Chris Amirault is a practice leader with Shining Window Zen in Tulsa, a satellite center associated with Boundless Way Zen in New England. When I ask if being a “practice leader” puts him on tenure track, he says, “You know, that’s part of what I’m trying to figure out, whether I am on tenure track, and how you square that with ‘no attainment.’”
Around the year 2000, a series of events occurred which changed the direction of Chris’s life. Political corruption in the local school system put his family at risk, his first marriage broke up, and his brother “went through two years of extremely dangerous, troubling behavior which ended with his very successful suicide. So in the midst of all of those things, I felt that there were other ways to live my life than the way I was doing it, and I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I started paying greater attention to those spiritual dimensions that I had been ignoring for quite a while.”
“How did you do that?”
“Doing things like going on walks and talking to certain people. I made some pretty clear decisions about who I wanted to spend time with and who I didn’t. And one of the things that resulted was meeting and then becoming involved with and marrying my current wife, who shares a lot of my same values and ethics in a manner that is more aligned with the way that I lived. She’s not religious, but we were both big travellers. One of the first places we went was to Thailand in 2008, and in preparation I spent about six months reading about Buddhism. And my trip to Thailand was very powerful, spending time in a place that was structured by different understandings about humans and individuality and community that seemed at least to partially derive from Buddhism.”
That led to further reading, and eventually the reading brought him to understand that something more was required. “I spent a lot of time reading and then finally decided, after I don’t know after how long – at least a year, maybe more – that maybe I should actually sit down on a goddam cushion and meditate. I was reading everything, and I was a little annoyed at everyone talking about this thing called ‘zazen’ as if I was supposed to do that too. But then, of course, I finally started doing that, and around that time I met James Ford who was also the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence. And I had already read two books about koans, and so I went to a few sits, and then I went out to coffee with him, and I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta give me Mu! You’ve gotta give me Mu!’ And he said,” [speaking in a tired tone], “‘All right. “This student walks up to Chao-chou and da-da-da-da . . . Buddha Nature . . . no.” All right, now you have Mu. Good luck. God bless.’ And – you know – I spent a whole bunch of time chewing on the iron ball.”
James, who has since moved to California, is no longer directly involved with Boundless Way, but Chris continues to think of him as his first teacher. “One of the most important experiences I had was being rung out of dokusan by James and then we went out and had coffee afterwards and talked about it. The pedagogy of dokusan is very well suited to my spiritual needs and learning style, which continues to this day. And I’m also someone who really believes that Dogen was right, that practice, enlightenment, and bodhicitta are one. And I happen to work in a job where I literally think about those questions every minute of every day. I take care of families that are in the foster-care system or homeless or dealing with economic challenges. These are not empty questions. They are not abstractions that pop up while you’re on a mat. And I think James’ commitment to social justice activism, his pastoral care training, his ability to interweave other spiritual traditions in a manner that reflects Unitarian practice, I think, those are all very, very helpful for me, from where I was coming from, even though I’ve never been interested in Unitarian practice particularly, I think that tolerance is important to me.”
“Did you ever resolve Mu?” I ask.
“Oh, gosh. Yeah.”
“Are you comfortable telling me about that?”
“Oh well, you know, for the first several months I had great diagrams, I had written several short papers on Mu. Anybody who wanted to know about Mu, I was ready to explain it. I was the Wikipedia of Mu for about eighteen months, I think. And my breakthrough conversation on Mu was with Melissa Blacker in dokusan, where I gave an answer that was grounded in my thinking brain, and she said, ‘We’re looking for something more intimate.’ That was a turning point for me with my practice. Thinking about this practice as an intimate practice. You know, I have a lot of letters after my name. I teach in higher ed. I’ve written a book. I’ve lived in the world of words and ideas, and I’ve really had to learn about an embodied awareness that is more intimate, that is the ground of my practice. That took a really long time, and I still struggle with it.”
Further Zen Conversations, Pp. 99-100; 145-46; 153-54.