Kobun Chino Otogawa on Zazen (Remembering Kobun)

I have read that in 1967, Shunryu Suzuki invited Kobun to come to California to help start the Tassajara monastery. I’ve also read that Kobun’s arrival was sponsored by a community in Palo Alto, and that by 1971 Kobun was teaching at the Haiku Zendo there. I know that during that time he lectured regularly at the zendo in Santa Cruz, because that’s where I first heard him speak.

Some of the things he said in Santa Cruz impressed me very much. He said he had come to this country not because he wanted to bring the teaching here, but because there was something going on in this country that he felt he could learn from. He said, “take your time with the lotus”.

When I heard him say “take your time with the lotus”, I couldn’t even sit the half-lotus. It would be about twenty years before I began to think I could sit the lotus.

In the eighties I heard Kobun speak at the S.F. Zen Center. At the close of his lecture, he said: “you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around!” Maybe five years prior to that, I had an experience just like that: I was sitting at my desk paying close attention to my breathing, and my body got up and walked across the room, even though I had no intention to do so. I was amazed, and I tried for the next several years to act without intention all the time. By the time I heard Kobun speak at the Zen Center, I was very familiar with the zazen that gets up and walks around, but I still couldn’t sit the lotus.

In the early part of this century, I attended the last three days of a seven-day sesshin at Jikoji in Santa Cruz, and Kobun was there. We sat in a circle at the close of the sesshin, and offered our thoughts. I spoke to say that I felt a stretch in sitting, and that the stretch sometimes extended to my head, which I enjoyed; Kobun said that he felt the same stretch, and he enjoyed it, too. Someone asked Kobun if he had any pain or numbness in his legs when he sat the lotus; Kobun replied that he never had pain or numbness in his legs in the lotus, although there was some pain when he sat seiza.

In 2005 I sat down and started to write, as I had many times before, with no clear idea about what I was going to say. I wrote about Moshe Feldenkrais and his three exercises for getting up out of a chair, I wrote about Ida Rolfe’s agonist/antagonist explanation of ligamentous support, and I wrote about John Upledger and the reciprocal innervation he felt while lying in an isolation tank. I explained at least to myself how the movement of breath and the shape of the spine could necessitate activity in the body, and even generate that activity involuntarily through the moment-to-moment sense of place connected with the occurrence of consciousness.

When I picked up the pen again, I wrote a short piece for a friend about waking up. Three days after I finished the piece, I had a dream where Kobun came walking up to me as I was sitting at a cafe table reading a newspaper; he was in his robes, carrying a short stick. I told him I had new shoes; he said nothing, but he smiled with a big grin. I looked at the newspaper, and wondered what I could tell him that was new. I thought about what I had written, and I thought to myself “Kobun wouldn’t want to hear about that”, but I started to recall what I had written and to feel my sense of place. I woke up, and as I realized what had happened, I regretted not telling Kobun what I had written.

Lately I’ve been writing for friends about waking up and falling asleep, about the role of the sense of place in waking up and falling asleep. If I can bring forward my sense of location and relax, then I can wake up or fall asleep; the trick is, the sense of location tends to move as I wake up or fall asleep.

These days I’m happiest when I can feel my action being generated from the place I find myself in, from the place and the things that enter into the place even before I know it. I can say that my sense of place is freed to move when I have an attraction or aversion to something I feel, and the witness of that attraction or aversion enters into my sense of place; that’s how I find myself waking up or falling asleep, in the midst of my activity.

I sit the lotus now in the morning until I really feel awake, and at night until I’m starting to fall asleep.

Maybe Kobun came to this country to learn from our mistakes. The things we drew out of him were amazing, and the thought that he came to learn that way sends me to my knees.

Thank you;

All best wishes,

Mark Foote