On Saturday, Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown, gave his second all-day retreat of the year for the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group. Zen is not exactly “my thing,” but like the SBMG as a whole, I’m ecumenical, ready to look for insight wherever I can find it, and I really enjoy Ed Brown. Zen is actually so free of doctrine that Catholic priests have become advanced practitioners, and Edward Brown is un-doctrinaire even for Zen. At the start of the retreat, after the hostess introduced him and listed his “credentials,” Brown said, “Yep, I’m certifiable.”
“I’m not going to give you very many instructions,” he said. “If I do, there’s the danger of wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?'” This is one of Brown’s constant themes: no one else can tell you the right way to do Zen or life. One statement framed both of Brown’s visits this year, a quote from his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.” Zen is about “becoming authentically you,” Brown said.
Brown is an accomplished chef and uses lots of cooking metaphors. One time a group of his students was tasting a dish and one of them asked, “What am I supposed to be tasting?” To Edward Brown, that a question all of us ask in one form or another: “What am I supposed to be doing?” “What am I supposed to be feeling – or experiencing – or thinking?” “What am I supposed to be writing?”
Understanding the point takes a bit of subtlety; it does not deny that we have an “ordinary” self that must operate in “relative” reality and know how to balance a checkbook, check the oil, boil an egg, or get a job. Brown was directing remarks to that “unmanifest self,” the “big mind” within us, our Buddha nature. “It’s the sky not the weather,” he says. It’s the larger “us,” that can only say, “I am,” not “I am this or I am that.”
Because this silent knowing is so often drowned out by day to day concerns, it often requires a strategy to hear it. Meditation is one strategy. Another is learning to ask the right kind of question. Brown posed one such question: “What is your inmost request?” What do we want in our depths?
He did not mean our ordinary wants and needs, however pressing. He gave an example, saying that for many years, his inmost request was, “I want it to be ok for me to be here.” Questions like this do not come with fast or easy answers. There is nothing fast or easy about becoming authentic, especially in a culture that fears real individuals. If we’re looking for others to tell us what to do, they will be glad to oblige.
Yet failing to ask what we really are and what we truly long for carries a greater risk. William Stafford, the poet, put it this way: “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”