Where do you think real Zen is happening? Barry Magid January 13th 2013

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Last week I was attending a meeting of the LZTA, the Lay Zen Teachers Association, which was held up in Garrison. It was their fourth annual meeting. I thought I would tell you a little about that meeting and what that organization represents and why I am a part of it.

Its mission statement says that the member teachers affirm the belief that the dharma can be fully practiced and realized and transmitted in lay life. This is a somewhat controversial and in some areas even radical idea for those who trained monastically or residentially and for whom that form of practice is not only the most effective means to the end of realization but for whom that life itself is the manifestation, the expression of realization. This was an idea you would find in Dogen, in the same way that zazen itself is not a technique for producing realization but is an expression of realization for many people. The extension of that idea is that the life of the monk is the full expression of that realization.

As lay teachers we fully realize and express a bodhisattva ideal being in the world, going about our lives, doing our jobs, connecting with our friends and family, and we have to be able to see and maintain and realize the dharma in every context. When we chant at the beginning of these dharma talks: “This dharma is rarely encountered,” part of the reason it’s rarely encountered is that we habitually believe it can only be encountered somewhere else. We all carry around some idealized picture of where the real thing is taking place, whether it’s in some monastery or in Japan or on some mountain top, some esoteric setting with some stereotypically idealized Asian master. One of the great obstacles to truly realizing the dharma is to be able to experience it fully here and now and see yourself as its manifestation.

The Lay Zen Teachers group arose about five years ago. It came about because a lot of people were trained in residential centers that were oriented around monastic practice and priestly practice, where priest and monastic were categories that got blurred, the idea being that if you were truly committed to the dharma you left home, shaved your head, and put on robes to live residentially. It was fine for laymen to practice, but if they were serious they would come live at the Zen center. Even though people eventually became teachers in traditions like that of Shunryu Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center, as lay teachers they were not fully empowered to transmit the dharma. In many ways they were given lots of work to do in terms of teaching and organization and running the center, but they couldn’t transmit. We’d call them Zen mules. They could do all the work but they couldn’t reproduce.

So in part this organization started out with an attempt at mule liberation, to give such folks full empowerment. But the organization has grown considerably since then. There are now sixty-five teacher members, and much of the growth has been expanding to centers like ours which are completely free-standing. They aren’t affiliates of any monastic training center, and many of these new people take for granted that teachers in these free-standing centers are fully empowered dharma teachers, and they don’t realize what has gone on in some of the monastic centers in terms of equality among different kinds of teachers. Part of what is wonderful to see happening in these meetings are all the different forms of teaching taking place now -- getting away from this kind of stereotypical Zen master in the monastery model as the sole way of teaching, and realizing that people teach in a whole variety of ways out in the world, some of which look very different from the old forms.

One of the real challenges of being a lay teacher, being a student of a lay teacher, is to really believe deep in your bones the truth of that mission statement -- that the dharma can be fully practiced, realized and transmitted right here, in a place like this, where nobody is shaving their heads and wearing robes and living monastically. Can we ourselves really believe that this is the real thing? Or do we always project that idea of the real thing somewhere else, somewhere that conforms more to our image of what it should look like? Unfortunately it’s always elusive and never looks like us.

I was corresponding for a while with a young man, a graduate student who was doing some research. He had practiced for a while in Vipassana modes and with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village model, but then he wrote me he had just attended his first Rinzai sesshin in a monastery, and it was like nothing he had ever done before, you know, like getting up at 3:00 am and sitting with all the incredible rigor through an enormous amount of pain, but at the end of that week, he had experiences of great surrender and joy and the oneness of all things, he was just all gaga about that experience, and he said, Boy, I never had anything like that when I was doing all that gentle walking and mindfulness stuff. This must really be it!

What I tried to discuss with him was whether we were forever going to see the point of Zen as inducing certain kinds of states of consciousness in ourselves. If you want to do that, if you think that the point of practice is an incredible endorphin rush, then that kind of practice is more likely to induce it intensely. The dilemma is what happens the day after the sesshin ends and day the after that and the day after that and the day after that. What about how that kind of practice gets translated into how you live the rest of your life? Where does that joy go? How is it going to be there when you’re not pushing yourself into this kind of extremity?

In a certain sense, what we try to define here and what we’re going to do even more explicitly in our next sesshin at Garrison, is try to understand what post-enlightenment practice looks like. What is it after you’ve had one of your intense joyful moments? How do you carry that forward? What does it mean to not always be trying to make that happen, but live as if it’s already happened, live as if non-separation, impermanence, emptiness and joy in this moment are available whatever we’re doing, not just when we’re pushing ourselves to some extreme in order to have an intense experience?

The kind of practice that we do here is intended to stay on the cusp of our everyday life, to give us a chance to practice in a steady, rigorous way, pretty much every day with a sesshin every month and longer ones many times a year, but in a way that stays closely connected to the routines of your daily life, that doesn’t split it off into -- well, someday I’ll have a chance to go away and I’ll go live residentially for a while and I’ll do a month somewhere. Some of you have had a chance to do that, and that’s fine. But this is all about what you do afterwards. How do you carry it forward into the rest of your life? We really want this to be something that is ongoing and sustainable, not just something that a bunch of twenty-five year olds can do when they can sit in lotus sixteen hours a day, but something that sixty-year-olds can do, one decade after another throughout their lives. How do we keep that going? How do we keep the dharma manifesting in the life we’re actually living?

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