Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Light and dark oppose one another
like front and back foot in walking.

This evening we’re back to Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, the collection of Shunryu Suzuki’s talks on the Sandoki. Normally, Suzuki takes Sandoki stanzas in pairs, but this stanza—number fifteen—he treats all by itself. Perhaps the previous stanzas—numbers thirteen and fourteen—were obscure enough that he thought they needed further clarification.
     I’ll follow his order with number fifteen.
You may remember that the previous stanzas were about light and dark. They seemed rather dark to Suzuki Roshi, as well as to me.
To repeat the current stanza:
Light and dark oppose one another
like front and back foot in walking.
     Suzuki starts out by saying “Dependency and independency are actually two sides of one coin.” Later he says personal independence is a delusion, that a person is dependent on everything.
Then he digresses by announcing that Japanese people are reputed to be very tough. But toughness is only one side of their personality. Because they are steeped in Buddhism, the Japanese are really gentle and soft.
     Four or five years ago, the last time I was in Japan, I heard a popular saying: A Japanese person is born Buddhist, marries Shinto, and is buried Christian. Although these three ways of thought prevail in modern Japan, Buddhism is the most widespread.
     There is a tale from old Japan about a folk hero called Momotaro. He was born from a peach that was picked up by an elderly couple. Japanese children still sing a song about Momotaro, whose words say “He was very strong, but very kind and gentle.”
     Even after Japan’s early isolation, then its militarism, and then its post-World War II occupation, and now its modernity, “strong but kind and gentle” continues to describe the Japanese character.
     The average Japanese citizen did not want to go to war. The militarist government at the time did.
     Suzuki says, “A person who is strong just for himself is not strong, but a strong person who is very kind will support people.”
     That is to say, to be strong in a real way is to have a strong side as well as a soft side.
     There is an old Japanese saying that bamboo may be bent by the wind, or by the weight of snow, but it will always return to its upright form. In other words, one should bend like the bamboo, but never break.
     Like the front and back foot in walking; like dark and light.
These are opposites, and Zen usually prefers not to separate things into conflicting camps. But oneness can actually be a pair of opposites.
In walking, front foot and back foot are performing different actions. The one in front is reaching out, pulling. The one in back is helping to maintain balance, pushing. With only the front foot, or only the back foot, walking isn’t possible. Both feet are necessary to balance one another.
I’m going to quote several lines from Suzuki, so listen intently.
“When you learn something, you should be able to teach it to people. You should put the same effort into teaching as into learning. And if you want to teach, you should be humble enough to learn something. . . . So to learn is to teach, and to teach is to learn.”
Whether a person is a Buddhist, a Shinto, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or any other, one has to find one’s own moral code. One learns his or her own moral code, but that code should not be selfish or hoarded. A moral code should be shared with others, whether those others are one’s children, one’s partner, or perfect strangers.
Note: To share is not to proselytize, to attempt to convert someone to one’s own way of thinking. It’s to believe in oneself, to follow one’s convictions, but to be open, kind, and gentle.
To mangle a biblical quotation, let your light shine forth.
Getting back to light and dark, they are equal. Your step ahead becomes your step behind.
Which is light, and which is dark?
What does it matter?
When we do kinhin, walking meditation, we don’t concern ourselves about which foot is in front and which foot is in back. If we did get caught up in such questioning thoughts we would probably stumble, or come to a standstill.
To wind up my talk on Suzuki’s talk on opposites, one of his students admitted he didn’t understand the relevance of the talk, just as you may not understand the relevancy of this talk.
Here’s what Suzuki Roshi answered:
“The purpose of what I am saying is to open a different approach to your understanding of reality. You are observing things from just one side or the other, and you stick to some one-sided understanding.”