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

by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Section III
Becoming a Buddhist

The Buddha Nature offers to the untrue and the uncompassionate that which is hard to bear, its cleansing energy.


Bull Riding 101

The kensho that I experienced in the winter of 1977 was the "lightning flash" spiritual awakening featured in so many Zen stories. As Rev. Master often observed, the stories do not say much about the years of training prior to the lightning flash. I would add that they also say little about the trials that follow the first kensho.

The immediate aftermath of my kensho was a spiritual honeymoon. I was head over heels in love with the Eternal. I had never experienced such joy and gratitude, and this was accompanied by greatly deepened confidence in the Path that I was walking. From that time until the present day I have never doubted my purpose in being a monk or the rightness for me of the particular way of training--Soto Zen--to which I was drawn so many years ago. This is not to say that I have not suffered from doubt--but, as I shall show, it was doubt of another kind.

Even the most perfect honeymoon has to come to an end so that important and difficult work can be undertaken. In life in the world, a honeymoon is the prelude to making a family. In spiritual life, the "honeymoon" is the prelude to a deeper conversion of karma. In traditional married life, two partners tackle together the hard work of raising their children. In spiritual marriage, we are partnered with the Eternal in the work of conversion. We cannot do the Eternal's part of this work. And the Eternal neither does our part for us nor forces us to do our part. Always we are responsible for our own actions; and always we are volunteers in training.

I cannot identify any one moment during the next two and a half years as being a particular high or low. Meditation was often deeply peaceful and still. But in the midst of daily activity, I would often swing between emotional extremes--mostly on the bright side of the emotional spectrum, but as time passed, the swings went further into the dark side. During one period of a few months, I struggled with a mixture of fear and anger. Looking back on that period now, I am reminded of a bull rider in a rodeo trying to stay on a leaping, twisting Brahma bull. During a quieter period of a month or so immediately following this wild ride, I was able to see more clearly the mistakes I had made during the "bull ride". Each meditation for a week or two was like looking in a mirror, and I did sange.

"Sange" means "contrition". Sometimes Rev. Master defined it as "contrition and conversion". Sometimes she called it "confession". Sometimes she said, "Sange is self-forgiveness." It can also be called "self-acceptance". It is all these things and more. It is "sitting up straight in the presence of the Buddhas", admitting our actions of thought, word and deed that are not in harmony with our True Nature, accepting the consequences of these actions, and resolving to work on the problem that has been seen, admitted and accepted. Sange leads naturally to taking the Precepts to heart. Sange is not indulgence in guilt and self-blame. Sange is the way to train with our humanity, rather than treat it like an enemy.

Rev. Master describes very deep sange in the text accompanying Plates VII-IX in the second edition of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom. (This text is not in the first edition.) The fierce beings in the visions depicted in Plates VII-IX represent the proddings of our own conscience, insisting that we admit the truth to ourselves. I say "to ourselves" because there is no mediator who can grant absolution or require acts of penance. This does not mean that it is not sometimes good to confess to another human being, but it is important to emphasize that sometimes it may be good to do so, and then again sometimes it may not be good to do so. How do we know which is which?--By meditating with the question of what is good to do.

While riding the wild bull of the passions, falling off and getting back on, I was learning that one can fall off and get back on again and again. I was learning that there is no person, force or entity that can prevent us from continuing on in our training: it is always our choice, and ours alone, whether we continue to keep getting back on the bull. I was learning that the Eternal does not keep score of our seeming successes and failures: the Love of the Eternal is; we may temporarily blind ourselves to It, but It will never abandon us.

The Longing of Ages

During a particularly busy time in the spring of 1980 when I was only occasionally in the meditation hall for regular meditation periods, I decided that, no matter how tired I was or how late at night it was, I would sit in formal meditation in my room before going to bed. Somehow I knew that it was not the amount of time or the seeming quality (or lack of it) of the meditation that mattered. What mattered was that I was saying to the Eternal, "Regardless of how important the fulfilling of responsibilities may be, You are first in my heart." I was fully conscious that this was the meaning of this sitting, and I did it faithfully even though sometimes I was so tired that all I could do was wobble unsteadily for a few minutes on my cushion before getting up and going to bed.

In the summer of 1980, I was among the small group of monks who accompanied Rev. Master to the temple in the Bay Area (the Berkelely Buddhist Priory--though at the time it was located in Oakland). One day we found a nest of newborn mice in the trunk of the car. The mother mouse was not with her babies and may have been left behind when we moved the car from one place to another. There were eight babies. I decided to look after them. I found a veterinarian and asked how to proceed. I followed the instructions and began feeding the mice every two hours round the clock (canned puppy formula fed with an eyedrop syringe). When I became too tired, another trainee kindly filled in for a few feedings so I could sleep.

I later learned that the survival rate for baby mice is not high. Over the next week, all but one of the baby mice died. After each death, I took the little body into the meditation hall and did the funeral ceremony for an animal. And each time I did this, I cried my heart out. I have a much better idea now, over thirty years later, than I had at the time why I grieved so deeply.

One morning shortly after this episode with the baby mice, I was meditating alone in the meditation hall. I "heard"--very clearly--the words, "Go to Rev. Master now." I got up, went to Rev. Master's room and knocked on the door. She said, "Come in." She was alone. I told her that I had been meditating and what I had heard. She was very still. She asked me, "What do you need to do?" I replied, "I need to meditate and study the Precepts."

Rev. Master called her chaplains and the chief priest of the temple and asked that a room adjacent to the meditation hall be made available at once. So that very morning I was meditating on my own. But I was not alone for long, for it again came up clearly to ask to see Rev. Master. As soon as I was with her again, I dissolved in a great flood of the Water of the Spirit, as had happened in my kensho. And yet it was different, too. Now it was more like being reamed out by great waves of energy. I was in excellent health and could run for several miles without difficulty, but a few minutes of this reaming left me so weak that I could barely stand.

For the next few days I had one or two such episodes of "reaming" each day. Rev. Master was there to ground the whole process with her great faith, certainty and deep meditation. Then for several days I was drawn to look at particular actions that I had done before I became a monk. Again, I was doing sange. I remembered acts of unkindess that I had done as a child. I particularly remembered one boy who a number of other boys, including myself, would taunt until he became furious. I felt profoundly sorry. Children make choices; children make karma. I tried to locate this man (for, of course, if he was still alive, he would have been a man of my own age--thirty-one--at the time) in order to apologize, but did not succeed.

In the memory of one act in particular, I got a very painful lesson in the spiritual meaning of my actions. It was what one might call a "borderline" mistake--not clearly right or wrong as the world understands these terms. The problem was that I knew in my heart that it was wrong for me to do what I did, but I acted out of pure vanity and went ahead and did it. I had plenty of time to make my decision: it was not an act done in the heat of passion; it was a deliberate act. The deeper meaning of the keeping of the Precepts is to be true to one's own Heart. There is no such thing as a "little" act of willful disregard of our Buddha Nature.

I told Rev. Master about this act. She said that she had had something similar to deal with in her great sange in 1976. She pointed out the importance of meditating through the guilty feelings until we get to the point of acceptance and equanimity. If we act impulsively out of guilt or shame, we may set the wheel of karma in motion again. Always it is vitally important to place that which is pained and confused upon the altar of the heart and allow the Eternal to show us what is truly good to do for both self and others.

I was also able to see that another, and very recent, "little" act also had great significance. I have mentioned my choice to sit in meditation for at least a short time before going to sleep. Although I knew when I made this decision what it meant to me, I had no idea how literally the Eternal takes every sincere expression of love and longing for Itself. Infinite Love does not force Itself upon that which is, after all, entirely of Itself. It has already chosen us; It waits and waits until we choose It. Rev. Master's master told people who came to his monastery to meditate, "If you meditate, you may be grabbed by the Cosmic Buddha." If and when this happens, it is magnificent, but it does not bring happiness as the world understands the word.

Toward the end of my retreat I was given a teaching that I later realized was intended to prepare me for what was to come. I was meditating and I "heard" the words, "All doubt is self-doubt." I was not doubting anything or anyone at the time, so I just put it on the "back burner" and carried on.

I remained in retreat for over a month. I sensed that what I was experiencing was a very important part of the fulfillment of an ages-old longing--and my longing--for full reharmonization with the Eternal. But the truth is that I had no idea of what had been set in motion by the great "reaming" waves of the Water of the Spirit.

The Water of the Spirit

What is the Water of the Spirit?--Rev. Master refers to It many times in different ways in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom. But she identifies two main modes--"washing" and "bathing". In the text accompanying Plate XLV (Plate XXVII in the first edition), Rev. Master writes, "I am infused with ecstasy in every part of my being."--Infused with "a luminescent, spiritual water." This is the washing mode. Further down the page she says, "I am again infused but this time it is different; it is a golden infusion that is also a bath . . . I am thrilled through and through again and again; it is cold, a very strange cold." This is the bathing mode. In my experience, whatever mode It may be in, and however powerful or subtle It may be, It is always exquisite, always both physical and spiritual, always light rather than dark, and, above all, always Love.

To the best of my knowledge mainstream Western thought and religion are oblivious to the Water of the Spirit. Of course, genuine mystical experience has never been limited to any geographical area or culture, and I am certain that Rev. Master's description of the Water of the Spirit would fit right into the Western contemplative tradition at its height--which was several centuries ago. In China, the Water of the Spirit is called "Chi" (or "Qi"). Chi is a fundamental concept in traditional Chinese medicine, though I do not think that the spiritual meaning of Chi is well understood in Chinese medicine. I know nothing about Indian Yogic teachings and practices, but I think the "Kundalini" may be the same as the Water of the Spirit.

The Water of the Spirit can be very powerful. In one of the "reamings" described above, I knew that my life hung by a thread. Again I was in perfect health at the time. I knew that That which was flooding through my body with indescribable power was incapable of doing harm, and I had no fear. I was perfectly willing to die, but I knew intuitively that I would not die at that time.

The Eternal is always utterly practical, and the Water of the Spirit is used by the Eternal, and experienced by the trainee, in the form and mode that is perfectly suited to a particular need. The "reamings" that I have described are the "washing" mode of the Water of the Spirit experienced in great power. I think of the reaming as a flashflood of the Water of the Spirit, moving great spiritual jangle "boulders," exposing and rearranging them so that they can be more readily worked upon in the course of training. The Water of the Spirit can be experienced in much more gentle, subtle ways. The Love of the Eternal can manifest with immense power, and It can be infinitely tender. It always works for the deepest and truest good of beings.

The Water of the Spirit is Love and Wisdom. As Wisdom, It moves in confirmation, and in service, of truth. I remember experiencing the flow of the Water of the Spirit upon hearing a popular song--Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler". I heard the song a few times over a period of a month or two, and each time I would feel the Water move. I mentioned this to Rev. Master, who said such experience is completely normal. Few people would classify this song as a spiritual masterpiece, yet the words "you have to know when to hold, know when to fold, know when to walk away, know when to run" provide wonderful teaching and, in fact, Rev. Master sometimes quoted them as an example of the "kaleidoscopic mind"--the mind that is free from clinging, and therefore free to follow the Eternal wherever the Eternal leads. It may also be that this part of this song was moving the Water of the Spirit in me at the time because there was teaching in it that I particularly needed to accept and understand--not just generally true, but true for me.

It is possible for people to experience the physical aspect of the Water of the Spirit and have no idea of its spiritual meaning. If the illusion of self and worldly motives are in the way, we are blinded to the fact that the Water of the Spirit is Cosmic Love and Wisdom flowing through our body and mind. This is like someone looking at Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and seeing only little streaks of paint on canvas. But note that the Water of the Spirit does not hide Its meaning from us. It makes no distinction between sage and fool, saint and sinner, enlightened and deluded, converted and unconverted, spiritual and worldly: It is. If we attempt to cling to It, manipulate It or control It, we only steal from our own spiritual treasurehouse. If we trust It to do Its work within our body and mind--whether we are aware of its working or not--It will always do Its part of the work of conversion. All we have to do is keep our focus on our part of the work.

Bull Riding 201

In the Foreword to How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, Rev. Master writes,

"In many ways the time between the first and third kenshos is the most difficult, as anyone who has had a first kensho knows, for the simple reason that the temptations to break the Precepts are much greater and far more subtle. The norm of human behaviour being set at what psychologists consider "healthy," i.e. a person is well integrated and adjusted if he has a reasonable ego and a fair swatch of greed, hate and delusion with a little lukewarm morality thrown in, is of little comfort to one who has had a first kensho and finds that, in order to progress further, he must now not only keep his passions rooted out but also clean up the impregnations that they have left upon his skandhas [body and mind] both in this life and in his previous ones."

Truer words were never written!

The great "reamings" that I experienced in the beginning of my retreat in the summer of 1980 left me physically weak for a couple months and emotionally raw. For a short while during my retreat I was so sensitive that harsh sounds that I would normally barely notice became acutely painful. As time went on, I gained my physical strength again and this hypersensitivity faded, but I continued to experience raw emotions--some of them very dark and pained. Of course, I was continuing to do my training, so there was a powerful grounding of the emotional turbulence in meditation, mindfulness and the effort to keep the Precepts. But dark feelings and thoughts kept welling up from somewhere deep inside me, and I felt very confused.

Several months after my retreat ended, I was able to express my confused state to Rev. Master. I told her that it felt at times as if I was going mad. She responded, "You have been through a great shake-up. It will take time. Just keep going."

It took seven years. I have often been grateful that I did not know what I would be going through beforehand. Yet even in the darkest places that I visited, I knew that the Eternal is and I knew that my hope lay in meditation. I wrote a poem sometime in the first year or two of this period in my life. It is the first poem among several that I will be posting on this website. It is called "Cloud of Bright Darkness." [Click here to go to Poems]

What was happening to me?--I was caught in the classic spiritual bind that either drives people further into training and enlightenment or drives them back into the world to seek a seemingly easier and safer route. I had experienced the Eternal in the first kensho, and then again in the great "reamings" two and one-half years after that kensho. Roughly speaking, "I" had got oriented toward the Eternal and then big chunks of my karmic inheritance had had their shells washed away in the reamings of the Water of the Spirit. But these karmic jangle "boulders" were still utterly in the dark about where "our" True Refuge was to be found. And while I wanted to be willing to pay whatever price might be required in the process of conversion, I sensed that this price might be my life itself and part of me was scared.

There is absolutely nothing unique in this story. The "dark night of the soul" is a well-known phenomenon in all contemplative traditions. And there is simply no quick fix for the confusion and suffering that accompany this phase of training. Just as Rev. Master taught, there are always the "little moments that make you dance"--the moments of blessed relief, the gentle reminders from the Eternal, "I am still with you. Do not give up. Do not despair. Go on." And then one is immersed again in the struggle to ride that wild bull.

When I look back on that period in my life, I am amazed at Rev. Master's patience. That "doubt that is self-doubt" was gradually working its way to the surface, and as it did so the spiritual strain intensified. Sometimes I would lose control and rebel. If I failed to get hold of my will pretty fast, Rev. Master would set limits, and she was not afraid to do this. When she did this with me, I always felt that I had rammed my head straight into a brick wall. I would meditate with it, then I would apologize. When I had moved on, Rev. Master was exactly the same as before anything happened. Like the Eternal, she never kept score.

People are wonderfully complex beings. We can live with great seeming contradictions. Even while I teetered on the edge of a spiritual darkness, I grew closer to my master. Indeed, during a period of eight or nine months in which certain circumstances made life particularly challenging for her, I was privileged to be someone who she relied on for practical and spiritual support. But when we came out of the crisis, something had changed for me. There were a few major identifiable threads that made up a web in which I increasingly felt myself to be trapped. But looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one thread stands out as the one from which all the others branched out: I was approaching a time in my spiritual life when I would have to be alone in a way that I had never been. And there was a deep fear within me of this aloneness, and a deep doubt of my capacity to survive it.

At the time, I was not aware of this fear, and my self-doubt was so externalized in an increasing tendency to find fault with others--especially my master--that I could not see it clearly for what it was. At no time did I question my monastic vocation or that Rev. Master was, and would always be, my master. Again, we are complex beings. By the summer of 1985, I was in a state of deep agitation. I was still doing my training, yet I felt that I was being pulled in two. When I think of it now, I have an image of myself during this period in my life holding on to Rev. Master for dear life with my hands while the Eternal is steadily and with irresistible power pulling on my feet. And I am yelling at Rev. Master, "Look what is happening to me! Put a stop to it!"--Of course, the problem was that I was the one who had to let go, and, once again, I did not know how to do it. In fact, I did not even know I needed to let go. I was just confused and increasingly frustrated.

"Letting go" does not mean that I needed to cease to be a disciple of my master. It meant that I needed to rely on the Eternal more deeply. Rev. Master used to often quote the Buddha: "The Buddhas do but point the way; thou must go alone." Up to this point in my training, at every major step Rev. Master had been right there to point the way and to help me keep grounded with her faith, certainty and meditation. But one day she would die, and, if I were still alive I would have to rely more on the Buddha Nature. In fact, as will be seen in the next Section of these "Reflections in a Disciple's Life", I would need to do this before she died.

In the fall of 1985, I snapped. I blew up at Rev. Master, calmed down, apologized, blew up again, calmed down, apologized--and floated in a dark spiritual limbo. Rev. Master was very patient, but it was clear that this could not go on. Though I was in great spiritual pain and deeply agitated, it simply never occurred to me for a moment that I might leave the monastery. I had no concept that this could be an option for me, though I had seen many monks leave through the years. So in the end Rev. Master told me during one of my calm moments, "Perhaps you could take a priory [a small temple]."

Looking back, I am again amazed, this time by the trust that Rev. Master was showing in someone who was clearly not in ideal condition to be taking on the responsibility of teaching others. That night I awoke in the middle of the night and heard the words, "You are going to Seattle." The next night I awoke in the middle of the night and heard the words, "You are going to do it in the country." I never questioned these messages: they so obviously were given to me, and so obviously did not come from me. I knew almost nothing about the area to which I would be going, though I had lived south of Seattle, in Oregon. Within a few days, I was on my way.


When I got to Seattle, I first stayed with members of the small Seattle meditation group. I began looking for property in the country. With the help of congregation members, I eventually found the property where North Cascades Buddhist Priory is now located. I continued to do my training. I never gave up meditation. But I was still in a delicate spiritual state. I was teetering on the edge of a great abyss, yet all I could do was go on with living and training. I gradually calmed down. In the summer I went down to see Rev. Master. I know everyone present felt the strain, but I was treated with great kindness. When we parted, Rev. Master said to me, "Whether or not you trust me, I have to trust you."

Early in the fall of 1986, I wrote Rev. Master a letter of apology. Yet I ended the letter with the sentence, "I don't know whether I can ever be the disciple you want me to be."--An astonishing statement. I never heard Rev. Master express any desire that I, or any other disciple, should be different than we were. She did not reply to this letter. What could she or anyone else say in the face of my self-judgment?

Also in the fall of 1986, I had a dream that my brother came to me and said, "You are going to go through a very difficult time, but you will come through it safely." I recognised that I was being consoled prior to some kind of ordeal.

In early February, 1987 I moved onto the property where I would begin building the temple. It was another step toward taking on a deeper responsibility, yet there was a cloud of my own making between me and my master. Lay trainees are not clueless when their priest is in spiritual trouble. Two congregation members, both of whom became monks within a few years and are now masters (one is my most senior disciple), independently expressed their concern to me. In the end, I went down to the Abbey to see Rev. Master. She had the seniors meet with me but was not present. I again erupted. I was left alone while Rev. Master was informed of my state. She sent back the message that I could return to my temple, but that I was not to contact any person in the wider Sangha for three years.

I left immediately and started the five hundred mile drive north. I was in a strange state. I had no sense of the passage of time. I was sitting still beneath a flow of thoughts--complaints and self-justification. But I was not believing the thoughts any more. They just spun themselves out and dissolved into emptiness. When I was near Salem, Oregon, over half-way back to my temple, the thoughts stopped. I saw one thing clearly: It did not matter who was right and who was wrong: I was going to hurt the people who trusted me as a priest. I was just coming to a rest area by the freeway. I pulled over and went to a pay phone. I called Rev. Master. She answered the phone and I blurted out, "I'm sorry!" and dissolved in tears. Great waves of the Water of the Spirit swept through me. All the complaining, the fear, the resentment washed away in sange.

Recognizing that I was in no state to drive, Rev. Master had me stay where I was beside the freeway and sent two monks up to get me and drive me back to Shasta Abbey. When I arrived, I went to her at once. I bowed to her, knelt before her and said, "I have wronged you in thought, word and deed. I am truly sorry." She reached out to me and embraced me with unconditional love. The shadows that had been between us--the shadows that I had created--were gone.

This began a sange that was different in scale from any that I had done before or have done since. It was as if I was vomiting up poison. For days it came up out of my bowels: pride, pettiness, anger, thinking and speaking against others, clinging, doubt--all had to be looked at without excuses and without blame; all had to be confessed and accepted without excuses and without blame; all had to be offered to the Eternal without excuses and without blame. This was about my choices, my actions alone: what anyone else in the world had ever done was completely irrelevant.

My problem never had to do with anyone but me. My doubts all came from my own self-doubt. My anger all came from my own self-hatred. At the root of it all was a dark lump of my own self-judgment. What had I been so angry and confused about?--I had not been able to accept the simple fact that nothing and no one can shield me from the consequences of my own actions, and of the karma that I have inherited. No one, including my master could do for me that which I could only do for myself. No one, including my master, could endure what I would have to endure myself. I was like a man out in the middle of a dangerous river yelling "Help me! What's wrong with you that you don't save me?"--To which the master can only answer, "You can swim. Look up! Swim!" I began to be a Buddhist in the true sense of the word when I stopped complaining and started truly swimming on my own.

Rev. Master often said, "The master is not the Eternal and the master represents the Eternal for the disciple." The Eternal uses the humanity of the master as a mirror within which the disciple can see, and choose to accept or not accept, his own humanity. At the same time, the master is used by the Eternal to represent Itself for the disciple. So at one and the same time, the master is a mirror of our most human traits and the representative of our own Buddha Nature. No master can be kind enough or wise enough for a disciple who refuses to accept his own humanity. And, as Great Master Dogen pointed out, even a foolish master can have enlightened disciples. The training of the master is the master's responsibility; the training of the disciple is the disciple's responsibility: it is that simple.

I remained at Shasta Abbey in retreat for over a month. As the time to return to my own seed of a temple grew near, I got the jitters, again doubting my ability to do the job that I had undertaken. How could someone who had been so shaky successfully fulfill such a responsibility? I asked Rev. Master whether I should go back or stay at the Abbey, and she in turn put the question to the senior monks. But in the end it was Rev. Master alone who made the decision. She called me into her office. She said, "Everything in me says that you should go back to your temple." I heard this with great relief, because underneath the doubt I knew that this was something I had to do, something I longed to do. Despite the temporary self-doubt, I knew in my heart that I had to go back and swim on my own.

Bull Riding 301

What matters is not how many times one falls off the bull, but how many times one gets back on.


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