This afternoon we went to meet the Zen priest Isobe Yukei (Kei-san). Kei-san is the priest at Taikō-an, a subtemple of Tōfuku-ji. He spoke about the origins of zazen and gave a kōan, and then we sat zazen. At the end, we drank tea while he answered our questions. A kōan is a question or puzzle given by a Zen master to a student that the student must grasp (though not necessarily answer correctly in a traditional sense) in order to get closer to enlightenment. The kōan we received comes from an encounter between Bodhi Daruma and Jinkō, who sought to be his student. When Jinkō asked what to do to settle his unsettled 心(kokoro), Daruma answered that Jinkō should bring his 心 to Daruma’s. The kōan is: what would you do if Daruma asked you to bring your 心 to him?
心, as it turns out, is a dicey word to translate. I have most often heard it translated as heart, but the interpreter Mitsue-san translated it as “heart mind” and then Kei-san corrected that it was really more like consciousness. The whole discussion of the translation of 心 brought to my mind a question about the relationship between Zen and language, which I posed to Kei-san. I was aware that Zen, as inherently about experience, is beyond words, but as usual, language was peskily needed to communicate at least the beginning of that experience to others, so I was hoping that Kei-san could speak to that a little, though I think that my question got a little lost in communication. I am still thinking about it, though!
I think that the question of the role of language in Zen teaching and practice is particularly salient in light of the prominence of questions about the effects of the globalization of Zen on the practice as well as on the world within our group. Does Zen change if the language it is being transmitted in changes? As a person who studies languages, I am constantly thinking about the near impossibility of a perfect translation and the ways in which one has to compromise in order to communicate. It seems to me that while it might be difficult to communicate the fundamentals of Zen across language, it has crossed many languages in the past and continues to today, quite possibly exactly because of its beyond-verbal essence. On the other hand, I hesitate to believe that language has no effect on a person’s experience of Zen. But then again, I’m not enlightened and I’m partial to words, generally.
Speaking of enlightenment, the experience of sitting zazen in of itself was very rewarding. I have some experience with meditation, though I do not maintain a practice, and I definitely felt that today; it was harder than it has been in the past to focus on my breath. On the other hand, Kei-san changed the way that I think about meditation in a way that might be small, but might also be profound. I had always visualized meditation as noticing thoughts and then letting them go to prevent them building, expanding, and distracting. Kei-san suggested instead that in meditation one should 受け取る（uketoru – receive, or accept – a compound of the verbs to receive and to take) thoughts immediately upon noticing them. This seems to me both more difficult and ultimately more rewarding than just releasing intrusive thoughts into the ether; it allows thoughts to build and therefore allows the person meditating to make progress toward greater understanding, while still not letting thoughts balloon and distract. I will take this distinction with me.