Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

KyogenAt my Zen Center last Sunday we read and discussed a beautiful teaching from Kyogen Carlson, one of my Zen teachers. It was from the chapter “Dharma Realm” in a little booklet Kyogen wrote called Zen Roots. I called this excerpt “Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha.” We lost Kyogen suddenly last September to a heart attack, and rediscovering this teaching from him made me miss him terribly.

It isn’t so much that I miss him personally, in the sense of regular interactions, although he was generally a fun and interesting person to be around. Since I completed my junior priest training I had not seen Kyogen that often, so I can’t claim to be one of the many people directly impacted by his absence on a daily basis.

What I felt profoundly this last weekend was a longing for his Dharma. This “Dharma” includes his teaching, or his unique way of understanding and expressing Buddhism, Zen, and practice. However, that’s only part of it, because I had that aspect of his Dharma when I was holding his written teaching in my hands. The part that was missing was his living testimonial to the truth and reality of those teachings. His posture, his eyes, his physical expression that grounded the teaching in front of you in a provocative, encouraging, and indisputable way.

Anyone can write or speak teachings that sound pretty good. They may resonate with us, challenge us, or inspire us. But just because they sound good doesn’t mean they are true or effective, and just because we like them doesn’t mean we understand them. And then sometimes we don’t like teachings and we want to avoid them.

Then we encounter a true teacher like Kyogen – someone who verified for himself, through direct experience, what he taught. And someone who had achieved the spiritual maturity to abide peacefully in his understanding without needing to convince or convert others in an effort to feel more secure. Such a teacher gives you the opportunity to experience a full, embodied encounter with That-Which-You-Do-Not-Yet-Know.

Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha” is his take on the Zen encounter with what Huston Smith calls “The More,” and what Kyogen’s teacher Roshi Kennett called the “Lord of the House.” Vaguely theistic imagery is often troubling to Zen students, and when I first encountered it in Zen I was definitively ambivalent. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of having some kind of transcendent experience, but on the other I was worried that this “woo-woo” stuff was a sign Zen was going to prove itself to be based on B.S. in the long run.

I went to Kyogen with my ambivalence, hoping he would tell me to ignore all of the references to the “Lord of the House” and the “Cosmic Buddha” in Roshi Kennett’s writings because they were irrelevant to Zen practice. He didn’t. He compassionately tried to explain the presence of devotion and theistic imagery in Zen (as he does so well in his essay), but he didn’t back down. There he sat, a thoughtful but slightly wry expression on his face, a concrete testimony to a reality I had not yet experienced.

There is much more I don’t understand, and much more Kyogen could have taught me just by living his truth.

Let’s value our living teachers!

About Domyo Burk