THE ZEN MIRROR
The Aim Of Practice
By Jeff Brooks
Kobun Chino could split a blade of grass at 25 yards. His students had
seen him do it many times.
He and one of his students were driving along the Pacific Coast Highway
one day in the spring. He pulled the car over to the side of the road,
opened the trunk, and pulled out a 6-foot long Japanese bow and a quiver
of hand carved arrows.
They walked across the road to the cliff overlooking the surging surf
and the infinite Pacific stretching to the horizon. Had he looked up
the student would have seen the equally infinite blue and cloudless Pacific
sky, but his gaze was fixed on the hands of his teacher, masterfully
nocking the arrow onto the bow string and, with a subtle intake of
breath, drawing the string back to its limit, his own arms and back a
the bow, his focus as razor sharp as the head of the arrow.
The world froze for a moment, and then over the sound of the surf came
the sound of the arrow released, the matsu kaze, the pine wind, as the
bow string returned to rest.
The arrow flew in a high, gigantic arc out over the ocean.
Kobun Chino was a Zen monk. He taught at a small Zen practice center
down the Peninsula from the San Francisco Zen Center. He had been invited
to come to the US from Japan by Suzuki Roshi who started and led the
San Francisco center. But Kobun decided against becoming too involved
with administering a large institution. He wanted to live a simple life
and sit in meditation. It was at his small village Zendo that Suzuki
Roshi came and spoke each Wednesday evening for a while in the late 60’s.
The talks he gave there later were published under the title “Zen
Mind Beginner’s Mind,” one of the most influential books
in the early years of the American Zen movement.
The arrow disappeared for a moment before the student’s eyes,
against the brilliance of the California sky. It reappeared, a dash against
the blue, hovered, and began its long descent, gracefully disappearing
into the water.
Then the men returned the bow and the empty quiver to the trunk of their
car and drove away.
Recently, on a winter night in New England, by candlelight, in our own
small Zendo, that student, now in his 60’s, told the story of that
day with his teacher, 35 years ago.
Had a stranger or a beginner seen this young Japanese monk shoot arrows
into the sea, he may have believed that the man was wasting arrows. But
this student had seen Kobun split a blade of grass at 25 yards. This
student knew Kobun as a light-hearted but profoundly serious man. And
both knew that teachers teach. Even if they do not share a common spoken
language, students and teachers do share their human life. And their
close karmic connection can sometimes bridge the divide between lives
better than any spoken language.
What did Kobun teach that day?
Could we say this was a koan that Kobun presented his student? A koan
is literally a public case, an event reported and put up for public scrutiny
and consideration. In the Chinese legal tradition, it was a term used
to refer to a legal precedent, used for public consideration of a question
In the Zen tradition, a koan is a public case on the subject of enlightenment,
on the subject of the nature of reality. They are used not as a matter
of metaphysical speculation. In Buddhism it is made clear that direct
insight into the nature of reality is the only way we can be free, permanently
and completely, from suffering.
Was he saying “Only this moment”? Was he saying to his student,
a dedicated practitioner: “Be concerned only with the process,
not the target”?
Or was he saying that, in practice as in life, there is no particular
target. That no matter how perfect our aim, our thought’s trajectory
goes into the infinite, our life’s trajectory goes into the infinite;
that what we have is only the point on the path we are on right now;
the only action we can take is the action we take right now. That once
our lives begin, we go. Once we act, think or speak, our actions or our
words take us directly, unimpeded, into the heart of vast reality?
Was he saying, “It’s fun to shoot arrows into the sky and
Kobun Chino died recently. Having been awarded a prestigious chair in
Religious Studies at Naropa University, he was off on a brief vacation
with his young family in Switzerland. His five-year-old daughter was
swimming. She went under the water and did not come up. Kobun went in
after her to save her, but they both drowned.
This marks the passing of one of the great Zen teachers to come to the
west. And yet, reflecting on what he taught in that one moment years
ago, his action inspiring our practice here and now, it seems as if his
life continues to fly through space and time.
About The Author:
Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt
in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA with
Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor,
as well as numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related
Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho
Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of
the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and
works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director
of Northampton Karate and
Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily
for adults and children since 1988. Brooks’ column, “Zen
Mirror”, and other articles regularly appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)