Friday, 13 March 2020

Koun Franz

               The first time I met Koun Franz, a friend and I had arranged to visit his center in Halifax. We arrived early and found the door locked. Then we saw a young man with a shaved head, wearing Japanese samugi, approaching with a wide smile. “Wouldn’t it be great if I wasn’t the guy?” he asked us.
               I’ve come to know Koun slightly over the years since; he has been a guest in my house a couple of times. I like him; I admire him. I have no doubt that he’s the genuine article, and yet his concept of Zen is so different from mine that at times is seems they have little in common except the word.
Or perhaps it’s just a matter of vocabulary.
             Kensho – awakening – has been fundamental to my understanding of Zen, my personal experience in Zen, and to the teaching of Albert Low, with whom I practiced from 2003 until his death in 2016. Albert was blunt: “ . . . the word Buddha means awakened. To be awakened is to be awakened in, and therefore to, true nature. Zen teachers who teach anything less than this are cheating their students.” Just to be clear, what Albert meant when he said “awakening to true nature” is the attainment of “enlightenment.”
“At this point in my life,” Koun tells me without apology, “I really don’t have any interest in enlightenment. That was such a driving force for so long, but to me, now, it doesn’t hold up. The people I’ve met, by and large, who claim to have had some sort of enlightenment experience are no more mature – by any measure – than anyone else that I know.”
That’s something I know from personal experience as well. Over the years, I have met several people whose “enlightenment experiences” have been acknowledged as genuine and yet who remain miserably unhappy – and frequently not very nice – people. The fact is that kensho is not necessarily transformative.
So if Zen practice isn’t about kensho – awakening – what is it about?”
           “What I’m really interested in,” Koun tells me, “is maturity. I think Zen offers a vehicle by which people can grow up in a profound way. I tell this story a lot: When I was in my senior year in high school, I was about to graduate, I went to a Hallmark store in my town, and they had the graduation gifts – you know they always had the shelf for the season – and one was this little framed thing, and it said something to the effect of, ‘Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions.’ And for me – I was 17 or something – that was a tiny ‘falling away of body and mind.’ I looked at it, and it was absolutely true. And I knew it, and I didn’t want to hear it. I wished I hadn’t seen the sign. But I knew that was right. And I think what the Zen path does is it offers – through the model of the Bodhisattva – a way to take responsibility for your actions that goes beyond what we usually think that is into a much, much broader vision of adulthood. That’s inspiring to me.”
              “What, then,” I ask, “is kensho?”         
 “It’s an experience. It’s like . . . The first thing I wanted to say is that it’s like a burp of the
mind. I mean, it’s a good experience. No one would say it’s not. I think it’s positive when people have those experiences. It’s not a negative. It’s not like, ‘Go put it back.’ But it is as temporary as anything. It doesn’t mean anything. It means you had a good experience. It’s like a drug experience. If someone takes mushrooms, and it inspires them to look more deeply into their mind, to think in a more universal way about something, great. If they take mushrooms and the first thing they do is want to go back and take more mushrooms, they blew it, as far as I’m concerned. They missed the opportunity. For me, Zen practice is about a kind of honesty and about a kind of maturity. And that doesn’t require some kind of mind-blowing episode.”
  I agree that “mind-blowing episodes” aren’t necessary. In fact, I often find myself agreeing with Koun.
 “There’s an important model in my mind of some person who lives in the woods and has no exposure to any of this and discovers all of it. It has to be possible for that person to do that in order for Buddhism to be true, as far as I’m concerned. And if there’s any element of it that that person couldn’t discover, then that is not central to Buddhism. That’s an invention of Buddhism that somehow holds Buddhism up in some way, becomes scaffolding for certain teachings. Right? But to me, that’s a critical part of getting to what’s at the center.”
 “Which is?” I ask.
  “The basics. Can that person in the woods arrive at impermanence, not-self, and dukkha as kind of unassailable fundamental principles of experience? If they can, that’s a verification, to me, of those things, and a verification – to me – of what Buddhism is.”
  And that, too, is my personal experience, that one can come to a recognition of these principles without having been led to them by someone else. But then, I might also call the attainment of that recognition “kensho.”

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Diane Fitzgerald

                Diane Fitzgerald marched in the “very first Earth Day parade in New York City, fifty years ago this year. It was kind of a random occurrence that I happened to be there and joined in as a fourteen year old. That was the start.”
                Diane is the founder and resident teacher of Zen DownEast in Pembroke, Maine – less than two hours from where I live in Island View, New Brunswick. Zen DownEast is affiliated with the Greater Boston Zen Center, which has recently separated from Boundless Way Zen, although it was one of the abbots at Boundless Way – David Rynick – who advised me to speak to Diane about her EcoSattva program.
“So the term is the combination of the words ‘ecology’ and ‘bodhisattva,’” Diane explains to me, “and it refers to a person who takes compassionate care of the Earth. And I think that part of the practice is an acknowledgement of the importance of environmental ethics. Just like the precepts guide our lives because we’re not perfectly realized human beings, so we also have a set of environmental ethics to guide our lives in this particular practice.”
                The Zen DownEast web page retells the story of Chinese Master Yunmen Wenyan who was once asked, “What is the work of the Buddha’s whole life?” Yun Men replied, “An appropriate response.”  
“EcoSattvas DownEast” – the website says – “meets monthly to plan our appropriate response to the environmental challenges facing our beautiful and beloved DownEast Maine.” Specifically, they have been engaged in a multi-year campaign to eliminate single use plastics – plastic water bottles, shopping bags, straws, and styrofoam cups – as part of their More Ocean, Less Plastic initiative. “Most of this plastic breaks down into tiny pieces invisible to the naked eye, which are consumed by marine wildlife and contaminate the food we eat. These microplastics pose a serious risk to ocean and human health, from the Pacific coast to the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.”
           Diane contrasts the EcoSattva perspective with what she calls “climate doomism,” the belief that the current ecological situation is so grave that little can be done to address it. Adopting a term from the Buddhist environmentalist, Johanna Macy, Diane talks about “active hope.”  “This is the hope that doesn’t require optimism but is the hope that requires us to set forth what we see as invaluable and to give our life to it.” She notes that, “All the great movements in the past – the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the movement for marriage equality – the people involved in those movements, they didn’t have any sort of expectation of a positive outcome. They didn’t know what was going to happen. But they gave themselves to it fully because that’s what they valued.”
The Zen DownEast group is developing a workshop on Eco-Anxiety. “We don’t have a formal title for it yet. But I think that it demonstrates the connection between Zen practice and environmental work. And the first part of it is that in Zen we turn toward instead of away. Right? So we turn toward the source of our suffering, we turn toward our anxiety, we turn toward our depression. We recognize it as actually a sane response to what is happening in the world. This is an initial way that we can respond or approach the crisis that is different from what other disciplines might offer. And in that responding to the crisis, I think we can work with our own mind to understand our own defenses. So this is Dogen’s study of the self, to understand our blind spots and all of the psychological defenses we have as human beings to avoid seeing the crisis or sliding into climate doomism, or all the various ways that human beings are enormously creative in responding to suffering. Because this, ultimately, is our generation’s suffering, responding to this crisis. So that is something we can offer as students of the way. And one of the things that many people have talked about – including David Loy – is the need to change the metaphor. That it’s not about fixing the problem. Ultimately, it’s about realizing non-duality. Realizing that we and the Earth and all the beings on it are not separate; that the earth is alive and breathing and sentient and not separate from us. And to see the interconnection of all of life, sentient and insentient. So when we’re able to change our perspective, that allows us to act from a place that’s very different from a place where, ‘Here’s a problem. How am I going to fix it?’ So one of the things the EcoSattva group works with is how we can include and work with others in the community who are not Zen Buddhists. We’re very cognizant of not employing terminology that would be off-putting. So I couldn’t talk to somebody off the street about non-duality. That would just be off-putting. But I could talk to people about their appreciation of Native American tradition which highly values the Earth and Being and sees them as alive and to be respected as much as humans. Sees them as equals. So I think finding ways to express non-duality in a way that people can relate to and understand is a challenge for us. But ultimately what we really are doing is teaching the Dharma, and we’re trying to use the most skillful means we can in order to teach it.”

Friday, 28 February 2020

Sally Metcalf

                In 1987 – when I had been with the Y for only two years – the International Committee of the Fredericton YM-YWCA was given responsibility for developing the resources for that year’s national Peace Week activities. I and a handful of volunteers (Carole Cronkhite, May Whalen, and Lucie El Khoury) met with Bob Vokey of YMCA Canada to discuss the matter. Before the meeting formally began, Bob gave us an overview of the growing lack of interest in international development matters not only within the Y but among volunteers in other NGOs as well. One of the factors causing this was that celebrities and political figures who allowed their names to be associated with certain causes were lauded for their endorsements while often the volunteers who did almost all of the on-the-ground work labored anonymously and with little recognition of their efforts.
                I suggested that the Y should institute an award to recognize individuals like these, people who – without any special resources – could be held up as exemplars of the types of things all of us could do if we chose. Celebrities and political figures, specifically, would not be eligible. While their activities might impress others, because they had access to special resources they could not be effective models of the contributions ordinary people were capable of making.
                The YMCA Peace Medal continues to be awarded by associations across Canada and occasionally in other countries as well. It was, doubtless, the most significant contribution I made in my 27 year career with the Y.
                When Genjo Marinello Roshi of Chobo-ji in Seattle learned that I was working on a book about the impact of Zen on practitioners, he advised me to interview Sally Metcalf of his sangha. Sally is a sensei, but she is quick to point out that the title is largely honorific. She tells me that Osho – as she calls Genjo – awards the title as a way of “acknowledging certain people in this sangha who are not ordained but who have done forty sesshin and are active helping the community. It’s his way of acknowledging people who’ve been doing the forms for a while so that other people can rely on them. As you know, there’s a lot of form in Rinzai; so that’s quite helpful.”
                “Do you have specific responsibilities in the community?” I ask.
“No. Basically we just wear brown rakusus, and we’re just somebody people can watch who know what they’re doing – ’cause usually we do things correctly – and somebody people can talk to. So that’s what Osho does, if you’re not on ordination track – which has different hoops you have to jump through – it’s his way of acknowledging senior people.”
When I ask her what contributions she makes to the community, her response is modest.
“I’ve got kind of a small life,” she tells me. “I don’t mean that in a deprecatory way. But I’m not like the Dalai Lama who can reach millions of people. Which is pretty incredible. I live this small life. I don’t get around much. I have a job with a small non-profit. I shop at my grocery stores, and I have my much loved sangha. I wash the laundry, and I wipe the dishes, and I clean the toilets, and I greet people at the door, and so this is my life. And I don’t touch millions of people. I don’t even touch thousands of people. But, that being said, way, way, way, way back, when I first took a Course in Miracles in the Unity Church, there was a prayer that began, ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ And that really struck me. ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ That just went out to every cell in my body.”
When she began Zen practice, she encountered the same concept in the Bodhisattva Vows. “In the shorthand form we use, it’s to ‘care for all people, everywhere, always.’” She adds that she told Genjo Osho that when Zen practice no longer helped her realize that goal, she would quit it and look elsewhere. “And Osho said, ‘Good. That’s the way it should be.’
“It sounds kind of funny, but I used to row this boat out on Puget Sound. And when you’re rowing slowly, you leave a wake. So I and my dog were out in Eagle Harbor, and we’re going along, and there’s our wake. But what kind of wake am I leaving? When I’m in a coffee shop, I don’t want to just say, ‘Give me my latte’ and get out.” Instead, she wants the encounter with the barista to become personal. So that they treat one another with respect. “We appreciate each other. And I’m trying to do that in my sangha. You know, when a member comes in, I ask them how they are. ‘How are the difficulties you were telling me about your job?’ So, this is my practice. Everywhere. Always. With everyone. This is my practice. Am I helping people on the scale of the Dalai Lama? No, I don’t think so. But am I leaving a good wake? I think so.”
Sally is precisely the kind of person I had in mind when I proposed the idea of the YMCA Peace Medallion.