Soen Nakagawa Roshi Remembered
Excerpted from the book
Untrain Your Parrot -And Other No-Nonsense
Instructions on the Path of Zen
Shambhala Publications, 2007

My first Zen retreat was with Soen Nakagawa Roshi in 1975. While participants came from varied backgrounds, most of us were practicing some form of concentration, or single-pointed awareness, since it was the main meditation mode taught in the United States by first-generation Asian Zen teachers.

One day at lunch, peanut butter appeared. Someone must have told Soen Roshi that this was an American Zen tradition, since earlier meals consisted of pickles, tea, white rice, and no condiments. Meals were silent, so when a fellow at the end of the table gesticulated, trying to get the peanut butter to come his way, no one noticed – we were too busy concentrating! Finally Soen Roshi bellowed, "How can you talk about seeing the Dharrrrma* (the teachings of reality) if you can't see to pass the peanut butter?" That jolted us temporarily out of the myopic view that concentration alone would wake us up; obviously, mindfulness was also necessary.

But our hopes of enlightenment, preferably by the end of the week, were undeterred. I spotted no fewer than seven copies of The Three Pillars of Zen in the women's dorm, several open to the section on enlightenment experiences. I had met Soen Roshi at a sitting at the home of Ray Jordan, who taught Buddhism at San Diego State University for many years, and had been married to a woman whose enlightenment experience was described in Three Pillars. I happened to be standing by Soen Roshi when someone came up and told him that there was a cancellation for the upcoming Los Angeles sesshin. Someone said "Can I come?'' Shocked, I realized it was me! After some whispering, Soen Roshi said I could come.

Attending a seven-day sesshin as a newcomer with only three months of sitting experience was a dicey proposition. The week jolted my expectations wildly, while highlighting some of the iconoclastic things I'd heard about Zen. Soen Roshi matched my pictures of Han Shan and other wild Zen folks of

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