I begin this new blog during the Covid-19 crisis, a time when many people are in self-imposed quarantine, air travel between countries has been virtually suspended, and there is fear that the medical system is inadequately prepared to respond to the situation. The crisis brings to mind the basic Buddhist teaching regarding the Three Characteristics of Existence. These are constant. They have always been. They will continue to be. However, humans have proven very good at ignoring them. What is different today is how self-evident they have become.
According to the Buddha, existence is characterized by: 1) annica – the fact that all things are impermanent; 2) dukkha – the fact that suffering is inevitable; and 3) anatta – which can be understood as the fact that all things are interdependent.
Given that these have always been – and always will be – the characteristics all people face, is there any way to address this reality? Zen practice suggests there is. And so this seems a good time to reflect on what Zen teachers have to say about these and other fundamental issues.
What I will be providing in this blog is profiles of the Zen teachers I have met over the last seven years.
It was once traditional for Zen students, at a certain point in their careers, to go on a pilgrimage – an angya – visiting temples other than the one at which they trained. So it was that in March 2013, as the result of a small inheritance, I began a tour of the major Zen centers of North America.
I began with the San Francisco Zen Center, not the first to be established in North America, but certainly one of the most important in helping to establish this Asian tradition in the West.
When I arrived at the center, a chanting ceremony was taking place in the Buddha Hall. I waited outside by a large statue of Kannon, the female Bodhisattva of Compassion. The original Bodhisattva of Compassion in India had been male and was named Avalokitesvara. The figure changed name and gender as it was imported into China and later Japan. Such transformations are inevitable when a system of belief or thought travels from one region to another and is adapted to a new environment.
When the service ended, I was introduced to the center’s Central Abbot, Steve Stücky, a big, robust, healthy-looking man whose shaved head suited him. He had a warm smile and the rough hands of someone who had worked on farms and earned a living as a landscaper. Two former abbots also joined us, Blanche Hartman and Mel Weitsman.
Although Stücky had a Buddhist name, Myogen, he was generally known as “Abbot Steve.” He had achieved near-mythic stature at Zen Center as a result of his role in staying behind to protect the center’s Tassajara property in the Ventana Wilderness Area during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire.
This was the first interview I conducted, and I was still finding my way in the process. But by the time left, I left with a sense that Abbot Steve was a man I’d like to get to know better.
Less than six months later, Steve Stücky was informed he had stage four pancreatic cancer. A few days after receiving this diagnosis, he gave a talk in which he explained his condition to the community. It began with a reflection on a private practice which revealed something of his attitude to both life and Zen:
“For some years I’ve been doing a practice of waking up with gratitude. First thing, sitting up at the edge of the bed and putting my hands together and just saying the word “gratitude.” And then it’s an open question, “For what?” And whatever comes up in my experience is that for which I am, I’d say, grateful to have this meeting. Whatever it is is who I am, and whatever it is is supporting me and this life. It’s completely beyond judgment or preference. So lately I’ve been grateful to have that practice.”
At the time of the talk, he still didn’t know long he had to live. The situation, he admitted, was challenging.
“I think of it as a little bit like the Tassajara fire. It’s an engagement, and there are certain things that I can do to take care of this side, and the fire or the cancer will do what it does, and it’s a matter of paying close attention and keeping attentive and responsive, with the thought of being most helpful with what’s most immediate. And so I’m learning fast, and a lot.”
He went on to reflect on a passage from Japanese teacher, Dogen:
“‘The entire earth is the true human body.’ The entire earth is the true human body. So each human body is also independent and simultaneously the entire earth. And sometimes you may really see that when you let go of your particular attachment to some small identity and realize that the tree is as much a part of me as my shoulder. The sky is as much a part of me as my eyelashes, And the sound of the ocean is as much a part of me as the sound of my own breathing. To actually experience it that way is something that shows up in our practice. I think it’s not so unusual particularly for people who are doing this practice of sitting. I’m very grateful to have this practice. It sustains me and will continue to sustain me to the last moment of conscious.”
He reflected upon the need to care not only for one’s own body but also the greater body of the Earth of which we are all part.
On November 20, after completing the first of three scheduled rounds of chemotherapy, Abbot Steve chose not to continue them. In mid-December he stepped down as Abbot, and, early on the morning of the last day of 2013, he died.
All things, the Buddha taught, are impermanent.
Cypress Trees in the Garden, pp. 24-37