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The House Style

The House Style
Joan Sutherland

Last time I promised (or threatened, depending on your viewpoint) to talk some more about what underlies our house style of Zen. I spoke about how some houses are more conserving of East Asian forms or methods and some place more emphasis on developing Western expressions of the ancient ways. It's a powerful issue in part, I think, because the idea of transmission, of passing the tradition from one generation to the next, looms so large in zen mythology. And many of us find it beautiful that our way has been passed down through the centuries to us, that we sit in a stream of people running deep into the past and, we hope, deep into the future as well. So if we see our work as more than a matter of preserving and transmitting a received tradition as exactly as possible, it's important to talk about what we do hope to preserve and transmit, and what to imagine anew.

Let's begin with the obvious: We are not living in China or Japan or Korea. We are not living in monasteries. We are not living in the 7th or the 12th or the 18th century. Few of us enjoy imperial patronage. Most of us are not celibate and some of us have children. We hold jobs. Usually we don't beg for our food, and our neighbors rarely feel an obligation to support us. There are lots of women in leadership roles in our group. And then there are the differences that come from living in a largely Judeo-Christian rather than Confucian cultures. From living in multicultural rather than more homogenous cultures. From different emphases on individualism and communalism. From the fairy tales we were told as children and the music we listen to and what we think art is. From our ideas of romantic love, obligation, God, of happiness and suffering and success.

We are not the people who developed our tradition. (If the truth be told, they probably weren't either; zen people are not immune to mythologizing.) We are, however, the people who are continuing to develop it now. And despite the great distances between the first Indian missionaries to China and the mighty abbots of the Sung dynasty and the samurai monks of feudal Japan and the innkeeping ladies of Hakuin's time and the European Theosophists of the 19th century and the contemporary folks of Colorado Springs, across all that time and space, there is something we recognize. We read their words and think, Yes, I know that. Or, I don't know that but I want to, and after we meditate awhile we find that it begins to come clear. There is a something, still vivid after 1500 years because it is right here, right now, discovered afresh by each of us.

What we have inherited are time-tested ways to help us discover this something: sitting still, breathing, concentration, inquiry, intimate conversation, communal ritual. Each time these practices are taken up by a new group, they change. (And not just in the grand moves from country to country: Medieval Japanese women, for example, given the chance to practice together in convents, developed entirely original ways not seen in the monasteries around them.) This thing we recognize across time and space is robust, flexible, and capacious, surviving the best efforts of every generation to improve it.

At this threshold, as these practices cross from East Asia into the Americas, we have a particular task that, if we accept it, will help root Zen here. Not everyone will be keen to take this on; some people really just want to meet together and sit, and that's great because that's part of it, too, but I think it's important for all of us to understand something about this moment we're in.

Here are the parts of this task as I see them: first, to do the practice deeply, so that our understanding is personal rather than theoretical; second, to study our received tradition thoughtfully and with as little mystification as possible; third, to have some grounding in the wisdom traditions of our own cultures; and fourth, to value our lives in the world and the wisdom that comes of experience.

Then it becomes possible to look at what we've received and say, This is part of that something that transcends time and space, while That is conditioned, it is Japanese, or medieval, or monastic. Which is not to say that such characteristics are bad, just that it is important to ask whether the belief systems and ways of doing things they've influenced continue to apply under different conditions. It also becomes possible to link across to our own traditions, to find the ways Zen has always flourished here under other names. It is from a deep exploration of these three currents that something we recognize across time and space; the parts of our received tradition we understand to be conditioned and find enduringly useful, or beautiful; and our native expressions of Zen, both from the western tradition and in our own practices now that we can help create a Zen of this time and place.

Perhaps the most important part of this task is simply to pay attention to what's happening in our own hearts and lives as we practice. The changes we're making come in two ways: First, when it's clear that something we're doing isn't working. For instance, one of the problems with holding the forms very tightly is that, while it can create a surface smoothness in the meditation hall, it can also mean that people are obsessed with getting things right, as though measuring up to some outside standard of perfection is the point. When, in fact, it's the anti-point. This is a way of freedom, which means offering oneself entirely to the moment, to the silence and the bell and time flowing by, and in so doing to discover the deep pattern of the moment, and step in. Sometimes what happens is exactly what you expect, and sometimes, thank heavens, it isn't. Some new bit of life might reveal itself, and how refreshing it is when we're able to make room for it. It's that deep pattern we're after, and how our forms can be an entrance there.

The second reason we make changes is because, quite simply, people are growing beyond the received way of doing things. Nowhere is this more striking and more utterly gorgeous than in our work with koans. That will be the theme of my article next time.