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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.

The second kind of dimension is the perversion of compassion or service. It’s a focus on the needs of others, of always being the helper, always being the server, a life of taking care of others. It can look wonderful, it can do a lot of good in the world, but it can end up doing what I call saving all beings minus one, not knowing what your own needs are, where the needs of the caregiver are supposed to fit into the picture. Somehow there’s never enough time or energy to take care of yourself, and that not taking care of yourself is even valorized as a kind of selfless compassion.

The third dimension of detachment is the part that is a description of where Lou went. It’s a kind of pursuit of samadhi as an oasis, a place where good concentration is this intense sense of rightness or even bliss or whatever these states bring to you, all of which give you the sense of relief from all the things that were wrong in your life. But rather than seeping into the rest of your life, and healing those parts that are hurt or needy, this kind of practice too often just creates dissociative bubbles or spheres of your life or self-experience that are not just okay but ecstatic. So seemingly the lesson is, if I can feel this good without engaging any of those psychological problems, then Hey, this is the way to go.

Even a wonderful teacher like Soen Roshi, who, by Lou’s account, was the best and most authentic of the teachers he encountered in his lifetime, and what Joko at the end of her life particularly identified and admired, Soen had this kind of sense of the wondrousness of each moment, often in a very ritualized fashion, but also in a way that was very abstracted. He always chanted about endless dimension, universal life, this wonderful, impersonal transcendent sphere, and it could be revealed in our chanting, in our sitting, or even in our everyday activities, in everything but somehow going back and facing emotional pain and distress. It was the grand antidote to those things, but never addressed them directly.

One of the points I’ll touch upon in the dharma talk of Lou’s that we were going to discuss today, is that he emphasizes not knowing, and the essential aspect of his kensho experience was that he didn't know it was kensho. He didn’t know what was going on. Something happened but there were no words for it. There was no context for it. Nobody told him what it was, he says, for years. Then the dilemma that this caused is that later it’s hard to say, Well, what difference did it make? What changes after you’ve had such an experience? In a way, one of the things it did was just orient him to have more experiences, to devote his life to sitting and becoming a monk and going deeper into whatever that was.

But also weirdly, the not knowing means there’s no way it can hook into the rest of your life, and in that talk, there’s a kind of strange reaction against anybody who tries to make sense of it. He says, Anybody who says they know what this is, is lying. And he goes on about the great sin of institutionalized Zen is that it tries to make sense of the ineffable, of the intrinsically mystical.

Very oddly in that memoir, you hear him denouncing Eido Roshi not for any of the sexual misconduct that everybody was appalled about for decades, but it’s as if his great sin was building a monastery, institutionalizing Zen, where somehow Zen is supposed to be like Soen Roshi, like a free spirit, never tacked down anywhere. I can’t help but hear this in his terrible ambivalence about finally belonging somewhere. He grew up completely disconnected and rootless, abandoned by his mother, abandoned by his father, left in the care of senile and demented grandparents. There was no there there at all. And he developed a whole persona about not belonging anywhere. Even of not being anyone.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of the story of Thomas Merton, whose mother died when he was very young. He grew up very lonely, his mother was apparently hospitalized for a long time before she died, but when his father would go to visit his mother in the hospital, he never brought the little boy in to see her, to say good-bye. He left him outside for an hour or more when he went into the hospital. And after the mother died, the father kept moving all around and he was raised in a lot of different schools in a lot of different places. It was an early life of rootlessness and loneliness. It’s not hard to imagine the appeal of a monastery and a vow of stability was for somebody who grows up having no stability in their life. And yet Merton was endlessly ambivalent about that, and endlessly and strangely in pursuit of more silence and more solitude. He was both compulsively seeking the institutional stability that he never had but also going deeper into the solitude which was the source of his early pain, and in there somehow, some way, feeling like he found God.

I think that when I look at the different ways these curative fantasies play out, whether they’re of mastery or service or detachment, I think when we see that they have as a common factor, a pushing away of personal needs and a dependency, I think it throws a different light on the fact of so much teacher misconduct that happened over these last decades. I think there’s no doubt that there were a few genuine sexual predators like Eido Roshi out there, but I think that actually turns out to be a minority of what goes awry, and I think that much more common are cases like Lou’s, where the teacher gets stuck in this role which seems to carry to an extreme that avoidance or disavowal of their own neediness, and so often in cases I think that happens with therapists who get involved with their patients, where the teacher, the therapist, gets over involved sometimes with the most needy students, as if I’m going to get very involved and take care of their needs, but their own needs are what’s getting smuggled into the picture. It becomes the vehicle for suddenly for them to let go and suddenly become vulnerable. It's a kind of very sad side effect to the curative fantasies that have carried them so far into practice and even to the point of becoming teachers.

All right, I think I’ll leave that there for now. We’ll have plenty to discuss.

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Barry Magid October 28th 2023 The problem and its solution

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