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This Dharma, incomparably profound, and minutely subtle, looks like me Barry Magid August 8th 2011

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After years of talking to many many people, I'm still amazed that we make such a problem of our life in practice. And there is no problem. But saying that is one thing, seeing it quite another.

The last words of the Buddha were - "Be a lamp unto yourself."

He didn't say go running to this teacher or that teacher, to this center or that center. He said look, "Be a lamp unto yourself."

What I want to discuss here is the problem of authority. Usually we're either an authority to others telling them what to do or we're seeking someone to be an authority for us, telling us what to do. And yet we would never be

We think we need to go to a teacher or an authority to tell us what to do. I'm always amused that when a new teacher comes to town, everyone goes running to see him or her. I'll tell you how far I'd walk to see a new teacher - maybe across the room, no father.

It isn't because I have no interest in this person. It is just that there is no one who can tell me about my life except who? There is no authority outside my own experience.

But you may say "Well I need a teacher who can free me from my suffering. I'm hurting and I don't understand it. I need someone who can tell me what to do, don't I?" NO. You may need a guide. You may need it made clear how to practice with your life. What is needed is a guide who will make it clear to you, but the authority in your life, your true teacher, is you. And we practice to realize this you.

There is only one teacher. What is that teacher? Life itself. And of course each one of us is a manifestation of life. We couldn't be anything else. Now life happens to be both a severe and an endlessly kind teacher. It's the only authority you need to trust. And this teacher, this authority is everywhere. You don't have to go to some special place to find this incomparable teacher. You don't have to have some especially quiet or ideal situation. In fact the messier it is, the better. The average is a great place. The average home is perfect. Such places are pretty messy most of the time. We all know from first hand experience. That's where the authority is, the teacher is.

This is a very radical teaching, not for everyone.
People often turn away from such a teaching. They don't want to hear it. What do they want to hear? What do you want to hear?

Until we're ready, which usually means until we've suffered and are willing to learn from the suffering, we're like baby birds in a nest. What do baby birds do? They open their mouths upward and wait to be fed. And we say "Please! Stuff your wonderful teaching into me. I'll hold my mouth open, but you put it in." What we are saying is "When will Mommy and Daddy come? When will a great teacher, a supreme authority come and stuff me with that which will end my pain, my suffering." The news is Mommy and Daddy have already come. Where are Mommy and Daddy? Right here. Our life is always here. But since my life may look to me like discomfort, even dreariness, loneliness, depression, if I were actually to face that - life as it is, who would want that? Almost no one. But when I can begin to experience this very moment, the true teacher. When I can honestly be each moment of my life. What I think, feel, this experience will settle itself into just this - the joyful samadhi of life. The Word of God. And that is Zen practice, and we don't even have to use the word Zen.

This Mommy and Daddy we are waiting for are already here. Right here. We can't avoid the authority even if we want to. When we go to work it's right there. When we're with our friends it's right there. When we're with our family it's right there. Do Zazen constantly. Pray constantly. If we understand that each moment of our life is the teacher we can't avoid doing that. If we truly are each moment of our life, there is no room for an outside influence or authority. Where could it be? When I am just my own suffering, where is the authority? The attention, the experiencing is the authority. And it is also the clarification of the action to be done.

There's one final little illusion we all tend to play with in this question of authority. And it is "Well I'll be my own authority thank you, nobody's going to tell me what to do." What's the fallacy in this? I'll be my own authority. I'll develop my own concepts about my life. My own ideas about what Zen practice is. We're all full of this nonsense.

If I attempt to be my own authority in this narrow sense, I'm just as much a slave as if I let someone else be the authority. But if you're not the authority and I'm not the authority, then what? We've already talked about this but if it's not understood clearly we may be floundering in quicksand. How do you see it?

Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck

This sesshin is dedicated to the life and teaching of Charlotte Joko Beck, who passed away on June 15th at the age of 94. I’d like to begin this memorial to her by reading some of her own works from Everyday Zen. This is the section called “Authority,” pages 15-17.

I chose that section, in part, not because it’s the essence of her teaching but simply because for me I most hear her voice in those words. I think I literally remember her giving that talk back in the ‘80s, but after all this time my memory and my imagination are indistinguishable. After so many years it’s also pretty hard for me to remember what Joko said and to remember what I said. But I thought it was appropriate to read what she said on the question of authority as we’re in a week in which we will be giving preliminary teaching authorization to three students here, and to reflect a little on what that process is about.

Here, she’s very much saying, you absolutely have to be your own authority; your own experience is the ground of your practice. But in this edition of the book they add an interview she gave in Tricycle later. They asked her, How did you begin to practice? She said, Well, I had a pretty good life, but I was asking myself is that all there is? And I saw this fellow Maezumi Roshi was giving a talk in this local church and I went to hear him. When each person came in he looked each person right in the eye and he made contact with them. And my immediate reaction was, Boy! I want what he has! So I think that that’s the other side of this question of authority or idealization -- that we all inevitably need to have something happen that opens up a gate of possibility to us, a sense that there’s more that we might have imagined for ourselves, that there’s someone who we wish to emulate in some way and we realize it’s only through real practice that we’re going to be able to do that.

So we need that figure in our life. But once we’re connected to a teacher, that idealization can cut in a lot of different ways that we have to be careful about. That initial contact with Maezumi inspired Joko to begin a life of practice. But there are many times what happens when we idealize a teacher is that we just create a great gap between ourselves and the teacher, and that’s what she’s talking about with the baby birds waiting for mommy and daddy to drop the worm of the dharma down their throats. A lot of teachers sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, collude with this whole transferential experience of He’s got it, I don’t. Now the basic teaching is nothing that anyone has and you don’t. The paradox is that we don’t believe it and somehow we have to be taught or led into a practice to make that genuine for ourselves.

When Joko did dokusan, she had the altar set up on the wall behind her and when people came in to do their bows, she would explain, you’re not bowing to me, you’re bowing to the Buddha behind me. Well, I’ve thought about that, and I think that when students come in to dokusan, it’s important that you bow to me, not to the abstract Buddha on the wall. It’s not because I enjoy being bowed to more than a little bit, it’s because there is a very important piece of business in trying to come to terms with the fact that this dharma, incomparably profound and minutely subtle, looks like this [laughter]. I just know it’s not what anybody had in mind. And that’s what makes it good to practice with, because if there’s anybody who looks less like the embodiment of the dharma than me, it’s you [laughter]. And that’s what we all struggle with. We can’t really believe that we are this authority. We have to in some way come to terms with the fact that if there’s going to be a dharma, there’s going to be a teacher, and it’s going to be right here and right now, in whatever form we ourselves manifest.

Now one of the things that’s been a big transition in American Zen is that we’ve gone largely from a generation of Asian teachers to a generation of American teachers, and those teachers like Maezumi and some of those first generation Asian teachers could be very charismatic, very inspiring, but they also could create an enormous gap, a sense of beings in a different order. For a lot of people it made it very hard to really believe that the dharma could be truly transmitted because whoever the American successor was, they were never like the original. Right? I think in any sangha, when it’s time for dharma transmission, you hear these undercurrents in the background: Who -- her? I remember in San Diego that when Joko was giving dharma transmission, every time everybody said, That person’s no Joko. Well, that’s right. But every time we find ourselves bumping up against the sense that that ordinary person can’t possibly be the real thing, it’s something we’re really projecting about ourselves as well, a deep doubt that we ourselves could ever be the real thing.

Now, Joko tells us, you have to be your own authority, and what do people do? They start quoting Joko: You’ve got to be your own authority. They turn everything she wrote into the gospel. Well, she was a great teacher, but we don’t do her any service by taking her books and treating them as holy writ. There are lots of things that she was very wise about and there were areas where I think she could use a little improvement. She was wonderful teaching people how to work with the problems in relationship. She wasn’t very good in talking about why anyone would really want love in their life, and what relationship was for, except to practice with it. So we best follow her teaching if we don’t idealize her but if we actively engage what she said, if we really test it out for ourselves and test it out in our own experience.

She really transformed the face of American Zen in no small part by making it the face of a woman and a mother. She really embodied in many ways ordinariness, American-ness, not trying to model herself on her Japanese teachers, not trying to create a little model of a Japanese temple in the suburbs of San Diego. The Zen Center was as non-descript a place as you can imagine, a track house in the suburbs of Pacific Beach in San Diego. You could drive by it a hundred times and never recognize it as anything special. She really taught us that our practice has to be found in our own lives, in our own emotional reality. It’s not about connecting to someone special who’s going to touch us on the forehead, not about having some special experience that’s going to suddenly make us Japanese. It’s really being yourself and that means really being honest about all the ways we’ve rejected and run away and pushed away our own experience as inadequate, damaged, not it. All those places is where she would say, that’s where you find the absolute, in everyday life, just being your fear, just being your anger, just being your avoidance. It’s always right there, right now. Let us honor her memory not by venerating her words but doing our best to embody her practice.

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