The Secret of Life That We Are All Looking For

Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment edited by Lenore Friedman &Susan Moon.  Shambhala.  240 pp.  $15.00.

As I’ve said before, I think that the women teachers in my tradition—the Soto Zen lineage that goes back to the San Francisco Zen Center—are often the most interesting.  There’s something about the extreme rigors of Zen, combined with the warmth and understanding of a female temperament, that makes for an interesting mix.  In Japan, until recently, the genders were segregated for Buddhist practice, but when Shunryu Suzuki came to this country to minister to a Japanese congregation, and Westerners began to express an interest in sitting, he didn’t differentiate.  That was part of his genius.  Some of his earliest students were women, and when he began to ordain priests he ordained the women right along with the men.

There is my own teacher, Josho Pat Phelan.  There is the wonderful Darlene Cohen, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and taught so expertly about dealing with physical pain in practice and in life, and who was adamant about not de-sexualizing herself[1].  Another West coast priest, Katherine Thanas, did not leave much teaching behind, but everything I’ve read by her is helpful and profound.  And from a slightly different tradition, just down the California coastline, there’s the marvelous Joko Beck.  These days, it seems, every woman who comes to practice has been reading Pema Chodron, who has become the female teacher who most speaks to women.  But when I was beginning practice, back in the ‘90’s, they were reading Joko Beck.  Her books were wildly popular, and right on the edge of that boundary between practice and therapy.  Every culture has added things to Buddhism, and one of the things our culture is adding is the insights of therapy.

Cohen, Thanas, and Beck are all represented in Being Bodies, a volume that came together in 1997, when I’d been practicing for six years and was starting to write the books with Larry Rosenberg.  Like any anthology, it is a mixed bag, with some women who are more or less experienced, some who are better writers than others.  But the pieces by these three women are all excellent, and I think the Joko Beck piece is the most profound thing she ever published, though she didn’t collect it in her own books[2] and I haven’t found it anywhere else.  It’s the piece that I’ve come back to again and again.

But the Darlene Cohen piece was groundbreaking for me too; I can’t remember whether I first came across it here or in her wonderful book Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain.  Occasionally in my reading I’ve come across passages that suddenly speak to me; they say the same thing everyone else has been saying, but say it in some way that seems new or especially helpful.  There is such a passage in her piece here; I copied it and stapled it to the inside of my writing notebook, where I can see it every day.  I believe I’ve stapled it now to three notebooks:

“When Chogyam Trungpa wrote in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior that ‘the human potential for intelligence and dignity is attuned to experiencing the objects around us, the brilliance of the blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains,’ I think he was suggesting that our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for the mundane chaos of our lives.  If we cultivate awareness of our actual experience, without reference to any preconceived idea, then we don’t prefer any state of mind.  Intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives.  This connection—to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, other people—is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering.  To me awareness of these things without preference is a meditation that synchronizes body and mind.  This synchronization, the experience of deep integrity, of being all of a piece, is a very deep healing.  It is unconventional to value such a subtle experience.  It is not encouraged in our culture.  We’re much more apt to strive to feel special, uniquely talented, particularly loved.  It’s extraordinary to be willing to live an ordinary life, to be fully alive for the laundry, to be present for the dishes.  We overlook these everyday connections to our lives, waiting for The Event.”

That, for me, is the best brief statement of what Soto Zen practice is about, also the practice that Trungpa wrote about in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.  He and Shunryu Suzuki were great friends, and at first they seem like an odd pair, the quiet modest mild-mannered Japanese man and the wild, drunken, womanizing, scholarly Tibetan.  But they had both trained deeply in their tradition, and the practices that they taught were virtually the same, constant bodily mindfulness based in a daily practice of sitting.  They had something in common that was more important than their differences.

Thanas’ piece, “Hearing the Voice of the Body,” is also powerful[3], and ranges through her whole practice life.  She had begun as an artist, and speaks of a time when she was blocked with her painting; the realization that I don’t have to paint was paradoxically the thing that freed her; she’d been working at her art too dutifully and doggedly.  She also speaks of a much later time, when she was leading a sesshin and found herself “in the novel situation of giving teachings and private interviews during the day and feeling like I was dying of heart palpitations, sleeplessness, tremendous anxiety, and dizziness at night.”  As someone who has experienced all of those symptoms on sesshin, it was helpful for me to hear about a teacher having them.  She found, as I have, that “I was going to have to go into them with a kind and open awareness and not wish them away.  I did this at night, in bed, when the palpitations are strongest.”  There’s no way to face the fear except to face the fear.  That’s where the learning comes from.

I especially appreciate Thanas’ vulnerability in admitting that experience, in a way that many women make themselves vulnerable throughout this volume.  Am I wrong in thinking that male teachers aren’t similarly revealing and don’t similarly make themselves vulnerable?[4]  It also seems likely that women as a group are more likely to be in touch with their bodies, and with their deep intuitive sense, than men.  The more I’ve practiced, the more I’ve become convinced that all the answers are in the body.

But the most brilliant piece in the volume is the final one, “Our Substitute Life” by Joko Beck.  Beck was the toughest of the women I’ve mentioned here; she had a no nonsense style and was absolutely uncompromising, at least in her public writings.  If I would fault her for anything, I would say that she sometimes seems ponderous and somewhat humorless.  But I love her bold fearless pronouncements, which make no qualifications (once, for instance, when she was asked if prayer had any place in Zen, she said, “Zazen is prayer.  There’s no difference”), and this piece is a great example.  “So let us consider our basic illusion—the blockage—that is the source of our unsatisfactory, substitute life.  And make no mistake: all of us, to some degree, are living a fake or substitute life.”

Take that, all you teachers out there who regard yourselves as fully enlightened.

The substitute life is “born out of a core of conditioning, which is formed from the inevitable and innumerable disappointments of our early years.  Our struggles with them result in more and more fixed beliefs about ourselves and the world.”  She mentions examples of this core belief: “I am unlovable,” “I am hopeless, worthless,” “I am alone, abandoned,” “I am unable to succeed,” “I am unable to do it right,” “I am separate from the rest of humanity.”

These are thoughts, often complicated stories, that we have created.  But thoughts don’t lead us away from them.  “Thought of any sort, simple or complex, rational or irrational, cannot lead us to freedom from our core belief. . . . Only one endeavor helps.  We must abandon our mistaken trust in thinking as a path to freedom and turn in one direction only: to experience in our body the pain of the core belief itself.  We have to face the pain we have been running from.  In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.”

You can see what I mean about uncompromising.  This is hardly a practice of sweetness and light, and wouldn’t gain her a lot of followers in the spiritual marketplace.  But it is a true practice, difficult as it may sound.

“The ‘secret’ of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment—even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness.  We learn to rest in our experience without thought, to sink into a nondual state. . . .

“. . . Call this enlightenment if you wish.  But please remember: we do not do this bodily experiencing just once, or in one sitting.  We are describing a lifetime process with many ups and downs, probably one that is never complete.  It doesn’t matter!  What does matter is the slow, slow shift in the way we see ourselves and live our lives.  This is Zen practice and an end to our substitute life.”

Whew.  A powerful end to an uncompromising teaching.

This is what Eckhart Tolle is really talking about, though he doesn’t, as far as I know, give people an opportunity to practice it.  It doesn’t happen when a bunch of people are sitting in a room listening to someone talk.  It happens when they leave the talk, and go back to their houses, and sit on their own, and face themselves, face their pain.  It happens over a period of months, and years, and it isn’t glamorous.  We can go on retreats with other people, hundreds of people if we want, but we’re always really just sitting with ourselves.  That’s what we need.

I’m grateful to these women who won’t let me kid myself about that.

[1] I can’t remember where I read this, but she reacted when Thich Nhat Hanh said somewhere or other that people should only have sex with a committed partner.  It was that situation where a celibate male was speaking about sexuality, always a perilous enterprise.  Cohen said that she thought that having a variety of partners could be an important part of a woman’s developing sexuality.  She wasn’t cowed by the fact that she was contradicting a famous teacher, one who had more cachet than she.  I also read somewhere that she insisted on wearing makeup and earrings even in her priest garb.

[2] Beck, like many Buddhist teachers, was not a writer.  All of her “pieces” were apparently talks she gave, but she had the good sense to get a literary person to edit and polish them.  She co-credits this piece to Ezra Bayda, who later became a teacher himself and has written his own books.

[3] It is also available here.

[4] I’ve been lucky enough to study with some exceptions.  Both Larry Rosenberg and Sojun Mel Weitsman have spoken quite personally and vulnerably to me and other students on retreat, and in their public talks and writings.  Both have a kind of feminine warmth.  Neither one gives off that macho air that I find annoying in some male Zen teachers.