The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

Marc Poirier - Denkai Marc Poirier August 9th 2011

Download Talk

Good evening. I hope you’re comfortable and that’s a silly thing to say at the end of a sesshin. I often find the last day or so of a sesshin things let go a little bit and I’m actually a little more comfortable than I am on days three and four. It’s very important to be still during sesshin, but if you find yourself distractedly uncomfortable, please do something to make yourself more comfortable.

I’d like to start by being still and listening for a moment . . . . . . .

That’s the way I always wanted to start a talk, but I was so taken with the sounds that come from outside that I wanted us to appreciate them, but also to notice there’s a question: What is it? What do we call that? We don’t have a place where we could say -- Oh that’s some crickets, some frogs, and maybe a little train sounds, and waterfalls. That doesn’t begin to match what we hear in this moment, in this moment, in this moment.

I find this particularly helpful, maybe being as I was trained as a musician among other things. Paying attention with all our senses as fully as we can in each moment seems to me the basis of practice. It is also, I think, the basis of compassion. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, hears the cries of the world and responds. So that’s my understanding.

I want to say two things in a preliminary way. First of all, Barry, I want to say this means a lot to me. It may well change my life because I will respond to it, and I have this odd feeling which I didn’t think I’d have, being entrusted with something, like this woman comes up to me and says, would you please watch my child who is very precious to me and I’ll be back in two thousand years? And then she leaves and now what? What do I do? How do I respond? As I think about the teaching that has begun to manifest in my life, not that I set out to do something, but there’s some need that needs to be met, and I’ll describe more about that later. Somehow it’s about taking care of myself and responding to a need which may require stopping for a year or two or three and doing something while I do something else. I think, Barry, you may be pointing me to the fact that I need to give some thought to get over certain phobias about place and regularity, where I may be able to contribute or I may not.

Having the title,Teacher, already changes things. I told my colleague I was going to be recognized as a Zen teacher, and she burst out laughing, remembering certain temper tantrums ten or fifteen years ago. Other people are trying to help me be a good teacher. I remember one guy, who, I think this was a couple of years ago at a conference -- I’m a law professor -- and this was a conference about law and religion, and some of us went out to dinner to honor the people who traveled from far away, and I ordered lamb chops. This guy next to me, who is a fundamentalist, and who believed very very strongly, he said to me,You can’t eat that! You’re a Buddhist! It’s also useful, for example, thanks to Barry, I started speaking about once a semester to the Columbia University Buddhist Association and I went to a picnic where I met a Korean Buddhist, I think she’s priest, or nun actually, living on the upper East Side, and I had no card. I could give her my law professor card, so the first time I spoke there I downloaded some of the Ordinary Mind webpage because we don’t have a brochure, and I took that to serve as some kind of greeting card or, if you want to find out more, here’s where you go. So having a title may be useful.

One of the things I may be doing, actually part of a proposal to teach contemplative practice to lawyers for continuing legal education credit, it will be helpful if I can pull that off in New Jersey, to say I’m a recognized Zen teacher. Little do they know what kind of scandal Ordinary Mind Zen is, although people are persuaded by Joko’s books and by Barry’s books. It’s very helpful. I keep a stack of them around, actually, give them to people if they want to know what I’m doing. Whether I write books or not, I don’t know. I really haven’t given many dharma talks, I’ve done a fair amount of speaking at this point, but it’s almost all through talks.

One is basic instruction in meditation with Q & A and the other, which has been developed specifically to deal with my colleagues, my law students, my law professor colleagues, lawyers, and I’m speaking now to a contemplative lawyers quote unquote, group in New York City and I’m basically taking over their program. The short version is to show up and slow down because. professional people are way too busy, way too aggressive to notice this, to notice this, to notice this. They just don’t. Accordingly, while they may achieve or think they achieve a lot, they miss, and they miss not only both the suffering and the joy of every moment, but they also miss the opportunities to take care of those they love and to take care of themselves.

I’ve had conversations with one work colleague who’s very accomplished and nationally recognized, it was a call for somebody to take on a special project at this school and she volunteered, and I said, Rachel, why in God’s name did you do that? You just told me that you’ve been diagnosed with an ulcer, you’ve given up wine and even chocolate for six months, you told me your child has told her teacher she doesn’t know who her mommy is, and here you are running around achieving. This is not good. I see in the Contemplative Lawyers’ Group, and in retreats I’ve done, that I’ve participated in which were specifically aimed at law professionals, this same kind of disconnect between what people need and what people are able to offer, and a certain kind of greed more than anything else. Now this is not the gravely ill or those suffering war and famine, or so on, so perhaps this is perhaps a stupid ass approach to teaching, but these are the people I encounter, and therefore they are the people who seem to be waiting for me to help them. So that seems to be what I’ve blundered into.

Let me say just a little bit more about what I seem to be doing now. Then maybe I can acknowledge some past teachers who helped me. Actually, in terms of doing something that points toward Buddhism, the first thing that happened was that I was one of the people who organized a gay and lesbian monthly Buddhist group at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York in 1994. That was the result of an unbelievable debacle at Zen Mountain Monastery. I don’t remember, Jikyo, if you were there or not, when they had this four day lesbian and gay retreat -- I’m not sure I should mention the names of the people they invited. Bobby Rhodes had little to do with this, she just caught the shit end of the reaction. The other guy was this very well known Tibetan translater and professor but he was clueless about lesbian feminism and he started off on the wrong foot by saying that gay men are called sissies, and that comes from the word sister and so therefore we’re all sisters. Then the real faux pas -- Anne’s laughing already -- he tried to adapt Tibetan tantric practice involving him envisioning an erotic act of homosexuality, and while I won’t go into detail, when we got into the sperm of the Buddha, five of the lesbian feminists got up and left. It went downhill from there. Bobby missed by some act of God by not being a real lesbian because she wasn’t political enough, She said, Yeah, I live with a woman, but I don’t want to be identified as a teacher of lesbians. I want to be a Zen teacher, which I think is a perfectly respectable position.

So I said, something’s got to be done, because in the zendo I was in at the time -- I sat with Shambhala a lot -- and I studied Pali canon and the kamma sutra with someone else. There were always these isolated gay and lesbian people because you came and you sat and you went home. That wasn’t so good. On the other hand there were a lot of gay and lesbian people -- and I’m leaving out bi-sexual and queer and transgender because there just weren’t words at the time in the 90s that were used for this stuff. But religion was viewed as the enemy in that population so there were a lot of people who were looking for something but would never think of meditating or Buddhism.

So I and other people in Shambhala and with Sogyal Rinpoche, and some Vietnamese Zen woman teacher and eventually insight meditation, we just started having a monthly meeting where we invited teachers and senior students to come and talk. It was under the supervision of Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Eric Spiegel, who was an openly gay acharya in the Shambhala lineage. We did that for twelve years with success and then gradually it became less important, and there was a group formed called Queer Dharma. It was 30 somethings. I thought it was mostly dharma talks, but they had dinner parties, and that was the end of that crew. Somewhere in there I was very sick and I’ll talk more about that.

One of my colleagues at work found meditation. Carl had lost his boyfriend and he found meditation, it was wonderful and everybody needed to meditate, so we got permission to run a meditation group at my school once a week in the chapel. It’s a Catholic school, they have a very Vatican II chaplain, and that’s cool, then Carl found a new boyfriend and he says, I’m not doing meditation any more. I said, You can’t do that! You can’t hold this out and take it back as if it doesn’t mean anything. So I took it over. I was doing this once a week. The deal was I could say I was Zen, and I taught them under Myotai who wasn’t formally my teacher because Daido was formally my teacher but Myotai was the one who knew me. I saw Daido just before he died, and he smiled at me, or several us, when I saw him to get permission to study with Barry. He said, you know I have 800 students and I thought, and 7 out of 50 of them if they came up to you and said I love you, you wouldn’t know who they were. So I was one of those people who really had to remind him who I was. That’s partly because I refused to go into residence, but that’s a little bit later in the talk.

Anyway, Myotai said you can give basic instruction and answer questions from your own experience but you’re not a teacher. Don’t teach the dharma. So I come to Barry, we meet up -- and I’ll say something about my first month with Ordinary Mind Zendo. Barry decided it was time for me to do jukai, and we were trying to figure out how to do it. I can’t come in from New Jersey every morning and open the zendo -- this is the place question again -- and he said, do all the Saturdays which you can when you’re not working, including all the sesshins, then run your group at school and run it five days a week. I said, I can’t do it five days a week, and he said, Why? And I said, Because I have mass three days a week and if I do more of the sitting sessions they’ll think I’m uppity, and you don’t want to do that to the Catholic hierarchy. So I did it three days a week for an hour at school, and sometimes there’s nobody, and sometimes there’s a few and sometimes there’s several.

A part of what this entrustment is prompting me to do is to do better outreach, so I have a table at orientation. I’m teaching a big class this year, and usually I teach a big class and half a dozen students begin to come to meditation. Most at this point are faculty and one or two are outsiders and I’m trying once or twice this year to try and announce that the Wednesday noon schedule -- my schedule changes from semester to semester -- will be open to the wider community. I’d love to see some people from law firms and businesses in downtown Newark, New Jersey, come and sit. I’ve already got a couple of customers anxiously awaiting it. This is still inter-faith because it’s in the chapel with the Fourteen Stations of the Cross here, and St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers over here, so how far I can push that in a Zen direction, I’ll have to see.

I’ve gone to some retreats for lawyers -- the Center for Contemplative Law and Society has a law project. While there I met Robert Chender who is another Shambhala acharya. He started this monthly meeting at the New York City Bar Association for Contemplative Lawyers. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? He invited me to speak, and now he’s doing other projects. He finds other ways to teach, so I’m going to start leading that group, and that’s very much like the gay and lesbian group in some way but it’s starting to change. People come in and then they don’t show up again, and there are between 15 and 30 people in any given month.

Now Barry, I think quite correctly, is concerned about the way this is too secular. I am too. I’m also concerned about saying that this is for lawyers because sitting practice is for everybody. But the deal with the Bar Association is that you can’t mention religion and it has to be for lawyers, so the solution I reached with Chender is that I give my talks, whatever I call them, and we stick “for lawyers” at the end of the title. Showing Up and Slowing Down for Lawyers, for example, and actually that works quite well because I talk generally about meditation practice and then we sit, and then I say, How did it ago? And I hear about sleeplessness and aggression and power struggles and all the other stuff. They bring the lawyer stuff into the room.

Norm Fischer, I was almost going to say the eminent Norm Fischer, who is the Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, has had a project for many years meeting with lawyers on a monthly basis who have a regular practice, and I need to talk to Norm about it because I think that that is where this is going. Not a zendo, but I think there are regular practitioners and there may be some kind of contemplation affiliated support group in there. I have an unfinished article because there are a lot of people teaching meditation to lawyers, believe it or not. There’s a course for credit in some law schools.

I’m not sure I’ll get away with that at my place, but again it’s very secular, and it’s often very short term, and this troubles me greatly. The six-minute lawyer. They’re perfectly valid meditation exercises from various traditions, but they’re deracinated. You wouldn’t know about Buddhism, you wouldn’t know about the kind of wonderful texts that we chant, you wouldn’t know that they can open to a deeper examination of your life. That’s all been weeded out. One of the guys who does this got -- get this -- a grant from the Department of Defense to teach eight-week courses to soldiers. Which on the one hand is good for them but on the other hand teaches them to be better killers. It’s the same as my concern that teaching meditation to lawyers is as narrow and secular as teaching youth to be better assholes and I’m not happy about that so I have to position myself in writing, probably, and maybe to do that with retreats.

All right. If we want to have time for music, I have to go through thanks to my teachers really quickly. My first teacher is Eido Roshi, sort of. I found the local affiliate that wasn’t really an affiliate, in the phone book, but I did a lot of sesshin with Eido and I learned the form and heard a lot, and I met some women who for some reason stopped going to Dai Bosatsu and one of them took up a long distance study with Joko, and invited me at one point to go to San Diego and meet Joko, which I did, and that was the one time I met Joko. I also heard a wonderful and very important talk by her student Liz Hamilton about patriarchy in Western Zen and it really helped me see what I had been seeing and not recognizing at Dai Bosatsu.

I want to explain who Amalia Frank was. She was this little old lady who was a minister in the Unity Center of New York City, which is for daily work people. I was ambushed at being the President of the church. I had to learn how to give sermons and meditation and run committee meetings and deal with lots of people who thought they knew what spirituality was and Amalia didn’t. She had a meditation practice and she also showed enormous equanimity in the face of schism. The people thought she was too old to teach. She became a minister when she was 67, We hired her when she was 74. They fired her when she was 81. She said the most important thing said in the English language was: Too Hell with it! She said that! And people were like, we ought to fight these people. She said, Never mind. Went down a few blocks, found a church, she said to the minister, dabbing her eyes, her little old eyes, and she said, You have a big building and not very many people. Would you like to rent us your basement? So the associate minister, they kicked her out, got the building, and she got most of the congregation and the music minister. It was brilliant! She continued being a minister ‘til she was 88. May I live so long.

I mentioned Bobbie and Amalia, Myokai and Daido and I won’t say much more about them, other than the fact that when one person is formally your teacher, the other person is really the person who knows you, and it doesn’t work very well. Koan study didn’t work terribly well for me. I did it for many years. But I was at this point where Daido was my teacher and I would go to interview with Myokai and present a koan and she would sort of grimace and say, Go see Daido, but since because I was a committed lay practitioner, and Daido was far away and you only got to see him in interview when you were a resident or when you were in sesshin, I was seeing him only three or four times a year. A lot of it was my doing, but my core practice got really constipated because of that.

Daido introduced me to Chozen -- Daido, Chozen and Joko were all Maezumi heirs so there’s Maezumi in the air, and I have an ongoing relationship with Chozen. She’s helped me with music. One of the things she’s done is pay attention to professionals who practice. She’s a pediatrician and she still has one day a week in court as an expert in child sexual abuse cases, which is horrible. So she took me with her one time and I watched her testify, and then we talked about the detective, the prosecutor, and how all those people dealt with work, which involved basically sexually abused little girls, and what kind of spiritual practice that took. Chozen was very thoughtful in some ways. She runs a residential monastery, which I don’t want to do, but I may have to because I think it is important for American Zen to deal with lay practitioners, and I think for people like me it’s very hard to take a year off in the middle of my career, but it’s easy to do when I retire.

That’s the Southeast Asian tradition. The go and take monastic vows at the end of their career. I think that would be an interesting and important thing to do in American Zen. Part of this obviously is how to get lay people to practice regularly without a residential setting. Part of it is residence. I want to say more about this. Chozen had a horrible land-use problem. You aren’t going to win, I said, because every little town has control over you and some of them are scared of Buddhists. You have to be a good neighbor. She is now. They have a float in the 4th of July parade. They teach in the schools. They invite the neighbors in to help them plant their orchard and stuff like that. It’s an American version of the relation between the village and the monastery and that’s part of what has to happen in this country too. Monasteries can’t be self-sufficient. They can have a hospitality industry but they need the neighbors. They need the community so that is still working out.

I have to thank cancer. I was very sick. I had Hodgkin’s Disease. The second time it came back I had this complicated treatment that involved essentially seven or eight weeks in the hospital replacing my immune system, being so weak I couldn’t do anything except lie around, and then three or four months at home, isolated, I had to wear a mask when I went out, all kinds of foods I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go to the gym, I couldn’t go on public transportation, I couldn’t go to the movies because I had a very weak immune system. Myotai said, This is a six month retreat that’s not optional, and she was right. And without saying more, this is where I discovered that simply lying still and paying attention was a perfectly good practice. I didn’t have to be solving koans. I could do shikantaza, and moreover, although I don’t recommend it for beginners, shikantaza lying down. Just be still, pay attention with all you’ve got. Maybe it’s not a beginner practice, but for me it was a real game changer, and finally, Barry, I was looking for a teacher when I got well, and I shopped around New Jersey -- Yuchhh! -- I don’t have the word for the dead flower on the altar of the guy who ran the yoga studio but there was no interview room, so they used the bathroom, but there was no door so you went to the interview and sat on the toilet at the same time.

This was not my style. When I came one December to Barry, who was quite wonderful, erudite, funny, short -- thank you -- and interviewed kindly, you listened. I said that I’ve got this big yoga practice, believe it or not. I stood on my head once in the middle of the room, once, without help, and Barry said, Well, yoga’s important, come when you can. What really sealed it was the koans that he taught, which was not only a wonderful interaction but it was also a wonderful sangha which I had been longing for.

Very quickly -- because it was Christmas season, I went to the Christmas party to check it out. The last thing I wanted was a group where everybody was sucking up to the teacher and where people were dropping dharma words so they could get a better place in line. I’ve seen too much of that. This was real people! Alkie sang an incredible song. Claire had been a hostess in the zendo, and was a wonderful MC and singer at the Christmas party. I talked to David Greenwood, I talked to Jessica, the Barry Jessica, who said to me, I think you’d be good for Barry. He needs some joy, or something like that. And I thought, this is it! This is the teacher I’ve been looking for for fifteen years. Had I found Barry instead of -- but you weren’t around when I meet Myotai -- I think it would have been a different life. So I’m very grateful for that. So actually I’m at my 25 minutes, so we could stop or we could sing together. Barry said you’d be fidgeting, but you can move if you need to. Could we have the instruments? I need the mokugyo, the bell, and the . . . .

While you’re stretching -- one of my challenges has been -- Daido forbade me from using music for an art practice. I had training as a pianist and composer and then found singing was actually quite wonderful, and none of that at least in the Western tradition was available. Chozen on the other hand teaches everybody to play marimbas, so there you go. It’s quite an amazing thing to see. I don’t know what the role of music is. I wanted to say that going back to the sound, the night sound, is perhaps music. I don’t know if it’s music or not. It’s sort of noise. Some call it music. It’s very powerful, and I’ve noticed that this is partly my way of saying farewell to being jikido, because I’ve come to fall in love with these guys. I’ve learned that they have their own voices. They don’t want you to hit them. They want you to allow them to speak.

There are two things at once: One, I want to use these, but I’m also trying to find a way to meld, what is the American song of Zen? That’s the question. Eido asked that. His answer, and it was appalling, was the Impossible Dream. Every time he came to Washington he made us sing it with him. I’ve sung this with him in the Smithsonian, he in all his regalia. It’s horrible! What I want to try out is If I Had a Hammer. I use the words justice and freedom and I also want to meld it with what I think is essential, the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, Kanzeon etc., which is very much about this moment, Kanzeon, eternal, selfless, joyful and pure, just this moment, this moment, nothing other than Kanzeon. You can sing along if you want or listen and be appalled. I’ll do the three verses of If I Had a Hammer, and in the third verse we’ll switch to Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and then we’ll end with If I Had a Hammer. At the end I’ll make a few concluding remarks and then I’ll run for my life.

If I had a hammer . . . .

So that, I think, is the future of American Zen. I’d better just stop there. Thank you.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.