My teacher is Chogyam Trungpa. It was since I met him in 1970 and continues to be now and nearly 30 years later after his passing from this world writing these words from my home in the Beijing suburbs. I met Kobun in the mid-70’s at Trungpa Rinpoche’s Berkeley center. After I moved to Boulder in the early 80’s our paths crossed many times, intersected many times. After the passing of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1987, our paths would run parallel for a few years, until I moved to China at the end of 1990. At that point it seemed that our paths would intertwine due to where I lived and also due to getting married in 1992 and then Kobun’s annointment of that marriage in Taos in 1993.
Kobun had a reputation as a yogi: a lone Zen teacher who lived the practice itself. Quiet, mysterious, bewildering, dark, unfathomable, inexplicably bright, he seemed to embody what I thought of as Zen. Unlike Trungpa Rinpoche, he had students but he really had no community and no organization.
I clearly remember that very idea being put on the table in the late 80’s and I clearly remember him walking away from it. And from my own experience that was exactly the way he wanted it: no hierarchy, no president, no board, no building, no office. His choices fed his desire to not do what Chogyam Trungpa did, build a miniature society, despite the fact that his fierce and often whimsical commitment to practice was cut from the same cloth as Trungpa Rinpoche’s. It was a road that paralleled and intersected my own path. He was my teacher.
In 1991 in Beijing, one of my Chinese colleagues at the Beijing Airbase English Academy asked me: “do you know what teacher, laoshi, 老师, means?” I knew that yes was the wrong answer. I said no. He said it means father. From this ancient word, morphed in meaning as roshi in Japan, I began to understand the nature of my connection to Kobun.
But he wasn’t exactly my father. I remember telling him in the late 80’s, “If Trungpa Rinpoche is the only father guru, you are the only uncle guru.” He liked that. He said to me, “I have a special responsibility for Trungpa Rinpoche’s students and I told him that I would look after them.”
Before I left for China, I told him about the young woman who was part of the story of me going there. Her name was Wenjing, 文静. In China as well as in Japan, parents give their children names that reflect their aspirations and also something beyond that as well, something intuitive. Sometimes the names are just political. For example many children born after 1949, when the People’s Republic was founded, have the given name, “build the country.” But my future wife’s name was “Wenjing.” When we first met, she told me it meant “quiet culture.” Not quite.
“Wen” is a peculiar word both in China and Japan. It could mean something as mundane as “culture.” However, it was viewed by Kobun to be more than a coincidence that I would find a woman whose given name was the same as his. When a Chinese speaker sees, 文，they say “wen.” When a Japanese speaker sees, 文，they say “bun” as in Kobun.
And so from the moment that my life intersected hers, whenever I would talk to Kobun, he would always ask me, “how is Bun-jo?” Despite her humility about her given name, Kobun told me that 文 actually meant logos. It means the same thing as the first letter of the Tibetan alphabet, “ka.” That name was the basis of their extraordinary link.
On the basis of sharing that name, things changed with Kobun. Wenjing told me that I was mistaken to just view him as a wild yogi priest. Her scholarship saw him in the same light; she told me he was a great scholar. He’d studied Sanskrit, and was highly knowledgeable in classical Chinese and Japanese Buddhist history and culture.
While not a scholar myself, I’d always had a connection to Buddhist scholarship. In 1986 after my first trip to Tibet, I returned to the US to visit my mother. A few days after Thanksgiving, she passed away. After putting her worldly affairs in order, I went to Taos. I brought one of the more useful items from my inheritance, a fifth of Johnny Walker Black label. At that time, Kobun was living with a woman who was very strict about health and diet. When I took the bottle out, she said to me, “Kobun doesn’t drink that poison.”
After dinner we smoked a few joints and I asked him a question about Kobudaishi, or Kukai, 無海 (empty ocean) the 8th. century seminal figure in Japanese Buddhist culture. When I opened the bottle we were both rather toasted from the smoking. About 1/3 of the way through the bottle I asked him, “is it true that the katakana (Japanese alphabet, which was invented by Kukai) is a poem on impermanence?” He got very excited.
He said not only is it a poem on impermanence, but if you begin with the second character and end with the first, it’s a different poem. He took out a lot of paper and wrote the katakana, a –to- z so to speak. We drank some more. He recited it and translated it. Then he took out a second paper and wrote the alphabet from “b” to “a” and recited that. It was a different poem. He did that all night with all the different iterations of the hiragana. As the night wore on he was more expressive and more wrathful.
By that time, we had a stack of papers and an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. The sky was getting light and a sesshin was about to start. I was pretty loaded. He said, “shall we?” As we were getting up to go to the zendo, I only had one question for him. “Should I count my breaths and label thoughts, Zen style, just label thoughts Chogyam Trungpa style, or look directly at the nature of unborn awareness?” I’ll never forget his reply. He just looked at me as if I were crazy.
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