This is September 18, 2022, and, as advertised, I'm going to be talking about Zen teaching and succession. I'm going to try to cover a lot today, some of it quite sensitive, and so, without sheepishness, I've written out more of this than I ever have before, more notes than ever before. I heard teisho defined once as, the literal translation is, to bring the shout. Well, what you just heard may have been my last shout of this teisho because it just has to be. I feel compelled to make it more explanatory than most teishos, given the circumstances, this pivot point we're at.
I've heard quite a few responses to the news. One of them, I think, captures my own; it could have been said by me. This is from a very senior out-of-town member who began by saying, "This news prompts in me more thoughts and feelings than I can articulate just now."
Just to review the news, the letter that went out, just the bare bones of it, that I will be sanctioning Donna Kowal as a teacher next month, October 16. And she will then, when I leave as planned, as scheduled, in late October, she will take my place as John-sensei's Spiritual Co-Director and will follow the same alternating six month deal that we already started, with him being in charge as the presiding teacher in the winter, November through April, and then her taking my place as the presiding teacher over the other six months.
I'm not retiring. I'm not just shying away from the word. But let me explain. I'm delighted that Donna and Sensei both want me to continue offering online dokusan to my students while I'm away. And let me add that even my own personal students, those who have gone through a new student ceremony with me, may also choose to take dokusan with Donna or Sensei, as they have been permitted to do with my other teacher-disciples, Amala-sensei, Robert-sensei, Gerardo-sensei and the two Swedes Kanja and Sante. However, I won't be giving online dokusan to people who aren't already my students.
And I won't be giving any more workshops, unless I'm called to in an emergency. This upcoming one, even though it's still technically in my on-period, I asked John-sensei to do it in my place. It's the day before Donna's sanctioning. I asked John-sensei to do it in my place because, after all, the people who will be attending the workshop will need to be introduced to him as one of their possible teachers. So he's going to do that one.
And, as far as non-retirement, as I said in the letter, at Donna's invitation, I'll be leading one of the seven-day sesshin next summer. I think I said in the letter it would be the June sesshin, but we talked yesterday and we both agreed that July would be better for both of us. So she'll do the June seven-day, I'll do the July, and then it's her after that. And Donna and John-sensei are agreeable to including me among possible sesshin guest teachers, which I started with my own teacher-disciples, Amala, Gerardo, Robert ,and so forth. So you're not getting rid of me yet.
So now let me repeat. I think more of what I feel I have to repeat is what I said in the letter. The principal reason for this change, that is, for this to be my last year living in Rochester, the principal reason is to make room for new blood. It's not because my wife is dragging me down to Florida. This came first; this has been been a couple of years in the making, two or three years. Maybe it got all shaken up with the pandemic, which has shaken up so much of everything.
The Zen Center, like any one of us as individuals, can get set in its ways. It can get sclerotic. It can get set in ways we don't even know it's set in, just as we as individuals can. In a way, you can say that's the ever-present challenge for each one of us as individuals, coming to see what's unconscious in us, coming to understand this nature that may be largely hidden from us.
So it was, then, that over the past few years I've felt a growing sense of responsibility to step aside and allow other voices to be heard, to have the table reset. Just as John-sensei brought new things to the table as a teacher last year, so will Donna, starting with just the fact that she's a different generation than Sensei and me and there are nice things about that. I remember when I took over the Center at age 38 (I can hardly believe that), for all of what I felt were my disabilities, at least I could change things. I could bring fresh blood to the thing, to the Center, for better or for worse.
So this isn't an impulsive decision. I've taken the time to consult with John-sensei and Chris, who all along have supported it and who endorse my choice of Donna to replace me. I've felt, we've all felt, compelled, the three of us, to keep this under wraps. I ambushed Donna two or three months ago and asked her if she would be willing to do this. But it's the kind of thing that just can get out of control, out of hand, if it starts leaking out. I wanted to be able to announce it on my own terms, first in a letter last night and now in the teisho.
Part of the inspiration of me wanting to do this is the memory of a Japanese roshi I met while I was there in Japan. I just had an hour with him, no more. His name is Kobori-roshi. He was a Rinzai roshi there. He had been the head of Daitoku-ji. Daitoku-ji is one of these legendary Rinzai training dojos that go back to hundreds of years in Kyoto. I was enormously impressed with him, such simplicity and transparency and naturalness. I didn't get a whiff of charisma or anything like that. He was this and yet so impressive.
And we were just talking about different things at the time. When he was asked to be the abbot of Daitoku-ji, which is a huge place (it has all these sub-temples as well as the main monastery), he said, "I'll do it for two years, two years and out." I don't know, I didn't ask Kobori-roshi why he wanted to limit it to two years. I would just speculate that the demands of managing such a huge temple complex would be the big thing. And I think he may have mentioned how little time it would leave him for his own zazen. But, again, speculation, maybe the internal politics of such a big monastery, all the hair pulling among the monks (pun intended) because monks, just like residential staff, are human beings and we are not finished products. We're still working things out. But at least Kobori-roshi didn't have to deal with American-style hyper-individualism, the cult of the self, with the glorification of opinions and preferences. These are big headwinds that we face in American Zen.
Anyway, a year ago, I felt that it would be premature to bow out entirely, so I hornswoggled John-sensei to partner with me. This splitting of the teaching on the basis of six-month alternating periods would be an experiment for the Center after some 55 years of having just one teacher in charge year round.
But we knew that there were other teaching models out there that worked. I remember being shocked 35 years ago when we hosted the first annual AZTA meeting, the first meeting of the American Zen Teachers Association, to hear that at the San Francisco Zen Center they had co-abbots. They smirked when they said, "Yeah, we call it co-abbotation."
And I know from my wife and her retreats at the big Vipassana center on the East Coast, IMS, Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts, that there's no full-time teacher in residence there at all. They just have various teachers coming through leading retreats .That doesn't mean that it's a simple equivalency to Zen. But maybe the very common Japanese model of just one fully authorized teacher (and that's a model that I continued from Kapleau-roshi) could be outmoded. Or it could be not suitable for our culture. We don't know. We're always in this stupendous project of transplanting an Asian tradition to the West. A lot of it is groping in the dark and just doing the best we can to be mindful, to be aware, to see what's working and what isn't.
This is a good time to do this too because of the other changes happening now here at the Center with the Sangha Programs Committee project, all the things that are proliferating in that area. I don't want to give the impression that I'm going to be leaving, this is my last year living here, as simply a way to effect change that may be called for. But I would see my leaving as also the result of some of these other changes we see, for example, in the Sangha Programs Committee, a committee that Donna herself has had a big hand in, as well as Barry, of course, and Dene and others. It's a time of change and there's nothing to recoil from with change. So that's the main thing, to see what might develop by having a new pair of people in charge of teaching here and sharing as Co-Directors. But the secondary reason, and I cannot leave this out, is a matter of age and my stage of life.
Step one was my considering this, over the course of the pandemic, thinking about this as a positive change. Step two was my wife, Angela, announcing that she wanted to move into retirement and that she wanted to move to Florida. I never saw myself living in Florida. But she grew up near the coast, the New Hampshire coast. Her family would go there and rent a place for the summers and she got the ocean into her bones. And she always has wanted to live near the sea. And she has largely supported me for 30 years. I know I already said this, but I just have to repeat it. For now 31 years, she's paid 90% of our household expenses and willingly, more than willingly. Happily, she has a tremendous respect for the Center and for what I do. And she saw it as a kind of dana to the Center to cover that so the Center wouldn't have to raise my salary much.
So it was a time for me to join her in what we both saw as the final chapter in our lives together. And last winter, as those of you who read my article in the current "Zen Bow" got a sense of how that's been going, it's been going very well. But here's my question: Who would think that this year's arrangement, with my spending six months here while she's alone in Florida, who would think that that could go on? it's just not sustainable. It's been okay. We've been both surprised at how manageable it's been. We talk three or four times a day on the phone. But as far as non-sustainable, even if we won the lottery and could afford to live in two places alternating through the year, it's not a way to live. I heard from someone else in the Sangha who tried that for a while, and he said, "When you live in two places, you live in neither place."
And so now I'm convinced that it's time for Donna to take my place in partnering with John-sensei. Now, here's the irony in all this. This year I have felt even more zest for teaching than ever. You know that saying, "Find a job you love and you won't have to work another day of your life." I've always felt that's true for me, but never more so than this year. I have felt lighter; the job has felt lighter and more enjoyable than ever. And I've reflected on that. Why? Well, no doubt being away for six and a half months left me feeling restored, this spring feeling renewed, not to mention missing the local Sangha. But also, okay, maybe knowing that this was my last full year in Rochester, that there was an exit point, probably, again, more speculation.
But also just the simplicity of living here as a monk again, as I did for 15 years when I was younger, the quiet joy of that simplicity, fully embedded in the temple, the complex in the heart of the Sangha. And plus functioning, I feel, at the peak of my abilities, my teaching abilities, such as they are. And that comes from, of course, long experience.
I'm going to take up a case in the Mumonkan now, "Kicking Over the Water Bottle." This is number 40 in the Mumonkan. I won't go into this in the depth that I usually do when commenting on a koan, but just the case mainly.
So here's the case. "When Isan was with Hyakujo, he worked as the tenzo." That's the head cook at the monastery. So Isan was the head cook. "Hyakujo wanted to choose an abbot for a new monastery, Da Yi monastery. So he called together all the monks and told them that the one who could answer his question in an outstanding manner would be sent.
"And he took a water bottle, stood it on the floor, and said, 'Don't call this a water bottle, but tell me what it is.'
"The head monk said, 'It can't be called a wooden sandal.'" Andy Ferguson translated that as "It can't be called a wooden stool." It doesn't matter.
"Hyakujo then asked Isan his opinion. Isan walked up, kicked over the water bottle, and left. Hyakujo laughed and said, 'The head monk has lost,' and Isan was ordered to found the monastery."
Let me start by speculating what Hyakujo would have been looking for in an abbot. Well, I think much the same as John-sensei or the other senseis or I would look for today and last year when I sanctioned Sensei: number one, well, number one and number two, I really don't want to put one over the other, but insight and integrity.
Insight: having seen into one's essential nature, entering the first gate, kensho. In Isan's day, and this is back in the Tang dynasty (I don't know, 900 or something), there were no koans. But today, we have the koan system. And it's helpful in discerning when someone has had an insight into one's True-nature because it can be quite slight. It was for me. My first insight was slight. And then the koans are one way, not the only way. When someone has passed their first koan, I invite them to go on to other koan collections, but I tell them, there's no need to. The great Tang masters didn't have koans to work on.
But just for the record, here's the order of things that we use here. First, there are, I don't know, 40 or 50 preliminary koans, very short ones that are sort of the bones of all the ones that follow. And then, typically, the first collection would be the "Mumonkan," called the "Gateless Barrier." There are about 50 there. (I don't want to get tied down in numbers here.) The second one is the "Blue Cliff Record." There are about 100 there. The "Book of Serenity," the "Shoyo Roku." There are about 100 there. And then the "Transmission of Light," the "Denkoroku," about 50 there. And then after that there might be some other work that I do with a student.
Insight, kensho: this is not a prerequisite at a lot of Zen centers, or Zen temples even in Japan. I remember in one of the AZTA meetings I attended, someone came up with a suggestion that we go around and say what our criteria are for transmission, for authorizing teachers. And either I or one of my Dharma siblings who were there said, "Well, first kensho."
And one of the other teachers kind of turned her head like a cocker spaniel and said, 'Hmm, we have a different model than that." I was shocked. But since then I've come to see that this is by far the majority of Zen centers, that it's more about putting in your time, years and years and years of time, which is a serious, important thing. A lot of insight comes from many years of practice.
But there are no absolutes. Kapleau-roshi told me that his first teacher briefly in Japan, Nakagawa-roshi (he was just with him for six months before going to Harada-roshi, and then Yasutani-roshi), that Nakagawa-roshi confided to him that he had been made Dharma successor without even having gotten through his first koan, without having had kensho. And that he had been so ashamed. (Shame doesn't have the pejorative connotation it does in our culture. It's a big engine of change and motivation.) He had been so ashamed, he said, that at the next sesshin he got through his koan.
And then I would put equally with kensho, I would put integrity, upright moral conduct. Even Yasutani-roshi (who talks a lot about kensho), he called this the foundation of practice, particularly the first five precepts: not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying, and not abusing alcohol or drugs. Without that kind of upright conduct, it can just ruin a Zen center or temple. It has ruined Zen centers and temples if the teacher gets involved in that stuff.
All right, besides insight and integrity, of course you want to see compassion. That really is the flip side of of insight. Insight means seeing into the indivisible nature of all existence. And to the degree that we've seen the oneness of all beings, we will naturally reach out compassionately to those who need it.
Humility: humility comes from self-awareness, another big thing you want to see in a teacher, recognizing one's own lingering emotional afflictions, one's habit patterns. These come to be in full display in zazen, especially in sesshin. But they can also be brought to light in psychotherapy or group work, like AA. We're all unfinished.
What is a real warning sign for me is when I see ambition in a senior student, wanting to be a teacher in an unhealthy way. Plato said, "Access to power must be confined to those who are not in love with it." I struggled with the whole issue of power when Roshi asked me to take over because I think I didn't understand it then. I was too aware of how power could be misused. But then the big epiphany for me was realizing that power is just the ability to effect change. And that's when I said, "All right, I will."
The other things I would look for that Hyakujo surely would have expected in a successor are emotional stability and ` long practice experience, of course. This would have been a given in the monastery, Hyakujo's monastery. Many sesshins, and as a kind of a bonus, residential training. That would have been also a given there. They were all monks. Let's just say there's a lot to season one when one's gone through years of residential training.
You need respect in someone. You need respect to the Sangha, which is not the same as popularity. Some people have learned through their life, how to be popular with others. It's not the same. Respect comes from the Sangha seeing all of these qualities, these foregoing qualities, seeing them embodied in the person. Hyakujo himself would have already seen this in Isan. And here's a little secret: he didn't need this contest to choose. He staged it to reveal the man for the job to the whole Sangha.
In many, many centers, probably most centers, ordination is required to be sanctioned as a teacher. I don't see that. I've tried to. I respect the consensus, but I don't see it. I think if someone has seen into their True-nature and has these other qualities, they can do a lot of help and they don't need to be ordained. I think it's ideal to be ordained. But there is a difference. And this is something I repeatedly have said in emails, Sangha emails, but there's still, I've learned in the last few days, there's still confusion. A teacher and a priest are two different things. You can be a priest without being a teacher; you can be ordained. In our center, ordination means a commitment to do this as your vocation. So you can be a priest without being a teacher; you can be a teacher without being a priest, without being ordained.
And let me just take a little detour here and mention how my prerequisites for ordination, for ordaining someone, have changed. For many years, I was able to get away with requiring years of residential training because I think it's so helpful. But when I was asked to ordain someone who had never been on staff, when I was asked, I said, "Sorry, I have this strict prerequisite. You can ask Amala-sensei, if you want. Maybe she will." And to my surprise, she did. She agreed to start Jeanette Prince-Cherry on the path toward ordination.
And now (that was three or four years ago) now, I have come to really respect Amala-sensei's judgment on that. I mean, there was never any question in my mind but that Jeanette would be an outstanding priest. But yeah, prerequisites change, especially in the midst of a pandemic. It seems like everything was tossed up in the air in all aspects of life with the pandemic. And now I've agreed to ordain the Reddings, Dene and Scott, next month, even though they have a child and they don't live full-time here at the Center because I no longer see it as essential. Again, a great thing to do, but not essential.
And then as a bonus, as far as my own sanctioning of Donna, having her of a younger generation. And, let's face it, a woman. It's been a long time coming. And also just as a bonus, not essential but as a bonus, being articulate, being a skillful communicator.
Now, moving right along here. This teisho shouldn't last more than three hours. So do stretch if you need to. Okay, if it goes that long you can sue me.
Let's look at this head monk. This is fascinating to me. So look at his response. He couldn't have been a lightweight. We can be sure that by virtue of his position, he'd been training a long time. That means years of service to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the Three Treasures. One doesn't get to that position without having a lot of assets. No doubt he would have been a fine teacher himself (maybe he went on to become a fine teacher) because someone in that position, head monk, head of the zendo, has got to have stamina, has to have proven stamina, dedication, self-discipline, moral stature, leadership.
Not only that, you can be sure that Hyakujo needed him. You don't run a monastery, especially one of 1500 monks, without great people. What is that saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." It takes some real talent, other than a teacher, to keep a center functioning in a good way.
Maybe, who knows, maybe one factor in Hyakujo's choosing Isan to start the new monastery was that he could keep the head monk at his side. But now as far as the head monk's response, you know, he says, "Don't call this a water bottle, but tell me what it is."
And he says, "It can't be called a wooden sandal." Fill in the blank; make it what you want. It can't be called a wrench. It can't be called a rock. Now, that's a pretty good response because he's expressed in the negative. Let me say more. He wasn't taking a position. It means it's not limited. Once you take a position, you make an assertion. Then you're vulnerable. And this is pure Buddhism.
Here are some examples. The simplest is Nagarjuna, great, great ancestor, who famously said, "Not this, not that." That's a complete statement.
In one of the koans, Nansen, the great Nansen, is asked, "Is there any Dharma that has never been taught to the people?"
And he said, "It is not mine. It is not Buddha. It is not beings."
In another koan, the monks are arguing about the flapping flag and whether it's the flag that moves or the wind that moves, some idle, idle chatter. And the Sixth Patriarch emerges from the woods and says, "It is not the wind that moves. It's not the flag that moves."
Another koan, "What is Buddha?" Baso: "Not mind, not Buddha."
Nansen again was asked the same basic question, and he said, "Mind is not Buddha; wisdom is not the Way." So if ever you have to give talks on Zen anywhere, it really does help to know that the safest ground you're on is to use negation. "It's not this."
In "Affirming Faith in Mind," "When you assert that things are real, you miss their true reality. But to assert that things are void also misses reality." "Affirming Faith in Mind" is full of these negative words, to "go beyond," to "discard", to "cut off," to "let go," "do not." Another one, "Get rid of." This reflects really the essence of Zen practice. "It's a practice of daily losing," as one master put it. It's emptying. This negation corrects, or balances, what for most of us is the other extreme, and so together we call it the Middle Way.
The Middle Way: there are different ways, different axes, to understand the Middle Way. One way is it's neither existence nor non-existence. That sounds awfully dry. So we could say it's neither this nor that. You can't say that the Self is true in any particular way. But neither can you say that No-self captures it all. And I've read in many places that the Buddha never said, categorically, there is no Self. He said that the Self is of such a nature that it is determined relationally.
So other ways of understanding the Middle Way: neither suppressing thoughts and feelings nor clinging to them. Effort: neither straining nor slackness. There is a story Kapleau-roshi used to tell in his 80's about the monk who came to the Buddha and asked about effort. And the Buddha said, "What were you before you ordained?"
And he said, "Well, I was a musician."
The Buddha said, "Okay, what kind of instrument did you play?"
He said, "I played the lute."
And the Buddha said, "How was it when the strings were too tight?"
"Well, they broke."
"How was it when the strings were too loose?"
"Well, they made no music at all."
"How was it when they were neither too tight nor too loose?"
"Well, that's when I could play my best music."
The same with teaching, supervising, and surely parenting, or so I've heard. To find the Middle Way, neither be too permissive, always saying yes to your child, nor too denying, too severe, always saying no. That's the great challenge, one of the great challenges, of parenthood, walking that line, day in and day out.
So the monk's answer was a good solid answer. "It can't be called a wooden sandal." It's a safe response, but maybe was it learned?
After Hyakujo had announced that Isan was the guy, there may well have been monks who saw Isan as lacking the stature of Hyakujo, and they would have been right. Isan was a brand new teacher. Hyakujo, by that time, was a living legend.
I remember, in my early years as a teacher, how daunting it was to step into the shoes of the famous Philip Kapleau. But I consoled myself that I was in that seat because he himself had chosen me. So there was some confidence I found through that. It's like with surgeons. I once read an article about surgeons. It was in "The New Yorker." I think the subtitle was "Surgeons Need Practice. That's Where You Come In." No one starts as a master surgeon. And Hyakujo knew that with Isan. It's just the nature of things.
Now I want to talk about attachment because that's been on my mind a lot this year. It's a double-edged sword. We know any Buddhist texts will remind us that attachment breeds suffering. In Buddhism's earliest days before the establishment of monasteries, that's why monks were itinerant monks, prohibited from spending more than one night in the same place.
But our most binding attachments are not to places and things. They are to thoughts, ideas, concepts, ideologies. To use another famous Buddhist word, our attachment to views. I think of that line in "Affirming Faith in Mind," "Just let those fond opinions go." These are the attachments that cause the most suffering, in politics, religion, and just interpersonal relations generally.
To be human is to have attachments of the heart. Losses cause us pain. I myself am feeling some sadness these days (even though I plan to be back more than a few times), sadness mixed with a lot of other things. And I'd probably be more shaky now if I had not had a year or so to process this turn in my life. My head tells me it's the right time. Not just my head, my hara, but my heart says otherwise. A mature Zen practice enables us to hold conflicting feelings without rejecting any of them. Same in psychology. When we've grown up, when we've reached psychological integration, we can get our arms around contradictory feelings and emotions. We can hold them all. Human beings are complicated. Did Hyakujo have any such feelings when he bid goodbye to Isan? Did Isan? They're human.
I remember hearing a stupid thing during the Vietnam War, these ignoramuses who said that the Vietnamese have no feelings, which really means because they don't display them the way we do. They don't have feelings, that Asians don't have feelings. I remember hearing from the first member of the Zen Center to go to Japan to train. This was 45 years ago, and he came back and reported that he had gone to a movie with Tangen-roshi in Bukokuji. Many of us subsequently went there for periods of training to Bukokuji. And Glenn said (he's long gone) but Glenn said the movie he thought was just so outrageously sappy. And so he was surprised to find Tangen-roshi bawling his eyes out next to him.
When I was in a meeting with the Dalai Lama (it was just a group of us, 20 or so people), we were airing the problems in western Buddhism, including all the the misconduct of teachers. One English nun, a Tibetan nun, gave us a long chronology of the terrible prejudice she had faced as a woman. And he too was left weeping.
But the koan just outlines what happened basically, and we're left to wonder. That's part of the value of them. How do we color in the outlines? The figures?
People have different temperaments. Some of us feel things more deeply, some of us less deeply. And for those of us who feel this change more deeply, it may not be just because we've worked together longer as a teacher and student. It occurred to me that limiting one's teaching career to two years, as Kobori-roshi did, would leave both teacher and student with less sadness to go through.
I've been a seemingly permanent fixture around here. So have other of our elders with long seniority at the Center; you know who they are. You know that big oak tree behind the Link? As you enter the Zen Center, you look through the sliding glass doors, there's that magnificent oak tree. If we had to take that down, we'd feel sadness. And then we'd have to move on. C'est la vie. C'est la Dharma.
Whatever your reactions to this news may be, it offers you a chance to understand yourself better, as it has me. I understand myself better. We can use our wonderful tool of Zen practice, questioning "What's behind this response of mine? If I'm sad, what's behind that sadness?" Consider that it's something in your early years, some loss you experienced with your parents or a sibling. If you're angry, consider that underneath the anger is sadness. Anger is commonly a cover for sadness. Or if you're distancing, if you feel oddly indifferent to the whole thing, what about that? Do you have a fear of abandonment that's been there all along? It's all grist for the mill, practice and self-understanding. Okay, now, I'm not dying! I expect to live at least another 30 years, for what expectations matter.
Ask one of our staff members, Desiree. I was suddenly called back to Germany to be at her father's bedside as he died. Ask her about whether she would rather have him gone a lot from her life or gone gone. Come on, we gotta put this in perspective. And besides, what's essential is the practice, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The teacher can help, of course; teachers can help a lot. But it's the practice. We have the means to weather anything if we don't cling to thoughts about what we are losing. If an alchemist has taught you to transmute metal into gold, you have all you need. And you have even more than you need if you have access to a new, younger alchemist. Thank you. We'll stop now and recite the Four Vows.