Zen and the establishment of cultures of awakening
A few preliminary thoughts
James Ishmael Ford
A Zen priest, a dear friend, and in my opinion one of the signal teachers of our time and place, recently cited Keizan Jokin’s Denkoruku (in William Bodiford’s translation):
“This is not a matter of acting as a good friend, vainly gathering a congregation, and nurturing people. Simply make people penetrate the root source directly, and try to make them quickly accede to their original disposition.”
He was addressing one of several projects within our contemporary Western Zen communities. It part of that larger project to make Zen native here.
It seemed pretty obvious to me he thought it missing a mark.
That quote struck me particularly, as I am deeply concerned with being a good friend, and gathering congregations, and helping people in the nurturing of lives of meaning and purpose. And, well, it certainly sounds like a rebuke from the venerable Keizan.
Perhaps it is.
But I have also seen people who don’t care for these other aspects of our human lives, and drive only into the root matter, often fall into a spiritual aridity. Not, I hasten to assert, my friend doing the citing. Nor, do I mean Keizan, who was famous for making the Soto school accessible beyond the monastery.
But I certainly see it. Me, I’ve participated in the kensho factory, I’ve lived in the kensho artisanal workshop. And, yes, it has been enormously important to me. In some ways foundational.And. There is that aridity. There is that sense of turning from the world. And, I think there is a fundamental missing of a deeper point.
I know that Buddhism has about it a turning from the world aspect. But, that isn’t the only way Buddhism can be engaged. And, as I’ve come to see it, it isn’t even the best way for engaging Buddhism. Or, finding the fullness of what the dharma can point to. Certainly the fullness of the Mahayana, the great way, and the bodhisattva path.
One of the great gifts of the Buddha dharma come west, including the Zen dharma is how it has for many been disengaged from the monastic focus. Dharma and its Zen expression is seeping into ordinary lives as part of ordinary lives. Fully ordinary lives.
Over my fifty-odd years of walking the intimate way I’ve noticed a couple of things about all this.
One is that the great openings are important. But they are only part of the deal. And, in fact, some of the wisest have not even had “experiences” that fit the traditional descriptions.
And, what is more important in the long haul is precisely being good friends, living within communities of grace and commitment, in short nurturing both people and the environment within which people move and breathe and take their beings.
What we need are cultures of awakening.
We are, as many note, a period of a hundred flowers. And who knows which will flourish? I’m glad there are those attempting to transmit the traditional training programs, as best as can be transmitted across oceans and cultures. I’m grateful for those who want to cut to the chase and create programs focused on awakening. I’m grateful for the poets. I’m grateful for the social justice activists.
And, while its been part of my heart for all these years, more and more, I’m thinking communities of friends, committed to supporting each other and to serve the needs of the world is precisely how the dharma might best manifest. Even the Zen dharma.
Of course, time will tell.
But a word in favor of friendship, community, and nurturing broken hearts as the path of awakening…