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sensei ryotan tokuda

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Today I would like to present you Master Tokuda Igarishi. The first time I met him was in a small Parisian apartment where he and a few of his students would gather twice a week to sit zazen. That was back in the Winter of 1997. Three years later he formally accepted me as his disciple, and ordained me monk and gave me the dharma name Tetsu_un which I would loosely translate, from the explanation I received from hims as: explore to the end what it is to be a cloud.

Now that age has come upon me, looking back at life's events it has become quite clear that meeting this man has been a highlight of my existence. Master Tokuda belongs to the creed of those teachers, rarissima avis, difficult to come by in our times who remind you of the ancient masters of the golden age of Chan in China as you would image them.

When I first met him I was already interested in Buddhism and was practicing zazen with different Western teachers for a few years. I first came across him through an article in a Buddhist magazine. The article in itself wasn't what got my attention at first but something he disclosed made me pause and think. He wrote that when he came across a student with potential he would suggest they go and study with other teachers and would even send them to Japan to do that. I found that strange and asked myself what kind of a teacher would encourage his students to go and study with other teachers? The Western dharma teachers , direct disciples of Master Deshimaru, with whom I had been working until then certainly didn't display such a dettached attitude as they seemed happy with their students, kept them and were open to having more. So right away I felt a pull towards a man who presented an interesting paradox: a teacher with little appetite for having or keeping students.

You can get a sense of the spirit of the ancient teachers in someone like Tokuda Sensei. He did not care for name or fame, for money or gratification, the idea of having followers made him cringe and it was impossible to put him on a pedestal but he did not hold back from sharing the teachings with great energy and a deep sense of dedication. He did that quite tirelessly. When he felt uncomfortable at the growing number of seekers around him he would all of a sudden disappear only show up again several months later when the dust had settled, people had dispersed and everyone thought that was the end of him.

His practice was one of intimacy not numbers.

We usually think of realized beings as having some extraordinary aura or sense of presence to them that like a magnate irresistibly draws you. In the Zen tradition that is not exactly how it works. The idea being that enlightenment is actually something you begin with at the early stages of the practice but the deeper work is to wipe the traces of your realization over time, over a life-time so that in the end there is not a shred of self-consciousness in you about what you have realized or have not realized. You become simple and ordinary, you just become yourself but forget what that is for you can now embrace compassion and become an embodiment of it.

What you are endlessly effacing here are the traces of whatever you have experienced so that it doesn't get to your head that there is something special about you, or in other words, you don't fall prey to a sense of pride. Now pride and arrogance are the main stumbling blocks on the spiritual journey. They are some kind of sickness and it is quite difficult for us to see this for ourselves. In the end we come back, again and again, to what Thomas Merton calls the self-sufficient self and that is not the movement of love for in love there is always a sense of empting ourselves in order to touch and reach the other in their hidden depth so that they authenticate or confirm us.

To talk of pride in Zen you would say it is like having a piece of shit sticking to your nose. You walk around asking where the smell is coming from. Now that is one of the things a good teacher can help us with; he points to the shit and says; wipe it from your nose, no need to carry it around, it's not really a trophy, it actually stinks. When you read the account of some of the most realized people you can easily see how many struggled, at times for years, with that. Now this is what can be problematic with self-proclaimed gurus and teachers, they can fall into self-righteousness, solipsism and delusions of grandiosity with no one around to pass them a tissu to wipe their nose.

In other words you could say; self-consciousness is the shadow part of self-realization.

Now the whole point of Zen is shoshin, the spirit of the beginner, you just keep coming back to the mind of the beginner, the mind open to inquiry, the mind that is not made up. In the beginner's mind there is no sense of attainment, a beginner is always at the start of the journey. This is a fundamental point that Master Tokuda taught me; always be a beginner then your journey will be one of ease and simplicity.

I thought I would write these words to introduce you to an exceptional being and in doing so express my endless gratitude and love towards him.

Teachers who practice the art of disappearing and self-effacement where do you find them?

With master Tokuda you would learn the following: a person of the way does not stop to look down at the mountain they just climbed to see how far they have come, they would just continue climbing knowing the summit may never be reached but would climb nonetheless for climbing is their nature.

When you think of a relationship as impactful as this, a relationship that has shaped you in so many mysterious ways over the years and is still work in progress even when the other is physically absent form your life, words are not easy to come by. My personal experience of the teacher/student relationship is above all that of an authentic and deeply engaging friendship.

When Michel de Montagne, the great 16th century French writer lost his close and beloved friend, La Boétie, he wrote an essay called L' Amitié (Friendship) as a tribute to his friend and as an expression of his deep personal grieving at his loss. To try to convey to others what that friendship meant to him he found no better than these words that for all their simplicity have a poignancy that stirs the heart:

puisque c'était lui, puisque c'était moi / because it was him, because it was me.

Because it was you, because it was me, Sensei

master rytoan tokuda


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