One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Thursday, September 16, 2021

Is life over when it’s over?

Photos courtesy of alanwatts.org

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973)

"Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable". ~Alan Watts Sensei


Are there reasons for living and reasons for dying?


Why should we think that Zen is in trouble simply because there are flawed people who practice and flawed people who teach? Certainly punches and counter punches are distracting, especially in a scandal, but they are not off limits. In my view, idolizing revered teachers also limits the possibilities in practice for anyone who sets foot on the path. This presents its own set of problems which I might explore at another time. Zen is devised for humans, not gods.


Many years ago I went to a meeting with several of Claudio Naranjo’s old Seekers After Truth students on the “Vallejo,” the Sausalito houseboat where Alan Watts talked and drank, womanized and created legends. It is common knowledge that he was an alcoholic, but I have no knowledge of sexual excess.  From both my reading and first hand reports, however, I can say with certainty that he did go on and on. He wrote and published 25 books before his death; 40 more have appeared since. That is the stuff of legend, and an enormous contribution.


I also visited a couple who lived in the rustic cabin in Druid Heights near Muir Woods where Watts died. One report is that he slumped over his desk drunk and died though some say he made it to bed that night. The story is vague as are a lot of stories about alcoholics. We will never know the truth because we don’t really need to know. But his desk was kept in the same condition as it had been when he died as a kind of shrine to assist his passage to the Pureland, or Byzantine Heaven, or some New Age version of Limbo. I asked hesitantly if I could sit in the chair where he sat when he wrote. My host said, “Of course. This way is open to anyone.” I imagined that I heard a faint echo from the Master.


Phil Whalen told me that he loved to listen to Watts on the old Berkeley KPFA. Many of the people who first gathered around Suzuki Roshi did. For some it was their initiation into Zen. Watts read widely and wisely even if at times he speculated wildly.  David Chadwick recounted in his biography of Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, [that] when a student of Suzuki's disparaged Watts by saying "we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing", Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity, saying, "You completely miss the point about Alan Watts! You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva.” Suzuki did not disparage the ox who tilled the soil even if all the rows were not perfectly lined up. That would come later, and in some cases the insistence on plowing perfectly straight lines got a bit out of hand. 


At dinner in Mandala House I remember a lively conversation with my host's wife who was very close to a dear friend who was also present. The woman's son by another marriage, a bright, handsome guy had driven across the Santa Cruz mountains to be with his mother. Not long after he died in a car wreck on a treacherous part of that same highway. His mother chose to join him. She took a huge number of sleeping pills and never woke up again in the same house, perhaps the same room where Watts died.


I never met Alan Watts, but I met his ghost. I also carry with me the memories of many other men and women who left life with a troubled past. Though I might think I understand some of their reasons for living, I cannot claim to know the reasons for their dying.


____________________


Michael Papas was a guest student at Tassajara during the Summer of 1980. He recalled a talk by Issan that he says was a real downer. “I can’t repeat any of it, and the memories of the specific content are vague, but I didn’t find any good news in it at all!”


Afterwards, he asked Issan, “If things are so bad, why don’t we just kill ourselves ?”

 

Issan's answer came quickly, “Because it wouldn’t help.”

 

My friend is a long-time Zen student. He says, “It was a great answer obviously. It has stayed with me for more than 40 years. I thought of it many times in 2016 when my wife left me and suicide seemed like the only way to stop the pain. But truthfully back then, having children was my main reason for sticking.”


Issan died on September 6, 1990. He was 57 years old. If he were still alive, he would be 88 years old today. Watts was only 58 when he died and his legend spans decades. I might complain that they both died too young with so much left to contribute. I might sing that tired old tune “only the good die young,” but I’d add that sometimes the good die young because they were bad, or at least not as good as we would like to believe.


Michael, thank you for sharing Issan’s kind answer. It still has life.


Thursday, September 2, 2021

“They Never Get the Pleats Right”

A Mondo

Master Nansen* was washing clothes.

A monk asked: "Is the master still doing such things?"

Master Nansen, holding up his clothes, asked: "What is to be done with them?"

 

*Nansen was the accomplished teacher of the famous Mu-dog guy, Joshu, who when Nansen died went into a deep state of grief that, we’re told, lasted decades. I’m not Joshu, but I will tell a Nansen style tale to focus my own grief that reappears from time to time decades after Issan died. 

 

 

A more formal sounding Buddhist name to this story might be “there’s nothing too small that you can let escape your attention, even if no one’s going to notice,” but “They Never Get the Pleats Right” tells the story.

When we began Maitri at Hartford St, we carried on a full meditation schedule on top of running the Hospice.

One Saturday we were sitting meditation from early morning till dusk. Issan was not sitting. It was during the last six months of his life, and actually he was in bed. His fever had spiked to almost 103 the previous day; his doctor, Rick Levine, was sitting with us and monitoring his patient.

That evening Issan had a longstanding commitment to officiate at the wedding of two men, old friends, at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Issan married same sex couples in the religious tradition of Soto Zen long before the issue of gay marriage exploded, Prop 8 passed, was then voided, the Supreme Court—well, that’s a whole other story.

After lunch I came upstairs from the zendo, and noticed that Issan’s formal white kimono had appeared on the coat rack in the hallway, wrapped in plastic fresh from the dry cleaner. The simple garment had several deep pleats around the waistline, but with the Okesa, the Buddha’s robe, worn over the left shoulder, not much of it is actually visible. It’s almost like ceremonial underwear.

I went back to my cushion in the zendo. When I came upstairs again about 3:30 to fix tea before the last block of sitting, Issan was standing behind his ironing board in the living room, in his bathrobe, wearing a little head band. Sweat was dripping from his forehead. He was ironing the kimono fresh from the dry cleaners. I stopped on the stairs, and had to stop myself from telling him sternly to get back to bed--the hot iron didn’t mix with an elevated body temperature. He saw my shock. He turned towards me, smiled and said, “They never get the pleats right.” I knew he wanted me to laugh. But he was serious about his task, and didn’t want me to stop him. How could I argue with a man obviously in a deep state of concentration if I was laughing? I didn’t. I didn’t dare.

I went back to the zendo, and Issan returned to his bed. Just after the closing ceremony, we met again. Steve and Shunko, part of the ceremonial team, had packed the car, and everything was in place. Issan came down the stairs perfectly dressed. He might have been brushing off his fears when he said, “It’s such a long complicated ceremony. I hope I get it right, but it's a Zen ceremony—When I forget what I’m supposed to do, I just bow. That's always right.” This time we both laughed.

Everyone came home relieved. The wedding had been fabulous. When Shunko complained that the husband’s gift list of toasters and table service included nothing for the Hospice, Issan was quick to remind him that it was the couples’ special day. They were setting up house together for the first time.

Oh that man loved to iron. He also ironed his non-priestly underwear. I saw it with my own eyes. I don’t know if the newly married couple were given a shiny new steam iron, but I do know that Issan gave them the gift of his practice.

Issan taught me ironing practice though I am not as devoted to it as he was, but there’s another lesson here about gifts and toasters and table service. It took me a long time to digest and I still struggle with it: There is always enough money to do what you need to do. And most likely it will be just enough, not a penny more or a penny less. When you are tight, (or especially if you’re tight) it’s probably time to reorder your priorities, and mindfully count your pennies.


The Verse is from the poem, “Ironing,” by Vicki Feaver

And now I iron again: shaking

dark spots of water onto wrinkled

silk, nosing into sleeves, round


buttons, breathing the sweet heated smell

hot metal draws from newly-washed

cloth, until my blouse dries


to a shining, creaseless blue,

an airy shape with room to push

my arms, breasts, lungs, heart into.









In memory of Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990)


Monday, August 30, 2021

Don't Worry. Be Happy. Just do your best!

File:Don't worry, be happy.jpg
Issan loved the Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t worry. Be happy.” I am not sure whether or not he knew that it came from Meher Baba, or that Meher Baba took a vow of silence. It doesn’t matter. He'd humm it like a mantra.

But he also said that Meher Baba didn’t get it entirely right. It was incomplete. He was insistent. “I always tell people: life is uncertain. Just do the best that you can. We aren’t asked to do more. It’s more than enough.”

I almost forgot. If you told him about some unhappiness, he would have happily given you his phone number. "People call me all the time. They need to talk about things."







Who better to supply the verse?

Bobby McFerrin


Here's a little song I wrote

You might want to sing it note for note

Don't worry, be happy

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry you make it double

Don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy now

don't worry


Ain't got no place to lay your head

Somebody came and took your bed

Don't worry, be happy

The landlord say your rent is late

He may have to litigate

Don't worry, be happy


Oh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh don't worry, be happy

Here I give you my phone number, when you worry, call me, I make you happy, don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy


Ain't got no cash, ain't got no style

Ain't got no gal to make you smile

Don't worry, be happy

'Cause when you worry your face will frown

And that will bring everybody down

So don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy now


Now there, is this song I wrote

I hope you learned note for note

Like good little children, don't worry, be happy

Now listen to what I said, in your life expect some trouble

When you worry you make it double

But don't worry, be happy, be happy now



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Honolulu Haircut



After the sesshin with Bob Aitken where I met Ken McDonald, one afternoon Ken and I found ourselves cruising around Honolulu doing a drop-in-the-local-Temple kind of tour.

At the Soto Shu main temple in Nuuanu Ave, the head priest was cheerfully spending the afternoon with his wife trimming the hedges that abutted the parking lot. He looked up and smiled, acknowledging us. Then he said: “Giving haircut.”

We asked if we could sit zazen in the hall, and, after what I took to be a strange look of puzzlement, he took a key out of his pocket and opened a door to what appeared to be a closet filled with racks of folding chairs where there were three or four zafu’s placed facing a concrete wall.

If we had dreamed of an Eiheiji styled zendo, it was not to be found. But we had just completed 7 days of intensive zazen so the bare room was welcoming. All there was was sitting. There was no need for liturgical trappings,

"The End of the Rainbow"

Over thirty years ago at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Steve Allen asked Issan, “The world is ending. Where is the great peace when we need it?” 

Steve tells us that the setting for his question was the formal ritual in which Issan took the high seat of a recognized Zen teacher, his mountain seat. Steve imagined that he was simply cementing his relationship with his root teacher.

Issan remained silent.

After a while Issan turned the question around and asked Steve what he thought. Steve answered, “We find it with each other.” Not just a good answer--but one that held real answers to questions that we didn’t even know we had.

A disciple’s question might bring forth the deep understanding of his or her teacher, but Steve also found a way to liberate himself. Our connections with each other are not limited. The ancient ritual might have required that Issan portray the immutable stone face of one mountain, but his follow-up question revealed a heart of gold. 

When the end of the world gets in your way, follow the way that brings us together. When the storm clears, it may lead to the end of the rainbow.


David Bullock, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorsey

Sunday, August 22, 2021

True practice & authentic teachers

There is a lively on-going debate in an online Buddhist group about the nature of practice and enlightenment. Dosho Port published a piece on August 18th called “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” He describes the efforts beginning in 1928 to make Soto Zen more compatible with “modernism,” including Christianity, by reframing its belief system. A dispute ensued. One side organized their material under the slogan, ‘Original Enlightenment, mysterious practice.’ The other side, the monk establishment, wanted actual practice verification.

I am vaguely familiar with this dispute about modernization in Japanese Soto Zen before the Second War, and the attempts to "translate" the doctrine, if I can use the word, to make it more understandable. There was an attempt to take a portion of Buddhist literature in Japanese, but also Chinese, and free it from its Medieval encapsulation. I went to Masao Abe's amazing classes when he was teaching in San Francisco at CIIS. He definitely comes from this school. I’m a former Jesuit so I also delved into Kitarō Nishida and the Kyoto School’s adoption of Western philosophical discourse. 40 years ago, we all immersed ourselves in the extensive writings of D. T. Suzuki, who, I have to say, comes across more like an apologist or evangelist.

This may be a bare minimum to butt into this conversation, but I will. These efforts to strip the vehicle down to its essential parts leave just enough to work with. To begin, let me take the debate one step further, and remove the parochial underpinnings.

My pared down augment runs like this: an experience of liberation is possible for humans. We don’t quite know what it is because of the current condition of our minds: our mental acuity, the quality of our perceptive apparatus, a balanced or afflicted emotional state, plus I think we have to throw a good dose of fancy, magical thinking, cultural mythology, plus translation difficulties and the vagaries of language into the mix. My list is not complete--there’s a lot to sort out, but I think we can establish, or posit, three hypotheses:

  • Such a state or quality of freedom exists and can transform our experience as humans.
  • It is possible, even desirable, to achieve it.
  • We recognize that it will take effort, education, what we commonly call meditation, and possibly recalibration to achieve this experience.

We believe that certain people have had this experience, most notably the Buddha, but others too, for example Eihei Dōgen, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin Ekaku, Je Tsongkhapa, Shinran, but perhaps we could stretch our imaginations to include the current Dalai Lama, and maybe that auntie whom Red Pine encountered sitting in a cave in China who never heard of Mao Tse Tung but, forget about her, she never wrote anything down. We’re stuck with the guys, they’re all guys, who wrote, had secretaries, or disciples who took extensive lecture notes.

What did they write: of course we have the Sutras, plus other stories of the Buddha and his disciples; the enlightened guys also wrote descriptions of their experiences, some of which seem to be in coded language; thankfully there’s lots of poetry, balanced with carefully reasoned philosophy of mind and analysis of perception and experience; we have to include the myths, and what we call practice manuals, “how to” lists; there are some riddles that purport to point to the experience; then extensive records of the mental and yogic disciplines that practitioners used to achieve this state of liberation plus prescriptive injunctions and admonitions that have even been codified. There is also a large body of instruction material that has not been written down that is generally reserved for advanced levels of practice.

But there are huge problems with all this literature. First is the language and translation. We're blessed to have an army of very well trained and literate translators, but cultural and archaic understandings of the texts remain. Then there is the sheer volume and diversity of the materials. Even if we could determine their authenticity, be sure we have an accurate translation, and be able to determine their precise meaning, we‘d still be stuck with the question of how to use it, actually lots of questions.

Our Western Zen practice stems to some degree from these efforts to modernize. Harada Sogaku Roshi, and after him, Hakuun Yasutani, Kuon Yamada and the Jesuit Roshis, Bob Aitken and the rest of my crowd come from another strain of that same impulse to modernize so that's what I was handed.

Schools of thought are schools of thought. What do we do with them? Again, for better or worse, they inform our practice.

First I think that there's a logical fallacy in the way we understand these efforts at modernization. Following (any) time-honored system of training that we’ve been handed, we believe that if we accurately recreate the logic of the thinking, the order of the steps, the lineage of the teachers, then we can access the authentic experience of liberation. If we fail, then we did something wrong. Perhaps it is a road map, but we want it to be Google Maps, with the blue dot moving across the dashboard screen. Good luck with that. I will set up a dharma combat: can algorithms become enlightened?

Another knot appears when we identify the criteria for validating the credentials of a teacher from within this arcane body of knowledge, whether it’s inka or transmission or tulku. The checklist resides in experience outside ourselves and muddies the teaching as well as opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Call the dharma police to testify before the High Court.

Is this even good practice? I remember working on the koan “Mu” for years with Bob Aitken. I kept complaining in my very Jesuit way that it was all just a self-referential exercise in a closed system. He'd say, yes, it appears that way, and then he’d encourage me to continue. I did. In 1996 I was living with Maylie Scott on Ashby in Berkeley and still doing sesshin with Aitken and John Tarrant. One Sunday morning I had to drive a rented truck back to Santa Rosa. As I was returning to where I’d parked it the night before, POW. All that self-referential mind swirling stopped and I got it. It didn't matter if it came via some well-intentioned modernization efforts in a Soto Shu University in the 20's. It hit me. There was no turning back.

Of course that experience faded soon enough which presented its own dilemma, but it was enough to set me on my own path. I remember saying to Phil Whalen once what a shame it was that the library at Nalanda was destroyed--all that knowledge lost. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Enough remains. Just enough.” I feel the same about any attempts to update our practice and make it modern or palatable or whatever. Enough remains, Just enough. And, as thanks to Phil I’ll add: “With any luck if we’re lucky.”

I don't want to take a path based on pious dreams and hopes, magical thinking, myth or wild speculation. When coupled with a few token morsels of experience that we might be able to recognize in ourselves if we’ve spent any time on the cushion, we enter dangerous territory. I was lucky to be able to see something authentic in several teachers, among them Issan Dorsey, Phil Whalen, Maylie Scott, Bob Aitken. I trusted them, and was able to just stick with it until I began to catch a glimpse for myself that something else is possible.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion

Maha Shobogenzo Case 105

Book of Serenity Case 54




The Case

 

Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion (Avalokiteshvara) use so many hands and eyes?”1

Daowu said, “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching back in search of a pillow.”2

Yunyan said, “I understand.”3

Daowu said, “How do you understand it?”4

Yunyan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”5

Daowu said, “What you said is roughly all right. But it’s only eighty percent of it. “6

Yunyan said, “Senior brother, how do you understand it?”7

Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”8


The Commentary

If your whole body were an eye, you still wouldn’t be able to see it. If your whole body were an ear, you still wouldn’t be able to hear it. If your whole body were a mouth, you still wouldn’t be able to speak of it. If your whole body were mind, you still wouldn’t be able to perceive it. Because the activity of Bodhisattva of Great Compassion is her whole body and mind itself, it is not limited to any notions or ideas of self or other. Bringing it up in the first place is a thousand miles from the truth. Answering the question only serves to compound the error. Don’t you see? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva has never understood what compassion is.

The Capping Verse

All over the body, throughout the body.
It just can’t be rationalized.
Deaf, dumb and blind — virtuous arms, penetrating eyes
Have always been right here.


My Comments:

Taigen Dan Leighton in his book, This Is It, cites Wansong’s comment, 'When reaching for a pillow at night, there's an eye in the hand; when eating there's an eye on the tongue, when recognizing people on hearing them speak, there's an eye in the ears.'"

What is my understanding of this?

Poor old Wansong is just deluded. The hand doesn't need an extra eye to reach out to grab the pillow. If Wansong is waiting for an eye to appear on his tongue before he speaks, that’s our good luck, we won’t have to listen to his double talk. An eye in the ear won’t help him either. He’s already muddied Quan Yin’s Great Compassion song with too many notes. And about that painter guy who did the famous portrait--he had too much time on his hands and the paint in his pots must have been overflowing.

There are innumerable qualities in Great Compassion, but that doesn't mean that it’s complicated or something mere human beings shouldn't strive for, and is impossible to attain. Tonight when you’re deep in sleep, reach behind you and hold onto your pillow.

Keep it simple.



The Footnotes

1. Why does he ask? Is it out of curiosity or an imperative?
2. Miraculous activity; it’s not to be taken lightly.
3. That’s exactly the problem that you started with in the first place. Stop understanding.
4. It won’t do to let him get away with it.
5. Many Zen practitioners fall into this pit.
6. It’s because he understands it that he only got eighty percent of it.
7. Make it your own; don’t rely on another’s provisions to support your life.
8. No gaps! But say, did he really say it all? If you say he did — wrong! If you say he didn’t you have missed it. What do you say?

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Dokusan goes Kung-an

Talking publicly about sex


Zen students don’t talk about our private meetings with our teachers. “Dokusan” means "going alone to a respected one." These conversations have an aura. They take place in the context of meditation. We respect their privacy because they can be very intimate, shaking our world to its very foundations. 


I’m going to break that rule, and talk about just such an intimate conversation I had with Issan Dorsey Roshi. I’m going public and talk openly about a private conversation about sex. In Zen these kinds of conversations are called koans, a term which comes from the Chinese characters, 公案, Kung-an, which literally means “public notice.” 


Issan has been dead for almost 30 years. In the traditional koan collections, the teachers have been dead a lot longer, and, as most of these dialogues were between celibate members of the sangha, most talk about sex is, how shall I say it, in a different context. You’ll also have to take my word that the conversation was one that shook me to the core, and helped me, as a gay man, focus my meditation. Issan can’t verify his side of the conversation, but if I’ve hit the mark, and done my job as Issan’s student, you might be able to use his teaching to untie some personal knots about meditation.


I grew up in a traditional Irish Catholic family, or at least I had a very traditional Irish mother. Her word was law. She taught us to avoid talk about sex in polite conversation which meant that it was rarely, if ever, spoken about. Drunken conversations were of course another matter. There politeness was optional. As drunken conversations, they carried less weight, but they were at least a time when you could talk about sex. Good Jamison could be counted on as the Irish un-inhibitor.


Fitting quite nicely with my preconceived notions, in Zen settings most talk about sex focuses on the prohibitory precepts, or that has been my experience. 


At one of my first sesshins, a long intense meditation period, hours upon hours with a few breaks to eat and get the blood flowing back into the legs, my mind began to play a nasty trick on me, or so I thought. I imagined myself in love with a very cute guy who was sitting about three seats to my left. Let’s call him “R.” R has been a Zen priest for many years. He also knew and practiced with Issan so I’m sure he would love being part of this koan, but I don’t know how useful it would be for the public to know the real name of R who was the object of my sexual fantasy.


My mind couldn’t do anything else but fantasize! When I got up after a period, I glanced in his direction to know that he was still there. Even if I managed to focus on my breath for a few seconds while I was sitting, It required enormous effort.


My obsession had totally hijacked my mind.  


I went to see Issan after the first period. His bedroom doubled as his interview room, a few candles, a bell, two cushions set close to one another. After I bowed, I blurted out the whole story.


He looked at me, entirely present, and then we both began to laugh, slowly at first, but then louder and louder.


Finally he took a breath and said, “Oh, I fell in love with someone every practice period at Tassajara. They were usually straight so you can imagine how that went.”


Then he told me a story. 


“When I was tenzo at Tassajara during one practice period, I fell head over heels in love with a very handsome young man. I suppose you could say I was obsessed. It was hard enough to escape all those fantasies in meditation, but it even got to the point where it was dangerous--when I was chopping, I had to consciously pull my mind back to the vegetable, the knife, and the board to avoid mindlessly chopping off a finger. 


"When you’re actually in deep concentration the strangest things can happen. It got to the point that it was even difficult to concentrate when I was cooking--and that was my responsibility--so I went into the Roshi and talked about it!


“And then I discovered that I could just stop it. I mean it really stopped. I think I might have just been more able to return to my breath. Probably nothing more.”


Then he asked, “Can you stop loving R? Would that even be a good thing? I just don’t want you to chop off your finger.”


Issan & James 






Saturday, July 24, 2021

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to an article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails. It was published in 1989 while Ösel Tendzin was still alive, and just at the time when the extent of Tendzin’s reckless sexual conduct as a person with HIV/AIDS was coming to light. Butterfield’s article does not address this controversy that was ripping the fledgling Western Buddhist world apart.

In 1990 Ösel died in San Francisco where he’d come for treatment of advanced HIV disease. At the time I was living at Hartford Street Zen Center and working as the Director of Maitri AIDS Hospice; for some reason I felt it was important that Maitri, a Buddhist program set up for helping ease the pain of the AIDS epidemic, should be present for the funeral of an important Buddhist teacher who’d died from the disease. I didn’t realize how deeply I would wade into the murky waters of denial.

Shambala was going to conduct the elaborate funeral ritual at their center on 16th and Mission. We phoned, asked if we could attend, and were given a time; we put on our rakusus and climbed to the second floor above a Jack in the Box in a pretty marginal neighborhood.

I can’t adequately describe my shock.

It may have been the first Tibetan ritual that I’d attended, but after we’d entered the hall and made our prostrations, there was Ösel’s corpse trussed up in an awkward meditation posture, full regalia barely masking the ropes and poles required to hold it upright. I’d sat with many men who died of AIDS so it was not that the body itself showed the ravages of the disease. There was no attempt to hide them. It was not that the ritual seemed foreign or exotic. It was, but it was a Tibetan ritual, and I wasn’t expecting a low church Episcopalian service.

What totally overwhelmed me was the veneration of a man who had knowingly infected others with AIDS. Shambala tried to mitigate the damage with a mystical smokescreen. It was rumored that some had spread the lie that the guru’s Vajra powers bestowed by the lineage would prevent reinfection, or that it was even an opening for the great enlightenment. There was at least one teenage boy involved, a young man whose life would now be cut short. Everyone present, and there were several hundred, knew that their Regent had knowingly infected people with HIV and that their deaths would be soon upon them. It was all supposed to be OK in the great scheme of things. The drums beat, the chanting began. Steve Allen got up and motioned for us to leave. On the way down the stairs he said, “All that was missing was the bones in their noses.”

We returned to Hartford Street. I was shaken, but managed to get up the next morning and take care of Bernie, J.D, and the five other men in our care.

I have never picked up “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” again, brilliant as it is. Nor have I recommended it to anyone, and I never will. I feel that it would be condoning the damage to the precious dharma caused by the actions of these men.




Some people have tried to defend Ösel. One wrote to me and said, “hindsight is easy.” I lived through that period, I took care of more than 100 men who died of AIDS. My own teacher died. It was a terrible time. Of course there were mistakes. Of course it was difficult. Of course it takes time to sort things out. It took me years.

Steven Butterfield writes about his personal interactions with Ösel, wondering why in an airport lounge he can’t muster the courage to ask him a question about his HIV disease. He chose to remain silent, and they go on pretending that their world of limousines, crazy wisdom practice and unprotected sex could just go on and on. In retrospect can Butterfield even question his belief in guru transmission? He says he can, but I get the distinct feeling that there are still far too many threads that tie him to the myth.

But there can be no passing the buck here. It was arrogance and grave harm. We have to name it. Hindsight may be easy, but murder is still murder. Sexual abuse is still abuse. People say, oh it was the 80's, things were different. I strongly disagree. We knew that HIV was sexually transmitted for certain by 1983 when the virus was isolated by the Pasteur Institute in France. Ösel knew that he was positive for the virus, and still had unprotected sex with at least one minor. Sorry. Call it what it was.

Searching Google for a picture of Mr. Thomas Rich, I found vajraregent.org. When I entered “AIDS” into the site’s search engine, nothing. But I did find these verses. I think that some people are still in deep denial.

This is offered with love, appreciation and gratitude to Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent and dharma heir Ösel Tendzin, for the benefit of their present and future disciples, and all beings.

Through hearing, seeing and contemplating these teachings of the Vidyadhara through his Vajra Regent,

May we realize the essence of transmission from teacher to student.

May we hold precious this seed planting of Vajrayana dharma and Shambhala vision in the West.

Through their gestures and words, may we wake up on the spot.

May we not become confused by spiritual materialism in any form.

Now, practicing moment by moment until the end of this life and beyond, may we free all beings.


And I will add my own petition to this list:


May we work diligently to repair any damage to the transmission of the precious Dharma caused by our heedless actions.

And deliver us from cults.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

How does the past become the past? Therapy, Jesus and Zen

My Facebook Zen friend, James Kenney, asked a wonderfully provocative question: “Is forgiveness an act of will?”

Psychologists define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. 

Whether forgiveness is a will-act, whether it’s voluntary or conditional, and what happens to your state of mind, are also issues worth examining. The psychological definition says it's a choice that allows a person to forgive another for an offense or an act that was illegal or immoral. It is intentional.

When someone forgives someone, they let go of negative emotions. When a debt is forgiven, there is a release of any expectation or commitment for repayment or compensation.

Perhaps in terms of the law and psychotherapeutic practice these definitions are useful, but as a practitioner, I find they don’t go far enough. I’m going to posit forgiveness as being finished with the past in the sense that the trauma becomes a complete chapter of personal history without any holdovers in one’s present everyday life. This includes being able to handle any residual flashes of negative emotion as well as not suffering any real financial or physical consequences from the other person’s action. I’ve set the bar quite high. Forgiveness is like an act of God, but very possible for us humans too. We all make mistakes. We all need forgiveness.

In my response to James’s question on Facebook I mentioned that I was raped by Bob Hoffman within 6 months after I finished the Process of Psychic Therapy, and when a senior Hoffman teacher asked me why I hadn’t been able to “move on,” I said that I chose not to. It’s part of being compassionate.

Then a no-doubt well-intentioned person told me that I just had to forgive Hoffman. I found the injunction extremely annoying, but I could not pin down why. I felt that my respondent had both missed the point and misconstrued my intention. However there was something more. I was told I had to forgive to live fully, but not condone the act. That I had to dispel the darkness, or something. Of course when I went back to copy the response so that I could digest it, the writer had taken it down.

I hate being told what’s in my best interest. But now that I’ve owned up to my off-the-shelf response, perhaps I can examine why I resist this blanket injunction to forgive. I’ve actually written about this in some detail, “Forgive and Forget Hoffman?” where I examine one possible underlying motivations, playing the victim card, which is what I think the senior Hoffman teacher was snidely inferring with his admonition wrongly framed as a therapeutic question: isn’t it time to move on?

Thanks for advice I didn’t request, and, actually, I get to decide when, what and if to forgive. But instead of just firing off a “Fuck off,” I’ll take it the opportunity to spell out my reasons for rejecting the self-serving advicethe teacher does make money selling Hoffman’s Process, and my well-intentioned respondent reads New Age self-help books although I am unsure if he gets a percentage.

It’s not in the past because it’s not in the past. There are limits to being able to just declare something ancient history, to forgive and forget.

I was enjoined to dispel the darkness of past events that are blatantly evil and destructive. I’m going to posit that just dismissing them and their consequences under some command to “move on” is not particularly useful or helpful simply because it’s not honest.

My friend Susan Murphy, an insightful Australian Zen teacher, responding to my question as to whether or not I was playing the victim card, pointed to the story of Jesus at Capernaum when he healed a man whose friends had to lower him through the roof of a house where Jesus was with some friends--the crowd so dense that this was the only way to get Jesus’s attention. Some version of the story appears in all three synoptic gospels.

The writers of the story clearly separate two aspects of Jesus’s healing. First off Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s the most important one: the man’s faith and that of his friends have caught the attention of Jesus, and he does what he was sent to do, forgive sins. But it is after all a teaching story, so there are objections: scribes and Pharisees, also present, at least rhetorically, ask, ‘How can you forgive? That power belongs only to God.’ And here are the words Jesus responded with in Mark’s gospel: "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? “ The man stands and picks up his mat, demonstrating Jesus’s power, but it also says, compared to forgiving sins, that was the easy part.

And, in the blink of an eye, the past becomes the past.

Why the deliberate separation of two events or perhaps two sides of the same event? Forgiveness is an act of grace and god, and then the disappearance of the physical impairment, the man’s disability becoming just part of his ancient history. The implication is that they may not always be a miracle as commonly understood, but, because Jesus is neither a charlatan nor soothsayer nor fake miracle worker, the act of forgiveness belongs to God alone. However depending on factors we cannot fully understand, there may or may not be the sought after physical, magical cure. But this nuance is left for the commentator or preacher at a later date.

And this is Susan’s observation: “When Jesus told the paralysed man who had been lowered through the roof for a miracle, ‘Pick up your bed and walk,’ effectively he was acting not in the name of supernatural power but in the name of the forgiveness he was asserting that [he] had a right to bestow, because ‘justice is mine’, (or was his, as the Lord). What I see here is that the true miracle, then, was not the performance of a nature-bending act, it was forgiveness. He veered away from performing miracles after that. They were cheapening his teaching. . . . Forgiveness is surely the actualising of love.”

I promised Zen! I quoted a Zen teacher’s reference to the Gospel of Jesus. Let me bring Zen to the Gospel.

A small band of Zen monks carry a paralized brother to meet Jesus in Capernaum, and get his blessing. Like many people here in India lining up for darshan, they’re seeking some relief for their sufferings, also a very Zen thing to do, but following their training, they don’t have too many expectations. They set the stage for a Buddhist encounter with Jesus. 

Their Zen training suddenly throws a lot of work into the scenario. They carry the man obviously a long way from a distant Eastern ashram. Then they find the materials and tools to fashion a ladder to get up to the roof. They certainly can’t steal one. After determining where Jesus was sitting, they carefully cut an opening in the ceiling, not hurting anyone in the room with falling debris. Each one of these actions is deliberate, requiring planning and effort. The work is performed as carefully and mindfully as possible. They’re monks after all. I didn’t mention that they might also have to learn Aramaic but there’s already enough to do without that so let’s throw in the magical appearance of a good interpreter.

Somehow they climb down into the presence of Jesus with the brother they’ve just lowered in a sling, and hear, “Your sins are forgiven.” They also hear the Pharisees' question: “Doesn’t forgiveness of sins belong to God?” "Good question," they say, and the dharma combat begins. The Pharisees are often the fall guys in the Gospel stories, but not our Zen monks: What is forgiveness of sins exactly? What is there to forgive? Are a misstep or an evil act the same? These monks live by the Law of dependent origination, Paticca-samuppada. Something in their brother’s past resulted in his paralysis. At least in that regard, on the surface, although Jesus does not talk about any cause for the man’s affliction, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that it was the result of something in his past, his sins. In Zen they were taught to chant: “All my ancient twisted karma from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion, born through body, speech, and mind. I now fully avow.” 

I promised therapy. Here is an examination of the mental results of past events.

I will try to frame the conclusion of this conversation with some tested therapeutic hypotheses. I remained in negative transference for years to a man, a trusted therapist, whom I turned to for counsel at a time of personal crisis when I was very vulnerable, and he abused me sexually and emotionally.

I recognize my personal event in this Jesus story, and thank Susan for providing the match up for me to work with. Of course Hoffman’s rape paralized meI am the paralytic lowered through the roof. Hoffman’s abuse surely cut off opportunities that might have been open to me were I not in transference for so long; there were always blocks working with teachers because on some very deep level I couldn’t trust them; there was sexual dysfunction and frustration; there was alcohol and substance abuse; there were the silly issues with partners that popped upwhen I managed to find someone willing to put up with my defensiveness. I certainly would have preferred to exit the dead-ended process earlier. I can imagine the possibility of having time and energy to explore other avenues, but those daydreams didn’t happen.

And yes, I regret those lost opportunities although I’ve managed to find compassion for Bob Hoffman who was himself a closeted gay man racked by self-doubt, psychosis, and loneliness. It is not difficult to be truly forgiving and compassionate when you really comprehend the pain of another person’s life. It seems to actually spring up naturally without effort or responding to a command to move on. And, in my case it happened in its own course after I was willing to do the work of unraveling the complex story of my abuse.

But I am not ready to forgive Hoffman's actiions. They had real consequences. My greatest loss doing the process of psychic therapy was the destruction of an admittedly tenuous relationship with my father. I was in crisis when I undertook work with Hoffman, but my father did not abuse me. Hoffman didhe really abused me, but managed through his psychic therapy to blame my dad (and then forgive in his again fictional way). As a result I had almost zero relationship with my father, a wonderfully kind and good man, for most of my adult life. Hoffman even fed me a wildly speculative made-up story about my father being gay. My father lived to be almost 101 years old, and I was lucky that we shared a few very rich years of real friendship at the end of his life. I missed out on 40, but I am still very grateful. Yes, that past is fully past, but some gifts remain and can be nurtured.

Why do intelligent people believe nonsense? Because when we’re vulnerable and in pain, we need to experience compassion. Instead I had the bad luck to be an object to fulfill a charlatan’s need for sexual gratification. The real answer to the question about "moving on" is that the compassion and forgiveness had to be for myself, not Hoffman. And because I’ve opted for the Zen route, it was not like just falling through a hole in the roof or being lowered into a Blessed Presence. I traveled from afar with the help of companions. That was my good luck, and I remained angry enough at Hoffman’s abuse to get to the heart of the matter. At least for me that route could not be short circuited.

The hip coffee house New Age sage will tell you that not forgiving only hurts you. There’s no one to hurt but yourself so why not “Move On”? By contrast, in legendary Zen a deceptively ordinary lady at the tea stand doesn’t order you around but rather asks a simple, innocent sounding, straight forward question: “hey Mr. Paralytic, is that ‘not-walking-mind’ past, present or future?” A good answer might allow you to step into the radical present. The past is past because it’s past; the future might exist in hopes and dreams, perhaps sadly colored with regret; the only place to walk into is this moment.

If there was a tea stand in Capernaum, you can bet that there were no crowds like the ones surrounding Jesus. Zen is oftimes a lonely practice, but maybe a few stragglers found their way there after Jesus had performed enough miracles for one day. They would be lucky if they came armed with some good questions. But that might take some work, work that’s still to be done, like finding a real path to forgiveness.

In Zen forgiveness is an act of will if you choose the right path and refuse to settle for an easy way out. Then the Blessed Presence thing just happens. That cannot be willed.

And to the Hoffman teacher who told me to “Move on.” Thanks for the free advice, but “Fuck Off.”


P.S. When the Hoffman teacher asked why I waited until now to write a hit piece, I listed all the writing that I've been doing over almost two decades: My Hoffman Process Writings.

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