The curative fantasies of mastery, service, and detachment Barry Magid October 21st 2023

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Last weekend I was up at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts. I was leading a retreat there with Max Erdstein. He’s helped organize those retreats for five years in a row, so it’s a very interesting and different experience to teach the group up there. Max’s background is an interesting combination both of Zen and Theravada practice. He’s spent many years in San Francisco Zen Center and he received lay entrustment from Mel Weitsman at the Berkeley Zen Center, but he’s also studied Theravada Buddhism quite extensively, doing retreats in Southeast Asia, going through teacher training at Spirit Rock, so he’s an interesting character, maintaining a foot in both camps, and trying to maintain some kind of dialogue between these different modes of practice.

By and large I’m not as open-minded as he is, and it’s a little harder for me to go back and forth between these kinds of groups or traditions. When we go up there, the people assembled can be quite a hodge-podge from all sorts of different backgrounds and traditions, and the challenge is always to try to constantly readjust what you’re saying to what they’re getting and what their questions actually are.

I was trying to give them a taste of a psychologically minded Zen practice from “Nothing is Hidden,” and also using, as we have here, Lou Nordstrom’s “Memoir" as something of a case study of what can go wrong in Zen practice, and in any kind of practice. In a mixed group like that, one way or another you can see or map out many dimensions of where people’s practices led them astray or got them stuck in some dead end, and it’s often basically the case that as Aristotle says, a virtue carried to an extreme becomes a vice. You start with what seems like a good idea, but you carry it to a certain kind of extreme where its flaws become manifest, and you’re stuck and you don’t know how to back up and turn around.

Lou’s case, in a way, is a model of pitfalls of a traditional top-down practice, where the assumption was that kensho, an experience of no-self, would function as a kind of universal solvent for all sorts of self-centered delusion and attachment, and when you add a big enough one of these experiences, it would be a big eraser to wipe away all that kind of pre-existing neurosis born of past trauma, and I think that Lou’s case demonstrates how that can fail quite spectacularly. In a strange way, he failed all the way up to dharma transmission. It’s this way in which coming from a terribly traumatized family background, at a young age, 24, when he was just starting to sit, starting to sit sesshins, he had a great enlightenment experience, and that experience propelled him into monkhood, propelled him into living in Zen communities and propelled him all the way to dharma transmission and beginning to teach. Yet at the same time, the sense of traumatized unreality that hung over his life was not touched at all by that experience or decades of subsequent practice.

In our discussion group we’ll go further into some of the consequences of what that entailed. One of the things that struck me was how, having not had any kind of stable family or parental figures growing up, he developed these intensely ambivalent feelings about being part of Zen communities and being connected to teachers. It was the thing that he most needed and craved and the things that were most likely to go badly awry and be retraumatizing.

I think the other kinds of things that were on display at Barre was that we listened to how other people practiced over the years. One common feature was an example of what Lauren Berlant, the feminist literary critic called Cruel Optimism. I think she may have first used that as a description of certain ideals of femininity that become standards of perfection and models of aspiration, but not only are they not attainable, they create an ongoing sense of self-criticism and judgment and feeling always inadequate and failing in the face of this ideal.

I think that there's a very common kind of spiritual equivalent of that, where either the teacher in guru-like traditions is so idealized, or there’s a kind of idealization of enlightenment or what no-self or Buddha-nature is supposed to be, that while this ideal seems to propel people towards a life-time of practice, the way it actually functions in their life is to give them a chronic sense of inadequacy, of endlessly feeling a day late and a dollar short, never getting there, never quite doing the right thing, not ever being quite the student they think they ought to be, and so forth, and people can practice for decades, somehow endlessly using an ideal of practice to reinforce their own sense of this is not it, which sadly is exactly the opposite of what practice is supposed to be showing us.

I also was thinking about how practice goes awry for people, both students and teachers, along three dimensions. One is the dimension of mastery, the next is the dimension of compassion or service to others, and the third is the dimension of detachment. What they all have in common is a way in which they are striving to one way or another transcend, overcome, or push away our own emotional need and vulnerability. The mastery model in a certain sense is what most of us encountered in Zen when I started out. It was a very macho practice, very much focused on endurance, sitting long sesshins, they were often very painful, when there was very little sleep or physical comfort, and the mastery of hardship was a kind of deliberate wearing down of needing anything. I can take anything you throw at me. I don’t need physical comfort or even safety or security. And there’s a kind of way in which people deliberately train themselves in toughness rather than any vulnerability.

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