Bodhidharma's Shoe, Transcript with Notes,

Bodhidharma's Shoe, Transcript with Notes,

TITLE "Bodhidharma's Shoe"



This is an American Zen Center in the town of Jemez Springs, New Mexico. The name of the center is Bodhi Manda. I've been attending meditation retreats here for over 25 years. And I taped this in the spring of 2003.

Zen retreats are called "sesshins" and they usually last seven days.

The word "sesshin" is made up of two Chinese characters meaning to bring the mind or heart together or to concentrate the mind. "Mind" in Chinese also means "heart" -- or the center of our being.


Sesshins are silent and the students are directed by bells, gongs, and by clappers which here are calling us back to the afternoon sitting.

Our teacher is Joshu Sassaki Roshi [3]. He was born in 1907 and came to the United States in the 1962 when Americans were first becoming interested in learning how to do Zen meditation practice.

The tradition he brought is from the Rinzai school of Myoshin-ji [4] in Japan, and we follow the conservative style of that school our chanting and daily sesshin schedule.

OPENING THE BOOK "Unsui: A Diary of Zen Monastic Life"

A Zen friend sent me a series of drawings about Zen monastic life in Japan, published by the University of Hawaii Press. The inscription reads "The middle of autumn, 1966, drawn by Giei Sato [5] in celebration of the eleven hundredth anniversary of Lin-Chi, the Ch'an forerunner of Rinzai Zen Buddhism."

These drawings which were made during his last years of Giei Sato's life, recollect his days as an Unsui, an apprentice monk and it was interesting to compare it with our American practice.

The book opens with a picture of the young monk leaving his father and his family and setting off for the monastery. His father is a priest and he probably runs the local Buddhist temple, and I gather that in Japan, the son is expected to do Zen training to inherit the father's position.

We were young too, when we started in the 1960s and 70s. At that time in America, Zen practice was new and strange. We are drawn to it by spiritual unease and searching, by a longing for perfection, and and by the promise of enlightenment. Zen meditation was something you could learn. You could practice it and get better at it and maybe experience "kensho"[6] or "satori" [7] whatever that was, it seemed pretty great to us.


We wanted to enter and pass through the gateless gate of Zen. The old masters had dangled their hooks. They had written that if you didn't pass this barrier and did not cut off the conventional way of thinking you would be nothing but a ghost clinging to weeds and grasses. There was a great deal of promise and mystery to this ancient and foreign practice, and thinking back on those days, we didn't really understand what we were getting into.

In Japan the young monk is refused entrance into the monastery and he has to remain bowing for two days to prove his sincerity. After signing in, he is sent into a room where he is expected to sit alone for five days. During this time he meets daily with the Shika, a senior monk in charge of monastery administration.

At last these difficult seven days of testing are completed and the young monk is allowed to enter, vowing under the shrine of Manjusri, the guardian of wisdom, not to leave until he as achieved his purpose. He is welcomed warmly by his new brothers and given a place on the zendo tan or platform which will serve as both his bed and his meditation seat.


In America, most of us are lay persons and we don't do this, but all of us remember our first seven day sesshin. As a young man 29 years old, I felt I'd done something extraordinary. I was filled with love for my brothers and sisters who had also endured and supported me. I came home to New York City and had a vivid dream of the universe exploding into beautiful colors. And I got married that same year.


Bodhi Manda is in a small town next to the Jimez Pueblo reservation north of Albuquerque. In a previous life, the place was a Catholic convent and was converted into a Zen center in the 1970s.

By this time, near the end of the retreat, I've gotten use to the wake-up bell at 3 AM and having only ten minutes to get up, washed, and robed and into the Zendo for morning tea.


After tea the sangha goes to the dhrama hall for the morning service and I enjoyed seeing the sleepy monk behind the mokugeo drum [8]. It is, after all, pretty early in the morning.

Most America Zen groups use English, but our old teacher thinks that the Catholics made a mistake when they dropped Latin, so we chant in the Japanese pronunciations of the old Chinese characters which were themselves translated from Sanskrit texts when Buddhism first entered China in the 5th Century. At first it is hard to follow the chants, but after a while the group comes together like a choir.

We return to the meditation hall or zendo, and after final bows begin sitting in earnest.

HAN (wooden block)  IS HIT

At first light, the "han" is hit. The rule is that the han is hit when its light enough to see the lines of your palm. Its also hit at night at dusk and at the end of the evening sitting usually at 9 o'clock. The inscription reads "Time runs quickly. Nothing remains. It waits for no person. You should not waste your time. "


The core activity of the sesshin is seated meditation or zazen [9] -- lots of it. We don't spend much time in zen practice on philosophical discussion or argument. In fact, none at all. But we gather for this week of intensive silence to confront questions of who we are and how to live and how to die.

The leader of the zendo is called the jikijitsu. He is in charge of keeping time and discipline in the zendo. Several times a day he or his assistant patrols the zendo with the kesaku stick, correcting sitting posture and encouraging students who are sleepy or day dreaming.

The keisaku [10] is to be given and received in a spirit of generosity. It wakes you up, and relieves tension in the back and shoulders But newcomers can feel intimidated. And you don't like to get caught napping. Like my friend Murray once said, "It's not the pain. It's the humiliation". But when you realize that its all to help and enliven the atmosphere of the zendo, you get past that feeling.


The sittings usually last about 30 minutes and alternate with kinhin or walking meditation.


We are instructed to walk in step, close together with our hands in sasho or folded together over our chest. Kinhin is a welcome alternative to seated mediation, and brings relief to sore legs and backs. I still experience some pain especially on the second or third day of a seven day intensive sesshin like this, but I know what to expect. People who have never meditated, often express amazement at how much sitting we do and for new comers it is common to feel a sense of physical panic and have fantasies that the timekeeper has fallen asleep. But gradually my muscles adjust and the pain recedes, sometimes replaced by an amazing feeling of well-being [11], but often --and even more creative --I pass through a sort of depression or darkness [12] associated with giving up old ways of thinking-- a kind of darkness before the dawn.


Once a day during sesshin, our elderly teacher Joshu Sassaki Roshi comes to the dharma hall for Teisho or dharma talk. The sesshin retreats follows Rinzai tradition. Rinzai or Lin-Chi in Chinese was an important teacher from the Tang dynasty know for his abrupt and rough use of the stick and the shout.[13]

"When it is time to get dressed, put on your clothes. When you must walk, then walk. When you must sit, then sit. Just be ordinary self, unconcerned in seeking for Buddhahood. When you are tired, lie down. The fool will laugh at you, but the wise man will understand."



At the time I filmed this, Joshu Sassaki was 97 years old. He continues to lead about 18 full seven-day sesshins a year. Beside his daily teisho, he sees each student face to face four times a day in the practice of sanzen.


The sanzen bell rings during the second or third sitting, calling us to an interview with the roshi or "venerable teacher". Everyone must go even if you feel stupid or afraid, and although I've never seen this in America, Geiei Sato's drawing expresses how some of us have felt.

The roshi has given each student a koan -- a public case that shows truth.

A monk asked master Joshu, does this dog have buddha nature or not. Joshu said "Mu".[14]

"Mu" is Chinese character meaning "no" or  "not have" which is a shocking and unexpected response because we are taught that we all have it --- dogs, people, trees, stars. Then what is this "mu".

The student holds this question in the back of his consciousness with each breath. Concentrating on the question with all his might, "mu" becomes a burning ball stuck in the belly which can not be swallowed or spit up.

And waiting here before sanzen, my heart would sometimes race and my hands sweat. What can I say? What should I do?

Often however, the student has had some experience or an idea and an answer has popped into his mind. Now he thinks "I've got it"

And sure enough student enters, and just as sure the experienced teacher knows immediately where he is at, and summarily dismisses him often before the student gets a word out.

One of my old zen friends,  now dead, told me that once he begged, "please, roshi, at least give me a hint."

The Japanese Zen poet Sengai wrote a poem...
            Dog, Buddha Nature
            Don't say he doesn't have it!
            Don't say "MU"
            A stiff spring wind has risen
            Rattling the dry gourds on the eastern wall.


While we sit and walk, the cook or "Tenzo" and his assistants practice in the kitchen. The role of cook is an important one and traditionally this work has always been carried out by teachers settled in the Way and by others who have aroused the Bodhisattva spirit within themselves. Working in the kitchen and sitting or walking zazen are not different things.

Breakfast is at 7AM, lunch at 12 noon, and Dinner at 5PM.


Three students are appointed as servers or handikans. The meal will be a simple one of cereal, milk and fruit but the handikans need to review the meal liturgy [15] and serving procedures so that the meal goes quietly and quickly.


As the food is served the students chant the heart sutra "Form is exactly emptiness. Emptiness exactly form." Like many of the buddhist sutras, these phrases felt strange and foreign at first, but over time I realized that they weren't that different from what we recite in church about the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

In the Bodhisattva's vow, we recite that "our daily food and drink, clothes and protections of life, are the warm flesh and blood, the merciful incarnation of Buddha. Who can be ungrateful or not respectful even to senseless things, not to speak of men?"

Seconds are served and after the last serving, we pass the saba bowel to collect each student's offering to the hungry ghosts -- those restless and unhappy spirits that cling to the weeds and grasses of the world.

In the koan collection "The Gateless Gate" a monk asks the great master Joshu (born 788 - died 897) "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me."
            Joshu said, "Have you eaten?"
            "Yes" replied the monk.
            Joshu said, "Wash you bowl."

These three bowls, spoon and chop sticks are ours throughout the seven days and we will bring them back to our place in the zendo after the meal. The meal is over in about 20 minutes.

WORK (Nitten Soji)

After lunch everyone receives a work assignment. During sesshin the work period is short, but during weeks when there are no intensive dai sesshins, a good part of the day is spent working. "A day of no work is a day of not eating" is a statement attributed to master Hakujo or Pai Chang who established the rules of zen monastic life in 9th century China that we follow today in America.


There is a wonderful story (koan # 53 The Blue Cliff Record) about the young student Pai Chang on a walk with his teacher Ma-tzu. They saw a duck fly up from a marsh nearby.
            "What is that", asked master Ma.
            "Its a duck, a wild duck" replied the young Pai Chang.
            "Where is it?
            "It has flown away."
             Master Ma grabbed Pai Chang's nose and gave it a twist. Pai Chang cried out in pain. "Ouch!!"
            "There", said Master Ma, "when has it ever flown away!"


There is a wonderfully kind and comfortable side to these sesshins, too. Once a day we have formal baths. We divide into three groups of men or women for a half an hour in the hot springs that Jemez is famous for. It's hard to describe how it feels on sore legs and backs.


The sesshin is drawing to a close. After seven days, thoughts about self and enlightenment have mostly melted away. Its like you were trying all the time to jump out of your skin and become perfect, only to find that just where you are, even on the treadmill seeking truth, is just right.

I feel love and gratitude for my companions and my heart swells and breaks like an ocean wave. And to be honest, I still wonder now and then, will the bell ring soon!

Through the years, my teacher has become less of a wizard and more of a man who is old and short and good as most men are. My thoughts now are homeward bound, and I look forward to Sosan or final interview as with a grandparent or a friend.

The young monk in Gei Sato's drawing is not the same young man who left on his journey to the monastery. We will soon return our homes and jobs -- churches and communities. So what do we bring home?

Well I hope we don't forget our shoes. I've done that before.


There is a legend about Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who first brought Zen to China. After he died, the story goes, he was seen walking barefoot back to India carrying one sandal. When his tomb in China was opened, only a single sandal was found inside.

I still ponder over that miraculous question. "Why did Bodhidharma come to China?" [16]

And I wonder too, who of my Zen friends, do these shoes belong to?