Every successor in the lineage of Zen is a Buddha/Patriarch. That is the beauty of the Zen lineage, I would say. There are beauties to every lineage, but the Zen lineage really truly acknowledges that every ancestor, or patriarch as we call it, is a Buddha, and every Buddha is a patriarch or an ancestor. In other words, there are no patriarchs apart from Buddha, and each has the power to decide how to embody and transmit the Dharma. Each Buddha/Ancestor is the living embodiment, manifestation and head of the lineage, acting with wisdom and compassion.
In the beginning of our practice we may have a glimpse of absolute equality. Dai-kensho is when we truly realize that there is nothing to realize. This is the true realization of absolute equality, that there’s no one higher or below us, and we’re not greater or lesser than anybody else. That’s very important, because otherwise we keep elevating others and making others into some kind of god-like creature, guru, teacher or master or whatever, and we feel inferior. We feel somehow we’re lacking something.
So absolute equality is when we see the humanness of all beings, no higher, no lower. But then we get stuck in no higher no lower, and we have to come back and appreciate the vertical, that parent is parent, child is child, teacher is teacher, student is student, and so on. Seeing that, we don’t have to elevate ourself or put ourself above anybody, but we certainly do not have to put ourself below or under anybody either.
And then we can love and appreciate the differences. So when you’re in relationship with someone, or everyone, you can appreciate we’re all uniquely different, and appreciate both the absolute equality and also love the differences. It is both. It is absolute equality — nobody is greater than anybody else — I don’t care how great their practice is, or how many years they spent in a cave, or went on and did all this teaching, myself included. There’s nobody greater or lesser. But we do appreciate the wisdom that comes from spending six years in a cave, or decades of practice.
We can appreciate the difference, but we don’t have to make someone superior, or make ourself inferior, or vice versa. You know, I’ve told this story before: back in 2016, I was walking in Long Beach along the bluff, which I did every day, and the Tibetan monks were right in front of me. They always walked past our house, every morning between 6:30 and 7:00. I just happened to be walking right behind these three old monks, and I’m thinking, “Wow, these guys are the real deal. They’re authentic monks. I’m a phony. I’m in my street clothes, I’m listening to my music in my ear buds; they’re walking mindfully and doing it appropriately.” Then I thought, “Why can’t I just appreciate that they’re the real deal and I’m just a complete fake?”
And that was such a revelation for me! Yes, they’re the real deal; I’m just me. I don’t need to be them, and I don’t need to feel inferior, nor superior. Because normally I would say, “Yeah, but they’re all stuck in their traditional robes, in their this and that.” No, they’re the real deal, true monks. That’s fine. It was such a revelation, a relief just to realize that.
[Excerpted from a video conference, January 10, 2021]
We have this saying in Zen, ‘to find, or discover, our true self.’ Lately, for the last year or two, I’ve been saying it’s not so much about finding our true self as being true to our self. To me that’s authenticity, that’s integrity, that’s honesty, that’s truthfulness.
And to be true to the situation — and I know I have not always been — so when you’re with family and somebody is spilling their heart out, or their guts out, and you’re being dispassionate — I remember one time a relative, a 16-, 17-year old girl, asked me, “What is Zen?” and I made some wiseass remark, I said, “I don’t know.” The truth is, on the one hand, I don’t know what Zen is, but that was not the appropriate answer for the time, for the situation. I should have said, well, it’s a lot about finding out who you are, maybe sitting and meditating, reaching a form of calmness, equanimity. I could have responded in a lot more compassionate way. So it’s finding the appropriateness in the moment.
But you can draw on the extremes. You have the extremes within your reach, in the palms of your hands, and you can be really compassionate, or not so compassionate, depending on the situation and the time, place and amount. And I think with what’s been going on — not just in our capitol but many capitols and many places in the world — we don’t have to be like ‘everything’s cool, everything’s good.’ There’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior too, but it depends on the situation.
Because I used to believe, after my own opening, that right and wrong didn’t exist. And in a way they don’t from an absolute perspective. But then you have to come back and there is appropriate right and wrong, given the time, place, your position and amount. That’s what we all struggle with.
Looking for one’s true self and being true to one’s self.
Let’s just say you’re The Path, and you’re true to The Path. And what does The Path mean? That you’re waking up, you’re growing up, you’re accomplishing your life, you’re becoming, hopefully, more aware, more awake, more conscious, more compassionate, more loving, more all these things. And yet you’re true to yourself, meaning not to your false contracted self; you’re true to who you are. You don’t go against your own integrity.
I find that more and more I am willing to say, “No, I can’t do that. No, I’m not going to go there. No, I’m not going to look at that or not going to do that.” Because it’s not true to who I am at this point.
Another way to say it is what Hal Stone said to Charlotte and me the last time we were there, he said, “I’ve gotten to the point at my age,” and he was 91 or 2 at that point, “that I know what is mine to pick up, and what is not mine to pick up.” To know what we should pick up, what we should take on, and things that are not ours to take on, and being true to that.
That’s maturity. “I can pick this up, and I can take this on and I can devote myself to this, or this is not for me, this is not what I’m going to pick up. I’m not going to go there.” And to know that, to have the discernment, the wisdom to discern what is yours to pick up, what is not, what’s true for you and what’s not true. That’s being your authentic self, or your true self, or being true to yourself.
Think of that as part of your maturation. You’re maturing and learning what is mine and what is not mine. Because there’s so much we can take on. Also we can just be completely aloof and not take anything on, but what is it that is mine to take on or pick up, or make my practice, and what’s not? That’s part of the maturation process, I think, of growing up.
— Genpo Roshi
[Excerpted from a live video conference, November 22, 2020]
. . . If there’s a koan — “How do you stop suffering?” — of course many of us can pass the koan, we just be suffering. That’s passing it, but between that and doing it completely, it’s the difference between a kensho and dai-kensho. You know, I sometimes feel the only thing that’s going to take care of this for many people is dai-kensho. And I come back to our roots, which is what the great masters say. There’s all this fiddling around with the leaves and the branches of the tree, but until we get to the root of the problem — uprooting, that is the dai-kensho, the great opening — until we do that we’re just going to keep fiddling around with the branches and the leaves.
Sometimes it feels almost like — too much. Because I know what it takes to have dai-kensho. It’s a lot of the three kais, a lot of discipline, a lot of practice, a lot of devotion, a lot of samadhi, and coming through that other side. So there’s the Hinayana approach, which is the mindfulness and so forth, but frankly it just doesn’t scratch the itch, and I can even see in teachers in that approach that the itch is still not scratched. They’re still trying to get there. The only thing that seems to do it is cutting that root, right at the root. And it brings up ‘practice, practice, practice.’ How do you get to nirvana? Practice, practice, practice. . . .
[Genpo Roshi has been speaking about the importance of taking good care of one’s health and physical well-being]
Student: That’s great advice, because sometimes I’ve learned that the body is not you; it’s just a vehicle, so why pay so much attention to it?
Genpo Roshi: I would just change one word: it’s not just a vehicle; it is the vehicle. It’s not just a vehicle. It’s the only vehicle you’re going to get this time around. It’s not that you can trade it in. So take really good care of it. It is a vehicle, but it is the only vehicle. Maybe they’ll invent other ways to do that, but right now it’s our only vehicle, this body.
There’s too much in Buddhism that goes against the self. All we have is this self, so we want to take good care of it. This body, this mind. Sure we have to drop it all, but we have to come back and pick it up, because you leave it down, on the ground, it’s going to get abused. And the one doing the abusing is oneself. We kind of disown the body, the mind — we drop them that’s fine, we have to drop them, we have to cut the root of this dualistic thinking — but we have to come back and embrace body and mind.
A younger teacher may not realize the importance of this. I didn’t realize this five, six, seven years ago. It’s only really in the last six years, since I turned 70, that I start to appreciate how important it is. In fact at 76 I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life. That’s saying a lot. I feel healthier, better, less ill, etc. You’ve got to take care of it. Nobody can do it for you.
S: Yes, I realize that. I can’t just trust the Tao and hope it’s going to take care of my body.
GR: Well, you are the Tao, so you can trust the Tao. Just keep returning to the voice of the Tao. Let me speak to the Tao disowned.
S: I’m the Tao that’s disowned.
GR: Why are you disowned? Why hasn’t he realized that you’re within him? He sees you as something else. He just said to me, ‘I can’t just rely on the Tao.’ Why can’t he rely on you?
S: He thinks I’m some kind of a flow state which he completely surrenders to.
GR: Well you are a flow state.
S: Yes I am the flow state. But he thinks if he just flows with me, he’s not going to think about resistance training, he’s not going to think about planning cardio.
GR: Is that true, or is that just his thinking that it’s not true?
S: I think that’s his thinking.
GR: Yes. What would you say? Even though you’re not awake yet, what would you say?
S: I think that’s his thinking, because well-being is a part of me.
GR: Of course. If you’re flow, which I know you are, he has to allow you to flow. And he also has to know that you’re not only out there, you’re within him. There is no outside/inside, right? It’s just flow. It’s just one.
GR: So let me speak to you, the Tao, fully awake, fully embodied, fully present, fully owned. You are …?
S: I’m the Tao that’s fully empowered, fully owned, fully embodied, fully present, fully awake.
GR: Just be the Tao. — Now look at him. Tell me what you see over there.
S: I see that he definitely has some ideas about what’s me and what’s ego.
GR: Aha! Set him straight.
S: So I would say to him that even though he thinks that deliberate planning, intentional planning of exercise is, like a plan, it’s not trust, it’s not letting go. But it is to me. Deliberate planning, having an intention, having an agenda, that’s still aligned with me, because well-being is me. It’s just one of my dimensions.
GR: Of course, yes. Where do you see him stuck?
S: I think he was stuck in just completely letting go of personal will and seeing that as me. He doesn’t think if he plans he’s still aligned with me. He thinks the complete letting go is me.
GR: Right. That’s very common in spiritual practice, to get one side, the one polarity over the other. I fell into that trap for years. My teacher was in that trap. What else do you see as maybe an error in his thinking when you look at him, as the Tao?
S: He thinks the Tao is a certain state, maybe higher states, not lower ones. But I’m the full spectrum.
GR: Of course. If he is really owning and embodying you, and allowing you to be here and present, and not mistaking you for something, his idea, how long is he going to live? If he stays within your flow, and identifies more with you?
S: He can live to more than one hundred years old.
GR: Yes, that’s right. If he stays the way he had erroneous ideas about you, and didn’t take care of certain things, how long would he live?
S: Fifty, sixty, I would say, at the most.
GR: Yes. So you just allowed him to double his age, practically.
GR: The ideas he has about you are not necessarily the truth. They’re just ideas, they’re notions. Talking to you, I trust you completely, that you’re speaking as the Tao. So, look at his life right now, and his ambitions, his projections, what he’s doing. Anything you want to say to support him, to help him, to clarify for him, now that he’s speaking directly to you, and allowing you to speak directly to him?
S: I would say, really develop yourself. Focus on developing yourself, then you can give more. If you start giving now, you don’t have much to give, nothing really skillful or unique that comes from mastery.
GR: Mastery takes what?
S: Time and experience.
GR: Yes, it does take time, time and experience. That’s right. Well, very nice to talk to you.
S: Thank you Roshi.
– Excerpted from Big Mind Facilitator Training, Sept. 26, 2020
(Genpo Roshi recorded during the “Masters & Mensches II” Retreat, August 4, 2020)
Let me say something about what you brought up, about idealizing, because I do feel it is something we work through. We do do that, we project on our teachers a certain greatness and a certain way of being, and when they don’t live up to that of course we’re disappointed. Now how we take, or how we receive the disappointment is everything.
That’s the key to the practice. Because we’re going to project greatness on our teachers. Why would we study with someone who we don’t feel is great? I’m not going to study with some loser, I’m going to study with someone I think is the greatest. We all pick what we feel is the best for us and the greatest kind of teacher.
So we’re going to project that on the teacher. And we’re going to be disappointed. And we must be disappointed. Otherwise we live with our projections, and we can’t accept ourself for who we are.
That’s my point. When we can be disappointed and see, oh my God, this teacher is a real person, with all kinds of human faults and human foibles, and this doesn’t seem very enlightened and that doesn’t seem very great — when we see that in ourself, that’s when we can accept ourself.
Roshi always used to say ‘I could challenge any teacher, I could find fault with any teacher.’ And you can. That’s the easiest thing, to find fault. But when we can see those qualities that maybe are not what we would like, they’re this or that, they do this too much, not enough of that, that’s when we start to accept ourself for our own humanness, rather than having an ideal that we’re trying to find, or to be.
I think you said that beautifully. You had this ideal which you were trying to live up to. And that’s the problem, because when we have an ideal we’re trying to live up to, we can never live up to it. We have to bring the ideal down, or out, drop it, and then be who we are, live up to who we are. And when we see those faults in the teacher and we’re disappointed, that’s when we can really do it. To me that is a huge thing.
(Genpo Roshi recorded during the “Masters & Mensches” Retreat, June 8, 2020)
I remember over and over again when Maezumi Roshi was going through his hard times like back in the end of 83, he said to me, “If, if, everything falls apart, I lose everything, if you get it, if you learn from this what you’re supposed to learn, it will be worth it. It will be worth it.” Wow, reflecting on what that meant and how I received it — I couldn’t really get it. It was too big for me to get that, what that meant.
So I found I had to make my own mistakes and my own failings and my own troubles and learn the hard way. And I think it is true of Roshi and of all great masters and teachers. We hope, we do our best to help the students manage the territory without stepping on all the mines and all the minefields. I think we all feel that we’ve done a pretty shabby job, that we haven’t been able to share and to save others from the mistakes we’ve made.
Maybe that is just human nature, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s the stubbornness that I see in myself and many around me. But I think it is a wish of Roshi and others that we save people from the same mistakes, and how much when we want someone to grow into their fullest potential, as he and other great teachers wanted us to grow into our fullest potential as human beings, as genjokoan, how much that lifts us up, inspires us to face the difficulties, the challenges, the hard times.
I think we’re in for some hard times. Before they get better they’re getting pretty difficult for a lot of people, very challenging. I feel very privileged and very fortunate not to be right out there in the middle of it all right now, and yet with the greatest respect for those who are. But somehow the gift I received from this practice and from Maezumi Roshi is we can face anything. We can face anything in our life, anything that arises, including death, from the stability of zazen.
I don’t mean it has to be just sitting or sitting in a certain style or a certain fashion but from the mind of zazen from the samadhi where our capacity is to take anything in, to bring anything on, like a mirror doesn’t stop anything reflecting in it. But actually taking it in and juicing it too. That’s the difference between the mirror and us: the mirror doesn’t get stained by anything; we allow ourselves to be stained and messed around with, so that all that becomes juice, to come out in our life, as our life, in our path.
(Genpo Roshi recorded during the “Masters & Mensches” Retreat, June 9, 2020)
I think it is really important that we realize we are a part of a lineage. I don’t really know or understand how it all works. I don’t think anybody does, but there’s something very real, and you hear it. You heard it in Genno Roshi’s comments; you hear it in others, like Chris sensei’s comment. There’s something very powerful, that we’re part of a lineage. There’s something that comes through.
Koryu Roshi was Maezumi Roshi’s teacher. Maezumi Roshi spent his college days with Koryu Roshi, and began his study with him. When I met Koryu Roshi, in 1972, walking into that room, which we call the dokusan room, walking into that room for the first time, was the first time I saw him. I made my bows as I was told to do, it was my first dokusan with any teacher. I kneeled down in front of him, and this man, the impression I had, was this was a monster of a man, of a human being. Not monster in a negative sense; he was just enormous, he had such power, such samadhi power, that it kind of took up the whole room. That afternoon after lunch I was out taking a walk, and he was walking with one of the women who was like his attendant, who’d been with him for a number of years. I saw him walking next to her and he couldn’t have been more than five foot tall. At the most he was five foot one, two at the most, and I couldn’t believe that this giant of a man was such a small person. It was his power.
And I remember he told me, “I want you to work on the koan mu.” His own practice was he always sat with mu. So he would start off his sitting practice always counting his breath first for about twelve to fifteen minutes, and then he would just go to mu and he would just penetrate mu deeper and deeper and deeper. He did it in a way that resulted in such a power, in such a presence, that fifty years later I still remember it, it was so much. And he said to me, “I want you to penetrate mu.” So I went back to my seat and I sat there, and I Iooked at the koan, and I realize, “This is nonsense, this is crazy, this is stupid. Why am I focusing on mu? It’s my life. It’s my life, what do I have to do with mu? I know who I am.”
So I went back and I said “I’m done with mu, I finished.” He said, “What do you mean? What’s the answer?” I said, “I’m done, I’m finished. It’s enough. Do you have another thing to work on?” [Laughs] I still laugh at my own stupidity and arrogance, but I felt like this was a detour, that working on these case koans was kind of a detour. The real practice was my life, which Dogen Zenji calls genjokoan. And I didn’t see the place for koans at that point.
Now when I look back I can see that the case koans that we work on in the practice allow us to learn how to become that, to become one with that, one with whatever it is going on in our life. And it is our life that is the real koan. But there are different times, different things are going on in our life, and sometimes we’re really suffering or we’re really mourning or in grief, or we‘re in pain, or we’re in anguish or we’re in disappointment or we’re felling rejected — all those things are koans.
They’re each a koan. How do I become one with my own depression? How do I become one with boredom? How do I become one with my anger? And these case koans, like ‘How do you stop the fighting across the river?’ are all about how to do that. Because we don’t know, simply we don’t know how to be one with ourself. We don’t know how to be ourself. In fact maybe it is very rare for us to ever meet someone who knows how to be themself. Who is just truly themself. I don’t even want to call it “authentic.” It’s just oneself. It’s authentic or not authentic, doesn’t matter. Sometimes authentic, sometimes not authentic, it’s like the hazy moon. But one with who we are in that moment. Because we know it’s changing continuously. And how to go in and be that, and juice that, like we would an orange, and squeeze all the juice out of it. How do we do that? We learn that by going into the koans one by one, the case koans, so that we can learn to do that in our life.
So there are two approaches of course. In the Soto school the emphasis is on genjokoan, or sitting, just sitting, and our life as the koan. In the Rinzai school it’s more about the case koans and realization, satori or kensho. But they complement one another. In reality, at the apex it’s all my life. Every case koan, and why they hit us, and why we feel, ‘Wow, this koan was exactly right for me in this moment, absolutely perfect for me in this moment,’ is because it’s exactly what I’m going through. Well of course it is, because it’s just your life. Every case koan just represents your life. And we learn that it is OK to become whatever is going on. It’s OK to work with our depression, or work with our aggression, or to work with our delusion, or to work with our shadows. All this is OK because it’s really not selfish to go in and become one with it, because we bring that out to the world and we become better human beings.
Renowned Colombian guitarist/music producer and longtime student of Genpo Roshi, Santiago Jimenez, has created a unique rendition of Roshi’s chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo.
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 you walk the Middle Way you walk it in the terms that you’ve got a lot of latitude, but you stay true to the moment, to what is appropriate in the moment. And within that you’ve got all the way from everything you do is perfect, complete and whole — Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi — to there’s a very definite right and wrong way to be in a certain situation, and everything in between. So you have to be aware of your position, the very time, the very place that you’re in, and then the amount, how much. And to me that’s Mahayana, and that’s the Middle Path. Mahayana stands for the Middle Path. And that’s the apex.
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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.
So all the first koans are about being one with: be one with the sound of a distant temple bell, be one with a distant sailing boat, be one with the fighting across the river. You could just as well say, how do you stop suffering? How do you stop the suffering from your pain, or of yourself, how do you stop that suffering? Well, the secret is just be it, just relax into it. Just like with the distant temple bell, be one with it, ‘bong, bong, bong,’ be the sound, be the sailing boat. You be the pain, and when you’re the pain there’s no suffering, because there’s no self to suffer.
So the self and our suffering are created precisely by our trying to escape from pain. All our attachments, our addictions, all of them are coming from 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. And there’s joy in the midst of the pain, because there’s no-self. When there’s a self, it’s not true 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.
— From The Six Paramitas 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? What we’re talking about is just a bunch of thoughts. We put those thoughts together into concepts, and we put those concepts together into belief systems, but to begin with, there was nothing there, just empty space. And these thoughts appear, and then we start accumulating these thoughts into concepts and ideas.
But when we let go of the so-called mind, all we’re doing is letting go of our attachment to our ideas, concepts, notions, beliefs and thoughts. That’s all. Nothing changes, except we’re freed, we’re liberated. From what? The fear of losing our mind, or going out of our mind.
I think it’s the same thing with what we call ‘life,’ or ‘body.’ You know, we have this fear of losing this body, dying. I have a sense it’s the same thing. What do we lose? We just return to our original nature. This body is just something that’s put together by the five skandhas, and it dissipates, it deteriorates, what would you call that? It separates. But there’s nothing lost, except that heap. That’s why it’s called five heaps. It’s just a pile of stuff.
And then we’re free.
— From The Six Paramitas Workshop, August 2019
“ … 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.
I Cannot Believe My Good Fortune
So…I started my internship in June at Care Link Elder Day Program here in Boulder. Participants, as they are called, are elders with a dementia diagnosis who gather for social time with others experiencing this new and unsolicited mindscape. Participant’s time spent at Care Link also provides their caretakers with much needed respite. The staff maintains a fun and friendly environment that promotes a lot of laughs between participants – and not a little flirtation! Everyone is kind and we have a good time.
From the moment I interviewed in March I have been struck by the comradery of these elders, the staff, and my supervisor, all who have made me feel welcome and all who have supported my work in every conceivable way. There is a daily staff of four, three co-directors, and my supervisor who comes in once a week to meet with me. As the only overtly therapeutic component on the team, my task has been to support the staff in their daily tasks, facilitate or co-facilitate group activities, and invite participants of my choosing to join me in a therapeutic relationship.
I now have eight participants who I work with individually as my therapeutic clients. Because of confidentiality, I am not allowed to post photos of any participants. But I sure wish I could so people would see these amazing souls who model what it means to age with grace and audacity. Each one has lived a stunning life (I’ve had the honor of reading their personal histories in their files) and each one is living a stunning life still. Past accomplishments include careers in astrophysics, seismology, New York City school district superintendent, social work, nursing, radio deejay, and haberdashery, just to name a few. Hobbies have included mountaineering in the Alps and Himalayas where nights were spend sleeping in a tent suspended from the cliff side. These people seize the day.
They also are adjusting to the fact that their minds are in a state of radical change defined mostly by short-term memory loss and a state of timelessness – hours, days, seasons, and years no longer present chronologically. But there are others factor as well such as images appearing they know are not real but which they cannot resist being drawn into. Much of our dialogue lacks a cohesive narrative – or any narrative at all – but instead is highly abstract where our relationship rests more in an energy exchange than in story.
It is particularly impactful that there are few people who can relate directly with these dynamics. Generally speaking, our culture does not prepare us to deal with entering into this mindscape whether it’s our mind or the mind of a loved one manifesting dementia. Social stigmas marginalize these individuals while family members struggle to relate to someone whose personality has shifted, in some cases to the point of seeming unrecognizable. There is deep shame in believing you have become a disappointment to the ones you love. Many chose not to disclose certain aspects of their experience in order to lessen their perceived burden on others, leading to deeper feelings of isolation and irrelevance.
But here’s the deal: there is wisdom in dementia. Poignancy emerges to a point where that which is non-essential is let go. The futility of clinging to that which is transient is replaced with the stunned silence of realizing that so much of what defines ordinary life is pure illusion. Though time is scrambled, time is of the essence because so little of it remains. Forget the names, the dates, the places. Don’t pester me with data, and away with your petty squabbles. What is your experience and how does it feel? Are you feeling pain? Tell me. I can hold it with you. Are you feeling confused? It’s okay. I’m confused every day. Are you in bliss? Express it. I have been there, too.
Two participants met at Care Link and discovered they had fought on the same battlefield in Germany during WW2, one on the German side, the other on the American side. Now they enjoy each other’s company over coffee and conversation.
Yesterday as I walked one of my clients back to the group in the main room, we passed one of the co-directors in the hall. I look at her and silently shook my head. When I came back down the hall she said, “Are you ok?” I looked her in the eye and replied, “I can’t believe I get to do this. I can’t believe my good fortune.” She said, “Oh!” and came in for a hug, “We are all so glad you are here. You are doing great work, William. Your clients are so lucky to have you. We all are.”
And so the mind of dementia is not unfamiliar to me and I can rest in it and move through its terrain. At times I feel like Virgil or perhaps even Beatrice. But then I realize that it’s me being escorted by my clients, those who are living literally in the mindscape of dementia, navigating its swirling levels and feeling its full force. Together we are making meaning by asking questions and sharing perceptions of its nature and purpose. We hold out possibilities for the things we cannot understand. We laugh, we cry, we do both simultaneously.
For me it all gift. I now know the population I want to work with as a future therapist. I don’t yet know how it will all unfold, but that’s just one lesson I have learned in this mindscape: I cannot know anything for sure and that’s okay. You simply move through the rooms, down the halls, and over the thresholds that appear. Someone will be there to greet you. Someone kind who wants to share your company, your support, and your insights. And who wants to have some fun while we’re at it.
Truly, I cannot believe my good fortune.
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 system I’ve never been that happy with.
In 1978 or so, Roshi said to me, ‘I want you to revitalize the koan system.’ In 2008 I kind of found a way to do that: I started doing Big Mind with koans. And that has evolved through ten years now. I feel my way of revitalizing koans is the way that I work with them in Big Mind. In fact I feel that by taking a voice, say Pride, and then asking to speak to its opposite, the opposite of pride, unawakened — that’s a koan. Because nobody knows what that is. Why? Because you can’t. When there’s no pride, there’s no understanding, it’s ungraspable. So to me, this is what Roshi asked me to come up with, but not how either he or I had thought of it. He could not have visualized it, nor could I, but I do feel it’s an answer to his request to come up with a revitalized way of doing koans. And I feel in some ways it’s superior, and in some ways not.
I still feel traditional koan study is important, and the way we do it can be important. But it complements the Big Mind work, and the Big Mind work complements the koan work. I don’t feel either one replaces the other; they are complementary, along with shikantaza, or sitting. Nowadays when I sit, I often sit shikantaza. Sometimes I work with something in the Big Mind way. And sometimes I’ll even look at a koan I did back in the 70’s, and I’ll come up with maybe a different or a new way of appreciating it that I couldn’t see back then. I mean in the 70’s I was in my twenties and thirties. Now I’m in my seventies, so of course I see it differently and appreciate it, I feel, from a much deeper place.
So I don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on koans. And I hardly have anybody working with me on them, maybe two, three people occasionally. Not regularly, like we did at ZCLA or Salt Lake where it was every day. So people have not been working with me in that way recently, probably because they sense that I’m not all that excited about koans. But I do love koans, just not the way we used to work on them. It’s more an appreciation of individual masters, seeing through the eyes of the master, seeing through the koan that comes out of the master, like say, when a monk comes to see Joshu, and Joshu is somewhere between eighty-four and one hundred twenty-four, and the monk says ‘I came here expecting to find the great stone bridge of Joshu, and all I find is a broken down wooden bridge. Where is this great stone bridge of Joshu?’ And Joshu answers, ‘right here in front of you.’ And the monk says, ‘well I don’t see it.’ Joshu says, ‘it’s right here for asses and donkeys like yourself to cross over.’
Now, I have great love for what it took for somebody like Joshu to get to the place where, one, he’s not shiny any more like a great stone bridge, he appears to be just an old broken down wooden bridge. And, at the same time, with such a beautiful way of expressing the teachings.
(from a Zen Teacher Retreat, November 2018)