by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part I
Some Keys to Understanding How to Grow a Lotus Blossom

The Road Map

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett wrote several books. She said, “All my books are road maps.” A road map tells us how to navigate a landscape in order to go from one place to another. How to Grow a Lotus Blossom is a spiritual road map, the map of a spiritual journey.

Every journey has a starting point. The starting point of this particular spiritual journey is shown clearly in the full title of the book: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom or How a Zen Buddhist Prepares for Death. The journey begins with Rev. Master facing the very real possibility of imminent death. The first chapter of the book shows how she considered her options, and how she chose to let go of external things and turn deeply within through pure meditation. She could have gone in a direction of despair; she chose instead to go in the direction of true resolve and faith.

In the beginning of Rev. Master’s retreat, the spiritual landscape was bleak indeed. This reflected the intense and painful upwelling of unresolved spiritual need—unresolved spiritual jangles all lined up and in a rush to get HELP. Again, she could have tried to escape from the pain; instead she chose to meditate through it. Years of dedicated training stood her in good stead—and still, where she might have faltered and turned aside, she freely chose to go straight on into the darkness.

Our greatest spiritual needs require help from the ultimate Source of help. Nothing less will do. In order for this to happen, we have to surrender completely to our own True Nature, in Buddhism often called “Buddha Nature”, “the Eternal”, “True Self”, “Dharmakaya” (“Body of Truth”), “True Master”—there are many other terms that are used. In How to Grow a Lotus Blossom Rev. Master usually uses an ancient Soto Zen term “The Lord of the House”. (More about this term in the next essay.) The nature of the road map that is How to Grow a Lotus Blossom is therefore essentially very simple: it is the map that shows how to surrender to the Lord of the House fully, and what flows forth from this act. 

As Rev. Master continued on her way through a desolate spiritual landscape, the help flowed in to the spiritual need. And as this happened, the landscape gradually became less bleak. Eventually the journey passed through a terrain of great peace and beauty—a spiritual landscape of gratitude, love, and a vast and majestic expanse of Teaching—Wisdom—spreading to the horizon in all directions. How did such a great transformation happen? This question will be the subject of many of these essays.

The Buddha taught his disciples that they must find the Truth for themselves: “The Buddhas do but point the way; thou must go alone.” During the months of her retreat, Rev. Master experienced in great detail and depth the truth of the teachings of Buddhism. This should not be surprising, for she walked the Path that the Buddhas have walked, and to which They point. And, having walked that Path, she too points the way for those who choose to walk the same Path.

Where did the journey terminate? It never did. Rev. Master chose to go in the direction of the complete conversion of the spiritual need, its transformation into enlightenment. And for the rest of her life she continued to train—to practice what she had been taught during the months of retreat. She never claimed to be enlightened, or to be immune from error. She was not a savior. She was an ordinary human being who chose to follow her True Nature--and who, in an important aspect of that following, shared the merit of her training with others.

The Lord of the House

Zen Buddhism does not affirm the existence of a Deity that is separate from human beings and the rest of the world. But that does not mean that Zen Buddhism is "atheistic". Rather, Zen Buddhism emphasizes that all beings possess the "Buddha Nature"--the equivalent of saying, in Western religious terms, that God is indwelling, or immanent, in all beings. The Japanese term "kensho" translates as "awakening to one's True Nature (or True Reality)." The reality of the Buddha Nature is not something that can be proved intellectually. It has to be directly experienced. All beings possess the seed of such experience in the form of a pure intuitive sense that there is That which is greater than, yet not separate from, oneself. Under the right conditions, this seed (which is the root of faith) can develop to maturity. Correct spiritual training and teaching create these favorable conditions.

The Buddha taught that the root cause of suffering is to be found in spiritual ignorance and craving. Ignorance of what?--Ignorance of our own Buddha Nature. Craving for what? Ultimately, craving for That which we think we have lost, or from which we believe we are separated, but which in fact is never separate from us even for a moment, being all of each of us--infinite, unconditional, all-embracing Love, i.e. our own Buddha Nature. In order for this ignorance to be enlightened, and this craving to find peace, our whole being must be oriented away from false refuges and redirected back (or inwards) toward our True Nature. At the deepest level this constitutes what is best described as a "reharmonization" of our body and mind with the Buddha Nature. This is the great theme of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom.

In Buddhism, many different terms have been used to designate the Buddha Nature: "Dharmakaya" (Body of Truth), "True Mind", "Heart-Mind", "True Self", "Cosmic Buddha", "the Unborn", "Original Enlightenment" and "Great Immaculacy" are some examples. Mostly I use the term "the Eternal"--probably because it was the one Rev. Master used most often during a key period in my training. In How to Grow a Lotus Blossom she usually uses the term "the Lord of the House". This term has its origin in Tang Dynasty China (ninth century A.D.), where the great master Tung-shan Liang-Chieh (in Japanese, “Tozan Ryokai”) and his disciple Su-shan Kuang-jen (Sozan Konin) developed a teaching describing the process of reharmonization with the Buddha Nature in terms of five stages (the "Five Ranks"). These five stages were described in terms of an analogy. In this analogy, the Buddha Nature is represented by the "the Lord of the House" (or "Host") and our body and mind is represented by "guest" (or "vassal"). I will give a more detailed explanation of this teaching later in these reflections.

I do not think there is anything accidental in the fact that Rev. Master instinctively gravitated to the term "the Lord of the House" in the crisis of her retreat. This is the term used by Great Master Keizan (Japanese, thirteenth century) in the majestic opening chapters of his great work the Denkoroku ("The Transmission of the Light"), and in choosing this term he was harkening back to the above-mentioned Chinese Masters who were regarded as the founders of the Soto (Chinese: "Tsao Tung") Branch of Zen. And what is the quinessential "Soto Zen" teaching that these masters enunciated?--That of the Five Ranks, which paints with very broad strokes the process of reharmonization with the Buddha Nature. How to Grow a Lotus Blossom provides a much more detailed picture, but it portrays the same process.

The Law of Karma-Rebirth

The law of karma states that all of our volitional actions have consequences, and that these consequences necessarily (Rev. Master liked to use the word "inexorably") flow out from their causes. Some kinds of actions necessarily result in the deepening of suffering, whereas other kinds of actions necessarily result in the lessening of suffering. Actions which express greed, hate and delusion result in the deepening of suffering. Actions which express genuine compassion, love and wisdom result in the lessening of suffering. Actions that are out of harmony with our Buddha Nature result in the deepening of suffering. Actions that are in harmony with our Buddha Nature have consequences that run in the direction of liberation from suffering.

There are three kinds of volitional action--actions of thought, speech and body. Of these three, action of thought is primary because it always precedes the others, and because so much of what flows forth from our actions derives from the attitude of mind with which they are done. Furthermore, even when our capacity to act in speech and body is extremely limited, we are normally still able to make important moment-to-moment choices in thought. In the words of the Buddha: "All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. . . . If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him." (From Dhammapada, Ch 1, translated by Max Muller.)

While our volitional actions have consequences in every aspect of our lives, the ultimate experiencing of karmic consequence is in feeling. The suffering that flows forth from evil actions is a signal flashing the message WRONG WAY!. The peace of mind and heart that flows forth from right action is a signal flashing the message RIGHT WAY!.

The consequences of a volitional action can manifest in the immediate aftermath of the action, at a later time in the same lifetime, or in a future life. The law of karma cannot be understood in its full meaning without reference to the teaching on rebirth. This teaching was explicitly excluded from orthodox Western religion many centuries ago, and the materialistic dogma that has replaced religious dogma for many Western people also denies or ignores this teaching and the entire part of human experience that confirms its truth. A few years ago I read that someone had done a poll of ordinary Americans, asking many people whether they had experienced memories from previous lives. A substantial number of people (something like thirty percent, I believe) said that they had experienced past-life memories, but virtually all of them said that they kept it to themselves out of worry about how other people might react if they were to talk about their experiences.

The Buddhist teaching on rebirth differs in an important way from the concept of reincarnation, which posits an enduring self or soul undergoing a series of incarnations in different bodies and situations in accordance with its good and bad actions. This concept of reincarnation does not actually accord accurately with our most clear memories of past lives, for in such memories we are always aware that the person --or being--whose experience is being remembered is a different person from ourselves. This is in striking contrast to our clear memories from earlier in this present life, for even though there is a sense in which, because of constant change, we are not quite the same person as we were, say, a year ago, or when we were little children, we still remember things we did, and things that happened to us, in our life as being our past experience and not that of another person.

The correct understanding of rebirth is vitally important if one is to do deep spiritual training. While some memories from past lives can arise in consciousness as vividly as any memory from our present life, the fact that these are memories of events from the life of someone other than oneself provides a great support for the objectivity of perspective that allows one to both learn from the teaching inherent in these events, and also be a conduit through which the compassion and wisdom of the Eternal can flow to the jangles of pain and confusion that we have inherited from that previous life. This is especially important in training with the hardest knots of spiritual pain and confusion inherited from the past--the knots of self-judgement.

On Visions

The illustrations in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom are as important as the text, especially in the second edition (1993), in which more time and effort could be devoted to the accurate pictorial representation of the experiences than was possible in the first edition. Rev. Master and the monks doing the illustrations took great care to accurately depict the visual aspect of her experience, just as the text describes as accurately as possible the emotional, physical and intellectual aspects. It is said that "a picture is worth a thousand words", and How to Grow a Lotus Blossom exemplifies this maxim to perfection.



One of the first visions described in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom is represented in the above painting, which is based on the illustration in Plate I. The text accompanying Plate I describes Rev. Master's understanding of the nature of the choice she is making--the choice to go into a great and daunting spiritual darkness in pure meditation, leaving the occupations and diversions associated with the opposites of complacency (the road on the right) and inadequacy (the road on the left) behind. She writes, "So, refusing to go down either road, I see nothing but the great mountain range before me. Over these mountains heavy storms rage. The mountain faces are sheer like glass. How can they be scaled by a being who has no knowledge of how to climb, no rope, no means of grasping the glassy surface?"

At the time of this experience, Rev. Master was so weak that she could hardly move. Obviously, she was not physically on hands and knees before a material mountain range, and she was not looking about her for a physical rope. She was spiritually on "hands and knees" before an awesome spiritual unknown. She was looking for the spiritual way forward, the spiritual tool for going into that immense spiritual darkness. The vision that she was having at the time, and that the illustration in Plate I so beautifully represents, is a visual metaphor for that spiritual experience. The use of the word "vision" as the generic term applying to such experiences derives from our strong human emphasis on the sense of sight: there can also be auditory "visions" and "visions" associated with the other senses.

Our physical senses convey information about the world around us. At its most basic material level, this information is essential for our physical survival. We can see the bus coming down the road in our direction, and we can then step out of its way; we can hear the sound of the glass breaking in the window above us and duck before it hits us; we can smell the gas leaking from the broken gas line and get out of the house before it blows up; we can touch the edge of the knife to determine how sharp it is before we use it. Genuine spiritual visions happen when the Buddha Nature takes charge of the functioning of the senses in order to convey spiritual teaching. This spiritual experience usually overlays, but does not obscure, the experience of the familiar physical world: Rev. Master often emphasized that while she was having the visions described in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, she remained fully aware of her body and her physical surroundings.

This discussion of visions has been limited until now to visions involving the five physical senses. It is important to add that there is a class of vision in which there is no reference to, or mediation by, the physical senses. Visions of this kind can be described as "thought-sense visions". (In traditional Buddhist teaching, there are six senses--the five physical senses and the sense through which we experience thoughts.) Such visions should not be confused with insights resulting from reasoning and analysis. Rather, they are immediate apprehensions of Truth originating directly from the Buddha Nature. They transcend the seeming dichotomy between intuition and intellect: they are pure intuitive insight manifesting in intellect. For example, when the Buddha said, "Oh monks, there is an Unborn, Undying, Unchanging, Uncreated . . ." [in the Udana Scripture]," on what basis in experience could he have made such a statement? The answer is that he had spiritually awakened to this True Reality, and the truth of Its Unborn and Undying Nature was experienced directly in "pure intuitive insight manifesting in intellect". Since the Buddha's time, many people who have followed in his footsteps have awakened to the Buddha Nature and come to know, for themselves, the truth of this teaching.

In the Foreword to How to Grow a Lotus Blossom Rev. Master distinguishes between genuine visions and makyo, a Japanese term indicating hallucinatory phenomena that beset some meditators. For most people, makyo (if it arises at all) dissipates within the first year or two of practice. But in a multitude of forms, makyo can manifest later in training, especially prior to a first kensho (genuine awakening to one's True Nature). One way to look at such experiences is in terms of a simple analogy. Imagine that a radio signal source is sending out a consistent, clear signal. Imagine that there is a radio signal receiver that is tuned "off" the right frequency, resulting in an unintelligible, unreliable noise. The more inaccurate the tuning, the more scrambled and confused the signal will seem to be. As the tuning improves, the signal is heard more clearly and more intelligibly. When the tuning is precisely right, the signal is received in full strength and clarity. When applied to the distinction between makyo and genuine visions, this analogy points out that makyo are the result of a "mistuned" spiritual "receiver". When the tuning is right, genuine teaching is discerned where previously there was confusion and illusion. In other words, in the beginning of serious training in meditation and the Precepts, we are relatively out of harmony with our True Nature, and this disharmony scrambles the "signal"; if training proceeds properly, we gradually come into an increasingly harmonious relationship with the Buddha Nature and genuine visions may happen.

One of the most intense and difficult forms of makyo is one that I call the "karmic horrors". In its most extreme form, this kind of makyo affects relatively few trainees. Less extreme forms are not uncommon. The karmic horrors are a confused mismash of what appear to be memories of intense, often-gory mayhem and suffering (present life, past life, or a combination of the two), accompanied by powerful emotions (such as fear, despair, horror, and hatred). The trainee who is going through this firestorm of horror must resolutely meditate, refusing to get caught up in the endlessly detailed memories (or seeming memories) and emotional drama. A true teacher can help a disciple through this spiritual ordeal, provided the disciple is willing to follow the teacher's instructions. It is essential to stay grounded in meditation and in ordinary daily life. The karmic horrors derive their power from a mass of unconverted karmic confusion and pain. It will take time--years of training--for the principal karmic threads to be unwound from one another so that the help of the Eternal can come to each one when all conditions ripen and the timing is just right. The training during those years should be seen as the gradual conversion of the main body of the spiritual pain and confusion. Only that which needs special attention, and in which clearest and deepest teaching about the Precepts is embodied, will need to be fully experienced in memory one day.

Genuine visions do not originate in selfish volition, physical or mental illness, spiritual confusion, or some kind of spiritual "possession" by immaterial beings. We can fantasize in a way that makes our fantasy seem real or almost real; a person suffering from hallucinations can have sense experiences that have little or no relation to material or spiritual reality. But a genuine vision conveys teaching originating from our infinitely wise and compassionate True Nature and relating to our real (not imagined) physical and spiritual welfare.

Rev. Master always emphasized that the teaching, and putting the teaching into practice, not the particular form in which the teaching is conveyed, is what matters. Some trainees have visions regularly. Some trainees have visions for awhile and then stop having them, or have them much less frequently. Some trainees train for years or decades without having visions, and then start having them. Some trainees never have them, or believe that they never have them. (I suspect that all trainees eventually have "intellectual visions", whether or not they have visions associated with the physical senses. But many people think of visions as being limited to the sense of sight, or to the physical senses.) For all trainees, "to live by Zen is to live an ordinary daily life". Every aspect of that "ordinary daily life" is teaching and helping: the only question is whether we are taking our daily experience as teaching . What good would any number of genuine visions be to someone who is unable to learn from them and apply their teaching in daily life? To all who tend to be worried about the visions in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom I say, "Forget the external form of the experience and focus on the teaching. Look at the way in which Rev. Master takes the teaching to heart and puts it into practice."

Rev. Master strongly cautioned that it is always a mistake--and one that can have serious consequences--to try to have visions, or, indeed, to grasp after what one imagines to be "enlightenment" by any means, and in any form, whatsoever. Rev. Master never tried to have visions or to get "enlightened". She did her daily training and allowed the results of the training to take care of themselves. Her essential choice in the spring of 1976 was to wholeheartedly do that training in the midst of a great spiritual crisis. Rev. Master could not know when she began her retreat where it would lead. It turned out that this great crisis in her life was also a great spiritual opportunity. In choosing to meditate deeply and entrust her life wholly into the hands of the Eternal, she made it possible for the potential within that opportunity to be fully realized. All who choose to follow in her footsteps are the immediate beneficiaries of her great spiritual legacy.

Click here to go to Part II, "The Five Kenshos"

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