Kobun Chino Roshi as remembered by Carolyn Atkinson in the final chapter of her book A Light in the Mind: Living Your Life Just As It Is

We’ve been talking at Everyday Dharma about the question raised by the Dalai Lama after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even as he was being feted by the whole world, he found himself wondering if his efforts truly had been enough. When we slow down, when we stop and pay attention, it’s possible to feel the wish arise that somehow we might do more, or do better. Perhaps it seems we should be doing something else, something other than this life we find ourselves experiencing. Are we getting it right? Most of us want to feel accomplished, to seem worthy in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. And it’s easy to long for life to have transcendent meaning always. Couldn’t we just be certain that what we’re doing is enough, or is the right thing? The feelings are often just a quiet moment or two away from consciousness.

We could say that, in its most general form, it’s a desire for our lives to be extraordinary somehow. So, here at our Zen Center, we’ve been considering what it might mean for each of us truly to accept and to allow ourselves to be something else—to be ordinary. What if we’re not really special at all? What if we’re quite ordinary? For some of us, this can bring a sense of deep relief, because there’s no need to strive so hard, to feel always dissatisfied and fearful of criticism; it’s actually all right to just be ourselves. For others, being ordinary can feel really disappointing; the words that come to mind are boring, dull, uninteresting. We look around at others in the world, and it can seem that, here and there, some people truly are different—larger than life, we might say. So why can’t we also be one of those very extraordinary people?

I remember the many years I felt a deep longing to be special, to be extraordinary. Growing up in post-World War II America, I, along with many of my generation who came of age in the sixties and seventies, wanted to be anything but ordinary. Looking back on my life, I’m sure that this was involved in my desire to practice Zen Buddhism. It looked so special—there were mysterious ways of talking and sitting, and the monks all had striking black robes to wear. The retreats were heroic, with very little sleep, cold feet and brutal conditions. Surely if we undertook all these special practices, we could be extraordinary, even luminous perhaps? Couldn’t we then reach an ideal, transcendent state of mind?

When I first met my teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, it seemed that all my wishes to find transcendence came together in his very presence. He appeared to be absolutely extraordinary. This slight Japanese man was, for us, the perfect expression of mystery. He moved silently, except for his rustling robes; he chanted in ancient languages; he gazed at us with large, luminous eyes; and it felt to me as if, merely by looking at me, he could penetrate into my very heart and mind. He was incredibly exotic; he wore white tabi socks and carried a teaching stick. He’d grown up in a Zen temple family in Japan, and we knew he’d begun to meditate when he was less than six years old. I think I believed that simply being in his presence would somehow help me transform my life into something extraordinary. I suspect most of us who were his students felt this way in the beginning.

Fortunately for us, Kobun was an amazingly kind person. He didn’t take advantage of our adoration; he was very accepting of us at our little zendo in Santa Cruz. We were a motley gathering of hippies, graduate students, short-order cooks and carpenters, and, nevertheless, he was willing to be completely present with us in our ordinary lives. He gave us the great gift of living his life in our midst. We who were his students spent time with him when he was glorious and inspirational, and we felt inspired simply by being around him. In looking back on this time, I think that we felt touched by his reflected glory.

But there was this also: because he was willing to stay connected with us, slowly, gradually, by paying close attention, we could also begin to see not just the glory in his presence, but also sometimes the sadness in his eyes. Occasionally, he seemed isolated, even in the midst of many people. We began to notice that his life didn’t always work out so perfectly; he too sometimes seemed to fall apart. He couldn’t hold everything in his complicated world together all of the time. Apparently, life for him was also what we might call “ordinary.” It could be painful and difficult for him, too.

I experienced Kobun as being incredibly present and accepting of us, an amazingly kind man. I also realized gradually over the years, that he was, just like all of us, a very ordinary, flawed human being. He made mistakes. He suffered. His life story looked quite different from ours in the details—more glamorous to us perhaps—but it was the same in effect. We are, each of us, ordinary human beings. We all carry the weight of our family and our personal stories. We all make mistakes, and we all suffer. This seems to be built into being alive.

I think this was his greatest gift to me, actually. Finally, I understood that there was no other, more perfect life to reach, beyond this ordinary embodied experience. If Kobun couldn’t do it—if he couldn’t attain a blissed-out state of permanent wisdom and serenity that would protect him from pain in his life—then it was very unlikely that I would find such a place myself! When I recognized this, I saw that there was nothing else to wait for: this life is it. Right here and right now. This is what there is. Rain on the roof. Newspaper soaked and muddy. Unopened mail, unfinished lives. This is what we have—birth and death and everything that lies between. The nature of this life is that it is flawed, it is modest, it is often unsatisfactory. And, also, this life is of enormous value. Nothing is special. And yet everything is unique. This is what we have in these very ordinary, embodied lives. I learned this, in being with Kobun.

Knowing what we have—all we have—are these ordinary lives, I feel now how important it is to not take what we have for granted. Let’s not think that everything will always be the way it is when life feels good. No one person, no particular thing, no place of practice will always be waiting for us. When Kobun died, I was incredibly shocked. I had thought that he would always be there for me. I must confess that when i learned of his death, my first thought was horror that he had died; and my second thought was, “But what about me?” I realized, as I sat with his death, that I had taken him very much for granted. Having learned this painfully with Kobun, I want to say, let’s try not to do that. Don’t think that everything will always be the way it is now, that we can always count on life being the way we want it to be. This is the only time we have, and this is the only life we have, so let’s not take anything for granted.

Now, say we really don’t want to wait to live our lives, and we truly have the intention not to take things for granted, the the question is, how exactly can we do this? If we look at our ordinary lives, what might this mean? Certainly I have asked this question for years. How do we do this thing of being alive? What are we doing? In fact, I would say that, as a group of students around Kobun, we asked that question of him more frequently than we did any other. We phrased it in many different ways, but it came down to something like this: “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we do this practice? Why do we meditate?” Over and over, for thirty years or more, we returned to this most basic question.

In looking back through the many years that I knew him, I can see that Kobun’s answers grew and deepened over time, just as his life changed and transformed. When he arrived here in America, he was a single, young Japanese man who had grown up in a traditional Asian temple world and had undertaken Buddhist training and studies. His spoken English seemed to be largely scholarly, and his conceptual framework was fairly abstract. I must confess that I found him very difficult to understand in the early years. Here is a portion of a talk he gave that illustrates this time period. As usual, we were asking, “Why do we do this? Why do we sit?” He replied, “The stage of purity go endlessly and so-called ‘Nirvana’ comes very end of it. Nirvana is literally ‘death,’ perfect death is what Nirvana is, and we accomplish it before this body reach to end—still functioning remain we reach to that end of the purity.” I really didn’t understand what he was saying! I had trouble retaining the words. I noticed instead that, for me, the real importance of what Kobun taught was in the way he lived with us; still, I longed to “understand” what he was saying. When, occasionally, he would utter words that i could actually absorb, I felt how precious they were. I suspect it was that way for most of us who were his students. We hoarded the few words we understood.

In retrospect, I realize that, over the years of his teaching, his English became much clearer, and his expressions were increasingly less abstract and more grounded in his experience. Here is the way he answered this same question, “Why do we sit” in the middle years of his teaching: “The main subject of Denko-e [a particular retreat period] is how to become a transmitter of actual light. Life light. Practice takes place to shape your whole ability to reflect the light coming through you and to generate, to re-generate your system so the light increases its power.” Now, that was much clearer for me than his earlier statement! It was an image that I could really understand and remember.

There are two aspects to this description that I’d like to mention. One is the emphasis on light—this was a very important, recurring image for Kobun. He used the word frequently in his dharma talks, and also in conferring names. Ko is the Japanese sound for “light,” and he named his two practice places Hokoji and Jikoji. My dharma name also has the word Ko in it, as well—Eiko Joshin. The possibility of light was very important to Kobun. Transforming and enhancing light was his goal.

The second aspect is the feeling of power and strength he conveyed when he spoke about “generating, re-generating [our] system so the light increases its power.” He spoke about this in the prime years of his teaching; he was strong and pursuing a life of doing it all. He was committed to having a family and, at the same time, being an available and connected teacher. He traveled from place to place; he took care of his children; and he ministered to his large sangha. He believed—we all probably believed at that time—that it was possible to do everything we set out to do. In fact, Kobun seemed actively to embody this principle for many of us. When he said, in effect, practice is about taking the light that shines into us and making the light even stronger, it felt as if he were actually casting a bright light of inspiration directly upon us, his students. We each drew comfort and clarity from him; he truly seemed to lighten the world around him.

We’re told that the Buddha, in his final teaching words, used a similar image. Sometimes it’s translated as, “Be a refuge unto yourself.” But often his words are rendered in this way, “Be a light unto yourself. Make of yourself a light.” Maybe we can understand it as this: make a greater brightness in the world—find your own way.

I’ve mentioned that when we asked Kobun how to do something, how to do a ceremony for example, he would reply,”You figure it out. We’re making it all up as we go along.” And, if we really understand that, then of course we have no choice but to find our own way in this life. We must find the light within ourselves. We must be our own light. Kobun liked to say that our effort to find our own way, to create a greater brightness in the world, was a natural impulse. In this same teaching about being a transmitter of light, he said, “We face such a big task, so naturally we sit down for a while.” We were constantly asking him, “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we practice?” His answer was that, facing such a big task as living our lives, naturally, we sit down for a while.

So, here is this practice that we do, this deceptively simple activity: we sit down; we slow down; we reduce the stimulation in our lives; and, for this period of time, we give up distraction and entertainment. We simply sit still, making the effort, over and over, to just be here, in this present moment. As you know, this is amazingly difficult. I think that’s why, for so many years, we all kept asking Kobun again and again, “Why do we do this?” We might have been saying, “Why on earth should we do this, at all?” It’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, finding the willingness, over and over, to sit down again, to be present in my life, just as it is. Actually, we could also say, just as we are.

And when we just sit down, this is what happens: we experience the pain that we’ve been suppressing, the grief we haven’t had time for, the anger we’ve hidden away, the fear that constantly shadows us. We discover that our minds do their absolute best to escape being here; and we also realize that we—whoever “we” are—are not in charge at all. Over time, we begin to notice also how much we can actually love others and perhaps finally ourselves. We begin to see that we can turn directly into our pain; we can feel it fully and, even so, we can still survive. When we walk toward our fear we discover that we are no longer controlled by our fear. The fact is that however much we are able to be present—exactly that much is what we are able to bear. Even the death of a most beloved teacher is finally bearable. This was exactly what I found with Kobun after his death. Sitting down—practicing—gave me a way to hold all the feelings so they didn’t destroy me, and I didn’t have to run away. With practice, we can begin to see our lives more clearly, and to live these lives with greater freedom because we are learning to be present. This is truly a revolutionary secret.

In “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” Mary Oliver describes the final teaching from the Buddha: “‘Make of yourself a light,’ / said the Buddha, / before he died…. / An old man, he lay down / between two sala trees, / and he might have said anything, / knowing it was his final hour.” The teaching of a lifetime comes down to this one suggestion: “Make of yourself a light. Be a light unto yourself.” Find your own way, we might say. Mary Oliver concludes her poem by speaking in her own voice: “clearly I’m not needed, / yet i feel myself turning / into something of inexplicable value.” In fact, although clearly none of us are needed, amazingly enough, as we quiet our minds and open our hearts, we can truly feel ourselves turning into something of inexplicable value. Kobun pointed us, his students, in this direction. He said that practice is about receiving the light that comes into us, and increasing the power of this light. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” Be of value.

In the 1980s, Kobun moved away from northern California, from us, his students in the Bay Area, but he would sometimes come back, perhaps once a year, for a sesshin, a retreat. Most of us carefully kept our calendars clear for his return, and carved out the time to go to see him. I certainly did that. I found that I might have the opportunity to talk with him perhaps for one hour a year during that time when he was gone. That was all. I treasured that one precious hour so much; I would remember for months afterward what he had said to me.

Then, in the late 1990s, something amazing happened. He actually moved back to this area, and lived quietly for several years right here in Santa Cruz, up in the small community of Bonny Doon. He settled with his new wife and second family into a traditional-style Japanese farmhouse, only about five minutes from my home. It was quite startling and wonderful to have him so close once again.

After he had been here for several months, I asked if it would be all right to get the old-timers together to sit with him occasionally; he quietly nodded his assent. There were about ten of us who had sat with him for many years, and we began to meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon at my house, just to have the opportunity to sit together again as a sangha, and to be with Kobun. I look back now and I realize how unique this time was. To use Kobun’s own words, it was “a rare and precious opportunity.” We did this as a group for maybe a year and a half, perhaps two years, until Kobun and his family moved to Colorado.

Death comes unexpectedly, doesn’t it? At our last meeting with Kobun—we didn’t know it was our last meeting at the time—someone once again asked that old familiar question, “Kobun, why do we sit? Why do we do this?” Now, you’ve already heard two of his answers—the first one abstract and perhaps difficult to understand, and the second one inspiring and dynamic. At this final meeting, he gave us a third answer, the last one I heard from him. It seems to me that this response expresses his mature reflections, gathered over a lifetime of living. What he said was concrete and easy to understand; and it was, to my ears, humble and deeply touching. I don’t know if anyone else wrote down his words, but I did, as soon as I could find pencil and paper. I’d like to share his precious final response to our perennial question, “Why do we do this practice?”

“We sit,” Kobun began slowly, “to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” He looked down at his hands as he spoke. He was quiet for a long time. Then he continued, “We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” Again he waited, as he perhaps reflected upon his own life. “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” Once again, he paused, so long at this point that I wondered if perhaps he had finished. But finally he continued, “If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” He stopped and looked around at us in our small circle. He moved from face to face with his eyes, seeing deeply into each one of us, his long-time, oldest students. Finally, he nodded slightly, and concluded, “Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

Here it was, Kobun’s conclusion to a lifetime of practice and teaching.

“We sit to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing. We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are. This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do. If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light. Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

It’s so simple, isn’t it? We sit to make life meaningful. Practice brings a modest light into our minds. Yes, a simple teaching. And, for me, the most profound one. I had listened to Kobun speak about Buddhist practice for thirty years, and, as I reflected at that last meeting upon his teachings, I finally saw and felt something of the sweep of his life. It seemed to me that his mind had transformed in a phenomenal way. He had moved from the traditional abstract Zen way of speaking in both content and presentation, all the way, we could say, to the practice of the tender heart. It was an amazing journey for him to take. It was a profound evolution. When I considered how far he had traveled in his experience, beginning in the very traditional Japan before World War II, I was incredibly inspired. And the fact that he would talk about it—this very private man—made it an enormous gift to us, his students.

Let’s look closely at his words, this final teaching. He begins, “We sit to make life meaningful.” We practice to understand our lives, we could say, to find a meaning or a purpose in our lives. Actually, we sit so that life has meaning. We sit in order to love our lives, to treasure this transient life. And then he goes on to say something so important: “The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing.” I looked at Kobun’s quiet face, the sadness that sometimes was visible in his eyes, and I knew that the significance of Kobun’s life was clearly not in what he had created, not in some perfect thing, but was simply in who he was. He certainly didn’t create a perfect life. In many ways, it was a life of chaos. But that wasn’t what mattered. We loved him for who he was when he was with us. And this is what mattered after he died. Not some perfect thing he’d created, but simply his willingness to be with us, to love us unconditionally.

He continued by saying, “We must start with accepting ourselves,” and I knew that Kobun spoke from his own experience. There were profound ways in which he suffered in his life, and I considered it one of his greatest teachings that this man we loved so much, who held us with such great kindness, also had to struggle to accept himself. It was difficult even to see that this was what was happening. It was difficult to believe it. And, yet, it was true.

He went on to say, “Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.” In other words, when we sit down, when we sit still, we find out what’s really going on. We experience what’s true in our lives. Then he continued, “This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.” He was talking about the minute-by-minute willingness to be who and where we are, without turning away, without blotting out our consciousness, without judgment and without despair. This is really challenging.

Then he came back to the image of the light, and you’ll notice that this time it was not as a great transformer; rather, it was as one small candle. “If we cannot accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light.” If we can’t accept ourselves, he was saying, we are living in darkness, a great darkness of the mind and of the heart. It is a big task, learning to accept ourselves, so, naturally, we sit down for a while. And, then, his last sentence came back to our old, perennial question: why do we sit? Why do we make this effort to sit down, to quiet the mind and observe what is happening? Because, “Practice,” he said—this meditation, this effort, this awareness and stillness—”is this candle in our very darkest room.” Practice creates the smallest light in our darkness. This effort at awareness and stillness is our single candle in the darkness of our minds and hearts. You know, when we have all the electric lights turned on, a candle doesn’t seem like very much light. But when the power goes out, have you noticed how much light a single candle brings? This is what he finally came to in the course of his life: practice brings us one small candle in the darkness of our minds and hearts.

Here’s what I would suggest: we don’t have to be huge floodlights. Let us just be small and ordinary candles. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” We sit down in the darkness of our lives, and our practice is this one small candle that helps bring us light and clarity and understanding. We sit and sit, knowing that we’re not needed—knowing how ordinary we finally are—and yet, gradually, ever so gradually, we find ourselves turning into something of inexplicable value. Ordinary, yes. And priceless too, each of us.

Kobun was my teacher of inexplicable value. With his life, he lit one candle in the great darkness in which we all sometimes found ourselves. I miss him so much. Once again we light our one ordinary candle, each of us, in our darkest rooms; every day, this day, we discover a small light within ourselves when we naturally sit down for a while. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said. “Be a light unto yourself.” Let us each care for our one small candle in the darkness of our minds. This is the light of practice, the light of awareness and of stillness—one small light of inexplicable value.

Practice creates a light in the mind.

Concluding Teaching from Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi

We sit to make life meaningful.

The significance of our life is not experienced
in striving to create some perfect thing.

We must simply start with accepting ourselves.

Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are.

This can be very painful.

Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do.

If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night.

We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see.

The mind has no light.

Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.

© 2010-2019 by Carolyn Atkinson. All rights reserved.