Shohaku Okumura Roshi’s Visit to Lanau – October 2018 – Centre zen de Lanau
-By Odile Hoog
About forty people from our sangha and elsewhere had the opportunity to participate to the seminar “Living by Vow” and to meet Okumura Roshi at Lanau. Okumura Roshi is 70 years old, but seems twenty years younger. As soon as you meet him, you see his kindness, openness and joy. In reply to the question “what were you expecting when you agreed to come to Europe ?” his response was just to smile and say “to share my good karma and have a good time”.
Lanau was his last stop before going home to Bloomington, Indiana, after a three week visit to Europe to see his disciples. He accepted Guy’s invitation and really gave us so much.
Okumura Roshi is very erudite. Trained in a university, he is nevertheless discreet and simple, and it is only when very penetrating questions are asked that one can see the depth and breadth of his knowledge.
So what he essentially talked to us about is practice and our commitment in everyday life, and the illusion of me. He shared his personal experiences and his understanding of the Dharma with us, with humour and sincerity.
From the age of 17, he wanted to know the meaning of life. By chance, he came across Master Dogen’s writings, but said he didn’t really understand much! Then he met Uchiyama Roshi, who became his master and to whom he has remained faithful to this day. He speaks of him with emotion and respect , and we could understand what transmission means to him.
It was his master, Uchiyama Roshi who insisted that he learned English and go to the USA. He accepted and that was his ‘first mistake’ as he says, laughing at himself. First of all he was in Massachussets, where he contributed to building a hermitage by hand, which had a big impact on his health, then he was in California and then finally in Indiana.
Okumura never says “according to Dogen” whose teachings he has studied for 50 years, but “according to my understanding of Dogen” This is not just posturing, as this man is truly humble. He admits that even after all this time, there are things he doesn’t understand, and the more he climbs up the mountain, the further away the summit becomes. A great metaphor!
Okumura Roshi presented his latest book “Living by Vow” We were fortunate to meet his translator and disciple, Madame Shoju Malher, who participated in the seminar. In this book, Okumura Roshi shows that all the zen sutras that we chant in the dojos have the bodhisattva vows as their foundation.
He explains that at the heart of the four bodhisattva vows there is an insurmountable contradiction. How is it possible to save all beings, how can we overcome all our illusions, how can we manifest the way of Buddha along with all beings and understand all his teachings? Okumura Roshi explains that we must understand that these vows are endless and practice is limitless. This is the meaning of these vows that are impossible to achieve for an ordinary being. He also asked this question : in this life, what is truly the vow we choose in order to commit fully ourselves as bodhisattvas? We should all ask ourselves this question ; and Okumura Roshi added, that the world needs different sorts of people showing their creativity by different means. It’s our life and our vow (1).
He explained that his own vow which he has maintained for 50 years is a double one : to study and understand Dogen Zenji in order to share his work and make it accessible, particularly to westerners in the 21st century, and to practise according to the teaching of his master Uchiyama Roshi : shikantaza without ritual, without kusen: to simply reliquish the body-mind, let thought fall from our hands : practise shikantaza which allows us to be freed from our past karma, and also to be freed from creating more : a transformation that begins with zazen.
Understanding that the five aggregates create an illusory me : abandoning body and mind and giving up our identity without losing it. That’s our zazen.
All Okumura’s teachings are of course the same as those of our masters…thank goodness!
But the clarity of his explanation in simple and precise english meant that most of us could understand without needing too much translation (although many thanks to Mickael for translating for us) being based on the kanjis themselves, plus his kindness and humour made these days a unique experience. Thank you M. Okumura, you make us want to understand Dogen better and his message for modern times, and thanks to Guy for organising this precious moment. •
(1 – Vow in the sense of commitment , not wish ; ‘voeu’ can be translated as either of these.)