November 27, 2014

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Our Marvelous Error

From a three-part series of Dharma talks. Permission to reprint these articles granted by Joan Sutherland, Feb. 2005.

Forward by Rev. Chuan Zhi Shakya
We are delighted to offer Joan Sutherland's talks given in 2002 and 2003 on "House Style" Zen. Ms. Sutherland, Roshi, is a contemporary leader in Zen, specializing in bringing the Koan tradition of the Soto and Rinzai schools into a modern context for Westerners. She is founder and head of the Open Source Project, a home-based Internet community of students and practitioners of Zen. She offers meditation retreats in California, Colorado, and New Mexico. For more of her writings, or to find out about her retreats, visit

JS-portraitThere are different currents in the broad stream of Zen, which though flowing from the same source and headed towards the same ocean can look quite unlike each other on the way—just as a Catholic mass is a different kind of event than an evangelical revival meeting, though both are Christian. We have received much from our inherited stream, which comes out of the Soto and Rinzai lines of Japanese Buddhism. As importantly, we are also part of another current that scholars identify as Modern Buddhism, a recent and unprecedented development arising from the meeting of the Dharma with modernism and the Enlightenment values—egalitarianism, humanism, individualism, democracy, and the like—of Euro-American culture. Enlightenment meets the Enlightenment, as it were.

We might certainly say that some styles of practice are more conserving of Japanese forms than ours is, but I don't know on what basis we could say they’re more zen. We might say that some teachers are describing a practice of meditation that is more conserving of East Asian methods than ours, but we can't automatically say it's more zen, either. We could discover that we feel a greater affinity with one style than with another, but it's a whole other thing—and the entrance of endless heartache into our lives—to say that one style is (therefore?) better or truer. And unnecessary: To discover an affinity can be liberating, an exhilaration not often improved, in my experience, by judgment.

So yes, what some folks do is in some respects different than what we're doing. While we share a great deal, what we're doing is based on assumptions and understandings about human nature, the psyche, the place of practice in our lives, what we value, what we're trying to do, and how we're likely to accomplish it that are in some ways quite different. I realize that's a mouthful, and we'll talk more about it in the coming months. What I want to emphasize now is that what we're doing is on purpose, thought out, a particular thing in and of itself—and admittedly a work in progress. We've only been doing this for about ten years; we've hardly emerged from the vastness into form. That sense of the path unfolding as we walk on it can sometimes be frustrating, or even scary. A strong emphasis on form or an authoritative-sounding voice might seem reassuring in the midst of such provisionality; I'll admit that, as a teacher, it's challenging and sometimes exhausting to always be working at the edge of my experience and understanding. A wise friend identified this problem twenty years ago when she asked, "How can we be initiated into a tradition that doesn't exist yet?"

Of course I recognize that what we're doing is a mistake, just as a more traditionalist approach would be a different mistake. Again, it's not that one way is better than another, but that, for me, this is the way with which I feel the deepest affinity, and so it is the mistake I choose. My working hunch is that it's important to make a field in which we can recognize the oldest things—the things they knew in China 1300 years ago and Northern India 2500 years ago and probably for millennia before that all over the world—in the images and metaphors of this time and place, arising out of our landscapes, our ancestral spirits, our deepest values, our poetries, our psyches, and our songs.

The House Style

Last time I promised (or threatened, depending on your viewpoint) to talk some more about what underlies our house style of Zen. I spoke about how some houses are more conserving of East Asian forms or methods and some place more emphasis on developing Western expressions of the ancient ways. It’s a powerful issue in part, I think, because the idea of transmission, of passing the tradition from one generation to the next, looms so large in zen mythology. And many of us find it beautiful that our way has been passed down through the centuries to us, that we sit in a stream of people running deep into the past and, we hope, deep into the future as well. So if we see our work as more than a matter of preserving and transmitting a received tradition as exactly as possible, it’s important to talk about what we do hope to preserve and transmit, and what to imagine anew.

Let’s begin with the obvious: We are not living in China or Japan or Korea. We are not living in monasteries. We are not living in the 7th or the 12th or the 18th century. Few of us enjoy imperial patronage. Most of us are not celibate and some of us have children. We hold jobs. Usually we don’t beg for our food, and our neighbors rarely feel an obligation to support us. There are lots of women in leadership roles in our group. And then there are the differences that come from living in a largely Judeo-Christian rather than Confucian cultures. From living in multicultural rather than more homogenous cultures. From different emphases on individualism and communalism. From the fairy tales we were told as children and the music we listen to and what we think art is. From our ideas of romantic love, obligation, God, of happiness and suffering and success.

We are not the people who developed our tradition. (If the truth be told, they probably weren’t either; zen people are not immune to mythologizing.) We are, however, the people who are continuing to develop it now. And despite the great distances between the first Indian missionaries to China and the mighty abbots of the Sung dynasty and the samurai monks of feudal Japan and the innkeeping ladies of Hakuin’s time and the European Theosophists of the 19th century and the contemporary folks of Colorado Springs, across all that time and space, there is something we recognize. We read their words and think, Yes, I know that. Or, I don’t know that but I want to, and after we meditate awhile we find that it begins to come clear. There is a something, still vivid after 1500 years because it is right here, right now, discovered afresh by each of us.

What we have inherited are time-tested ways to help us discover this something: sitting still, breathing, concentration, inquiry, intimate conversation, communal ritual. Each time these practices are taken up by a new group, they change. (And not just in the grand moves from country to country: Medieval Japanese women, for example, given the chance to practice together in convents, developed entirely original ways not seen in the monasteries around them.) This thing we recognize across time and space is robust, flexible, and capacious, surviving the best efforts of every generation to improve it.

At this threshold, as these practices cross from East Asia into the Americas, we have a particular task that, if we accept it, will help root Zen here. Not everyone will be keen to take this on; some people really just want to meet together and sit, and that’s great because that’s part of it, too, but I think it’s important for all of us to understand something about this moment we’re in.

Here are the parts of this task as I see them: first, to do the practice deeply, so that our understanding is personal rather than theoretical; second, to study our received tradition thoughtfully and with as little mystification as possible; third, to have some grounding in the wisdom traditions of our own cultures; and fourth, to value our lives in the world and the wisdom that comes of experience.

Then it becomes possible to look at what we’ve received and say, This is part of that something that transcends time and space, while That is conditioned—it is Japanese, or medieval, or monastic. Which is not to say that such characteristics are bad, just that it is important to ask whether the belief systems and ways of doing things they’ve influenced continue to apply under different conditions. It also becomes possible to link across to our own traditions, to find the ways Zen has always flourished here under other names. It is from a deep exploration of these three currents—that something we recognize across time and space; the parts of our received tradition we understand to be conditioned and find enduringly useful, or beautiful; and our native expressions of Zen, both from the western tradition and in our own practices now—that we can help create a Zen of this time and place.

Perhaps the most important part of this task is simply to pay attention to what’s happening in our own hearts and lives as we practice. The changes we’re making come in two ways: First, when it’s clear that something we’re doing isn’t working. For instance, one of the problems with holding the forms very tightly is that, while it can create a surface smoothness in the meditation hall, it can also mean that people are obsessed with getting things right, as though measuring up to some outside standard of perfection is the point. When, in fact, it’s the anti-point. This is a way of freedom, which means offering oneself entirely to the moment, to the silence and the bell and time flowing by, and in so doing to discover the deep pattern of the moment, and step in. Sometimes what happens is exactly what you expect, and sometimes, thank heavens, it isn’t. Some new bit of life might reveal itself, and how refreshing it is when we’re able to make room for it. It’s that deep pattern we’re after, and how our forms can be an entrance there.

The second reason we make changes is because, quite simply, people are growing beyond the received way of doing things. Nowhere is this more striking and more utterly gorgeous than in our work with koans. That will be the theme of my article next time.

Joyfully Alive

One of our ancestors, Nakagawa Soen, wrote to another, Senzaki Nyogen, in August 1938: "I have been studying your talks on the Gateless Gate one after another. I feel emancipated just seeing the teaching conveyed in Roman letters rather than ideograms. Zen, which is fundamentally about the emancipation of all beings, is unfortunately sealed in some square box called Zen. In this enclosure the ancient dog in the koan 'Joshu’s Mu' has been suffocating. In English this 'dog' is so joyfully alive!" (quoted in Shambhala Sun, July 1996)

In this column I've been speaking about what underlies our house style, and last time I began to look at why and how we make changes in our received tradition. Sometimes, as I mentioned, we change something because it isn’t working—which implies that we’re thinking about what 'working' means, and we are. But sometimes the tradition itself is changing, outside anyone's control or intentions, into something else it wants to be. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way we work with koans. It can seem to me that the koans have their own daemons, their own guiding ancestors—their own fate, or karma, that is working itself out through us. I have no idea how far this working out can go, how much the tradition will continue to open out, but here is a brief sketch of the beginning of our involvement in this journey.

The current generation of teachers learned more or less like this: Koans had answers that had been handed down for a very long time, and the student's task was to match her or his understanding to the tradition—in other words, to come up with the time-honored answer. Everything else was secondary, and an interview in which you had the 'wrong' answer could last the thirty seconds it took you to present it and be told No. Koan seminars were rare events and included only teachers and very senior students. They could be high-pressured and competitive, and since the best you could do was present the approved answer for each koan, they didn't tend to encourage discovery. (As I write this, it's hard to remember we were ever like this; it feels like a memory of a distant lifetime.)

But then things began to change. It was a time we were working hard to include all of life in our practice, to make things more inclusive and transparent and embodied. Koan study, the treasure of our house, was necessarily a big part of this. Many of us had experienced working with koans as tremendously powerful, and we wanted to make this experience more widely available to others. At the same time, there was a lot of press from people doing koan work to open the practice up—to make it, too, more inclusive and transparent and embodied. Out of this grew a new appreciation for the process of responding to a koan; you'd end up at the same place, with the traditional answer, but we began to place much more value on how you got there. We started talking a lot about what it was like to carry a particular question around through your life. The distinctions between on the cushion and off began to soften.

That's how it was for a number of years, and then something unanticipated began to happen. It turned out that, when you valued the process, the responses actually got better—richer and more interesting, often, than the traditional answers. People were really taking the koans on and allowing themselves to be changed by the encounter, sometimes in quite significant ways. Then, instead of just demonstrating their grasp of a particular koan point, they were reporting on how it was, inside the state of consciousness to which a particular koan invited them. They were also taking the imagery of the koans seriously, sometimes amplifying it as with a dream, and they were looking for the ways a koan spoke to the stuff and matter of their own lives. Work in the room got realer and riskier and vaster, and sometimes unutterably beautiful. And it's not as though people were missing the traditional points; the ancient understandings simply became the starting point, rather than the end, of the exploration.

At the same time, koan seminars became a regular part of our lives, in and out of retreat. We've come to appreciate—actually, to consider essential—that the koan conversation is larger than self and koan, or self, koan, and teacher; that hearing what many different voices have to say about a koan broadens and deepens our understanding. It’s as though there’s a jewel in the center of the room that’s wrapped in not very fancy but attractive paper, and each of us pulls a bit of the paper off, until the whole jewel, with all its facets, is revealed for everyone to see. Entering koan space together as a group is a new and powerful experience and is further changing our ideas about what koans are, and what it means to practice together.

For the last few years, then, our theory and our practice of koans have been co-evolving, and everyone working with koans is part of the collaboration. Out of this mutual arising comes what I'll provisionally call the koan way and koan life. The koan way is our relationship with the koans: what we do with them, what they do with us, what we understand about how they work. It's also the method of inquiry that comes out of koan study and can stand free of it. It's an attitude, a perspective on life we've characterized as a warm curiosity.

Koan life is, perhaps, a newly emerging understanding about how we begin to experience things—what life, the universe, and all that are like—after we've spent some time with the koan way. It's what the view is like when the stories drop away, what being in the moment is like when the moment stretches all the way to the horizon in every direction. And what Tuesday morning at the breakfast table is actually like with such a view, in such a moment.

Recently someone asked me if I was afraid the koan tradition would be diluted or trivialized by opening it up. It's interesting when you're asked a question that surprises you, and in the freshness of the moment the answer arises so immediately and so strongly: Not even a little bit. It is so clear to me that the koans have their own fate, and that they're quite capable of taking care of themselves. Around this country there are already a number of people working with koans in quite different ways, and I do not find this worrisome. I discover something new about koans every day. I see the effect they have in people's lives. The more time I spend with them, the more I talk with others working with them, the more I'm aware of how vast and full of possibilities the koans are. They are the ancestors, come to make ancestors of us, in our time and our lives—on Tuesday morning, at the breakfast table.