paths to lead us astray? The Pure Lotus Land is not far away. Hearing this truth, heart humble and grateful. To praise and embrace it, to practice its wisdom, brings unending blessings. Brings mountains of merit.

And if we turn inward and prove our True Nature, that True Self is no-self, our own self is no-self, we go beyond ego and past clever words. Then the gate to the oneness of cause-and-effect is thrown open. Not two and not three, straight ahead runs the Way.

Our form now being no-form, in going and returning we never leave home.

Our thought now being no-thought, our dancing and songs are the Voice of the Dharma.

How vast is the heaven of boundless samadhi! How bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom! What is there outside us? What is there we lack?

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land!

And this very body, the body of Buddha.

(Speaks) Suggest a very short session of who Hakuin is. He was a Japanese Zen master born around the 16th century, and he is very well known for this particular poem. I'm sure you have read it somewhere in a bookstore. So he is famous for the koan, the sound of one hand. It is not the sound of one hand clapping. So the koan goes, in the physical world where we have the left hand and the right hand, and you do this there, that is the sound of two hands. And so the koan goes, in the essential world, the world of the timeless and boundless realm, show me the sound of one hand. Show me the sound of one hand. Or, what is the sound of one hand?

And in our tradition since we are a Zen center and we both practice shikantaza, which is purely sitting meditation, and some of us practice what we call the koan practice. So as you go to your teacher, you present that koan. And so you would think that that is so crazy, what is the sound of one hand. But one thing in particular in Zen practice is that when you present yourself to the teacher, there is a way of really presenting your koan from within. It is not something that you can decipher using your discursive mind or through the process of logic or anything for that matter. So it is something experiential. So you go there to the teacher and then present the sound of one hand.

According to Hakuin, he said that particular koan could really trigger that experience of awakening or that experience of enlightenment, and he was comparing it to the other koan, which is usually used in Zen centers, and that is the koan Mu. And just to give you a brief background, there is this monk who went to this Zen master called Joshu, and the monk asked in all earnestness, "Does the dog have Buddha nature?" And then the Zen master Joshu just responded, "Mu." M-U.

And so again the background of that is we are supposed to be all endowed with Buddha nature. We are all enlightened human beings, so why is this Zen master saying, "Mu"? Which translated in English is simply no, nothing. So it is a negation. And then again, as you sit with this koan and then you go to the teacher, then the teacher would ask, "So what is mu?" So your task is to present to the teacher what is mu. So enough with those koans. They are mind boggling, and what I always say when we give orientation talks is you have to follow your bliss, follow your own temperament.

And if, let's say, a way of setting is, as Brother ChiSing had said, some people would just chant the word Amitabha, and you can go through this this transformative experience. For some, it is just simply walking meditation, taking each step at a time. And so if you take that step, all right, not necessarily taking one step to arrive at the next step—that is, again, a very dualistic way of doing it—but just simply taking the step and take that step to heart and see what happens. There have been people in our community who actually have experiences just by walking meditation.

So if you think your practice is too hard, regardless of what it is, you know, the practice—what is common in all of these practices, whether you are doing Zen, Vipassana, chanting the Lotus Sutra, is all of these practices are anchored in the breath, and that is how powerful the breath is in everything that we do. It starts here in the world with that big, "Waaah!" You know? Crying. And that is the proof that you are alive, and then we end again in that last breath.

One of the things that Hakuin is famous for is—I would like to share the story. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but he is a very, very wise Zen master, and there was this young couple, and of course what happened then is the girl got pregnant, and so the parents say, "Who is the father of this baby here that you are carrying?" And since then she was very afraid and the parents did not approve of her boyfriends, so she pointed at Hakuin. She says, "You know, it is that Zen master over there who fathered this child." So the parents said, "Okay. Let's bring that child to the Temple." So they brought the child, offered it to Hakuin, and Hakuin readily accepts the child and responds, "Is that so?" Okay. So he takes the child. His reputation is destroyed. So everybody is saying, "What kind of Zen master is that, fathering a child?"

And after a year, the lady, the young woman of course could not bear that the child is being taken care of by an old Zen master who was very, very innocent, so she goes to her parents and said, "You know, father and mother, he is not the father of my child. This is the father of my child." So the parents say, "Okay. Let's go to the temple now." So of course, the baby was a little bigger now, and then they said, "Oh, Hakuin, our daughter confessed that you are not the father of this child. So may we have the baby back?" "Oh, of course." So she gives the baby back to the parents of the child or to the mother, and then he goes, "Is that so?"

If you look at that, it is almost like can you do that if you are being attacked or somebody maligns you or does something really? Are you able to have the heart and mind of Hakuin and just say, "Is that so?" It is almost impossible, but what Hakuin is trying to say is that when things like that happen—again, it is almost part of that delusion that we are thinking, all this accusation, and we can just say to ourselves, is that so? And so he was cleared of his bad reputation and continued again teaching.

At the beginning of Hakuin's "Song of Zazen," he said, "From the beginning, all beings are Buddha. Like water and ice, without water, no ice. Outside us, no Buddha." The image that comes to mind with this—of course this is also what Ruben presents to us and gives us a talk—is if you can just visualize the ice tray. The ice tray, so you put water, you put it in the fridge, and it has its little compartments, right? And so what do you see? You see these ice cubes. So you say, "Oh my God. How could this be? How could this be one body?" But set the ice tray, let it melt, and what happens? The ice turns into water, and then now you come to the realization of that oneness.

And that is how we are, very compartmentalized human beings always trying to separate ourselves from the rest, not realizing really that in this world there is that oneness, that one sangha. So that is why I said regardless of the practice that you do, be assured or rest assured that whatever you're doing is really to liberate yourself from all this delusion and just say rest in that one breath, rest in that one step and see what happens.

I think I have covered everything, so in closing, I would really just like to thank Brother ChiSing for accommodating the Maria Kannon Zen Center again. So it is almost like we're homeless, and here comes Brother ChiSing. Okay. Yeah. Sure, sure. Come to our community. So when we started the practice tonight, each of you introduce yourself, and what I heard is common attitudes or feelings was the feeling of gratitude, and that is also how I felt or how I am feeling right now. Gratitude for this practice, gratitude for this place, and gratitude for all the teachings, and gratitude for life itself. So let us continue sitting together. There will be times of the week probably that you will be sitting here, and we will be sitting there. Just remember we are sitting together as one sangha.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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