LAWRENCE SHAINBERG



From the book
Ambivalent Zen:
One Man's Adventures on the Dharma Path
Vintage Books, 1995

A Three-Day Sesshin at the New York Zendo

... As it happens, Eido Roshi is out of town. Arriving at the zendo on Thursday afternoon, I learn, to my amazement, that this sesshin will be conducted by none other than Soen Roshi, who has only yesterday arrived from Japan. The opportunity to sit with this man, whom many consider the greatest Zen master of the twentieth century, has lured students from as far away as Hawaii, California and New Mexico. Using both the zendo and the meeting room upstairs, space has been found for eighty students, most of whom, like me, will sleep on the floor. There are eleven beginners like myself and – because of Soen – at least fifteen people who've not been near a zendo in years.

Unlike Eido, Soen does not involve himself in zendo business. He will sit with us and give formal talks, or 'teishos,' but delegates logistical responsibilities to the monks who have come down from Dai Bosatsu Zendo

.... After the work period, there is morning liturgy, chanting and recitation of sutras in English and Japanese. Then Soen Roshi takes his place on a small platform at the head of the room. Those who've been sitting upstairs file down to the zendo for the talk, packing the room shoulder-to-shoulder. Fortunately, sitting near the front of the room, I have a good view of the roshi. This is no small advantage since, without his body language, I would not get a word he says. He is reputed to be a great haiku poet, knowledgeable in English and German literature, a scholar of Goethe in particular, but his erudition is not apparent in his English. Small and slight, eyes alternately mischievous and intimidating, there are moments when I find it comforting to look at him but others when he chills me. He is said to be the most playful of all Zen teachers, a worthy heir to the famous Buddhist tradition we call "crazy wisdom." The monks tell me he often asks them to slap his bald head to knock some sense into it. He has been known to hide in a closet when students come in for the private meetings that we call 'kansho' or 'dokusan.' Once, at Halloween, he left a pumpkin in his place on his cushion. Discouraged once about his practice, a student asked him for advice. Soen replied, "Encourage others." It is said he rarely sleeps more than three hours a night and always in full-lotus

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