Charlotte Joko Beck and the search for life's hidden jewel

26 Dec

Charlotte Joko BeckFred Rogers described truly great human beings as those “in touch with the eternal.” Of all the extraordinary people I have known in my life, two in particular most fit that description.

One, of course, is Fred himself. The other is a female Zen master named Tuan who I met many years ago. Tuan was Vietnamese, visiting a Buddhist monastery I had happened across in rural Tarrant County. She was tiny, probably in her forties. She seemed to float as much as walk as she moved across the grounds of the monastery in her long gray robe. Her smile came from deep within and she chuckled often, as if she was in on a joke that few others could quite get. When she and I discussed painful things, as we did often during our too brief acquaintance, she listened with a placid but intense presence, so much like Fred.

I hope to reconnect with Tuan some day and write more about her when I do. I mention her now because she was the one who introduced me to the work of Charlotte Joko Beck. I had asked Tuan if there were female Zen masters from the United States, and she showed me a book by Beck, Everyday Zen.

The author had been a classically trained pianist, a wife and mother who, when her marriage dissolved in her forties, devoted her life to the study and teaching of Zen. The words of Beck, who died years ago at the age of 94, resonated deeply with me when I first read them, and did again this morning when I picked up Everyday Zen for the first time in years.

I see Zen meditation as a spiritual practice rather than a religion, a commitment to spend at least a few minutes each day in silence, attempting to return attention to the present moment while watching the riotous, self-centered, frightened thoughts come and go. Zen is a close cousin to the centering prayer taught by Catholic priests like Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr--Eastern and Western responses to the admonition from the psalms...“be still and know that I am God.”

I think Fred Rogers, Tuan, Joko Beck, Rohr and Keating would also basically agree on the roots of human suffering and the best means of transcending it, as summarized by Beck. 

To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive. Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won’t keep on that way. Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each one of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless. We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life. So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle. 

…Slowly we wear out our “if onlies.” If only I had this, or that, then my life would work. Not one of us isn’t, to some degree, still wearing out our “if onlies.”

…Underneath our nice, friendly facades there is great unease. If I were to scratch below the surface of anyone, I would find fear, pain and anxiety running amok. We all have ways to cover them up. We overeat, over-drink, overwork; we watch too much television. We are always doing something to cover up our basic existential anxiety. Some people live that way until the day they die. As years go by, it gets worse and worse…The flexibility and joy and flow of life are gone. And that rather grim possibility faces all of us, unless we wake up to the fact that we need to work with our life, we need to practice…the primary thing we must work with is our busy, chaotic mind…those thoughts are our attempt to protect ourselves. None of us really wants to give them up.

There are two kinds of thoughts. There is nothing wrong with thinking in the sense of what I call “technical thinking.” We have to think in order to walk from here to the corner or bake a cake or to solve a physics problem. That use of the mind is fine. But opinions, judgments, memories, dreaming about the future—we go from birth to death, unless we wake up, wasting most of our life with them. We are all caught up in frantic thinking and the problem in practice is to begin to bring that thinking into clarity and balance.

The gruesome part of sitting (and it is gruesome, believe me) is to begin to see what is really going on in our mind. It is a shocker for all of us. We see that we are violent, prejudiced and selfish. We are all those things because a conditioned life based on false thinking leads us to these states. Human beings are basically good, kind and compassionate, but it takes hard digging to uncover that jewel.

The rest of the book is a wonderful excavation manual. Here's to a year of hard, happy digging in 2019.


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