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Joko's realism about what practice can and cannot do Barry Magid February 11th 2023

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Ananda, Buddha’s nephew and disciple, was said to have had total recall of all of Buddha’s sermons, even the ones that were delivered before his birth. No matter how many years he sat with the Buddha, he himself never became enlightened in the Buddha's lifetime. At a certain point, when Buddha tried to help him overcome this obstacle, he called all his enlightened bodhisattva disciples together and asked them to recount for Ananda the circumstances of their enlightenment. This was just rubbing it in, but it was supposed to be instructive for Ananda, about how enlightenment happens.

There’s a particular koan that tells about one group of sixteen bodhisattvas that comes, and they say, We all came and made our prostrations to the Buddha and then we went together to take our ritual bath, and when we entered the bath, we all suddenly realized the essence of water and we were enlightened.

Well, the koan asks you, what is the essence of water? And the issue is that the essence of water is going to be separate from the whole ritual and practice of bathing, the use of water to make the body clean or even to purify it. The monks lived a life in which everything was organized around this kind of dichotomy of pure and impure, clean and unclean. Bathing was a kind of ritual of purification. And so in this story, the monks come to be purified, but suddenly they realize just the wetness, the feel, the touch of the water, and it has nothing to do whatsoever with clean or unclean, pure or impure.

For better or worse, this koan serves as a paradigm for one approach to the precepts, which at a literal level, also seemed very much preoccupied with what’s pure and what's impure, what to do and what not to do: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t defame the three treasures, don’t misuse sexuality, don’t become intoxicated. However, the precepts were traditionally taught as koans after you completed the whole koan curriculum, because all of the koans have this dimension in which there is nothing pure and nothing impure. There are no separate selves, there’s nobody else, there’s nothing to steal, nothing to kill, nothing to defame, all these things are empty, and so there’s a level in which the precepts seen from the direction of the absolute, have the potential to be radically destabilizing of conventional morality.

It is unfortunate but true that that dimension has long served as a kind of rationalization for misconduct on the part of many practitioners and even many teachers. It’s a dimension that we have to realize, but we have to realize it in conjunction with the level of conventional morality, just as we hope those bodhisattvas did not stop taking baths because they realized there’s no such thing as being unclean.

The last couple of weeks, on our sangha listserv, there have been a lot of questions raised about the misconduct of two of Joko’s dharma heirs. What does that say about her teaching in comparison to her teacher whom she rejected because he didn’t seem to do anything to curb his own misconduct? What improvement was there in what Joko was offering if her dharma successors were no better than Maezumi?

Well, I think in fact there are lots of differences which I’ll try to say something about. I do think there has been a profound transformation in American Zen very largely because of Joko re-legitimizing the psychological in Zen practice. When I came up through the ranks, there were many places where these two things were considered separate realms. One was that we came to Zen to realize the absolute, to practice in a spiritual realm, and the merely psychological just got in the way and probably should be dealt with separately with a therapist and probably had nothing to do with your Zen practice.

It’s rarer and rarer that anybody tries to justify that kind of split anymore. What we’re doing in practice is almost always seen as: How is it manifested in your daily life? How is it manifested in your emotional life and in how you treat others? I don’t know how many decades ago it was, but I was in a Zen teachers meeting with one of Eido Shimano’s dharma heirs, and at one point he said, I know Eido has behaved badly, but to me, he’s like a great symphony conductor. I’m just here for the music. I don’t care at all how he lives his personal life. And I challenged him, saying that a Zen teacher’s music is how he lives his life. His music is his ethics and compassion, it’s how he treats others. It’s not just this one dimension of: Does he bring them to kensho? But how is he in the world? That is the music. You can’t split these things off.

It took another decade or so for this particular teacher to come around to that point of view, but eventually he did. And then I think a big part of what Joko allows us to see is that in our generation, we are not so blinded by the light of kensho that we see that as the be-all and end-all and are willing to excuse and put up with almost anything in order to get our shot at it. I think we’ve also come to realize that teachers have their own psychological issues as well. Some like Eido are corrupted by power and are predators, sort of the Harvey Weinstein of Buddhism.

But much more commonly, there are teachers for whom their own needs have been denied or sequestered for too long in the service of helping others, of teaching. Some of these people get caught in a cycle again of what I call saving all beings minus one, constantly attending to the needs of others, and denying or suppressing the fact that they have their own needs and vulnerabilities. And people in that situation are liable to suddenly find themselves falling in love with a student or trying to get from their teaching their emotional needs met in a way that they haven’t been able to acknowledge.

I think the case of Larry Christensen is something like that. The case of Ezra Bayda, which we also discussed, I think in some ways sounds like he was in the grip of this kind of sense of the absolute in which there’s no such thing as impurity, Part of what he was doing that was so improper was he was asking his female students to give him massages, and denying that there was any sexual intent in this by saying things like, “It’s all energy.” This is again just a kind of rationalization that allows him to imagine that he is living in a world that is beyond pure and impure, beyond any vulnerability or harm that can happen to the other person.

I think that the other thing that has come out of Joko’s teaching over the years, is this ability for students to legitimately say, This is harmful. This isn’t a teaching. This is your own personal problem. Again, I think a generation ago we were much more likely to hear rationalizations like, It’s all a teaching. If it bothers you, it’s because you simply aren’t awakened enough. It’s crazy wisdom. It's all energy. There’s no such thing as good and bad. Zen is here to get outside all that kind of conventional morality. That’s what liberation is. That was very seductive, literally and figuratively, for a lot of people.

But I think what has happened in this more recent generation is that sangas are empowered to tell teachers, We’re not buying it anymore. If that's your vision of enlightenment, we don’t want it. I think that that has been enormously important in places like San Francisco Zen Center, where finally the sangha itself came together to say, This is not behavior, this is not a teaching, that we want. That was what for years never happened up at Daibosatzu, where really the sangha and dharma successors were complicit in allowing Eido Roshi to continue his misconduct, always under the guise of: His bad behavior is separable from his brilliance as a Zen teacher. We don't want to lose that.

I think to some extent this evolution of Zen in America comes with a certain degree of idealization, and I think that we can respond to that always by just looking around another corner for a new perfect idealized figure. Trungpa was a rogue, but the Dalai Lama is the real thing, right? He’s beyond misconduct or anything problematic. We just keep searching for that completely idealized figure beyond human psychology.

But I think Zen is going to gradually have to adopt an attitude more like people have toward their therapists. You want the therapist to embody insight and compassion and you know sometimes they will be unable to live up to that ideal, and then it’s time to call them out or just to leave. There was a generation after Freud when psychoanalysts were probably just as idealized as Asian masters coming in the first generation to the West.

Well, we got over that one, and I guess we’re going to get over this one. And yet it’s figuring out how we can maintain our belief and our commitment when we realize that this practice, like everything else, is one taught and embodied by human beings like ourselves. I think the whole psychological turn that Joko initiated has made us vastly more realistic about what practice does and doesn’t do. For her, it was the shock of realization that koan study was not going to cure all character pathology.

Well, turns out, nothing will. There are lots of things that will help, nothing is guaranteed, and we have to work in that middle ground, trying this, trying that, mostly trying to stay psychologically and emotionally honest about what’s going on, and what’s helping and what’s not. I think I’ll leave it there for now and we can continue this in our discussion groups afterwards.

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