Keep the Light Burning

Featured in Mountain Record 29.3, Spring 2011


Within Buddhism, spiritual practice is referred to as a path—a road that must be traveled, preferably in the company of others, and necessarily under the guidance of a teacher. And in Zen, the role of the spiritual guide or mentor is especially important. Having walked the way, a teacher is able to lead, correct, and coax the student who falters or strays from a path that is, by its very nature, difficult to navigate. But what happens when that teacher dies? Do his or her teachings end? How does the tradition continue?

As a sangha we are in a unique position to examine these questions. The death of a founder is an event that only happens once in the life of a community. It is a rich, potentially challenging, yet propitious time that brings to the fore themes of empowerment, authority, vision and tradition. This issue of the Mountain Record looks at these facets of spiritual practice through the lens of succession and the ways it manifests as continuity, gratitude, change and stability.

In a beautiful rendering of the Buddha’s passing, Thich Nhat Hanh tells of the sangha’s anxiety at their founder’s impending death and the Buddha’s oft-quoted response: “Every person must make the teaching his own refuge… Every person should be a lamp unto himself.” “The Anan Koshiki” by Paula Arai describes the ritual that Japanese Zen nuns use as a means to empower and heal themselves by expressing gratitude to Ananda for convincing the Buddha to allow women to become ordained.

The three teachers’ talks also look at succession from different angles to form a picture of what is required to ensure the dharma’s transmission to the next generation. Daido Roshi speaks of creating an “archive of sanity, not just for ourselves, but for successive generations.” Shugen Sensei explores the teacher-student relationship and the love that permeates this spiritual bond. He says, “That’s why the teacher’s vow to the student doesn’t stop… Having encountered Buddha, one sees that there is no turning away.” There is no turning away because there is no place to turn to, Ryushin Sensei points out. “There is nothing stopping you here—except you. This monastery, this place has no barriers. It is wide open.”

Yet not turning away still leaves the question of how to actually proceed. Both Senkyu Saltman’s interview with the MRO teachers and Seisui Thomas’s report on the Board of Governor’s Meeting touch on where we’ve come from and where we want and need to go as a sangha. They ask the question: How do we safeguard the teachings without letting them become formulaic? This is “the wonderful tension in tradition,” Shugen Sensei reminds us. “How do you keep the light bright and burning… but without forgetting that you have to have a way of conveying it?”

As holders of the light of buddhadharma, our responsibility is indeed to keep it burning. The way we do so will only become evident with time, patience and after much dedicated effort

Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Managing Editor