Thursday, June 09, 2011

Upaya and the Buddhist Blogosphere, Part 1


Last night, Deming Zen Center hosted its regular Wednesday evening practice with consulting interviews. A "consulting interview" is a less formal interview intended for discussion of practice, Zen, Buddhism, and other questions a student may bring; no koan practice is done.

A recent newcomer came in with lots of questions: all the wonderful, familiar questions that attend the beginning of Zen practice. As we spoke, I felt such appreciation for his adventurous spirit, the quality that Zen Master Seung Sahn called "try-mind."

Encounters with the higher-level teachers, those who have been authorized as Zen Masters or hold the title of Sensei or Ji Do Poep Sa, are sometimes difficult for newcomers. One of the skills I have noticed in these people is an ability to distinguish the student's genuine aspiration from the ego-centered traits that we all bring along with us. The personality traits and games are familiar to most adults: approval-seeking behaviors, behaviors intended to impress others, behaviors intended to hide oneself, and the list goes on but you get the point.

Zen teachers sometimes answer questions (privately and publicly) in ways that seem abrupt, enigmatic, or even rude. When a skilled teacher does this, they are aiming at the student's genuine aspiration to wake up, and seeking to point directly at the truth instead of explaining it. At times, they will deflect or take the piss out of a student's idea or the personality stuff (ego).

Around my school this is sometimes called "hitting the person's mind." Another word for it is upaya, or expedient means during teaching. When we read the ancient Zen anecdotes recorded in the Mu Mun Kwan or even more modern books of anecdotes involving Zen Masters, such as the Soen Roku or Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, we are reading about these teachers' spontaneous upaya.

(Sidebar: Occasionally, younger students try to imitate this behavior and if they don't quite know what they are doing, they just succeed in coming off as assholes; and yet, sometimes these assholes are unwittingly helpful. They can shake you up just when you are feeling content and going on auto-pilot.)

Returning to the point, however, it is important to remember that when a Zen Teacher is being firm on the dharma, and refusing to coddle our desire for personal verification or flattery or whatever, they are still holding the deepest respect for the original substance of our being, our true nature, the self that has no identity. When we can see that, nothing the teacher says or does can really "hit" us. You can even hit the teacher back!

At our May retreat, which was led by Judy Roitman JDPSN, we had a participant who has been sitting for a while but has not had much retreat experience or face-time with teachers like Judy. He became visibly irritated during the dharma talk that preceded the retreat, and carried that into the silent, formal atmosphere of the Zen retreat. As sometimes happens, he became angry and abandoned the retreat, later emailing me that he could not stand to be in the presence of our teacher any longer.

A keen-eyed teacher will exhibit a merciless bullshit detector, and this can be tough to whatever extent our ego is involved in the encounter. But their purpose is not to knock you down. If you take a breath and watch and listen, they are holding your true being with the greatest respect and appreciation even if they are choosing to be a little hard on the ego.

(Sidebar: Yes, upaya also means knowing when to ease up. Zen Master Seung Sahn, for example, had a famously fierce aspect and wow! could he shout, but at other times he would be very tender and grandfatherly.)

This post started off as an introduction to a comment I was going to make about the big Buddhist teacher conference going on at the Garrison Institute this week, but has evolved into its own piece. The connection to this topic is no longer clear, but in a subsequent post perhaps we can connect the dots.

1 comment:

Mandy_Fish said...

"and yet, sometimes these assholes are unwittingly helpful"

I love that line. I would like to keep it in my mind for a while and save it for the next time I encounter someone I perceive to be an a-hole.