Seiho Morris is an ordained Rinzai priest who was working in an addiction treatment center when I interviewed him in 2018. At the time, he was preparing to lead a retreat in Cincinnati for people engaged in 12 Step programs. I assume the retreat was related to his work at the treatment center, but he tells me it isn’t.
“No, this is Zen. Because the way I intersect with people in my day-to-day Zen practice as a monk is it’s always meeting people where they’re at. And so one of the things I’m experimenting with is not necessarily focusing on practice in a particular place, a temple.
“When I became ordained, I had this vision of what my practice would look like. Which is you marry, you bury, hospice, that kind of thing. Like monks, priests, yogis are like part of a mental health system – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual system – to help individuals who come to them. So that’s how I envisioned it. But what emerged – and it happened after the Trump election – was Zen Buddhism and people of color. And that surprised me. And actually that’s been quite challenging for me because when you get into person of color issues, racism, social justice, equity, that’s the stuff people don’t want to do. It’s not the pretty side of Zen or Buddhism as a whole. There’s not very many African American practitioners out there, much less ordained.
“So it was really strange being confronted with this. I haven’t really had to deal with these issues so directly. You know? But what happened was there’s this thing in Seattle called Festival Sundiata, which is an African American cultural festival, but everyone can attend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person of color, black, Hispanic, white, whatever. And I led two days of practice just around POC issues. And it was challenging because I hadn’t actively practiced with this issue in this way. ’Cause, honestly, I’m usually around people who are white or Asian. Because it’s Zen. So I don’t encounter a lot of African American people. I know that might sound strange, but it’s true. At any rate, I was sitting there and attempting to learn more about this deeply. And one of the things I recognized that had never occurred to me is that if you’re under a lot of pressure culturally, like the way American society is set up essentially it’s a white, western kind of culture, and you’re the minority of that culture, there’s a lot of pressure. And I was sitting in a group at one of these Person of Color events, and I listened to all these people, not just African Americans. There were indigenous tribal people, people who were Asian, and what I heard in their story is there’s a lot of mental health issues, anxieties, stress, depression – just profoundly so – that interferes with their inward stability, their inward harmony, and so I began practicing with people based on that. The first noble truth – which is dukkha – life, ego is the part of the wheel that’s out of balance. So working on concentration, presence, and mindfulness, and different Buddhist practices from the Eightfold Path, to help them to find an inward stability. When you’re like in a boat on the ocean how to essentially not capsize when the water’s choppy. And Zen is good for that. Buddhism is good for that. How to not run away from your outward circumstances, but how do you turn into it and meet the moment with equanimity, harmony, and a sense of presence?”
Those same qualities are what makes Zen practice valuable to people recovering from addiction. They were what brought Seiho to practice. He was 52 when I interviewed him, and he told me he’d been in recovery since he was 21.
“Does one ever come a point where one can say, ‘I’ve recovered’?” I ask.
“No, it’s very much like having diabetes. I’m not recovered. There’s always more healing, there’s always more integration to do.”
For Seiho, the 12-Steps are “the perfect Zen deal. Which is, we admit that we’re powerless over ego, self-rejecting thought, and, when we follow those thoughts, our life becomes unmanageable. Step two is – the way it’s actually worded is – ‘we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ I’ve reframed that for myself as, ‘It’s the power of love, which is greater than ego, which allows us to be restored to – as Trungpa Rinpoche says – “basic sanity” or “basic soundness of mind.”’ And then step three, is to make a decision to turn our will or life over to God – I say ‘the care of love’ – as I understand it in this moment. So, for me, that is Zen.”
The Story of Zen: 395-400, 425
Zen Conversations: 135-37