Podcast: Play in new windowBelow find Nomon Tim Burnett's talk notes. This is not a verbatim transcript of what Tim says in the recording but for reference and a quick scan we offer these notes. Listening to the talk is recommended.
In our study of Zen Pioneers this practice period, those early Zen priests and teachers, Japanese and Western, who were so instrumental in Zen practice taking root in this soil.
And I've been wondering anew why anyone in North America was interested. I was just recalling my first direct exposure to Zen and that sense of bigger possibilities than our material-based American lives, was that what it was? Was the motivation a critique of our culture as materialistic and narrow? That sounds right is too abstract and kind simplistic. Doesn't feel like enough of a reason to drop everything and devote oneself to strenuously and seriously to practice as the early Zen students did.
Or we often say that the root motivation for practice is our suffering. This is true enough. We so want to find a way to be more comfortable in our own skin. To be okay. To at least approach the territory of being enough. And our practice does seem to deeply help with this, but slowly and subtlety. And there are so many other ways to respond to suffering. Maybe if we're enthusiastic about Zen practice we could say, "yeah well all of those other ways don't ultimately work anyway - distraction, hedonism, busy-ism and so on" in the end we need something as radically simple and grounded and non-conceptual as Zen practice.
But somehow that feels like a stretch too. A lot of steps in that chain that would make it hard to sustain practice through the tough spots, through the "muddy middle" - isn't that a cute phrase, I'm adapting that from one of the mindfulness classes I teach - it seems like Zen has plenty of "muddy middle," no? Practice doesn't always make us feel good, that's for sure. So it practice as the answer for suffering really a reasonable reason for people to jump into something so new and so foreign?
Or was it the teachers themselves? Some of the early teachers were quite charismatic. Suzuki Roshi was mostly so charming. Zoom out to the other Buddhisms, Trungpa was apparently just magnetic to be around. And was that charm and charisma something inherent in the teachers or was it something that the mostly young American students projected onto them? Or was it their foreignness and in a cultural moment of rejecting what we had in Western culture - back to materialism and so on - did that moment in time lead to a great exaggeration of the appeal of the teachers' Asian-ness. Sociologists talk about a denigration of Asian cultures - Chop Suey kind of stuff as orientalism and that it also runs the other way a raising up of Asian cultures and a denigration of our own culture: Reverse Orientalism.
And by the way remember that it took a few tries, we were studying a little about the very first Zen pioneers in the the 1900's and 1930's when it absolutely didn't go anywhere and the Japanese priests just went home, or in the case of Nyogen Sensaki had to live quietly in American for 20 years until there was enough interest to give a lecture. So this wasn't a slam-dunk by any means. Now that we have this place and this teaching and practice is seems like, well, of course we have it, but all kinds of conditions being slightly different would have resulted in this not being here. Very easily.
And parallel with this curiosity about the planting of Zen in the West I've been curious about some challenging relationships I've experienced in the last 3 or 4 years as I've engaged the planting of another kind of Dharma in these soils - "mindfulness" which is more or less a contemporary form of Buddhism without the overt Buddhism in it, a kind of Science Buddha where we cite fMRI machines and people with PhD's in psychology instead of Shakyamuni Buddha but the feeling and the practice is quite similar. Anyway I seem to be, surprisingly to me, in a role somewhat similar to the first Zen pioneers and have experienced some really powerful love and connection from people I barely know in that role and I've also experienced some real scorn and mistrust and anger. Especially from some other teachers. This later point makes me wonder how the Zen perioneers thought about each other and there was something about a rivalry between Nyogen Sensaki on the West Coat and Sokei-an in New Year in the histories. That kind of energy is so powerful when it's present but it soon pales in the rear view mirror of history.
What's mostly recorded and remembers now about the Suzuki Roshi's and Maureen Stuart's and Nyogen Sensaki's is how much people loved these teachers. How much they learned. The stories get told over and over again. But I wonder if that's the whole story. I bet there was a lot more strife and suffering in there too. We did look at the stern and uncompromising work of Jiyu Kennet Roshi and around her there are certainly some stories a little more loaded with challenge. And even in the words of our little reader I think we found ourselves a little suspicious of her style even as we admired her incredible commitment and drive in making her was as a Western woman in the Japanese Zen establishment. (An aside: I wonder now why did was compelled to go to Sojiji of all places - the very top headquarters temple, the most prestigious place in the Soto Zen world? There must have been smaller temples and kinder and more flexible Zen teachers she could have found in Japan in the 1950's. Makes me wonder if some of us are just conditioned to move towards the most difficult and most challenging option - but that's another story for another day.)
And this all makes me think of the introduction in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind in which Richard Baker approvingly quotes Trudy Dixon, Suzuki Roshi's student and the brilliant editor of the book as follows:
"A roshi is a person who…" p. 18
In 2016 this just seems silly. Over the top. But in 1970 I think it must have seemed just true and self-evident that there is this special kind of human being called "Zen Master" who are this way, this enlightened. Now we call this projection. And bias. Kind of sweet in some ways, pretty destructive in others. Maybe part of what set up a series of Zen teachers to fail spectacularly to keep their ethical vows. If everyone tells you you're perfect, you can't make any mistakes right? Very loaded we think now. Very loaded.
And we think of projection as an unfortunate thing that we should learn not to do anymore. Losing our own power we project either a positive or a negative gloss over someone else. And in this disempowered state we are then dependent on the other, on the Zen Master say, to validate us if it's positive projection, or to fail in the way we expect them to if it's negative projection which also is about validating us. And in this kind of self-power ideology that we hold without questioning it too much giving away our power is inherently bad.
But there's another way of thinking about this that I learned of recently that's really changing my view of relationships. Relationships in a spiritual community like this one. Relationships in my work which is half-way in between a spiritual community and a business. Relationships everywhere.
This view is that there is something rich and important and potentially very positive and important when we project onto others. In the other we are seeing our own potential and
This is a view offered in a little book by the Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson called "Inner Gold: understanding psychological projection." Johnson turns out to be a really interesting person. An early and full on Jungian he studied in Zurich with Emma Jung, Carl Jung's wife, and did therapy with Fritz Kunkel and Marie von Franz who were both, as I understand it, very important Jungians. And before all of that he studied with Krishnamurti in California. He practiced as a psychologist for 20 years and then ordained as a Benedictine monk which he did for four years re-emerging to pick up psychology again and starting writing books in the late 60's. A lot of rich work happening around the same time as San Francisco Zen Center formed.