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my first dokkusan, and tonight’s other Zen teachings

February 25, 2010

First of all, I hope I spelled “dokkusan” right..

What is dokkusan? It is one on one consultation with a Zen teacher. Zen can be amazingly confusing, especially for those of us who are new to the practice.

I’ve read books and parts of books about Zen and other forms of Buddhism, and a little while ago I finally decided to jump in and do it. There is a very small sangha (Buddhist group) in the city where I live – usually less than 10 people, but it’s the real deal – genuine Zen priests, so that’s good.

Meditation is challenging for everybody, especially at first. For someone with an extremely fired up brain – with anxiety problems of various kinds, it can be even harder. I sit down on the zafu (cushion) and immediately my brain goes even crazier, and I tense up – back and neck pain, legs going to sleep, but I tough it out.

One of the priests, who is there almost every week, said I should talk with the head priest, who comes to town once a month. Actually, both of the other priests said I should talk to her. She was in town today. She just published a book a little while ago, and was in the area for a book signing, as well as to lead our meeting.

The advice she gave me : 1. ask, “Where is my breath?” She said to be aware of my breath, not to try to slow it down or change it, but be aware of it, and that that would unite my mind with my body. She said “big mind” doesn’t deal with all these mental distractions, the mind that deals with fears and neurosis and all that is “small mind.” 2. “be kind” – in this case, she means “be kind to myself” – something I have a VERY hard time doing. It’s lots easier for me to be nicer to others.

Hmm.. other things we talked about… She is also a trained therapist with a Ph.D. but for awhile now has devoted herself fully to Zen. Those of you who know about Buddhism are aware that Buddhism is very good (or can be very good) psycho-therapy. I heard one Buddhist teacher say that Buddha was the world’s first psycho-therapist. The priest told me tonight she didn’t give psycho-therapy talks anymore, just Zen, but for me it’s the same thing.

This was my first time talking with her, so she asked some “get to know you “-type questions – my name, who I live with, what I would like to do (for work). I told her I would like to teach English in Japan, but that I don’t know if this is a good choice for me. I told her I get really hung up on Japan (see some previous blogs) – I’ve watched all the travel/documentary films I could find at the library, some Japanese movies and those set in Japan (“Lost in Translation” is my favorite movie), etc. etc.

She said maybe I was Japanese in a past life, and that I wanted to go back there.

That comment surprised me somewhat. I know people following certain other Buddhist traditions, such as Tibetan and Theraveda, are really into talk of reincarnation, but I didn’t know Zen was like that. I read a book and part of another by a radical Zen writer named Brad Warner (for comments on his books see previous blogs). Warner studied in Japan, and his teacher tossed out the whole idea of reincarnation. I don’t know enough about Zen to tell you whether or not the teaching on reincarnation, karmic connections to past lives and so forth is commonly taught by Zen teachers, nor do I know how prominent this belief is.

I’ll try to let that one be, I guess. I think about reincarnation too much as it is. I sort of believe in it, but don’t feel it necessary to believe in. Either it is true or it isn’t, but there’s nothing I can do about it either way.

We have a dharma talk (teaching, sermon, you get the idea) at the end of the meeting, after we’ve done our sitting and walking meditations, our prostrations, chanting and bowing. (I still don’t understand some of the stuff we do or why we do it).

The talk was on a story of a woman named Senjo who wanted to marry one man, but was being forced into an arranged marriage with another. She decided to elope with her lover and move somewhere else, where they lived 5 years and raised children. After the 5 years, she decided to return to her homeland and apologize to her father. She got off the boat to tell her father she was sorry she had disappointed him and had been away five years. The father asked her which daughter she was. She told him she was Senjo, and her father said, “You are mistaken, Senjo has stayed sick in bed since her lover left.”

The other Senjo then came out of the house, and the two halves of Senjo were re-united.The question is “which is the real Senjo, the one who left or the one who stayed behind?” Yes folks, this is a Zen koan, a paradoxical problem. Our priest said the real Zenjo was the one who after 5 years after being married realized she needed to go back.. I think that’s what she said anyway.. that the real Senjo was the one who realized what marriage and raising children really was.


The priest said that this story illustrated that going with our impulses is not right, but neither is neglecting our needs and bowing to the pressure of others. She didn’t say what was right..

A lot of the talk I did not understand. I wrote that story out so you get an idea of what a particular zen talk might be like.

One part of the talk that I did understand and agree with is that if we are in a terribly cluttered and distracted state of mind, we cannot see reality clearly, and this is like having a map of a city other than the one we are in, and trying to navigate by that map. We need to see reality, and finding our breath and being mindful of it helps us do so.

We are taught doing Zen helps us find the real reality (sorry for being redundant). Doing Zen is doing Zazen. Doing zazen is sitting and breathing and facing the wall. This uncovers the truest self, the truest reality, that is underneath all the currents pulling us this way or that.

Here’s another area I have trouble. There is a lot of talk about the self and no-self, the self being impermanent, the self being an illusion. But, the self is also talked about as being real, and us having a real self, one that is clouded by illusion, attachment, neurosis, etc. but is still there. The only thing I can make of this is that we do  have a self, it is important, cleansing the self is important, but this self is impermanent. Ok, that’s the best I can do with that one.

Buddhism is the Middle Way. We are supposed to live in balance, not giving into impulses and cravings, but not starving ourselves either. Buddha was first a prince living in opulence and decadence, then became an aesthetic, denying all needs, then found the middle way.

Alright.. so we have needs, but these needs show up as impulses. We should not indulge cravings, but sometimes the needs manifest themselves as cravings. We need to eat, we need company, we need sex. All of these things can become attachments though. So how does one find the middle way, taking care of one’s needs without becoming too attached? How does one do this without going crazy?!!

I do not have the answers to these questions. The only thing I know is that I should not worry about it. Life is uncertain. I should do my best to meet my needs without hurting others, and if my choices bring suffering, then Zen training will help me deal with it.

I’ll need to make that my belief.

So, I do Buddhism, at least once a week, and plan on doing it more. I do not know the future, but can choose to believe something will help or not help. I will try not to let my relentless uncertainty and anxiety mess me up too bad, and will believe that Zen practice will help. I will with doubt and lack of certainty, and do it anyway. I figure, it can’t hurt (except for some bodily pain), and it has been on my mind to pursue Buddhism for many years, and I am finally doing it.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. Comments from Buddhists or those thinking of becoming Buddhist are welcome.

Thanks for reading.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. zebulonthered permalink
    February 26, 2010 11:06 AM

    You are lucky to have a Zen group in your area… I do not.

    You ask, “So how does one find the middle way, taking care of one’s needs without becoming too attached? How does one do this without going crazy?!!”

    Maybe if one keeps in mind one’s own breath at all times, then one can find the middle ground?

    When you really want to find something. That is when you can not see.

    I am not a priest. I am not anything. But I have seen this to be true in my life. Good luck!! 🙂

  2. tomschronicles permalink
    February 26, 2010 3:25 PM

    Yeah, I think it is a fortunate thing to have a Zen group here.

    Ah, you have presented one of the great ironies. “when you want to find something you cannot see.” So how does one let go and NOT want to find something? That is what I have always found troubling.

    Thanks for your comments. I think you’re on to something.

    Where is your name from? Kind of reminds me of a name from one of those characters in the movie “Nightwatch,” which I thought was amazing!

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