Joan Sutherland

In the Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum as passed down through Robert Aitken and his heirs, when one resolves a particular koan, one may be given examples of responses given by one’s ancestors in the lineage. One of my ancestors – although she is actually younger than I – is Joan Sutherland.

Joan is Dharma teacher, but she doesn’t consider herself a Buddhist. When I ask her why, she tells me: “Well, first of all, it’s such a big word, covering so much territory, that it’s almost meaningless. There are so many expressions of Buddhism. So it’s a term that people bring their own preconceptions to that may or may not fit. But mostly I think it’s about not being an institutionalist and being more on the mystic end of things. So in the same way that Sufism kind of floats free of Islam, although it comes from Islam, I think in some ways Zen floats free from Buddhism although it comes from it and shares much with it.”

She has retired since I visited her in Santa Fe six years ago, but she continues to write and to work with her Dharma heirs. One subject she is currently exploring is “how to bring the richness of this tradition and the unique ways we think about things” to bear on the “the political situation and the cultural situation in United States and the climate emergency.”

She believes that Zen practice – in particular, koan work – has the capacity to help both Buddhists and non-Buddhists respond more effectively to contemporary circumstances.

“It’s about how you approach things, and we can put it under the over-arching title of something like ‘not-knowing mind’ or ‘beginner’s mind.’ The philosopher, Richard Rorty, made a wonderful distinction between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism. He said that fundamentalisms are religions or belief systems which base everything ‘according to.’ According to the book, according to the guide, according to the teachings. And non-fundamentalisms base everything on ‘searching for.’ So in an ‘according to’ system, you already know what’s true, and you’re trying to make the world conform to that. In the ‘searching for’ system you’re endlessly alive to what’s possible and how things change and how you can flow with that. Things are always changing. So we approach things not with the understanding that we’re certain about them going in, but we come with a question. What is this? The basic koan question: What is this? And if we are really alive to the answers that come when we ask, ‘What is this?’ you end up with a completely different relationship to the situation. First of all, you’re acknowledging that you’re a participant and that you are willing to have your mind changed, willing to learn things. Even the things you hold most preciously, you hold provisionally, and you’re open to new information coming in. Which is, of course, fundamental Mahayanaism and acknowledgement of the other. And in the koan tradition, it is a desire, a delight in the other, what the other might say, how the other might surprise you. So that’s a different kind of orientation. We used to talk about it my community in Santa Fe as having an attitude of warmth and curiosity. Curiosity towards things. Doing a lot of listening. Not trying to arrive at a predetermined outcome, but looking for what outcome arises out of the situation when you let it. After all, you can never know what the right thing is. In the dominant culture in America, there’s such an emphasis on certainty and getting it right and figuring out what the steps are. But you can never get anything ‘right,’ because you don’t know what ‘right’ means. We don’t know the karmic consequences of everything that happens. So it seems like a foolish pursuit to look for what’s ‘right.’ Instead, I encourage people to look for, ‘What is the most beautiful mistake you can make in this situation?’ If everything you’re going to do is going to be a mistake in some way – which it will, because we can’t possibly imagine out all the consequences – what is the most beautiful mistake you can make? What’s the mistake you care most about and would like to try? And this changes your whole orientation from trying to bend reality to your belief system to really trying to see which way the Dao is going, see what’s possible in this situation. Every situation is unprecedented, so what is this situation calling for?”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 146, 173-89, 191, 192, 213, 231

The Story of Zen: 302, 358

Other Links:

Joan Sutherland Dharma Works

My 2013 Profile of Joan Sutherland

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "The Story of Zen" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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