A teacher and novelist
Dan Zigmond’s review “Finding True Love,” (Fall 2011) seems to have used the vehicle of a book review not to review The Novice but rather to issue a diatribe against the life and teachings of its author, Thich Nhat Hanh. Having read several of Nhat Hanh’s books and having been to many retreats led by Nhat Hanh and by his monks and nuns, I find it incomprehensible that Zigmond has so misunderstood Nhat Hanh’s teachings. It is disappointing that Tricycle chose to publish this piece, both because it is completely inadequate as a book review and because of its thoroughly negative treatment of the book’s author.
Morongo Valley, CA
Dan Zigmond responds:
I have the utmost respect for Thich Nhat Hanh, and I consider many of his early works to be essential classics of modern Buddhism. But The Novice is an odd book. I fear anyone reading it after exposure only to more accessible texts like Being Peace might well find it even more incomprehensible than Donna Thomas found my review. I attempted to place this novel in the context of Thich Nhat Hanh’s large body of published teachings, which has long combined a largely orthodox view of monasticism with a much broader and more popular vision for lay practice. I hope other readers found this helpful. And it is surely no disrespect to one of our great teachers to acknowledge that he is less accomplished as a novelist.
Faith in tradition
I’ve read “Living Buddhism” by Dharmavidya David Brazier (Winter 2011) several times, and after comparing it to my personal experience I fail to see the problems David Brazier identifies.
Most Western converts come to Buddhism because of an interest in meditation, and yes, they expect the self-help benefits attributed to it. If they stick with it they’ll get some of those benefits, and they will also learn that there’s more to Buddhism than just meditation. Those turned off by the religious or philosophical aspects can find plenty of people teaching meditation techniques in a secular, non-Buddhist context. Those who find value in Buddhist teachings will stick around, learn something, and widen their perspective. What can be accomplished by questioning their initial motivations?
Practitioners do find community in their sanghas, and if they aren’t already involved in their wider communities, they tend to become so, individually and, often, as a group.
Brazier criticizes those who have unquestioned faith in technique, but in proposing an alternative, he himself seems to have an unexamined faith in tradition. Traditionally, Buddhist societies in Asia have a two-tiered system, with a small monastic community that does meditate, supported by a large lay community whose practice is mostly devotional. There is no reason to believe this setup is desirable or workable in Western societies. The Buddha didn’t set out to start a religion, and he condemned brahmanic ritual. This Asian model has Buddhism filling the same role in society as any other religion, with elaborate rituals and regalia, and superstitious belief in their efficacy. Its elitist aspects are foreign to egalitarian Western societies, and with Buddhists constituting less than 1 percent of the population, there is no mass of followers to support such a model.
David Brazier responds:
Many Western stereotypes are questionable. Western Buddhism is, arguably, more hierarchical, more sectarian, with as many formulaic procedures (“ritual”) and formulaic ideas (“dogma”), and is more puritan than Eastern Buddhism. A technique-based approach needs controlled procedures and instruction manuals to a greater degree. Devotion makes for flexibility and loyalty without need of such tight control. Westerners like the “elite” bits of Buddhism (like meditation) because Western society is far from being egalitarian. In the face of plutocratic and corporate power, a retreatist Buddhism can be little more than a consumer choice hobby. Making Buddhism into a set of techniques does not make it any less a faith, hierarchical, rule bound, or sectarian—the converse, in fact. It turns it into a faith in know-how rather than refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—in other words, into a more rigid, non-Buddhist faith. Buddhism has the potential to be a force for peace, co-operation, and social transformation. It also has the possibility of being a quietistic, private pastime for the affluent. I wonder which it is going to be.
Spine of Steel
“Zen Every Day” (Winter 2011) by Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi, brought to mind my own telling encounter with Joko Beck. It was 1985 or so when I was interviewing people for my book Turning the Wheel. I called up Joko, introduced myself and asked if I might come down to San Diego to interview her. She said no, that she had been interviewed by the psychotherapist and author Lenore Friedman and once was enough.
Thinking I could change her mind, I asked if I might come just to meet her. She said she’d be happy to talk with me, and I entertained the possibility that I could seduce her into giving me an interview. When I arrived at the San Diego Zen Center, Joko’s assistant ushered me into a sitting room where a pale upright woman with a crewcut and rimless glasses rose to greet me. This was Joko Beck. We sat and talked for almost two hours. For the first hour Joko interviewed me. She asked me to tell her my life story, and I began, for this seemed an opportunity. Perhaps I could charm her by entertaining her with powerfully narrated adventures from my past, until she would like me so much she would agree to be interviewed.
Joko listened as I embroidered anecdotes, developed mini-plots, tried for an earnestly authentic delivery. Austere and unsmiling, she nevertheless seemed very interested in my story, asking me questions that caused me to offer even more colorful details. I felt sure I was melting the heart behind that crusty Zen exterior.
Then we talked about her—her business background, her mastery of the piano, her approach to dharma teaching that situated people strongly in their ordinary day-to-day lives. It was clear to me that the devastating break with Maezumi Roshi, her teacher, was off-limits, but we spoke of many other things. And as we talked, I thought, hooray, I’m interviewing her and we’ve become such good friends that she’s giving me terrific material for my book.
When Joko indicated that it was time to leave, I leaned forward and made my pitch. “So I guess it will be okay to include a portrait of you in the book I’m researching, given all we’ve talked about today.”
Joko stood, and I stood with her. She held me with her eyes. “I told you when you called that I have no interest in appearing in anyone’s book. That holds. Nothing we have shared can be used by you in any way.” The words were delivered in a neutral, mildly friendly way.
My eyes wobbled away from her pale steady gaze that deflated any hope of compromise. She walked me to the door, nodding graciously as I went out. “But I’ve enjoyed our conversation.”
I made the long freeway journey back up to L.A. and by the time I got there I was laughing. What an idiot I had been to think I could talk Joko Beck into anything!
It was a perfect introduction to this teacher with a spine of steel. And, according to her instructions, in my book about major women Buddhist teachers, there is no mention of Joko Beck.