Zen communities – sanghas – come in many forms. There are residential monastic communities such as Shugen Arnold’s Zen Mountain Monastery. There are groups who work with resident teachers in cities and towns, like Paul Cooper’s community in Honesdale, or in isolated areas like Mitra Bishop’s Mountain Gate. And then there are groups of individuals who come together regularly without a resident teacher as such, usually hosted by a long-term practitioner who functions more as a facilitator than a instructor. I host such a group in my town, and Zenshin Michael Haederle hosts a similar group in Albuquerque. We both struggle with what our role is. In Zenshin’s case there’s also the fact that he’s a “lay monk.”
“Yeah, it’s weird terminology,” he admits. “Some people have pointed out that none of the Zen clergy in Japan really qualify as Buddhist monks, because they can be married, and they don’t take most of the monastic precepts that are embedded in classical Buddhism. A better term in English might be ‘priests’ or ‘ministers.’”
I don’t consider myself a minister, but I ask he does.
“Maybe. In the sense that, yes, I’m leading a Zen sitting group and provide some guidance there, although I certainly don’t consider myself a teacher. To me it’s just a commitment to make the Dharma available for people.”
“How is ‘making the Dharma available for people’ not teaching?”
“I suppose it’s the personal connotation I attach to it, but a ‘teacher‘ implies sort of a hierarchical relationship. I relate to the Sanskrit term kalyanamitra, which means ‘spiritual friend.’ I like the image. It’s more horizontal.”
The current social environment in the United States – the pandemic, increased racial tensions, the looming election – is challenging. I ask if he sees evidence that Zen practitioners are in any way better equipped to deal with these circumstances than non-practitioners.
“One of the things that I really appreciate about Zen practice is it’s all-encompassing. It’s kind of a tool, if you want to think about it that way, that’s applicable to anything we encounter in life: aging, sickness, death – all the traditional things. It also applies to what’s going on in our society. It’s obviously not about nihilism or zoning out or shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Whatever,’ but it is about meeting whatever’s going on with clarity and equanimity so that your response is going to be appropriate to the circumstances. So not leading with an opinion or a mental freaking-out session, but having a fuller appreciation of the context of the situation you’re actually in – this moment and not all the other moments in your imagination. Obviously that’s a challenge, but that’s the aspiration. It’s not that anybody can do that freely all the time or anything, but it’s a great place to start, because it’s so easy for our emotions to take front and center, our emotional response to bullying and injustice, the crazy disregard for objective truth and facts and things like that. I mean, it’s all really disheartening. But then just working with that, working with our own anger or despair or all the other related emotions. Those are real, in their way. It’s a matter of meeting these circumstances in a way where we don’t go out to the gun stores and get our own arsenal to match the arsenal on the other side or something like that. We want to get outside of that mindset, that paranoic conflict, I think that’s really important.”
One of the benefits of long term practice is that one can become “more alert to our mood states — to whatever is coming up in the moment. You realize you can do something about that. You can take a look at this whole personality complex that seems to be having this problem — this whole neurotic story-telling thing — and more or less see through that pretty quickly. Not wanting to sound boastful or anything, but where years ago I might have been hung-up for days, weeks or months on some kind of conflict or afflictive emotion – because I was pretty neurotic – now it’s hours or its minutes. Literally, the drama really loses its attraction.” He chuckles. “I can see that going through the ruminative or obsessional thought thing is just a waste of time. ”
One ceases to identify with the feelings as they arise, I suggest.
“Absolutely. Because fundamentally there’s no one there to identify. Identity becomes a highly suspect concept. Yeah, the emotions come up; it’s not like suppressing or repressing anything. It’s just allowing it all to be there and allowing it to go away and not fighting with it.”
The practice helps people “get into this place of openness that is waiting for us, that is always here.”
“What prevents people from sensing it if it’s ‘always here’?” I ask.
“Conditioning. Socialization. The way that we’re all conditioned to think about the world. I think evolution obviously equipped us with this ability to construct an imaginary self that seems to function in the future that has enabled us to do very complicated things. There’s an adaptive side to that, obviously. We wouldn’t be this way if there wasn’t a good reason for it — that’s what evolution more or less says. But it comes with a price. Because it’s an illusion. It’s a construct. It’s like an avatar on your computer screen. There’s not really a little version of you on the computer screen, although you can use it that way for useful purposes. There’s no separate self that actually time travels to the past or future. Coming back to this primary experience in this moment, it’s always right here. It’s only ever now when you’re thinking about the past or the future. That’s happening now. The brain is now. Of course ‘now’ is an idea too. It’s ineffable when you really let go of all the ideas of these things, but the experience remains. Right? But is there an experiencer?” he adds with a laugh.