Interview Transcript: Josh Bartok – 7/5/22

[There are a number of lengthy reflective pauses – one exceeding 90 seconds – and false starts. which I have edited out.]

RBM: As you understand it, what does the term “teacher” mean in the context of Zen?

JB: “Zen teacher” is a title describing a role; a Zen teacher gives teishos while sitting next to the Buddha altar, for instance, to a Zendo full of people practising Zen and who are not giving teishos at the front of the room. A Zen teacher meets with students in the one-to-one format that is the main teaching modality of Zen, dokusan. A Zen teacher in that context gives formal guidance in meditation and, if they are authorized and trained in koans, they would guide students through the koan tradition. And Zen teachers help guide Zen communities from a position of leadership. Those are things that a Zen teacher does.

RBM: And to what end is all this activity?

JB: That’s a good question, to be sure. So, in part, Zen is one modality of practising the Dharma. The Dharma is a set of tools, approaches, and views that can enable us to diminish suffering—suffering if not less, perhaps better. And it is a way of seeing the functioning of our own mind and the ways the functioning of our minds can amplify or diminish suffering in ourselves and others and in the world. Zen is one way of exploring that, and a Zen teacher uses the tools of the Zen tradition to help Zen students do that.

RBM: Certainly in the early days of the Zen boom, the late ’60s and early ’70s, when people showed up at the door of places like the Rochester Zen Center, almost inevitably they’d say what they were looking for was awakening or enlightenment, kensho. Is that a goal for people any longer? Is that still something that draws people to the practice?

JB: I can’t really speak to that. But I will point out that in Dogen’s Zen – which is the Zen that I identify with and the Zen which resonates most with me – Dogen talks about the non-duality of practice and awakening. There is only the one thing: practice-awakening. Part of the rhetoric of Zen Dharma transmission is that the person receiving the transmission is having their awakening affirmed as being not different from the Buddha’s own awakening. That’s the rhetoric of it. And there is a subtle way that that is kind of true: in that all of it is included in the universe universing, and it is not something personal owned by me. I am a part of that, and Shakyamuni is a part of that. I also think there is another way in which that rhetoric can cause confusion in communities and in teachers and students alike. It can obscure the fact that all of us are always only doing our best to navigate this difficult business of being human among other humans. And amid that, some people take on the mantle of saying, “And here’s how I as a Zen teacher might be able to help with that.” And some people do not.

RBM: What I’m getting at here, Josh, what I’m curious about is whether one – once acknowledged to be a Zen teacher – can then in a real sense cease being a Zen teacher. I mean, I have certain training that I don’t make use of, but I still have those skills. I just don’t employ them. I’ve got a Ph. D. that I don’t do anything with although I can still use the title Dr. if I’m feeling pretentious.

JB: Yeah, and my training is still there, my experiences and such insights as I may have had are still there. But again: “Zen teacher” is a role that some people do and some do not. I’m not doing that role. If I’m not doing that role, I’m not a Zen teacher regardless of whether or not I may or may not be qualified. You know, it’s similar to this: I used to ride a motor scooter, and I needed a motorcycle endorsement from the Registry of Motor Vehicles on my driver’s license. The motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license also meant that my insurance rates went up. And then at some point I stopped riding scooters and asked the RMV to remove that endorsement even though I have the skills involved in driving a motor scooter and I have driven a motor scooter.

RBM: Okay. Let’s continue that analogy then. You could decide to drive a motor scooter again.

JB: I could. Sure. But it is a meaningful thing—it’s meaningful to me and I hope to others—for me to set down these things and say I am no longer doing them, and I no longer have the intention or the aspiration to be seen in this role and to serve in this role irrespective of whatever I have personally realized of the Dharma. To be clear: I didn’t renounce the Dharma when I returned my robes and documents. I just set down those roles and descriptions and formal functions and relationships of being a Zen teacher and priest. And returning one’s robes to one’s teacher or entrusting them to someone else to hold for a period of time is a thing that exists in parts of the Zen tradition. That isn’t wholly made up.

RBM: Do you see the possibility that you might at some point want to take up those roles again?

JB: Any prediction of the future is profoundly delusive, and my own hit-rate at predicting the future thus far in my life is pretty friggin’ close to zero. But I can speak for my intention, and I don’t intend to return to those roles.

RBM: I believe you are also no longer an editor at Wisdom.

JB: That’s right. I retired as I had been planning for the last five years. I served the Dharma community as a book editor for two decades and hundreds of books, and I had come to feel that I had done my part sufficiently. My intention was to be able to give more of my time and my life to my Zen teaching role and to the sangha. I had intended to turn toward that even more fully than I had. That is, by the way, another example of me inaccurately predicting futures.

RBM: You said that you hadn’t “renounced the Dharma.” Does it remain meaningful to you?

JB: Of course the Dharma is meaningful to me. In an important way, the truth of the Dharma, the foundational reality of the Dharma, is the only game in town. So I want to again differentiate Dharma from the humans and human institutions that manifest it. Partly I practice now (in a non-teaching capacity) in community in support of my wife, who has really started diving deeply into this and is finding it enormously helpful. I used be a zealot and an evangelist; I’m not the zealot I once was and I don’t evangelize. It’s so humbling to me that I devoted thirty years to Dharma and Sangha and yet I suffered an egregious lapse of discernment and judgment that significantly hurt people whose well-being I deeply cared about. And all of this is something I grieve and struggle with and am continuing to work with, as best I can, to learn from.

RBM: [I introduce this question with a long and meandering reflection about what appears to be a tendency towards institutionalism in some Zen schools.] How do you currently feel about these institutions?

JB: I feel conflicted. They can be of great benefit and, like every other human endeavour, can become a source of suffering. I’ve been helped by institutions and, as a former institutional leader myself, I think I have been helpful to others. I’ve been let down by institutions and, as a former institutional leader myself, I’ve let others down. I wish my experiences of institutions were only positive, and I deeply, deeply wish my impacts as a former institutional leader were only positive, but this is not the reality. And that pains me enormously.

RBM: If you had the opportunity, what is it you would like to say about the circumstances around your stepping down as a teacher and priest?

JB: I think that I would want in print is part of what I said in the public ceremony of apology with my former community in March of 2021, in which I took responsibility for having had a secret relationship with a student.

[Josh supplied the text after our conversation: “I acknowledge that I inappropriately crossed boundaries in relationship that were my own sacred responsibility to hold and that I created circumstances of secrecy and deceit. Caught myself by the energies of suffering, I amplified suffering in others rather than diminishing it, and I disrupted this community. I betrayed all of your trust, and I betrayed the vows and values I myself hold most dear. I am so deeply, deeply sorry for these things. I make this apology to you all and in front of you all as embodiments of the Three Treasures. I assure you I take to heart the implications of this transgression, and I vow to continue my deepening work in understanding and addressing the causes and conditions that led to my failures and my harm-causing so I can prevent them in the future.”]

JB: From the moment that I told my wife about this relationship and then came forward to tell the teachers and ombudsperson of my community and then suspended myself as a teacher, in November of 2020, I have done my best to make choices to cause the least harm possible, which has included, until now, making no public statements (other than what I said to the community in the apology ceremony). As part of my accountability, I’ve set down the roles of Zen teacher, priest, and pastoral counsellor. I am deeply regretful of the harm I have caused, the suffering that I caused, and the difficulties in the community that arose in response to this. And I am painfully regretful of the choices I made out of my own delusion, my own suffering and confusion and lostness and fear and pain. Just to be clear: I am in no way whatsoever saying, “And so it’s all okay now and everybody should just be fine with it.” It was humbling for me to see so clearly how badly I could screw up and how lost I could become even after all of my practice, and even from places of love for the Dharma, love for the community, love for people I was in relationship with. Amid this, at a time of inner and outer upheaval, I did things that hurt many of the people I cared most about. Having done these things and acknowledged my responsibility for having done them, I have done and continue to do a lot of psychological, spiritual, interpersonal and self-reflective work to understand this and be able to cause the “less harm” that I have always aspired to cause with my life. I’ve reflected and continue to reflect deeply on myself as a teacher and leader, my weaknesses and blind spots, and on what and how I was and wasn’t teaching and the impacts of my shortcomings on others. You know, one of the first small realizations I had in my Zen practice decades ago – like a first micro-awakening – was an image of myself as having been previously stomping through the gardens of everybody else’s lives in my big ol’ shit-kicking boots. I had a realization of, “Oh, I want to live more carefully. I want to not do that. I want to be as awake to the manner that I’m moving through the world as I can. I want to cause as little harm as possible.” That was part of why I dedicated so much of my life to the Dharma. And I think I did indeed cause less harm with my stomping than I might have. And yet, thirty years of practice later, amid great pain, great difficulty, great upheaval, I was causing harm despite my heartfelt desire not to. And so I set all of this stuff down to remove myself from that. I don’t want to be in a position where my own difficulties, my own failings, my own falling short of my values and my aspirations and the things I know to be true and good, where those things have such ramified, amplified impact on so many other people. And, still: I’m doing my best to learn from and grow from the incredibly painful realities of this karma, and am still trying to walk the Dharma path as well as my karma allows. Beyond trying to not do harm, I am also trying, in such ways as are available to me, to actualize some good.

[Recording ends 55:18]

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