Bernie's Training: In the Beginning
Picture by Peter Cunningham
I was just doing zen meditation and one day I had an experience in which I felt I lost my mindâ€”and it terrified me. And out of that experience, what came up was I quit Zazen. I quit for a year. I was so terrified by what had happened. That night I had to keep the lights on in the house. I had no idea what was going on. And so I stayed away, and it could have been forever. That experience could have led me to stop doing Zazen forever.
But, I had read a book calledÂ Three Pillars of Zen, which many of you might know. And a man, Yasutani Roshi, who appears in that book, and some of you areÂ from the Sanbo Kyodan club, and that, was started by Yasutani Roshi. Heâ€™s my grandfather in the Dharma. My teacher studied under Yasutani. My teacher studied under three teachers, one of whom was Yasutani. So, Yasutani is one of my grandfathers. And I also studied under Yasutani, but that was later.
What happened is I had been terrified. I had read many things about Zen. And then I saw, and I read the bookÂ Three Pillars of Zen. And then I saw an advertisement saying Yasutani Roshi was going to give a talk in Los Angeles. Thatâ€™s where I was living. And so I went to the talk. And at that talk I met the translatorâ€”Yasutani Roshi did not speak English. His translator was a man name Maezumi, who then becomes my teacher.
I went up to the translator, and I said, â€śDo you have [It turns out I had met the translator about four years before] a group?â€ť And he says, â€śI just opened up a place.â€ť And I started to study with himâ€”every day.
If that hadnâ€™t happened, I probably would have never gone back to Zen, because of that experience. I had nobody to talk to about it. So, the result of that experience for me was the importance of having a teacher, which then got reinforced when I became my teacherâ€™s right hand person in our Zen Center in Los Angeles. And many students would come who had no teacher, and had been doing meditation for long periods. By then many people knew about meditation, and they would do it on their own. And in many cases, perfectly OK, but many cases the people that were on their own had damaged themselves. Some in a physical wayâ€”their eye sight had gotten worse, some their breathing had gotten worse, many had so conditioned themselves to working on things likeÂ Mu, or different things that they had read about that it was hard to get them to work correctlyâ€”correctly in the way that we wanted to teach.
So that just reinforced for meâ€”if anybody in those days would say, â€śCan I study without a teacher?â€ť I would say, â€śNo. Youâ€™re opening yourself for problems.â€ť All kinds of things can happen. There are many experiences that can arise out of meditation that can be traps. Itâ€™s like taking drugs and having an experienceâ€”it could be a problem. It may feel great. Wow! But it may cause problems. The main problem when it feels great is that you want to recreate it. â€śI want to do that again!â€ť You know? And if you try to do it through meditation, you try to get your meditation to do thatâ€”to recreate the experience that you had. And thatâ€™s bad news, man. Itâ€™s bad news.
At any rate, that was the first experience that came out of bearing witness, out of sitting, and the fear that I had lost my mind. And so the action that had come out of that, which was dropping Zen, you could label it however you wanted to. But at that point in my life, that was the action that came out of not knowing and bearing witness. And most people will say, â€śWell, who wants that kind of action?â€ť Well, I mean, who are you to choose? And you would say, â€śThatâ€™s bad.â€ť So then we can have as our third TenetÂ badÂ actions, you know. At any rate, it was an action that happened.
So I was practicing with my teacher. At that time, my teacher, he was in the Japanese Soto club. And when he went to Buddhist University, he lived at a dojo at a training place of a wonderful man named Koryu Roshi, a lay Rinzai teacher. He lived there, and thatâ€™s where he started his koan study. And because of that, when he came to the States, he continued. He came as a young man to help in a Japanese temple. Maezumi Roshi was also studying koan study with Yasutani Roshiâ€”there are two different systems of koans.
In 1969 Yasutani Roshi decidedâ€”he had been coming to the United States every year, helping a friend of his, I donâ€™t want to give you all these names, but the friend was Soen Nakagawa Roshi, it gets confusing. But he was helping a friend, so he came every year to run sesshins. And Maezumi wound up being a translator on the west coast for Yasutani, and decided to start studying with himâ€”although he had been studying with this other man, Koryu Roshi. And he also was part of this Soto tradition.
So I was practicing with my teacher Maezumi Roshi, and it was a time that he was not doing koan study. So in â€™69, when Yasutani Roshi told him that â€śIâ€™m not going back anymore to Americaâ€”the United Statesâ€”come with me to Japan, and finish your training with me.â€ť And Maezumi said, â€śOK.â€ť And then he said, â€śBernie [he called me Tetsugen in those days] Tetsugen, you run the Zen Center here in Los Angeles.â€ť So, I was justÂ thirty years old, right, and I was put in charge of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which meant giving talks and interviews, conducting the Zazen.
And also that year, Koryu Roshiâ€”the man that Maezumi Roshi started to do his work with when he was in Universityâ€”decided to come to the United States, to Los Angeles, so that Maezumi could finish the koan study with him. So he came. And Â Maezumi Roshi had been gone for a year, and then he came back for a month, then he went back to Japan. But when he came back for the month, Koryu came. And I decided Maezumi Roshi was my teacherâ€”my root teacherâ€”but I decided to do sesshin with Koryu Roshi (and Maezumi Roshi was translating).
And I joined that sesshin. I passed the koanÂ Mu, in a way that Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi thought was very unusual. SoÂ MuÂ is a koan, usually the first koan in koan systems. A koan is something you contemplate on until you can present the meaningâ€”but not intellectual meaningâ€”you can present it via expression, that youâ€™ve experienced what it is. And working on a koanÂ Mu, is exactly like working onÂ what is not knowing? â€”The first tenet of our Three Tenets.So to pass the koanÂ Mu, you are supposed to experience the state of not knowing. OK. So the Three Tenets actually come out of my Zen training. And they come out ofâ€”as youâ€™ll seeâ€”a lot from the koan study.
But at any rate, so I wasâ€”in the terminology we use nowâ€”I was bearing witness to not knowing. Didnâ€™t know it was not knowing, so it was in the form of this wordÂ Muuuuu!Â I was bearing witness to that. And an experience came out in which I felt the unity of life. And they saidâ€”I mean they do testing and whateverâ€”but they thought it was very, very deep. In fact Koryu Roshi went back to Japan, and told everybody about what had happened with this guy, this American. So I actually went to Japan shortly after and did more study with him. And everybody that saw me said, â€śWow, youâ€™re Tetsugen, huh?â€ť They all had known about it. That experience dictated my next almost twenty yearsâ€”no, ten years. Ten years had passed, fifteenâ€”but at any rate, it was a major thing during those first twenty years.
So the two big experiences during those first twenty years was 1) feeling I had gone crazy, and out of which came the feeling I have to have a teacher; and 2) the experience of the unity of life in such a way that I felt that I could help people have that experience, and that it was extremely important. It was the most important thing in my life.
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