Wearing My Heart (and Doubt) On My Sleeve

Wearing My Heart (and Doubt) On My Sleeve November 7, 2014

Kyogens-FuneralLast night I attended a memorial service for one of my Zen teachers, Kyogen Carlson. It was a deeply moving service with several hundred people in attendance, and they all got to witness me lose it.

Sure, many others, while speaking or presenting, teared up for a moment or two. From time to time voices quivered with emotion. But I think I was the only to stand up in front of everyone with tears streaming down my face. Just so you know, I get pretty sick of being this way – wearing my heart and mind and doubt on my sleeve for all to see. I would really rather not impose it all on everyone. For one thing, it can make people feel sorry for you and think they need to help you. Sigh.

It happened during the Shosan ceremony, where senior students of either Kyogen or his wife and co-abbot, Gyokuko Carlson, took turns asking formal dharma questions of Gyokuko. Visibly and audibly crying, I asked, “What good is Zen practice in this world of impermanence and suffering? What about when people are faced with violence and injustice? Does Zen just make you feel better sometimes? Even though I’m a ‘Zen Teacher’ I am having doubts.” As I stood there, I imagined her feeling embarrassed and regretful that she ever transmitted me (that is, empowered me as an independent Zen teacher), given that I still so clearly (and publicly) didn’t have it together.

Gyokuko smiled back at me with that expression of deep love and stillness that drew me to study with her. “Doubt is what we’re good at,” she said. She went on to recommend staying with the question.

“Sometimes,” I responded, “I’m afraid my heart is going to break right open.”

“Perhaps that would be a good thing,” she replied. “Stay with the doubt. But when it gets to be too much, take a break and watch a silly movie.”

So, it was okay to be asking, and it was okay to keep living my life as I asked. And, thankfully, I wasn’t going to be fed a pat answer.

After the whole service was over, I felt raw and vulnerable. It seemed like several streams of my life and Zen practice were coming together into a powerful river, carrying me toward a high waterfall. I suspected that as I went over that precipice I could take nothing with me.

All of my answers, all of my confidence in what I have achieved and learned – none of it applies to resolving this question. Now, “this question” is really one Great Doubt, but it can be difficult to boil a Great Doubt down into one particular verbal question. The various forms it takes are this:

  • Zen, Buddhist, and most spiritual and religious practices are about working on your own mind and heart so you can live wholeheartedly without causing so much suffering for self and other. Is practice, then, just a matter of making ourselves feel okay in the midst of a life that is so fragile and ephemeral it blows the mind even to think about it, and in the midst of a world that contains such unimaginable suffering, injustice, greed, ignorance and destruction?
  • I know how to access a state of mind (at least in a meditation retreat) where everything – even the suffering and ignorance – appears as the bright, lively dance of Being itself. Things appear neither good nor evil, but are somehow infinitely precious just as they are. So what? What does this state of mind have to do with anything?
  • Zen is freedom from views, even positive ones about how good will eventually win out over evil. If that’s the case, if there’s no fundamentally hopeful or optimistic truth to rely on, what do we have to offer people? Just a radical acceptance of a deeply flawed world? 
  • If the answer lies in radical acceptance of a deeply flawed world, which actually sounds like something of a relief, is that really possible to do while actually facing what’s going on?

If it strikes you as odd that I function, at least for a handful of people, as a “Zen teacher” when I haven’t resolved this Great Doubt, know that I find it odd too. I wish I had everything figured out, and could reside in a place of deep certainty forever, offering suffering beings answers to their troubling questions. I wish I could at least appear wise and all-knowing in order to inspire faith in others.

But I can’t. All I can do is hope that the essence of a spiritual path is wholeheartedly, authentically engaging the path, whatever comes. We all have to engage and answer our own questions. Maybe, simply by example, I can help people find the courage to face their own questions and engage their own path.

I suspect the people who come to my Zen center already know this is what my “teaching” is like. A local paper wrote a short article about us when my first book came out, and they interviewed one of our members about her participation at the center. Tellingly, the article stated that this member “appreciates that Burk doesn’t pretend to know everything.”

Pleased to serve.


Photo of Kyogen Carlson’s funeral (Chozen Bays after having drawn an Enso on the coffin) courtesy of Dharma Rain Zen Center
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