When I wandered into Ordinary Mind Zendo two years ago my history with Zen was such that I thought I was over and done with it - or perhaps more aptly, that it had finished with me. Its orthodoxy was the problem. In its place I had taken up Vipassana practice and until I got seriously ill that practice had sufficed. But it turned out that neither my practice, nor my insight proved sufficient to deal with the level of pain and loss I encountered with life-altering, incurable illness. To sum up my years of illness, I found that as with my sojourn with Zen, orthodox medicine had little to offer me. And since I didn’t die, I found myself living a life spent seeking treatments and good doctors to help me get better. Through it I learned that the only thing better than a good doctor is no doctor and, as I had foreclosed on Zen, I thought that the only good teacher was no teacher. So imagine my surprise; meeting a Zen teacher with whom I could relate who is a doctor and a psychoanalyist. How orthodox can one get?
When I became strong enough to sit again, at first sitting two hours on Saturday mornings was a challenge, not to mention grappling with illness induced allergies to dust, incense, mold…. Pretty much everything in the environment was hazardous to my health. But Barry‘s patience and allowance for my limits were fundamental to gaining trust in both my practice and his teaching. Then came the shock of bowing practice. I loved it! I had simply put up with it when I went through Jukai training in the 80’s; I thought of it as good exercise, physical and mental, a sort of endurance training. But then there were all those Daiosho’s, the hundred or so names of patriarchs we chanted along with our one hundred bows every morning - not a woman among them.
I came to Zen, originally, through loss; a death in my family and the end of a relationship occurred simultaneously in my 27th year and drove me deep into questioning, as well as back to music, which had always been a refuge in my life. My experience of Zen was always a bit of a rude awakening; still, from the late 1970s through the early 80s, my desire and need to practice outweighed the difficulties and abuses I saw in American Zen. Nevertheless, the abundance of sexual and alcohol abuse, sexism, and power games made Zen look to me like an ‚institute for the preservation of obsolete ideas.‘ Then I landed in Japan.
While my experience in Japan vindicated my suspicion that the emphasis on form and ritual in the States was mistaking the finger for the moon, nevertheless, the institutionalized gender inequities were so ingrained I despaired of it ever changing. Consequently, I developed a sort of allergy to the orthodoxy of formal practice, ritual, and liturgy. I left Zen in stages when I returned from Japan, and studied Vipassana, which as brought to this country, seemed a tad less encumbered by cultural baggage. Nevertheless, it was still Buddhism, still an “ism.” I realized then that I had a congenital allergy to ‘isms‘. And I felt that my opinion was supported by tradition. Sawaki Roshi said that “To follow any “ism” is to be bigoted.”
So I practiced with others but without a specific teacher, doing retreats and sesshin with many people, many places - until I got sick and one of the first manifestations of my illness was becoming “allergic” to everything, most foods, dust, mold, chemicals of all kinds, medications, the “air”, fumes in things most of us don’t know exist. The list is infinite. And the metaphor of being “allergic” to life was not lost on me. Everything made me sick. My immune system collapsed and that mechanism within us which helps us to separate from and ward off things that ail or trouble us also collapsed. There was a point at which I had to make a decision to live, so unbearable was life. Barry says that practice makes the unbearable bearable. But I couldn’t practice. Luckily I had practiced and I had the memory of it which motivated me to survive and return to it in whatever manner of practice I could accomplish. In my early years of practice, during my first dokusan with Maizumi Roshi, he inquired after my life, what I did with myself, my time. I said I was trying to accomplish the cello. His response to that effort was that I “should accomplish myself.” His pointing to the mind striving for accomplishment didn’t really take root in me then though, I kept at it, thinking there was somewhere to go, something to get, have and accomplish in life. But Maizumi’s words swam around in my head over and again through the first years of my illness so that now, my life koan has become more about what happens when loss overtakes our lives, our selves? Dogen said “to study Buddhism is to study the self.“ Sawaki Roshi said “to study Buddhism is to study loss.“ Even Tai Chi Master Chung Man Cheng in the school of Tai Chi I study in said we must “Invest in loss.“
I actually have Shaheryar to thank for instigating my taking Jukai with Barry. Last sesshin here at Garrison after his Jukai ceremony I went in to dokusan with my usual harumph, saying that when I came to Zen I had nothing, now after all these years I have all of it left; I hadd sat three Tankaryo, countless sesshin, and done Jukai training, study of sutras and precepts, blah, blah.… and where did any of it get me? I thought my meaning was clear; all this stuff is useless in the face of the great buggers of life: illness, aging and death. But Barry’s response was one of those perfectly simple, on-the-mark comments he makes without much ado; “I’ll give you Jukai”, he said. “It’ll be our way of cementing our relationship.” Cement aside, (I prefer more natural metaphors like, cultivating soil, planting seeds,) I took him up on the offer - I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Nevertheless my first response to taking Jukai at this point of my life was that I didn’t want one of those Buddhist bibs (rakusu) branding me as a member of one group and not of another. In my mind distinguishing myself as a Buddhist created unnecessary differences between myself and others. Qualifying as disabled was quite enough ‘difference‘ for one lifetime, thank you very much. And surviving a small town upbrining in WASP Middle America where being different from the majority meant ostracism was lesson enough in the limits imposed by group hegemony. Fortunately, the 1960s broke open some of that stasis for me; the fostering of our culture of individualism was a welcome social change. But consequently I seem laden with a ‘not-a-member-itis‘ kind of allergy.
Now that I have officially become a Buddhist, I have to grapple with being one and what it means to me, and about how Sawaki Roshi said that religion is not a concept, but a practice. So I’m viewing this step as an opportunity to further my practice, rather than as joining something that separates and defines. Nevertheless, I do seem to be looking this gift horse in the mouth and at Barry’s unique way of embodying and teaching the Dharma. In addition to Barry’s kind and compassionate example, Sawaki’s teaching is helping me here too. Sawaki Roshi said that “we don’t practice zazen in order to get enlightened; we practice zazen being pulled every which way by enlightenment.” While I don’t know much about enlightenment, I like this view because being pulled every which way is my experience of life, and its my experience of practice.
Jukai means taking the precepts. It is difficult not to see them as the ‚Thou-Shalt-Nots‘ of my native religion, Christianity. Yet the more I practice with them, the more they seem like pathways to practice, ways to contain my self-as-it-is, to help me refrain from getting too carried away by the deeply conditioned reactivity we label as self. That the four central precepts focus on speech is important to me, as they provide significant information about what keeps me bound to and obsessed by my conditioning. The speech part of body-speech-mind, seems to reflect the central aspect of the Buddha-Dharma-Sangha trinity. The more I give myself to the precepts, the more I see how the behavior they encourage me to refrain from helps me to turn toward something else, which to borrow Stephen Batchelor’s phrase, feels like “The ethics of empathy.“ These precepts help me to see the importance of language and how out of fear, we foreclose on dialogue, honesty, and clarity because we lack trust in our shared self.
My years of illness and solitude have made me see things differently, especially how we are all in this life thing together, that unless we die young (which already excludes some of us here) none of us escape the rogues of illness, aging and death. After all, most of us come to practice because of a sense of separateness, of injury, or loss. Its very painful. But we are in it together. I‘m fond of acronyms as mneumonic devices, so I think of these three rogues (aging, illness and death) as how we each have a form of AIDS, in the vein of Vimalakirti who said he was sick because humanity was sick, and that he would be well when humanity got well. When my favorite cellist, Jaqueline DuPré, was dx with MS, she joked that she had a fatal illness but just a light case of it. Her humor in light of the gravity of her loss was a lesson for me. Its like Sawaki Roshi said “The life in which you are glared at by zazen, scolded by zazen, obstructed by zazen, pulled by zazen, and get along with tears in your eyes is the happiest life, isn’t it?”
Lest all this talk of illness, aging and death emphasize only the difficulty of practice and create discouragement -- what motivates me so thoroughly to return to practice is the sole reason that it brings a lightness to life that makes it not only very bearable, but rich. Practice allows access to something deeper than all the vagaries of those unavoidable rogues; it is a wellspring that once tapped is always there and can be dipped into and drawn from to nourish ourselves and others. It is astounding.
When I was first studying Zen in the White Plum Lineage in which Joko Beck was ordained and received transmission, there was much talk about “joriki“, a kind of personal power generated by Zen practice; yet it was the abuse of power in human relations in that Sangha that discouraged so many of us in our practice back then. During the years in which I was too ill to practice much I read a great deal to compensate, and I ran across the word “tariki,“ a concept more often heard in Pure Land Buddhism. It translates as the power of other. The two concepts are for me complimentary ideas which point to why Sangha is so important, why the four central precepts concerning speech mean so much, how the field of language is such an important means through which we interact, and how it is a power that can be used to disconnect as much as to connect with each other. I must apologize for quoting others so much, but I’m going to do it once again, because it is the wisdom and compassion of others that guide me. Sawaki Roshi said “One cannot maintain oneself by oneself. Only when one gives up the idea of “I“ will one naturally become the self which is connected with the universe.“