I first met Shinzan Roshi when I went over to Japan with Daizan for a retreat in 2010. Shinzan’s Roshi was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. Physically he looked like what you might expect of any 76 year old (as he was at the time) – thin, short, slightly stooped, wrinkled. But there was something about him that immediately struck me. He was the embodiment of grounded strength – power, but in wonderfully gentle, warm way. His presence as he walked into a room was tangible.
Having never been to Japan before, and having never been to a temple or done a zen retreat, I was slightly overwhelmed by everything, so my memory is a bit hazy. In the first couple of days of the retreat I remember him introducing us to a couple of famous koans, but his English was at times hard to decipher and we regularly had to ask Daizan for a summary. From the very start, though, he implored us to strive toward oneness. In our meditation, become one with the koan; when eating, become one with the food; when weeding the garden, become one with the action of pulling up the weed. Shinzan’s term for this is “nari kiru” (literally to become cut off).
There was no messing about. Driven by this incredibly strong, deeply rooted but utterly unattached, unquestionably wise zen master, I dove into the practice and applied myself as hard as I could. Sitting, walking, sitting, stretching, weeding, eating, sitting, sipping tea, sleeping, I tried to nari kiru everything I was doing.
On this retreat, Shinzan Roshi had decided not to do formal sanzen (private Zen interviews), so, if we wanted a chat he would encourage us to just get up from wherever we were and come and find him. He’d often be up in his study, out in the garden, or taking care of his dogs. After a couple of days of hard slog, discomfort, and restlessness, I settled in to the practice, and in the afternoon of day four something shifted. I had about 3 hours where I completely disappeared. I was doing the sitting and walking but there was no me doing it! At some point I realised what had happened and went, feeling a bit dazed and confused to Daizan. He told me to go and find Shinzan Roshi.
After searching all over the temple I eventually found him far up the bank with his work clothes and gloves on, clearing bamboo. I managed to clamber up to a clearing in the weeds about 10m from where he was and told him what I’d experienced. “Ahh” he called out, “you are now zen-man. From an ordinary hu-man you are now zen-man!” One of the koans he’d been describing to us during the retreat was “Basho’s Stick”, which points you towards realising that there’s nothing holy in this world. I think this situation was another example of an answer – I was describing my first experience of Zen awakening while half way up a bank surrounded by weeds shouting up to the master covered in sweat and brambles!
I’ve had the fortune now to be able to attend three 5-day sesshins led by Shinzan Roshi, and he remains the most incredible person I’ve ever met. The power, strength, solidity and vigour of his being absolutely blows you away. And he has this almost baby-like warmth, curiosity, and contentedness that goes along with his smile of 100% acceptance and an infectiously playful laugh. When we were in Japan on retreat last July, I had the honour of filming Daizan Roshi interviewing Shinzan about his life and how he got into Zen. He tells quite a story. Watch the interview here.