My last post about young people in the Dharma struck a nerve, and I’m reluctant to move on from the theme. I think there is a lot to learn and open to in the many comments to the last post, although it also seems apparent that “young people” are no more a unified bloc than any other kind of people, and that opinions are passionate and various about how the American Sangha might be more engaged with younger practitioners. I want to continue to consider how my own practice and presentation of the Dharma could meet some of the many needs and wishes expressed, and I invite anyone else to look over those last post comments and see if they move you.
For me the question of young people in the Dharma is closely related to how we “train” people in Zen. I am not sure that young people today in the U.S. want to “be trained” or have a cultural context for it. Part of what keeps Zen in the U.S. seeming foreign and marginal is our attempt to transport an Asian model of training into a culture with a very different sense of it. Along with “masters” and “disciples” come “juniors” and “seniors,” and the elaborate monastic hierarchy of Japanese Zen is overlayed on a postmodern and internet-wired American culture in a head-on collision that I feel sometimes like I’m witnessing over and over each day. There is a lot that has been and could be said about hierarchy in general (“No Hierarchy in the West,” anyone?) but I’m specifically interested today in how the Asian tradition of “training” or “apprenticeship” clashes with postmodern America in a way that especially puts off younger people.
“Non-action” in Taoist thought is about not interfering with the arising energy flow. When applied to beneficial action or governance, it means to support the natural energy of another person. As Suzuki Roshi put it, “to help things to become their best.” Their “best” or their “natural energy” needs space, needs to be nourished. I feel that the energy of youth especially needs this kind of care, this kind of respect. Teachers should help their students to find their own way, to support them to follow their own wholesome energy. Young people want this: they want to be heard, acknowledged, and supported on their own paths. As the young people of my parents’ generation sang, “Get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand” – just as then, young people want help and support, not “direction.”
When I was younger and more passionately one-sided in my view of the practice, I rarely felt encouraged to follow my own energy. I thought I was up for “being trained,” and other people felt like it was their responsibility to “train” me, but I often felt undermined or squashed or squelched. I felt that my enthusiasm was tolerated, but not supported or encouraged. I felt that many seniors and teachers were trying to “smooth me out” like the rocks in the river, or to “scrub me clean” like potatoes in the tumbler. And that is truly the function of Sangha, and is truly the experience of working with a teacher, but it wasn’t what I wanted and it didn’t leave me feeling valued or supported.
When I expressed my intention to go to Japan, a lot of what I got was: “Do you want to be better than us?” Or, “That’s a gaining idea!” Or, quoting Dogen, “Why leave behind the seat that exists in your own home?”
A few people, my ordaining teacher Lee among them, were able to affirm and support my energy in the way that it was naturally flowing, to support my path the way that it was unfolding. They didn’t try to train me to be like them, or train these edges out of me. Instead, they trusted the practice and trusted my sincerity, and understood that what I had to work out had to be worked out through not around my unskillfulness or partial views.
It is hard to meet people and to let them really be who and where they are. Especially if they express a desire to understand Zen, my impulse and habit is to replace their version of it with my version of it. But my intention, redoubled as I consider these issues with all of you, is to help people to see the truth of their own lives and their own paths, rather than to train their path into harmony with or affirmation of my own.
But does this disempower our teaching? Can this style preserve a lineage? Manjushri’s sword needs to be able to take life as well as giving life. Right? It may be that in according with our American resistance to training (which is intertwined with our individualism and arrogance) we lose the vital function of cutting through.
My wife thinks so of me, anyway – though she is never present in my one-on-one meetings, she intuits (not incorrectly) that when I meet with people to discuss the practice all I do is affirm and support them. Similarly, a friend of mine said that even when he managed the kitchen he would never correct anyone unless he was certain that they would take it as a kindness. Support first, train second. My friend and I both feel most comfortable there, but can that keep Zen alive? What are we losing if that is the training? On the other hand, what else can we do – how can we avoid manipulating, squashing, and imposing our own conditioned views on others?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I think they are important to ask as we consider what the teacher-student relationship means in American Zen, and how we might “train” or “support” one another.
I do feel clearly and strongly, though, that to be more welcoming as a Sangha, especially to young people, we might be a little slower to harness or prune or scrub them into compliance, and a little more open the wild, passionate, critical, inspiring energy that they bring.