A Terrible Joy: A Reflection on Zen & Awakening in All Circumstances

A Terrible Joy: A Reflection on Zen & Awakening in All Circumstances December 27, 2019



Over the past couple of weeks I put a lot of psychic energy into exploring whether I could do an ango, a three-month training period at a Soto monastery in Japan.

By way of background.

At the dawn of my Zen life I lived in Jiyu Kennet’s monastic communities for two years and change, first at the temple in San Francisco, then the monastery in Oakland, and when the property was acquired the monastery at Mount Shasta. During these years I participated in three full ango, including one where I was shuso. the “head monk.” However, as people who know me know, after I left Kennett Roshi, and a period of exploration, I settled into a twenty-year period where I practiced under the guidance of John Tarrant Roshi, a lay koan master in what is sometimes called the Harada-Yasutani lineage. These years were dedicated to a householder practice, where the training emphasis was regular practice, lots and lots of Zen retreats of three, five, and seven days, and the intimate exploration of koans.

Since then I’ve been teaching Zen, writing, leading retreat, consulting with colleagues and companions. I helped to put together a network of practice groups, which flourished for a while, and now is broken into several parts. Although the parts seem to be doing okay, as well.

Today I sit with a small network of householder and priestly practitioners.

In my dotage I’ve found my heart calling me into the priestly practices of my youth. This started with claiming the ministerial aspect of ordination in a sense closely mapping our Western understanding of ordination. It also entailed a reclamation of rule, a more rigorous engagement of the precepts as a map and a companionship of mutual accountability. And, for the past four years I’ve been increasingly called into the power of the liturgical parts of my Soto inheritance.

Now, I’ve been engaged in a conversation and sometimes debate within our Western and specifically American Soto communities about priestly formation. The principal area of focus is the necessity of ango. That ninety (or, sometimes one hundred) day retreat has its roots in the Buddha’s rainy season retreat. And that three month outline of focused practice is something recognizable throughout the Buddhist world. So, it’s powerful. And it’s compelling. Some feel if one wishes to practice in the Japanese-derived Soto school as a priest, an ango experience is absolutely required.  The Japanese Sotoshu actually requires two ango – and in practice normally expects a year or two or three of monastic residency. Along with many other things, of course.

I’ve argued that the requirement is not essential to the formation of a priest within our Western inheritance. Rather I feel, strongly, that we can count sesshin “days,” instead. A hundred days of retreat, in addition to many other expectations, would be sufficient to ordain unsui, “clouds and water monastic,” a novice priest. And, later, as one approaches full ordination, a total of three hundred days of retreat for that part of the formative experience.

Because I hold this view strongly, some people with whom I’ve engaged in these conversations think I don’t hold the experience as precious. I think not experiencing ango is a loss. It’s just that I think the calling into the priestly life can be experienced fully without ango, which can be beyond the ability of many people called into the priestly practice.


I am aware that these days there are Japanese monasteries that invite both older practitioners and foreign practitioners.

And last month I got it into my head that if I were willing to bow, to take on the black robe of the novice, I might be able to do an ango. That bowing seemed no problem to me. I can lead. And, I can follow.

It would be massively inconvenient. But I don’t have to give up earning an income. And, I have a spouse who understands the calling of the interior life, and is willing to accommodate. And so I became obsessed with the thought of spending three months in a slightly gentler version of thirteenth century Soto Zen practice.

There were questions, of course, beyond my willingness to set aside my teaching position and to fully be just another monk on the line. Most important was, what is older? I am seventy-one. In these past weeks it became apparent that older is forty or maybe even fifty. I have a friend who is sixty and was able to do it. But, when digging into the specifics of my age related limitations, it became apparent that I physically could not live fully under the rule. I won’t go into details, but it is all part and parcel of my personal aging process.

And I had to let go of that dream of one traditional Japanese ango…

However, it opened my thoughts to something that felt related.

One of the interesting things about social media these days is that while the noise to signal ratio remains quite high, in the Zen realms there are a number of people sharing, writing, engaging, who are the real deal. If we’re careful about who we’re listening to, it is possible to gain insights and pointers into a number of different aspects of the Zen way, including modernist, progressive traditionalists, conservatives, and hard traditionalists, Soto, Rinzai, and various hybrids.

One or two of what I kind of think of as hard traditionalists talk a lot about a practice model that includes a relentless control of breath and concentration. Some even go so far as to suggest anything less is less than the authentic way. And, for a smaller group yet will inevitably lead to less than the great promise of Zen’s awakening.

I am really interested in the questions of practice and being within our Zen way. This includes to what purpose is our practice? What is necessary? What is good but not essential? And, what is just stuff that somewhere along the line got added in?

(I think of that old story of the monastery that had a dog, who when meditation began would wander into the zendo. So, they had to tie him to a post when it was time to meditate. Run ahead a hundred years and the monastery must own a dog that must be tied to a post when they begin to meditate in the zendo. Why exactly is no longer certain, but some very good theological explanations are debated…)

Here is my view.

Zen is about awakening. Zen is only about awakening. Yes, the very word Zen means meditation, and no doubt zazen, specifically shikantaza and koan introspection are the sine qua non of Zen’s disciplines. But, that is in service to our awakening. Our Soto ancestor Dogen’s great question, his personal koan, if you will, was if we are actually all originally awake, as our tradition proclaims, then why practice? His resolution of that question and the settling of his heart’s longing was the realization of practice-enlightenment, where there is no space between practice and our awakening.

Some think that this means one realizes awakening within the practice. I know Soto teachers who says one must assume the traditional posture as it is handed down – in the full lotus position, with the sole concession to human weakness in allowing a half-lotus. Along with the various other posture elements. And only that is practice-awakening. In Rinzai it is sometimes doing the breath and concentration that is practice-enlightenment.

If these assertions are true, then only a small subset of people in very specific circumstances can awaken.

If that were true, well we would just have to live with it. And, for most of us, hope for a more propitious future life.

Or. It can be seen that if we are originally awake, then, the proof of that pudding is finding how we are awake in this moment, whatever that moment might be. Perhaps in the full blooded rush of youth, maybe in the expansive life of middle-age, or possibly within the declines of old age. Just this. Always. Just this.

Is this a departure from the teachings? Maybe. But I think not. Life is the project. Awakening in this life is the project. And it is found not going over, not going around, not going under, but, always, always, going through. It is experiencing the life of the universe as my life.

At this point in my journey I have a few comments I hope are helpful. First, this awakening is not a steady state, but rather we’re clearer and we’re less clear in any given moment. As the smart person said, awakening is not what you think. Except, of course, when it is…

Also, don’t get hung up on special experiences. They’re great. And. The judgment of our awakening is found in the totality of our lives. Our formal practices are terribly important. And the longer and deeper they are lived within the weaving of our lives, no doubt, the better. But, what matters most out of this is how it weaves into that larger that is our individual existence.

So, even a nonbeliever can wake up. And, has. And will.

So, what should it look like? Well, what I see is that it is a bit different for different people. Some of us seem innately distracted within the great constellation of grasping. When we’re off our game we desire, we want. As we live into our awakening those things don’t go away, but they become tinged with, and gradually are dominated by a sense of generosity. Similarly many people are innately distracted within the great constellation of aversion. This manifests as anger and resentment. And, again, they don’t ever disappear completely. We are the product of causes and conditions, after all. But, they do shift. And often they are dominated by clarity. There is also a constellation of certainty, with all the judgments of others. However, that, too, can become dominated by curiosity.

Of course, none of us is purely one thing. We are a mixture, always a blending of, well, causes and conditions. We are never free of those causes and conditions, until we can walk through them.

Whatever, our awakening, which can come as enormous disruptions of what we thought was true, or, can be a simple unfolding, takes different shapes. It becomes a generosity with ourselves and others. It becomes clarity with ourselves and others. It becomes curiosity with ourselves and others.

And, other things. We begin to discern how it really is true that we are all intimately connected. Form and emptiness are not one and not two. Our dreams begin to tell the truth. And, with that, that our deaths, and the deaths of those we love, is not the final thing we think within our isolation. Within our awakening it still painful, but there is a mystery that is experienced at the same time as a terrible joy.

I would have loved a taste of a slightly gentler retreat into a thirteenth century Zen monastery. And that part of my life is gone. I look into the mirror and see the lines and the grey and the various victories of gravity.

I think of my life as it has been. I look at the life I have left.

I sit. Stiffly, awkwardly I bow. My hands and back hurt. I offer incense with those hurting hands and chant the sacred texts.

And, yes.

It is a terrible joy.

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