Waiting for the Sincere Question

moss buddhaMy grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”

And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.

There is an old rule that a teacher should not speak of the Dharma unless requested to do so three times. This always seemed silly to me. How does one reject the first two requests? And since the rule is well known, wouldn’t people just ask three times quickly? Isn’t it a kind of game?

Perhaps. But now I see it more clearly. It’s a way of insisting on sincerity. And like all the rules, it evolved in response to a problem — namely, that most questions are insincere.

Especially in Zen, there is a misunderstanding about what we are asking when we ask. And why.

So much of the Zen tradition rests on dialogues in which traveling monks challenge a teacher. The monk throws a curveball, and when the story is good, the teacher hits it out of the park (or throws one right back). It’s all very dynamic, even explosive.

And so we get this unfortunate term, “Dharma combat.” There is a strong idea in the Zen world — even stronger in the West, where people tend to be more familiar with the literature and with those stories — that Zen is aggressive, that a good Zen exchange has these steps:

  1. Someone is tested.
  2. Someone is shot down.
  3. The “answer” either makes no sense (“The snail outside my window”) or appeals to an absolute view of reality (“My friend, there is no question, and no questioner. A songbird! I rest my case”).

I’ve encountered a lot of this in person. Now, from Japan, I need only look at online forums or comments threads to find more of the same. Perfectly intelligent people, when Zen is mentioned, suddenly start tossing around Song Dynasty-era metaphors and accusing each other of being attached to views. There are a few good reasons why some people really hate Zen. This is one of them.

What’s missing in this kind of Koan Theatre is a genuine desire to help. It’s play-acting. It’s insincere. What we forget when we imagine those ancient dialogues is this: the traveling monk didn’t question the teacher because he wanted to win. He wanted to lose. He was searching desperately, risking everything, to find his true teacher. So when he asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” he wasn’t trying to see if the teacher had the “right” answer or not. He wasn’t checking if the teacher’s understanding matched his own. He was asking because he really wanted to know. He didn’t want the teacher’s understanding to match his own. He wanted the teacher’s understanding to blow him away, and if he really didn’t have any hope that it would, he wouldn’t bother asking the question. He just moved on.

Likewise, if the teacher saw the monk coming and thought, “I’ll teach him a thing or two,” well, I hope that the monk just kept walking. A sincere question, in this tradition, will never get an answer. At best, it will get a skillful response. Just as no one can blow your nose for you, no teacher can tell you what you most want to know. Why? Because if it’s a really good question, the teacher also doesn’t know. She can’t know. But a teacher might know how to help you to know. There’s a big difference.

The teacher must sincerely want to help. The student must sincerely want to be helped. A poetic, hard-to-grasp image, if it is part of a response, is only compassionate if the teacher believes that this particular image is actually more helpful than a straightforward one. The goal cannot be to obscure, or to look wise, or to add a little Zen flavor. Likewise, one can only penetrate with an absolute view if the other person is clinging fiercely to the relative; it can only be an antidote. Never a weapon. Never a way of shutting it all down.

I will never know what my grandmother was asking when she held up that cookie. But I do know that the question was a sincere one. She genuinely wanted to know — it was important to her, and she knew she couldn’t see the answer. And as she continued to ask the question, as we wrestled to find a response, we also took on some of that sincerity. We felt the intensity she brought to that exchange, and we tried to match it. I don’t think we satisfied her. She still wanted something more. But “I don’t know” — that was pretty good. That’s always a good place to start.

I’ve been invited this month to respond to Zen-related questions from Reddit users. You can eavesdrop on the conversation here (where they’re collecting questions), or you can register with Reddit and participate. I think it might be fun.

An Attempt at Instructions for Zazen

fukanzazengiLast summer, as I was re-reading Carl Bielefeldt’s Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, I received a very kind email from a reader asking me to offer my take on how to do zazen. I have no idea how many times I’ve offered zazen instruction in person, but in reading that request, I realized that I had never tried to write it all down. Furthermore, it had never really occurred to me that I have a particular take on it — when I explain it to someone else, I’m very aware of both Dogen’s instructions and things I’ve heard from my teachers. But the timing — that book, with this request — inspired me to look more closely at how I approach zazen, how I hear the explanation in my head.

Much of Bielefeldt’s book (which I cannot recommend highly enough) chronicles the evolution of Dogen’s “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen [Fukanzazengi]” from an earlier draft to a later one, showing that Dogen’s understanding of zazen — both how to practice it, and how to express that practice to others — was evolving. Dogen passed away when he was 53; if he’d lived to 80, I have no doubt that the zazen instructions we read in temples every evening would be different, somehow, from what they are.

I am fond of complaining that we rely too heavily on Dogen in this tradition. That doesn’t come from any complaint about him or his writings — not at all. But it seems to me that in the 800 years since his death, we should have a few more people to reference. More teachers should have stepped forward with their own understanding of the tradition. Or perhaps the institutions around this practice should have given greater voice to those who were trying, in vain, to be heard. In any case, 800 years later, it’s still pretty much all Dogen.

So on planes and in line at the bank, I have found myself picking away at my own instructions for zazen. Of this, I’m sure: if I had tried to write these instructions 10 years ago, they would have been very, very different. And I sincerely hope that 10 years from now, these instructions will be equally different, that they will have evolved with my understanding of the practice. If all goes well, I’ll read these instructions when I’m an old man and wince a little, seeing more clearly then what I don’t see clearly now.

But today, at age 40, I think this is my best effort. I put out these instructions (some are pretty standard, but a few are not) not to rewrite anything, but to put myself on the spot, to make myself open to whatever discussion or comments might follow. This is a work in progress. More than that, I do it in the hopes that it might start a dialogue, and that others might feel a push to publish their own instructions. I would very much like to read them.



Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya —  the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting — come empty handed. Do not make zazen — let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that — sitting is neither means nor end.

Spread a blanket or mat and place a zafu on top. Sit down, marking the center of the zafu with the base of the spine.

To sit in the full lotus, place the right foot over the left thigh, then the left foot over the right thigh. Rest your left hand on your right hand, palm up — the middle joint of the middle finger below aligns with the middle joint of the middle finger above, and thumbtips touch as if trying not to, just near enough to feel the electricity between them. This is called Sitting in Practice.

Reverse the legs; reverse the hands. This is called Sitting in Verification.

Sit in practice today and in two days. Sit in verification tomorrow and yesterday.

If not full lotus, half lotus. If not half lotus, rest the foot of the raised leg across the calf of the lower leg. Or kneel. Or sit on a chair. Remember that this body is the buddha’s body. Do not harm it. Also, do not underestimate it.

Always place the knees below the hips, the pelvis tilted forward, the lower back slightly curved. Establish a posture that need not fight gravity.

Be the tree beneath which other buddhas sit.

Press the hands below the navel; let them move with the breath. In full lotus, rest them on top of the heels. In any other posture, support the hands with a blanket or cushion.

Once seated, rotate the torso at the hips in wide circles, then in small ones until the spine is holding the earth in place; pull in the chin and stretch the back of the neck upwards, lifting the sky.

Take seven long breaths. As you inhale, fill the body with a wind that loops through your feet and across your thumbs. As you exhale, do so slowly, continuing until your breath has touched the far corners of the world. Exhale until nothing remains.

On the eighth breath, just breathe.

How long must one sit? How many breaths? Ancient buddhas did not measure zazen in minutes or hours.

Let in all sounds — hear the shifting of the continents, a bird turning in flight. Facing the wall, see beyond the horizon. Feel your heart beating, your lungs moving, your skin expanding and shrinking, the magnetic draw of your thumbs. Breathe in the stench and the perfume of the world. Let your tongue rest flat in your mouth, and taste.

Mara visits during zazen, but not as visions — visions, if only glanced at, will pass by like shadows. Nor will Mara come disguised as desire — desires, confronted directly, lose their power to haunt. Mara will visit as a weight on the eyelids, bearing the soft seduction of sleep. Open your eyes; if they grow heavy or the world blurs, open them wider. Keep the room cool. Let light in. Explore the waking world, not dreams.

Be the force of gravity, pulling you deep into the ground; be the weight of a flame. Do not move from this posture. With every cell in your body, every drop of blood, every inch of skin, constantly do not move.

Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.


Sitting in Practice: gōmaza (降魔坐)
Sitting in Verification: kichijōza (吉祥坐)
The phrase “weight of a flame” is taken from a verse provided by Dai-en Bennage, abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo: “Abandoning myself to breathing out, and letting breathing in naturally fill me.  All that is left is this empty zafu under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” (original source unknown)


Update June 13, 2013: My gratitude to Saiho Sandra Laureano, of Grupo Zen de Cupey in Puerto Rico,  who very generously translated these instructions into Spanish.


Here I Am

You Are Here“Life is one continuous mistake” — for years, this has been one of my favorite Dogen sayings. I’ve always appreciated the humor of it — it feels honest, or at least like an honest description of my life. Only, it turns out that Dogen never said it. On the Internet, it seems, quotation marks are a shorthand for “This is fake.”

Dogen did, however, say something similar: “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another” (Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 132). Pretty close. But what are these mistakes we keep making? And why?

There’s a word, mayoi (迷い), that shows up a lot in Buddhist writings — the dictionary will tell you that it means “delusion” or “confusion” or “the state of being lost.” For years, I read it without much thought. It’s sometimes used as the opposite of enlightenment, so I read it that way, and since enlightenment seemed a lot more interesting than being lost, I figured that was where I should place my attention. But there are different ways of being lost. There is more than one kind of mayoi.

The first way to be lost is to be wrong. The classic example is a coiled rope on the ground — if you see it out of the corner of your eye and take it for a snake, you might run, or scream, or try to beat it with a shovel, but in each case, you’ll just be wrong. It’s a rope. In the same way, if you ever drive in circles because you are just sure you know the way to the interstate, you understand — the more deeply you believe that you know the right road, the less chance of ever finding the right one. To be clear, in the case of the rope, the problem is not that your eyes misinterpret something you see — the problem is that you believe your own idea about it, so you don’t question it anymore. It’s natural to think you know the streets in your town; the mistake is in not noticing that this time, you got it wrong. This is how we usually understand mayoi: not just being lost, but compounding it by insisting we are not.

The second way to be lost is to know, deeply, that you do not know where you are. Or that you do not know how to get where you are going. Or that you do not know the answer. If you think you know the way to the interstate, you only look for the one landmark that you’re sure is supposed to be there. But if you know you don’t know the way, you look for everything. You drive with your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. You ask people for directions, and since you know that you don’t know how to get where you’re going, you recognize that anyone you see might have the answer. Teachers are everywhere. Clues are everywhere. It can be frustrating, even scary. But it’s also very thorough. This is the other mayoi: being lost completely, and knowing it.

Thinking you’re not lost is much more dangerous than knowing that you are. Being sure you are not lost guarantees mistake after mistake, by definition, so if we want to, we can understand Dogen’s statement in this simple way. We don’t know what we don’t know, so in every moment, we work from assumptions and patterns that are unconsidered, unquestioned. I have a friend who didn’t know he was allergic to cats and dogs until he moved out of his pet-filled childhood home and suddenly felt like a new person. For years, he just thought he wasn’t an athletic type, and that was why he never had much energy. In college, I subsisted on what I call the “yellow diet”: Mountain Dew and anything with cheese on it. I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I moved to Japan, where Mountain Dew and cheese were both luxury items. Even if we’re confident in our ignorance, that doesn’t necessarily make it willful. There’s just so much to examine — where do we start?

Tracy and I recently started a “Zen and Parenting” blog, and for the obvious reason (if you have kids), we’re calling it One Continuous Mistake. So this question of making mistakes, and how mistakes relate to practice, has been on my mind. It seems that we have two modes: one is to be totally ignorant of our actions;  the other is to be aware of our actions, but still lost. How can we be skillful and lost at the same time? I see four ways to explore this:

  1. Fumble around, actively. I used to train at Shogoji, a monastery that had no electricity. We all wore little headlamps at night, but when the batteries died on us, we would find ourselves navigating the maze of hallways in perfect darkness. I became more competent with time, but to be competent, I could never get cocky — one wrong assumption and I would fall down a flight of stairs or crash into a glass kerosene lamp. I explored those buildings as if I was a blind man and Shogoji was a face I needed to memorize forever. I’ve lived in my current house for two years now, but if I had to find something in the dark here, I’m not sure that I could; even now, years later, I probably know Shogoji better. It’s about choosing to pay attention.
  2.  Embrace not knowing. Notice when you’re lost, and choose to stay there. When our son was born, I knew nothing about parenting. I still don’t. As with the dark halls of Shogoji, I’d like to think I am becoming more competent as a father — I hope so. But when I think I have it figured out, I screw it up (and when I remember how much I thought I knew before we had kids, I just laugh). When I read a parenting book with some sort of “system” and decide that this is the one-size-fits-all solution to, say, tantrums, it goes wrong. Very, very wrong. A book is useful if it gives me an idea about how to fumble around. It might offer new mistakes for me to make. But if I take it as a map of the territory, then I’m more lost than before. …All of this is to say that we can seek out this realm of not knowing. Having kids works, but so does a dance class, or traveling in a place you’ve never been, or entering into a friendship with someone very different from yourself. Learning what you don’t know about playing music is a window into how little you know about anything.
  3. When you make a mistake, make it big. Knowing you are lost is not an excuse to be meek. Don’t hold back. If your job in the orchestra is to hit the gong at the critical time, and you get lost and you’re not sure of your cue, you have two choices: hit the gong, or don’t. If you decide it’s better to hit it, HIT it. In Zen practice, the question is whether or not, not how much. The degree is always the same — 100%. Mistakes are not optional — as Dogen says, we “must make one mistake after another.” On some level, you’re probably making a mistake right now. So am I. But knowing that cannot be a justification for a life lived halfway, for a moment half expressed, for a child half hugged. Never withhold.
  4. Make wherever you are into where you are. This is one of the simplest arguments for zazen, for taking up a practice of sitting still. If you wake up in perfect darkness, you may be afraid or even cry out, but eventually, you will start the slow, deliberate process of mapping your world, figuring out where you are. You must do that. Even then, there is a degree to which, in that blackness, you cannot know where you are. You cannot know all the details of the room of your life. You cannot make all the good choices before making some bad ones. But even though you may not know the way to the door, in another way, you know exactly where you are: you are here. I am here, where my feet touch the ground. I am here, and though I may spend my all my remaining years trying to be more competent at navigating the maze of my life, I will never be anywhere but here. Sitting down in zazen is a way of coming to see that, but even more, it is a way of expressing it. “The room is perfectly dark and I have no idea where I am or how to get out? No problem.”

At the start of a hiking trail, we stand and pour over the map showing us how to get to our destination. But there on the same map is a big red arrow pointing to where we are standing, reminding us, “You are here.” We can make wrong turn after wrong turn; we can get hopelessly lost. We can give up and go home. But that red arrow doesn’t go away. It’s one of the hardest things, but next time you don’t know where you are or what to do, try starting with “I am here.” Plant yourself under that arrow. Then go make some mistakes.


Please visit One Continuous Mistake if you have time. Tracy writes really beautifully about the complications of our children and our lives, and I, true to form, write long essays about things I really don’t understand. There’s also a Facebook page. Also, if you’re interested, note that you can now follow this blog through Twitter as well.

Teacher? Student?

in a row ganzoujiThe other night, after returning home from my teacher’s temple, where we celebrated the Buddha’s enlightenment, I fell head first into what I suppose is my own version of internet porn: Zen people arguing with Zen people on Zen blogs about Zen. These days the topic is sex, and the discussion is heated, and like any kind of pornography, it left me simultaneously wanting to see more and never, never wanting to see it again.

Combing through all those hundreds of comments, I read the words “student” and “teacher” over and over — we seem to use them as if we all agree on what they mean. But I think there is very little actual agreement about what either one is. Or does. Or should do. I have my own take on it, but I’m sure I do not represent a majority view. I don’t know if there is a majority view.

Leading up to my ordination and after, what I wanted more than anything was for my teacher to teach me. I wanted to hear his views on Buddhism. I wanted him to challenge mine. I wanted to tangle eyebrows a little. I also wanted homework, some concrete, achievable task that I could take to him so that he could put a check mark in his book and see how serious I was. He gave me nothing. While I was living in a different town, I would call him up and ask, “What do you want me to be doing?” and his reply was always, “Just settle down.” Which drove me crazy. Even then, I was sure that if/when he came to the conclusion that I had, in fact, “settled down,” then the formal teaching would begin. But I’m still waiting on that. He is not what I expected, not what I thought I was looking for. His favorite activity is to walk in the mountains surrounding his temple and collect wild, edible plants. I’ve never seen him do a ceremony the same way twice, and even if a ceremony becomes a total disaster, it doesn’t faze him at all. (Just before the ceremony the other day, after waiting an hour for this conversation, I asked, “So… how do you want to do this?” His reply, as we’re starting to walk into the hall: “Let’s do the Heart Sutra!” That is not enough information.) I used to wonder if all this silence and pointing away was all supposed to be a teaching in itself. After all, he has mastered one of the most basic parts of this relationship: not giving the student what he wants. It’s taken me years to accept that he really just doesn’t care — not about this or that teaching, not about this or that form, not about this or that tradition. Mostly, he goes into people’s homes, does short ceremonies for their ancestors, then sits and talks with them over tea about whatever is going on in their lives. And they trust him. Completely. That is the shape of the practice for him, though I don’t think it would even occur to him to call it practice. It’s just how he spends his day.

So that’s one version of what it is to be a student. It can be frustrating and confusing. My teacher was happy to turn my training over to others — he was honest at the start about being someone who was “opening a gate” for me. He didn’t really expect me to go up through all the ranks, but he was happy when I did. And though my expression of the Dharma and his are very, very different, he has never suggested that he would have it any other way. He doesn’t play guru, but nor does he play “spiritual friend.” He’s something else.

Upon entering monastic life, I started to meet lots of senior priests and see different ways in which people play that role. The monastery where I spent most of my time, Zuiōji, is well known for its emphasis on form and formality, and though I hated it at first, I came to embrace that model of the practice for myself. I saw for the first time how powerful the formal side of this tradition can be, how it can push our understanding of action into something completely new. I saw how the physical expressions of the Dharma — the ritual, the clothes, the etiquette — created an atmosphere for practice unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. And there, in that world, I became a priest very much unlike my teacher.

One of the teachers I met there kind of adopted me; he is not my teacher by any formal definition, but still, he is — he is my “teacher of debt (onshi, 恩師).” He, too, has embraced that formality. We speak often of the Dharma, often until late in the night. I interpret his lectures. When we walk, I walk just a little behind him; when we eat, I am sure to finish just after he does, not before. Our relationship is completely honest, but at the same time, it is a fair description to say that he is playing “teacher” and I am playing “student.” We are trying to do it “right.” We are each making a space in which the other person can explore that role, that way of being. This is another way of being a student.

The man who is formally my teacher does not, by any conventional definition, teach, nor does he permit me to play the role of a student. And the man who has taken the most responsibility for cultivating me as a priest is not, by any formal definition, my teacher at all. I cannot express how fortunate I have been to have entered the spheres of these two teachers, to be pushed and pulled and frustrated and encouraged and challenged by my relationships with them. Together they have offered me models not only of how to invest in students, but also how to let go of them.

But they also did all this in the context of me being a priest. It is understood that priests have things they must learn; later, it is understood that there are things they must pass on. In Western Zen centers, the dynamic is a little different. In most places, only one person is a priest, maybe two. How the lay members of a community are supposed to relate to priests is really new territory.

When I joined the Anchorage Zen Community in 2006, most if not all of the members were older than me. A few of them had been sitting for as long as I’d been alive. Tozen Akiyama, the former resident priest, had just left after being there for five years. A couple of those more experienced members seemed to take on a student stance towards me (one by choice, the other seemingly in spite of herself). Some, I think, felt that they were Tozen Akiyama’s students, and there was no pressing reason to change. After I was there a few months, some young people started to arrive, students who had met me at the university. Many considered me their teacher and called me “sensei,” but I was their Japanese teacher first, their Zen teacher second.

One woman from the university, during sesshin, came to dokusan for the very first time, bowed, sat down, and said, “Well, I guess everything is different now.” And she was right. But she was right because she said it, not because she had come to dokusan.

To some, I was the resident priest; to others, I was the teacher, whether or not they considered themselves my students. And I did not think of them as “my” students — I thought of them as students of Zen.  A few people — maybe 10 over the four years — came to me and said they wanted to be my student, formally. I explained to them that in this tradition, the burden is on the student, and the curriculum is proximity. Come sit with me more often, I said. Spend time with me. Talk with me as much as you want, but if you think I have something that you want for yourself, your best bet is to hang around and see if it rubs off. Imitate if you want. Two really tried. The rest came less often after that conversation than they did before. I know they wanted what I had wanted: a curriculum, homework, acknowledgment. I have no problem with giving deliberate shape to that dynamic, but I don’t think it’s the starting point, either. First, just be in the room. Try that.

I have conferred the precepts to about 40 people — are they my students? As a priest, I have a responsibility to offer the precepts to whomever wants to receive them — I cannot deny them. I can make people jump through hoops first, and I do: everyone sews a rakusu. But everyone is welcome. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I have a responsibility to ordain anyone who wants to become a priest — that’s a different conversation. But in any case, the precepts are the same.)

Tracy, my wife, received the precepts from me. Does that cross some kind of line? No — she was never my student, nor could she be (and the precepts, while we’re at it, are not “my” precepts). Even if she were to walk into the dokusan room and sit across from me, that would not be dokusan, because her presence there would make it something else. We would probably act all serious for a minute, then just talk about how cute/exhausting our kids are.  (None of this is to say that we have a perfectly equal relationship, because we don’t. She’s much smarter than I am.)

Some teachers take a very authoritative place in even their lay students’ lives, getting mixed up in their day-to-day activities and relationships; others, like myself, often don’t know who identifies as a student and who does not. Even in this tradition, where there has traditionally been a significant vertical gap between teachers and ordained students, some teachers choose the model of spiritual friend, engaging more as a fellow practitioner than as a guide. I know a monk who met his teacher on the day of ordination, after having it all arranged by a third party. And I know another who lived in his teacher’s house for 10 years, essentially living as a member of the teacher’s family. If you are practicing koan Zen, then your teacher holds certain answers, and an authority to pass you or not. You’re probably spending a lot of time talking alone. But take the koan away, and you might have a relationship with your teacher that is almost entirely nonverbal (and relatively public).

All of this is just one simple illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as “American Zen,” much less “Zen.” We have Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen; we have lineages that are neither, and also some that are both. We have what are sometimes referred to as “Catholic Zen,” which embraces form and formality, and “Protestant Zen,” which asserts that form is a distraction from the real point. There is Zen that seeks enlightenment and Zen that says it is already here. Japanese Zen, Korean Zen, Chinese Zen, Vietnamese Zen — each has its own gifts to offer, and each has its own dangers.

Beyond all those categories, there is the place where you actually practice; there is the teacher you actually know. There is what you want from the practice, and there is what your teacher is capable of giving.

As I said, we’re making this up as we go along. But it’s not just about these new shores, or about ordained versus lay. We’ve always been making this up as we go along. Where there are two individuals, it will always be new. It will always be an experiment. Any one of us could probably write volumes about what we think it should be — I could. But it’s not that. It’s not that simple.

This is our beautiful mess. We make it. And we can never completely clean it up.

Behind Closed Doors

Like Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen, I have lots of things I want to write about, but when everyone is talking about a scandal, not talking about it starts to feel like avoidance. Today, to many people such as myself (who have never been privy to the American Zen gossip mill), the news about Joshu Sasaki comes as a surprise. So did the very disturbing details about Eido Shimano not long ago. But the greater surprise, for me at least, is learning that so many people have known so much for so long. I am not mystified by how these things happen — I have seen for myself how students can enable teachers, and how they can look away from actions and “teachings” that bear greater scrutiny. I have also seen how a teacher can become so insulated that there is no real pressure to act like — or be– a mature adult. It’s a trap, one that everyone sets together. The Zen world — all over the world — needs to do some serious housecleaning. But that is painful, and sad, and it gets ugly along the way.

I do not feel that I have much to offer regarding the current scandal. The scope of it is still being defined, and while that’s happening, people have already stepped forward and said much of what needs to be said, at least at this stage (Myoan Schireson’s article at Sweeping Zen, “A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers,” is a good place to start). I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I will say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Zen teacher desiring sex. That just means he or she is human. For that matter, I’m not concerned with a teacher being attracted to a student — we do not have much control over who or what we desire. But when a teacher, in a practice setting, acts on that attraction (even with just a word, or a gesture, or an unmistakable look), the teacher is elevating that desire to primary importance. He is saying that satisfying his desire or his curiosity is more important than the student, more important than the transmission of the teachings, more important than the practice, more important than the health of the community. That is the mindset of a child, and we don’t need children teaching Zen. But all that’s obvious, and it’s been said better elsewhere.

There is one aspect of this scandal and all the others, however, that seems not to be getting much airtime, so I’d like to try to explore it here. It’s dokusan.

Dokusan (or sanzen in the Rinzai world — even more confusing, sanzen is also a Soto word, but with a completely different meaning), is the formal, private meeting between student and teacher. Some Zen centers offer it year round, others only during sesshin or special practice periods. Generations of Westerners know, from Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen (and other books describing koan-based practice), that dokusan is where the excitement is. It’s where student and teacher tangle eyebrows, where they shout and hit and stare and cry and break through to something new. If you’re a new student, dokusan is where you go to find your most romantic ideas about Zen; if you’re a teacher with a new student, dokusan is where your authenticity is tested, where you do or do not live up to that student’s dreams. It can be intense. (My advice: don’t live up to those dreams.)

But dokusan is also the setting and starting point of almost every sex scandal in the Zen world. Dokusan is where a teacher touches a student’s knee, where a teacher suggests that the student is special and that theirs is an intimacy that goes well beyond the mind, where the teacher cultivates an ambiguous sexual tension to see where it might go. It is where a student and teacher having an affair can be perfectly alone, but in public. In some cases, it is where the teacher assaults the student outright. And it is also where, by the nature of it, the student is most vulnerable, most raw, most receptive to whatever the teacher is offering. It’s the scene of the crime, over and over and over again.

My own experience of dokusan: The first time I entered that room was as a student here in Japan, with a Soto teacher who uses koans. It was not magical or even all that intense, but it was honest, and I was grateful for the encounter (in that one sesshin, I learned a lot about how not to behave in dokusan). My second experience of it was as a teacher, receiving students. That may seem shocking, but in the Soto world, at least for those of us who trained in Japan, that’s normal. In the conventional Soto Zen world (meaning temples and teachers who do not use koans as teaching tools), there is no such thing as dokusan. I’m sure there are some exceptions to that, but in my 12 years in Japan, I have yet to find even one. A student can always meet formally with a teacher — structures exist for that. But even then — even if the meeting opens and closes with prostrations, even if it produces all the intensity we might expect — it is also more likely than not that tea will be served, and that the conversation will stretch on for an hour or more. There will not be a line of students waiting their turns; there will not be an attendant guarding the door.

In the West, due largely to the influence of Philip Kapleau’s book (and some others), Soto Zen practitioners decided decades ago that dokusan is indispensable to Zen practice. The fact that it is employed is not a bad thing — it creates an encounter that is deliberate and formal in ways that are difficult to maintain at other times, perhaps especially in the casual world of the West. In the teaching seat, I have seen how it throws even seasoned practitioners off center to walk into that room, how it makes them open to something new. And that’s good. I have watched people with whom I have only ever had casual conversations bow, sit down, tear open their chests, and hand me their beating hearts. It is a very humbling place to be. I have also had the profound privilege of serving as an interpreter for Japanese teachers visiting the US and conducting dokusan at students’ requests. From my spot in the shadows, I have been able to watch encounters that are not intended for an audience; I have witnessed how skillful teachers can create that open and forgiving space, how they stay so clear and so honest in the face of so many projections and so much transference.

I have also seen where it can become complicated. A woman I had just recently met once came to me in dokusan and told me that she felt like she might have a crush on me. She described this as a feeling that was confusing to her, but her presentation was giggly and a little flirtatious. I don’t believe she wanted anything to happen between us. She was considerably older than I was; it didn’t feel like a proposition. But she was also inviting me to respond. She was testing me a little, and maybe also seeking out some sort of affirmation. I told her this: those feelings are natural, even normal. I, too, have felt something like a crush on teachers, male and female — that initial attraction, that desire to be close to the teacher or even to be considered special is probably only rarely a romantic one, but since those feelings are so analogous to romantic feelings (we don’t even have multiple words for “crush,” though they are obviously needed), it is easy for either party to be confused. She and I shared a laugh about it, and we went on to talk about other things. But in that moment between what she said and how I responded, what if she had reached out and touched me on the hand? Or what if I had touched her hand, just to be reassuring or friendly? It could have happened, easily. One of us would have been left wondering what on earth it all meant.  She could have told that story to the rest of the sangha any way she wanted; I could have done the same. Or we could have held that moment as a secret between us — this little thing, that should have meant nothing, could have transformed into something that needed to be resolved, or hidden, or somehow followed up on. A small gesture like that, when two people are so exposed, can tear the world down the middle. It can terrify or excite the student — maybe both. And it can embolden a teacher — making others uncomfortable or afraid can be an intoxicating kind of power, whether it’s about sex or not.

I don’t know if any of the horrible stories we hear about teachers molesting and assaulting and generally manipulating students start out in that small way. But I think I see how easy it is for that dynamic to fall away from what it should be. We sometimes describe Zen in dangerous terms, and rightly so — zazen is not a safe activity. Walking into a room and exposing your heart to someone is not a safe thing to do. Nor should it be. But even recognizing and honoring that, we can agree that the dokusan room, in more conventional terms, must be a safe space. There must be rules. There must be guidelines that are public — not only so that teachers can be held accountable, but so that students can know, without any question, that what just happened was a transgression and not a teaching to be unraveled.

I do not want to dissuade anyone from walking into that room. There is a beautiful, honest, uncomfortable encounter to be had there, and Zen is all of those things. I encourage anyone who wants that confrontation to seek it out. But given the problems that continue to occur there, I also want to offer two thoughts, for what they’re worth:

The first is that Zen teachers do not need to touch students. Ever. As someone who teaches at a university, I am not allowed to close the door when a female student visits my office. This is for her protection and mine. In dokusan, the door will be closed, so there needs to be transparency before it closes about what can and cannot happen there. I don’t know what other teachers do; I don’t want to suggest all sorts of arbitrary limits. But I cannot imagine how a teacher is hindered by not physically touching the student. Teachers, just don’t do it. Students, don’t press the issue. If the student really wants to hug the teacher, that should be done later, and it should happen in front of other people. But even better, let’s bow to each other. When I visit American Zen centers, I find that bowing is being traded in for handshakes and hugs, but what is lacking in a bow? I used to visit a women’s prison where I was expressly forbidden from touching anyone in the prison population. Every time as I left, the woman we visited there most often would say she wished she could hug me, then we would bow instead. But that bow contained that hug. It contained more than a hug. I loved that bow.

The second thing I want to say is that dokusan is not at the center of the practice — let’s be careful not to put it there. I’m not sure that can be said of the koan tradition — there, it may be difficult to move forward without it. But in Soto Zen, there is nothing your teacher can offer you in that room that is more special than what she offers outside of it. And if you try to bring more to that room than you do to the way you sit or walk or stand or lie down, then you are missing what actually is at the center. If you go into dokusan, then really show up, really be there. But then, after the bell rings, open the door with that same presence, and walk away withholding nothing, offering that action and the next and the next. Be careful about anything special happening in that room. I don’t just mean sex — I mean anything.

There is no room more special than the one you’re in right now. There is no encounter more important than the one you’re having in this moment.

Dokusan is just another room, just another encounter. Let’s try not to forget.

You Know This Blog is No Good Because I’m Trying to Write It

The other day, as I was finally emerging from under a large-scale translation project that consumed my time over the last few months (and basically shut down this blog), I checked Facebook and saw this quotation making the rounds:

Teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching something are to be avoided. Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their lives as best they can with others. In this sense the “best” teachers are often the worst teachers; the more brilliant the teacher, the more exciting, the more enlightened, the worse it is for the student. The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher. – Zoketsu Norman Fischer

From the source that I saw, inside of a day, this was shared more than 30 times and “liked” more than 100. So I’m sure it’s all over the place by now. It is not my intention to pick on Zoketsu Fischer, for whom I have a lot of respect. Nor do I know the context in which any of this was said. But this statement — standing alone, which is how it is being embraced — reveals two of the most dangerous ideas we can encounter when we enter into Zen practice.

Of course, there is truth to it, too, so we should acknowledge that first: a lot of Zen teaching (especially in the Soto world) does not always look like “teaching” in a conventional sense. Like any apprenticeship, the first condition is proximity, not words — that proximity allows the student to watch and absorb and question and imitate. It also makes possible a kind of friction between teacher and student — one could argue that this friction is important in any teacher-student relationship, but in Zen, it carries an unusual weight. So yes — a lot of Zen “teaching” rests primarily on the teacher sharing the practice with someone who is invested in receiving it. Also, a teacher with an inflated investment in being a big shot is confused from the start. But that is not at the heart of what the quotation above is saying.

The most obvious problem here is what we might call “Zen exceptionalism,” which reaches back as far as Zen does. Zen exceptionalism, in a nutshell, is the assertion that everything in Zen is a kind of “opposite world” in which the surest way to accomplish a task in a “Zen” way is to do the opposite of what any ordinary person might do. That is to say, Zen has its own rules, its own physics. If I say there’s no truth to that, I’m lying — paradox is at the heart of many Zen teachings. That said, however, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace something that doesn’t make any darned sense.

What if I write that “History teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching history are to be avoided”? Math teachers? Piano teachers? It doesn’t hold up. Not only is it absurd, but it creates a dangerous standard for everyone involved.

Zen teachers might teach in all sorts of covert ways. It might not look like teaching. And Zen teachers — unlike, say, math teachers — may not aspire to that role. They might find themselves there by accident. That’s fine. But for the teacher to actually have no sense of teaching in the moment that teaching is happening is for the teacher to be unaware that there, in front of him, is a student. That is not only dangerously ignorant, but highly implausible. It’s just talk.

Scholars continue to debate the degree to which Taoism influenced Zen after Buddhism reached China, but it seems to me that we can hear a pronounced Taoist voice in these kinds of upside-down Zen assertions. Taoist literature speaks of the sage who always seems to do things by not doing those things: The sage drinks coffee by not drinking coffee. (Or something like that.) But even the sage knows about coffee. The sage, while drinking coffee (however he does that, or does that by not doing that), does not think, “I am not a drinker of coffee. I would never drink coffee.” The sage is not so unaware of the act of drinking coffee that he does not own up to it even as he is doing it.

Yet we are being told not only that the teacher teaches by not teaching, but that the teacher does not recognize her function as a teacher. The teacher who teaches is not a true teacher; the teacher who notices that she is teaching is, by definition, no longer a good teacher. And the more skillful a teacher seems to be, the less skillful that teacher actually is. The more awake, dynamic, or intelligent the teacher, the more dangerous.

If this is true, then how is a student to proceed? How is a teacher to proceed? If I am a new student at a Zen center, armed with this list of criteria for choosing a teacher, I have it easy — the first time the teacher offers me any kind of guidance, I can just write her off. I know she’s a fake, because she’s actually trying to teach me.  Do her Dharma talks leave me inspired and full of questions? Well, she’s no good — I know better, now, than to be seduced by that kind of so-called “skill.” Does she seem awake in her actions — does her presence disarm me a little? That is a definite no. What I need is a teacher who, in addition to having no discernible skill as a teacher — or awareness of the role itself — also makes literally no effort to teach me. That would be the real thing.

I sometimes wince when people talk about robes being “dangerous,” but here, I understand. Robes provide a kind of reverb to even the most absurd (or common-sense) statements, transforming them into something profound and paradoxical. If I sit on the high seat in robes, take a deep breath, lean forward, and say emphatically (maybe with a whisper, maybe with a shout), “You all need to wash your hands,” the audience’s first response is not to look at their hands to see if they are dirty. The first response is to think, “This means something.” If the point I’m trying to make is really as straightforward as it sounds, I may need to change my presentation. If I just put on ordinary clothes, cut out the theatrics, and maybe motion to my hands or others’ hands, and say, “You all need to wash your hands,” there’s a much higher chance of that message getting across the first time. If I say, “A true cook doesn’t cook,” well, we know from that start that something about that is not quite right. But if I make it a Zen thing, if I say, “A true tenzo never cooks,” then that’s food for thought. That just feels true–not in spite of the fact that it makes no sense, but because of it. It’s even more fun if I change it to say something that has no connection to anything: “You cannot eat a sandwich until you forget the sandwich.”  A Zen student hearing that might chew on it for days, convinced not only that it’s meaningful, but that it must be true.

You can eat a sandwich, or you can forget a sandwich, but you can’t do both.

The other, more subtle, issue in this quotation is in the last line: “The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher.” All the various sexual scandals popping up these days should serve as reminders of the dangers of completely losing oneself (and one’s sense of agency) in the face of a manipulative teacher. That’s the truth of it, but again, that’s not really what’s being pointed to here. The message here is this: the practice is about you.

And that’s not true.

We get a hint of this earlier: “Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice….” But “my practice” is not Zen practice, not yet. If you are looking for a criterion by which to accept or reject a teacher, this is a good one: Is he practicing for himself? If he is — if the practice in which he is engaged is best described as “his practice” — then he is in no position to be teaching in the first place, whether he knows he’s doing it or not.

There are two basic ways to talk about the why of practice. The first is to say that we practice and offer that practice to all beings; the second is to say that we practice for the sake of practice, or even that we let practice practice. The second is harder than the first, but that doesn’t mean the first is easy.

The relationship between teacher and student is most definitely not about the teacher, but nor is it about the student. That’s a dangerous trap, one in which the student becomes the customer.  The teacher-student dynamic is exactly that: a dynamic. Not a transaction.  And that dynamic is about the practice. It’s about excluding nothing, expanding and challenging and including and transcending and offering — in all directions, including to each other.

It is an intentional dynamic. It may be messy and complicated, but it is not an accident. It is intimate, and it is mutual, and it is not, strictly speaking, personal. It’s bigger than “my” or “mine.”

To me, describing it any other way just doesn’t make any darned sense.

Hello my name is

Dōgen admonished his monks not to go back to their hometowns. “The old women,” he told them, “will call you by your childhood name.” In a week, I’ll visit my hometown for the first time in three and a half years, so this advice has been on my mind.

Dharma names are a tricky part of Zen. In my experience, most people are very excited to receive one, and once they do, they have no idea what to do with it. That uncertainty might be the whole point.

I received the name Kōun (幸雲) as part of my ordination ceremony. My teacher handed me a folded piece of paper, and I, kneeling before him, opened it, read it, and tried not to look disappointed. First, it means “happy cloud” — lots of people get names like “iron dragon,” or “compassion dragon,” or, well, anything with “dragon.” Happy Cloud is not exactly a power name. Second, I knew immediately that no one would be able to pronounce it. I get called a lot of things in the US, even by people to whom I’ve introduced myself: Koan is probably the favorite, followed by a more-than-occasional Koon. The best description I’ve found, over the years, is to say it’s like the “cone” in “ice cream cone,” but you have to stretch it out a little, like you’re from Mississippi.

In my case, my teacher didn’t put a lot of thought into the meaning of it. He took the kō from his own name, Kōsoku, and the un from the full name of his temple, Kiunzan Ganzōji. There’s a lot of talk about how a dharma name contains qualities to which you should aspire, or sometimes it’s a description of where you are, or maybe it’s a kind of personal koan. But my teacher’s approach was more like branding a cow. Koun means, “This is my boy.” That’s a fairly traditional way of doing it, though I think teachers tend to be a bit more poetic about it outside Japan. It’s not at all uncommon for teachers to take one character from their own name and include it in the names of all their disciples. Some people think that seems arrogant; others don’t give it a second thought. I think my teacher’s main reason for choosing the particular combination of characters he did — don’t get me started on how many cool names could have been made between his name and the temple name — was that 幸雲 is a perfect homonym for 幸運, which is a common word for “good fortune.” And that just seemed nice.

Kōun is not my first Dharma name. Twenty years ago, a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage named me “Source of Strength.” A few years after that, I received the precepts in Japan for the first time and was named Tōshin (透眞, penetrating truth). I never gave either much thought, and to my memory, no one ever asked me about them. They were invisible footnotes in my story. (I’m sometimes asked if it’s acceptable to receive the precepts more than once, or from different teachers. Yes, absolutely yes. If we’re really following the tradition, we renew the precepts monthly; and receiving the precepts from a teacher is a great way to establish a connection with him or her. Most teachers, if they know you already have a Dharma name, will not try to give you a new one, but most will also grant you a new one if that’s your wish.)

Even after being ordained, I couldn’t find it in myself to introduce myself as Kōun. I shaved my head from that point on, but I had no idea what I had done or what it all meant. I was a priest, but only on paper, only to a few people who knew. In the year following the ceremony, I sat with a group in Seattle, and no one ever knew I was ordained. I actually told a few of them, but I could see they didn’t think I understood what I was saying — they probably assumed I’d received lay ordination and was calling it “ordination,” that I had an inflated sense of it. I saw that reaction, but I wasn’t about to press the point. What would it have meant for me, with no outward signs (but one) of the priesthood, to insist to someone, “No, I really am a priest.” I wasn’t at all sure that I was one myself.

It wasn’t until I entered the monastery that I embraced being Kōun. While in training, of course, there was no choice — in that context, your Dharma name is your only name. But more importantly, in that context, there is only the function of being a monk. I knew, by the time I left the monastery, that part of becoming that function was adopting those outward signs. I had my name legally changed after I got to Alaska. …There are pages to be written about the various nuances of “ordained” and “lay,” but I think that distinction might come down to this: the priesthood is a public role. Spiritual responsibility of ordained and lay are the same; the vows are the same; zazen is the same. But the decision to ordain as a priest is an agreement to let the world watch you stumble through the practice, to keep those windows open all the time. It’s also an agreement to work, in that public role, to create a space of practice for others. And part of that space is a priest who does not apologize for being a priest, even if he thinks he’s a complete failure at it.

It’s difficult to tell, from this distance, how Dharma names are used in the US. I know of some priests who publicly go by their Dharma names, but I don’t know what they call themselves around friends and family. It seems that the most common approach is to use both one’s given name and the Dharma name together, as in Bob “Tetsuryu” Jones. And then there are priests who don’t use their Dharma name at all. That, to me, is unfortunate.

I encourage laypeople to go by their Dharma names in practice spaces (at the Zen center, or at sesshin), and to go by their given names everywhere else; I encourage priests to go by Dharma names all the time. Names confound us in ways that perfectly suit this practice.

When we get a new name, we think “Oh boy!” and we cling to it, whether we use it around others or not. We contract around it. We imagine that we got something special, and we obsess over the meaning and why that particular name was chosen for us by this particular person. It all seems so personal. But it’s not.

It’s not that you get a new name — it’s that the rug is pulled out from your old one. Nothing has been replaced, only lost. A name is a powerful thing. If your name is Susan, you’re probably always been Susan. That name is one of the first words you heard, one of the first words you learned to identify with a signifier. You most likely cannot imagine not being Susan. You know where Susan went to high school, who her best friends are, what she likes and what she avoids. You know Susan’s favorite color. You know how she walks, what flavor ice cream she always chooses. There’s a good chance that you know what Susan wants.

But if Susan is given the name Daiji, and if she uses it, suddenly there’s a disconnect. It’s jarring to be called by another name, especially when that name is attached to a particular practice, a specific way of being. Susan might always get mint chocolate chip, but Daiji doesn’t know what to order. Daiji and Susan are not really from the same place; they have a shared history, but Daiji’s is very short, very fresh in comparison (some priests celebrate their ordination day as their birthday — by that system, I’m a much younger man, with a much broader future). Daiji is all possibility. Specifically, Susan does not know how to live the precepts, how to fulfill vow. But that’s OK, because Daiji is the one who took on that responsibility, who was entrusted with saving all beings and cutting through all delusion. Daiji, if we’re lucky, might just see a way.

Again — Daiji did not replace Susan. But trying to authentically be Daiji makes it clear that Susan is not just Susan. Susan, too, is a story. This is transcendence — being Susan and Daiji, but also both, and neither. It doesn’t matter what “Daiji” means, not really. More often than not, that meaning is just an excuse to limit this new identity, to decide ahead of time what this new person is really all about. This is not about becoming your best self — that’s a fallacy. Nor is it about embodying a concept (like “great compassion”) that someone else has assigned to you (trying to be a happy cloud, for me, is not a useful exercise). It’s about moving beyond being this person or that person, about expanding beyond what any one individual can aspire to.

Offering yourself can only be a truly generous act if you first let go of your limited idea of that self. If you can’t do that — if you can only offer up who you think you know you are — then it’s a very small gift indeed.

This tradition offers up all sorts of opportunities for this. We first receive a new name when we receive the precepts; in some cases, it might happen again under a different preceptor. At ordination, we once again can receive a new name (though not all do). Some receive two names at ordination (functioning like a first and last name), but in many lineages, the second name (the last name) is not given to the student until the time of transmission. I see a lot of people in the US publicly using both names, but that isn’t a traditional approach. That second name, historically, is used only on very specific documents, mostly having to do with transmission of one kind or another. It’s almost a secret name. I love this because it means that at these critical moments when the teacher really needs to be fully present, to really empty her cup, she has this support, this other name that she uses so infrequently that she will probably never really get comfortable with it in her lifetime. It’s a way to pull the rug out from oneself when that is most needed.

Dōgen knew how much we need that fresh start, how valuable it is to simultaneously reinvent and deconstruct yourself in the name of serving others. He also knew that it was hard.  It’s basic human behavior to regress a little around our parents, no matter how old we or they are. It’s natural, walking the streets of one’s hometown after a long absence, to fall into the thought patterns of your high school self. These are the forces that define us, that defined us. So he warned his monks, and he was right. When I go home, it’s all too easy to slip into that skin, to inhabit the mind of the person I used to think I knew so well. The old women shout out my name, and I hear it as if I’ve never responded to anything else. It’s a reunion with my story about myself–“Wow,” I think, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

I will have the honor of sitting with the Open Circle Sangha in Helena, MT, on August 12, 19, and 26, 8:30-10am; I’ve generously been invited to speak on each of those days. I don’t know if any readers of this blog live in the area, but all are very welcome to attend. It would be a pleasure to meet you.