Compassion and responsibility: The Zen practice of Joko Beck Barry Magid May 17th 2014

As the years go by there are fewer and fewer of you in the sangha who had any personal connection with Joko. You out-of-towners I know maintained phone relationships with her in her later years, a few people went out to see her, but it’s getting rarer and rarer. The New York group at least has members who knew her personally, so I was thinking, reflecting on the ways in which our practice has evolved here over the years. While in most major respects I’m obviously very much in sync with her way of practicing, our personalities are different and Zen itself has evolved in America since she began teaching, so I thought I’d say something about her style of teaching and how some aspects of it are different from what we’re doing now.

Any time old Zen students get together, the easiest thing to do is reminisce about how much harder sesshins were in the old days. And it’s true. If you want to get a feel for what a sesshin in San Diego was like, we can transpose it to Garrison. Imagine that first of all there are no bedrooms. Think that you have the zendo and the dokusan room. At night all the men sleep together in the zendo, all the women sleep together in the dokusan room. Just put down the zabutons, put down a sleeping bag or a blanket and you’re in there for the week. There’s no dining hall, all the meals are at your cushion, and you probably starting sitting at 5:00 in the morning going to 10:00 at night and there are no chairs. It was very basic to Joko’s style of teaching that you were there to face pain and difficulty and if you were in physical pain you just were in physical pain and you didn’t move.

Now there’s a lot about that style of teaching that I don’t think is sustainable as people age, but it created a certain atmosphere. I should also say that those sesshins were for about forty or fifty people and Joko was in dokusan morning ‘til night, never sat with the group in the zendo, took meals by herself, just came into the zendo to give the dharma talk and then you only saw her again when it was your turn for dokusan. She could be an intimidating and imposing figure in some ways. There was a side of her that was very warm and caring but there was also a side that was very tough and no nonsense, and when you went into dokusan you should, first of all, imagine over the wall one of the signs that says, No Whining, because you could not complain to Joko. This was not on the program. What she expected of you was to use practice in the service of non-avoidance and staying with emotional realities that you typically avoided, and the markers of those were fear and anxiety and anger. So something that you didn’t like, made you anxious or got you upset, was precisely what you were supposed to practice with. There was no sense that something was being done wrong to make you feel bad, and how can we make you feel better? We were there to face those things.

Her way of bringing emotional psychological reality into practice was through this idea of non-avoidance and making practice a constant exercise in overcoming likes and dislikes. The whole idea of sesshin was that you took it whole, that there were times in the day when you’d be tired, that you’d be in pain, that you’d be bored, that you’d be in ecstasy, that the person sitting next to you, their nose would be dribbling or they were bothering you, whatever it was, you just felt your reaction to that. That was the core of her practice. If you would go to her and say, such and such is making me angry, or so and so looked at me crooked and didn’t answer me when I asked him a question or something like that, her basic attitude was like, who are you to feel you should be treated well? The world is not here to respond to you, to make you feel like you think you should feel. The purpose of the sangha and the relationships in the sangha is to push your buttons and reveal all your expectations of what you think you are owed and watch how you react when you don’t get it. If you feel lonely, if you feel hurt, if you feel anxious, if you feel mad, all those are revealing some basic expectation, some deep entitlement: The world shouldn’t treat me like that, that’s not fair. And she would basically say, Is that so? Says who? That was her basic attitude. Says who? So what?

To a lot of people she came across as pretty harsh, but over time it was deeply compassionate because it had a deep acceptance because you just have to stay and hold all of it, and I will stay and hold it with you, we will do it together. I’ve seen it all and we can sit through this together. She could be very present and very solid, but it was saying, if you feel deep fear, deep pain, the practice is to stay with that. Certainly not blame another person for doing it to you. That’s exactly what you were there to work through. No expectations. And the style of practice that that incurred on a day to day basis was a kind of meticulous, almost hypervigilant awareness of your own expectations, your own likes and dislikes about how you go through everything during the day saying, well, I like this but I don’t like that. This person really isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing -- that endless picking and choosing and labeling that we all do.

Her idea of somebody who practices is all day you watch how you react with judgment about what you’re facing and how people are treating you. There’s no entitlement, no expectation, all you do is you face whatever you do, you face whatever unpleasantness you have to feel. And she would say that the fruit of that is when you really stop putting these barriers of expectation between you and life and you and other people, there’s a great freedom and release and openness because that’s genuine acceptance. You’ve stopped your endless attempts to protest and control, protest and control, and you just take life as it comes, moment after moment, and that was her sense of being just this moment.

When we chant “Each moment life as it is the only teacher,” that was her sense of it, life is your teacher moment after moment because it’s not going the way you want, and by not going the way you want, it’s revealing all your likes and dislikes and all your expectations and it’s there to wear them out, it’s sandpaper, or a grindstone, something even harder, that’s what “life as it is” meant. Wear it out.

Now you know that in some sense I’m characterizing this. I don’t need to sum up her old teaching in a paragraph or two like this, but it was a style and a temperament that was different, and it had pluses and minuses. You’ve all known me over the years, and you know I’ve moved our practice away from that, particularly towards an idea of no gain, because I think the downside of her way of talking about practice, was it could turn into a kind of endless project, in which you’re always monitoring yourself, always fixing yourself, always trying to wear out expectation and preference, so that practice was vigilant and life-long and you’re never there yet. That’s the downside of it.

When I talk about no gain, it’s to create an alternative to that, and a lot of what we do here is grounded in my own sense that we have to get off the grid of How am I doing? Well or badly? The zendo is meant to open up a space where we can just be, without any sense of how am I doing? That’s not an attitude that she would articulate directly, although it was there in her presence when you got to know her after a certain point. What I think was very positive in her approach, and which I think my approach in fact neglects in a way that’s not often helpful, is that it really made people pay attention to their expectations and their interpersonal expectations, particularly in the sangha, of what they thought other people were for, how you were treated.

Sangha was a place of responsibility. I remember -- I was mostly there for the long sesshins -- but on the regular days, people would come in to the early morning sittings, make themselves a cup of tea. After they took their cup of tea, they would put their cup in the sink, and Liz would put a sign up over the sink, “If you don’t wash, dry, or put away that cup, who do you think will?” And that was the other side of that attitude of that sangha. Everybody was there to work and maintain the sangha. You could not be there as the passive recipient of the Zen Center, come in when you feel like it, have your cup of tea, listen to a talk, go home, that was entertaining, maybe I’ll do it again in a week or two. You couldn’t get away with that sort of attitude. The expectation was: You’re here because you sit everyday, whether you want to sit every day or not, you’re here to maintain this practice, support the sangha, sign up to do work, there’s house and grounds and chores, we’ve got fifty people coming for sesshin, there are hundreds of things that need to be done, if you think you’re a student, which one are you signing up for? It’s a very different sense of participation, responsibility and commitment.

Joko would not let you get away with the idea that your practice was something that was going on inside your head when you sit on the cushion. Your practice was: What responsibility are you taking for this place? What are you doing here? How are you serving the sangha? Don’t tell me what you’re getting out of it. What are you putting in? Again, that’s an attitude that I think we’ve let slide over the years in New York, in some sense because we have a smaller place and we don’t have the same kind of requirements for people to do a lot of work to keep the place up and make the sesshins happen. It’s easier. We have it easier. But the downside of that, I think, is we lose a sense of what sangha means in terms of mutual commitment and responsibility. So it’s good once in a while to remind ourselves of that other way of thinking about what we’re doing here.

Hers was in some ways a more demanding, less forgiving style of practice, and overall I like the atmosphere here better. I try to set up this place in some way as correctives to the down sides of traditional ways of practicing. But we should not lose sight of the virtue of that kind of discipline and that kind of commitment. It really still should be central to what we think of as Zen practice and sangha.

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