Friday, April 29, 2011

Spiritual Growth and Gender

I have been thinking about the relationship between a female student and a male teacher.  Are we peers or not?

Clearly there is a hierarchy within Zen, as with any other religion, and any hierarchy implies levels of power.  The hierarchy is important in Zen in terms of  the role of priests: giving lay and priest ordination, choosing a shuso, authorization to teach, etc.  This is necessary.  The issue of gender, of course, comes into play in the historically disproportionate role of men in positions of power.  But we all know this!

What really interests me is the heart-to-heart meeting between teacher and student.  Buddha meeting Buddha. The attitude I bring to a male teacher - Norman in this case - has the most profound effect on my psyche and spiritual growth than any other practice.

Every spiritual tradition assumes that the teacher has more wisdom, and, of course, many assume that the true master is enlightened.  I find it interesting that Zen seems to disclaim enlightenment as any state a person could possess, and Dogen’s “practice-enlightenment” seems pretty Equal Opportunity to me. And yet, all the koans and the roles of the priest imply that the teacher has some advanced knowledge that the student hopes to attain.

After a lifetime of practice, I don’t think a teacher has a special state of knowledge that – if I tried hard enough – I could possess. And yet I am deeply and sincerely seeking.

I actually don’t know what goes on between teacher and student.  It seems to be immensely important, but I am not sure why.  Maybe the teacher is just a really good mirror, or as Socrates says, “A midwife to the Truth.”  Maybe a student allows an open vulnerability, a defenselessness, that somehow allows the truth within herself to emerge.

I have learned, however, that the gender attitudes I bring to a male teacher are detrimental to me and my spiritual growth.  All those conditioned attitudes: subservience, handing oneself over, sexual dynamics, and the subconscious, pathetic assumption that men actually “know best.”

All this stuff gets in the way of true spiritual maturation.  So, this is what I need to examine.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Living in Defenseless Ambiguity

For better or worse, my enactment of my relationship with God – or the Buddha or the Nameless- has been through my relationship to the teacher.  For me, this enactment has often been wounding, a struggle.  There is the transcendent joy along with the pain and confusion inherent in being human.

In Zen primary importance is placed on the meeting between student and teacher, and all koans are based on this meeting.  I have thought of my relationship to my teachers as my life koan.  But the word koan suggests that there is a problem and a solution.  But there is no solution, and maybe there is also no problem.

Maybe we accept (as joyfully as possible) living in defenseless ambiguity.

My relationship with the teacher is like two hands rubbing together, producing heat through friction.  After decades of this confusion and friction, I see that the expression of all this is love.  When I walk into the zendo, when I see my brothers and sisters in the dharma, there is a spontaneous out-flowing of love.

My husband Brad said that the precepts come down to having a soft and open and gentle heart.  I see this heart of the precepts in both Brad and my teacher.  Since we are so quick to disclaim anything good about ourselves, they both would probably deny this.  But, nevertheless, it is so. 

What a wonderful outcome this would be: to have a soft and open and gentle heart.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Retirement: Jumping off the 100 ft. Pole

I did it! I just gave notice at my job that I will be retiring.  It feels like jumping off a 100 ft pole.  For a long time I have anxiously considered early retirement. “Shall I jump?”

As I entered our little zendo last week, I prayed for clarity.  I bowed, sat down, and heard, “Jump!”

The metaphor of the 100 ft pole is from a Zen koan.  If you think you are enlightened or have attained something, you are stuck at the top of the pole.  So, the idea, I guess, is to jump.  But Suzuki Roshi said, commenting on this koan, “Actually there is no top of the pole.  The pole continues forever.  So you can’t stop there.”

I am aging and feel insecure.  I want to stay at the top of the pole with my nice, secure income.  But the metaphor probably means all the times I am stuck: thinking I should improve myself; thinking that my body shouldn’t really be aging; not realizing that everything is changing every single second.

Of course, one does need to consider income and one’s mortgage and financial responsibilities.  One needs to consider that a Social Security benefit is basically small change.  But I cannot remain stuck at the top of the pole.

When I returned home the day I had given notice, I opened my email, and my friend Jennifer Block wrote – not knowing that I had just announced my retirement – “When you jump, the net will appear.”

Nice, huh?

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Sacred Thread

Yesterday I threw up my arms and said, “Oh Universe, take me!”  My husband laughed and said, “The Universe took you a long time ago!’

Thirty years ago, when I traveled with Swami Muktananda (Baba), I had a deep, passionate, loving relationship with him in my heart.  When my father came to Miami Beach to meet him – with the intent of rescuing me from a cult – Baba said, before my father could even speak, “She’s my daughter.”  And such was Baba’s presence, that all my father could do was to nod his head in agreement. 

What is this sacred connection?  Why is it that I have always felt that I have a special relationship with my teacher, even though clearly he/she has hundreds of other students? 

There is a famous Hindu story – the Rasa Lila.  Rasa means “nectar,” and lila means “dance.”  Krishna is the Lord of Love, and he always lives near his gopis.  The gopis are the cow-herders who passionately love Krishna’s form.  Whenever he plays his flute, they come running.  If she is nursing a baby, she throws it on the bed and runs to Krishna.  If she is half undressed, she rushes out the door with her sari flying.

And this is the good part:  Krishna manifests himself for each gopi and dances with her.  Each one believes she has the one special relationship with Krishna, as she ecstatically dances with him. 

I have always felt a sacred thread connecting my heart to the heart of the teacher – even in the Soto Zen tradition.  This can be confusing and disconcerting unless one realizes that it is beyond gender.  That the relationship is sanctified.  That it is the relationship between those who have dedicated their lives and being to the dharma.  Who belong to each other in the dharma.  Perhaps lifetime after lifetime.