A Teaching Career (Coda: Zen)

I didn’t mention my relatively recent conversion1  to Zen in the previous parts of this account because, going back to the San Diego days at least, I knew a little bit about “cultural zen,” or “literary Zen” & had even tried to meditate a bit in order to address long-running problems with anxiety. But lacking a teacher or even a context, my approach to Zen remained theoretical.

But after I quit drinking a second time ten or eleven years ago, I still needed to deal with massive waves of anxiety. Funny thing about anxiety of this sort is that one is not anxious about anything in particular–that is, the anxiety is not a reaction to some particular event or situation; instead, the anxiety precedes particular events & simply attaches to this or that particular as necessary, though often enough it remains unattached to particulars, resulting in states of derealization. In my case, certain antidepressant medications helped to address this, but nothing was as effective as beginning a meditation practice that involved sitting up to two hours a day. At this point I was using Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on mindfulness as guides. For a while, I thought I could be a solitary practitioner, but the more I read & the more I sat, the more it seemed I needed an institutional context. That’s when I began looking around on the internet for a Buddhist group to join.

In the background of this search was my knowledge, however intellectual, of Vietnamese Buddhism as lived & practiced by the people I had lived among off & on since the mid-1990s, when I first traveled to Vietnam. I was attracted to the aesthetics of the liturgy & ritual practices, which seemed deeply integrated into the daily life of the Vietnamese in a way that I had never seen with Christianity in the US. I had been raised by fundamentalists, but had happily & mostly without trauma left it behind when I graduated from high school & went off to college. Even though I had tried as a kid to “believe,” Christianity as I saw it practiced was never as real to me as the “foreign” religion I saw practiced in Vietnam.

It did not actually take me long to settle on long to settle on the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen, partly because it was reasonably close to home, partly because it seemed welcoming, but mostly because of the founder’s emphasis on the arts as an important part of Buddhist practice. This is not the place to go into detail about the Order where I have now been a formal student for four years, so I’ll just comment that the impact on my life & teaching were almost immediate. No doubt that for a while I exhibited the annoying habits of a recent convert among my friends & colleagues–another example of my hard-wired enthusiasm, I guess. As for teaching, I think the main shift that becoming a Buddhist precipitated was that it gave me a more spacious sense of time, especially in the classroom, where, I realized, there was always the right amount of time, if one could only find the right clock. I slowed down & fit more in. I forgot, even more than usual, the impression I was making & focused on the ten-thousand things of a particular class period.

That phenomenon in the classroom–of time expanding to encompass whatever really needs to be accomplished–can be generalized & applied anywhere. It is perhaps the practical essence of Zen. Surely, may final years in the classroom were made more spacious by my Zen practice, as my life continues to be. Indeed, I cannot think how I would go about understanding my current illness without my Zen practice–not Zen as an institution, just my day to day understanding of what presents itself before me, including even pain & boredom. To say nothing of the satisfactions I have been finding in my recent writing. My Zen practice needs to be big enough to encompass the whole spectrum, which only practice will accomplish. How’s that for a Zen tautology? I tell ya, I got a million of ’em!

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  1. It was nothing less than a conversion experiences & Zen is not mere philosophy, but religion.


William James, From Varieties of Religious Experience:

“I accept the universe” is reported to have been a favorite utterance of our New England transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller; and when some one repeated this phrase to Thomas Carlyle, his sardonic comment is said to have been: “Gad! she’d better!”

Thomas Merton

For an essay I’m writing, I had occasion to take a look at Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal. I am a Zen practitioner & I grew up in the 1960s – 70s at a time when Merton, Alan Watts & others were popularizing Buddhism in general & Zen in particular. (Watts became a leading exponent of Zen without ever practicing zazen, sitting meditation, which is at the center of Zen.) Merton was a Trappist monk who interested himself in many other religious traditions; like Watts & Aldous Huxley, he tended to elide distinctions between Buddhism & Hinduism, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. This may be an unfair judgment based on slim acquaintance, but Merton strikes me as kind of a drip. Self-involved, declamatory, aggressively synthesizing–a spiritual tourist. At least in these journals. But then, having fled from the Christians who harried me in my childhood, I have never understood, either before or after becoming a Zen student, the desire to bring Jesus & Gautama into harmony. I’m a pretty thorough-going pluralist, too, so I just don’t see the usefulness of this sort of religious syncretism.

Toi Theo Dao Phat Giao

Not a conversion experience, really. More like waking up one morning with the realization that I had become a Buddhist. William James said of religion that it is the “fruits not the roots” that are significant markers of belief and if that’s true, then I can say I practice Buddhism at least as much as most American Christians practice their religion. I have a shrine in my house to the historical Buddha and to Quan Am, the goddess of mercy. I meditate most days. I have been reading Buddhist texts and listening to Buddhist teachers on CDs. So, as the Vietnamese put it, Toi teo dao Phat Giao. I am a Buddhist.

Hearing Mass (VN Diary 14)

My hotel is right across from Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in, I think, 1889. It is a gray concrete hulk without much charm, it’s two towers modeled on Notre Dame. I hear the bells strike the quarter hours and a little faint singing from morning mass; but Sunday evening mass, it turns out, is a big occasion in the city. The church fills and there is a long service with music, chanting and at least two homilies. Because the priest enunciates for his congregation, I find I can pick out words and phrases from his flow of words. Not only does the church fill with worshipers, but the square in front of the cathedral also fills — with families on motorbikes and standing groups of worshipers. The service is broadcast on loudspeakers — the Vietnamese have a particular love of audio amplification — and there is a screen on the front of the cathedral so that the worshipers can see the priest at the alter.

I listened to the first part of the mass in my hotel room and then went out for dinner and heard the conclusion of the service booming through the open windows of the Moca Cafe. As the mass wound down, balloon sellers began to appear with their huge drifts of helium balloons in the shape of Mickey Mouse and other Western cartoon characters, for mass is a family affair and there were many families with small children streaming through the narrow streets when church was over. Only about ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholics, but the cathedral here and the ones in Hue and Saigon concentrate their visibility whereas the Buddhists and more general followers of Tam Giao are more dispersed.

Religion permeates Vietnamese life without dominating it and people seem genuinely tolerant of others’ beliefs, but I, as an outsider, can’t help seeing Catholicism as pushy and overly assertive — as taking advantage of Vietnamese tolerance. Probably because the Church is centralized whereas the temples and shrines are dispersed. (And I freely admit to a strictly personal bias against “organized religion,” being myself something of an American gnostic.) I have a great respect for that dispersed sort of religion — it’s one of the things I first noticed about Vietnam, that the sacred was not confined to official places and practices, but could be found anywhere, so naturally I find Vietnamese Catholicism a little froward, however sincere. And yet, as the service lets out, there is a feeling of goodwill and relaxed celebration among the worshipers and the non-worshipers — for commerce goes on around the cathedral even as mass is celebrated.