2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here. Continue reading

A retreat with Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

Saturday was the fourth time in as many years that I’ve attended a daylong retreat with Edward Espe Brown,  Zen abbot, author, cook, and altogether a charming and extremely funny man.  In 1965, Edward became a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  When his teacher founded the Tassajara Zen Center near Big Sur, Ed became the head cook (as an author, he is best know for the Tassajara Cookbook and the Tassajara Bread Book).

Much of his learning took place in the kitchen, which gave him several unforgettable teaching stories. He relates his frustration in trying, without success, to produce a “perfect” muffin.  He tried numerous recipes and variations.  Everyone else thought they were great, but he was never satisfied.

One day he managed to taste a muffin without his usual preconceptions and found it delicious.  In that moment, he realized the source of his earlier discomfort – he’d been comparing his muffins to the “perfectly” shaped Pillsbury muffins he’d eaten as a kid.  This discovery led to one of the core ideas he tries to communicate as a teacher: we have the choice of living our lives according to someone else’s recipe or trying to discover our own.  “There is no by-the-book way for you to be you,” he says.

Given this background, it’s no surprise that he started the day by saying, “I’m not going to give you any meditation instructions, because then you might try to follow them – and be looking over your shoulder to ask, ‘How am I doing?”  The simplest instruction in Zen, “Just sit,” is the hardest to practice.  Similar things can be said for writing or painting (“Just write/paint what’s in your heart”) – and many other areas of life as well.

Such instructions (or lack thereof) assume the student knows the basics and some has experience.   This was true for the group that gathered on saturday.  It allows a generous teacher like Edward Brown to invite the student to seek what lies beyond a lifetime of learning how they are supposed to be.

Ed once said, “What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.”  That’s a nice sounding aphorism, the kind of thing I jot down in notebooks.  Saturday’s retreat was a chance to test the waters, and as I hope I’ve made clear, at its best, Zen is about everything in our lives. I’d heard that Ed had written a new book, and it proved to be a fine example of finding our own way.

He has several traditional books in print on Zen and cooking, and he also edited a collection of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings.  When I’d read the title of his new book, By all Means A Zen Cautionary Tale, I assumed I’d be in for traditional reading.  Instead, I was surprised and delighted to find he’d written a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical story of his adventures a little pig hand puppet.

When I asked him to sign a copy, I said, “This is great.  For my first 10 years, I had hand puppets.  They were my closest friends and confidents.”

“Ah, then you know,” he said.  “They’re powerful, aren’t they?”

In my next post, I’ll review By all Means, and after that, maybe the topic of conversing with inanimate things.  Please stay tuned!


PS:  When I posted this, I forgot to add a link to Edward’s home page, Peaceful Sea Sangha. In particular, I recommend the recordings of his talks, which give the flavor of his teaching style, his concerns, and his humor.

Permission to be ourselves

Not long ago, I came upon a post by Zen practitioner, Tomas Qubeck, called “Zen: How to Recalibrate Myself Back to Zero.”  Tomas discusses his love of solitary retreats.  I’m with him on that score, but then he adds an unusual twist – “Just recently I have realized that this ‘zero’ refers to ‘zero purpose’.”

Enso circle.  CC-by-SA-3.0

Enso circle. CC-by-SA-3.0

I know from experience that letting go of purposeful action for any length of time is a very difficult practice.  Why would one even bother?  Tomas observes that an urge to be purposeful often “shows up in my mind, [as] an image or…a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.”  Sometimes busy-ness can be an addiction, he says.

I’ll leave you to read his reflections, which have nothing to do with quitting our jobs, living in caves, or any other oddball decisions his title might suggest if you take it literally.  My own thoughts veered in a different direction.  Thinking of “purposeful action,” reminded me of something I heard Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown say at a day long retreat:

“No matter what you do, your inner authorities will not be pleased.”

I’ve written several posts about Edward Brown.  I enjoy his humor, the deceptively “simple” depth of his insights, as well as the wisdom he gained as a chef and the recipes he shares in his Tassajara Cookbook.  I’ve attended three retreats with him in as many years and jotted down some of his pithy statements.  In Zen, one carries such sayings in the mind, turning them over until fresh meaning emerges.  Here are four others I’ve found valuable.  I often remember them at interesting moments.

What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.

Are you going to be a rule follower, or are you just going to be you?

No one else can give us permission to be who we are.

There is no by-the-book way for you to be you.

As you might guess, Edward Brown, who was trained in traditional Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is charting his own course these days.  If you want to learn more about his style of cooking and Zen, you can visit his home page and and listen to some of his teachings at The Peaceful Sea Sangha website.

What Is Your Innermost Request?

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.”

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

“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.”