Joko Revisited

Genpo, Daido, Joko, Shishin. The Early White Plum Sangha. Crazy.


I had the good fortune of spending last weekend at the monastery. It was the 2nd annual senior’s retreat, which means that the 20 or so people who  have gone through the process of becoming empowered as senior students in the Mountains and Rivers Order get together for the weekend to, as we say, connect. Shugen Sensei, the Head of the Order, and my teacher since Daido Roshi passed away in 2009, gave us two articles to read before coming. And so after dawn zazen, breakfast with the rest of the residential sangha, and a short caretaking period, we all got down to exploring the essays together for several hours, then having dinner. It was a big day that ended in a game of charades—a much appreciated dose of hilarity.

The topics of the day were the secularization of the dharma (mindfulness practices vs. “transcendent” religion), and spiritual bypassing, a term John Welwood coined to describe the tendency many practitioners have of trying to actually avoid the complexity of their humanity via so-called “spiritual practice” (i.e., everything is empty so I don’t have to deal with my anger problem, etc) instead of seeing it clearly. As some of us shared during the weekend, a practice like Zen invites us to be completely liberated from self, and even though we can only liberate ourselves through meticulous awareness, how tempting it is to kind of skip over that part at any step along the way and cling to our yearning to….disappear, for our self to not break free, which entails a real vitality and lively imperfection, but to just go away so that we can stop feeling any pain. This is not the Buddha Way, not even close, but our desires are so wily and cunning that our efforts to avoid ourselves can take all kinds of shapes and flavors, including the taste of sincere practice. In other words, it’s complicated.

During the breaks, chatting with these lovely humans I have known and traveled with for over 15 years, Book Proposal #3 came up a lot seeing as it is completely connected to these very topics. Joko Beck, the teacher my book is about, developed a style of Zen practice that was in response to these very thorns: the ways power can be abused within religiosity, and the way the ego can simply grow instead of be seen through and dissipated in many of the traditional forms of practice and training. And yet she was a Zen warrior, no doubt, completely passionate about the gate of zazen and how awareness can transform our lives.

When, a few months ago, I realized that the 1st round of editors was not going to save me (or publish my book), I was relived, like, ok, back to real life. And I thought that I would just drop the whole book idea. Mainly because it would be so hard. I mean, to try to do a biographical story about someone who so many people have issues with! Oy. As I have ever done anything remotely like this! And Joko, for all the clarity she brought to American Zen, was a complex person who left what one of her students/successors called a “hornet’s nest” behind.

But I feel like hers is a story I need to tell.

And the folks from my retreat seemed to agree (thanks, folks!). And that this is a tale not just for Zen people! This is a story about what it means to be human, true, and imperfect. It’s a book I need to read.

And so, I just happened to glance at the book Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing, about the scandals of the San Francisco Zen Center and saw that the publisher was Counterpoint Press. And then I checked it out. Wow! Wendell Berry, books about artists, religious people, etc etc….this seems like a great fit. So I wrote my agent this morning to ask her why she didn’t send the proposal there. I want her to. If she doesn’t want to, I will do it myself.

So I am officially back in the saddle.

PS: The Volvo is fine. God is, indeed, tuned in to my car-needs.

PPS: My agent wrote back:

Ok, we’ll try them.  They’ve changed a lot but let’s see.