Preface to Jeff Shore’s Zen Classics for the Modern World

(You may read the account of Guus on his Zen practice in German here and in French here).

Guus van O

In this book Jeff Shore presents translations and commentaries on three classic Zen texts. One of them is quite well known (The Oxherding Pictures), the other two are not (Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt and Enjoying the Way). Much of the material has never been translated before. The main goal of this book, however, is not academic or literary: it is to inspire, to encourage, to guide. Here is a Zen teacher using a venerated tradition (as commenting on classic Zen texts is) to provide us with authentic Zen texts and in-depth insight on what these classic texts really say and how they can be applied in the present day. These texts have been used – now and in the past – to actually guide Zen practitioners along the way. It is no surprise then that the basis of this book consists of Jeff’s lectures during Zen retreats all over the world. The initial audiences consisted of Zen practitioners, young and old, first timers and old hands, sitting on meditation cushions on the floors of all kinds of zendos (meditation halls). Some were authentic Zen Buddhist zendos, some were located in Christian monasteries, others were mere attics. These retreats lasted for somewhere between three and seven days of intense sitting. Every day a lecture was given and every day there was at least one opportunity for every participant to meet Jeff for a private interview (called ‘one-on-one’). These one-on-ones provide an opportunity to clarify things, resolve doubts, or make sure you are on the right track. A lot of this living context is obviously ‘lost in translation’ in the book. So in this introduction I will give the reader a taste of what actual Zen practice can be. While the texts presented all aim to illuminate the path of Zen practice and point out the proper direction, here I will try to shed some light on what it is to actually walk the path and be on the receiving end of all this guidance and pointing.

I met Jeff Shore in an attic serving as a Zen meditation hall in Utrecht, Netherlands. He was there to give a lecture but I only remember this occasion because he brought gifts from Japan. After the lecture he sat on the floor, opened his little cotton backpack and took out a couple of Japanese calligraphy prints called shikishi. “Take one you like,” he said to us. When it was my turn I asked him to pick one for me. He chose one that had a calligraphy saying: “Ever clear and present”. This marked the beginning of a long and ever deepening spiritual friendship of well over a decade now. Many more questions have been asked and gifts given since that evening in Utrecht. At the time I had just started doing Zen meditation and was having great difficulty just sitting still in half lotus for 25 minutes. The pain it caused has long been my companion in practice. I remember he once said to me that those who experience a lot of pain during zazen usually turn out to become stronger sitters than those who just flex their legs in full lotus without blinking an eye. At the time I thought this was a great comfort; now I think he just told the truth. I did not have a clear idea about why I wanted to do Zen meditation. I had trouble coming to terms with myself, the world, and my place in it. Zen just seemed a way to get away from all of that without me actually having to open up to anyone about my incapability and insecurity. I could just sit there, do this Zen thing and somewhere along the line things would get solved. It felt good to be part of a group with the same mission: sit hard and get enlightened. I felt like a member of some Special Forces unit, doing rigorous training at the most ungodly hours. These were all pleasant thoughts while drinking tea – but the pain in my legs during zazen would not be softened by them. This reality stared me in the face every time I sat. After about two years it dawned on me: this is it. Guus is not going to be changed by this. He is still the same Guus sitting there, no miracle will happen. Yes, my legs had become slightly more flexible, but when I did my first full day of sitting zazen I was still – after two years – in a lot of pain. I was also still prone to bouts of depression, fear and insecurity. I could not escape from myself, even on a cushion, even chanting the Heart Sutra, even doing kinhin (walking meditation). No divine intervention, no good fairies. By now I knew that my pain could not be fooled by any trick or mantra; it could not be negotiated with. It demanded its full due and I had nowhere to go but to sit there and pay it. So the choice was simple: get up and leave this painful practice or stay put without any guarantees. A number of times I left, but every time I had not even closed the door behind me when I realized that my place was IN there. There simply was no other option: at least the pain in the zendo was supposed to be part of a 2,500 year old tradition that did promise liberation somewhere along the line. But I realized that it was Guus just the way he was who was going to go that whole long uncertain road…

What kept me going? I’m still not sure. All I know is that there was some deep yearning inside me to be free, to be whole, to be at peace. It was very hard to make it any more explicit. People asking me why I did Zen training always made me feel ill at ease. I sometimes felt a little guilty because I seemed not to have any Great or Deep Religious Question but just wanted the shit to end in my life. That couldn’t be a good enough reason, could it? Was I willing to cut off my arm in order to get it? Maybe not quite yet, so where did that leave me? It took me some time to frankly admit to myself (and to Jeff during one-on-one) that, although the first vow to save all beings moved me to tears when chanting it, I was in it for my own happiness. I had experienced enough moments of clarity, lightness during and after retreats but also knew that they all evaporate after some time. Was my quest(ion) religious or would a qualified therapist have been able to help me? Over the years I have met a lot of other people who first had to get rid of or heal some inner mental or emotional imbalance and only then could go on with Zen practice. Maybe this layer needs to be peeled away before one can fruitfully continue. And Zen practice might not be the best way to do this. The classic (monastic) Zen tradition does not seem to address the possible mental, psychological or relational problems modern man can experience. What to make of this? One of my former teachers used to say that Zen can be therapeutic but is not therapy in itself. I’ve also met people who somehow seemed to be able to take a short-cut around their own issues and forge ahead regardless with their Zen training: some of them eventually come to a grinding halt, blaming Zen, its traditions or its teachers for the state their lives are in. However sad to witness, I believe that this can be a valuable and maybe even necessary part of getting to the core of Zen/yourself. We all start from where we are and continue from where we left off.

For me, Zen practice made me realize that I did need therapeutic help after all. Was I disappointed in Zen? No, frankly I was grateful for the insight. After the therapy ended I stopped sitting zazen for almost a year. It had become too much part of the old scenario of demands and standards I had to meet. I figured that if Zen was really my path, the actual practice would find its way back into my life without me dragging it in. And it did. Once again, the drive that put me back on my cushion still was virtually impossible to describe. I just knew that it was good for me. My wife used to say that Zen made me a lighter and at the same time a more grounded person. So the first years of my Zen practice turned out to be a far more physical, bodily practice than I had thought. Of course my mind was not that disciplined either, but I was more bothered by the pain than by my unruly head. But sitting long hours with painful legs does have an impact on your mental constitution; the outer discipline of sitting zazen every day quite naturally leads to a kind of inner discipline developing. But it is a slow process. Every Zen book and every teacher will tell you to BE the pain, but just what that entails took me some years to see. The fear of pain is so deeply ingrained that the effort to consciously expose yourself to it is utterly counter-intuitive. We keep turning away, desperately looking for a way out other than through the flames themselves. At that point it is easy to think that not being able to escape from it is due to some defect in your practice. This is where a teacher is invaluable. Someone who very simply shows that when you are fighting the pain you are creating a separation, trying to get away from your actual present reality and so are going in the opposite direction of where the practice needs to go: right here, just be one. So you go back to your cushion and before long you note that you are still doing it: pain comes, tension arises in your mind and body, and we’re back at square one. Lost with the map in your hands. What about the time-honored instruction of counting your breath? Well, that didn’t go any better, as everyone knows who has ever begun to do it. So, I kept failing on all accounts. But an interesting thing occurred: when you fail once, you hit yourself over the head. When you fail 10 times, you hit yourself over the head even harder. But what do you do when you fail 10,000 times? Eventually it becomes meaningless: you just start over. You realize that hitting yourself over the head does not improve anything but is just a waste of time. You become free from something and you realize that this does not only apply to zazen practice. You actually have learned – in my case without having the slightest clue while learning it – to let go of results, demands. For me that was an amazing realization. Once again this is where a teacher is crucial: showing a near infinite patience with your fruitless efforts, giving untiring advice on how to simply proceed, never giving up on you. My first teacher taught me a lot in this regard. During a lecture in the first sesshin (Zen retreat) that I did with him he quoted Paul Tillich: “Accept that you are accepted.” That stuck with me and I went into dokusan (formal but personal interview) with him curious whether this small Asian guy would be able to not only say it but actually live it. He did. I suppose at the time he was capable of accepting me to a larger extent than I was capable of accepting myself. Was this a religious experience? I don’t think so. But it was deeply liberating. My time with him allowed me to shed some old skin and continue along the path a changed man, even up to the point that, five years later, I was capable of accepting his rejecting me and leaving his sangha (community of Zen practitioners surrounding a teacher).

All this time Jeff had been a constant factor in my Zen practice. Every year we met at one or more of his retreats. And every time he kept pestering me in our one-on-ones: from “Where are you in your practice?” and “What drives you in your practice?” to “What is lacking?” So far, however, I still kept my distance. Not only because I had a different master, but somehow he was too severe for me. Not a personal severity, but he seemed to expect a commitment to practice that I was not up to. His was a direct and uncompromising way of getting to the bottom of yourself, as he likes to call it. As may have become clear from what I’ve written, that had been just a little too hardcore for me. But there I was: fresh out of a sangha that I had been part of for almost five years, knowing full well that I was imperfect and having experienced first-hand that a sangha is also imperfect – and also slowly realizing that a master is imperfect too (one of the best kept secrets in Zen, it seems). Yet all this imperfection did not prevent my practice from maturing. The pain was no longer an issue: finally having learned to surrender to it after deeply inquiring into what actually constitutes pain itself and what actually constitutes my response to it and getting lost at exactly that spot. Maybe this was what Jeff meant by being one with everything that was present? I had perfected the art of failure to the point that now even Jeff’s approach to Zen practice no longer intimidated me. And there still was this nagging question: “What is lacking?” Up to this point, zazen had been for the most part a matter of working hard, pushing on and on, requiring willpower, perseverance and stamina. But once in a while, during one-on-one, I came away with the sense that this was maybe not the way to go. I remember Jeff one time saying to me: “You are still trying to do something.” And I was; I was still trying to get away from this present moment, from this present Guus in order to get… where? Well, Nirvana, of course, kenshô, enlightenment, whatever you call it. But away from this unsatisfying, recurrent stop-and-go of happiness and suffering. Terra firma at last! Bodhi swaha! How many times had I read or come across the beautiful story of the butterfly caught in the temple bell, desperately trying to get out but failing at every attempt. Until, finally, completely exhausted it just couldn’t fly any-more and dropped: out of the bell into the light. Yearning for a similar experience I would gather all my determination and strength and get going again. Completely oblivious of the fact that it was exactly this determination and striving that kept me enchained. “The ego can corrupt anything it comes into contact with,” Jeff would quote Richard DeMartino, his teacher at university who introduced him to Zen. And everyone in the zendo solemnly nodded. Then he added, “Even zazen.” All nodding stopped. Did I get it? Yes, I did, as you might also get it when you read this. Did getting it change anything? Nope. How can you give up wanting something that you deeply, desperately want, even when they tell you that by giving it up it will be yours? Jeff lectured on the Ox-herding Pictures and for a while they will become your road map, despite Jeff warning us against it. Glad to finally have some signposts along this hazy path. Gauging where you are and trying to get to the next ‘level.’ But it is déjà vu. Wherever you are, that is where you are. Guus will be Guus. No bull. Never mind levels, never mind ‘progress.’ There is only the practice of the present. “When nothing you do will do, then what do you do?” Japanese Zen layman Shin’ichi Hisamatsu asked, exactly pointing out the predicament Zen practitioners are in. “Stop the seeking mind that seeks to stop itself,” Jeff chimes in. Enough already, OK? Every attempt at breaking through the wall only fortifies it, OK? You return from the small one-on-one room to the zendo, once again forget to bow at the entrance, then go in and sit down on your cushion. Yeah, you got it alright. Another dead end, that’s what you got. Increasingly bewildered as to the direction you are now meant to go in, even of the nature of the effort you are now expected to make. This is the nature of Zen teaching, I think. Nothing really is taught, the student is just steered away from the wrong direction and effort. Every time you enter the one-on-one room with some precious, shining new insight or answer, you leave with empty hands. Once during the go around at the end of a retreat in Hungary, one of the participants called it being given a ‘brain-freeze’ by Jeff during one-on-one. Eminently eloquent. At other times – after long, long hours, sometimes even sitting through the nights in dimly-lit zendos – it is just a softly spoken “Don’t give up” that brings tears to your eyes while walking back to your ever-patient cushion. And you don’t give up, even though you are not sure what keeps you going. Is there something else that carries you while your own conscious willpower is slowly melting away, your own determined effort is being extinguished bit by bit? Questions that only arise afterwards because at the time you are just there: sitting, utterly not knowing. Great doubt, great faith and great determination? No idea, you just sit there – but it does sound rather accurate. Slowly, you learn to abide in this region where it is OK to just sit here, to just notice that every once in a while something inside you stirs and wants to be somewhere else, something else, someone else. You learn that all that is just something that comes and goes, comes and goes. Sometimes the color changes, sometimes the intensity, sometimes the frequency, but it all is just coming and going. No need to hold on to any of it – you have done that all of your life and what did it bring you? It is like the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about the little match girl. Short moments of warmth and light, but then it all just dies out again, cold and darkness returning. You learn that thinking the deepest thoughts or feeling the profoundest feelings is just more of the same: another match lit for as long as it lasts. Is it a coincidence that just around that time Jeff is lecturing on the Exhortations by Boshan? Boshan with his resounding and recurring reproof: “This too is just your wavering mind! It is not Zen!” Initially you might resist a little, but in the end you plead guilty on all charges. In the meantime, you may run into some old pain, some old scars and for a time you think that Buddhism is about healing those, about finally finding comfort within yourself. But thank Buddha for teachers. Sitting in their small one-on-one room or e-mailing you from the other side of the globe:

Dear Guus, being able to sit through your fear is valuable indeed. I trust you will continue to sit through, to the end. No need to try and rouse a certain state, such as fear. If it comes, fine. BE IT. If it doesn’t, fine. Be fully present with whatever arises. But “keep your eye on the ball,” the source of it all, not on the arising of thoughts and emotions, no matter how strong they may appear. As you have seen, they can uncover valuable things; they can also mask what is invaluable. Always here for you. Gasshou [Palms together in gratefulness] , Jeff

The Heart Sutra starts to actually make some sense (remember how many times you chanted it, wholeheartedly yet completely ignorantly?) No eye, no ear, no nose. So you just continue sitting, like a big fool, not knowing where it will lead you. You have all kinds of nice experiences and time and time again you are told to just let go of them, to move on. This can be rather difficult at times: of course you are aware that your zazen practice has matured, that it has deepened. So now you are even more intent on making this kenshô-thing happen to you. By now even you, reader without any Zen experience, will realize that this is exactly what gets in the way. In Zen terminology: the Gateless Barrier. Yes, possibly you get a glimpse or two; but then look what happens. You immediately turn it into the Holy Grail, “My little precious!” “THIS IS IT! NOW DON’T GO AND LOSE IT!” is all you can think about. And of course, like a sand castle on the beach, it slips away and you are left: mourning, cocky, confused. “It’s nothing,” your teacher says and you hate him for it. Don’t you deserve it, didn’t you earn it for all your long hours and long years of zazen? Are you not entitled to it, finally? “Smash the diamond,” he says, and you know exactly what he means. Once again, blurry-eyed, you return to your ever faithful cushion. All this too was some kind of phase I apparently needed to go through. The only way forward (notice how difficult it is to use words here without inadvertently implying that there is actually somewhere to go?) is to just continue sitting amidst this paradox. After having run around and tried all the possible exits, you not only understand that this is to no avail, it somehow seeps into your whole system. It is not just your mind that ‘gets it’ – it is somehow realized by your body, by you as a whole. Zen practice is not about understanding, about ‘getting it.’ It is about actually coming to the end of seeking itself. It is not about letting go or accepting either because that still contains an element of me doing something about something outside (or inside) myself. It is not solving the paradox but becoming the paradox to the extent that paradox and sitter are inseparable. No, even that is incorrect: it is ultimately realizing that you ARE this paradox, you don’t even have to become it. Then you are truly sitting in the dark. Utterly.You have by now tried all the emergency exits and they do not exist: what looked like exits are just re-entrances (granted; with a nice detour sometimes) into the same cycle of endlessly coming and going. Even these earlier wonderful glimpses have become faded memories. Once precious but now – again – getting in the way of the present moment, of this. Yet there you are; whatever you say to yourself, will not do. Whatever you do, will not do, whatever you think, feel, sense, remember, want, reject, are aware of – none of it will do. Yet there you are. And there is your teacher, whispering: “Don’t give up.” Beyond tears now, you return to your cushion and sit: one solid block of doubt, to use another Zen term. If you stop turning over the hour glass, it will empty out by itself. Then what can you say? Can words even reach there?

Reading Mingzan’s Enjoying the Way you marvel at his carefree song. Fearlessly using words where you barely dare to stammer. It is like the information labels on the back of wine bottles. How do they relate to the actual taste of the wine, the actual experience of it? Whatever I have written is just words, just labels, not a drop of wine in there. And yet that is precisely what it is all about: to just simply taste this (utterly inconceivable, un-‘gettable’) wine and be done with labels. What is true tasting? Who is able to teach that? Do we need to be taught such a thing? As the Zen saying goes: the family jewels do not enter through the gate. The most eloquent description is not even close to taking an actual sip. Which do you prefer: the label or the sip? Which do you crave, genuinely yearn for? Then go for that. Give yourself to it as fully and totally and completely as it gives itself to you. Then it is a like a gift: “Ever clear and present.”

This book is a valuable guide along the way. Jeff Shore not only clarifies the value of true and sustained Zen practice, he embodies it; his lectures are both originating from it and pointing towards it. He urges us to sincerely dedicate ourselves to Zen practice. His words encourage, point, warn, celebrate, comfort and inspire. I sincerely hope that reading this book will result in putting it aside and returning you to your ever-patient cushion. Not a second of practice will ever go to waste.