Like Tenney Nathanson, Sarah Bender is a Dharma heir of Joan Sutherland and teaches within her Open Source network. Sarah is the resident teacher of the Springs Mountain Sangha in Colorado Springs.
“I started out in 1979 with Robert Aitken Roshi in Honolulu. I practiced in that sangha for four years, but then we moved to Colorado.” Her time in Hawaii overlapped with John Tarrant’s tenure as senior student.
“Later on, when I attended retreats at St. Dorothy’s where John was teaching, I have a strong memory of a talk where someone was asking a question about, ‘How to make this safe. How to make this practice safe.’ And John sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, if you’re looking for something that’s safe, maybe you’re in the wrong place.’ That kind of stuck with me, because I think on the one hand, we want to feel safe in the community in which we practice, but the practice itself . . . to practice this way, if you’re looking for safety, may be not the best way.”
The approach that Sarah takes to her own koan teaching derives from the time she spent studying with Joan.
“It was actually Father Pat Hawk who connected my sangha with Joan through John. Pat was going to lead our first retreat in Colorado Springs and then got diagnosed with prostate cancer and couldn’t come. And he suggested that I call John, and John said, ‘I can’t come, but I have this brand-new teacher, Joan Sutherland. Give her a call.’”
Joan agreed to facilitate the retreat, assisted by David Weinstein who acted as Head of Practice.
“Was your experience with her different than with your earlier teachers?”
“I can’t say that Aitken Roshi or Father Pat ever asked me to exclude my life, but when I started to work with Joan, there was a way in which any kind of separation between a formal response to a koan or sort of an expected response to a koan and my life was unnecessary. And it was not at all that she was being psychological—you know—taking a psychological approach. I wouldn’t call it that at all. I would just say that there was no longer any barrier there at all. And the creativity of response to koans was given its full play. So not very long after starting to work with Joan, I had a dream in which I was with a woman in a room, and we each had a knitting needle, and we were tossing a ball of yarn, back and forth, catching it on our knitting needles. And there was that quality to my work with Joan. We were playing with yarns.”
“And was that first retreat a satisfying experience?”
“Thrilling. It was so nourishing. On the last morning of that retreat, I remember speaking up in our closing circle. And that morning at breakfast, I’d had an experience I’d never had before of actually taking a bite of oatmeal or something and literally feeling that nourishment spreading through my body. And when it came time for the closing circle, the image that was just right there for me was just as I had felt the nourishment of the breakfast spreading through every cell of my body, I felt the nourishment of Joan’s—and David’s—teaching spreading through every cell of my body.”
Traditional koan work can be very formal. Some teachers expect the student to come up an orthodox response. I ask Sarah if there was much difference in how she responded to this less formal way of working with koans.
“I guess in a way. I was still aware that the koan was looking for something to happen to me, and I didn’t want to go on until I was pretty sure that what the koan was looking for had in some sense happened. And Joan would sometimes have to boot me out of a koan and onto the next. ‘No! No! It’ll stay with you. Don’t worry. We’re going on!’ You know? But I’m not sure how different that was because it was not only how she did koans, it was how I did koans. And I think I had been doing koans that way already and meeting them with what was most real for me. And I already didn’t have that wall between the koan and my actual experience. Because I think that’s what koans are about, your actual experience. So it was not a hard transition at all, and it never, never occurred to me to say that ‘This is Buddhism-lite’ or something like that. Never. There was no diminishing of the power of the koan in this way of doing things.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 175, 183-84, 189
Further Zen Conversations: 51-52; 59; 113-14; 144; 151.