Mike Fieleke is the resident teacher at the Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton, Massachusetts.
“I was raised Protestant,” he tells me, “and that actually planted the seeds of practice, because I felt as a child – I bet many children do – a kind of sacred presence that was a mystery to me that I gave the name ‘God.’ I felt a sense of connectedness and vastness at a very young age. And when I was an adolescent, my parents were divorced, and I became very lonely and lost in my own religious practice. I think in rejecting my parents – out of anger – I also rejected their religious teachings and traditions and felt quite lost. So that’s part of how Zen made its way into my life. I was looking for something different.”
“And your students at Morning Star, what brings them to your door? What are they looking for?”
“I would say often what they’re looking for is stress reduction. That’s probably one of the most common things that brings people through the door. They just want to feel better, because they’re suffering, and, often, they feel quite alone.”
The question then is, why Zen rather than – for example – yoga or a course in mindfulness?
“I guess it’s what do we do different,” Mike suggests. “The best way for me to put it is the lack of agenda. The idea that we aren’t there primarily as a self-improvement project, and the goal is not to be different from what we are, but to see what we are. And there is a faith that that – in and of itself – is liberating. I took a Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction course many years ago, and I think there’s good in these practices. You can really bring people into the moment through a kind of connectedness to their body and their breath and an awareness of what’s unfolding. And I think the notion that it makes you feel better in some way, that it will relieve your stress, is sometimes true and great marketing, and it gets a lot of people in the door. In Zen, while there is a grain of truth that stress can fall away, still I worry that there’s a little bit of a disservice in that goal too. I think that for me what has been most liberating about Zen and what I think it offers is that, of course, we can make changes in our lives and in our thoughts and behaviors, but that we don’t necessarily have to. We can simply see, and everything unfolds, everything goes its own way, and we have the capacity to have faith in this unfolding. And that whatever is alive in the given moment is the Dharma, is exactly what we’re seeking. So I guess it’s that quality of being met in the instant that I love so much about Zen.”
“Do people still seek awakening?”
“In our tradition we do acknowledge the importance of these moments but don’t necessarily set them up as a goal. We’re very careful about acknowledging it in any personal way. Like, ‘Oh! That’s kensho!’ We’re very careful about that because it can set somebody up for years of problems, where they’re trying to aim for the same thing again and get attached to some previous experience and trapped in it. And that, obviously, becomes a problem to them. A hindrance. Or it’s no longer liberating.”
“The early teachers in America often gave the impression that kensho was essential to Zen practice,” I point out. “It was argued that the only suitable response to Mu, for example, was kensho. Anything short of kensho failed to respond to it adequately.”
“I think we have a certain level of expectation around, particularly, the source of Mu. I would say we are looking for a kensho experience in that. But I guess I would say that we allow for a different intensity of that experience, that we aren’t looking for ‘great kensho,’ per se. It might, for some, be like just a subtle release, maybe a tear in the eye, maybe some laughter. But not necessarily like” – deepening his voice – “great awakening. And I think that – to go back to what people are looking for when they come in – I think you’re right, fewer people come into practice thinking, ‘I’m going to get enlightenment.’ More people are coming in, like I said, saying, ‘I just want to feel less stressed.’ And so the way that we meet people maybe has shifted based on peoples’ hopes.
“I wonder if part of our de-emphasizing awakening – although it is the heart of the matter – aligns a bit with the Soto tradition. And I think that’s really woven into the fabric of who we are, to acknowledge that it’s already true, that there’s nothing to attain, and we just need to realize that. But I think another aspect of it might be that we are meeting people where they are when they come through the door. And if we suddenly say, ‘I know you want less stress, but what you really need is . . .’” He laughs. “Then they’ll just turn and run.
“You know, it’s interesting; teachers can have different views of kensho. I’ve known some who really de-emphasize it and talk about it as makyo [delusion]. There are others who think, ‘No, this is actually compass-setting. This actually matters. This is an important part of our practice.’ For me, it depends. Kensho can become makyo when conceptualized, but the experience in and of itself is not. It’s true waking up to the way things are.”
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