This extraordinary exchange between Genpo Roshi and Jane Koerner
occurred during the Mahayana Sesshin, Salt Lake City, June, 2023
See the Video
When Genpo Roshi asked me what her name was, she spoke right up. “Agnes.”
“How old is she?”
I hadn’t heard from her in a long time. And, oh boy, did she have a lot to say! She was but one of the voices who kept me company throughout childhood and into middle age in response to some very painful experiences. I kept these aspects of myself hidden even though my father had the same tendency. He would sit in his easy chair and chatter away with his imaginary companions, who seemed to comfort him a great deal.
When I was 15, my then-19 year old sister, my only sibling, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for the rest of her life. That was when I buried my own tendencies even deeper. No psychiatrist was going to lock me up and throw away the key. I went to college, earned a history degree, got married.
In my late thirties the voices I would later come to understand as disowned voices, such as fear and rage, took over and blew up my entire life—my marriage, my prospects for a career, for happiness. Two hospitalizations, medication, years of therapy followed. I didn’t know what was harder to swallow. The diagnosis—schizotypal personality disorder. Or the prognosis—“if you really commit to your therapy, maybe you can hold a part-time job someday.”
With therapy, despite some occasional relapses, I did get a job and a graduate degree and some much-needed relationship skills. But along the way another box was created—an identity constructed around mental illness, or Crazy Jane. When I first encountered the Big Mind Process in the early 2000s, it came naturally to me even though it was different from what I had experienced before. This time the voices I had been hearing for much of my life were asked to speak. And both Genpo Roshi and the sangha were interested in what each one of them had to say.
I kept practicing with other sanghas for a while, attended various retreats, then quit altogether for a few years. The death of my entire family and the pandemic prompted a return to practice this past year via Kanzeon and the Big Mind process, and led to this exchange with Genpo Roshi during the retreat in June of this year.
Finally, the biggest secret of all revealed itself, and it was fine.
You know what’s crazy? Burying all these beautiful aspects of yourself in the cemetery of your unconscious mind and sleep-walking through your life like a zombie.
— Jane Koerner
I feel you need to have a daily sitting practice. If you don't already have one, then you really need to take one on. And if you're going to go anywhere with the practice, it probably needs to be at least one hour a day, but ideally a minimum one hour, up to a couple, two, three hours. What you have time for.
Now, I think a lot of us make the excuse we don't have time. I question that attitude. We always have time, we just have to take it from something else. It’s where we put our priorities. And our priorities, I think, should be at the core of our life. The core of our life is what we call Zen — that is Zen — the core of our life, the heart of our life.
Maezumi Roshi used to say very often, it's like having an apple. If it has a rotten spot or two, even three or four, you cut them out. But if the core is rotten, you have to throw the whole apple out. And it's the same with our life.
It's crude to put it this way, but it's that important, to realize the core of our life is our spiritual practice. And everything emanates from the core.
The core of our life is our reality. That is the oneness we're all really coming from. Like aspen trees, above the ground they appear to be different, independent trees. But of course, at the root, it's all one tree, one aspen tree. It's one tree.
We're one Mind. And to facilitate that and understand that you need to sit as the one Mind. And the more you sit as the one Mind, the more empowered you are to actually share it with others. Without sharing it with others, you actually do not learn the skills that you need both for your own practice, but also as a teacher or a coach or a counselor or just as someone who wants to help others.
So I feel it's very important to have a sitting practice.
-- from a talk for the Big Mind Facilitation Training, April 2023
When we take full responsibility for action and reaction, for cause and effect, which is karma, when we take full responsibility for it and we don’t ever project it out there on anything or anybody else— not on God, not on Buddha, not on our husband or our wife, not on our friends, not on our circumstances — we take one hundred percent responsibility for everything, there’s no fear.
Because fear comes from the fact that anything could happen. We’re in fear because we feel that we are out of control. “I ran into a car. That jerk pulled out in front of me, and I ran into his car, and it’s his fault!” Right? And then I’m always worried: ‘That car’s going to hit me!.’ ‘I’m going to get run over!’ You see what I’m talking about?
But when I take full responsibility, I don’t put it out there. So I don’t have any fear, because it’s my life. You could say I’m in control, or I’m the master, or I’m the boss of my life, in full control. It’s not about controlling somebody else; it’s about controlling my own self, my own person — and there’s no fear.
So there’s only fear when I’m being irresponsible. I don’t feel irresponsible just because I blame somebody for running into me, but it’s still not taking full responsibility, hundred percent responsibility for cause and effect, for action and reaction. It’s so simple.
One of the things that I think is so obvious, but maybe we miss it, and certainly we miss it growing up, is that basically everything we do, every decision we make to protect ourself from pain is a way that we distance ourself from the pain. We encapsulate, or imprison, ourselves in our sense of our self, all to avoid — not accepting, but being one with our pain.
That’s the cause of suffering. Suffering is not caused because there’s pain, it’s caused because we try to escape the pain, or get away from the pain. That’s where the suffering comes into effect.
So what Buddhism teaches is the cause of suffering is our self. We form this self, this primary self, whatever you want to call it, this façade, in order to protect our self, this ego self. What Zen says is you don’t have to do all those steps, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and so on; you can do it all at once: be one with your pain.
So all the first koans are about being one with. “How do you stop the sound of the distant temple bell?” How do you stop the suffering of your pain? Well, you be it, just like with the distant temple bell you go ‘bong bong bong,’ you be the sound, you be the pain. And when you’re the pain there’s no suffering, because there’s no self.
The self is created exactly by trying to escape from the pain. This goes for everything — attachments, addictions — all of it is just the desire to escape what is, which is pain. It’s painful.
And the joy comes when we allow ourself to just be one with the pain. There’s joy in the pain, because there’s no self. When there’s a self, it’s not joy. When there’s no self, then there’s joy. It’s really quite simple, but somehow it takes us forever to figure it out. I mean there’s the whole Buddhist teaching right there.
If we practice long enough, we will go through all sorts of things. And there’s no one answer, there’s no right answer. Whatever we find that works to deepen and advance our practice is our upaya, is our skillful means. And whatever works today may not work tomorrow or worked yesterday, but it worked today. Nothing works all the time. It’s like having one wrench one size, but not all bolts are the same size. So that wrench will only work some times when the bolt is the right size. It won’t work all the time. It’s the same. Nothing works forever, nothing works all the time. So we’re in a constant state of learning and experimenting.
If I was to make any kind of suggestion, it’s see it all as Dharma. It’s all Buddha manifesting as Dharma, and what that means is that sunyata, or the absolute reality, is manifesting as this very problem you’re facing. And it’s a learning, it’s a teaching. The manifestation itself in your life is the teaching.
We say that’s the real koan, that which manifests in your life in a way that’s challenging, and you don’t have an answer for and you can’t find a way out, that’s the real koan. The case koans are to help you learn how to become one with the real koan, the genjokoan, the koan of our everyday life.
It’s all right there in the teaching. The teaching is pretty incredible. The more I sit, the more I’m in it, the more I have to take my hat off and put my hands in gassho, for these great masters who have discovered so much. But how’d they discover it? Same way we’re discovering it, by going through it. There’s no easy way.
True Dharma Transmission is extremely rare. It can only occur when Buddha meets Buddha.
Timing is everything. Perfect timing is always at the precise moment when each person is present in the right position, in the perfect place and with just the right amount, neither too much nor too little, too soon or too late.
The master must see the true Buddha in the vessel to be transmitted to, and step down off the high seat, energetically as well as physically. The master’s responsibility is to see it is Buddha recognizing Buddha and relinquish his or her position and power to the disciple. The disciple must be completely open, receptive and trusting in the master.
To step down is what is so difficult for the master until he or she knows with absolute certainty that energetically the disciple is ready for the transmission of Buddha to Buddha. The master invites the successor energetically as well physically to take the high seat the seat of power. It is only when the master knows with absolute certainty that it is the right moment to peck from outside the shell, just as the disciple or chick is ripe and ready to hatch. Timing is everything.
Karma, training and generosity are absolutely essential for successor as well as for master. Everything that has preceded this moment throughout time and space, everything that has been gone through, has been absolutely essential. There are no accidents. Dharma is very precise. Karma is essential here. The disciple has his or her karma gift as a gem to be unveiled.
At this moment the master and the student know in a non-knowing way what the essential purpose and karma are for this particular vehicle: Buddha manifesting as these two life forms or manifestations at this moment in time and space. Time and space do not exist and yet are absolutely essential for this moment.
The transmission ceremony is maintained as a manifestation for this in form, but for the transmission to be absolutely genuine it is also essential that it occur in the reality of an energy empowering the new Buddha.
Alex (Student): When you’re talking about feeling overwhelmed, that’s exactly how I’m feeling right now. I feel like I have too much coming at me and I can’t deal with it, and my first reaction is to like run away.
Genpo Roshi: OK, let’s work on this. Look in right now and tell me which me you just said it’s too much for. You tell me. You look in, and you describe this me that this is too much for. What me are you talking about? You see if you can find a me in there. If you can find a me, I’ll say OK, I get it. But you’ve got to present this me to me.
A: (laughs) OK. The fearful me.
GR: You don’t have a me. You have fear, but you don’t have a me. What me? What self? What are you talking about? Where’s Alex’s true self right now, even before his parents were born, where is it? Where’s this me? Where’s this Alex, where’s this self? I just see a name and a body.
Come on, you’re a smart guy. Where’s this me?
A: I understand what you’re saying
GR: You do? Then that’s too much, you shouldn’t.
GR: If I haven’t gotten past your understanding, then I’m not doing my job. You don’t understand what I’m talking about. You’re smart, but you’re not that smart.
GR: You’re basically screwed, man. You can’t find the one suffering. You can’t keep complaining that you haven’t let it go. You can’t find it. What can you let go of? You haven’t even found it yet. What self? What me? What I? Who’s Alex?
What’s going on?
A: (laughs) I’m kind of speechless.
GR: Good. Stay that way. Now you’re meditating. This is active meditation, where you’re really inquiring, ‘Where the hell is Alex, where is this guy?’ And when you come up emptyhanded enough that you realize finally Alex is ungraspable, you’ll be free, out of the box. You can’t grasp Alex. You try. You’re closer to him than I am; you can’t grasp him.
A: (laughs) Thank you.
GR: You’re welcome, my friend. Keep it up. You’re doing good.
He’s speechless, let’s move on.
-- Sunday Talk with Genpo Roshi, January 23, 2022
-- Sunday Talk with Genpo Roshi, January 23, 2022
-- Sunday Talk with Genpo Roshi, January 23, 2022
-- Sunday Talk with Genpo Roshi, January 23, 2022
I realized something the other day I’ll share with you all. I’ve been talking with a person who I see is in a difficult situation which he complains about a lot. And I realize I would love to work with him, but because he doesn’t have a practice it’s impossible. So I want to say this:
When we take on a practice we also take on learning, we take on the willingness to learn and to grow, and to see it all as teaching. Before we have a practice we don’t see life as a teaching or as dharma. We see it as happening, events and so forth, and all the emotions that go on with it; but we don’t see it as a practice, as a training, as a way to help us evolve and to grow and mature. So everything becomes kind of empty, because it doesn’t have any real meaning or value. Because we don’t see it as a practice.
The moment we switch to ‘I have a practice,’ — whatever the practice is; I call mine Zen — I’m willing to work with these things, I’m willing to work with problems, I’m willing to work with my difficulties or my conflicts. Before that we just complain and bitch about them. The difference is, we take on a practice.
So for example when you’re trying to own the one who is fully satisfied, you can see that the practice is releasing, or stopping being so identified with the self. You see? Because the more I identify with the self, or the self identifies with the self, then the less you’re present as the one who’s fully satisfied. It makes sense, right? It makes complete sense. We just have to know that. That’s right remembrance.
Student: I know that we need to be truthful with ourselves in confronting anything, but I know we are good at fooling ourselves. So how can we avoid that pitfall? How can I check that I am not fooling myself?
Genpo Roshi: Who is this self that’s fooling the self?
Student: Well, it’s me.
So who has responsibility?
Student: Well, I do.
Who can do anything about this?
Student: I can, and I’m doing my best, but I must check it sometimes.
Yes, who are you going to check with?
Student: I thought that’s what I have you for.
OK. I won’t always be here.
Student: Yes, exactly.
So, what you’re saying is absolutely true. Also what’s true is, you can internalize what I might say, what Roshi might say, and start to rely more and more on that, using the external teacher to kind of awaken the internal Roshi. Because you’ve got Roshi within you just as much as I do. It’s just how much do you access that voice? And so to start, you can ask your own questions and then see how they relate, that voice’s answers versus your answers.
Way before Big Mind, what I used to do is identify with Roshi. I would say, ‘OK, I am Roshi’. I would do that on my own because of my Gestalt work probably, or my opening. I don’t know why, but I always did that. I would sit and visualize being Roshi sitting there, and then how he would answer when people would ask the same questions. And I started to trust that more and more. ‘Oh my god, I can do this, I can see things like he sees, I can answer these questions.’
It’s most difficult with oneself, because as you said, the ego can be very cunning and very tricky. So it’s harder to answer the same questions yourself. But you start to answer for others, you begin to say, ‘Well, I’m not special. If I would say it to someone else, I’d have to say it to myself.’ So if I would say to somebody else, ‘Just sit and work on this,’ I’d have to say that to myself, ‘Just sit, work on this.’
So you start to trust more, but also to open youself up more to your potential, whatever that potential is. For me it was all about being a Roshi and being a teacher, being a Zen Master. That’s all I saw myself as and all I wanted, to share this Dharma with others. So that was what I visualized. Some of you might want to visualize something else, being Picasso or something.
Student: But who says I can’t fool myself?
Of course you can, I’m sure you will. But — who’s creating all of it? Because even when you fool yourself, it means you need to be fooled right now. That’s real trust. It’s not trust in getting it right. It’s trust in knowing it’s right.
In other words, suppose your practice was to become yourself. That was your whole practice, just to become yourself. Just imagine that kind of crazy practice, all about just becoming yourself, not anything else, enlightened or Genpo or Buddha or Roshi or anything, just becoming yourself. Everything you did was planned so you’d become more and more yourself. So wherever you stepped, how could you step wrong? You step North or you step South, you step East, you step West, you go up, you go down — whatever direction you go, that’s yourself, nothing else. So what can you find? Well, it’s just myself. What can you lose? Myself. What can you do? Well, step forward, step backwards: you’re really completely free. Completely free. We are completely free already, we just don’t realize it. You can’t go wrong.
So there are two ways, in my opinion, to practice Zen, and I’m not saying either is wrong; they’re both right, they’re just two different ways. One way is you have this image of Buddha, and you bow to the Buddha, you revere the Buddha, and you try to actualize what you believe that should be. That’s one way. That’s the hard way, in my opinion.
The other is you know that you are the Buddha, and you are the Way, and whatever you do is perfect. That has its own problems, but I prefer coming from that place rather than the other — I still have preference. But they’re both true: one is you are the Buddha, the other is you’re bowing to the Buddha. One is you’re being the self bowing to the Buddha, the other is you’re being the Buddha manifesting. And they’re both going on always at the same time.
So final inka to me is not what you receive from the teacher. Final inka for me is moment to moment approving or disapproving of how you’re acting, or being. Because finally everything is perfect, but in that perfection you’re going to criticize: ‘I need to refine myself, I can’t talk like that anymore.’ Or ‘I can’t even think that way anymore, it’s just not appropriate.’ So you’re coming from what’s appropriate.
Everything’s changing, we are evolving, we are growing, we are becoming, hopefully, more aware and conscious, more mindful. I think the whole planet is becoming more and more this way, we are constantly outgrowing ourselves. So there does have to be a review board, and what I see the self-critic as is really, finally, the self-approver, the one who gives inka. The self-critic that Hal and Sidra Stone talk about, if you really own it, becomes the one who gives or doesn’t give inka, to you. You either approve or you don’t approve. You stop being so critical, but you’re still looking and watching, and aware of behavior. And refining means to be aware moment to moment of our actions, our speech.
You know, I say now about one third what I would have said at any other time in my life. When I’m with a group of people — with you guys I kind of let it all hang out, too much — but normally with other people that haven’t given me a double-O license to kill, with them I say about one third, one fourth of what I would have said. There’s no need for it, it’s just extra, it’s just superfluous. You don’t need to say a lot, you don’t need to do a lot. You can refine endlessly.
I’m certainly not very refined. I would never claim to be refined, but I’m working more and more at refining. Not changing, not condemning, not even criticizing; just seeing things as they are and fine tuning. There’s always ways to improve everything. There’s ten ways to do anything. When we run up against a snag and we can’t see our way through, there’s ten ways to do it. There’s always ten, not nine, not eleven, always ten ways. If you’re smiling I know you’re getting it, if you’re not smiling — anyway, let’s move on.