My Zen story began with a little booklet that I picked up years ago by an American Zen teacher whom I had never heard of before – nor had I heard of any other Zen teacher for that matter. Her name was Joko Beck. It was a small collection of dharma talks and one of them struck me as particularly powerful. She wrote about how we all would like to get rid of something: our anxiety, our old car, our in-laws, our depression. All these things we don’t want to deal with. And then she said: What if we are already free? What if we don’t have to get rid of all these things, but can be happy the way they are?
I remember, I was sitting on a train that day, and when I walked home, somehow my shoulders felt straighter and my steps were firmer on the ground. And although the term “freedom” at the time wasn’t much more than a symptom of attachment disorder, somehow her words stayed with me. That was ten years ago, when I still lived in Germany. Before I walked away, searching for something, but not knowing what. Since then, I got myself a new husband, a brand new career and a whole new country. So much for “no gain”.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later until I actually started to practice. I had decided that I wanted to be a therapist and for some reason I knew that I wanted my own therapist to be a Buddhist. At the time Barry’s first book had just come out, and this is how I found him. He encouraged me to practice and to come to the Zendo. And I did. I remember the first time I went to the Zendo. It was a very strange experience because nobody talked! Not just during the sitting, but not before or afterwards either. I fled from there thinking, what a bunch of weirdos! It took me another year to go back and another while to feel somewhat at ease there.
During those years my practice revolved around one thing: Our teacher. He seemed to represent the perfect role model for everything you need: how to be the perfect father, teacher, husband, spiritual counselor, psychoanalyst, supervisor… I even had a dream once that he was Jesus, standing there in a purple robe, raising his arms as if he was about to go to heaven! So great was the need for an idealizable role model at the time. And he let me see all these things in him. Because that’s what teachers do, and therapists. You identify with something larger than your own frightened, fragile self and you are inspired by it, and you grow and gradually live up to it.
The reason I started to practice was Barry. I wanted to be around him, so some of his wisdom would somehow rub off on me. I wanted to learn from him as much as I could. That was my “secret practice” as he calls it. And the same thing happened when I wanted to become jikido. I said to him, I’d like to do it, but I have to question my own motives. The only reason I am interested is because it makes me at least look like I am your number one student. On a side note, the other reason was because I wanted to outpace Curtis, who I thought was about to cut in in front of me. And he just shrugged and said that may be as it is, but chances are that this way you’ll get a lot of hours of practice in. And I did. So the whole reason for all this was initially because I thought if I am around him I could be like him, and somehow become him.
That fantasy has died in the realities of life. And with it many of the expectations I had of what person I needed a teacher to be. That I would have to make my own sense of all this. That he can’t fix me, but can only point me in the right direction and hope that it will turn out all right. That I had to be responsible for myself. And in the midst of the collapse of all those air castles – delusions would be the proper Buddhist term – something strange and wonderful happened. I knew that I wasn’t going to quit. That somehow in all these years the dharma had caught up with me and pulled me back in when I wanted to run away, and that I found comfort and guidance in it.
The other thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to leave the Sangha. That somehow over all these years I had gotten attached to this group of odd people. That I didn’t want to miss Claire’s hugs, Shaheryar’s laughter, Rich’s witty cracks or Gene’s crooked smile. And I knew that I didn’t want to miss our teacher’s insightful talks.
When I looked at all this, I realized that the roots of my practice and the meaning it has to me lies in something I always deemed very traditional and formal, just like koans and the ancestors I found hard to relate to. It was the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. That I didn’t have to go and find another zendo, another teacher in another town or another country. That everything was right here. That I was already home.
When I prepared for this talk I started to do some research into the Ten Precepts. So I googled “10 precepts” and “Zen”, and one of the things that came up was an essay by a renegade teacher named Cheri Huber. She tried to make the precepts that can sound somewhat harsh and punishing more accessible to regular people. Two of them I found especially touching. One was the Seventh Precept, do not lie, which she made into: There is no need to hide the truth. That we can be whoever we are and not be ashamed of our needs and shortcomings. And the Third Precept, no misuse of sexuality, which she rephrased into: There is no scarcity of love.
And that is what it is really all about. It’s not about being the best and brightest, or the most experienced, or tough or pretty, whatever you want to be to stick out and be special. It’s about being together. If we open our minds and hearts, we can find attention and affection everywhere. In fact, it could be the next best guy right next to you on his cushion, who could turn out to be a lot of fun and make you feel cherished and cared for. There is no scarcity of love. We will always have each other.