Seiso Paul Cooper took jukai – the ceremony in which one formally accepts the precepts and declares oneself a Buddhist – for the first time with Eido Shimano in the Rinzai tradition in the 1980s. He was unable, however, to form a personal relationship with Shimano as a teacher. “I’d just see him on retreats for those little interviews that Rinzai folks do. He’d tell me, ‘Show me your Mu,’ and then hit me with a stick and kick me out of the room.”
Eventually, Paul left Shimano’s sangha and found a home in the Soto tradition with Diane Martin in Illinois. “And I did my jukai again in the Soto tradition when I went through my priest ordination. It wasn’t required, but I felt a need to do it. It was more of an internal need.”
Now he is a practicing psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher in Narrowsburg, New York.
He tells me that he has not found the restrictions imposed on social interaction during the covid-19 pandemic particularly onerous. I admit that I hadn’t found the situation difficult either and wonder if people who had some experience with Zen were perhaps better prepared to deal with this situation than others might be.
“Well, I think of the three marks of existence,” he says. “Emptiness, no self – no permanently existing self – and impermanence. If we really have an experiential understanding of those factors it takes the edge off of things. I think what the current situation’s done to people is it’s created an enormous amount of uncertainty. But uncertainty has always been a fact of life, and the illusion of certainty just got stripped away. So in that regard, a Zen practitioner – or a Zen student who takes practice seriously – is gonna be better equipped to deal with the reality of uncertainty because we knew about it already. I think that much of the panic that we’re seeing is related to people who were not prepared in that way.”
Some centers have conducted zazen sessions online, which Paul admits he find a little silly.
“I think it’s useful for people to connect, and the way I’ve approached it is I say, ‘Hey, if you want to sit on your own before we meet, fine. And, in fact, I’ll ring a bell at the beginning of our meeting and we can absorb ourselves in the sound of the bell for – what does it take? – ten or fifteen seconds.’ And then I’ll give a talk. I’m preparing a series of talks on Dogen’s, Expounding a Dream Within a Dream, which I think will be very useful because people talk about how surreal everything seems now.”
I ask him how he explains Zen to people.
“Well, my sister asked me that question, and I said, ‘It’s about being yourself.’ The bottom line is we need to be clear about what our reality is so that we can operate with kindness towards others.”
Traditionally it is said that Zen helps develop both compassion and wisdom or prajna.
“I think prajna is natural. It’s our intuitive way of being in the world, but it gets pushed away through an over-reliance on the intellect. So practice helps bring that perception into the foreground and pull the intellectual discursive thinking into the background, or at least get them into an equal place. But my gripe with seeking prajna or kensho or anything like that – and you’ve probably heard this before from Soto people – but it’s about seeking a state of mind, and my understanding of Dogen’s teachings is that Zen’s about actions and relationships not about a static state of mind.
“I think we live in one huge Ginsbergian ‘Howl.’ And there’s no period at the end of the sentence, nowhere to catch your breath really. So I think my role as a Zen teacher is like I’m like the pitstop guy in the Indianapolis 500.”
He describes some of the activities members of his sangha are engaged with: working with seniors, the homeless, even with victims of sexual trafficking. “So, I don’t do any of these. I’m just there to support them.”
“Like the pit crew at the 500? In what way?”
“Well, I help them change their tires – you know – their psychic tires. Help them stay motivated when they’re feeling burnt out, disgusted, and frustrated. Get them to see how the teaching and practice could help them to face problems, turn the problems into challenges.”
“You said Zen is about getting to know yourself so you can be kinder to others. How does knowing oneself help one to be kinder to others?”
“Because you don’t have to operate out of the three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion – “if you’re onto them. If you can see through yourself, you see we have choices. Another way to say it is it gives us more emotional elbowroom to make healthier choices.”