Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha: A Small Moment to Recall a Life and some Teachers

Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha: A Small Moment to Recall a Life and some Teachers July 5, 2022




Last year, a foolish monk.
This year, no change.


Fifty-two years ago, today, on the 5th of July 1970, I received shukke tokudo, also called unsui tokudo, ordination as a novice Soto Zen Buddhist priest in Oakland, California, from the Soto Zen priest Houn Jiyu Kennett.

Also. In twelve days I will turn seventy-four. Not one of those big marker years, but valuable for noting the accumulation of years, or from another angle an opportunity to note more sand tumbling down the glass…

I take this day as special marker for my spiritual journey. It began earlier, perhaps obviously. I had to go through some things to end up in that situation, with my hair being cut and a robe being put on me. But recalling this in this moment I do have a small flood of memories.

A not insignificant part of Zen priest life is naming one’s ancestors and offering the merit of practice and especially the recitation of sutras to them. There are many ways to count teachers, traditionally its the lineage chart going back to the Buddha.

There are, obviously, other ways to count one’s teachers.

Today I think of my teachers. I hold them up with endless gratitude.

Among them, first and foremost my grandmother, Bolene. She worked mostly as a maid and housekeeper. And she walked with spirits, and was a Christian prayer warrior. Grandma taught me to read using a large illustrated King James Bible resting on her lap. Without her my life would have been a much different one than the one I had and have.

Authors of books became my next teachers, especially those English Hollywood expats who admired Vedanta, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and most of all Christopher Isherwood.

My first real teacher after my grandmother was no doubt Mel Sojun Weitsman, who with friends founded the Berkeley Zendo as a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center. I actually didn’t realize he was my teacher at the time, I thought that honor belonged to Shunryu Suzuki, who I saw and heard, but never met. Mel was the one who showed by example what a path that might work for me could look like.

Then Kennett Roshi. Houn Jiyu Kennett. In the sense of a student teacher relationship, ours was relatively brief but intense. I experienced residential monastic training for a couple of years under her direct instruction. Here I learned something of Soto Zen’s liturgical path, which interested me, although honestly, more in the abstract. More importantly as it turned out, this is when and where I learned something of the power of zazen and a way into shikantaza as an anchor for my interior life. Several ordinations, followed, starting with that unsui or shukke tokudo fifty-two years ago. These were pivotal years, they launched me on a journey, one I couldn’t foresee.

But, then as the wise note, Casandra’s foresight was a curse.

Two brief marriages that deserve more than three words. And then my life partner Jan, with whom I just celebrated forty years of marriage. Truly my teachers.

James Julian Gillmon and Michael Zaharakis introduced me to the independent sacramental movement. Wali Ali Meyer and Moineddin Jablonski initiated me into universalist Sufism. Jim Wilson introduced me to koan practice at a moment when I was ready.

For my Zen life, my critical teacher was John Tarrant, who patiently, well mostly patiently accompanied me through the Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum. We explored the arcana of the tradition together for about twenty years. And while the most important thing was becoming a person of Zen, along the way he gave me the teaching authorizations that mattered in my life, for that part of my life.

When I returned to school other teachers who shaped my life appeared. First while claiming an undergraduate degree Gordon Tappan, for himself first of all, but also for leading me to another reading teacher, James Hillman. Later in seminary I had several teachers who touched me remarkably deeply: Durwood Foster’s wise ecumenism, Louis Weil’s inviting Anglicanism, Masao Abe, oh, Abe Sensei! And most of all, Joanna Macy and her engaged Buddhism.

With their varying blessings I launched out into the balance of my life. Professionally as a Unitarian parish minister, which brought all sorts of teachers to me in moments of hurt and need and joy, theirs and mine. And my intimate calling as a Zen teacher, with all sorts of collaborators and friends and students who were and are my teachers in thin disguise.

Whatever merit I have accumulated in my life, I gratefully, I sincerely offer it to you, dear ones.

Ten thousand bows…

And what have I gotten out of this? All of this? From them and my life?

Earlier today I was visiting a koan with a dear friend who is in the moment turning into a teacher of the Zen way. We read for the second time, first a few years ago out of the Blue Cliff collection and now again where it rests in the Book of Equanimity, the case called “Mazu Unwell.”

Great Master Ma was unwell. The superintendent of the monastery asked him, “How are you feeling these days?” The Great Master said, “Sun-Face Buddha, Moon-Face Buddha.”

A moon faced Buddha lives for a night and a day, a sun faced Buddha lives for a kalpa. Short or long, short and long, buddha.

What did I get from my teachers and this life? Well.

I’ve come to know this koan right into my bones and blood. So much passing. So much hurt. So much beauty and grace and joy…

Holding. And letting go. And finding the timing of it, learning the steps of this dance.

I am so grateful for the many invitations to turn into this life. This sad, broken, passing, and exquisitely, painfully beautiful life.

I am so grateful.

Sun faced Buddha
Moon faced Buddha

Ten thousand bows…


From the photo: In the back row from left to right Aubrey Thornton, Mark Daiji Strathern, Mokurai Edward Cherlin. In the middle row James Etsujo (later Myoun) Ford, Joshua Jitsudo Baran and Lance Merritt. In the front row Myozen Delport, Houn Jiyu Kennett & Steve Kozan Beck.

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