What makes us aware

A report on the 22nd Shokai at Three Wheels, October 2018

“Life is a gift,” one Dharma friend said at the last meeting of the 22nd Shokai and “Namuamidabutsu,” immediately rose up from the sangha’s hearts in response. After more than a decade many Shokai participants have known each other a very long time and have witnessed each other maturing, ageing, going through many struggles and joyful awakenings. Two days earlier at the opening meeting Dharma brothers Mr Sam Kelly and Mr Duncan Kennedy, who as parents and grandparents have many family responsibilities, were reunited after a long space of time and embraced saying, “My dear friend”, “My old friend”. Everybody could feel the happiness of those two, as well as their own pleasure at being in the sangha.

Between those two moments in time our gathering unfolded within the embrace of a gentle but clarifying light. Personally, meeting this light and having been away from the temple since June, I could sense a small gap between my mind and the Dharma which gave me the usual sense of sad recognition. On this occasion, however, I had a new and tender feeling that the ‘gap’ wasn’t something separating me from Amida but was like a step which the Buddha was inviting me to go up. In this way, despite the shadows of my karma, I felt very encouraged.

On Friday and Saturday we held several zadankai meetings where we each shared a personal question and then listened to follow-up questions from Dharma friends. This process was quite new for most of us and we realised that knowing how to ask good questions, without colouring them with our own ideas, was very difficult. For those of us who have experienced an introspection session (chomon) it made us recognise how skilful the people who were our advisors were with their own questions.

Due to our inexperience and each person’s individual karma the zadan groups progressed quite differently but by the second day everyone had had a chance to share their question and to receive questions from their Dharma friends. Several common themes emerged, in particular “how can I get rid of the gap between how I want to be and how I actually behave.” On the final day of the retreat everyone shared their impressions of the zadan meetings together and I was extremely moved and impressed by the deep introspection of my friends and felt that my own attitude to the retreat had been extremely lazy in comparison. It is impossible to share all of the wonderful words of Dharma which I heard at this meeting but I would like to share the comments of one person which impressed me a great deal.

This Dharma friend said that she came to Shokai with a question about the gap she notices between how she feels in her mind and what she actually says and does. She said that she often becomes frustrated or upset by imagining other people’s intentions in a negative way; creating her own version of the story. However during the retreat she found an old memory of her behaviour and saw it in an entirely new light. This gave her a new question, “ Do I really know my own intention?” She answered herself, “No I don’t, and added, “I am puzzled by this. If I don’t know my intention for my act, is reality really what I think it is?” She explained that listening to Rev. Ishii’s talk on Taking refuge with thorough repentance a memory came back to her with a different meaning. This happened, she realised, because she was seeing the past from a different angle. “This must be so with many things like that in my life,” she concluded, adding, “I feel a little scared to see things from a different angle, as I’ve been taking easiest way to protect myself, but I do feel I should. It’s a great opportunity given to me by the love and compassion of Amida sama. Thank you so much.”

Rev. Ishii’s aforementioned talk was the pivotal aspect of the retreat. Actually Rev. Ishii’s talk had three parts; his formal prepared talk, his free comments afterwards, and finally his deep introspection and repentance expressed on the final day of the retreat. Listening to the first two parts everyone had a great opportunity to reflect on the theme of the retreat, “Taking refuge in the midst of daily life” and look into their self more deeply.

Rev. Sato said to a certain Dharma friend that Rev. Ishii’s talk was “given just for you”. After the talk, however, Rev. Ishii received a private question from a Dharma friend which led him to address us all the following day. At this meeting Rev. Ishii said, “Receiving the question from our Dharma friend I asked myself, why did I write this talk? At that moment my ego became active and I thought that the answer was, ‘to support Dharma friends.’ This was entirely the wrong answer. I realise now that I lost the fundamental purpose of giving a Dharma talk which is to remember what has been done for me and to express my gratitude. Arrogantly I thought I gave the talk for a certain Dharma friend but actually the speaker cannot say such a thing. The final part of my talk which was not written down but given freely came not from me but from the Dharma friends’ expressions which I had received. Listening to all of you I came to find myself as a child of Buddha and my master. I could feel how I have been here in London, forgetting all the love given to me by Goinge-sama and Bomori -sama. I am so sorry for being so arrogant and thank you for supporting me and letting me realise this and be peaceful.”

In this way the meaning of Rev. Ishii’s formal, written talk on Taking refuge with thorough repentance became entirely and naturally embodied in his own living example to us all.

At the closing meeting Dharma friends shared many wonderful and profound expressions which are unfortunately too many to report here. Personally I was very moved to witness my Dharma brother Mr Andrew Webb’s re-encounter with his master Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato, which also profoundly refreshed my own relationship to our teacher. Mr Webb said that he had recently written to Sensei saying that he couldn’t do something he had been asked to do, however he now realised that his attitude was completely wrong in making excuses first and cutting off his teacher’s pure mind. Now he realised that he should have said, “Sensei, I have this situation which is making it impossible to do the thing you asked me to do. Please could I have your permission to be excused.” Mr Webb said that if we lose our attitude of respect then everything else unravels and there can be no taking refuge in daily life without that respect.

I was also very impressed by the words of one Dharma friend who said, “I thought the question I brought to Shokai was quite trivial and mundane but Dharma friends answered me very directly and practically. Hearing their response I feel that my tendency to dismiss myself is actually a kind of ego. Doing yourself down seems humble but is a kind of self-obsession.”

After listening to all the Dharma friends impressions Rev. Sato concluded our final meeting by sharing the following words:

“This morning I am feeling the soft and pure light of the sangha. I am very much relieved and feel confidence about the future of Three Wheels. Thank you to everyone for what you have done for us.

You have all been discussing the gap you feel between daily life and when you stay at Three Wheels. Certainly there is a gap as you feel. But you have felt such a gap in coming to Three Wheels. You can feel a gap because there is something illuminating that gap beyond duality, something great. What is it? … The great compassion of the Buddha, or you can say the sangha which is a manifestation of the pure Buddha body.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “if there is a Buddha in the world there is a Sangha.” Goinge-sama doesn’t say he is Buddha, but for us Three Wheels was made by his pure prayer for the attainment of inner peace of all people in this world.

Looking into myself, even in Three Wheels I find I am full of complaints but they are illumined by the sangha. I feel very sorry and embraced by the people around me and so grateful.

Don’t worry about your problems. The most important thing is to become aware of them, and when you become aware of them, you will become aware of what makes you aware.”

Reported by Andy B

8th October 2018