Monday, February 07, 2011


Last summer I read Charlotte "Joko" Beck's classic works Everyday Zen and Nothing Special. Joko is a Zen master with a unique gift for communicating the essence of Zen meditation in a straightforward, commonsense manner. Joko focuses on the intersection between Zen practice and everyday life. Phil Dickinson, a professor of English at Bowling Green State University and a member of the Toledo Zen Center, calls Joko's approach "no bullshit Zen," and I think that sums up her life and work quite well. Joko is clear about the difficulties of practice--the phrase "no pain, no gain" comes to mind here--and also about the true nature of the benefits of practice--e.g. getting angry a little less often, or a little less severely, or simply being more aware of when one is angry, for example.

Joki strikes me as a true Zen master, in that her considerable attainments and insights are equally matched by humility and by a sometimes painful honesty--which seems unfortunately rare in discussions of Zen meditation (at least, in my limited experience). Wheareas earlier works on Zen (such as Philip Kapleau's classic The Three Pillars of Zen) often focused on pushing hard to attain special enlightenment experiences (or satori, in the lexicon of Japanese Zen), Joko places the focus squarely on the impact of Zen practice on such everyday matters as one's relationship with one's boss, child, parent, or spouse. While seeing bright lights and attaining the brahma worlds is nice, what's the benefit if one still seethes with rage when criticized by one's employer, or belittles one's child for her lack of accomplishments, or take's one's parent's love for granted?

Joko is also refreshing in her willingness to dispense with the traditional trappings of Japanese Zen, favoring the unadorned substance of the teaching over textual exegesis and ceremonial ritual. (It is an irony, albeit par for the course in terms of the general history of religious movements, that Zen has become somewhat weighed down by its own layers of textual and ritual adornments, given that its origin lies precisely in a reaction against these attributes in the other schools of Buddhism in the China of the 7th century.) Joko even seems willing to contradict or at least question some of the traditional views of Zen Buddhism (and of Buddhism generally), such as when she raises the possibility that no person has ever been fully enlightened (that is, fully free from self-induced suffering caused by selfish craving and ignorance, and fully accepting of whatever hardships one may come across in life); strictly speaking, such a statement is heretical from the Buddhist point of view, because it calls into question the authenticity of the Buddha's enlightenment experience (and it's hard to think of a more basic view put forth by Buddhists other than the claim that the Buddha was in fact fully enlightened). Such openness and honesty, together with the sensible grounds which she gives for calling such traditional beliefs into question, makes me respect Joko a great deal; one wishes that more religious teachers would follow her example. In any event, her books are much recommended, and you can see an interview with Joko on YouTube(excerpted from a German documentary by Claudia Willke called Nothing Special) .
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