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.