David Petterson is a participant in Dosho Port and Tetsugan Zummach’s “Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training.”
For the last nine years, well before the pandemic, Dosho and Tetsugan have been experimenting with online training. In the Afterward to my book, The Story of Zen, Dosho wrote: “The number of people interested in pursuing Zen deeply is small and widely dispersed. The internet is a tool that can connect practitioners who might be living in far-flung places, like Fredericton, New Brunswick, with teachers in equally far-flung places like [Duluth, Minnesota]. I sense that we are just beginning to tap the potential of the internet to support people doing dharma practice.”
He describes the Vine of Obstacles “as an experiment, applying the principles of dharma work from our hybrid background – Soto emphasis on the dynamic synergy of zazen, study, and engagement with the Yasutani-Harada koan curriculum – to support householders in their practice. Cyber Zen, like in-person Zen, is a relational activity. Where a student happens to live is less important than their affinity with a teacher. So every student meets with a teacher every week for a fifteen-minute practice meeting. Students are also required to share in the online forums designed and facilitated in order to keep it personal and focused.”
David was raised in a devout Christian Science household, but, while he was a college student, his aunt died. “Christian Scientists don’t often talk about illness when they’re sick because the idea is that if you talk about it a lot you make it more real in your thought. And in Christian Science the belief is that ultimately all disease originates in thought. So she died very suddenly and unexpectedly, and she was not getting medical care so far as I knew. So for me that was just a crisis of faith. I didn’t know if I could rely on Christian Science for any kind of medical issue that might come up. And I certainly couldn’t imagine praying for somebody else. But that didn’t mean that the deep spiritual questions or yearnings that I had went away. It’s just that I realized that Christian Science was not going to take me through the rest of my life.”
Eventually, while spending a year studying in France, he came upon a book which helped him find a path that he believed could take him through the rest of his life. “One of my favorite activities in Paris was to just spend hours in the bookstores, and I was browsing through this one section and came across the French translation of Meditation for Dummies.”
He tried to follow the instructions in the book during the remainder of his stay in Paris. “I kept at it often enough that by the time I came back to the US, that’s the time that I found my first big Buddhist book, which was Ezra Bayda’s At Home in the Muddy Water. And what I appreciated about that book was there was a lot of frank discussions about things like anger, sexuality, issues which just weren’t talked about in the tradition of Christian Science. So I felt, ‘There’s something here that could be useful.’ And that was the point where I realized I needed a teacher, ’cause I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
He worked with teachers in Oakland, California, and in North Carolina, before finding employment in Pittsburgh, where he studied with Kyoki Roberts. It was through Kyoki that he met Dosho who visited to lead a sesshin. “I immediately felt a heart-connection. And also that was the first time I encountered koans. He offered to let senior people work with Mu during the weekend.”
Dosho and Tetsugan live near Duluth, more than 900 miles from Pittsburgh. But one of Kyoki’s senior students – Jisen Coughlan – encouraged David to work with Dosho online.
David tells me that in Dosho he found someone who he felt embodied Zen. “I felt there was a model that was actually more relatable to me. Most of the other teachers I studied with, I just couldn’t figure out how to bring Zen alive in my own life, but there was something about Dosho. And then getting to do koan work. That’s when I finally felt my Zen practice coming to life.”
He has been in the Vine Obstacles program for about six years. I ask him to describe it.
“So daily practice, study, and engagement. We sit together four days a week in the morning. That’s something myself and another student started in the early pandemic, and now it’s become pretty formalized. There’s weekly Dharma talks or student talks. So it’s a pretty robust online practice platform.”
When I ask what makes it worthwhile to get up and turn on Zoom for morning sitting, he tells me it is the sense of community.
“What is miraculous is, even though you’re not in the same physical space, there still is a co-presence. There still is a feeling of doing something together. It’s not the same as being together, but there still is a co-presence. And it does create a sense of community, especially when you take a few minutes to talk or have tea afterwards. Yeah. It’s more than just text, and that’s what’s nice. Although the primary mode of interaction on the Vine is text. It’s a forum-based platform.
“It’s like an asynchronous online chat. So people can start threads, and then you can add or respond to peoples’ posts throughout the week. And you can get a digest everyday of what the activity on the board is.”
I ask him for a sample of the type of topic that might be discussed.
“So the previous two study focuses were on the Diamond Sutra. And most recently we worked through the complete Record of Empty Hall, which Dosho just put out in translation. That took us six months. And in between those intensive periods, weekly questions can vary. Like ‘What roles do dreams play in Zen practice?’ ‘How do you bring the spirit of Zen into your home environment?’ ‘How would you explain Zen to a total newcomer?’ Actually a great question, considering my own meandering path. And then sometimes people will just post things that they are struggling with or that they need help with. So somebody this week posted, ‘How do I talk to my family about this Zen thing that I do?’ It’s a great source of community. You really get to know other people. I would say that I feel like I know the people that practice on the Vine better than I ever knew anybody in any of the in-person practice groups that I was part of.”