Thursday, July 7, 2011

keeping the family secrets

Twenty-five or more years ago, I once asked a Zen teacher what the best way to teach Zen was. He replied, "Tell them 80 percent and let them find out 20." I chewed on that a little and realized that my instinctive feeling was different, a feeling that might have been expressed as, "Tell them 100 percent and let them find out 100." But I really did wrestle around with it all: I was occasionally instructing classes in Zen Buddhism practice and so it mattered at the time.

The 'solution' I arrived at was utterly human ... forget about it; do what you do and let the cards fall where they may. Out of sight, out of mind. There was no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all answer, or, if there was, I sure as hell couldn't find it.

Funny how the old stuff comes around to bite you on the tush.

Yesterday, I had an extended phone conversation with a longtime Zen student I had known in the past. I had been pointed to him by another longtime student who said Pete might be able to help me with additions to the web page collection of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi's words. Pete had been on the board of directors of Soho Zendo, Kyudo's New York satellite center, at the time of Kyudo's death. Larry said Pete might know of other talks or teishos or transcripts of Kyudo's words. Pete was kind enough to return my phone call.

Yes, he said, there was quite a collection of recordings and transcripts. But that material had long since been handed over to Ryutaku-ji, the Japanese temple of which Kyudo had been abbot. In addition, Pete said, he seemed to remember signing a legal-like document agreeing not to disseminate Kyudo's words for all and sundry; they were best digested in a Zen setting, a sesshin (Zen retreat) or other venue where there was a more attentive attitude. These words, so to speak, had passed into a realm of family secrets, a Vatican archive for wondrously beautiful texts... don't touch.

OK. The bottom line, diplomatically couched, was the recordings and transcripts would not be made available to the web site. Since I can't say that I have a come-to-Jesus enthusiasm for the site -- I just wanted something to give some flavor of a man who was little known -- Pete's response did not surprise me or arouse some particular indignation. But I did think his approach (and perhaps that of others holding this data) was mistaken.

And there I was, back at the "tell them 100 percent and let them find out 100."

Will or would all people be better informed or more profoundly affected if they heard or read this material in a "Zen" setting ... with some required reverence? I doubt it. People hear what they can hear or what they want to hear. Sometimes the slightest incident at the strangest time can cut a person to the quick and yet the same incident is throw-away material to another. An 'infidel' handling the Bible might see it as a good source for building a camp fire where a true believer might swoon and make great efforts. A handle-with-care fragility and 'importance' ... well, I have a hard time seeing it. The greatest wisdom in the world floats in and out of consciousness. There is no holding it, no elevating it, no demeaning it ... it just comes and goes.

I can see the tactical uses of keeping secrets, of swathing one bit of wisdom or another in a whispered reverence or paradoxical gold-thread ... there's nothing like telling a kid not to stick beans up his nose to make him wonder what sticking beans up his nose might be like. And likewise, if you say something is secret or profound or wise ... well, everyone wants to be in on a secret and -- more important -- they're willing to sweat to find out. OK ... the Bible is a holy text ... and STILL anyone who believed that would have to (assuming they were serious) find out for themselves.

But it really, really, really is not just a smarmy metaphor, the tale of Gautama extending a closed fist to a weeping child and pretending there is gold within. The child stops weeping at the thought of the gold within. When the child stops, Gautama opened his hand and revealed ... nothing ... the riches of nothing or everything. My view is that the fistful of riches is a fist whether the secrets are told or they are held close. Open or closed, it is the child who must do the work who must find a credible way to stop weeping. It's the child's job and the child's fist. No one else, however benevolently inclined, can make or open a true fist for someone else. That's just another, imaginary fist. Imagining there are Zen teachers is very weak tea indeed.

Tell 100 percent and let them find out 100 percent. Tell them 80 percent and let them find out 20. Either way is fine, though the dangers of ego-tripping are greater in an 80-20 split.

Suzuki Roshi was once asked how important Zen practice is. And he replied, "It's important, but it's not that important." Clearly, I think Kyudo's words are worth listening to and digesting as possible. But I can imagine others finding it unworthy of their time or digestion. As evidenced to the left of this blog where I have posted other links, I also like the Hsin Hsin Ming or the 1939 interview with the postmaster Charles Monroe or the Desiderata. Taste is taste. Sometimes it is wisdom, sometimes it is bullshit. Take your pick. Like anyone else, I just offer what I think might be worth picking.

In  my imagination, Kyudo was much the same.


  1. dad,

    when u asked me for the $100 to be credited to your bank account today over sms, instinctively I could do it. It was so simple, just on the internet banking and credit it over from my unsecured bank loan account. Remember, in our modern era, the kids have no savings, they live on credit.

    But the joke as always was that I would be insulting your intelligence if I imagined that you really needed the $100, although true enough firstly you really needed the $100 to pay some phone bills too, and secondly in Vimalakirti sutra I recall Mr Ananda being stuck in a chicken or egg situation where he knew that Gautama did not need the milk, but since he was at Vimalakirti's door and his script said "beg for the milk" he had to do it even though the Gautama buddha really didn't need the milk to begin with.

    Zen teachers are complicated, and they are worse when they come as a pair, like the zen teacher whom I call my dad, and well, u too, my dad.

    Today you are Buddha, my dad is Vimalakirti, I am Ananda, tomorrow we switch roles, and here we go again.

    What a melody, yet so much stress.

    And Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs I learnt in school today said yada yada yada...

    ... and still.

    what an irony when ...

    .. each father.. has an eldest son too.. and when one rahula cannot bring himself to tell his dad how great he is, the best which another father's eldest son drops by and says, sir, everytime I read about you going for your son's baseball game, I don't know how he feels, but if you were my dad I would be proud of u.

    And I can only wish that somebody else can please help my own dad out at times when he need. I have to side with mom because in the household she is the authority.

    BLEAH. :p

  2. really sorry. during the dharma ending age the shuragama taught us to fall back on meditating on hearing.

    i hear that you were born in february, real or false cannot be proven. my mother always say that men are liars. either i am, or my dad is , or u are, or all women are. and the thing is if i recall correctly i hear that my zen teacher dad and you were born on the same day of the year, although 10 years apart.