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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