John Pulleyn

The work of Anthony de Mello – a Jesuit from India who sought links between Eastern and Western spiritualities – is generally not well known to Zen practitioners, but I have always admired him. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Sensei John Pulleyn of the Rochester Zen Center tell me that Anthony DeMello was “his favorite guy.”

“I’m notorious for dragging him into teishos,” he tells me.

I mention that deMello’s Awareness is the book I’m most likely to recommend to people asking about spiritual matters.

“That was his best book,” John agrees. “There are a number of favorite passages I keep coming back to. One is: ‘I’m going to write a book: I’m an Ass, You’re an Ass.’ That’s just wonderful. I was trying to look it up on the web, and lo and behold, up came this Zen teacher giving a talk on that particular DeMello thing and saying exactly what I feel about it. That it just disarms people. I mean, it’s something hopefully you come to understand, which is you have the Shadow side, this limited side. It’s just the habit patterns and the karma, and you can’t walk away from that.”

John is now a second teacher – along with Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede – at the Rochester Center founded by Philip Kapleau. I ask him what exactly a Zen teacher teaches.

“You know, Bodhin Roshi and I have talked about this a fair amount. The teacher’s job, really, is just to keep the student going. There’s nothing the teacher can give the student, as you know. So, really it’s just pointing out when they’re going off the charts, encouraging them when they’re discouraged, deflating them when they’re too full of themselves. Yeah, I really like the model – as I understand it – of the Chinese, where it’s more like an older brother, and not like the Japanese where – as I understand it – it’s more like the daimyo, the Great Lord. You know, the teacher really has a lot of power there. That’s one method. I think it probably depends on the nature of the student which one’s gonna be better. For me, I always thought of Bodhin Roshi as kind of like an elder brother, even though I’m a year or two older than him. I didn’t feel like there was a massive authority looming over me. And then, what can the teacher tell the student? I get students coming in who wanna know, ‘How do I do this? How do I do that?’ And sometimes you can give them a little bit of help, but, in the end, they really need to work it out themselves. Even something as simple as, ‘How do I look into a koan? How do I picture it?’ Well, bang your head against the wall and see what happens. I think Roshi Kapleau maybe said the mark of a good teacher is not helping the student too much. And I know that when Roshi Kapleau died, and he was laying in a coffin in the zendo, and we went up to say our goodbyes, I said, ‘Thank you for not helping me.’ And I meant it.”

“You’re located in a residential neighborhood,” I tell him, “so let’s say that one day a kid from the neighborhood – say 18 or 19 years old – comes by. He’s walked by the building hundreds of times, but one day he comes to the door and asks, ‘What is it you guys do here?’”

“It would really depend, but I might say, ‘We look into ourselves. We try to see who we are. We try to experience our lives directly. Try to get out of our heads.’ Yeah, basically we try to see who we are.”

“And then he might ask, ‘Why? What good is that? What’s it good for?’”

“‘What’s it good for?’” John says reflectively. “It’s good for living a whole-hearted life. It’s good for finding joy even in difficult situations. You have to try it, see if you have some affinity for it, and the only way you find if you have affinity is if you just keep at it. You know, some people begin practice and it’s hard, hard, hard, but they do it anyway for whatever reason. When you look at people and you think, ‘This one’s got it; this one doesn’t have it,’ you’re usually wrong. Because someone who’s a total blockhead will just keep knocking on the door, and then things happen. The magic is doing whole-hearted zazen, and, to get there, you do half-hearted zazen. You just keep going. People just have to trust the process.”

Further Zen Conversations: 23-28; 45; 65-66; 110-11; 121; 147.

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Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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