BG 110: Embodied Zen

Episode Description:

“Meditation is the royal road to the unconscious.” – Carl Jung

Gerry Shishen Wick, Roshi joins us today to finish the discussion on koan training, Rinzai and Soto Zen, and on a method of training he uses to help people deal with certain psychological issues–called the Great Heart Way. He sees all of these methods as leading toward a more genuine and embodied Zen.

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Koan Training and the Different Styles of Zen.

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Roshi: I started to say earlier that when a student passes their first koan, from my perspective, that’s when practice begins. Okay? And It’s not just having insight that is important. How do you integrate that insight into your life? And there definitely are students who are good at doing koans and go through all of the koans, but then the haven’t learned how to integrate it into their life. You know, that’s where the teacher has to use other Upayas and unless a student has learned how to integrate it into their life it would be hard to give dharma transmission to them or call them a teacher or a Zen master. And It’s much more difficult to learn how to integrate it into your life because we have all kinds of karmic traces that we have to deal with. We have all kinds of unconscious behavior patterns. We have all kinds of hidden beliefs that control the way we that we relate to people and the way we relate to the environment, the way we relate to the world, the way we relate to institutions that we are not aware of. So, this practice has to be about bringing all of that into the conscious mind and then there have to be effective ways of dealing with it.

Vince: I get the impression when someone goes into actually interview with you or another teacher, this is not like a discussion that you have with a professor,


Vince: Let’s talk about like the difference between live and dead words.

Roshi: Right.

Vince: So, I wonder if you can give us a glimpse into the world of interviewing with a Zen teacher and what that’s like. If you are working on a Koan or any just in any other way.

Roshi: Yeah, well, you know, it’s hard to do that without a particular issue or something that we are dealing with specifically it’s hard to talk about it in general. You know, we say that when a student comes in to leave all pretenses at the door, that they just totally uncloak themselves and be open and honest and straight forward. I heard Daido Loori say that it’s like playing ping pong in the way that the student has to serve the ball and then the teacher can hit it back. Sometimes teachers will take the first move particularly if a student is reticent to help open them up. For beginning students, a lot of it is instruction in how to do things. Now in that book that we keep mentioning, the Three Pillars of Zen, one of Yasutani Roshi’s instructions is not to bring personal issues into the interview room but only to bring things relating to practice. When I first started teaching that is ALL that students brought in were their personal issues. So that’s why we developed the Great Heart Way in order to deal with these things. Now, sometimes interviews would just last for a few seconds you know, but sometimes you will have to keep pushing the student, poking and prodding to get them to go deeper. But, there has to be a certain level of trust. I mean the student has to be willing to allow the teacher to prod and poke, and if the student isn’t willing to do that there is only so much you can do and I require that the students give me that permission and if they don’t then we will just have a nice time.


Vince: Gotcha. And I found it really interesting about what you were saying about the difference between bringing up personal issues versus bringing up things directly related to the practice. And I was wondering if you could say a little more about that on what was the significance of Yasutani Roshi mentioning that? Because I’ve heard that distinction also from other teachers.

Roshi: Well, I think a lot if it has to do with most of the people that were trained traditionally were monks in monastic settings. And, they didn’t have a lot of the issues of livelihood, they didn’t have issues of relationships, and I think that it was thought of as a waste of time not to do that, and now I have also heard that if a student had too many emotional issues that they would just unceremoniously ask them to leave. So, they wanted people that had a strong sense of themselves so that they could just go into the practice without a lot of digression or diversion. But, as I mentioned, that is not the nature of the practice in this country. So, we have to develop techniques or Upayas to deal with them.

Vince: Live words versus dead words is a really significant to me and it seems like I have always felt my perception of Koan practice lends itself to pushing a practitioner into live words. It gives less of an option to go to the conceptual hijacking of our experience, or, if you do, it would be more obvious. It seems like that to me. I wonder if that’s the case that you are getting to a more real discussion quicker in that kind of practice.

Roshi: Well, it cuts through a lot of BS, that’s for sure. One of the things I tell my students is that this is a practice about continually stepping into the unknown. And, when we become too familiar with things, then they start becoming by rote or conceptual. And part of the reasons that we want to stay in our comfort zone is that we feel we have a sense of control over our environment, although that’s really a false notion. So, to be comfortable continually stepping into the unknown, and when you do that then whatever expression comes forward is spontaneous. Now, it’s not something that you’ve cogitated and ruminated about, and planned and prepared. And, you might be wondering if there’s a standard pat answer to koans as well. And the way I deal with it, it doesn’t have just to do with that, it has to do with the whole presentation. Like, we talked earlier about Soen Roshi and the last words of Christ. It’s how you present it as well as what you present.

Vince: So, you get marks for presentation as well.


Roshi: Well, you know, in a way it’s true. Maezumi Roshi told me that Yasutani Roshi several times said “We’re not actors here, you know”. But I want you to really put yourself into it, and sometime you have to put yourself into different kinds of situations and into different roles so to speak.

Vince: Interesting. I have one last question about Koan training and that has to do with I’ve heard certain teachers con-temporizing. I’m wondering how that works and if you do that kind of thing. What example of that might be too.

Roshi: Well, an example I often use is that there is a Japanese teacher in Los Angeles, named Joshu Sazaki. He is actually 101 years old now. He has been in this country for a long time. And, he would ask his students, “How do you realize your true nature while driving your car on the Los Angeles Freeway”? That was a Koan that he would assign to them. But, I also tell my students that the best Koans are the ones that come directly out of their lives. So, if the practice doesn’t really help them deal with some of these situations that they get into in their life but how to work through it, then it’s kind of a dead practice. So, in a sense, those are contemporary Koans. ‘Cause, people might bring in a situation they have at work work, or in their family or balancing their kids and their practice, time or other things like that. So, that becomes a Koan and we use that as practice.

Vince: And since we have already touched on this several times, I want to hear more about this Great Heart Way, and how you work with students who do just naturally have a a different way of approaching things. They are not monks. They have their unique western psychological issues. They bring those to the table sometimes whether they want to or not, I’m sure. And I’m wondering yeah, what the Great Heart Way is, and how that fit in also with the traditional forms.

Roshi: Yeah…well the Great Heart Way was developed by me and my teaching partner, Ilia Shinko Perez. And we developed it over a number of years and like I mentioned early when I first started teaching that was a lot of emotional issues, psychological issues were brought into the private interview room by a lot of students. And, uh, one of the things that I learned pretty early on is that most students live in their heads. They don’t live in their bodies. And I, a phrase that I don’t know if he coined it but Reggie Ray talks about “floating heads”. That a lot of practitioners, meditation practitioners in the Tibetan tradition are “floating heads”. And also in Zen. A lot of them are “floating heads”. They’re not connected. So, if a student comes into me and says that they are really angry, I say, “what does it feel like?” The first thing they might say is that “my girlfriend left me”. And I’ll say, “Well, that’s a storyline. What does it feel like”? And they’ll say, “…and she took our dog, and my truck, and my cigarettes”.


And I’ll keep saying, “What does it feel like, what does it feel like ?” That story, that’s your storyline. And eventually, they’ll begin to feel the tightness in their throat, or in their heart, or something like that. And that’s where we want them to pay their attention, not on all of the rationalizations and judgements and projections that they have about it. Just get into the body. In Zazen, you know, Zen meditation, is body-centered meditation. Most people don’t get that, or it takes them a long time to get it. So, they important mantra that we teach in the Great Heart Way is Non-Judgmental Awareness. Don’t judge it, no matter…you don’t have to justify how you feel. How you feel does not make you a worthy or unworthy person. It doesn’t make you good or bad. It doesn’t make you right or wrong. It’s just what you are feeling. Okay? But most people are not in touch with the feelings. And so, that’s the first step. Is learn how to feel. What does anger feel like ? What does sadness feel like? What does joy feel like? Where is it in your body? Is it localized, is it spread over your whole body? Just really just sit with it. That’s the focus of their meditation. It’s what’s going on inside of the body. And then once they start getting in touch with this, they begin to see that there isn’t any element of good or bad in the feeling of anger. The good or bad is how you act it out. But the feeling itself is just energy that’s either blocked in your body or energy that’s flowing rampantly, or it could be a balanced flow of energy as well. So, once they get in touch with that, and if there are situations in their life where once they are in touch with that feeling constantly recurring, then we begin to work with that feeling. And they just sit with that feeling and try to just reflect on times when it occurred in their life. We don’t ask them to do a scan of their life. That’s the realm of psychoanalysis. But, this, as we explain in our book, the Great Heart Way, what often happens is an image pops up very strong in people’s minds. And they, from that image, they begin to see how they formed this belief system that developed this habit pattern that they keep doing certain things when it’s triggered in their life. And I can give an example from my own experience in doing it, which I talk about it in the book itself. By most standards, I am a fairly successful person. I did very well in school. I got straight A’s in high school. I was a Phi Beta Kappa in college. I got a Phd in Physics from the University of California in Berkeley, which at that time was considered the best physics school in the country. I was an athlete. I lettered in a number of sports. I was a state swimming champion in high school. And then I went on and had a number of careers. But there was always this thought in my mind that I’m not good enough. And, even after I became a Dharma successor of Maezumi Roshi, I still had that thought that I’m not good enough. And obviously that was driving me to be as successful as I was, because I had to prove that I was good enough. And when I was sitting with the feeling I had several images come up but the one that I finally settled on was when I was about six or seven years old. I was in religious school and they were talking about the stories in the Bible. And one of the stories was about Abraham and Isaac where Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to show his devotion and his dedication to his God and to the religion. And he took his son and he was going to sacrifice him. And, I re-read the Bible recently. He deceived his wife, he deceived his retainers and he took he his son and bound him up and was ready to kill him. When the God intervened, and there was a ram that was caught nearby in the bush that he should sacrifice instead because he had shown his true faith. Well, when I heard that, at that age, I immediately said to myself they’re going to kill Isaac, and he was a good, loyal son. What are they going to do with somebody like me?


Roshi: So, I said, I had better be perfect in behavior. To always do well, otherwise I’m gonna die. And, I had that belief …it was at an unconscious, almost cellular level. And through this practice and through meditation I was able to uncover it and then there are certain techniques we give on how to heal it and to dissolve it in the book.

Vince: Interesting. And, how do you find, when people are able to do that kind of work, does it change then, their ability to do the other kinds of work? Or does it just have a healthy impact on their psyche and then their ability to be just good people in general?

Roshi: Well, I think it’s both. Yeah. I find that the people aren’t as controlled by their unconscious mind, and we give a quote from Jung in the book where he says that “meditation seems to be the royal road to the unconscious”. And, that’s what it is. It’s unconscious behavior patterns and beliefs and usually they are established when we are quite young and we continue them forward. Does that help people to go deeper into their regular practice? In my experience it’s yes, it does.

Vince: I do want to ask one last question that we’ve have touched on a little bit. You’ve said that it’s a whole nother story, but I am wondering how you’ve integrated in your own experience, in your own understanding, this difference that is often seen between the Soto school and the Rinzai school. It’s not just the schools, It’s also I think it is something that you see in all of the different Buddhist traditions, and maybe even goes beyond the Buddhist schools in general. In short, it’s this difference between trying to get somewhere, you know, get to awakening. In the Rinzai tradition my understanding is that often times there is a real emphasis on having Kensho or Satori, and then this other perspective which is like it’s already here. We just really have to kind of wake up to it or realize it and that there’s really not anywhere to go in a certain way. And I’m wondering how you’ve found a way to integrate those things or bring them together. Because it seems that clearly you are doing that in your practice and I’m just wondering how you’ve done that in other ways.

Roshi: Well, even one of the founders of Soto Zen in Japan, Kasan, wrote “Not to think that enlightenment doesn’t exist”. Because there is kind of a sickness in the Soto school that says that everything is enlightened, so you just have to sit, like the Buddha, and then you’re manifesting your enlightenment. So, that’s a false understanding. There is even an expression for it called Buji-Zen, which is do-nothing Zen. It’s kind of like I’m already enlightened so whatever I do is an expression of my enlightened life. And that is just a gross misunderstanding. But, the other part of that is a weakness of Rinzai Zen is thinking that enlightenment is something you can obtain that is external to yourself if you just work hard enough you’re gonna find it and then you have all kinds of ideas about what it is. So, the Soto realization that we are already enlightened integrated with the actual experience of it I think is a much more wholesome approach. Yasutani Roshi and Maezumi Roshi both talked about two aspects of it. One is intrinsic. Intrinsically, we all are the Buddha, however, if you don’t experience that, then it’s not true for you. And, that’s the experiential. So, the intrinsic and the experiential have to come together, otherwise it’s just speculation. It’s not something that has been embodied. And that’s very important.


Gerry Shishin Wick