I’ve been doing as many of these “in conversation” gigs as possible They’re always fun and interesting. I often feel like my talks don’t really get going until the Q&A portions anyway. I never know how many in the audience have read my books and blogs and already know how I got into Zen and what I think about the connections between punk and Buddhism, and how many require that context before I can proceed to try and get deeper into things. Having an emcee guide the talk helps out a tremendous amount.
John was a great interviewer, though he was a bit intimidating at first. He’s got that kind of star quality certain people have where you know people will stop and listen to him. But he’s also friendly and personable and genuinely interested in finding out what his interview subjects have to say.
I find that my life just keeps on getting stranger. It’s never what I expect it to be. So I deal with that by trying not to expect anything. As most regular readers know, I never set out to be a Zen teacher. Quite the opposite. I had to be pretty much forced into it by my teacher.
I think that makes my experience of this life “dimensionally different,” as Nishijima Roshi might say, to most other people I meet who do the same sort of thing. When he said something was dimensionally different from something else he usually meant that the two things couldn’t even be compared reasonably because they were too unlike each other. And while that might be taking things too far, I feel like it may help explain some of my approach.
If you set out in life to be a spiritual teacher, you’re fine with conforming to the normative expectations of the job. But since I never had such ambitions the notion of wanting to conform to those expectations is utterly alien to me. I made some efforts to do so initially. But now I’ve abandoned them entirely. I figure if you want to study with me, I will let you know as clearly as possible what I’m like and you can decide if that works for you. Which I think is a pretty fair deal.
I tried to bring some of that out last night. But I’m not sure it was conveyed clearly or not. I think some in the audience were trying to figure out what a Zen monk was like. But I don’t know if I’m such a great example of a Zen monk. Except, perhaps, as an example of the fact that the Zen orthodoxy allows for an almost complete lack of orthodoxy.
I think one of the key aspects of this practice is that it allows people to totally be exactly what they are. This, I think, is very important. We all have to be who we are in order to make this world work properly. When we try to conform to something we think is “normal” we make ourselves and those around us miserable. There is no normal.
Of course, as social beings, a certain degree of conformity is required of us. We have to stop at the red lights and go at the green lights. We have to use the toilets and not pee in people’s cars. We have to be able to interact socially in order to get done what needs to get done.
But we also have to be who we really are and not always what others expect us to be (except where required, see above). I can recall the day I started liking Nishijima Roshi. At the start of one of his usual Saturday lectures he said, “As I was walking here today I passed by a group of teenage girls who were dressed very strangely.” And I thought, here it comes. Here comes the old Zen master telling us how we should be normal and conservative. He was, after all, in his 80s by then. And Japanese fashions in the 90s were pretty outrageous.
But he didn’t say what I expected him to. He said, “I think this is a very good thing. It shows that Japanese people are starting to express themselves and not simply conform to what others expect.” I loved him from that moment on.
I think that often this aspect of Zen gets lost, especially in larger institutions. The larger the gathering of humans, the more there is a need for everyone to conform to a certain degree, simply to make sure everything goes OK. The mistake is when the members of such institutions start to internalize that conformity. They start to imagine that internal conformity is necessary. But, in fact, it’s not only not necessary, it can be positively destructive to real practice.
Here’s what’s still to come on my never-ending tour:
• 18-19 October Zen Retreat / 20th October Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England
• 23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP
• 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford
Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2203213006/)
**Oxford University students only**
• 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm / 26 October Zazen Day
Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland
• November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)
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I am self-financing my current tour. Your donations help a lot. Thank you!