Who Wants to be “Trained”?

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.


9 thoughts on “Who Wants to be “Trained”?

  1. Yes, always a pleasure to hear your thoughts…

    I feel that your inclination to support the “true nature” or Tao of each student is far truer an expression of “Zen” than the do this/do that attitude which seems to sometimes arise in training.

    I always took your feedback as a kindness rather than the barking of orders. It is more effective that way and inspires more love from the student.

    Taking absolute direction from superiors isn’t relevant or appreciated by people who are tenderly allowing receptivity to the big mind within themselves, their own expression of Tao.

    I have experienced teachers who seem to give feedback simply to give feedback, to assert and maintain their role as the wiser, more seasoned student. It has only saddened and confused me.

    Sometimes I feel like if the student doesn’t use the exact same vocabulary he/she is put down as not understanding, when in fact the student is simply saying the same thing in different words, with different anecdotes to back up the sentiment. Bobby D has a line about that, too…

    Thank you for remembering that it is a differing cultural context, that Zen takes different shape here…

    There are so many things in life I would like to do and experience, formal Zen training being only one of them. While I can experience my hara in everything, live Zen in everything, rigorous training (as appetizing as it sounds at times) doesn’t happen to suit me right now.

    Thank you Jiryu for not depreciating my experience of Zen, being open to what I was/am flowering into instead of casting my practice aside as invalid since I am not in a monastic setting.

    Thank you for reminding me that the great way is everywhere, not just in Japan or Green Gulch.

    fuk it
    liv it
    luv it

  2. Gasho Jiryu:

    I think you’ve raised a lot of very good questions here so I’d like to throw a few ideas into the mix.

    I think the role of a Zen Teacher is going to need to be more like a Parent of teenagers or a Martial Arts Teacher.

    A Zen Teacher has house rules that should be followed – “We sit like this”, “We start at 6am NOT 6:05am” etc.

    I think fundamentally there’s a lot to be said for just providing a safe environment in which a student’s actual nature can be manifest unless doing so is immediately harmful in some unhelpful way. A Teacher’s role is to provide this environment and police it but on the whole perhaps to remember that a student trying five times and failing four times is a lot closer to a Zen ideal than being taught the ‘right’ way to do it.

    If we look at Zazen for instance you can teach someone the mechanics but you cannot really show them how to let go of thinking or drop body and mind. You can show them why that’s helpful. You can teach them how sufferring is created and how to not create it but ultimately it’s on the cushion where they will learn that they to some extent choose how easy or difficult Zazen is.

    There is a hierarchy but it is a natuarl one not an artificial one. It’s one that arises from the teacher being further ahead than the student. “I have found that shouting at the bus for being late is not helpful”. “I have found that sometimes lying to my wife is very helpful for harmony in the house”.

    If we try to teach people “Be like me” then we are doing both of us a dis-service. If we can teach people how to “be what you are” then that might be closer. If we can teach “be what you are BUT YOU WILL do that within the rules of this house” then that is probably best.

    We want I think ultimately to be creating Adults rather than clones or children. The next gen will be living in a different world to this one but they will have Buddha Natures that are suited for that world having grown up in it.

    Teenagers need to find their own limits and make mistakes. They need to be able to do this right up to the point before they steal your car and write it off. That’s the sort of balance that is required I think.

    There’s lots of dangers inherrent in Zen and there’s lots of reward for travelling that path as well.

    For now I’m stuck with the concept of House Rules as the overall metaphor:

    “These are our house rules: They are arbitrary but allow everyone to work together safely”
    “These are our traditions: They help everyone to develop their own Zen in a way that we know is reasonably safe and reliable”
    “This is your life and your practice: You have to do the work”
    “This is your life and your practice: We might let you crash your car but we won’t let you crash the bus”.
    “This is your life and your practice: One day you will have to choose like we did what the house rules are and…..”

    As for Manjushri’s sword; I’d not worry about that too much.Miyamoto Musashi used to teach that you don’t need a sword since your enemy will always bring one that you can use. Or perhaps like in Judo. In Judo or Aikido you show that you are balanced and your opponent is not by using his imbalance to throw him to the ground. It is your oponents imbalance that provides everything you need. You just direct it. The spirit of Aikido is very much about showing each other how to make use of balance and imbalance.

    These thoughts feel a little garbled to me but hopefully they make clear the general direction I’m trying to express.


  3. Jiryu

    Wondering why you put training in quotes “Training”?

    Training occurs for me as access to skillful means.
    Consider novice to expert skill acquisition model in many many fields


    In your previous post in your transition to being a father, in your back and forth about west cost/east cost zen…
    surely you do NOT suggest that practitioners:
    should be more cynical, skeptical, querulous about seeking “training” and about being responsible for getting trained in their zen practice?

    should become more fearful & conflicted riders on Bonhoeffer’s train [f you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

    As Dosho wrote recently, the dharma gate of the skillful querulous critic is not Dogen’s dharma gate of joyful ease of nurturing, parental mind … of grandmotherly kindness.

    For my self, almost every day here in Costa Rica, in Spanish and in many ordinary ways, I struggle to give-up cursing the darkness and find a match let go of my know-it-all American style discursive victimology.

  4. “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.”

    The conditioning which we surround/support our young people with and how it differs from the conditioning given in support of young people in the east is that many eastern cultures have a centuries old tradition of venerating young people who enter monasteries. This has been internalized by young people in the east from a very early age. Because of Buddhism there has been an incredible creative outlet in the practice of selflessness that can’t be ignored, that they actually see as truth and/or something to be valued.

    ““Non-action” in Taoist thought is about not interfering with the arising energy flow. ”

    Not only this but also recognizing the miracle in the moment of silence in stillness. In which the self
    is not active in the universe “..yet nothing is left un- done.” In addition: the action which is non-action, the flow of movement [activity] which has no self , no life or death, un-centered, boundless,and is nameless. That which is, and came before the need of words or thought. An opportunity in the moment.

    “When I was younger and more passionately one-sided in my view of the practice, I rarely felt encouraged to follow my own energy. ” Maybe this is why you are still practicing.

    You just kept your mouth shut and people did too. Everyone is just fine. heh

    “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.”

    Never thought of Manjushri’s sword being anything other than to cut through the thoughts we have
    of ourselves. Don’t think it’s about life or death because our karma remains through lifetimes of existence. It’s all about being harmless and helpful to all beings. Internalizing this as a young person conditioned [re-actively] as we have been to break away from our parents ways and/or ways of the “what is the best ‘aspiration’ to have” in this, ever more, deeply distracting media driven violent and brutal society most of us live in, is very difficult because it is not supportive in which ever way a young person goes. So they go in a direct way to something that feels the most free. Not exchanging one set of limitations for another. Some people think it is actually unhealthy for young people to engage Buddhism.

    “On the other hand, what else can we do – how can we avoid manipulating, squashing, and imposing our own conditioned views on others? ”

    By being fearless, totally non discriminating, and accept everyone who comes by to say hello without
    exception, practice no separation, recognizing the non existence of past and future and stopping all forms of attachment. This frees the event in this moment
    to the truth and young people will see it and want to be it.

  5. Hi.

    sometimes it is good to fertilize the tree.
    Sometimes it is good to prune the tree.
    The hard thing is knowing which to do when.

    Thank you for your practice.

    May the force be with you

  6. Another point is that young people already are in the place/moment most of us older buddhists have to concentrate to maintain. This mind, why train something which is, so perfectly, just fine?

    Seeing young people, I accept them wholly and see such profound wisdom. It is difficult not to see them as incarnated wise Buddhas brought into our lives to teach us something. Inducing wonder, simplicity and a slight touch of wonderful [necessary] anarchism to our perception.

    My father used to remind me that I am older than him [genetically]. Or; billions of years old. All this genetic wisdom young people/children have. Perhaps they need to train us. Perhaps they know best.
    How to be child like is, and has been, revered since ancient times as a fundamentally perfect state to be in. The magnificent moments of life, you might notice, are when we can slip into this child state.

    “Where fine moments are enough,
    where fine moments are everywhere…”

    Children/young people are just fine the way they are.

    It is only when a young person internalizes their own need for training in their heart of hearts, finding a temple they feel close to, that it begins.

    Yes, very interesting reading all the comments.

    Thank you very,

  7. I have been a monk for 24 years, and still live in a monastery. I would like to introduce some thoughts on Bankei a devoted Zen master of old that get to the heart of this issue…..

    As Bankei saw it, the whole approach of koan Zen was hopelessly contrived. He rejected the need for familiarity with classical Chinese as an unnecessary encumbrance, and rejected the koan itself as artificial technique. The original koans, he argued, were not “models” but actual living events. The old masters had simply responded to particular situations that confronted them, naturally accomadating themselves to the needs of the students involved. That was the business of any Zen teacher, to meet each situation on its own terms. There was no need to make people study the words of ancient Chinese monks when you could simply have them look at their own “cases”, the way in which the Unborn was at work here and now in the actual circumstances of their lives. This is what Bankei called his “direct” teaching, as opposed to koan practice, which he referred disparagingly as “studying old waste paper.” The koan, Bankei said, was merely a device, and teachers who relied on it, OR ON ANY OTHER TECHNIQUE, were practicing “Devices Zen” Why rely on a device, he argued, when you could have the thing itself?

    When we can practice like this then maybe the younger generation will respond.

  8. So I am realizing that my comments to these blog subjects may be a bit untimely (!), but I think I will insert my limited view into the void of the internet, anyway.

    Just last week we finished up rohatsu sesshin. The first two days I slept all day (cross legged on the cushion, of course). I was so exhausted that when I took my seat at most periods, I could hardly keep my eyes open to hear the opening bell. This was very frustrating.

    So frustrating that I was very close to asking my teacher to beat me with a stick. I thought, ‘My god, nothing short of being beaten up will possibly keep me awake–let alone WAKE me up’. Sometimes Sojun does use the stick, but it is rare and not with the kind of disciplinarian bent that I was fantasizing about.

    But it got me thinking: I am of a type that may be able to handle this kind of treatment. As a young man, perhaps, this kind of training may be appropriate. My ego is large and stubborn. I have a great sense of self, and a very solid foundation in my limited views–my oh, so grand sense of self-importance. I believe that this kind of training may be expedient for me.

    Now, I do not believe that the ego NEEDS to be beaten out. I do not believe that we need to be stamped out–or that out desires and ambitions need to be squelched in order to be good buddhists. However, there are those, like myself, for whom a training like this would not be ultimately disastrous to a healthy relationship to the ego.

    But for most westerners, harsh training (I think) is likely to be disastrous to a healthy self of self. This is not the military after all. We are not going to war. And we are not all young, thick-headed upstarts like myself.

    I think that perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking so much about ‘the one true path of zen practice appropriate for westerners’. This seems far too simplistic. Instead perhaps there needs to be a spectrum of training appropriate for different people–but not in the same temple.

    I think this is already happening. There are small sitting groups without any ‘training’ techniques at all: just people sitting together, encouraging each other. There are more formal practice places, but still with a general hands off approach. I found that Green Gulch offered me all kinds of hands on, often challenging instructions–but I think the overall feel (that I felt) was very relaxed, grandmotherly. Which is important. Let us not forget Dogen Zenji’s Grandmotherly Mind.

    But let us not also forget Master Dogen’s story of his teacher, Great Master Rujing, who said,

    ‘I am old and overdue to retire. I am here as abbot to help break you of delusions. For this reason, I sometimes scold you, or hit you with a stick. But this is a dangerous thing to do. I only do this to guide you on behalf of the Buddha. My brothers, please pardon me with a compassionate heart.’ Dogen Zenji goes on to say that at these words, ‘all the monks wept’.

    This is a great case to study for those who are negotiating the dangerous task of instructing practitioners in the Way. In fact, I recommend this text as a great resource for this subject, ‘Informal Talks’ by Master Dogen (I am using Enlightenment Unfolds by Tanahashi, page 50).

    Finally, to you personally Jiryu, I want to say: Doubt your abilities as a teacher, but only in so far as it maintains an edge for your practice. Please do not doubt in such a way that you hold back your light. Your heart is (in my opinion) pure of self-serving intentions. Although you may mislead people at times, because you are inevitably clouded by limited views, I believe that you are wise enough to tell the difference between just pulling people around with you delusions, and compassionately assisting people on the Path.

    “How can we avoid manipulating, squashing, and imposing our own conditioned views on others?” I don’t think you can, Jiryu. Not entirely. Because you are a limited person (nothing personal). I doubt there is any teacher who hasn’t ‘gouged holes in good flesh’ as the saying goes, to a few students along the way. Do you really think there is such a perfect teacher that can get away with it scot-free?! But I believe that you do have the skillfulness to avoid this (mostly), as evidenced by your sincere doubt. So please, that I, at least, may be a better practitioner, even if it be harsh or severe, even if it takes life, do not hold back your sword!

    Katsu! –Matt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s