Face to Face:
The Meaning Comes Alive

by Jiko Linda Cutts

Green Gulch Farm December, 1996

Reprinted from Wind Bell, Volume 31, No. 2, Summer, 1997

I recently returned from Tassajara where I had been for twenty-one days participating in the Dharma Transmission Ceremony with Tenshin Reb Anderson. It was full autumn when I arrived with red and golden trees, leaves falling and scattered, gigantic leaves from the sycamore trees: very beautiful. During the time I was there it shifted from autumn into winter. The leaves were blown off the trees and it got colder, down to about twenty-seven degrees, quite frosty. Since the ceremony took place in the middle of the Tassajara practice period, much of the time I was able to join with everyone in the simple life there. It's a harmonious feeling there, a joyful feeling, and people are making great effort to study themselves.
Several people have asked me, "What is the dharma transmission ceremony? What does it mean?" Like many things it's not really possible to talk about the meaning of the ceremony in an abstract way as though the meaning existed by itself on paper or in my telling you about it. The night before the ceremony began Reb talked with the students about the meaning of the ceremony, and said that the meaning is expressed through doing the ceremony. Two people are involved completely in bringing all their effort and all their sincerity to meeting the form of the ceremony, and out of that the meaning is revealed. This is the same with all the ceremonies that we do, the ordinations, morning service, segaki ceremony. All the different ceremonies are particular forms that have been created, but the meaning is not just in the form. The meaning comes alive through the effort of the people participating in it.

So Dharma Transmission is about two people using the form of the ceremony as a vehicle, bringing forth their effort, and equal to the effort that is made, the meaning comes forth. That's always true, that whatever you bring to your activity, equal to your effort and sincerity the meaning will be revealed. Even now in this dharma talk you can relate to my words in various ways. You can sit back and keep them at bay, or you can be upright and receptive, and things will be alive for you in a different way. So this is everyone's practice, not just dharma transmission ceremony. It's the ceremony of life.

I could not do this ceremony by myself. Reb could not do this ceremony by himself. No one person can make the ceremony happen. It took everybody. It took many, many people to have this ceremony.

At Tassajara there is the kitchen crew and I received my meals along with the other practice period students. The food was very tasty, and I did not have to worry about cooking or shopping. I was just totally taken care of in that realm and in many other ways.

It was very cold, and I was fortunate to have a wood-burning stove in my cabin. When I used up the wood, the wood pile outside my door would be replenished. People were taking care of that. I would go out the next day and more wood was stacked, waiting. All of Tassajara helps all of Tassajara really, but I felt it very strongly during the ceremony how I was taken care of, how everybody was coming forward to make the ceremony happen.

Sometimes I felt like I was living in a Buddhist fairy tale with certain tasks and ceremonies to complete. One thing I did was to offer incense at various altars before the kerosene lanterns were lit in the early morning. As I came back into the main part of the grounds from the round of altars, many of the lamps would have been lit, so the pathways were now illuminated. Someone's lighting the lamps was a simple kindness which I received straight into my heart. I also had six jishas or attendants who volunteered to help me. Jisha means "one who carries" and they were ready to carry everything which was needed: incense, matches, a flashlight, an umbrella, a bowing mat. It was like having guardian angels or guardian bodhisattvas who were there to protect me while I went through the ceremony.

And just countless other things were cared for and prepared. Cleaning of the grounds, cleaning and creating the ceremonial space, making the ritual objects used in the ceremony. I was filled with gratitude for the many people who helped make the ceremony happen. I wish to acknowledge the sewing teachers especially: Gaelyn Godwin, Meiya Wender, and Zenkei Blanche Hartman, our Abbess. Also I wish to acknowledge the many other people who put stitches in the new robes which I received. So wherever you look at this ceremony there were people helping to create it. Countless people and innumerable labors made the ceremony possible, especially my teacher Tenshin Roshi and all the Buddhas and Ancestors back to Shakyamuni Buddha and the seven Buddhas before Buddha. I felt held by everyone.

I want to share with you a little bit about the tradition of dharma transmission. One of the chapters in Dogen Zenji's Shobogenzo, The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, is called "Menju" or "Face-to-Face Transmission." Menju means face to face, two faces that face each other and what happens. The Zen tradition often brings up for study the story of the transmission between Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciple Mahakashyapa. On Vulture Peak in India, Shakyamuni Buddha had gotten up before the assembly to give a dharma talk, and he held up a flower. He didn't say anything and he winked, and Mahakashyapa was in the assembly and he smiled. Then Shakyamuni Buddha said, "I have the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the inconceivable mind of Nirvana. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa." That was the Dharma Transmission between them. Buddha holds up a flower, not saying a word, and the assembly is sitting there not saying a word, he winks, somebody smiles, and the Buddha entrusts Mahakashyapa.

This is Koan #6 in the Mumonkan, The Gateless Gate, and there are many translations and commentaries on this particular koan. So what happened there between Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahakashyapa, what gets transmitted? You can't understand it necessarily just by reading it. In Shibayama’s commentary he points out that using the word ‘transmit’ makes it sound like something going from A to B, and he says this is an inexcusable misapprehension. In Zen the emphasis is on one's own understanding and study and personal experience. You cannot be given something unless you already have it. So to think that something is transmitted from A to B is incorrect understanding of transmission. So another way is to see it as transmission of the untransmittable or transmission as identification of teacher and disciple, identification rather than something going from one person to another.

So in "Menju," "Face-to-Face Transmission," Dogen strongly emphasizes the point that this is face to face, eye to eye. This is not like reading a book and feeling you understand what some teacher says. It has to be face to face, eye to eye. So this intimate practice together, face to face, is part of our lineage. Mahakashyapa and Shakyamuni Buddha practiced together for a long time. Mahakashyapa was one of his ten oldest disciples and was his successor.

Dogen Zenji himself went to China and met his authentic teacher Ruching, and when they met, face to face, Ruching said to Dogen, "The Dharma Gate of face-to-face transmission from Buddha to Buddha, ancestor to ancestor, is realized now." Ruching acknowledged Dogen thoroughly right then. They recognized each other, and then they practiced together further. So this face to face event is very important. The teacher cannot be a teacher unless there is a disciple or student; and a student cannot be a student unless there is a teacher. It is really one word: teacher-disciple. They come up together, each creates and conditions the other. The teacher creates the disciple, the disciple creates the teacher. That's why it's face to face. You need each other to complete the practice.

This need is reflected in various works in the Western psychology tradition. The psychologist Heinz Kohut, talks about the importance for children to have someone reflect back to them, mirror back to them all their interest, their love and excitement about their various activities and states of mind. Someone there looking at the child eye to eye is pivotally important for developing a stable sense of self. In the gaze between mother and child, the eyes dilate and there's a greater intensity, and this reflection back and forth between the child and the parent actually develops certain capacities of the brain. Without this kind of reflection that development doesn't happen, so the importance of eye to eye, face to face between a child and a parent is immeasurable. This mirroring, the "gleam in the mother's eye," is not dissimilar to the face to face reflecting back and forth between teacher and disciple. The same caring and intimacy is there.

In another comment on this case about Mahakashyapa receiving the dharma transmission, a Zen master said, "A child doesn't mind the ugliness of its mother." I remember when I was little my mother would come to school to help out as a room mother or to bring treats, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Just to see her face made me so happy. As I got older I realized that she is not a raving beauty, but she is my mother. Seeing that face reflecting back to you, mirroring you, you don't see all the distinctions of ugly or beautiful, this or that. There's just this face-to-face transmission, reflection back and forth.

Teacher-disciple is also likened to katto, which is the Japanese wisteria plant, with its twining stems that turn and twist, and little tendrils which attach for support. With some plants you just need a straight wall, but wisteria needs a lathe kind of support, where it can connect at many different places and go up, looking for the sun. With this kind of support, the plant will grow. Too little support and the plant will fall on the ground and choke itself. So twining vines is Dogen Zenji’s description of this teacher-disciple relationship.

The wisteria won't flower for seven or eight years. It puts all its energy into growing, sending its roots deep, and climbing towards the light. Then it finally produces beautiful pendulous blossoms, that come in all sorts of colors: white and violet and a reddish violet and purples, very fragrant. Then the seed pods come after the blossoms, and they hang onto the vine all during the winter and then produce more flowers in the spring. Dogen Zenji must have known about the plant very intimately to use it as the model for his understanding of teacher-disciple relationship.

This twining together, this intimacy sometimes looks like enmity. It's pretty hard to practice closely with someone for a long time, yet our lives are entwined. In Aitken Roshi's commentary on case #6 of Mumonkan, he points out that the word ‘intimate’ in Japanese, shingetsu, also means ‘realization,’ so intimacy and realization are used in Zen literature interchangeably. Intimacy also means, ‘apposite,’ or ‘strikingly appropriate.’ Strikingly appropriate is a way to describe this intimacy, which is realization. The inheritance and transmission of dharma through these twining vines includes an intimacy which is strikingly appropriate. This is the kind of intimacy that meets completely.

Transmission, not as something from A to B, but as identification, points directly to the teaching that each of us is already Buddha. When Buddha saw the morning star and was enlightened, he said, "Marvelous, marvelous, all sentient beings are no different than Buddhas. It’s just that because of their ignorance and delusion they do not realize it." To say that all Buddhas and sentient beings are not different does not mean that everybody is exactly the same. All beings, all buddhas and sentient beings are not separate from Buddha Nature, and yet each person completely expresses that in their own way, a beautifully fragrant, pendulous, delicately-hued wisteria blossom that blows in the wind, and sends out fragrance in the ten directions. Each person is unique, and yet at the same time there is sameness, sameness and difference and merging of those two as the truth of the Buddhist teaching.

So to be identified with your teacher means to walk together with all the Buddhas and Ancestors, and yet to express the teaching in your own unique way. This is not exactly copying, but individually expressing the dharma. Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahakashyapa studied together for a long time and Mahakashyapa had studied himself thoroughly and exhaustively. He was now ready to be entrusted to carry on the teaching.

Here is a poem of Dogen's, which is a clear expression of his vow, which is also a good expression of what gets entrusted when Shakyamuni Buddha says, "This I entrust to you Mahakashyapa" The poem has a rather sweet feeling:

Awake or asleep in a grass hut
what I pray for is to bring others across before myself.
Although this ignorant self may never become a Buddha
I vow to bring others across
Because I am a monk.
How august, studying the old words of the seven Buddhas
You pass beyond the six realms.

So awake or asleep in a plain grass hut, Dogen vows to bring others across or to save all sentient beings before himself. Even though he may never become a buddha it doesn't matter. "I vow to bring others across." This is my life’s work. The poem has such a grounded simple feeling without being highfaluting. The main thing is his effort and sincerity and the vow to bring others across.

The Lotus Sutra talks about four vows: to open people to the Buddha's wisdom, to demonstrate Buddha's wisdom, to reveal it or realize it, and to enter Buddha's wisdom. All four of these vows are included in the vow to bring others across. To acknowledge and practice the vow to bring others across is the most important thing and when we understand and trust that this vow is the most important thing for another as well, then there is teacher-disciple identification. Buddhism comes down to helping people, and maybe the best way you can help people is to pass on the lineage through zazen. We expose people to Buddha's wisdom by teaching them this practice. It's a very concrete way to teach, to offer zazen, upright sitting.

Often when we first begin to practice we have many projections about the older students or the teachers. We may have some misunderstanding about who ‘has it,’ and we may think, "I don't have it and how am I going to get it?" To see wisdom and virtue residing outside yourself and seek it outside yourself is extremely painful. So to take back these projections, these fixated ideas is the task that we have. This is also part of what it means to study thoroughly, to study yourself and the teaching thoroughly.

I feel extremely grateful to have experienced this wonderful ceremony and all the years preparing for it. I want to thank all the people who helped me. Among them are Abbot Norman Fischer, who offered me a sabbatical to prepare for the ceremony; Gary McNabb, who travelled to Tassajara to be Jisha; and Katherine Thanas, who served as preceptor. Finally I offer my gratitude and love to my root teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson. Words cannot reach it.

I want to close with a quote from Suzuki Roshi from one of his "Sandokai" lectures:

"Studying Buddhism is not like studying something else. It takes time to accept the teaching completely. And the most important point is you yourself, rather than your teacher. You yourself study hard, and what you receive from your teacher is the spirit of study, the spirit to study. That spirit will be transmitted from warm hand to warm hand You should do it. That's all. There is nothing to transmit to you."

Thank you very much.

Copyright Jiko Linda Cutts, 1997

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