Embarking On The Zen Path In Graduate School | Stephan Bodian

As I entered graduate school in 1970, I embraced Zen Buddhism wholeheartedly, seeking not only academic knowledge but a profound spiritual awakening. Having delved into Asian religions and dabbled in meditation at the Zen Studies Society in Manhattan during my college years, I was determined to don robes and embark on the rigorous training I had read about in books.

Unexpected Changes: Meeting Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Opting for Stanford over Yale due to the proximity of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the West, I saw graduate school as a leverage point to transition gradually into more full-time practice and explore the depths of spiritual awakening. Upon arriving at the San Francisco Zen Center just before school commenced, I found myself attending a seven-day sesshin with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. This intense and transformative experience solidified my commitment to the Zen path and marked a significant step in my awakening journey.

Transition to Kobun Chino’s teachings | Stephan Bodian

Despite initially planning to sit at Haiku Zendo and attend sesshins in San Francisco while at Stanford, Suzuki Roshi unexpectedly appointed a new resident teacher, Kobun Chino, to take over the local teachings. Disappointed but open-minded, I quickly warmed to Kobun’s bright and energetic presence, becoming one of his close disciples on the shared path of spiritual awakening. Living near his home, I would often see him working in his garden, and his dedication to the practice of zazen deepened the meditation experience for all of us. His every move had me spellbound as I took in the ancient wisdom he was conveying through his gestures.

Profound Teachings and Language Challenges

Kobun’s weekly talks, though challenging to decipher at times due to his thick Japanese accent, were enthralling. The devotion and sincerity infused in his words, coupled with profound silence, invited us to be especially attentive to the mysteries beyond language. Beyond Zen, Kobun shared insights into the “roots of Zen” in Indian Mahayana traditions, emphasizing the aliveness and Buddha nature inherent in all things and enriching our collective spiritual awakening.

Innovative Expressions and Formal Translations

Despite language challenges, Kobun was fascinated with expressing traditional truths in innovative ways, contributing to our collective awakening experience. In weekly meetings, we translated Zen precepts, bodhisattva vows, and the robe chant to convey their true spirit. Kobun emphasized that these were not mere ethical rules but descriptions of how an enlightened person naturally behaves, deepening our understanding of spiritual counseling.

Ordination and a Unique Presence

With Kobun’s blessing, I weathered practice periods at Tassajara. In 1974, he unexpectedly invited me to become a priest, and the playful ordination ceremony he conducted is still vivid in my mind. As a neophyte Zen student, Kobun embodied a mix of wise teacher, eccentric uncle, and loving elder brother, providing unique spiritual counseling through his presence.

Contradictions and Complexities

Over time, I discovered Kobun’s contradictions and complexities. His warmth in public contrasted with his occasional moodiness in private. A rebel against tradition, he nonetheless mastered traditional calligraphy and Zen archery. Kobun’s emphasis on “guerrilla Zen” in everyday life diverged from the formal, zendo-based practices, presenting us with diverse facets of spiritual teacher guidance.

Paths Diverge: Moving to ZCLA

Our paths diverged when I moved to ZCLA in 1976, seeking a more rigorous monastic lifestyle and exploring new dimensions of spiritual awakening. My departure seemed to disappoint Kobun, who had counted on my support for expanding Haiku Zendo into the Bodhi umbrella organization.

Drifting Apart and Final Reflections

As the years passed, Kobun and I gradually drifted apart. His untimely death in 2002, while trying to save his daughter, marked the end of a unique and profound chapter in my spiritual journey. Reflecting back, I cherish the teachings Kobun imparted—of finding my own way, sitting softly with open awareness, embracing a nondual vision that transcends concepts and divisions, and the profound art of spiritual counseling. Waking up and the teachings of Stephan Bodian further enriched this profound journey. Remembering Kobun, my first Zen teacher, remains etched in my heart as a guiding light on the path of awakening.

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