“I’ve got to tell you about the dream I had last night,” a friend told me. Seven years had passed since her Zen community had come apart in an emotionally turbulent way, and she was still struggling to absorb the experience. In her dreams she often found herself back with her teacher and sangha—yet something felt distinctly different to her about this particular dream: “I walked into the little interview room with the roshi, as I had so many times in the past. I felt disoriented, because I knew that so much had happened and he wasn’t my teacher anymore. Then I looked directly into his eyes and I heard my own voice say, ‘It’s not about the story line. It’s the practice.’”
In the following essays, three long-term practitioners reflect on spiritual regeneration, on finding one’s way again after some form of profound spiritual disillusionment. We’ve all heard the stories—teachers who turn out to be psychologically unstable, misuses of power and money within a sangha, sexual transgressions on the part of the teacher or other students. Yet at a certain point what matters most is not so much what shattered one’s trust and scattered one’s sangha, but the question: What heals?
For each of these three practitioners, the process has been long and arduous—and much of it has, indeed, involved a struggle with the story. Like a jilted lover, or a parent who has lost a child, one goes over the sequence again and again, asking, “How could this have happened?” “What was my part in it?” “Why didn’t I see the warnings?”
Why is the process so difficult? As the realtors say, “Location, location, location.” Spiritual disillusionment occurs in the very place where one comes to seek relief from suffering. It occurs in a context that demands an extreme degree of trust, surrender, and self-exposure, a context in which one has made an immense investment of oneself and thus been deeply complicit with whatever it is that has happened—whether or not one had a starring role in the drama. It occurs within relationships that engender profound affection, admiration, attachment. In sum: it occurs in the exact spot where one has laid up one’s greatest treasure.
In a famous koan, the great Zen master Dogen declared that while “one may practice upward, step by step,” each step of the practice is “equal in substance.” Teaching this koan, the modern master Harada Roshi held up his Zen teacher’s stick and said, “Always golden. If it is cut, golden. At each end, golden still.” In their own way, the following stories embody this koan. Separated from the teacher and the community that had been the very center of their lives, at first these students were overcome with the sense of rupture, depreciation, ruin. But gradually they began to see in a new way, to understand that we can’t ever be truly separated from what is most precious. In the stories that follow, three broken hearts praise the home that can’t ever be lost, the gold that never stops shining.
The Ideal Landscape
In the thangka I’m painting, I’ve come to a section of landscape that I designed several years ago. Nestled in the foothills is a temple surrounded by plants that bloom not in the Himalayas but here in California. Translated into the iconography of Tibet, this landscape will become archetypal—yet for me it is imbued with the energy of numerous retreats on American soil. I have swept its paths, as have many students before me.
But here’s the rub. I am no longer among them. My teacher and I have had a serious rupture. For some years I had intuited hidden unethical behavior. This intuition led to an impasse. Ultimately, I was cut off. Loss of trust in my own perceptions, as well as in the teacher-student relationship, was the toll. And so there is a brokenness in this idealized buddha-land that I so carefully drafted years ago.
Do I really want the temple and its gardens to remain? I may have this thangka for the rest of my life. Dot by dot, I work my way down from the sky to the deeper ground, always questioning: What heals?
In hindsight my path appears to have an order, but for a long time I was lost in disorder, grief, confusion. I felt like a fool for misplacing my trust after years of practice. Filled with shame and blame, I could no longer sit. Not that I didn’t try. For two years I struggled each day to keep the form of meditation as taught by my teacher. Again and again, obsession with the story hijacked my sittings. Though I knew there was nothing wrong with the method itself, I was no longer receptive. Each inhalation connected me to the breath of my teacher, someone I no longer trusted. Anger arose, offering poor refuge. I knew my practice was in trouble, but I was too much on the rebound to seek another teacher or community. Deep inside, I was pushing away.
I stopped sitting. At the time I felt like a failure—but now I see a certain skillfulness. This was the only way I knew to cut the negativity I was cultivating on the cushion, and I profoundly wished to cease from harm. With sickening clarity, I had come to see that my own untrained mind could poison me in ways far worse than anyone else could. That clarity, disturbing as it was, eventually rekindled my motivation. If indeed “there are 84,000 doors to practice,” then surely I could find another. One night I dreamt that a Tibetan woman was beckoning to me. I began to visit the Asian Art Museum, mesmerized by the peaceful and terrifying deities of the thangkas. Though I didn’t understand the symbols yet, I sensed that these were maps of transformation, and I felt impelled to learn more. How could the energy of my grief and anger be converted to wisdom and compassion?
One day I opened a newspaper and saw an ad for thangka classes given by a former Tibetan monk. I sought him out and set to work. Over and over, I drew Buddha’s feet, hands, and face as instructed, internalizing the proportions, cultivating the attention required for a steady hand. When I began to paint, mountains, ocean, earth, and clouds seemed to rise into color atom by atom, each dot symbolizing my inner request to dissolve anger and discouragement in the light of awareness. With each brushstroke, more ease and joy filled me. Repetition, such a bane in the form of obsession, became my balm, a soft steady rain swelling the seeds of renewal without force or flooding.
Gradually, I became able to sit again and to expand my practice, adding mantra, prayer, visualization, analytic meditation, and the study of sacred texts. The matter of trust remained, however. I still couldn’t approach a teacher face-to-face.
When my thangka teacher invited me on a pilgrimage to Kathmandu, I leapt at the chance to break out of my isolation and visit a larger Buddhist world. There I was infused with unexpected enthusiasm. The lovingkindness, humor, and equanimity of Tibetans who could so easily have been embittered by exile was stunning. It wasn’t Shangri-la, of course: there were stories about wayward monks and a rinpoche’s suspicious death.
Yet even in these stories, there was something matter-of-fact that I found inspiring and that helped me to seek out teachers again. The Tibetans I met seemed to understand that teacherstudent relationships were conditioned by the same impermanence and attachment that afflict other human relationships. “Don’t live in the same valley as your teacher,” one monk told me. “Scrutinize a teacher for three years before becoming a student,” another said. This down-to-earth counsel encouraged me.
Returning home, I remembered the story of the grieving mother who appealed to the Buddha to bring back her dead son. “Go from door to door,” he told her. “Bring back a mustard seed from a family that has never suffered a death.” She traveled far and wide, returning empty-handed. But her anguish was gone, transformed by compassion for her fellow sufferers.
Suddenly I could see that my story was the oldest story in the world. Innana, Job, Abraham, Jesus, Milarepa: each had to reconcile devotion to a spiritual authority with an experience of that authority’s inexplicably harsh or demanding behavior. When Jesus cries out to his Father, Why have you forsaken me?He has come to an edge. Is he going to curse or embrace? At a certain point the question becomes not: Why did this happen? but: How do I work with it?
When I first sketched my little temple, I would have cringed to read a phrase like this from the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation:
When someone… in whom I have placed great trust
Hurts me very badly
I will practice seeing that person as my supreme teacher.
Today, I feel an upwelling of enormous gratitude. I cannot and will not excise what has been of such value to me. I pick up my brush and paint.
The most ideal landscape is the one that is.
Lynn Crawford is a writer and psychotherapist who lives in San Francisco. She has trained in both Zen and Tibetan traditions for over 20 years.
To live your own life
When I entered the monastery, I was only 21. For virtually all the years that I was there, I had a basic faith that the teacher had my best interests at heart, that she knew what was best for me. Whenever there was a disagreement between us, I deferred. But as I matured, I began to realize that she, too, was an imperfect human being—and toward the end I felt she was simply wrong about what I really needed. She had become increasingly demanding over the years, requiring that we practice under relentless psychological and physical pressures that were more than some could handle. One person in particular experienced what I believe was a psychotic break. His inner conflict escalated to the point where he couldn’t contain it any longer, and he became the extreme example of a deep fragility within our community. Under threat of being judged and shunned, we couldn’t assert our needs.We didn’t feel safe expressing our doubt and pain to the teacher, and we had been admonished not to confide in each other. Under these circumstances, many just soldiered on, descending into deep misery. Eventually my own conflict became unbearable, and I knew I had to take responsibility for myself. If I tried to carry on much longer, I was going to have a breakdown. Realizing the extreme danger I was in, I finally cast off my fear of judgment and found the courage to leave.
Fortunately, several years previously, I’d experienced a significant opening in my meditation practice. For three intense weeks, as I moved through cycles of blissful insight and painful review of the past, I had very little physical energy, and I meditated while lying on my back. After I recovered, I still preferred this posture. For me, the traditional cross-legged posture is a way of gathering power and focus, while lying down expresses surrendering, allowing things to move through me. This meditative journey personalized my practice, taking me beyond the forms and rituals. Now, looking back, I feel that I was being taught to rely on myself in preparation for what was coming.
Still, my decision to leave the monastery was excruciating. I felt very alone and full of dread at the prospect of saying “No” to my teacher. Even for years after I left, I had nightmares that I was back in the monastery. An unseen observer at first, soon I would feel dangerously close to being discovered. Desperately needing to escape, I would find myself trapped, paralyzed. These were the feelings I’d had for years before I left, and they continued to echo in my dreams.
Now I still have dreams where I return to the monastery, but they’re no longer nightmares. It’s just that I return and reconnect with my community. These dreams remind me that all these people are still part of my life. The healing is not about excluding them, but including them in a new way.
For me there was a major turning point about five years after I left, when I realized that I was still operating under the taboo of silence. I needed to speak plainly to my teacher about my decision, and so I wrote her a long letter. I didn’t expect a response— and I didn’t receive one. But writing the letter and sending it were enough. Afterward, a significant shift occurred, and I was finally able to let go of the anger and feelings of being stuck that had persisted since leaving.
Gradually I realized that I’d been asking my teacher for exactly what she’d asked of me: to be open, willing to listen and learn from others. I was ready for a more equal relationship between us, but she’d become like the controlling parent I had to escape in order to become an autonomous adult. Now it seems to me that the gradual equalizing within the teacher-student relationship is both natural and necessary. After all, it’s the students who must take the teaching forward and transmit it to the next generation.
As Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Be a lamp unto yourself” and “Personally examine and verify by experience anything that a guru may tell you.” The task is to make the tradition personal through continuous questioning and testing. It is to wholeheartedly live your own unique life.
Isan Sacco is a computer support specialist who lives near Santa Barbara. He was a monk in a Zen monastery in northern California for 14 years.
Walk On Through
When I left my Buddhist community 13 years ago, I was filled with conflicting emotions: sadness, anger, confusion, and doubt consumed my waking and sleeping energy. Everyday life was tinted with the loss of connection to dharma friends, to the teacher, to something precious that had awakened in me.
When I think about those years, I see the dimly lit zendo, hear the whoosh of an old heater, the clang of an iron bell, the clack of wood blocks marking time. I remember the smell of incense, the call of the first bird outside, the cold hands clasped in laps. I remember nodding off, then jolting upright to breathe my koan over and over again. I remember waiting, in those early morning hours, for the sound of footsteps on the landing, the swish of black robes as our teacher paused before each cushion, like a passing grace, a benediction.
These images rise with a dark clarity. I can taste them in a way that I can no longer taste koan study. When I walked away from my community, I walked away from a practice that still feels exquisite to me. A practice that, more than any other, opened my heart and deepened my understanding. Not long after my father died, I had this experience while working on my first koan: Standing outside with my teacher, we look at the hills opening to first light. Together we see my father everywhere.
This particular practice and teacher melded within me, and they remain inextricably linked. Letting go of my practice, like letting go of my teacher and my community, I experienced a disconnection from the tradition itself, and a profound sense of spiritual dislocation. For many years I was not ready to trust another path or teacher—but more importantly, I was not ready to trust myself, the deepest part of my being. For a time I wanted nothing to do with any formal tradition. I could only bear to put my toe into the water for the briefest immersion. I learned to pay attention to a wound that needed to heal in darkness, not ready for the light.
Was I stupid to confuse the teacher—a gifted but profoundly wounded and hence unstable man—with the teachings? Undoubtedly. I had fused the gold of my practice with the persona of my teacher and subsequently relinquished much more than I’d bargained for. During this period, a well-known Vipassana teacher warned me not to short-circuit the process, either by climbing too quickly into the bed of forgiveness or batting away the ferocity of feeling. Through his words, I understood that I wouldn’t be able to heal until I entered deeply into the fire of emotion. In the transformative heat of loss, something had to die—and this was my attachment to loss itself.
Blindly, I continued to practice. I attended retreats outside my tradition, feeling lost, disconnected, confused. Still, I continued to sit. At one point I found myself sitting in another teacher’s zendo, listening to a talk. Squirming and feeling restless, I felt profound aversion to the incense, the robes, the ritual. On top of aversion, I felt ashamed and betrayed by myself. Six years had gone by, and there was still all this stuff! Suddenly I looked up at the light, a lantern above the speaker’s head, and the words came to me: It is precisely because the path is so precious that you feel this way. I felt myself relax as though a friend’s hand lay upon my shoulder.
Over time I began to notice a subtle shift: where once I had experienced edginess, ease appeared. As the familiar free fall into “the story” diminished, a blessed amnesia replaced a kind of neural vigilance. I began to let go.
What prompted this shift? Time, certainly. And also grace as it appeared spontaneously in the mystery of encounter, in the guidance of dreams, and in the pure lived moment.
Of the encounters, one of the most memorable occurred shortly after I left the community. I remember with vivid clarity the hot summer day and the sudden appearance of a stranger. Walking down a dirt road on the way to my house, I watch my feet kick up dust. Red-shouldered hawks call out from the eucalyptus trees. I do not look up. I am holding a few thin envelopes from the mailbox, but I am trudging as though carrying a heavy sack. I have adjusted to life without a spiritual community; my life is full with family, work, and friends. Yet sometimes the weight of longing overwhelms me.
This is one such moment. I cannot hear the hawks, or the wind through the trees. I can only hear the sound of my own loss. Will I ever find another group of dharma friends? A teacher? A path? My thoughts are tangled, my feet move through the dust. Then I look up and see her.
An old woman stands by the side of the road. “Hello dear! How are you?” She greets me like an old friend. I am leery. Does she think that I’m her long-lost daughter? I decide to humor her. “Hello, how are you today?” I say. She moves forward, takes my hand, and beams at me. “Fine, dear, fine.” I edge away. “Wait, wait!” She walks toward a gate at the entrance of her home. “Won’t you come in?” I demur. She is watching me intently. “You don’t understand, do you?” She opens the gate. “All you have to do is walk on through.” She beckons me and repeats, “Just walk on through.”
I have never seen this woman again—but she is never far from me. Like the old woman selling tea beside the road in many Zen stories, she woke me up from a thick sleep. When I find myself lost in obsessive stories or filled with doubt, I see her, standing at the gate and smiling to me, beckoning me to just drop it all and walk on through.
Jane Kingston is a psychotherapist in Santa Rosa, California. She has drawn inspiration from the Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan paths.