A new breed. Denkai explained. Barry Magid August 9th 2011

After nine years had passed, the master Bodhidharma wanted to return to the western land of India. He said to his disciples, "The time has come for me to go back home. I want each of you to show your understanding."

One disciple, Dao Fu answered, "According to what I understand, the function of the Tao cannot be grasped through literal knowledge, nor is it apart from literal knowledge."

The master remarked, "You have gained my skin."

A nun, Zong Chi said, "What I understand now, is like Ananda's glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha. It may be seen in oneness, but never in duality."

The master said, "You have gained my flesh."

Dao Yu said, "The four great elements are originally empty, the five aggregates do not exist and in my comprehension, there is not a single thing to be found."

The master declared, "You have gained my bones."

Finally, Huike bowed and remained standing at his seat.

The master said, "You have gained my marrow."

Looking at Huike, the master told him, "In days gone by the Tathagata handed onto Mahakasyapa the True Dharma Eye. Through the patriarchs from one to another it then came into my hands. Now I am giving it to you and you must take good care of it. Besides this, I will give you my yellow robe which shall be the testimony of faith in the Dharma. Each has a significance you should know."
Huike said, "Will you please reveal to me the significance?"

The master said, "By carrying the Dharma seal you'll be inwardly in accord with the approved mind and the keeping of the robe will fix the outer spiritual message. In later generations when mutual trust is slight and doubts arise, people may say - 'he was a man of India, and you're a son of this land, how could the Dharma have been transmitted? What proof is there?' Now that you are receiving the robe and the Dharma, they can be produced as proof and the activity of the message will be freed from obstacles."

The Transmission of the Lamp

This day is one on which we reflect on the notion of transmission, tradition, and community, what it means to belong, what it means to pass along. My teacher, Joko Beck, in her later years, felt that her one true teacher was Soen Nakagawa Roshi, and she felt it was his insight and his power that she possessed and hoped to transmit. I had only one opportunity myself to see Soen Roshi. He came and gave a talk, I guess it was in the early 80s, at the New York Zen Studies Society, and his English wasn’t very good, and I was pretty much a novice sitting way far in the back, and I couldn’t see very well and I couldn’t hear very well, and I remember only one thing that he said. He asked the audience: What’s more important, sitting or shitting? He said, Shitting, much more important. You can live without sitting, you can’t live without shitting. Joko considered him the greatest master of the century. This is what I got.

In keeping with the core of this story of Bodhidharma and his disciples, I can well imagine Soen Roshi saying to one of his dharma heirs, You've attained my asshole, meaning this as high praise. The story of Bodhidharma and the four disciples there attaining skin, flesh, bone and marrow, is one picture of transmission or continuity, and the scroll we have hanging there reflects another side. The scroll is by a Rinzai teacher, Deiryu, in the lineage of Nantenbo. And with that scroll we have a picture of monks that are out on a begging pilgrimage, all dressed alike, all going marching through the streets asking for alms. The picture we have there is of them all blending together, maybe with little differences, but seemingly indistinguishable, stretching out into a long line that goes off into the distance as far as you can see. And Deiryu’s teacher, Nantenbo, used to paint scrolls very much like this one, the same image of monks in a row, and Deiryu continued in that tradition and he painted scrolls very much like his master. That’s one picture we have of transmission, that we continue what has been handed down to us, and it’s one aspect of the experience of sangha, and of sesshin that we all blend together in a way where we lose our individual identity and there’s just the sesshin.

That’s one aspect of practicing where we use form to dissolve our sense of separateness, our separate sense of who we are, what we want, what we like, what we dislike, how we think it should go, all our opinions and judgments. See, in that model we just get into line like we get on the escalator and we just let it carry us. The picture we have of Bodhidharma and his disciples presents a different side. Each one gives an answer that even though they sound somewhat esoteric, is in accord with Bodhidharma’s teachings, the transmission of the dharma outside the literal meaning of the words or scriptures to be found in non-duality, in emptiness, and ultimately in silence, not knowing. But he says to each of them that they have attained a different aspect of who he is and what he is transmitting. And one reading of that story says that the first one that attains the skin has superficial understanding, that progressing reflects deeper and deeper understanding until we stand silent to attain the marrow, and this is the deepest understanding and this is why he’s given the robe to the second patriarch.

But Dogen has a famous commentary on this case, in which he says it’s a mistake to think that any one understanding is deeper than the other. The master approves of them all and they each are functioning in their own way to fulfill the dharma, and if you think of the image of them all representing a part of the body, you can see that no one part of the body can stand or function alone, and if you ask, what’s the most important part of the body, well, you can make a case for the brain or the heart, but a naked brain lying on the ground does not live and does no one any good. All the parts of the body function, live, only because they are connected to one another and each part fulfills its role, and the functioning is through the whole body, not through any one part.

In the end, Huike receives the robe because he’s going to fulfill a particular function. It may be that there is a premonition that his particular teaching will be the one that can be carried on into future generations, although the whole idea of a continual lineage is largely a fabrication of a Chinese preoccupation with lineage taken over by the Japanese, and, you know, it’s possible that it’s Huike’s descendants writing the story. His line died out and if the dharma was transmitted primarily through the order of nuns of the second successor there, the story might have been told differently.

I want to use that story to say something about the nature of the ceremony we held this morning, because each person receiving denkai and this new rakusu, is performing a different function, and I anticipate will go out and perform different functions in the world as they begin to teach, or one way or another serve the dharma in their own way. As this practice and this training comes out of monastic settings, how we’re training the next generation and what teaching means, is undergoing a lot of changes, and we have less and less the model of that scroll, where one identical generation follows the next, and a great deal more diversity in the forms that teaching takes and practice takes.

Now the ceremony we did this morning I call denkai, and that in itself is complicated, and I need to give you a little history about it, which is a little technical. Some of you may want to go to sleep now. See, in a traditional Soto lineage, of which Joko separated herself and decided she did not want to be part of any more, when she went out and founded the Ordinary Mind School, she basically cut herself off from the formal lineage of her transmission teacher, Maezumi Roshi, and she said she was going to establish her own standards and her own way of doing things. Now she had, in her sangha, a number of people who had been ordained as priests by Maezumi, and who had been trained in that style by him, and they eventually became her successors and carried forward some of that way of doing things.

Her first successors, Elihu Smith in particular was attendant to Maezumi, and because they were ordained and had a full set of robes, they continued to think of themselves as priests, having received an ordination from Maezumi. Joko had none of that in San Diego. There were no robes, and there was no division of function or service position according to whether you were ordained or lay or anything like that. You never heard a word about it. It took me years before I realized that only priests are supposed to go up to the altar to offer incense.

She never gave jukai, she never ordained anyone, I never heard her talk about the precepts per se except in another sense all she did was talk about the precepts because the precepts are how practice engages our conduct in everyday life. That’s all she wanted to talk about, so she didn’t call it the precepts. Her idea of a dharma transmission ceremony was somewhat simplified from what we’d done before. It consisted of her sitting on the sofa with me one day and saying, All right, you’ve got it. I decided I would do something a little more elaborate just for fun, but also in some way to reconnect us to our Soto traditional roots and not allow it to seem that Zen was invented in Southern California. I want us to have much more grounding. In many of the original texts, her original students, because they came from LA and were trained by Maezumi, she knew very well, and she could take for granted a lot of them had already completed koan study with Maezumi when they left to study with her. She never talked about koans ever, but they already had that background and to some extent she could presume on it.

I have tried to give my students some familiarity with koan study, even though we don’t practice formally in that lineage, but like a lot of people around her, the San Diego Zendo was filled with people who had come from other teachers and other places and had all different backgrounds. She was my third teacher. I had originally begun with Eido Shimano, who Soen Nakagawa in his wisdom had given transmission to, and then Bernie Glassman, with whom I’d done some koan study and then I studied with Joko.

But to return to this ceremony, to the extent that I’ve tried to reestablish some connection and some familiarity with Soto tradition, we bump up against a little problem, and that is that in strict Soto terms, a lay teacher is an oxymoron. There really is no such thing in the formal Japanese Soto line. Ordination is always part of teacher training. Now in recent years, as more and more people have been trained in lay life and fewer and fewer people are living monastic or residential lives, the whole notion of what was a priest and what was a layman was starting to blur, because many people who were ordained as priests were married, had families, had outside jobs. All of Joko’s dharma successors were ordained by Maezumi or people who were married and had families and had day jobs. They weren’t people who were living solely the life of a priest in a temple supported by a community. So what it meant to be a priest was getting fuzzier and fuzzier, and their teaching responsibility far overshadowed their ritual responsibility.

Now, denkai, in this traditional Soto model, was full priest ordination, and it comes with the authority to teach and to give jukai, to transmit the precepts. When you receive denkai, what you are permitted to transmit is to give jukai, which is that first level of lay ordination, or for some people it’s a ceremony in which they become a Buddhist. Now, by calling this ceremony denkai, what I wanted to do is to assert that within a lineage like ours, where there are no priests, and there are not going to be any priests, all the functions that were taken by priests are being distributed different ways by members of the lay community, including performing weddings, and giving the precepts, and going out into the world and doing the kinds of teaching that we sometimes associate with the priest doing in the community, like going into prisons, going into hospice or hospitals, teaching in schools, doing all sorts of teaching and outreach, spreading the dharma through that kind of teaching. That can take any shape -- except one.

What is not authorized at this level of denkai is the training and transmission to another generation of teachers. Only Pat George has received that from me. She has received full transmission. When we had the ceremony for her a couple of years back, we did everything in one day. Denkai was the ceremony performed in the morning and then in the evening we did a denbo ceremony which is the full dharma transmission ceremony plus there’s a lot of private ritual associated with that. There’s also, in traditional transmission, formal documents, papers -- you get your papers, and in the priest transmission of denkai you can get the first set of lineage papers as a certificate, and then when you get final full dharma transmission there are more papers you get. However, I’ve decided that the sole evidence of this denkai transmission for these three will be, as it says in the story here, the robe itself, which I have inscribed for them. The whole notion of getting transmission papers gets a little complicated and some people have gotten different kinds of sets of papers and there’s some question about this and I don’t want anybody going out saying, Well, I got these papers, so that should be enough. Right? There would be some question, then, of one of these three sort of going off on their own saying, See, I got these papers from Magid, I’ve got this transmission ceremony, I’m a full Zen Master now, I can go off on my own and I can do anything I want.

So not giving papers is supposed to give a little break to that and you're all witness to that, what they’re getting and what they’re not getting. It’s a complicated business, trying to integrate ourselves into a long tradition that is itself undergoing a lot of change and a lot of stress in the process of the change. I’ve modeled some of this ceremony and the use of these rakusus, these green rakusus, out of a lay entrustment ceremony that now takes place at the San Francisco Zen Center. There they have finally given a full teaching transmission to a lay person. She can’t give the precepts but she can teach. It’s complicated. One of the things that’s come out of that in the last few years is that I helped establish something called the Lay Zen Teachers Association, and we’re meeting for the third time this year, trying to sort out all these different forms of teaching and levels of authorization and bring them out from under the auspices of the Sotoshu, which is the Soto Vatican, which has the rules inscribed, and the American version which is the Soto Zen Buddhist Association which is now essentially a Soto priest guild trying to define the appropriate rules for priestly and monastic training and transmission. It’s very complicated.

So in some ways, in which some of you will be interested and some of you not at all, we are here doing both this kind of ceremony, trying to engage with a long-standing tradition, and at the same time separating ourselves from it and making it new in ways that are our ongoing experiments. I said the other day: In many ways what I’m interested in now is what other people are going to do next, how this will take shape in another generation. It's interesting that all the people I’ve given transmission to, at both levels, have had years of residential training. I did not have that. I went out and did lots of sesshins with Joko but I’ve always practiced entirely, just like this, coming to sesshins as often as I could for many many years. It’s basically, I always thought that was going to be my model for doing things, and Claire came along and all of a sudden I had a resident student that I never expected to have.

So I, like Joko, have benefitted from the long complicated life histories of the students who showed up at my zendo. They’ve had lots of different kinds of training before they got to me, so I can coast a little. But I don’t know how that’s going to play out next. These three are not yet in a position to train new teachers but they’re in a position to go out there and teach in lots of other ways, in which they will then find their own path. Whether future generations of teachers will come out of residential programs or be more like me and just come out of lots of sesshins, I don’t know. We’re going to see. But at this point I am simply happy to have arrived at this place, to have had a chance to work with such good students as these, as with all of you. I’m very happy with the way this sesshin has come together this week and the way we’ve been able to include quite a number of you who are not regular members of our sangha. I think you’ve all fit in very seamlessly. We’ve practiced together very well. I’m grateful for that. This will be my last dharma talk for the week. Tomorrow you will get three talks for the price of one. Morning, afternoon and evening we will give each of the new teachers a chance to speak to you. Thank you all for your efforts.

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