First of all, we all want to welcome Tesshin back after three weeks away from the Sangha. The topic of this week’s talk was what happens when we “hit the wall” in life. To illustrate this, Tesshin contrasted two very different individuals. The first was a terminal cancer patient who sought solace from a Buddhist priest. The second was an abbot of a Japanese monastery who decided it was time to retire.
Tesshin started with the cancer patient – let’s call him “Jay.” He is 70 years old and has always been interested in “new age” pursuits like mindfulness and meditation. Upon hearing that he had cancer, Jay completely fell apart. He refused “modern” treatments as they did not “jive” with the holistic and organic lifestyle which he preferred. Tesshin was struck by how “lost” Jay was and it was clear that he was in denial about his condition. Jay would frequently state that he had “no energy” to deal with his condition and refused to make serious and necessary end of life decisions. Jay would often quote Alan Watts and ask what Watts would do in this situation. Tesshin had to remind Jay that Watts was not in the room and that Jay needed to make these decisions himself.
Tesshin next contrasted Jay with one of his Dharma Brothers, Muhō Noelke, who recently decided to retire from being the abbot of Antaiji temple in Japan. Muhō has been a monk for seventeen years. He began practicing with homeless people in a public park because he could not afford rent in Japan. In his retirement announcement, he warned people that monastery life is not easy. It is not just mentally demanding, but it is physically demanding as well. Monks need to grow their own food and maintain the temple building. It also requires a significant time investment. Muhō talks about giving the practice ten years, then another ten, and then another ten. At the end of thirty years all you have is the fact that you are thirty years older. (Think Zen koan here!) You can watch his retirement announcement video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ut_KNo6Sfc
Muhō’s video makes it very clear that this decision was not rash. It was thoroughly thought out and Muhō has made plans for a successor to follow after him at the temple. He realizes that it is no longer skillful for him to run a temple and it is time for others to take on this responsibility.
So what does it mean to be “done” and is there a way to “be done” skillfully? Tesshin was addressing this exact point in this week’s talk. Muhō is at the end of his practice as an abbot. He has clarity. Jay is at the end and he has no idea what to do. What is the difference between these two people? Simply stated, Muhō practiced Zen authentically with his entire heart, body, and mind while Jay simply imitated what he thought the practice looked like. Muhō’s mind was stable and clear by virtue of many years of practice. As such, his decisions were clear. Jay never really practiced, and when he hit the wall with his cancer diagnosis, he was totally unprepared.
Why is this important? In today’s modern age it is very easy to “consume” Zen. One can go to a spa to “get the Zen experience.” There is “Zen music” available on youtube. There are numerous “Calm” Zen apps available for your smart phone. The problem is that when we really hit the wall, this “Ersatz Zen” will not help! Our mind is wired for suffering, attachment, and delusion. It takes real work to unwire it. This cannot be done with an app or a trip to the day spa! It is accomplished with consistent practice on the cushion working to unwind the delusions of our mind.
Tesshin asked how does one know that the practice is working. Ask yourself – does one bad event ruin your entire day? Does one argument at home or work cause you to make decisions which lead you down a karmic path of suffering? Do you have the stability to handle real tragedies of life with care and compassion? Can you determine clearly when something is done and it is time to move to something new?
Tesshin wrapped up by reminding the group that we have something very special in the West – namely lay Sangha’s doing authentic Zen practice. In Japan, one must commonly ordain as a monk to do serious Zen training. He reminded us that the time we spend on the cushion will help us when life deals an unexpected blow. For this, and his teaching, we are truly lucky.