HOW TO GROW A LOTUS BLOSSOM: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Section I

This Thought of Enlightenment has arisen within me, I know not how.
It is as a blind man who finds a jewel in a dung heap.


The Search

As far back as I can remember, I always somehow knew that God exists, and I was searching for God. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that God is, nor can I remember a time when I was not searching for God. I use the word "God" here, rather than the words I usually use now, such as "the Eternal" and "Buddha Nature", because I grew up with the word "God", and that was the only word I knew to describe what I was seeking until I found Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett and her disciples. That to which such words point is the Reality; the words are just words.

I was raised as a Protestant. We attended Baptist and non-denominational Evangelical churches. We went to good churches with good pastors. The only pastor whose actual teaching I remember loved to talk to his large congregation about the love of God, and when he did this I could see how much he loved God in return. But, for me, something was missing, and, try as I might, I could not find what I longed for in the religion in which I was raised. I had to find my own spiritual Path, I had to find my true teacher. That does not, in my mind, constitute a criticism of the religion in which I was raised. I am grateful to it. In the end, I just needed to walk a different Path.

The single greatest transforming event in my early life happened when I was 21 years old when I first saw my brother (who was three years younger than me) in the intensive care unit of a hospital shortly after a terrible head-on car crash. He was unconscious, and remained so, for nine days. The moment I laid eyes on him, a great wave of love swept up through me and I knew without a shadow of doubt that I would change places with him in the blink of an eye if it were possible to do so. I was aware that this love was not of my creation, and there was not a shred of self in it: it just was.

My brother survived but suffered some brain damage. He was a very innocent person who suffered deeply. He began speaking openly of committing suicide. My parents tried to prevent this, but it is very difficult to prevent someone who is determined to commit suicide from doing so. My brother committed suicide a few months after his accident.

It is strange and wonderful how we can be deeply shaken by events and not really be aware of how shaken we are. The experience of unconditional love, and of the death of someone who I loved so much shook me to my core. Yet even as I became more desperate, I remained unaware of what was happening within me. But I began to take risks that I had never taken, and I began to lose interest in things that had been very important to me. I did some very foolish things, but, looking back, it seems as if I was living under a protective mantle of compassion.

I can distill the description of the first 24 years of my life into four words: "searching, longing, love and pain."--Searching for God; longing for love; finding human love, and sensing that something was still missing; feeling the pain of grief and desire and self-hatred.

The picture I have painted in these few words is of an ordinary, confused young man with a deep spiritual longing. Something changed in my life in my early twenties: I discovered what might be called the "perfection of human love"--a love pointing beyond human love; and I began to realize that I was suffering. It is said in Buddhism that "when the disciple is ready the master appears". Love and suffering got me ready to be a disciple of a true master.

Finding the Path

One way of describing the change that was happening within me in my early twenties was that I was gradually awakening to the Buddha's First Noble Truth: "Suffering exists". I had been suffering all along, but it is one thing to suffer and another to accept that, whichever way you turn, suffering is there, present and unavoidable. A shell of delusion that was buffering me from awareness of the pain that permeated my life began to dissolve the moment I experienced that wave of selfless love on seeing my brother in the hospital. In the year following my brother's death I began to have episodic attacks of deep fear. They were always triggered by some external event, but it gradually began to dawn on me that the real cause of the fear was within me, not in external events.

When I was 22 I began to instinctively find my way to a secluded place and sit still. I might start by trying to think about something, but the fear would well up so powerfully that it would drown out the thoughts. To cope with the fear, I had to sit very still and let myself feel the fear without trying to push it away. I knew nothing about meditation as a formal practice. I did not know that I was beginning to do meditation. I found that by being still within the fear, not only was the fear gradually quieted, but often it was replaced by gratitude. It was as if the very fear itself was being transmuted into gratitude. Yet this feeling of gratitude would not last: like the fear, it would pass away. Before long, the fear would come back. Yet, looking back now at that wonderful and anguished time in my life, I think that each time I went off by myself and sat through a fear attack, my confidence in this approach to dealing with spiritual pain was strengthened. The feeling of gratitude was a signal to a young man who was careening about in the dark: "Come this way!" The fear also was a signal: "Spiritual need requiring help!" The fear kept coming back because the underlying need was still there, waiting for help. Part of that help would have to come from me; but the greater part would have to come from the Eternal.

I had unknowingly stumbled across a key feature of the deepest Teaching of Buddhism, and one that is at the very heart of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: all the "negative" aspects of our experience are the raw material of enlightenment. One can make, through non-Preceptual action, more suffering out of this raw material, which adds to the total amount of raw material that will have to be processed one day. Or one can apply the principles of correct spiritual training--Preceptual practice, meditation and faith--to the raw material, and thereby experience for oneself the miracle of transmutation--or, to use the word Rev. Master most often used, conversion.

A few months after I began doing this quiet sitting, I read my first book about Buddhism, The Buddha's Way by Ven. Prof. Saddhatissa, a Theravadin monk who (as I found out many years later), had taught Rev. Master when she was a young woman in London. This book was a revelation to me. I took copious notes. But I was very confused. I began to seek instructions on how to meditate. I tried different kinds of meditation--all from reading. For two months I also tried a kind of ascetic denial of the body's needs, which only made me weak and did not destroy desire--which, mistakenly, I was attempting to do. I badly needed a teacher.

In the spring of 1973, just before my 24th birthday, I read a scrawled note in a natural food store. This note said that monks from Shasta Abbey were leading retreats in Eugene, Oregon on Saturdays. When I saw this note, I somehow knew this was for me, though I had never heard of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett or Shasta Abbey. I went to a retreat and as soon as I saw the monk--Rev. Gyozan--I felt a kind of "click" down in my abdomen. I knew without a doubt that I had found what I was looking for. Rev. Gyozan and Rev. Shuyu were starting a temple in Eugene. Before long I was living there and training with them.

I had only a very vague idea of what it meant to be a Buddhist monk. But I knew this was the way I wished to go. I asked to become a monk and was ordained by Rev. Shuyu in October, 1973.

For the next two years, I lived and trained most of the time in small temples in Eugene, Oregon and Berkeley, California. I trained under the guidance of disciples of Rev. Master--Rev. Shuyu and Rev. Gyozan in Eugene, and Rev. Mokurai in Berkeley. I feel much gratitude to these monks now, and more than a little sympathy for what they had to put up with from me. I also trained for shorter periods at Shasta Abbey, where I finally met Rev. Master. In the winter of 1976 I moved to Shasta Abbey to live and train for the indefinite future. In April I received Dharma Transmission from Rev. Master. By the end of May she was in her great retreat. My life was about to be turned upside-down and inside-out.

The Bottom Drops Out

As I said in the Introduction to these "Reflections in a Disciple's Life", I am writing this narrative with a very limited focus. I am describing just enough of my life and my training as a monk to trace out as clearly and simply as possible the "reflections" in my own life of the teachings in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom. The richness, complexity and continually-arising challenges of Zen monastic training are not the subject of this narrative. I will discuss briefly only what I see as the major thread of my early monastic training here, for the confirmation in my own life of the teachings of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom has been the direct consequence of the way in which that thread continued on through 1976-77.

I began my training as a monk with a strong determination to apply meditation in my daily life. Of course, I kept getting doused in the fear that I have described above. Beneath that fear were even darker states that I sometimes glimpsed, but could not have described in words. Now I know that they were self-hate, a deep conviction of unworthiness, and--sometimes--despair. For two prolonged periods in the first two years of my monastic training I experienced being "doused" in the fear on a daily basis. The fear would arise at a certain time each day in a great flood. I would concentrate my mind on whatever I was doing and just let the fear be there. If I struggled against it or tried to distract myself from it, the pain would become unendurable. So, once again, this Buddha of fear was teaching me to meditate. And again, as had happened before I became a monk, when I meditated within the fear, after awhile--a few hours, usually--the fear would be replaced by a flood of gratitude.

There were times when the question of whether I would ride the fear, or whether it would run me right out of monastic training, hung by a thread. I chose to keep going. And others helped me to keep going.

When Rev. Master went into full retreat, she was at the Berkeley Buddhist Priory in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shasta Abbey is almost 300 miles from the Bay Area. The monastic community was told that Rev. Master was very ill and that she had released her disciples. At the time, the reason for the decision to release us was not clear to me, but since I was not looking to be released--and no one else seemed to be looking for it either--I just carried on with my training. Looking back, I realize that I trusted Rev. Master more than I knew at the time.

Two memories from the summer of 1976 have always stood out in bold relief in my mind. First, at a meeting of the community in which a few seniors who had gone down to see Rev. Master shared their understanding of what was happening with her, one senior (Rev. Master Jisho) said, "It looks to me like a kensho." Another person said it looked like a nervous breakdown. Rev. Master Jiisho's statement that it looked like a kensho (experience of enlightenment, literally "awakening to our True Nature") rang true with me, even though I had only a vague idea what that might mean. Second, I have always remembered how difficult formal meditation was for me during that summer. I just could not seem to be mentally present in meditation. I would get up from meditation wondering, "Where was I during that meditation period?" But then I would decide to trust the meditation and not judge it or myself.

Rev. Master came back to the monastery in September. It was immediately clear to me that something had changed in a huge way. Rev. Master described her spiritual journey during the last few months in clear and simple terms. She spoke openly of having memories of past lives, which I had not heard her do before. Looking back, I see that I intuitively recognized that the same opportunity that had opened up for Rev. Master was opening up for me. The question was, Is this what I truly wanted? It was as if a great chasm had opened up before me where previously I had thought there was solid ground.

For two months the question of whether this was what I truly wanted was an open question. I would put my toe in the deeper water and then shoot in the opposite direction. I experienced two past life memories during this time. The first of these memories showed me the horror and black despair of a man who committed suicide after murdering someone. Yet, as had happened when I first saw my brother in the hospital, a great wave of compassion swept through me, and there was no distinct break between the horror and the compassion that followed. It was also very clear that this person was a different person from myself: his actions were not my actions, though I had inherited his karmic jangle of pain and confusion.

The purpose of memories of past lives, some of which can be very intense and vivid, is easily misunderstood. I will not dwell on it here, but will discuss it in one of the essays in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom--Reflections. Suffice it to say here that I was being shown how deeply anguished and confused some major constituents of my karmic inheritance were. Helping such need find its way to the Eternal is not a walk in the park. It is as if I was being asked, "Are you willing to do the training that will enable this spiritual need to get the help of the Eternal, no matter how long it takes and no matter what the cost?"

For two months, my answer to that question was, "Maybe.--But maybe not." The experiences of past lives did not allay the deep fear that was in me, nor did the fact that they so strongly confirmed the truth of an important part of Rev. Master's (and the Buddha's) Teaching prevent me from having doubts. A few years later I was clearly shown that "All doubt is rooted in self-doubt." There were times during these two crucial months when I doubted Rev. Master, but I was really doubting myself. It was my own version of "the voice that whispers, 'Go back. . . . You cannot do it. You have not been good enough to climb this mountain . . ." (Plate II of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom). In one form or another, this doubt has visited me every time I have been offered the opportunity to go deeper in training.

The days passed. I was stuck with my fear and doubt, and that dark chasm in front of me was getting deeper and darker. As I look back almost forty years later, I see myself at that time as exemplifying the metaphor of having a red hot iron ball in the mouth, and being unable to swallow it or spit it out. I asked if I could do a private meditation retreat. Rev. Master gave me permission to do this. But I was banging my head into a spiritual wall that simply was not ready to dissolve. After a couple days, Rev. Master came and told me to rejoin the normal training schedule of the monastery. She was very kind, but she made it very clear that "storming heaven" would not get me anywhere. She told me to pick up my hammer and go back to work (I was in the construction department of the Abbey at the time). I trusted her and did as she said.

By the time of the fall monastic retreat in December, everything and everyone that I had been clutching at in a vain attempt to avoid being pitched into that yawning dark chasm had dissolved or pulled away. I sat that retreat in spiritual darkness. I was utterly without hope. One can be without hope and yet not despair. I found something beyond hope and despair in meditation. The last night of this retreat, all the monks come before the abbot one by one and ask a question. When my time came, I knelt before my master and expressed my situation in a few words. I used the metaphor of the man who built his house upon shifting sand, which I remembered from the Bible, to express how lost I felt. Rev. Master replied simply, "Just don't worry about external things."

There was no clap of thunder, no flash of insight. But I heard that simple answer with my whole being. I was still in the same great spiritual darkness, but now I knew how to go forward through it. At the beginning of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom Rev. Master placed a one-page section entitled "I am Glad that I Became a Monk". One of the teachings on this page is "Nothing matters; Mindfulness is all." This is the same teaching as "Just don't worry about external things." I put this teaching into practice as if my life depended on it. The doubts fell away: I needed to focus inwards and meditate for all I was worth, and I simply could not afford the luxury of doubt. Another way to put it is like this: At this point the petty doubts that were trying to prop up a struggling ego were transformed into Great Doubt. When I look back on that precious time now I can only think, "How fortunate I was to become a monk! How fortunate I was to find my master!"



Click here to proceed to Section II: A New Beginning

Click here to return to Table of Contents of Book Two: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life



Click here to go to Book One: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections

Click here to go to the Home Page of the Reflections