History and Connection – Fudo Myoo Teja Bell Roshi
Every story is unique. The unfolding of each connection and experience is a journey of karma and synchronicity.
My connection with Junpo Roshi and Hollow Bones began in 2000. My life-long friend Patric Roberts, aka Mushin, called me one day and said, “Teja, you’ve got to meet this guy, and this work and practice we are doing is right up your alley.” Having followed Patric into many strange and curious corners of group therapy, spiritual cults, and psychological development movements, I was skeptical. I was teaching qigong and dharma already with Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and ran my Aikido dojo while studying full time with Sensei Nadeau – Aikido Shihan.
I was also traveling worldwide as a professional musician and performer. Apparently, Mushin had talked me up to Junpo too, so, as it happened, Junpo and a select group of men were meeting at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center doing an 8-day sesshin. On behalf of Junpo, I was invited to play for the closing ceremony at the end of the sesshin and stay for the celebration dinner.
I said, yes—my mistake.
I was already steeped in Buddhist and Taoist practices at this point in my life and had met many teachers in these traditions. Since the late ’60s, I had read the Dao De Jing, DT Suzuki, Ram Dass, and a few of the books available on Zen by Alan Watts and Paul Reps and others. I had had the good fortune to have studied with Taoist masters in Taijiquan and Baguazhang, and 1st generation Masters in Aikido.
In recent years, my focus had been on the Vajrayana tradition. I’d done retreats and received teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and forged relationships with meditation masters in the Tibetan lineages. These days, Zen was way down on my list of spiritual and developmental pathways to pursue.
I arrived at SMZC on the last full day of the sesshin, in plenty of time to get oriented and prepared to contribute to the afternoon ceremony. I dressed in my best formal Japanese attire with white hakama and haori and all the proper fittings. I brought a vintage high-quality flamenco guitar from Spain and a Japanese transverse large-scale bamboo flute once owned by Zen Master Takayama of the AikiBudo Zen lineage. It was a beautiful winter’s day, with clear, brisk air and the grace of the redwood trees blessing the rustic landscape around the Zendo.
As Mushin led me into the Zendo, there was an exquisite silence, and a beautiful dark density to the room lit by candlelight. The light became absorbed and muted in the old-growth redwood floorboards that creaked under my cautious, purposeful steps. I found my way to a zabuton near the center of the room. No one moved as I quietly settled into their ocean of samadhi. I was deeply moved by the sacred space that had been cultivated here. This was rare and beautiful.
Out of this stillness, I began to play the flute. I could feel my heartbeat become the pulse of the vibrato of the long low tones. There was no movement in the room, yet I felt more profoundly heard and received than any other time in my life-long experience as a performing musician. Transcending time and with effortless spacious grace, the flute spoke, then the guitar spoke with spontaneous creativity in the field of non-self-reflective witnessing.
In closing, hands in the Zendo came together in gassho, and we all bowed. The bow was not to me, but in reverence to the Mystery.
‘Altered state’ does not begin to do justice to name this experience and to the transformation yet to come from sitting in Hollow Bones sesshins over the years ahead.
The Goddess was pleased that day; beauty and magic thrived.
Let me tell you one more thing about that day. Remember that in the early years, Hollow Bones was all men. It was only populated by men that had been through the Mankind Project New Warrior Weekend. Attending a Hollow Bones retreat was considered advanced training. Fugen, one of the original Hollow Bones priests, was doing the heavy lifting of enrolling graduates of MKP into the Bones retreats.
Meeting Junpo for the first time shredded my impressions of what I thought a real Zen master was supposed to be like. Junpo and I were immediately engaged in talking about Zen history and the qualities of a warrior, especially about the potential for awakening in these times of our decadent modern culture. I knew I was in the presence of someone extraordinary. It was love at first sight and has been ever since. I looked over at Mushin with his big “I told you so” grin. I could only nod back in agreement and smile.
At this point, I felt opened up by the love and warmth of the community gathered together and talking for the first time in seven days. We were getting ready for one of those fantastic Zen Center celebration dinners. As our wine glasses touched, Junpo’s buoyant and radiant charisma dropped into a deep still focus.
There are moments in our lives that change us forever. We are never the same after that. This was such a moment for me, and maybe for Junpo as well. The clarity and safety that I felt with Junpo at this moment was like a friendship that had been going on for lifetimes. He looked through the windows of my eyes into my soul and hit me with a life-changing koan:
“Who are you?”
I knew I was in the Zen web, and I was delighted to be there. You can read all about Zen and koans and imagine what it’s like to be in this Mondo relationship. But when you are asked by a genuine master with such deep sincerity, the conversation is no longer casual. The space that was awaiting my response had the urgency of a matter of life and death. I was dropped down into the depth of ‘not-knowing.’ The kind where you know you can’t fake it.
I was not a beginner, so I answered with something like “I am wisdom and compassion embodied, blah blah blah.” Junpo leaned back in his chair and laughed like he had just heard the funniest joke of the year. I was laughing too because I thought I knew I was right.
The next moment Junpo was straight back up in my face so close that our eyebrows were touching. He said to me in an almost threatening way, “No, but really, Who Are YOU!!??”
I had never been confronted this powerfully in my life. The challenge was concerning the core of my spiritual understanding. There was a lot on the line here and no place to hide.
I had taken on six attackers at once in the dojo and prevailed. I had trained in martial arts and done full-contact fighting. I had sat with meditation masters from Tibet and China and received teachings, transmission, empowerments, and blessings.
Nothing quite like this, though. At that moment, I was stripped of pretense. Any masks that I may have been wearing were melted away like ice in the warmth of spring sunlight. In naked transparency, I looked into the eyes of this man that I had just met — and had known since the beginning of time.
All I could say was, “I don’t know.”
For me, this was a moment of vulnerability and yet feeling securely held by the loving arms of the Universe. It was as if I had been cleansed throughout every fiber of my being by the scorching heat of the sun and relieved of my head by the sharpest samurai sword in existence. Somewhere in the next moments, Junpo said, “No, you are ALL of life!”
It was not spoken from or to an individual ego. It was a profound declaration of Truth, the Truth that sets you free. For me, this was the exploding insight of a lifetime, the culmination of searching, investigation, practice, and awakening. I knew then that the journey was beginning, or rebeginning and renewed.
Every instance of illumination meets its counter-balance before evidentially finding the maturity of equanimity. That is the nature of our human existence. Junpo and I have agreed and disagreed on many things throughout our connection.
One thing that has always been beyond any doubt is the love and respect that we share for one another.
It has been my great privilege and honor to be part of Hollow Bones and a member of this sangha.
My current work takes me all over the world as a dharma and qigong teacher. Even so, I am deeply connected to you. We are in the creation of awakening and the awakening of creation. This means growing up and showing up for each other and the planet. We love and care, always, because we can–and flip tables when we must!
This certainly is the best dance in town.