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



Friday, December 10, 2021

Q and A Zen

A cautionary tale plus a koanor two.

A friend recently told me about some advice from a Taoist master. I admit that I automatically distrust some Western dude with an ancient Chinese title. It feels like a label to make him credible. I don’t fully understand what Daoism is, and certainly haven’t the faintest idea of what it might have meant in 6th century BCE China. The friend didn’t actually repeat his Taoist teacher’s advice. I think I might be required to fork over some cash before I had the pleasure. We are a gullible lot.

I investigated my initial response and discovered two basic questions: What are the prejudices that spark my immediate response? And what would be the criteria for me to trust a teacher and what he or she teaches? These are separate questions. It is important for me not to discover one answer and think that it provides a solution to both investigations. It is easy to conflate and confuse the answers: because I have discovered that I am distrustful for X reason, the teacher and his or her teaching must be trustworthy.

Sometimes in Zen circles we western practitioners get lost in a lot of talk about our way, the Rinzai Way, the Soto way, the right way. This kind of jabber is barely distinguishable from cultish blabber.

The questions this raises are really the same: How can we recognize what we call “authentic” practice; and what makes a teacher trustworthy?

These questions bite their own tails. Some people, even trusted teachers, counsel us to trust our feelings. But when we honestly examine them, we find a twisted mess. We are told to just sit and they will sort themselves out. We sit. Perhaps a few of the knots disentangle, but there is no guarantee that a clear direction will emerge. Judge by the solutions that appear in real time, there are no easy answers.

In 1990 when nearly 100 men were dying from AIDS in San Francisco every week, I remember talking with a bright, engaging woman who came to sit zazen at Hartford Street. She asked questions about the Hospice and Issan. I invited her to come back, perhaps become a hospice volunteer. She begged off, explaining that she was very involved in her practice at “the big Zen Center.” I remember her words exactly. “We do the real Japanese Buddhism: we bow at everything every time we turn around.” That is one choice.

I never saw the woman again. What stopped her? Did I get in the way? Perhaps there was something about the dying, knowing that you’re dying, and the emotions that stirs up. I cannot say. Several of Issan’s close students didn’t visit. When he started to get sick, they actually disappeared, later explaining that they couldn’t bear to see him suffer or they preferred to remember him as the Pastor of Castro Street. Many were also gay and themselves HIV positive. There was such pain and suffering in the community, facing death head on was hard for all of us. I met Issan when HIV started to ravage his body and mind so that is really the only Issan I knew. It was his gift and my luck. But when I listened to stories of Issan at Tassajara or at Zen Center, Green Gulch or Santa Fe, I knew that dying Issan was the same man dedicating himself diligently and completely to the practice.

I feel that the bowing woman missed an opportunity to experience a man who lived out the teaching until his last breath, but I also know that Issan would never have faulted her for avoiding him and bowing every time she turned around. He was so non-judgement and tolerant not to mention how much he loved to bow. I admit to applying a little pressure on the woman—I needed help at the hospice—and I also admit to feeling slightly superior in my role running the hospice which was of course real practice. I can’t set my experience center stage for applause, but on the other hand, I need to avoid rote answers, or getting caught up in some cultural forms that I don’t understand as if they unlock some esoteric secret.

Quick change of scene

Listening in on a recent discussion bemoaning the death of Zen in Japan—so many first-son priests escaping the lifeless tedium of administering the family's temple business, my mind went back to a morning I spent looking over the library at Hartford Street, searching for a book that might unlock the mystery of the universe. Trained as a Jesuit, I hoped to find an answer, even a coded one, recorded by someone at some time in some place that might point me in the right direction.

I picked up a volume and read about the third and final destruction of Nalanda, including its vast library, and tried to start a conversation with Phil Whalen. I was more horrified at the loss of the the sutras, the Mahayana texts and commentaries, including all the works, the notes and who knows what else, of the pivotal scholar Nāgārjuna than I was by the wanton murder of thousands of monks and teachers. I blurted out something about the horror of burning books to Phil who was sitting in his chair across from me. He just looked up, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. They left us enough, just enough.”

Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji is not alone in trying to destroy the dharma by burning books and killing monks and nuns. Beginning in 1950 Mao and the People’s Liberation Army systematically destroyed monasteries and burned as many sacred texts as they could lay their hands on in Tibet. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration began the campaign of Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈), literally "abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni," which led to the wholesale destruction of Buddhist temples and monasteries as well as sacred texts. The Taliban destroyed huge ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan Afghanistan early 2001 which shocked the world and was soon followed by the regime’s defeat, but it did not prevent them from reasserting their hardline earlier this year.

haibutsu-kishaku01.jpg

The burning of sūtras during the Haibutsu kishaku (unknown source).


So while I deplore book-burning or destruction of religious art, their preservation is not a necessary condition for our practice. The loss of cultural Japanese Buddhism, centuries old beauty and tradition, including bowing to everything all the time, is a real loss, but it might have already disappeared.

How much remains? Just enough.

Issan is dying.

In the early morning of September 6th, 1990, Issan’s breaths had become very labored. Someone woke me. My room was directly above his. I went downstairs and joined the others. There were perhaps ten people in the room, most of whom had shared the last difficult months of his journey, his doctor Rick Levine, Steve Allen, Shunko Jamvold, Angel Farrow, David Bulloch, David Sunseri, Kai Harper Lee, Jakushu Gregory Wood, myself—I can’t really remember who else was present. Most of us were sitting as best we could in the posture of meditation. Phil Whalen sat in a chair.

The time had come. We waited for the end. I actually don’t know if it felt so dramatic to others, but to me it did. We were told that certain endorphins naturally kicked in to numb the pain, and of course there was palliative medication, but it was almost painful to hear the sound of his struggling for breath. His body jerked and trembled. Steve got up, lay down beside him, and held him gently. At first I was shocked. I was sure that Steve had never held Issan in that way before, but then it seemed like a perfect, spontaneous response—Issan loved the reassuring caress of another man. Gradually his breath became calm but more shallow. I tried to follow my own breath, to remain present and focused. It was difficult. There was a cascade of thoughts and emotions realizing how much I’d come to love Issan and how deeply I would miss him.

The room became very quiet. Then Phil got up from his chair and bowed one last time to his old friend. Was he leaving? I was startled. It felt important to me to stay to the end. In a soft voice Phil said, “I’m sorry but I have to excuse myself. I will open the Zendo in the morning, and I need to sleep.” Then he left while life remained.
  

Love rides on the breath,

Labored, easy, 

When the breath ends 

It stands up, walks out,

And saves itself.


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