The way I look at it is, we talk about the Middle Way or the Middle Path, right? And I think for years I saw and thought the Middle Way was a fine line between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ And at some point I realized, no that’s too narrow. The Middle Way is everything between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ I mean you embrace ‘this’ and you embrace ‘that’ completely, and then when…
One of the things that I think is so obvious, though it seems we miss it growing up, is that basically everything we do and every decision we’ve made is to protect ourself from pain. We distance ourself from pain, and this creates suffering for ourself and also for others. Seeking to protect ourself, we imprison ourself in painful conditions, all to avoid our pain, to avoid being our pain. This is the cause of suffering.
Our suffering is not caused by pain itself; it’s caused by our trying to avoid or escape from pain. That’s where the suffering comes into effect. So what Buddhism teaches is the cause of suffering is our self. We form this ego-self, this façade, in order to protect our self from our pain. What Zen says is, you don’t have to go through all these steps, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and so on; you can do it all suddenly, at one time. Be one, be one with your pain….
Excerpt from a Workshop, August 2019
Maybe the most important thing that we can learn is the ability to let go, and trust that it’s all OK, to relinquish, to let go.
There are certain things that are harder to let go of, of course, than others, and one of them is our mind. Somehow we’re very attached to our mind, and most of us don’t really like the idea of losing our mind. But that’s the problem, because — what mind? . . .
— Genpo Roshi, August 2019 retreat
“ … Just recognizing a fear as it arises, noticing it’s a fear, labeling it as a fear, letting it go: that’s mindfulness practice. In fact that was the Buddha’s original practice … Basically what he came up with was mindfulness practice. I think it’s moved on from that, but that was his original practice. It just means noticing an emotion or a feeling or a sensation or a thought. Noticing it, seeing ‘oh, fear’ or ‘thought’ or ‘emotion’ – letting go. It’s that simple. The moment you notice it like that, it empties it out. It no longer has a content to it, no longer has substantiality to it, it’s empty. I call it bubbles. You notice the bubble arising called fear, and it pops. … At some point it’s not even mindfulness, as I said. It just becomes a pure awareness and you just let it go. You just let it go … The willingness to face our fear is what we call fearlessness. Most of us have fear about fear. We fear our fear, and that’s the problem.”
— Excerpt from Retreat with Genpo Roshi, September 2019
Students, friends and people who have read my writings know that I often refer to my first opening that led me to Zen as ‘losing my mind’ and ‘going sane.’ In Big Mind work, we also discover that the fear of ‘losing my mind’ is one of the great obstacles to realizing our true nature, a deeply rooted fear that prevents us from what Zen teachings point to as the key to enlightenment, relinquishment of our attachments, the most fundamental of which is our attachment to our identity, our mind.
I recently was privileged to be read this account over the phone by my partner, Charlotte. It was written by a colleague of hers and a friend of mine, William Swanson, an intern who works with participants in a program for elderly people with dementia. I found myself crying most of the way through it because it was so beautiful. In this day and age, when more of us are becoming aware of the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s, his account of his experience offers both a compassionate insight into this feared and stigmatized condition, and an illuminating perspective on what we might call ‘losing our mind.’ With William’s permission, I would like to share it with you.
At a recent retreat, Genpo Roshi responded to a question about our tendency to judge and even fear differences. His answer summarizes one of the key elements of Zen practice, in one minute.
I think the way the practice, the way it works – not that it always works, but what does work – is when we have a complete experience of sameness, that we’re all essentially one, essentially the same. Like, if we use the analogy of snow, we’re all snow, but every shape and form is different. And when we come from that knowing we’re all snow essentially, then looking at the differences there is more appreciation, because we see the oneness. . . .
[Asked for his reflections on turning 75 (on June 3rd), Genpo Roshi recorded his thoughts about it with his fiancée, Charlotte Juul. This is an excerpt from that conversation.]
C: Your birthday is coming soon, and I know that every five and ten years in your life has normally been a big shift. So I’m wondering if there’s anything that comes up for you now, as you are about to turn 75?
G: . . . In two weeks it will be 20 years since I created the Big Mind process, so now I have an opportunity to see how it’s evolved and developed, and I’m kind of looking at well, what’s next? I was sitting with this just the other day, and in a way absolutely nothing came up. And I thought, “Aha! Maybe that’s what’s happening on my 75th birthday — nothing!” Maybe that’s what I’m adjusting to.
Since we moved to Boulder I’ve been reflecting a lot on Maezumi Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche, and how very young both of them were when they died. Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987 at 47, and Maezumi Roshi died in 1995 at 64. So here I am 75-to-be, and I realize that in some ways they didn’t have the opportunity that I have. I’ve been gifted this chance, this opportunity, to actually grow older.
I find koans very helpful and useful when I am trying to make a teaching point, using a koan to bring out a particular point. So I might be talking about, let’s say, karma, and then talk a little bit about how Hyakujo used the fox and related it to cause and effect and karma. So I will quote that koan and give my understanding of it, but the koan…
As 2018 comes to an end and we begin a new year, we are in a time of crisis where many are feeling hopeless, and fearing there’s no future for our children’s children. Old ways are no longer working. It is time for a change, and change is what must happen. Polarization is intensifying, leading to separation and conflict. Conflict and wars occur when two seemingly opposing sides draw lines…
As many you have already heard the world has lost a great Bodhisattva and master. Bernie Tetsugen Glassman passed away yesterday. Roshi Bernie was Maezumi Roshi’s first Dharma Successor and the founder and creator of the Zen Peacemaker Order as well an influential Zen teacher. In January 2016, Bernie suffered a stroke, and was fighting cancer. He died Sunday morning in Massachusetts. He was 79. Roshi Bernie has had…