How to Find Kanzeon in Hell

by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett

(This article was first published in the Journal of Shasta Abbey, November -December 1982. It was based on a Dharma talk Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett gave at the Ten Precepts Retreat.)

I received a letter from one of our lay members of the Sangha recently which I felt was of such great importance that I wished to share a portion of it with you and make it the starting point of this Ten Precepts Retreat. The person concerned writes as follows:

I do not quite know how to explain the following but, I often feel that a part of me is present at the Abbey. I can feel the ground under the cloister beneath my feet, I can see the inside of the Buddha Hall and feel the presence there, and yet, my heart feels burdened by grief and despair. The thoughts and feelings of others enter unbidden into my consciousness. I seem to see only suffering, suffering. I know I must learn to see the Buddha in all things. When I sit in meditation and ask for help for myself and the world, the answer seems to be the very suffering I am trying to understand. When I ask what suffering is, I see only a deep blackness shot through with golden points of light. And still, I must go on.

Anytime someone tries to do something about himself, he will find himself burdened with other peoples’ grief unless he knows that he is not the Cosmic Buddha and that there is nothing in him that is not of the Cosmic Buddha. One of the sad things for members of helping professions is that too many of them take to themselves the sufferings of others, and eventually, make themselves ill with it. They do not yet realize that they are not the Cosmic Buddha and must ask for help from the Cosmic Buddha. This person, when asking for help, is shown the suffering shot through with golden points of light — with the essence of Buddha. These times are the “little moments that make one dance.”…One has to be willing to cry “I am not sufficient! I cannot do it alone!” This is what will make the essence of Buddha appear. What will make it possible is faith. The deeper we go into meditation, the more suffering becomes apparent and the more important it is that our faith shall deepen and that we learn to recognize the little golden moments that point the way to the Cosmic Buddha. It is important to stop trying to hold onto being able to do something by ourselves about the suffering, for, if we attempt to become thus omnipotent, all we will see is suffering; and we ourselves are then in the way. And if we are in the way, we cannot see the Cosmic Buddha working through it. It is a very hard lesson to learn, for a layman or a laywoman it is even harder. But all the signs are there.

This person is never apart from the temple — its presence is always felt. Perhaps she needs to know that the real temple is the temple of one’s own body and the real cloister is everywhere. This does not mean that one should not become a monk, nor does it mean one should go out into the world. It means that the real cloister is everywhere and the real presence is everywhere. We enter into a monastery — we retreat — in order to advance. If the burden of suffering is constantly hindering us, we cannot advance. If we cannot look at the suffering and see the golden fragments and recognize that they are the Cosmic Buddha shining through that suffering, and have faith to hold onto that, then nothing can help us. We come to Ten Precepts Retreat so that we may’ learn to keep the Precepts and thereby find the Buddha. For the Buddha lies within those Precepts. In finding the Buddha, we learn how to recognize the little golden moments within suffering. And thus, what was originally a dark and black, and seemingly grieving and despairing place, becomes the garden of the Bodhisattvas, the waveless sea of the Arahants (saints). We can find it before what is known as death and we can know that it is so after what man calls death. The Eternal is within all these situations, the Eternal is within all things. The world is a rough place to those who do not know this. The advantage of a monastery is that it is a place in which we can set the world aside, somewhat, for a little, and get closer to the Cosmic Buddha, to the little golden moments, so that they are more easily recognized, not only in the monastery itself, but in the world outside as well.

To see the Buddha in suffering, in pleasure, in pain, in joy, in sorrow is one of the greatest gifts of enlightenment. But faith is much needed to be able to do this. And you have to do a lot of work upon yourself before faith is a fully understood concept. Far too few people know what faith really means. In one sense, every one of us has incredible faith: we all believe we will waken in the morning, but we have no proof of it; we also have no proof that we won’t. We believe that we will. But one day we will not. And neither of these ideas terrify us. It is with this attitude of mind that one must go through the world and the monastery. It is absolutely imperative that we feel the cloister beneath our feet and the presence of the Buddha Hall within our hearts wherever we go. Then, however much grief and suffering others lay upon us simply because the person concerned is looking for a sympathetic ear or because we happen to be more open than others and can feel it more clearly, whatever way it is, if we have found the way to carry that presence in our hearts, then, whether we are here or whether we are sitting in the dining hall, or working in a hospital, or in a hospice, or sitting in an office or driving a bus, no matter what we are doing, whatever the suffering is that we see or that may come into us, we will see the Lord’s work and we will learn to accept that this is the way it is because this is how karma works. In accepting the karmic consequences, we will find the Lord in all things and be able to work peacefully and effectively.

I felt I wanted to share this letter with you because it is so important. Some things should be shared and such problems as this in training should definitely be shared. I am sure that there are lay people who have had similar experiences to this. And certainly, if anyone has been meditating for a long time and has not yet learned to be truly one, in faith and certainty, with the Cosmic Buddha, the greater sensitivity that meditation brings will seem to increase the amount of suffering that person is aware of. There are schools of Buddhism, therefore, that think it is best that lay people do not meditate at all. Fortunately, neither I nor the whole of the Soto school of Zen believe this. Meditation is always good. Both Dogen and Keizan said this and so did Shakyamuni Buddha. Meditation is always good, no matter who does it. But it is good that we can have time to be together, like this, to discuss these things and to be able to help each other…