Tuesday, December 6, 2011

a letter from John

Yesterday, for some reason, I was overwhelmed by a memory that was filled with metaphorical laughter and tears. It just washed over me unbidden and I refused to be ashamed of it. Today it is less intense, if still providing smooth, rolling aftershocks. It's not important and is, perhaps, of only niche interest, but the sense of having my load strangely lightened ... well, that's always nice. The focal point of the memory is a letter I received a couple of years back, a letter that I may or may not try to find in the heaps of stuff around the house. The letter touched me when I got it and yesterday what I remembered of it rolled over me. It was smooth and powerful. No one may give a shit, but I do.

The letter, when it arrived, came from John, a guy who had come here pretty regularly for five or more years to practice zazen, the seated meditation that forms one focal point in the practice of Zen Buddhism. What it said on the surface was pretty simple. It said "thank you." To the outside analyst, it was understandable -- something your mother insisted on ... "thank you" and "please:" I built the zendo or meditation hall in 1998 and made it available to anyone who wanted to practice on Sunday mornings and occasionally other times. John was among the few who took advantage of the opportunity ... a place to sit, someone to sit with, someone to encourage his efforts ... so in a social sense, "thank you" was a propriety.

But yesterday, I realized the letter was much more than a propriety in my mind. It was more than a simpering spiritual 'humility' with which some can cloak themselves. In my mind, yesterday, it was a period on some sentence in my mind -- a sentence that had gone on for years and years and years and fucking years.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
-- William Blake
If I were an honest man, I would say that the sentence began long before I heard words like "Zen" and "Buddhism," but for elongated brevity's sake, I won't do that. Everyone probably wants to be acknowledged and loved and placed at the top of some heap. The numero uno ... and I was no different, though the longing took on different colorations as I went along and when I got around to Zen, the same sentence made its entrance.

An interest in spiritual life reared its head somewhere around 1970. First it was Vedanta and then, when that proved too ornate and somehow not go-for-the-throat enough, Zen. It didn't take long before the dream of being a 'teacher,' a numero uno, a CEO with a corner office, asserted itself. If monks held the Zen banner -- the lantern of clear light -- then teaching within that realm was the icing on the cake ... the top of the heap. That's what I wanted with more and less insidious persistence. That went on for several years, never enunciated out loud or examined with much care. It as like rain hitting the window -- soft and insistent and creating a lookit-me noise. To be a teacher would fulfill my dreams ... and perhaps I would be content. As I kept on doing the meditation, the longing subsided, but, like a tectonic plate that took a break from becoming an earthquake, the fissure was still there, still whispering, still hoping.

In Zen, a teacher acknowledges a student's understanding and confers, after an elegantly named "transmission of mind with mind," the accreditation that allows the student to go forth and teach. In some Zen training, the accreditation is bit more like the diploma mill in which father hands over temple responsibilities to his son, but that was not the tradition I imagined myself to be a part of. Mine was far more serious ... you had to know from experience what the fuck you were talking about. And I wanted to know -- even as I hoped for CEO acknowledgment -- what the fuck I was talking about. I was tired of my own anxieties and camouflage ... for once I wanted to know from experience what I could speak of with my lips. No more bullshit... and if I could be acknowledged as someone who 'knew' or 'understood' or 'was enlightened' ... well, that would be nice too.

After nine years of studying with a teacher who turned out to be a sociopath, I found a teacher who was not ... and then, before I could study with him for very long, found myself surrounded with a wife and three children and a job. In 1998, I built a zendo, a small meditation hall, in the backyard. I built it because there was no place nearby to practice ... or at least none whose schedule dovetailed with my swing-shift hours at the paper: Working four to 12; in bed by 1 or 2; up at about 6 to help get kids off to school. It was a schedule I look back on with wonder and also with the recognition that it was a bit harder than the monastic schedule I had taken part in during sesshins or extended Zen retreats. Even today, there is a keisaku or wooden stick I fashioned on which, in Japanese, my sociopathic teacher had inked a quote I had chosen from the hard-working and sometimes bizarre monk Ikkyu: "Easy to enter Nirvana. Difficult to enter difference." Kids, to the extent anyone likes them, are serious stuff. They require constant attention, constant responsibility, constant setting aside of self-centered whims ... like becoming some sort of Zen CEO. My second teacher told me more than once: "Take care of your family." I thought I understood what he meant at the time, but, as usual, I didn't. Keeping a daily schedule with the kids and work drove his point home, though of course I hardly noticed.

Building the zendo was my concession to an on-going interest in ... in what, I could hardly say. Cementing a little peace in this life, I suppose. Zen suited my go-for-the-throat, don't-fuck-around, leanings in that department. If spiritual life was a good mentor, Zen was, for my money, was at the top of the heap. So I practiced doing zazen and then one day John showed up.

He came with a bunch of tattoos. He had been a prison guard. He had finished his law school courses but had never taken the bar exams. He had his ups and downs with a series of women, many of whom seemed to be fragile and wounded. He was working making eye glasses. He came and practiced zazen ... week after week. We would sit and then sit facing each other in the zendo, talking about the intricacies and difficulties that can invest the practice. Later we would eat chocolate chip cookies and drink coffee on the deck outside the house. I was, in a sense, his teacher, his mentor. I was perhaps 20 years his senior and I suppose it must have seemed that I knew more than he did. It was a fiction I was willing to allow as it had been allowed to me. Week after week. I encouraged him to go to sesshin and he did. I encouraged him to take the bar exam and he did. Was I responsible for these things he did? Maybe ... sort of.

There is a saying in Buddhism: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." A nice, tasty morsel, whose inescapable corollary is, "When the teacher is ready, the student will appear." Teacher and student are separate and distinct in the ordinary sense. But in the no-fucking-around sense, this is claptrap ... except when it isn't. I had wanted to be a teacher but in the process of being what others might call a teacher, I was no longer a teacher of the CEO sort. I was a student ... sort of. You learn from me, I learn from you -- isn't that the way that things happen? Nothing sexy or profound or 'spiritual' -- it's just the way things happen. The 'me' and 'you' are true in one sense and poppycock in another. But still there are senses in which something may be true or untrue.

John stopped coming after several years. He had a law practice and a woman and her son whom he lived with and who needed attention. And then one day his letter arrived. His 'thank you' letter, so-called. It was a very nice letter and I will put it on here if I can find it in the mess that is this house. Yesterday, I remembered it and it stopped my clock.

What I realized was that John's letter was an acknowledgment I could accept and be deeply warmed by. This was, in my life, as good if not better, than any "transmission" handed out by the more usual Zen hierarchy. I know others who have received numerous such letters and who are pleased but not convinced. John's letter reached out and said, "OK Adam. Things are OK. Honestly." All this took place in my heart, without any effort. Others might take such an understanding and describe it as well short of some still more profound understanding. I wouldn't fault them. Go for the gold ... find your own gold.

John created a new word for me: teacherstudent or studentteacher. Same stuff, different day. Things are OK. Seriously. Johnadam, Adamjohn. OK. Enlightenment, Tao, God are in business and take care of themselves ... but there is no self for them to take care of ... and there is no need to make too much of them. They don't need my help because I am their help. Just like anyone else. I write, grow old, go to Walmart. I don't know what John is doing these days. Fussing and fidgeting about 'spiritual life' is an old habit, but habits don't matter so much. Given half a chance, I can talk the hind leg off a dog about spiritual stuff (witness this entry), but hell, it's just a habit. No one needs permission to be alive. Everyone is alive and that is enough.

Anyway ... the memory of John's letter came up fresh and strong yesterday. I cannot explain what it did for me because the explanation reaches out and out and out and finally disappears like campfire smoke in the tall pines.

I never did get a corner office because the corner office is just ... OK.

PS. Well, I found the letter from John and will append it here (with some small sense of embarrassment ... another well-warn habit) before it disappears into the vortex of disorganized stuff around the house:

Dear Adam,

As I sit here in the morning sun, I am writing this letter to express my gratitude at having the good fortune to have our paths cross. I have been considering this type of letter for some time and I would have regrets if I never wrote it, so here goes.

Adam, your friendship and teaching is/has been a wonderful experience and tool which helps in this unfathomable process of living. My understanding of Buddhism, Zen, friendship, and life is changing in ways both understandable and otherwise because of you. I am in the process of better understanding my place in the universe (which is to say no understanding at all). It is impossible for me to completely explain such changes, but I honestly say the peace and laughter I now experience are in some way more satisfying since being introduced to your brand of Zen. I know that some of my joy comes from just getting older and becoming more tired from "fighting life" on so many fronts, but that too is part of the message I have heard from you.

Your style of teaching may not be an exact duplicate of other great teachers, but from where I sit, it gets the job done, and I can honestly say you honor both the ancestors and your contemporaries and I feel you have honored me as well. Maybe you had nothing to do with all your wonderful teaching and might even go so far as to say it couldn't be helped. Whatever the case, I simply wish to say your practice has helped make my life what it is and I am grateful. Smile just one smile. Some day I will understand ... or not.



* I don't like to waste paper so I wrote this on some scrap. Just some optical stuff on the other side.


  1. By coincidence, just this morning I was thinking of sending a thank you letter myself - to your very same former sociopathic teacher, for being such a sociopath. His behaviour and all the fallout, responses and non-responses by the rest of the Zen community, really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I've learned so much in the last couple of years, and daresay have become more mature, in a sense thanks to him.

    I guess I see what you mean about still being grateful for his teaching, though you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy.

  2. That's nice. Thanks.