Remembering Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi, 1938-2002
when I splash water
Many people say they can't write about their memories of Kobun without talking about themselves, and because of that they give up trying. Yet, to me, sharing what I experienced from and with Kobun, no matter how "ordinary," seems important. My first sight of him, that is, the one which stayed in my mind, was when we were eating oryoki breakfast at Haiku Zendo in 1971. He ate a large amount of food, so fast! I was surprised to see this, because I had the idea that spiritual people didn't eat so much! Nothing he said in lectures at that time made an impression. Rather, it was when, in my first dokusan, he sat with me and then told me, "You could sit forever!" Somehow I had gotten the idea from others that I wasn't very spiritual, so this kind of approval coming from someone who wore a robe, and seemed to know about meditation, hooked me. So there it is, I'm writing about myself. He kind of flits in and out of my mind, sitting in the middle of a group at someone's house, in the garden, pulling weeds rapidly, not worrying whether the roots came up with the weed, giving quick advice when I was trying to hang onto a relationship: "Have problems." Once he asked me to take care of his two little kids while he gave a talk, and I walked with them on the grass. Someone asked me if I was his wife, and I answered, "no," thinking to myself that I was too tall to be his wife. Once he woke me up very gently but firmly, to go back to my job as time keeper for a 24 hour sitting. Being gently woken up by someone didn't happen to me usually, so that stuck in my mind, or my heart.
It seems to me I did not have a relationship with Kobun, at least not a personal one. I was reserved and didn't want to bother him too much. He was always in demand, very busy. So I asked quite a few questions in meetings and tried to be a sincere Zen student. How could such a distant, elusive figure mean so much to me? Many other people knew him more intimately, and now I know that many were disappointed because sometimes he didn't show up when he was scheduled to be somewhere. But also he did show up, morning after morning, at the early sittings, Thursday Morning Breakfast, and Monday Morning Class, so, to me, he seemed very dependable. I came to trust his judgement and treasure his words. He was never prepared or rehearsed, but all his studying, his knowledge of Buddhist teaching, was right there, making the moment seem profound.
It never occurred to me that Kobun might want me as a friend or a student. I just needed him, to put some order and meaning into my life, which he helped me do because he seemed to understand everything and also care about me. He was a Japanese Buddhist monk and he cared about me! It kept me getting up and going to the zendo, continuing my practice at home. When I lost the person I lived with, he gave me a large calligraphy scroll to hang in my house and later conducted the funeral on the grass at Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford campus. Later he had to explain to me that I needed to return the scroll! My personal life was quite a mess for a while but he seemed always to be there, at the zendo.
Up to that time I felt I wasn't much good at anything except meditation. But I wanted and needed to make up for lost time. When I went to see Kobun at his home, which was the first time I ever did that, it was to ask him if he thought I could do it, get a Ph.D. in psychology. He didn't give me any encouragement, although he said I could do it if I wanted to. He didn't say "Great!" and I was puzzled. But I went away, in 1980, and only saw Kobun two times after that. Now I think he was sad at my leaving.
It turns out that I didn't know anything about Kobun, except as my teacher, but I've come to believe that the man inside the robe was sometimes as lost and sad as I was, and that was why he could be a teacher. As far as I'm concerned, his death proves this. To me, it's ludicrous to picture him floating on the surface of that pond, following a series of events which put him in a bad light. I guess it reminds me of myself as an abandoning parent, and of course I don't want to forgive him for reminding me of that. So many mistakes! Also, where was I during all those decades when I never saw Kobun, never came to sesshin, never listened to him give a talk, never even smiled in answer to his greeting? Seems like I have no right to miss him. The worst part is that I grew away from him, knowing he was somewhere, in case I ever made the effort to see him. That was all I wanted. Yes, I was still meditating and remembering his instructions, and, except for knowing Kobun, I wouldn't be doing that. That's really all I ever did for him. It would be nice to believe that is enough. But it isn't.
To this day I remember Kobun's words when I splash water on my face, morning and night. He said, at sesshin, that cold water on the forehead would wake one up. Pointers about sitting zazen come to mind every time I sit zazen. Once I went to sesshin at Green Gulch and was the only person who didn't sign up for dokusan with Dick Baker. He sent for me and I explained that I felt I couldn't have dokusan with anyone other than Kobun because he was my teacher. Dick Baker was amused. It was like that for me. Still is, pretty much. He's my teacher, part of me. Impossible to share, really. But the urge to tell someone about him remains, because he's right here.
Kobun's Talks has links to the text of many of Kobun's talks.
Jikoji's Web Site has many other links to Kobun-related sites, and Kobun's teachings