I started practicing karate when I was a teenager, and soon after, I began to notice a phenomenon that now seems, to me, ordinary. A new person would come to the dōjō, love it, and declare that he was going to dedicate his life to the martial arts. And then he’d disappear. It seemed, in many cases, that a person’s longevity was inversely proportionate to his or her enthusiasm. I understood that not everyone follows through on everything, but the predictability of this always seemed strange.
By the time I started to see this in the Zen world, it just seemed sad and familiar. During my time in Alaska, two young people came and spoke with me very seriously about the prospect of ordaining as a priest. They had never come to sit with the AZC; in fact, they’d never sat anywhere, with anyone, ever. In both cases, I suggested that before they change their names, put on robes, and enter a monastery, perhaps they should just come and sit with us, but the response was that they wanted the “real thing,” not this sit-in-the-morning-in-someone’s-living-room, play-acting version of Zen. I encouraged them to come; they didn’t come. That was the end of it.
Another young man wanted to travel with me to Japan one summer to train at a monastery, but he didn’t want to come sit with the AZC there in his own town. He told me without any irony how serious he was, how committed. It’s easy, after a string of these encounters, to just dismiss someone like this, but I do believe that as he made his case to me, he did feel that serious — he did believe that he was that committed, even though he had no idea either of what he was asking for or what he was rejecting. He was, in his way, sincere.
I suspect that this same scene is played out at Zen centers around the world, all the time. In Anchorage, someone would come and sit for the first time and stay talking with me in the doorway for half an hour afterwards, thanking me and saying she’s finally found her true home. And I’d never see her again. It’s recognizable even mid-conversation — you feel, with some certainty, that this exuberant hello is really goodbye.
Since I started this blog, a couple of people have written to ask for help in getting into a monastery in Japan. These are people with no teacher and no experience, just an idea that they know exactly what they need to do: become a Zen monk and train in Japan. I asked if they could sit with a local group, maybe cultivate a relationship with the guiding teacher there. In both cases, there was a nearby group, but in both cases, attending was out of the question. They wanted the “real thing.” Sitting with a bunch of ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts is fine for some, but not if you really want to solve the great matter of life and death.
I struggle sometimes to understand what this is all about, and how best to address it. Some people are just flaky, or flighty. That’s true anywhere. Most have created a narrative about the practice, or themselves, or both. If it’s the practice, it’s often connected to the idea that it’s all or nothing, that one either ordains and trains like Dōgen or stays home (unfortunately, this often brings with it the idea that the people actually attending the Zen center are fooling themselves); if it’s about themselves, then perhaps it’s that they see, in that first encounter with Zen, a vehicle for becoming the person they want to be, disciplined and compassionate and wise, and special.
Both of those narratives are mistaken. If we want to say that Zen is all or nothing, that’s not wrong, but “all” doesn’t mean what we think it does (nor does “nothing,” for that matter). However, we can just as easily say that it’s neither all nor nothing, that it’s just this. It just is what it is. If it’s sitting once a week on Sundays, that’s what it is; if it’s sitting six hours a day in robes in a 600-year-old building, then it’s that too. What it isn’t, in any case, is the version of it that you can’t have right now. And as for Zen making us who we want to be, that just isn’t the case. It doesn’t even do the Hallmark-card reverse: making us want to be who we are. Zen is about letting go of who we are. It’s radically not special. Along the way, as we navigate what that all means, it can even be a little depressing.
And yet, underneath all these misunderstandings and misguided intentions, there is what’s called hosshin (発心), the awakening of the mind to practice. Hosshin is the original wake-up call, the one that lets us know — even though we probably can’t articulate why or what it means — that this is important. Teachings tell us that this hosshin is what leads us to shugyō (修行), actual practice. Shugyō leads us to bodai (菩提), or letting go of the self. Bodai leads us to nehan (涅槃), letting go of letting go. And in the Zen tradition, we say that nehan then brings us back to hosshin, where we start the cycle over again. (One of my teachers describes this like turning a screw — if you look from the top, it seems you’re just going in circles, but if you look from the side, you see that you’re constantly going deeper and deeper.)
In short, hosshin is important. But by definition, when that mind is first aroused, it will bring with it all sorts of delusions and misunderstandings and immature views of what it all means. Someone looking at Zen from the perspective of hosshin cannot know what the practice really is, nor can they even begin to guess what it might produce. It’s just this feeling, this recognition. It’s what gets us through the door. Without it, nothing happens.
So when we see it, we see something precious, something to be nurtured and encouraged and supported, like a child. But often it also brings with it a childish view, one that is impatient and self-centered and unforgiving.
I feel a lot of love for these young (they’re usually young) people who come to the practice as if they’re on fire. I was like that — every wrong idea I’ve ever heard about the practice is one that I’ve had myself. When I was about twenty, I wrote a long letter to a teacher I’d met (a student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s) announcing that I recognized her as my true teacher, that I wished to formally be her student and dedicate myself wholly to her teachings and to the Dharma. She was the only teacher I’d ever met, but I just knew. It wasn’t that I knew about her, though I respected her deeply — it was that I felt, in my bones, that there had to be more to the practice than what I was doing, and that I had to be special for knowing that. I told her I was awaiting her orders, ready to jump and do whatever she needed me to do. I was ready.
She never wrote back. I waited and waited, but that letter didn’t come. When I think of it now, I’m embarrassed for what I wrote — not for the feeling behind it, but because I sense that she saw, in that letter, what I have come to recognize in people who appear from nowhere and say they want to move to Japan and train in a monastery. I was that guy. But I also feel grateful. She wasn’t my true teacher. I wasn’t her true student. Her silence — whatever her reasons — freed me to find my way to where I am today, to my teachers, to this tradition.
Mostly, when I think of that letter, I feel unsure about skillful means. That teacher saw a choice to either feed my intention or starve my delusion — she chose to starve the delusion, and from where I stand, that was exactly the right thing to do. And yet, and yet– When someone comes to me with great delusional dreams of jumping in head first, bald and bigger than life and engulfed in flames, of course I see the delusion, but my heart wants to feed the intention, to try to find a way to the mind that just now recognized, for the first time, something so huge and doesn’t know what to do with it, or even what it is.
When I talk with other teachers about ordained disciples, they’ll sometimes talk about the one or two that “got away” as if completely losing at least a few people in that way is a foregone conclusion, a predictable outcome. There’s an assumption that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the balance just won’t be right.
I, for one, have not figured it out. How to applaud with one hand while wielding a sword in the other? I don’t know.
I really don’t.
I have always liked this quote:
“What Zen is essentially about :
Zen is essentially about rebirth from the experience of Being.
Zen teaches us to discover that transcendental core of our own selves in an immediate and practical sense, to ” taste” divine Being in the here-and-now. It has nothing to do with analytical logic, dogmatic belief, or even speculative metaphysics, but points the way to an experience we can have and, indeed, are meant to have. Once we have had it, we come to see that our earthly existence, between the twin poles of life and death, is rooted in a transcendental state of Being, which forms the hidden ground of our own nature and which we, as human beings, can and must bring to consciousness. But to have this experience and have it validly, we must first discard the old consciousness, which has hardened into habit and determines the way we think and act.
… A loved woman exists fully and has meaning only for the man who loves her, an enemy only for those who fear him, a friend only for those whom his understanding warms, and a healer only for those who seek a cure. In the same way, Zen exists only as a living answer to real-life problems, to the sufferings and longings of individual human beings. If we try to take Zen objectively and to judge it by the standards of logic, ethics, or aesthetics, then we shall simply miss what it has to say, or misunderstand its message completely and reject the whole thing as obscure and abstruse. Whenever we try to force the inexplicable into an image or concept, we are really trying to tame and make it familiar–and there is always a danger that it’s real and vital meaning will be lost.
… The three components of human happiness are vitality, beauty, and a sheltering sense of community. We always start by relying on ourselves looking for those three things in power, order, and fellowship as the world understands them. Failing to find them there, we eventually seek them in the only way that makes sense–in Being, which transforms, fulfills, and brings us to new life.
Turning to Being is turning inward, but turning inward for fulfillment would surely be a futile exercise unless what we found there was, in some sense, absolute and totally divorced from the agonizing ego-World complex in which we are entangled to start with. The way forward leads from the anguish rooted in the old self to the experience of what we really are, and from the experience of what we really are to fulfillment in a new self; it leads to the death of the old self to the birth of a new self from what we truly are-i.e ., to the true self.
Zen knows about redemptive Being and the life that springs from it. Zen knows about our inner nature, in which Being is present within us, offering us salvation and the genuine hope of a new life that will transform and remake us. Zen knows about the wall that cuts us off from Being, and it knows how we can tear down. But we shall understand Zen only if we can hear within ourselves what Zen, in its own way, is saying. To receive the gift that Zen offers us, we must first ask ourselves, what is the anguish, the human anguish, that afflicts us today? And what are the signs that promise us that it will end?
Excerpts from ” Zen and us ” by Karlfried Durckheim
“… A loved woman exists fully and has meaning only for the man who loves her”
Is that really what Zen thinks about women?
No, that is part of an analogy Karlfried Durckheim is making during a description of what Zen is about.
M, it is apparently taken from “Zen and us”, which states “… A loved woman exists fully and has meaning only for the man who loves her.” Is this or is not what Zen thinks about a woman, that her existence only has meaning to the man who loves her, and no other meaning?
@Bli – It’s a bit of a jarring sentence given current cultural zeitgeist, but I think the “a loved woman…” statement is a) meant to be understood within the context of the series (I.e. all these things have something in common), & b) not necessarily uni-directional, by which I mean the people in the latter half of all those examples can be read as the subject (e.g. a “friend” exists in the eyes of the beholder of mutual understanding). I do not think its representative of what either Zen, the author, or the OP see as the value of women.
context is everything. I can see how that sentence could be construed to have some sort of judgemental or patriarchal perspective, but in context he is referring to referential reality, in essence to co-dependent origination. Things arise because things have arisen. at least that is my take. Durckheim was a brilliant writer and a product of his time. Also his examples lead to the explanation of why he chose them: “In the same way, Zen exists only as a living answer to real-life problems, to the sufferings and longings of individual human beings. If we try to take Zen objectively and to judge it by the standards of logic, ethics, or aesthetics, then we shall simply miss what it has to say, or misunderstand its message completely and reject the whole thing as obscure and abstruse. Whenever we try to force the inexplicable into an image or concept, we are really trying to tame and make it familiar–and there is always a danger that it’s real and vital meaning will be lost.”
Thank you for your thoughtful responses, Oban and John.
“… A loved man exists fully and has meaning only for the woman who loves him”
Language is powerful and should be used to include, not exclude.
First of all I want to say how much I enjoy this blog and the quality of your insight and writing. Really refreshing to see this kind of dialog at this level. I also hear a theme. This ongoing question examining the secular vs. monastic, concerns about how and why and where people practice, and the evolving questions around how practice and meditation integrates into daily life.
I know for me I have pondered the question of monastic life and training a few times. I have even gone and stayed at the monastery after a retreat ended, by invitation, to stay and train with the monks. I remember so clearly the retreatants leaving and thinking “ahhh now I can really practice”…and then the thundering silence of the monastery hitting me, the realization I would not be playing guitar, or with women, or essentially choosing my life moment by moment and after a week profusely thanking the teacher and saying monastic life is not for me.
That said, my commitment and interest in practice has not changed at all. In my early years I had tremendous resistance and discomfort sitting. Well, I still do, but i accept that resistance as part of the process because I have had the experience of moments of insight. I remember after one retreat really having “gotten it” a very powerful moment of insight, and the instruction given, over my enthusiastic presentation of my insight and awareness, “be like a leaf on the river”, let go. Best advice ever!! Letting go of letting go is more and more evident to me as one of the essential lessons.
I facilitate sitting groups and give short dharma talks as part of my facilitators training I am in with Noah Levine. It is an intimidating thing as I know for a fact that i am just like the people sitting, maybe even more sensitive as I am deeply aware of the responsibility. At my last talk a student came up and asked me if i could recommend books of koans so he could starta s elf study regimen using koans. He was very earnest and felt this was a next step. I asked why and he said that this is what he had read Zen leads to. I listened carefully and responded that I was not remotely qualified to initiate this for him and that also my personal understanding was that kind of practice was relational. That an experienced teacher worked with you and your evolving practice and utilized the interaction of koan study and evolving answers to gauge where you were and how to help you deepen and let go of rational mind. I encouraged him to come sit more and trust that if that was the direction for him it would happen with a qualified guide. He seemed to appreciate the honest and simple feedback. Will he come back and sit again? Doubtful but I am optimistic.
I hear you concerns about this movement towards self directed study and also away from the value of monastic training. I am not sure where it is going, although I tend to struggle more with the corporate influence and monetization of the “spiritual movement” and the pretty severely delusional teachers, but i also see the yearning in students faces, the desire to end suffering and the uncertainty as to ho to do that. Teachers like you are needed. This is not sucking up, this is an honest opinion. Open minded, non-dogmatic teachers who want to move to deeper places and support people doing that are needed. My friend Richard in Japan has been talking with me a lot lately about spiritual fascism. This sense of certainty that shuts down and shuts out the evolution of the ideology. My intention is to end suffering, thank you for nurturing that aspiration and intention.
Thank you for this thoughtful comment. And thank you also for the excerpts from Karlfried Durckheim — I’d never heard of him until now, but a quick search shows that he was actually quite prolific (great book titles!).
Oh to be posted in “Uncategorized” now that Zen is there;
for those who are “Uncategorized” are already Zen-aware.
I’m so pleased to see that this blog has inspired some poetry. 🙂 May there be more.
Difficult quetions that I gave up on…..
When I go for a walk I’m pleased when I spot birds or critters but of course I don’t know how many I haven’t seen.
When I try and guess the state of someone’s mind I know that I’m just guessing, pretending I can know, can do this.
In the end you can just act, knowing that your reasons and post-hoc explanations are just a story that you tell yourself to continue the illusion of one who acts.
Can you know what is best for another? I don’t even know what is best for me.
Feed or starve intention; what are and are not skillful means: these brilliant blog posts apply across so many fields of human endeavor, Koun. It’s always ennobling to read them, no matter where in the narrative one locates oneself. Gassho. Chris
I used to run a small sitting group, and repeatedly I’d get a phone call, the person at the other
end would say something like “Oh this is wonderful, I’ve been looking for this all my life” …
and then never show. My explanation is that they have a fantasy of becoming a Buddha but
now the opportunity to actually do something has arisen, that is very scary. They intuit (quite rightly) that meditation may involve all kinds of pain and chicken out.
Thank you. I do think that what you describe is one element in all this. The story in our heads is just easier than the work involved to make that story real — we probably all have the experience of choosing the fantasy over the reality, even when the reality was right there in front of us.
I was that young man.
Politely but firmly turning me down was indeed skillful, and a tremendous gift.
When you turned me down and suggested I come to Uto-an, I did so, but almost as an answer to a perceived challenge. “I’ll show that guy,” I told myself, “I’ll show him I’m serious.” So I came, I sat, I listened, but didn’t practice. I sewed my rakusu and took my vows and understood them, but I did not practice.
I left Alaska and I wore my rakusu on the flight home. I sewed a zafu, bought robes and I sat on a cushion in my basement from time to time, but I did not practice. I listened to dharma talks in the car and thought on them. Later, I would cry in confusion when parts of my life fell apart and none of what I’d heard shed any light on why. My light of truth went out and, for a time, I was lost.
But somewhere that screw was still slowly turning.
It has been nearly five years since I was given a name and handed a kechimyaku, and I have only just now started to practice. I sit in my room on my bench, I burn the same sandalwood, and I stare at the same wall. I still don’t do this every day. Everything is exactly the same, except that now, when I fold up my bench and put my rakusu in its pouch, a bit of both remain.
It has taken me some time, but I think that I have begun to practice.
I’m so glad that you read this and decided to add your voice to it. Thank you. I want you to know that I was thinking warmly of you as I wrote this. I knew, when I turned down your request to go to Japan, that I might never see you again, but that isn’t what happened, and I’m glad. Even if you just came to Uto-an to “show that guy,” even there was something to prove in taking the vows, you did come, and you did take them, and that’s all a part of your life now. I feel lucky that we have stayed in touch and that I’ve been able to watch you wrestle with the path. That’s all any of us do.
Keep it up — I believe you will. And take care.
The all or nothing thinking seems to be present in our efforts to make positive changes too. We tend not to act unless we believe we are going to make a significant (to us) difference, rather than just making the effort, no matter how small it seems.
I have to smile at your letter. In the late ’60’s I wrote a similar one to Yasutani Roshi, whom I had only read about in the Three Pillars of Zen. He never wrote back either 🙂
Thank you. Over the years, I’ve met a few people who wrote similar letters, with varying results. It’s funny for me to think that teachers who are particularly well known probably get those kinds of letters — what a strange thing to get used to.
This journey is interesting, strong feelings of somewhere to go and something to do are overwhelming at first. We go here and there and stalk this and that teacher only to realize there is no need to go anywhere different or do anything special. Below is something I wrote a few years ago about my nineteen year “run about”. Great blog by the way, real experience here as it is easy for me to relate.
“Nineteen years of Buddhist Practice have passed and I find myself returning home. I have returned, unlocked my front door, and now I stand surveying the familiar sights, smells and sounds of my life. Things are exactly as they were when I left; however, nothing is the same.”
Thanks again for your thoughts.
My reoccurring experience when someone new comes to the temple, is to be excited for them. Or maybe excited for me. Occasionally someone will stay longer than a month or two, but most don’t stay for long. Leaving me to consider why I need others to love practice the way I do. Maybe, one round of zazen is enough for some people? Maybe they will enter a more formal practice at some other time or place down the road?
I try to reassure myself that I can’t know how my practice will be received in the world. This helps a little, at least until the next new person arrives at the temple.
In a previous post you mentioned this book: Practices at a Zen Monastery — Clothing, Eating, Housing: Being in Harmony with the Dharma by Tsugen Narasaki, published by Zuioji Senmon Sodo
This is the third time I’ve read mention of this book, but I can’t seem to procure a copy anywhere. Any suggestions?
The book was published last year and made available only to Zen centers in North America, South America, and Europe. Most of the copies disappeared quickly, but last I heard, there are some available for sale at Sanshinji in Indiana — that would probably be your best bet. There’s been talk of making a digital version available as well. If that happens, I’ll probably be the one to do it, and it will probably be at the end of this year at the earliest. If that goes forward, I will definitely link to it through the blog.
What is special?
I expect that 100 people would answer in 100 different ways; I didn’t mean it here in any narrowly-defined sense of the term either. But as one attempt, I’ll say that I think a lot of people who have experienced something like hosshin, who feel some call to spiritual practice, at first experience it as something solitary–that is, they imagine that they are feeling something that others do not, or they are perhaps seeing things that others cannot or just do not see. Entering a particular tradition can be a way of affirming that specialness to ourselves; entering a center can be a way of having it confirmed by others. How to celebrate and feed what is positive about that while not encouraging a self-centered views? In my (limited) experience, the universality of the practice and the teachings is something that people usually catch on to later rather than sooner, but if they can stick around long enough for it, they’ll see that much of what they thought was special about themselves was actually just this wonderful and complicated human condition. That often seems to be the case, anyway.
“How to applaud with one hand while wielding a sword in the other? How to celebrate and feed what is positive about that while not encouraging a self-centered views?”
I don’t know the answer either. But, once I read something about not being able to be a good buddhist until you are a good christian (or whatever root religion) first. I don’t know if this is true, let alone the implications for atheists and the like.
I’m not sure if the experience you had in the dojo would be the experience similar to any physical sport; I think even in gymnastics or ballet (rigorous sports we begin when young – when most scientists still perceive the mind to be more malleable) a new student would stay longer than one visit. Is there really a difference if we start when young versus when we are adults? Plenty of adults have read or heard about yoga, taken once class and then quit. But, then again sitting isn’t a class either – is it?
Is zazen like exercising the mind? We spend more than a decade in school rooms as children in intimate exchanges of mind (in my estimation) between 20-30 children and one adult per period, getting used to change. When we finally arrive at the zendo, how many people (of various authority) are with us, commenting on our choices?
Coming back to the first visit. How to increase return ratio, on the first visit? Even when knowing how to do it, is it even desirable?
“But my practice is pretty much a personal thing. It’s helped me and I’m glad to make it available to others. But I’m not trying to sell it. I sit on Saturday mornings and if people want to join me, good. If not, also good.”
Does soto zen buddhist practice have both personal and impersonal elements?
My basic answer is yes–personal and impersonal are always at work. I know I wrote a whole long piece about practice being impersonal, but that’s the stance of it–no matter how impersonal the practice, I’m still here, and it’s still expressed through this vehicle called Koun. I often use phrases like “getting out of the way” so that the practice can be itself, but it’s like getting out of the way of an oncoming car so that it can continue unimpeded–I’m out of the way, but I didn’t just disappear. I should probably go back and try to say all this more skillfully, but really, nothing is excluded or rejected, so ultimately, when I say something like “practice is impersonal,” what I should be saying is that “practice is transpersonal,” which is to say that it includes personal and impersonal, but is bigger than either or both. Some of what I’ve said has probably been misleading in that regard….
Putting aside for a moment the phrase, “my practice,” which I think might be at the root of every difficulty Zen faces in the modern age, it seems to me that Brad Warner is simply saying that for him, whether or not other people take up the practice is not an important part of how he understands what he’s doing. In the post, I think he speaks pretty clearly to what is probably the most complicated aspect of running a Zen center, which is that in order to support itself, the center by necessity takes an active interest in getting people to come. I found this difficult in Anchorage. I rejoice when people come–I feel deeply grateful every time the door opens. And we knew that a lot of people just weren’t aware of the AZC, so posters announcing our presence seemed like a generous act. But it’s easy to slip from a stance of informing to one of seducing. It’s hard to know where that line is.
Thank you for the question (and the link).
Encountering Mr.Koun Franz in his posts is a serious fun.This man made acquaintance with this ‘special guy’ through a reference in one of Ms.Obrien’s posts.And that was good news.You see here Zen freed of its inevitable cliches and life long hangovers. So honest his demeanour appears in these posts that you are struck with joyous wonder seeing almost exactly the visage you wanted to see and missed in the other room. He shows great ‘flency’ -his term- of the subject and his words seem to come after a purity test and his horse and carriage is exactly in the correct position and is leading to the right hamlet. Every time he muses deeply and with affinity his themes and tries to make them as much positive as he can. One of his posts is titled, ‘I am a Small Man’ and that speaks well of his pristine moorings. He makes few mistakes in thought chain and in case he makes it, comes up always clear after an afterthought. He is at home in his Soto surroundings ,cubicle as well as sky and has new things to tell everytime. In brief, to meet Mr.Franz in his space is a happy wonder. But what makes him really special is not the choice of words nor his mastery of the themes he deals with but his great clarity of intention and his commitment to the vast foundation it rests on. So here, my hugs. . -Madathil Narayanan Rajkumar
Thank you. I have marveled as you have made your way through this entire blog, reading so carefully and commenting so generously. Having you here has been a great encouragement to me along the way–I am filled with gratitude. My best to you.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.” – one may enter zen from here.
I often have people tell me they wish they could draw, I have worked at it for many years but not as hard as I could, and tell them they could learn. When they actually have instruction and see there is no trick it’s a matter of practicing the skill of really seeing what your looking at and not the product—which will take care of it self if you are honestly looking, they don’t want to have it be so simple and so much work. I feel the same reading this. And then I they don’t want to do it and I feel like I needed to explain it in a different way. Like I wasn’t sharing the joy. But maybe they should be sitting with you instead. I hope all people find the thing that makes them let go like a leaf…
Enjoyed your writting—thanks
[…] you’re thinking of asking me to be your teacher, you need to read this first. Then read it twelve more times. Then stop pretending that’s not […]
That interesting article reminds me that people often orientate themselves by the outer appearance, rather than by the essence.
What do they want to change?
How do they want to change that?
“Go to a monastery,
embody the teaching”.
Can you explain better the essence of their need, than just saying:
“Better sit here, in jeans and t-shirts”?
Obviously, that would look a cheap substitute.
It seems to me that if the intention of the “ones who got away” is pure and strong, they will find what they need, just as the author of this essay did.
Perfect Article ! Especially for the over motivated beginners longing for the “real thing”. Beaultifuly written to reveal the laziness of the enthusiastic Zenist. Thisa rticle gave me a deep insight !!Thank you for sharing.