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Shokan Erich Moraine Roshi


How did you start with Zen?  Back in the 1970’s in high school, a friend shared a book with me called The Sun’s Birthday   It was filled with Taoist poetry and elegant images which fascinated me. It seemed to imply there is more to life than what appears on the surface. I was hooked. I wanted to pull back the obscuring curtain on the machinery of life, the universe, and everything, I wanted to see the ”Truth” understand what makes it all go. What was the true nature of reality? Why am I here? Who am I? Many years later a friend invited me to a Zen retreat. I attended, sat in Dokusan with Junpo and in time discovered that Zen offers no limit to the depth of insight which is possible. Two decades later I am comfortable naming the machinery behind the curtain, but now I use two words instead of one, “nothing” has become “no thing.”

What has changed over the years?  My hips and shoulders don’t work like they used to. As my respect for gravity deepened, I gave up mountain climbing. I continue to mature emotionally one tiny step at a time and hope that as my eyesight slowly gets fuzzy, my insight will slowly sharpen. I used to be a prisoner of my past, now I am mostly a product of my past. It’s going to be a race to the end to see which finishes first: my body or my emotional maturation. 

How is it now that you are a Roshi? The old chestnut still applies: Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment chop wood carry water. Having been acknowledged as a Roshi reminds me even more than ordination or taking Jukai did: I must take my seat in service to all sentient beings, to help ease suffering. The truth is that I am not fundamentally different on the inside because of a title or rank. Many have done more of their personal work and many have profoundly deeper insight than I have, but, for some reason, conditions and circumstances conspired in a way such that I have a title and for the time being they do not. How curious is that.

Once you know my rank, you may feel that we are no longer peers. This is not true. It may be more difficult for us to see eye to eye; but not by my preference. I mourn this loss of equality if it happens, and for this reason, I tend to be discreet in using a title. I ask myself: Is it helpful for this person to know, or helpful for my ego to tell them?

I do know your way of “being restrained” is very significant to me. When seen through the Zen lens, this statement points to engagement with ego. Do I present in a grand way or a simple way? How do I position myself within the internal and external ego wars? What is the ground on which I stand? Do I engage others in an honest, humble, authentic manner?

Being raised by two midwestern, loving and rather co-dependent, traditional 1960’s German immigrant working class parents, I was well schooled in their ambivalent attachment style. As I grew older, conversational therapy of various kinds led me to wanting to understand more about the human condition. This gave way to years of training in methods of providing relief from suffering, primarily Internal Family Systems, but also attachment and developmental psychotherapy models. I would include Zen practice and in particular Mondo Zen as some of the most helpful skills I’ve learned. All of these add to the tools I use in engaging that slippery bucket of eels which is the human ego. My dharma name is Shokan Muishitsu, which roughly translates as: Ordinary man of no rank with clear insight. Someday I will fully embody this name, till then I’ll strive to get closer day by day.

… and at the same time, there is a wish, that you let your light shine into the world. We in the west have an opportunity to learn how to commute between sublime blissful states of awareness and surprise cat vomit on the bedspread. Is it possible to see them both as manifestations of the universal unfolding of truth? Many Zen students would answer: “Yes of course.” We are being challenged to do the real work, the dirty work, the gritty, messy, work of waking up, becoming honest and doing our personal work. We must stand face to face with Mara and say: “Ha! I see you! No more, not again!”

I know that what I see in you is what I see in myself. I’m glad you’ve noticed there is no such thing as “other.” Now the real work can begin.  

You have the ability to blow hearts and minds wide open… and I’m sure, I can stand this. Because of my work with ManKind Project I now have a mission statement for my life: “I use fierce compassion to help shine light on the way back home.” My job is to be in love and be in service, and if the world should choose to change as a result, so be it. As Junpo used to say: “Your job is to wake up, grow up, and show up. 

I’ve watched people “get blown open,” be thrust into deep awareness by someone else, blown into experiencing something which was well beyond their ability to grasp, possibly using ceremony, physical deprivation or psychotropic drugs. A skillful provider can sometimes induce remarkable altered states in a person. I understand how appealing this seems and why you might want it to happen to you.  These states are often transitory passing events. I’ve watched some of these blown open people 6 months or a year later. They have for the most part regressed back to where they were before the “blown open event.”  Sometimes they are even worse off, struggling with depression or feelings of shame and inadequacy because they couldn’t experience that sublime state again.

In my service to all sentient beings, I would hope to be skillful and observant enough to help you cultivate an “opening up” ability for yourself so you can gradually wake yourself up without blowing yourself up. I might be able to notice something, something small, maybe something you overlooked. If I can shine light on it, you might be able to see it and find yourself passing through the gateless gate. I can hold the lantern for you, but ultimately it’s your path to walk, and your gate to pass.    

All this might be too provocative, not appropriate to write to a Roshi… Pro-voke; verb:  to stimulate or give rise to. I thank you very kindly for the courage to be provocative and in helping me to let these words rise up out of me. Thank you.

What I would like to have happen is to listen to you with my sometimes confused beginners mind. If we are fortunate we will all remain beginners forever. Shoshin, beginner’s mind, is to be highly regarded and respected as an asset essential for growth not something to be overcome. The joy of community, the gift which Sangha offers, is that we listen to each other, share with each other, support each other, teach each other, beginner to beginner, eye to eye, heart to heart. There is no limit to the depth of insight which awaits us and with a little bit of luck, we may just help guide each other back home.   

I hope this was helpful. Ask more questions if you like.