Anecdotes from Stephan Bodian

Kobun was like an elder brother to me, as well as a teacher. When I left for Tassajara, he gave me warm woolen underwear he had worn at Eiheiji. When I returned on winter break between training periods, I stayed at his house, though I’m sure Harriet wasn’t happy about it.

As we all know, Kobun was unconventional and did things in his own unique and spontaneous way. When he ordained me a priest in 1974, he didn’t order new robes from Japan, as was customary. Instead, he gave me his own koromo (outer robe), okesa (ceremonial robe draped over the left shoulder), and an ancient silk rakusu he had received from his master. The rakusu was brown, a color generally reserved for those who had received transmission, but Kobun didn’t seem to care.

Later he said to me, “When you wear this robe, you’re invisible.”

When it came time to shave my head in preparation for the ordination, a task generally delegated to one of the other monks, Kobun offered to do it himself and then forgot to leave the small patch of hair (called shura) that was to be shaved off during the ordination itself. The head shaving was a very intimate prelude to the ordination. I felt like I was being stripped down to bare essentials.

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Kobun was a good friend of Chogyam Trungpa, and the two would often spend time together when Trungpa visited the Bay Area. One day the two met in Sonja Margulies’s living room to drink tea and do calligraphy, with several of us in attendance. As one teacher looked on, the other would spread out a large piece of paper, kneel down, gracefully stroke some words of spiritual wisdom (Trungpa in Tibetan, Kobun in Japanese), and then translate what he had written. After a pause the other teacher would do the same. Before long the exchange became a kind of playful Dharma combat, with each man responding to what the other had written.

At one point Trungpa, who was dressed in his customary suit and tie, leaned over and inscribed the phrase “Mindfulness is the way of all the Buddhas.” Kobun, with the billowy sleeves of his monk’s robes tucked under his arms, picked up a large brush, saturated it with black ink, paused, and then wrote with a mischievous flourish: “Great no mind.” Everyone in the room broke out in uproarious laughter.

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Anecdotes by Joan Halifax Roshi


"The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally we sit down for a while."

Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi (1938-2002)

• Kobun Chino lived for some years in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, near his zendo and overlooking Taos. One day he was alone in a house, kindly offered to him by an old Zennie named Jonathon Altman, when a knock came on the door. Kobun answered it and there was a young man who said that he came for help because his life was a mess. Kobun said that his life was a mess too and that he didn't think he could be of help. The young man pleaded for Kobun to talk to him so Kobun let him in. Once inside he told the fellow to take a seat and excused himself for a moment to go to the bathroom. The man waited and waited but Kobun did not return, so finally he went across the room and knocked on the door that Kobun had entered. There was no answer so, still calling Kobun's name, he opened the door slowly. The door wide open, the young man looked inside to see an empty bathroom with an open window. Kobun was nowhere to be found.

• Once my previous Zen teacher, Tim McCarthy, was with his teacher Kobun Chino while Kobun was giving a talk about Zen. Someone asked Kobun about flying saucers. Kobun told him, "You should ask Tim about that. He reads comic books!"

• Kobun Chino asked: When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher?
The student replied: Everything
Kobun, paused, then said: No, you…….

• During a shosan (a formal public question-and-answer session) Angie Boissevain came before Kobun Chino Roshi with a question that had been burning within her all morning. But after she made the customary three bows and knelt before him she found her mind utterly blank, the question gone. She sat before him in silence for a long time before finally saying:

"Where have all the words gone?" "Back where they came from," replied her teacher.

• Shortly after September 11, 2001, Kobun was the honored guest at the weekly meeting of the sangha which would become Everyday Dharma Zen Center. After meditation, Kobun asked for questions. A visibly distraught young woman asked, "How can I deal with the enormous fear and anger that I feel about what happened?" Kobun replied, "Do one kind thing for someone every day."

• As a master of Zen archery, Kobun was asked to teach a course at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The target was set up on a beautiful grassy area on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kobun took his bow, notched the arrow, took careful aim, and shot. The arrow sailed high over the target, went past the railing, beyond the cliff, only to plunge into the ocean far below. Kobun looked happily at the shocked students and shouted, "Bull's eye!!"

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Anecdotes by Cita Ortega

About this time to which I'm referring, Kobun had developed a round, US $quarter-sized skin problem on the back of his neck, about 1 inch (sorry don't know metric yet) below his hair-line in the center.  He would frequently touch & "worry" this.  I'd had lots of karma w/ a prominent guy on the Taos Pueblo, a classic shaman, a former governor of the Pueblo, a healer, seer & kiva man.  I suggested to Kobun we go see him, so one day we did, with him driving.  Once on the road in the Pueblo, we saw an old grandmother walking & gave her a ride to the central part of the pueblo, near where my friend (Joe) lived.  The grandmother ("Recita") sat in front, passenger side.  Kobun showed her his bad neck spot & he kept touching it.  Recita finally slapped his hand quite energetically & told him to leave it alone! We arrive at Joe's (& his wife, Francis') home & Kobun bows & presents to Joe a big box of fine incense of the sort used @ Eiheiji.  Francis is in another room, & I feel like I'm with two brothers who rather look alike, mumble alike & have the same quiet yet spacious energy.  Though they've never met, there seems to be an immediate fondness between the two, a recognition. Joe has Francis mix up a thick paste to apply to the neck.  I ask about the contents, but Joe won't tell me.  He gives Kobun instructions, gratitude is voiced, & we're ready to leave.  Then Kobun notices a bow & set of arrows hanging on the wall.  He walks over and bows deeply to them.  Off we go.

Once, during that time period, Kobun & I were at his little "camp", a place to which he would retire not infrequenly.  It was a clever little 'primitive' area which had a fire pit atop which was a grill with a pot for heating water.  We were sitting on the ground before this fire pit with water heated for tea (powdered, green), & when it came time to stir the brew, he casually reached down, barely looking, came up with a ponderosa pine cluster & stirred botyh of our cups with its long needles.  (I recall no more elegant moment in my entire 58 years!) I asked him about Venus enlightening the buddha.  Without looking up, he said, "Oh yes, many generations, this."  Period.  Sometime later, after a 3-day sesshin, as we sat in the house where Bob Watkins lived next to the zendo, Kobun gave a short talk.  At one point, he referred to buddha's enlightenment, about his looking up @ Venus (usually called the 'morning', but sometimes the 'evening' star).  Kobun said:  "He looked up at that star, and it took him. "

I realize this is not exactly 'definitive', but you know how it was with him:
a taste was offered, a hint.  One often had to wait for more.

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Anecdotes by James Hardy

Upon learning of Kobun's passing,  it was with a heavy heart that I remembered a sesshin which I sat with Kobun at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center  in the summer of l978.  During this practice session (seven days, I believe) , two remarkable events occurred.  During my interview, Kobun expressed, through posture and,  more importantly, through his eyes, perhaps the most compelling and moving expression of empathy- sadness with friendship and understanding-  I have ever experienced.  His willingness to acknowledge pain, suffering and friendship with me and others, continues to touch me.  Also, during the practice session, he chose to speak on the theme of the Greek heroic figure  ORPHEUS,  his journey to the underworld to retrieve his heart/love  EURYDICE.  

To retrieve her from the underworld,  and death,  Orpheus had to obey one condition set by Hades,  the ruler of the underworld:  not to look be hind him,  towards her, until she was safely back under the light of the sun.  This, Orpheus failed to do, and lost her forever.  This story clearly moved  Kobun,  who saw it as a model or guide to practice and the path.  During our journey, faith was essential, to retrieve our spirit,  our bodhi, our true heart.   Imagine my shock when I learned that Kobun was not only unable to retrieve his daughter, but lost his life as well.  This stunning enigma has haunted me since learning of Kobun's passing.   He was truly a wonderful, beautiful spirit and  friend.

(jh11@earthlink.net)

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Anecdotes by Mark Foote

One more memory of Kobun I'd like to offer, for the collection. I remember attending a lecture he gave at the San Francisco Zen Center, must have been in the early 80's, as part of the regular Saturday morning public dharma talks. He closed the lecture by saying, "you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around!"
I had that experience in 1975, but I spent years afterward waiting for zazen to get up and walk around, to turn and walk across the street, to lift the fork from the plate to my mouth. I finally decided that if zazen walked through the door of my job on a given day, it was ok for me to work without trying to find zazen in every moment; fortunate for me, I suppose, as the bosses really don't like to see anyone stock still at the job.

Couldn't go to the monastery, couldn't sit in posture all that well, couldn't even stand up straight most of the time. By the time I heard Kobun say those words, I was reconciled with not making zazen get up and walk around just because I could, or at least that's how I understood it.
I realized in the late eighties and nineties that I would have to come to a Western understanding of what practice was all about, to reconcile zazen in my life. I learned to encourage zazen to compose sentences, and to throw away anything and everything constantly until the words stayed in spite of me. I'm afraid I created a lot of half-there descriptions of zazen, for quite a while.

With a lot of help from the writings of Moshe Feldenkrais and John Upledger, I think I'm doing better now. I have a webpage at www.zenmudra.com , and I find I can actually communicate most of my experience with people using the vocabulary I develop there. Since everyone has the same kind of experience whether they have found words for it or not, people give back to me in the most amazing way.
Hope you're back from Japan in one piece and all is well;
regards, Mark Foote