Robert Waldinger

Like Mike Fieleke, Bob Waldinger is the resident teacher of a zendo in Newton, the Henry David Thoreau Sangha (“affectionately known as ‘Hank’”).

He came to Zen relatively late in life. He was in his 50s. “I had been interested in meditation since I was in my 30s because someone I did my psychological training with casually said one day that she and her partner had spent a weekend doing a silent retreat. And I said, ‘You mean, you didn’t say anything?’ I couldn’t imagine spending time with my girl friend being quiet. So I think she recommended Wherever You Go, There You Are, the Jon Kabat-Zinn book, and I read it and was really drawn to basic Buddhist philosophy. The idea of impermanence resonated so much because since I was a teenager at least, reading some of the poets like Yeats, I realized that I was worried about all this stuff that didn’t matter, and that all these ideas about what we were supposed to achieve and what people were supposed to accomplish had this kind of absurdity about it because it was all going to pass away. And that really struck me deeply as an adolescent, but I didn’t have any way to talk about it, and nobody else was seeming to think that way. So I did all these very achievement-oriented things, but all the while kept thinking, ‘There’s a part of this that’s completely made up and absurd.’ Traditional religion hadn’t worked for me. I was raised Jewish, and – like – I would be in services with my family and wanted to stop the action and go up front and say, ‘Okay, raise your hands. How many of you really believe this stuff?’ Of course I could never do that. So there were these ways in which I was hungry for a spiritual practice and a way to make sense of the world.”

He dabbled in various meditation traditions for a while before meeting James Ford. “My son’s friend in middle school had a coming-of-age ceremony at the Unitarian Church where James was the minister. And I sat next to the friend’s mom, and she knew I’d been interested in meditation; she pointed to James and said, ‘You know, he’s a Zen master.’ So I emailed him and asked if I could come see him, and he said, ‘Sure.’ So one weekday morning I went to his office, and it was just a total mess, and he came in with his shirt-buttons wrong and – you know – was just James. And was very down to Earth. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could probably learn from this guy.’ One of the first things James said to me was, ‘We do scruffy Zen.’”

Bob accepted an invitation to try sitting with the group that James was running at his church. “And I went up to him afterwards, and I said, ‘You know, I was really uncomfortable with all the bowing and the chanting.’ And, of course, being James, he said, ‘Good!’ And that was sort of a dare to come back, so I came back, and . . .” He shrugs. “I drank the Kool-Aid.”

“As long as you recognized it’s Kool-Aid,” I say.

“Well, that was actually one of the most helpful things. The Zen I know doesn’t present itself as anything but Kool-Aid that eventually you’ll put down.”

“If someone had asked you – perhaps one of your colleagues who was wondering if you were going off the deep end . . .” He nods his head, grinning broadly. “Oh!” I say. That’s already happened has it?”

“Yeah, so I worked at Harvard Medical School, which is one of the most conservative institutions on the planet, and some of my friends were quite interested. Actually some of my psychoanalyst friends were really interested, because psychoanalysis is about watching the mind as well in a different way, with different frames. So they were interested. Other people were kind of polite. You know there’s that, ‘Oh?’ And my wife was worried that it was a cult perhaps. And I said to her, ‘If I never went back to this Monday night sitting group, no one would even call, no one would know. That’s not what it is.’”

His university office is now decorated with Buddha figures, photos of his teachers, and a picture of Guanyin. “So now I’m really out.” And when he returns after taking time off work to attend sesshin, his colleagues will inquire how it went. “They’ll ask, ‘Was it really relaxing?’ And I say, ‘No, it was intense. Good. But not relaxing.’ I tell them it’s not about relaxation. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about a radical understanding of the self in the world and what it means to be alive. That’s the elevator speech.

“The structure of Zen works for me, these frequent interviews with teachers are important because I tend to get discouraged. Doubt is a big part of my experience. So I would sit there and think, ‘What the hell am I doing? I might just as well be phoning this meditation in.’ And so it’s really helpful to have another human being working to remind me what this is. So I found that structure helpful. And when Zen talks about ‘already Buddha’ – you know? – what the hell is that? And that seemed to me to be really important and much more . . . um . . . both surprising and real than what I understand from some of my friends in other traditions. Well, they eventually deconstruct all these levels. But most of us never get to that point. Most people don’t get far enough along the path to deconstruct the various levels. What I like about Zen is it keeps knocking you back down and saying, ‘We’re going to deconstruct it moment to moment.’”

The Story of Zen: 389-95, 425

Zen Conversations: 9; 21; 43-44; 58; 87

Other links:

Henry David Thoreau Sangha

Boundless Way Zen

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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