The Zen circle and the human tangent

Why Zazen (in the times of scandals)?

Over the past few years, scandals surrounding several prominent Zen teachers have left a question mark in the mind of many aspiring meditators, and even advanced practitioners. If teacher after teacher has not gotten rid of his neurotic and manipulative tendencies after decades of practice, why should we have anything to do with Zen? When people with many decades of seated meditation practice seem not to have learned to face their dark shadows and can continue to engage in spiritual bypassing with dangerous impunity, why should we not throw Zen away from our lives?

These questions were deeply troubling for me because I had spent a lot of time in the last decade and a half meditating and also thinking how to create spaces where I and others can meditate with ease. When I was first introduced to Kurt Spellmeyer (Kankan Roshi), my first and root teacher of close to 17 years, I was a disoriented Ph.D. student at Rutgers in a new land far away from everything that gave me a sense of identity in my home country. I was also depressed due to personal reasons. After a few weeks of twice-a-week meditation sessions, though, I found myself laughing heartily. It took two years before I got absolutely hooked and devoted to koan practice. But even before getting hooked, there were countless times when I started a given meditation session in deep worry about my laboratory experiments or personal relationships but got off the cushion with a still but smiling heart.

So, before moving away from New Jersey last year, and for many years, I distributed pamphlets at the incoming undergraduate students’ fair at Rutgers University that introduced readers to the fundamentals of meditation and informed them of the presence of a community of meditators in the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus. This pamphlet basically stated that the historical Buddha taught that most people remain trapped in neurotic dependency and fear all their lives. By doing meditation, it asserted, “step by step, breath by breath, the mind frees itself from illusion…dependency and fear….and suffering automatically ends. Our awareness returns to its original perfection”.

In my early years as a practitioner, public criticisms of the Zen teachers or teachings were not easily accessible and if they were, I wasn’t paying attention. I sincerely and wholeheartedly believed what is written in those pamphlets and is still distributed each year by Cold Mountain Zen members “breath by breath….mind frees itself from dependency and fear”!

Do I believe the content of these pamphlets to be true even now? Yes and No.  It may seem that the “No” does not require an explanation if we have been aware of the scandals around Zen teachers. But as crucial as the external scandals had been, the interior turmoil and confusion that I experienced in my own life were and are the most relevant to me. A few years ago, I had to painfully acknowledge that I had gotten depressed in spite of being a regular and devoted zazen practitioner. It felt shocking at the time. No one had told me in so many words but I had presumed that “serious” Zen practitioners don’t get depressed. Stillness, joy, courage and kindness: Of course! But not fear, depression, anger!! So was I never a good Zen student? Was the promise of “liberation from fear” simply a false one?  Is koan training in Rinzai Zen a sham? If such long training can’t help one person with her depression, why do we call “waking up” the most important task in the world?  Over the years since the passing of my own depression, I’ve heard from many Zen practitioners inside and outside my root sangha who have faced similar questions and experienced a sense of betrayal. As a lot of us appreciate, depression usually indicates that some needs of our inner child have remained unaddressed for a long time, resulting in deep sadness and/or self-hatred. Even if someone is not “enlightened” according to how our tradition understands that experience, Zen practitioners are trained to focus and to be mindful of and be compassionate to everything that arises without judgment. So why did the Zen practice somehow not show me and my friends the unacknowledged causes of our depression? Why did our practice could not give us the courage to embrace our fears and act patiently and kindly to alleviate our own suffering? I was faithfully meditating every day for 1.5-3 hours and doing 4-5 sesshins, which silent retreats with 10 hours of meditation each day, a year. At the time, I couldn’t understand at all why I got depressed. Of course, over and above my “personal” failure to get over depression and inability to be perfect in general, when I slowly started discovering that many role models in the larger meditation world (maha-sangha) have been confused, depressed, manipulative or outright predatory towards their dharma children, it only deepened my sadness and confusion.

While everything written above is true, I will try to articulate and express my “Yes” ….“breath by breath….mind frees itself from illuson, dependency and fear!” This “yes” isn’t entirely new or unique. Many meditation practitioners over past many decades have come to a similar ‘Yes’ or else they might have stopped practicing themselves!

Yes. In meditation, the mind frees itself from illusion, dependency and fear! In addition to calling it ‘breath by breath,’ however, I’d also like to borrow a phrase used by Dipa Ma, an iconic Vipassana meditation teacher from India who could, I heard, sit for 7 days without a single break, “mind-moment by mind-moment”. When our heart rate and blood pressure have dropped in meditation, when we are breathing deeply and yet naturally from our abdomen (the hara, dantian or tanden in various Asian languages), each single breath can take us deep through the layers of the bigger mind. With each breath, we can reach stages and places which are devoid of the body sensations, thoughts, compounded fears or desires and, eventually, experience layers of “emptiness”! No matter how confused or depressed (or even psychopathic) one is off the cushion, anyone who has the ability to become very still, concentrate and stay with the receding outbreath, will experience sooner or later the fearless, energizing, sensitizing, compassionate states that reveal our deep inter-connection with everything.  In fact, if one stays with the breath by breath practice, what can be left is boundless compassionate luminosity, the deepest source of consciousness: the “original perfection”. As we sometimes chant in the words of the Heart Sutra, “This is truth and not a lie”. This is why I still do zazen.

This discovery of the deeper layers of “emptiness” and different shades of luminosity is half the truth. The beautiful (and daunting) second half is that after the end of each illuminating outbreath, stirring begins. Duality and “Form” re-appear:  a sense of ‘I’ and some ‘you’ re-crystalize. For anyone, who hasn’t experienced complete enlightenment, cravings and aversions towards a “you” or some combination of “you-1” “you-2” “you-3” will usually follow this re-crystallization if one doesn’t ride the mind-moment (or body-moment, as some meditation traditions would prefer to say) back to the deeper layers of mind. I imagine that there are not too many individuals in this world who have genuinely encountered all the layers of the mind and the original perfection (i.e., source) even once, fewer who are able to make successful attempts to integrate that perfection wisely into their lives, and extremely rare are the Buddhas (one being the historical Siddhartha Gautama) who have experienced complete enlightenment (Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi). At any rate, when “I” and “you” re-appear, they are not random appearances, they are waves affected by previous “I” and “yous”, both individual and collective karma. It is not unusual for fear, lust, envy, depressive or other neurotic mind-body habits to reappear.

Anyone who can access the deep layers of mind during zazen is a good practitioner.  As many others have pointed out earlier, however, to be a good teacher and, more importantly,  to be a kind and wise human being, one needs much more than an ability to access even the “source,” the original perfection. Buddha did not just talk about zazen (concentration on the cushion and resulting insight into the nature of reality), he laid an eightfold path that includes “right” ways to inhabit the condensed forms: right speech, action, effort and attitude. Being a good expounder of any technique isn’t enough. Living by vows and paramitas, and actualizing kindness should be a paramount part of the Zen path. The experience of non-duality (emptiness) doesn’t naturally imply that a Zen practitioner has cultivated a genuine respect for duality (form).  Being genuinely kind and skillful requires psychological health, and a knowledge of and respect for both the traditional Buddhist vows and the secular/cultural laws of the time. It requires an ability to set an example not just in terms of how long we can sit but how we live our lives and inhabit the world of “form”. Deepest zazen doesn’t change anything outside of us. It makes clear the interconnected nature of all things and if we just stare at the nature of all things including what we refer to as our minds and bodies, our attitude can change…drop by drop. We can merge with the compassionate energy again and again. But such repeated encounters with the deeper layers of mind can lessen the hold of our neurosis on us if and only if our attitude is correct.  Even when our attitude or intention is correct, the psychological growth remains an endless task or as all of my teachers say “a work of a lifetime.” Without a deep continuous vow to be kind and without repentance (as beautifully explained in Living by Vow by Okumura), our practice is not just incomplete but can also be dangerous, as we have repeatedly found out.

When I became depressed a few years ago, I could still access deeper layers of mind on the cushion, especially at the long meditation retreats (sesshins). But I remained distracted and unhappy off the cushion and I unconsciously made “mistakes” that perpetuated suffering. After a lot of resistance, I approached therapists who work with the “small thinking mind,” healers who could unpack my painful baggage and bring light to at least some dark areas of my emotional landscape. As a lot of you can guess, I realized I had not dealt with some of these issues on the cushion adequately. I had actually used my meditation to push some of them farther away i.e., “spiritual bypassing” – which I now understand is very common. I appreciate that pain and depression were not failures of zazen or failures of myself or of my teacher(s), but a part of my path. When I was in therapy, I benefitted enormously from the interplay of seated meditation, which allowed the unconscious to unfold, and conscious mindful discussion with my friendly therapists. It wasn’t always a smooth sailing but it was my path. If I could, I wouldn’t give away that painful path. I developed kindness for myself and became an ardent practitioner and proponent of loving-kindness (metta) meditation which is not necessarily a component of Rinzai Zen practice. Metta has brought a sweet texture to my practice and life.

Enlightenment is real. The freedom from “I” and the freedom from fear and anger in emptiness are completely real…..at the end of one mind-moment. The solidifying of the “I” and “you,” is also real and actually holy. (Our lack of adequate respect for “form” can, ironically, lead us away from mushin: but in interest of the length of this article, we will not discuss it here.)  The point is that the Zen path helps us be one with the Big circle: the circle of form and emptiness; and be face to face with the source. But our identity with “our” thoughts and emotional patterns are evolutionary defense mechanisms and, in I think, tangential human extensions of the second half of the circle of reality. When we are on a human tangent, the Big circle doesn’t stop existing! The dance of existence between form and emptiness continues to occur but we are not aware of it.

Our ability to deal with suffering born out of investment in these “tangents” — our thoughts and emotions – the patterns stuck in our mind-body might not come with zazen alone. Depending on our backgrounds and karmic histories, we might need to undergo other therapeutic processes that will heal our connections. We need to apologize when we realize we were part of a problem. We always are. We need time to listen.  We need a space to express our pain and confusion. We need help to recognize patterns in our behavior and those of others around us and gently express our doubts. Most of all, we need to leave some space for humility and complexity which takes deep love. But does the need to do all of these things mean that Zen needs to thrown out of our lives?

Few years ago, after acknowledging my own confusions and hearing about so many problems in major Zen groups in the US, I wanted to get rid of all things Zen in my life. But now it is clear to me that throwing away Zen would be meaningless and sad. Why is our wanting to throw away Zen teachings meaningless? We can destroy all the existing paths and yet, if we are still and curious, the “original perfection” might beckon us some other way. IT is always there and we can “enter” IT from many directions. I have personally known about or experienced several modern or ancient therapeutic processes i.e, acupuncture, yoga, chiropractic, chanting, biofeedback or energy work or traditional psychotherapies that have helped dissolve some of my mind-body patterns and help me deal with psycho-somatic stress. A few of these processes generate some of the brain waves that have been scientifically proven to be generated during deep meditation. It is plausible that if we underwent some of these processes for 5-7 days continuously and rigorously, year after year, just as we engage in Zen meditation at our retreats, they might light the path to “the original perfection” and the accompanying compassion. I don’t know. I’m not qualified to comment on that.  I do believe that that there can be no path effective in producing long lasting genuine ease and kindness, though, that doesn’t require sustained practice and a supportive community. By sustained practice I mean the kind of practice that strengthens the muscle of awareness/curiosity, discipline, gratitude, patience and surrender. By community I mean all the human teachers, friends and family whose words and actions keep us together on our path with commitment and a basic level of faith. When we consistently follow any path with such attitudes and the path helps create ripples of deep kindness, that path might not be too different from Zen.  They are brilliant paths and part of the “big” circle too, too.  Revolutionary musician John Cage was tremendously inspired by Zen Buddhism. He never ever sat on a meditation cushion but the music and dance he helped create via chance operations required discipline and enormous surrender. In his late years, his laughter and kindness touched everyone he came across. So, we can throw away tradition-bound Zen teachings but we can’t throw away Zen just as we can throw away the institution of marriage but we can’t throw away love and compassion.

But why would it be sad to throw away zen teachings? While it is true that no zen practitioner is perfect, the ‘original perfection’ is real and perfect. As I mentioned earlier, if Zen path stopped existing, ways to access this ‘original perfection’ might not totally disappear but they would certainly be greatly diminished, in my opinion. In spite of depression or other problems faced by zen practitioners, including my own self, for me Zen is a brilliant path that can lead human beings to appreciate the Big circle and the “source”.  Yes, we need training to stay true to our vows when on the human tangents. But with the right attitude, we can use this path to embrace complexities, confusions and imperfections that arise from being stuck in tangents even if they have been scandalous! Zen path doesn’t need to be thrown away. It does need radical transformation with a gentle heart that doesn’t forget the “source”. I rejoice when I hear about systematic efforts in several communities to 1) understand the difference between the “Big” circle of reality and the human tangent; 2)  keep Zen teachers off the pedestal, Zen students away from counter-transference and cultivate respect for horizontal relationships with-in sangha members; 3)  identify and creatively work through our unique mind-body patterns off the meditation cushion as individuals and have patience when we watch others deal with their karmic baggage; 4) assert the role of compassion and mindfulness; and living the truth of interconnectedness (which Roshi Hogetsu Joan Hoeberichts, my preceptor and one of my teachers, always refers to as “One Body”) in our daily lives.

I want to end with a personal prayer. We can’t squander truth but we can squander away the potential of realizing the truth. Zen has no goals.  Every sit is expressing our enlightened nature. Big circle is always complete — even if we never experience the fullness. And yet, in the relative world, all paths should probably be judged on their ability to bring forth the innate compassion and inter-connectedness in the midst of chaotic tangents. Wisdom and compassion are (hopefully) slowly bringing simplicity back to local communities rocked by scandals. Perhaps, as the Zen communities introspect on their health and direction in the wake of recent scandals, we can collectively think about the potential of Zen to illuminate and embolden our way out of the military–corporate–media complex we are enmeshed in. This enmeshment has led to, among many other problems, an ever deepening climate and eco-crisis which we are currently denying to our own peril. Bypassing is clearly not limited to psycho-somatic-spiritual issues. Personally, we end up bypassing cries of our own body and heart. As a society, we are bypassing the cries of our planet, cries of waters we drink and the air we breathe; and have gone too far on this tangent.  As an environmental scientist-advocate, I encounter in myself and my colleagues (who are all doing their best to bend the trajectory in favor on planetary health) the tangents of burnout, confusion, anger and/or deep anxiety. I do feel simple when back in the lap of zazen, in company of dharma friends and teachers whom I have had the great chance of meeting in Boulder and who are wrestling with these issues on and off the meditation cushion. I do pray, however, that more and more Zen communities will explore the unchartered territory of building an eco-dharma-army for our precious and fragile biosphere.