Early DRAFT (later shortened)
DID AN OX WANDER BY HERE RECENTLY?: LEARNING AMERICANIZED ZEN
Maureen W. McClure
School of Education
University of Pittsburgh
JOHN, RUDI AND ROGUE ZEN
This is a first hand account of learning Zen in the United States. The spirit of Zen I learned through Japanese sacred art, but the master was not Japanese, and the community in which I lived for four years, from 1976-1980, did not claim to have direct connections to Rinzai, Soto or other traditions and temples in Japan. My practice, however, was closely tied to the Rinzai traditions that assert all work is art (Rinzai 1976). It was a small, intentional community of six to ten live-in students, living in one household with one of the finest Asian sacred art collections in the world. There was a core group of about six longer-term students, the rest usually remained for less than a year. Many of the students were artists. All of the core students eventually left and John sold the house in 1983.
For me it was an authentic educational experience within a Japanese religious "aesthetic" mediated by American interpreters and my own American background. Within this setting, my experiential education in Zen principles was neither academic nor schooled. Even now, as an educational scholar, I have constructed my "story" from my experience as a learner. Anthropological discourses about apprenticeship learning, specifically "situated learning," helped me frame my experience and make educational sense of a part of my past (Lave and Wenger 1991). I had many teachers in Livonia: John, the other students, the practice, the sacred art, and the oxherding pictures. From them I began to learn that success is compassion, and that a moment of it is priceless.
I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, the elder of two daughters. My father was a lawyer, my mother a school nurse. Encouraged to become a teacher, I eventually became a federal programs' coordinator for "disadvantaged youth" in the rural and working class school districts of Western Pennsylvania in the early seventies. Disenchanted with what I considered to be the stifling authoritarianism of the formal school programs, I began to read extensively about other pedagogical approaches, hoping to find something more consonant with my beliefs. Following up on a book I found particularly intriguing, Learning to Be, I visited its author, John Mann in the summer of 1976 (Mann 1972). He was, at the time, a professor of sociology at the State University College at Geneseo, NY. At lunch I discovered that John was intensely interested in East Asian views of aesthetic consciousness. He had participated in the early work on comparative, creative religious experiences at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which resulted in works like The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Zukav 1979). In addition, John had worked with an American spiritual teacher in New York, Albert Rudolph or Rudi.
John was teaching at NYU when he met Rudi in New York in the early sixties. They were both a part of Greenwich Village's "beat generation" of the fifties with its zeal for Zen. Rudi was a notorious sacred art dealer who had no compunctions about smuggling art out of Tibet "to prevent its destruction at the hands of the Chinese communists." His students also told stories of his buying art one step ahead of the Japanese government tracking down national treasures and American museums realizing what they had just sold him as very minor works. In the sixties, Rudi became increasingly interested in Indian saints, became a swami and died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of forty-five.
John was a beneficiary of Rudi's sorties, and invested most of his money in Rudi's art, including the money his wife thought was set aside for a house on the Hudson designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as one of Wright's last projects. His wife never forgave him, and eventually John, divorce decree and sacred art landed in upstate New York. He bought a house, started teaching meditation classes and eventually a small group of students, most of them artists, moved in. The students in the house served as a de facto security system for the art. John invited me to come and stay for a couple of weeks. I drove home, packed my bags and left for a two-week stay. It lasted four years.
BACKWARDS INTO APPRENTICESHIP
I was sixteen years old when I had my first experience with what is called in Zen a "cleared mind" or kensho. I had recently received my driver's license and was driving my mother's Volkswagen "beetle." There is a park near my high school with a windy road. I loved the feel of driving curves and often pretended that I was a Grand Prix racecar driver wending my way through the streets of Monaco. One day I was leaning heavily into the final turn when I noticed that the bark on the trees in front of me was still very wet from the rain. The deepness of the color, the texture of the bark, the outline of the trees against the sky all converged into a naked, powerful beauty. The raw vitality of the scene in front of me was so overpoweringly complete that the world just stopped. There was no time, no history, no "me," no tree..only what I have no other word for..God. For a moment, heaven, earth, joy and I were one.
I was deeply humbled by the beauty, majesty and compassion of that moment. I was awestruck because I knew instantly that it was complete and eternal. As I finished the turn and headed toward home, my second reaction was to think that I was probably going to die soon. I was resigned. It was worth it. My third thought was that I was probably genetically deformed and if I reported this to anyone, they would take me away and I would die in mental institution. I decided the problem did not belong to the moment. It was so beautiful, healthy and complete, that I simply assumed that it was not "mine." I was grateful, but terrified of telling anyone because I didn't want to be carried away in a straightjacket. I was silent also because I feared "losing" its memory.
As I look back, I mark that moment as the formal beginning of my apprenticeship. I wanted to be a saint. If this were a saint's experience, I thought...wow...then nothing else would ever matter in the same way again. I had seen Jesus' lilies and Solomon's glory had less appeal. Alas, there were no clearly defined career paths for apprentice saints in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1964. I could not accept what I considered the cold rigidity of the Josephite and Benedictine orders of Roman Catholic nuns who had taught me in school and at summer camp. Besides, both had "kicked me out" for insubordination. Outside of those traditions, I had no culture for support, indeed, eventually my training in academic skepticism led me to seriously doubt the quality of my experience. It had not been rational, and in Western Pennsylvania the boundaries of consciousness were brutally clear. If the experience wasn't rational, it wasn't sane.
There was no master with whom I could exchange commitment and ardor for skills, socialization and cultural legitimacy. There was only a door of experience. It had opened for a brief moment and I had hurled myself through it. I did not feel "called." I wasn't special, the experience was. Even the experience was not "special," but just seemed to be the most natural of events. On the other side of the door, everything looked the same as it had before, with one exception. I was at the periphery of something, stunned, delighted and scared. In my innocence I "just knew" that a path back existed. There were no guidelines, no signpoints. I was just as ordinary as I was before, complete with zits and temper. I didn't know how to find God, so I waited to be found. No one ever mistook me for a saint.
My apprenticeship was "situated" in three communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991)." The first and broadest for me were the Asian classical traditions that integrated religion, work and art and modern speculations on human potential. In the late seventies, John and Rudi's other teachers moved away from traditions that focused on work, art and community giving rise to a refined, everyday consciousness (Zen), toward traditions that focused on techniques that triggered extraordinary states of consciousness (Himalayan forms of yoga). Everyday life became the means for sustaining ever-rarer experiences. My interest was in the former, the quality of my everyday life was an end, not a means.
The second, more narrowly defined community consisted of about ten groups of Rudi's students, scattered all over the country. Livonia was one of the smallest communities. Bloomington, Indiana and Big Indian, New York each had more than fifty members at their height in the 1970s. The third community was John's house in Livonia.
John's old frame farm house was on a quiet side street in Livonia, New York. It was big, white, and wrapped in a large porch with a railing of spindles and a blue floor. A wide gravel driveway to the left of the house held five or six cars. There was large red barn at the end of the driveway next to a small yard behind the house. The upstairs of the barn had been converted into an artist's studio with a potter's wheel and long work benches. On the first floor of the house was an anteroom, a parlor, dining room, bedroom, kitchen and two full baths. The rooms were overwhelmed by scrolled paintings, bronze and wooden statues, and plants.
Upstairs were four bedrooms, a bath and a winterized back porch. The meditation room was a stuffy attic with a peaked roof, cheap paneling and an ugly shag carpet. The statues took up more room than the students and overwhelmed the room with cultural chaos. An eight-foot gilt Chinese buddha serenely engulfed the front eaves, and shared the space with Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian statuary representing over fifteen hundred years of tradition. Newcomers were often stunned upon entering the meditation room. Some fell silent, some openly wept, some left quickly. John lived in a small, three-story, art and plants cottage not far away on Lake Conesus.
The house had a relatively stable core of about six people, the rest "floated." Not all students lived in the house, some drove in for evening classes and dinner. Most of the students had connections with the college in nearby Geneseo. The house enabled the live-in studio artists to keep their expenses down, form small businesses to earn a living, and pursue their art in off-hours. For example, three of the "core students," Bobby, Patrick and Wayne formed a painting company. They had a contract with a company that managed a prestigious apartment building in Rochester.
John's presence was central in class. In long classes, he would help us focus our attention by touching our foreheads or backs. He never hit us with a stick, as in other Zen practices. Outside of class, however, the everyday tasks of learning to live with each other fell to the core students: Donna, Jean, Linda, Patrick, and Wayne. Donna was a dancer and choreographer from Brooklyn. She was a devout Roman Catholic, interested in Asian and Native American ways of healing. She taught improvisational dance to classes that deliberately mixed amateurs (like me) and professionals. Jean was a raku potter who had studied in the United States and Mexico. She had an extraordinary vitality and was the plants' favorite. She eventually returned to school in physics and engineering. Linda was a photographer and librarian with a brilliant "eye" who worked in multi-media and returned to graduate school to earn a degree in the area. She also designed and built her own furniture. Patrick was a potter and the restoration expert for the art. He helped oversee many of the house's endless projects. He wore Cheryl Tiegs T-shirts, loved pizza and was the best cook in the house. Dogs and children followed him home. Wayne was a certified medium and sci-fi addict who had worked in Fiji. His imagination was pungent with ideas about designing communities that were ecologically responsible. He pushed hard for us to think ways to celebrate creative nonviolence over competitive acquisition.
Unlike highly formalized monastic traditions, we were expected to help create rituals to support current students. The ritual structure was quite flexible, depending on who lived in the house at the time. For example, if a student were interested in the effects of nutrition on creative awareness, the rest might join in for support. There was the "macrobiotic food and shiatsu period," the "herb period" and the "martial arts period." Each period was embraced with fervor to learn from the others in the house. We had no traditional program to learn, no "correct" way for making turnip soup or passing the master his dessert. As core students we were a prudish lot about sex (monogamous, longer term), smoking (quit), drinking (rare) and drugs (never saw).
John received no direct payment for his teaching. Rudi had expected his teachers to demonstrate work as mastered art. Students were expected to be economically self-reliant, working either in house businesses or on their own. Each person who lived in the house was expected to pay rent and contribute weekly for food. The rent was $125 a month in 1976 and $250 in 1983. Food and household supplies fees were $10 per week, but could vary, depending on how much money we had. I remember some lean months when I had to cook for ten on a three-dollar budget. Each student, regardless of seniority, was expected to be responsible for one meal a week, including shopping and cooking. Other household chores were rotated so that everyone had to take turns doing less tasteful duties. These group efforts were intended to create more time for further meditation or for work in the art studio. Alas, endless group projects emerged, from installing insulation to fixing roof leaks in the house, at the cottage and at other centers. Many weekends were spent in work projects at other centers, notably Big Indian, not far from Woodstock, New York. We would come home after work or school on Friday night, drive five hours to Big Indian, work like dogs all weekend and drive home on Sunday night.
Newcomers were expected to work hard. There were two meditation classes a day, at six in the morning and at six in the evening. In the interim, time was to be spent at work or in school. We were expected to excel at everything. If we didn't, we were at least expected to have made a 110% effort. We were expected to live each day so fully that we were totally exhausted, physically, mentally and creatively. A typical day for me meant getting up at 5:30, having class, running six miles, eating the latest healthy breakfast and driving forty-five minutes to the university for morning classes. Evenings were spent listening to Rudi tapes, in advanced or specialized classes, or studying. Holidays were spent working at other centers. In the early days, I rarely went home. Memorial Day was spent at Big Indian. The Fourth of July was at Bloomington. Labor Day was spent at Ann Arbor cleaning student apartments.
The "core" students taught me a lot. They soon became my closest friends and colleagues. Together we learned to struggle in the world with fierce intensity and gently bizarre humor. If one didn't have time to listen, another did. We were bound together in the same common plight. We needed each other because much of our learning was painfully disorienting.
As a new student, I received training in breathing and "awareness" from both John and his apprentice teachers, Bobby and Star. My first "class" was alone with Bobby, as John was away. He asked me to sit quietly, relax, and "pay attention" to my breath. If I could I was to relax enough to be able to "follow" my breath in and out without "losing track" of it. Once I felt relaxed, then I was to slowly draw the breath into my "heart," hold it, let a little out, then inhale deeper, drawing the breath down in a place an inch or so below my navel. That was it. Just repeat. I quickly found it to be a simple but impossible task. I could not draw a single breath without thinking about it. As soon as I paid attention to my thought, I lost track of my breath. I was humiliated. Bobby seemed to know my thoughts and comforted me, saying how hard it was for him when he started. I was not consoled.
Later I sat in a class, which consisted of Bobby sitting cross-legged on a platform in front of the gilt Buddha facing other students, also seating cross-legged. Each sat on little round pillows, which I later found out were called zabutons. Not one word was said. The "class" lasted about twenty minutes, but another ten were spent stretching before or sitting quietly after. There seemed to be no pattern for what to do before or after class, students appeared to make those decisions for themselves. My conclusion was later confirmed. During the first class, and for many after, as soon as I would start to relax, a "jukebox" would start playing songs from the sixties in my head. The music was so loud, clear and complete that at first I looked around for the radio. (I learned that looking around was "a no-no.") I was so embarrassed I half wondered if others were bothered by it. Other students later told me it was not an uncommon reaction.
After John returned, I was asked over to the cottage for further instruction. Again, I was the only student. John asked me to continue the breathing exercises, but to focus now on more than the breath. He called it "energy," which he described as "attention." I was to bring this energy into a spot in the middle of my forehead, draw it down through my throat in to my heart, then stomach, and then at a spot a little below the "center" that Bobby had mentioned, draw it down and backwards into the base of my spine. I was then to rock back and forth a little to relax the base of the spine, and then draw the energy up through my spine to the top of my head. I looked at him as though he were nuts. "Am I supposed to pretend this?" I asked. He laughed. "You don't have to," he replied. "Don't try to force it. Just be open to its possibility. If it happens, fine, if not, don't worry about it." I was very skeptical and said so. "That's good, don't lose your skepticism, just don't let it close you off," he said gently.
THE APPRENTICESHIP: PRINCIPLES AND TECHNIQUES
John's work consisted of a framework, essential principles and techniques. The framework could be described as: All work as art. Intense observation. Practice. Surrender. Repeat. The principles were drawn from classic teachings, but their emphasis was based on John's personal experience. Among the essential principles were energy, light, flexibility, detachment, flow, quiet, center, heart, growth, no harm and open. Essential to John did not mean generic, in that the meaning was self-evident, like a standardized product. He taught essential meant connecting with the experiences of all those who have preceeded and who will follow.
His techniques came from three sources: his own teacher, his reseach into arts apprenticeships, especially theater arts, and his own constructions. Examples of classic techniques were intense observation and ruthless critical self-reflection on personal assumptions of meaning. John also drew from many sources in performance arts. He liked Moreno's work from the nineteen-twenties in the Theater of Spontaneity, because students could create improvisational role performances to identify with and respond to familial, social and ideological expectations. (Mann 1972: 100). He tried to recast techniques not as rituals, but as creative responses to unique conditions. Once we went on a picnic and he began the class by rolling recklessly down a lush green hill. John's teaching and mastery were based on improvisation, not ritual. I learned how extraordinary his artlessness was when I tried to emulate it and failed.
As a novice I was tied to the techniques of John's practice. I needed tips on breathing, on centering, on visualization, on letting go of tensions. They didn't help because I didn't know how to think about them. I kept attaching a single meaning to a single term and a single behavior. For example, take one of the most fundamental principles, "surrender." At first I thought it meant learning to turn off the jukebox. I thought that when I learned to do that, I would "know" how to surrender. Was I wrong. Every time I thought I had mastered the term, a new experience arose to be connected with it. Once the music quieted down, I noticed that my jaw was painfully clenched. I realized it had been so for years, but I had "anesthetized" it so it seemed normal. When I finally became sufficiently aware of the tension to "surrender" it, the jaw pain was almost unbearable. The more I tried to "let go," the worse it got. I finally learned to go "through" the pain by centering and not avoiding or provoking it. Afterward, I was exhausted but relieved. The physical pain was bad enough, but I was surprised to find the pain was often attached to disturbing emotions like anger, grief or fear. John linked it to Wilhelm Reich's notion of "character armor." Fifteen years later, there are still parts of my body that I cannot yet "feel." I had to approach learning the essential principles in ways that did not give me "solutions" but helped me to create layers of meaning over time.
The physical-emotional awareness practice was miserable. The cognitive self-reflection was even worse because it was so disorienting. For example, before I moved to Livonia, I didn't think much about cleaning toilets. At the house, cleaning became a major event. I would continuously ask myself questions like, "Do I care enough about those who will come after to be sufficiently thorough? Am I taking too long to complete this task? Where is my breath? Am I centered and relaxed while cleaning? Can I do my job and still feel the soles of my feet? Why am I thinking so much? Is this work or play?" The world became a far more primitive place. I didn't know where my words, my gestures, my tone of voice originated. I didn't know what I meant by what I said. My new found "sight" was often, and still is, deeply isolating.
John did not use traditional practices of koans and dialog. He believed that the route past the rational mind was through attention to internal sensations. Quiet was more powerful to John than words. His guiding framework was simply to ask for lighter, healthy energies, and discard heavier, tense ones. His universe was comprised of ceaseless flows of spiritual energy and its manifestations. These ceaseless flows were sources of creative energy. All, however, was not necessarily calm and beauty. Legitimate spiritual experiences, by John's definition, might be preceded by great terror or exhausting pain. I sometimes saw people weep or flail about uncontrollably, despite rigorous self-discipline.
Slowly I began to learn that if I weren't fretting about my latest slight, I could be more aware of the community of life around me. Instead of being heavy and self-absorbed, I could become quiet and feel the sunshine on my face or more keenly observe the utter uniqueness of a passer-by's face. As I let go of deeper conceptual frameworks, I began to feel a bit lighter, freer and more intimate with the worlds around me. I began to think of life as a giant Star Wars Bar where each person came from a different solar system, yet was connected by a single breath.
The other core students were engaged in similar struggles. We learned that our painful solitary work needed the solace of community, especially in the beginning when there were few payoffs. The social community provided the rewards the work could not yet bring. We were bound in common misery. Their humanity helped me face laundry, paternalism, deadlines and green sunlight on wet grass. Like the art, we had nothing but ourselves, each other and our work. We were "free" to be ourselves, and we chershed that freedom as great wealth. We reinvented ourselves with rakish gusto. For example, we wrestled with "no harm," which meant living in the world in the least intrusive way. We decided the most prized cars in our parking lot would be the most experienced. The threshold for status was 100,000 miles. Younger cars wouldn't have enough character. Cars had names and personalities, just like medieval knights who anthropomorphized their swords. The grand prize went to Diane's Dwarf, a Ford Pinto with 180,000 miles. Driven by an senior executive at a large corporation in Rochester, its blue, rusted hulk cut quite a spectacle in the upscale section of the parking lot.
Jean and Bobby used to walk into Kmart, spend five or ten dollars, and emerged looking like models. Donna and Patrick created gourmet dinners for ten on three dollars or less. Patrick, Bobby and Wayne made a stunning low dining table out of cherry. Patrick threw the everyday dishes, each one a work of art. Jean kept lush gardens of plants throughout the house and the cottage. I lived like a wealthy woman on less than four thousand dollars a year. I never had a cold, and was rarely sick. Even though those days are gone, I am grateful for the caring that created their history.
When John retired and left Geneseo, he placed the priceless sacred art in commercial drive-in storage lockers in Avon for years. A terrible fire damaged or destroyed much of it. I shall mourn for the rest of my life, but shall cherish their gifts.
What lasted were the essential principles. They helped unleash a roaring creative energy in us that was unmatched in more formal adaptations of Zen that I have encountered. Rudi had it right. The purpose of community discipline was to support individual creative expression, not a collective identity. I had to stop trying to be perfect and had to start trying to be alive. I had to struggle to become my own work of art. Learning became an act of engagement, not a means of acquisition. Individual effort, not talent was more important, but effort alone was not enough. Talent became mutable, continuously improved through intense observation, experience and reflection in the sensory world.
AMERICANIZED ZEN V. AMERICAN ZEN
John's strong emphasis on cooperative rather than collective identity won no friends either on the "spiritual circuit" or in the larger society. He never appropriated many of the traditional cultural symbols of Zen or other traditions, so his work was difficult to "recognize." We were American spiritual outlaws, a role we relished with verve.
We were marginalized but not bothered in Livonia, as we stuck out in the conservative little town. We were also a disgrace in the eyes of many of the more mainstream spiritual communities, such as the Rochester Zen Center. Roshi Philip Kapleau, an ordained monk with legitimate Rinzai credentials from Japan, had settled in Rochester, NY and started a center. Roshi Kapleau and John Mann had limited connections. I was told that neither recognized nor approved of the other. There were, however, occasional courtesy calls. One Sunday we were invited to the Zen Center as a group. The contrast between the two groups was jarring.
Kapleau's group had adapted many of the traditional cultural symbols John ignored. A Japanese Zen monk would have found their center organized in ways that would have been familiar. Students wore black robes and sat zazen on grass tatami mats in spacious rooms with paper shoji screen walls. They ate simple vegetarian meals. Their gardens were elegant. In contrast, we lived in an American farm house and shopped at the Champion's outlet store. John showed up for the service in a loud, Hawaiian print shirt. We had meat on our breath. Our garden had statues across from the clothesline. It was Roger Rabbit and Toontown meet the Grownups.
The roshi, the meditation hall and the students wore a studied serenity. We weren't serene, we were exuberant. We entered the sitting room first and were placed near large bronze bells. We plunked down with a sense of purpose. Kapleau's students marched in and sat down carefully with a mannered elegance. Later we quipped that we were the country mice visiting our city cousins.
We were annoyed that as guests, we were seated in the least desirable place in the room, because the sound next to the large bells was very loud, making it uncomfortable, even painful. We assumed it was an insult. I took it as a challenge and became intensely aware of the bell's energy, absorbing it as though the sound were fuel. The more I took in the more alive I felt. I suddenly realized why some of the best students lived at the margins. I looked at Kapleau's students and John's and marveled at the difference. Kapleau's group seemed to be working hard to fit into a collective identity. They were trying to carry a heavy mantle of tradition. I wasn't sure it would support them. We were struggling hard enough to have our own identity; we couldn't carry a collective, too.
The Rochester Zen Center survived Roshi Kapleau's retirement and death, but suffered in the struggles for succession. Ours did not survive John's retirement. We had our individual lives, but our community was lost.
SOLACE IN OTHER TEACHERS: THE ART
The lightness, whimsy and gentleness in the house belonged to its silent teachers in the house: the art. And what an art collection it was. It engulfed the house and all of those within. It attracted artists who just want to be near ancient, sacred pieces: bronzes, thankas, stone and wood carvings from all over Asia. In my first room on the back porch, for example, I chose a large, fierce Japanese plaster guardian. He sat on a three foot stand with a large halo behind him. He was well weathered, and had been consigned to the barn. I thought he was perfect for me, because I felt pretty weather-beaten at the time. I thought of Christian guardian angels, and was smitten by the idea of having one who was short, stocky and cranky.
John taught me to give the sacred art my truest self and yearn for the same in return. I thought this was a great trade because I didn't like most of what I had. I spent hours in front of the guardian, surrendering my pain and anguish, asking for anything God wanted to send. Over time I imagined the guardian had a very clear but complex "self" that I could recognize. I imagined I had to become a warrior myself in order to go "through" the internal pain I had. My guardian seemed to return my pain with compassion. I grew to be very fond of him.
Everywhere I looked the message of the sacred art was clear: life was art, life art, inseparable, complete, sufficient. Museum curators from places like the Metropolitan would come to visit and pay their respects. The curator of the Asian art collection for the Boston Museum was a Japanese shinto priest who came and taught us how to approach the art. His approach was highly ritualized and formal. We just couldn't make his ways work for us, so we invented our own. We instead treated the art with warmth and humor instead of distance and formal piety. We accepted the art both as formal teachers and as the closest members of our extended family. Don swore the backporch guardian "was into" John Denver. We "knew" the art wanted us to be our authentic selves, not translations from another culture, so we treated them like we would our own relatives. In Livonia, my relatives just moved a little slower and looked a little different than most.
The boundaries between the art and my imagination became very thin and strengtened my ability to use nonrational sense making. My interaction with the art helped create feelings of gentleness and compassion I could not have imagined working on my own. They, more than John, became a source of comfort. I thought of the art as gifts from the artists who had gone before me. The serenity I felt being with them was enough to return me to the beauty of the trees that I had seen when I was sixteen. This time, however, I learned that kensho was only a beginning. The gifts from the past showed me my responsibilities to those here now and to those who waited in the future.
THE ZEN APPRENTICE: HERDING OXEN
It may help the reader at this point to frame a model for apprenticeship of essential principles in a broader context. In Zen, the way of the apprentice is framed through the classical "oxherding pictures." These ten pictures serve as guidelines for the person seeking "enlightenment." Each picture represents a stage of development. They are also brilliant examples of the practice of essential principles because they require the experience of the viewer for interpretation. Unlike legal texts that try to codify behavior in concrete, self-evident language, the pictures are ambiguous. They reflect a way of personal experience, not a code of cultural expectations. I have shown these pictures to American students with no knowledge of Zen. When they hear the stories, some laugh spontaneously in sympathy with the struggles of the poor student.
At first I thought the pictures were sequential, and they are, for the most part. Now, however, I think of my relation to them as Alice in Wonderland wandering around in adventuresome and scary maizes that turn endlessly in on themselves. For example, after an experience like the one I had as a teenager, it took me many years to get back to the first picture. Also, as I progressed through the stages, I humbly found I could not hold fast to my learning, and slipped back as often as I moved "ahead." Most unsettling, and the best joke of all, was to discover that the end was just the beginning, and I had been nowhere at all. To complicate the illusion, the pictures appeared gentle and benign, and fooled me. The struggles of awareness and self-reflection may have been gentle for some, but it was often a war zone for me.
The first eight pictures are Chinese in origin, the last two are Japanese additions. They are accompanied by text and poetry. It is a story of mastery and harmony. The first picture, "Seeking the Ox" shows a man alone on a road. The text reveals he is driven by a deep yearning. In the second picture he "Finds the Tracks." He cannot yet "see" the ox, but he has entered the periphery of its experience. In the third picture, the "First Glimpse of the Ox" is made. The student is instructed to learn to "see" the ox by practicing intense awareness of everyday experiences. The student finally participates in the fourth picture, "Catching the Ox." The picture is one of a small person struggling to harness a very large ox. In some pictures, only the ox is visible. It is an amusing image for students' ungainly attempts to harness their "attention." Commanding attention doesn't work, but caring for it does. "Taming the Ox," the fifth picture, shows the establishment of a sustained relationship. Both the apprentice and the ox must negotiate rights and responsibilities. Anyone who has negotiated contracts with pets understands the failure of the Western machine metaphor of command and control. The ox must consent to be tame, so the student must learn to "speak ox."
Now the apprentice can learn to "see" more creatively. The student in the sixth picture, "Riding the Ox Home" plays the flute on the back of the ox. Together they head home in playful harmony with each other and the rest of the world. Creativity requires playfulness, humor and joy, not fear and intimidation. In the seventh picture, "Ox Forgotten, Self Alone," the apprentice has returned home. It is a small place in a large, beautiful world. He and the ox's spirit have become one. He can now turn from his own internal struggles and "see" the natural world around him more clearly. The eighth picture, "Both Ox and Self Forgotten," is represented as a single perfect circle, a test of Zen mastery. It is the experience of satori, when the experience of self falls away and there is a sense of complete oneness with the natural world. The artist and the art are one. The Chinese story ends here.
The Japanese, with social practicality, ask "now what?" and "what about social relationships?" In the ninth picture, "Returning to the Source," one sees the simple but complete majesty of the universe in a fragment, say a tree branch. The master releases his socially constructed view of the world and returns to his transcendent origins with their unconditional love. Thus satori becomes embedded in his everyday experience of the spirit of immanence. Life becomes an affirmation, an unshakable choice to forgive, celebrate and engage it, with all of its pain and terrible beauty. The transcendent and the immanent are one. There is no need to strive for enlightenment, because the rational mind, too slow, loud and self-absorbed for compassionate action, has dissolved into quiet oneness. The master realizes that life has always been there, his heroic efforts have been of no import. His enlightenment was always gift of grace, his saintly practices were useless. Now they interfere with his sublime ordinariness.
He has returned to the Origin, come back to the Source, but his steps have been in vain.
It is though he were now blind and deaf.
Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red [Kapleau 1972: 310].
The individual may be personally one with the world, but that experience is not yet integrated into the social community. Experience requires expression. The master now must go home and just be himself. In the tenth and final picture, "Entering the Market with Helping Hands," the master is seen returning home. He is now older, rounder and smiling. He is greatly relieved from the burden of being a saint. He greets daily life with a healthy exuberance, within an unshakable choice to affirm life as it is. Through compassionate language and actions, the master now guides others to an understanding that their angst can be overcome through grace. He creates his own life, he is no longer dependent on the experiences of other saints. The Japanese pictures complete the cycle of apprenticeship by showing the master's responsibilities to society. It is not enough to experience the creative spirit; it must be integrated into everyday life and shared with others. The master now carries a wine bottle in celebration. All work is now art.
Barechested, barefooted, he comes into the marketplace.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom [Kapleau 1972:311].
The spiritual experiences that occurred in my apprenticeship were highly distinctive and instantly recognizable. I have "felt the Spirit" in beautiful natural settings, especially in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, in a Quaker meeting in Pittsburgh and in an Assembly of God church service in Gilbert, West Virginia. Its experience for me is best defined by a tangible sensation of "tingling" often accompanied by a sensation of lightness and health, a feeling of great power, deep peace or timeless community. The closest, consistent, physical natural experience I can relate it to is the feel of ozone-filled air just after lightening has struck. Sometimes it felt like I'd been hit by lightening, other times by gentle rain. For all John's tolerance, he never reached out to the Christian traditions of pentacostalism that are so much a part of the religious heritage of the United States. Yet the preacher's wife in West Virginia in 1993 "opened" my heart as surely as John, though I doubt that the two would ever voluntarily get together to compare notes.
All great religions claim that God is both transcendent and immanent in the world. Religious traditions that emphasize transcendence focus on debates about absolute versus interpretable laws and texts. Much of Western Christian scientific culture has been constructed on an almost exclusive focus on transcendence. In the late middle ages, God was increasingly seen as a great Clockmaker who made the world and left it for us to learn the controls through natural laws (McClure 1990). This cultural framework, called Deism, helped shape the European worldview through a machine metaphor, leaving little room for immanence, except through visitation. Buddhist and Daoist traditions, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on immanence. God was not an absentee landlord who left overseers in charge of a machine. God was transcendent, but not banished to heaven. God was both Creator and in the created, a mysterious contradiction, simultaneously utterly unique and absolutely universal. In the Rinzai traditions, this contradiction was expressed as the creative tension across religion, artist and nature. The monk needed a fierce, independent, artistic eye to "see" the uniqueness and the universality in life, but "seeing" was only one step on the way to gentle, affirming and celebratory relationships centered within self, others and nature.
In Zen, the immanent spirit is so important that it is seen not as a visitation, but as omnipresent in nature. It also brings creativity that can be expressed in everyday life. Creativity in Zen is not an immutable asset we acquire at birth, rather it is deeply linked to a quiet but intense appreciation of natural beauty, and emerges from our struggle to make sense with the world. Creativity does not begin with an act of natural talent, as in the West, but with a relationship - "sight"- first with self and then with others (Herrigel 1960; Suzuki 1964; Singleton 1989). I am learning that Zen tranquility emerges from the excruciating pain of seeing and embracing life as it is and creating something beautiful in it one moment at a time. Art was John's way to transcend existential angst through creative experience. His metaphor was the artist dancing above the flames.
I have come to think of Zen as a wealthy relative. Many of my Celtic ancestors also had a deep love for a spare, simple life in harmony with nature. There can be a thin line between a Scots Presbyterian minister who feeds birds and plants pine trees, and a Zen monk. Both have a reverence for nature. Both believe that the least invasive means is best. Both cherish simple things well done. Both know the crushing sorrow that can only be endured and forgiven, not resolved. The totality of Zen, however, is deeply embedded in Japanese culture and cannot be "appropriated." It can be courted and translated, but never copied.
Its spirit already has deep roots in U.S. popular culture, some triumph and some trash. The spirit of Zen, what Vaclev Havel calls the "miracle of being," is as American as apple pie. Its amazing grace, however, is often more raucous than tranquil. European Zen is Bach and Mozart. American Zen in the North East is Thoreau, in the West is fly fishing, and in the South is gospel, rockabilly and down and dirty delta blues.
John Dewey's experiential learning is a pale cousin of Zen genius and it encouraged an entire generation of Progressives. Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, translated Zen principles into his art. He moved architecture from the ideal to the natural world by playing with the power of the minimalist "line" so valued in the Japanese aesthetic. Alas, modernists without his "sight" reduced the lines to formulas and lost their spirit. The famous American editors, William Strunk, jr. and E.B. White exhorted writers for generations to embrace the minimalist dictum, "Omit unnecessary words." Ernest Hemingway complied. The "beat" generation of poets appropriated Zen existential themes. Even corporations used its logic to motivate their workers. Heinz has as its motto, "Do common things uncommonly well." Zen themes have been appropriated in the popular culture's secularized interest in spiritual experiences in movies like Close Encounters, Star Wars and E.T. Even Andy Warhol's soup can claims the ordinary as art. Philip Kapleau's Zen brought the power of its tradition to the United States. John Mann's Zen invented a future.
As a student I learned to "see" beauty in nature and in the art of those who had struggled before me, and to feel their compassion within me as a gift, so that I wanted to contribute to the next generation..and it only took twenty-five years to write this sentence. Today, at work, I am more aware of the simple sensual pleasures of breathing, tasting simple food, or watching the flutter of a bluejay's wing. The smallest things like the "line" of a tree branch, or the play of light on a garbage can have become sources of insight and pleasure. These pleasures remain after the "great experiences" have gone. Even as I write this, I notice with delight the erratic rhythms of a squirrel's tail.
von Durckheim, K. G. 1962. Hara, the vital centre of man. trans. S.-M. von Kospth with E.R. Healy. London: Allen and Unwin.
Herrigel, E. 1960. The method of Zen. New York: Random Books.
Kapleau, P., ed. 1972. The three pillars of Zen: Teaching, practice, enlightenment. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mann, J. 1972. Learning to be: The education of human potential. New York: The Free Press.
McClure, M. W. 1990. Adieu Victoria? Reform and critical strategy in the Brimelow-Hickrod debates. Journal of Education Finance. 15: 534-557.
Rudrananda, S. 1984. Behind the cosmic curtain: The further writings of Swami Rudrananda. ed. John Mann. Arlington, MA: Neolog Publishing.
Rinzai. 1976. The Zen teaching of Rinzai. trans. I. Schoegl. Berkeley: Shambala Publications.
Singleton, J. 1989. Japanese folkcraft pottery apprenticeship: Cultural patterns of an educatinal institution. In Apprenticeship: From theory to method and back again. ed. M.W. Coy., pp.13-30. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Sohl, R. and Carr, A., eds. 1970. The Gospel according to Zen. New York: Mentor Books.
Suzuki, D.T. 1964. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press.
Zukav, G. 1980. The dancing Wu Li masters: An overview of the new physics. Toronto: Bantam Books.
MASTER AND APPRENTICE RELATIONSHIPS: MUDDLED
This did not mean that John's mastery made him an embodiment of classic principles. He could also be arrogant, petulant and diffident. John was always solidly human in his contradictions, something that chronically irritated those of us who still thought that mastery meant ideal perfection, not individually authentic expression. Now I realize that John deserved the compliment that he gave his own teacher, Rudi. No he wasn't perfect-better, he was truly alive.
My relationship with John was typical. It wasn't much of a relationship at all. I attended his sociology classes at Geneseo in 1976, the summer I arrived. We shared professional interests in education. At the time, I thought I was destined to start a school. When I got to Livonia, I realized that I had nothing to teach, so the conversations about it drifted off, leaving us with less to talk about. After the summer classes, I began tutoring students in the area for a year for Geneseo's migrant education program. The following year, I applied for graduate school at the University of Rochester, in the School of Education.
Unlike in a monastery, John did not supervise my daily work. We saw each other in the morning, evening and most weekends. Eventually he came only for evening classes. He lectured in the evening, but became increasingly involved in his own advanced practices at the cottage. I began to feel an underlying tension that gave me the message he had decided that I wasn't destined to be a "star," and I had to be a star to be a teacher. Before seeking to return to graduate school, I had desperately wanted to be a teacher. Every one of the core members had the same aspirations. I worked very hard in the hopes of that eventuality. Early on, however, two events affected my behavior. First, Jean, John's friend, visited me early in my stay to ask me not to "come on" to him. Reacting as a Roman Catholic would to comments about a priest, I was at first stunned. I agreed and never spoke to him about it. From that time on, I was concerned about being too aggressive about my intentions.
Second, a group of us went to visit a yoga camp of Swami Mishra. John was next to me. I could sense his anticipation as the Swami drew near. I believed John wanted Swami Mishra to "see" that he was also a spiritual teacher. He didn't. It called all of my skepticism into the foreground. I decided it should be his responsibility to "see" my progress, else we could be colluding in a sham. I later concluded that he couldn't "see" me, he had "failed" the test, and that it was time to move on. I cringe at this now. I did not accept enough reponsiblity for myself. The work was meant to be a "conversation," not an aquisition.
John's visible claims for personal autonomy contradicted his subtext of dependence. He offered little personal support, treating us though we were generic students, even in a small setting. Eventually he found a small weakness in each of us, magnified it, and turned it into a label. Each student became an unfixable problem. At first I thought it was cruel and wasteful behavior. I said John had been given bolts of rare and precious silk which he analyzed with a single-minded fury, in search of "The" single bent thread. He would always find it, then coldly drop the cloth into the mud, declaring the entire gift unfit. This allowed him to cultivate dependence in righteous contradiction with his professed values. This "come on, kiss off" mixed message kept students working harder for legitimate acceptance they would never receive. It exempted him from the tedious and exhaustive efforts needed to get to know each student's hopes, fears, expectations, aspirations, ways of thinking and feeling. It was colonization, not empowerment, but it was not visible to me for a long time.
Without conscious collusion, each of us began to resist to something that was not visible to use. We just began to marginalize John outside of class. Our schoolwork and jobs became alternative sources of legitimacy. As John continued to develop his practices, so did we. As he wanted to spend more and more time on "his stuff," we spent more and more time on "our stuff." John's presence began to be an annoyance, though no one would openly say so. This did not meant that he was not also generous and kind as well. The longer we lived together, the more apparent our own painful contradictions became.
A turning point in the dynamic may have occurred when Linda decided to turned herself over to John in the classic, formal Indian style of a guru and disciple. This meant she was willing to be competely dependent on him. In addition, she agressively pursued her goals of acceptance, even if meant competing openly with the other students for personal attention. John appeared to be delighted. I was appalled. Linda became the only one of the core students in the house who was invited to the cottage for advanced classes beyond those for the entire group. I argued for a community of teachers. John had no interest. Slowly, bags were packed. Donna left in disgust. Bobby moved out on a moment's notice, in silence. Patrick left for Bloomington. Wayne got married. I moved to Rochester, so did Jean a few months later. No one moved into to replace us and John's attention shifted to Big Indian and his farm in Dansville, NY. As I look back on this so many years later, I know realize that I, like the others waited respectfully and silently like a "dutiful daughter" to be "invited." Linda acted like a "responsible son," taking the initiative to demonstrate her commitment. In traditional methods, Linda’s approach is seen as necessary for "promotion." She "won." The place was lost.
Some of us stayed in touch. Years later, Wayne told me he eventually realized that John's "techniques" were simply his ways of creating personal meaning. He finally realized that he could make up even the most fundamental techniques just by "playing" with his awareness. After learning to "play," he just made them up when felt he needed them. Eventually even his need for conscious attention to principles fell away. He said the only thing he would always need was a caring community. I "saw" him in 1993 and through my disciplined "eye" he looked like a cracked eggshell with light streaming out from inside. This openness is symbolized in many religions as halo. He had "made saint" on his own. It was a remarkable sight. Alas, John never noticed.
APPRENTICESHIP AND THE STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION
Life in the house was real. There were conflicts along with the warmth. I faced shifting and contradictory tensions in my relationships with John and the others. Lave and Wenger's work helped frame what disturbed, and finally ruptured my relationship with John. They referred to "transparent" discourses and practices that made some practices visible and invisible (Lave and Wenger 1991:102-3). At first, I personalized my experience, especially the failures. Then very slowly, I began to observe patterns I had not noticed before. For example, I began to notice that on the weekend work projects, the men took all the "good" jobs, like the gleeful demolition of an old chimney. The repetitious work with less clear outcomes like weekly weeding went to the women. The men built and tore down monuments, the women washed floors. When I pointed out the problem, at first I received no support from either gender. They were focused on bigger matters and dismissed my concerns. I was taken aback because the gender bias was so "clear" and "measurable" to me. I repeatedly made the issues visible until I had some signs of recognition, but little changed.
About the same time I began to bring home my finance courses from graduate school. I thought about the economic consequences for the group, given that John was the only property owner. The titles were not held in common or in shares. When I asked about shared ownership, John dismissed it as "inefficient." I watched Bobby, Patrick and Wayne work their hearts out fixing up the house that John later sold at a profit. I began to beg off projects because I had to study.
Complaining about teachers seemed to be part of the apprentice's ritual experiences. Rudi described one of his early experiences,
...I found tremendous hostility on the part of one teacher toward me..It was, in his eyes, impossible for me to hope to attain the spiritual state that I desired..I sat for six years under the will of this man..The effort was always to try to cut me down to a more conservative type of person..I am sure in the consciousness of my teachers, there was no intent to harm me, but I felt very threatened by their lack of understanding, and particularly by their lack of love. I saw many people dry up and become completely without hope [Rudrananda 1984:33-4].
John, in his turn, repeatedly told stories of the abuse that Rudi had heaped on him.
Why could so many accept roles of dependence when it appeared to be antithetical to our work? I watched John trying to work out his authority issues with the teachers from larger centers. Another teacher in Bloomington, IN, was named Michael. He claimed to be Rudi's sole successor under some primogeniture belief that only one person could inherit the teacher's energy. All other students and teachers were supposed to be subordinate to the new head teacher. Jesus and Peter. Phooey, I thought, but John and the other teachers at least acted as though they accepted the idea. I was baffled that people would submit to the paternalism I spent my life trying to escape. I then began to notice that John and Michael systematically, but not consciously, gave more access and attention to students who sought dependent relationships, who brought social prestige, or who were male and physically attractive. I began to observe that many of the most talented and competent people were quietly neglected until they left. John and Michael reproduced the same behavior that Rudi had railed against.
There were no "unattractive" teachers and very few women in positions of authority. In Bloomington, the patterns were clearer. Men tended to be ranked (ranked themselves?) into a social hierarchy based more on physical attractiveness than work quality. The "geeks" worked the hardest at the most necessary but most onerous chores, and were often the most committed to their work. They looked significantly different than the "pretty boys" and the occasional "pretty girl" usually seen in the company of Michael. I remember being saddened by this observation and by the realization how few "saw" it. When I tried to discuss it, I was rebuked for disloyalty. The practice was transparent to me but opaque to the people with whom I spoke, even the most abused. I saw social construction that should be changed. They saw natural law to be fatalistically accepted. I felt increasingly marginalized because I felt that my drawing attention to perceived injustices was seen by the group to be a greater crime than the injustice itself.
The lines were much more blurred in Livonia, but the pattern remained. At home, however, it was easier to see the resistance. Linda's decisive actions brought the pain to the surface, but even then it was not openly discussed. Each of us accepted what we thought was a personal failure and moved on. I began my relationship with John as a student desperate for attention. I wanted to be a teacher and failed. Life gave me instead a greater title: learner.