A changing sangha in a changing zendo Barry Magid April 24th 2021

I’ve talked many times about bringing together all our various self-states, to find a seat at the table as a way of bringing together all the different parts of ourselves even though we have come to practice trying to privilege one or two of the calmer or more joyful self-states at the expense of those that bear our vulnerability or sorrow or anger or anxiety. Following the work of Philip Bromberg, we’ve talked about how finding a place for all these self-states, even if that means tolerating conflict, is the way that we become whole, by ending dissociation.

Usually we give our attention here to those different self-states that we’ve invited to sit around the table, but today I think what I want to do is turn our attention to the table and chairs themselves, not so much who we’re inviting to sit in them but the setting we create to which they’re all invited. What are the table and chairs? Perhaps some of you grew up like I did in a certain kind of middle class family where in the home there was a formal dining room, a formal living room, and they were kept very orderly and clean and neat and no one ever went in there. They were almost entirely for display except on holidays when out-of-town relatives would come over. Ordinarily the family or the people in the neighborhood, when they came over, all sat around the kitchen table, or they’d sit in the den in chairs in front of the TV set.

I thought of that in terms of the kind of situation or setting we create for ourselves in practice. In a way, we inherited this very elaborate, formal set of furniture from our Asian ancestors, and yet it can be so perfect and sometimes exotic that it’s more to be admired than actually used. I think of that like the way I try to put Western psychology to daily use, whether it’s Bromberg or Benjamin or Kohut. These are the tools of my everyday practice as opposed to the sutras, which we make very little reference to, or even Dogen who we might bring out on special occasions. What we’re trying to do is fashion a usable sort of kitchen table we can all sit around rather than set up something that is for show or display in the way it uses what we’ve inherited as antiques from previous generations.

What we’re going to do at the sangha meeting later, is talk about what counts as a usable table and chair for us, both at our personal, individual inter-psychic level and at the level of sangha, what brings us all together. In one sense, this use of Zoom is a whole different set of table and chairs than anyone has ever brought out for company before. We’ve had to improvise, and it turns out the improvisation worked better than anybody expected. Part of what we have to think about is how we’re going to incorporate that into our everyday usage. It’s sort of like saying, I guess we’re going to put out all this patio furniture, so we have a place to sit outside since we seem to have a lot of neighbors who want to sit with us and they won't all fit around the kitchen table.

I think we have a great deal of latitude in designing our table and chairs, and that element is not something we should take for granted. Part of what we inherited was a model that said there really is one proper way to do this, one proper way to set up the furniture in Zen practice. That was a model based on Japanese monasticism and how the living arrangements for the monks and the situation of the zendo were all put together in a very certain way so the monks would sleep and eat and live in the zendo with very few possessions. Having to live in that kind of close quarters, having to live with very few if any what we would consider necessities, having very few possessions, having very few choices, living a very particular regimented, disciplined life, all of that was considered inseparable from the practice itself. It was the practice. The way you lived together was as important as sitting on the cushion. A big part of what has transformed Zen has been the idea that Yes, how you live is a crucial part of your practice, but you can practice with whatever way you’re living. You don’t have to live in a certain kind of disciplined, formal way in order to practice.

One way to think about this issue from the philosophical perspective is to say that if we thought there was such a thing as a single or universal human nature, we might imagine that there is a single technique for bringing about realization. And because human nature was thought to be something that was timeless and unchanging, was essentially the same now as it was in medieval Japan or India at the time of Buddha, that across all those cultures and all those thousands of years, human nature was essentially the same, then maybe you would say there’s one way of practicing that can stay the same wherever it was and whoever was practicing.

But a contemporary picture now, we could say, is to distinguish what’s almost a fantasy of a universal human nature from a complex, historically, culturally determined human situation that keeps changing, keeps evolving, and it’s a situation that we have to deal with, not some unchanging human nature. So how we practice, what’s going to bring about realization, is going to change with our situation and we have to figure out how it’s best to function where we are now. That gives us a great deal of latitude in how we design our table and chairs.

If you really look at a lot of the classics of Zen literature, you come across references to Buddha-nature as if it meant the equivalent of a permanent human nature, as if it was this unchanging essence of who we are. But I think that’s a misunderstanding of Buddha-nature. It’s a kind of category mistake. It’s describing things at a very different level. If we take as our touch-stone the title of Joan Stambaugh’s book that we’re going to be reading, “Impermanence is Buddha-nature,” then impermanence, meaning constant change, is the opposite of having any kind of unchanging, essential nature, and it’s a fact about everything in the world, a fact about rocks and trees, not just about people. And that means Buddha-nature is something closer to gravity than what used to be called human nature. It’s more a description of how the world works than a statement about people in particular.

Rather than a very general, abstract idea of impermanence, which you could say is a feature of physical matter, what we’re trying to deal with is something closer to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia or flourishing. What does it take for a human life to flourish, to be happy, to develop its capacities? Aristotle thought flourishing meant the development of particular virtues and he named them as courage and moderation and discernment. And even though they developed within a particular cultural framework, he tended to think of them as universals. Now we would look at his overall framework and maybe say, Yes, I agree that human happiness and flourishing is a by-product of developing our individual virtues or capacities, but the ones we develop may be very different from the ones he talked about. He spoke of justice, but he didn’t speak about mercy or compassion. We might have a very different set of virtues around the way we organize our life and become a whole and functioning person.

So I think what this means to me now is that we have both a great deal of latitude and a great deal of responsibility in the designing of the table and chairs. We’re not here simply to replicate what was done in Japan. We can use that as a model to some extent, so when we create a zendo like the one we have in New York, we set up an altar and cushions, and there are ways a person can walk into that and see the Japanese template behind it. Now as we sit, brought together by Zoom, each sitting in their own room, in their own home, that zendo model becomes more and more tenuous. We each may create a little piece of it at home. We have a little corner with our zafu and zabuton and maybe set up a home altar, but there’s really no predetermined model for how we’re going to do this.

What I hope we’re going to figure out is how to create an entirely new hybrid mode of practice, one that is in some sense de-centered. We’re going to, I hope, soon be able to reopen the zendo in New York. In some sense there will be a center of practice, and I can start giving talks again from there, for instance, but in many important ways, I think the center of gravity has shifted, and I hope when we reopen we can take account of that and figure out how to really engage with the fact that the majority of our sangha now is spread out across the world. Just in terms of numbers, the center is no longer where it used to be.

I think it’s an exciting time, full of new possibilities, but the temptation in a way will be to just revert to what we did before, and I think we need to do our best to respect what has gone before and find a way to genuinely make it new for the coming year.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid April 11th 2021 Am I a Buddhist?

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