Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » To a Fellow Priest

Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(March 20, 2007)

by Abbot John

(Editor's note: Some time ago, a member of our sangha wrote to Abbot John. He was in a spiritual slump and couldn't meditate or even teach his students. Disgusted with himself and filled with doubts about his place in Buddhism, he asked the Abbot for guidance and received this response. He forwarded the email to us recently, saying that he had followed the abbot's advice and that since it worked so well, he wanted to share it with others who were having similar problems. This is a side of Abbot John few people get to see. And the advice is excellent.)

Dear Fa Xin,

Sooner or later, we all break that momentous Rule of Three, the keeping of which qualifies us for criminal consideration: Motive, Means, and Opportunity.

Your complaint is not unique. We've all removed ourselves from the suspicion of being Buddhists for lack of The Three. We sit down to meditate and nothing happens. We squirm and try - and try again. Nothing. We're convinced we need a new regimen since the means we've used to attain the meditative state won't work. We try other "seeds" but they sprout and die quickly. We get up early to be able to meditate in silence; but our breaking of the old schedule has caused others in the house to re-adjust theirs. The coffee pot perks half an hour sooner than it used to and the smell of cinnamon rolls is enough to disturb anybody's concentration. It's physically impossible to meditate until the evening, but then we can't because in different rooms around the house television sets are blaring.


Weeks pass and our efforts produce nothing but frustration, and so we want to scrap the whole program. Repeated failure has destroyed our motivation: we no longer desire to continue with our Zen practice. Yes, it's an old story and a common problem.

I'm sorry to learn that you've already notified your students that they should try to find another teacher. I doubt that they can replace you; but if they do, just turn that old maxim upside down: "When the master is ready, the students appear." You won't have to wait long for new students to show up.

I can appreciate that your "dry spell" is so arid that you can't even compose a simple Dharma talk to guide them every week. You say, "Without a message, there is no need for a messenger." This is a better place to be in than the one I often occupy: I usually stand there with my hands up: "Don't kill the messenger! Please!"

You may have lost your "writing voice" but it is not, I think, a case of permanent muteness. Just because we don't hear the song, we can't conclude that there is no singer. My advice to you - and I wish I had taken it myself - is that you cull our literary bins for usable topics you can borrow. Until you get your own voice back, speak through someone else's mouth. I'm not telling you to plagiarize another's Dharma talk; I'm simply saying that before you give it, you preface it with a paraphrased version of "Thus have I heard." Announce that the talk was a favorite of so and so, and that you thought your students would enjoy it as much as you have. Rehearse it and tell it with humor. When you see their smiles of appreciation, you'll feel better, and the phrases you've spoken will remain in your memory like footprints in the desert sand. They will soon lead you out of that wasteland you're in.

Before I became wise enough to borrow what I could not own, I wrote some excruciatingly bad Dharma talks. I, too, was in a spiritual slump. Business affairs had taken precedence over every other interest in my life. All the time I once spent thinking about the Buddha's Way, I instead devoted to Mammon. I wasn't even trying to serve two masters. Everything was "the bottom line" which fortunately was a lot better written than the stuff that left my word processor. When I go back and read the texts of my Dharma talks that appeared on our website as essays, I cringe and thank God that we changed our website address. I pray that a merciful Providence has consigned them all to oblivion.

And now, when I am called upon to speak before a meeting of interested souls and my mind has been too occupied with the sordid stuff of commerce, I skim through our published literature and credit an author or two or even three - depending on the length of time I have to speak - with having written something I can quote.

How do we deal with a loss of faith? In a word, with discretion. It's really best quietly to wait it out. Once in my tenure as Abbot I went through that crisis of faith and lamented to our editor, "I have no authority to write about Buddhism!" I received a two word response: "Who does?"

Like you, I had been born into another religion; and like you, I once tried to use that fact to excuse what I called "my identity confusions." (I spent an hour composing that epistle to our editor, polishing it like a vintage De Lorean. The response? "The Buddha was also a convert.")

My friend... Sometimes the challenge is simply overcoming defeat.

Sure, it's scary to venture into the fields of a foreign religion and to try to act like we've been grazing there forever.

I finally convinced myself of a simple truth. The only Buddhism that I was really concerned about was the one I had the most experience in... mine. This was my journey. Long ago I had answered questions and complaints about leaving the village church to take refuge in Buddhism. Why should I fear getting caught in the dogma fields of a foreign religion when my spirit hadn't been fed very well by the dogma of my native religion. Zen had been powerful enough to attract me and efficacious enough to keep me. I understood why it had, and wasn't that the essence of authority? Until someone pointed a shotgun at me, I'd keep on ruminating right where I was.

And obviously, since this new religion was about me and my Buddha and I had more dirt on me than anyone...well then, I was the best authority on one of the two principals involved - and one out of two ain't bad. The same applies to you.

I have in a past life played music with a small folk-rock band and I see now that there is some similarity between that endeavor and writing dharma talks.

The band could have been politely described as performers of "experimental" music since we played only original pieces. In actuality we did so because it took too much work to learn and perform other people's music and it also eliminated any basis of criticism since no one could figure out what we were playing. I was the leader of the band and wrote all the lyrics so I also made up most of the rules. My first rule, that I still remember today, was my instruction to the band that if they made a mistake during improvisations to always and immediately repeat the phrase. That way people might think it was intentional.

In the final analysis I was able to entertain myself with my music and do so sporadically to this day (although I play more stuff written by other people now). I bring this up because in some ways that is a primary reason of how and why I write... to entertain myself. I say this not to undermine the validity of the writing but with deadly seriousness because, afer all, I am a difficult person to entertain.

Having no technical training in music I would write most of my songs by just playing and "riffing" on the guitar. When something struck me I would then begin to expand the riff, maybe over 12 to 16 bars, lay in a bridge, repeat ad infinitum and, voila a song. When I began to write "as myself" for the website I used a very similar method to extract an essay. Even to this day I use that method whenever I can get away with it. You might think of trying that sometime to see what happens. Writing is a craft - like a hobby - and I believe it should be fun; and I have seen enough of your writing to know that you have had fun with it. Writers can go off on riffs just like muscians and just riffing can sometimes break through some barriers. At the very least it can be fun to do. Sometimes you can just write and see if your different levels of consciousness (above, below and middle) can surprise each other and lead to strange ideational connections that then lead into more defined expansions.

Get sick,
Get well,
Hang around,
The ink well.

As to your inability to meditate, I have a suggestion. Forbid yourself even to try. Demote yourself to altar boy status. Deny yourself the right to sit before your altar and meditate. Just put the flower in the vase, fill the chalice with holy water, lay the sprig of willow beside it but do not dip it in the water. Then go about your business. The setting is not yours to preside over. By denying yourself the right to desire, you've solved the Motivation problem. By denying yourself the right to use any meditation technique, you've solved the Means problem. And when you smell that coffee, go have a cup because you have nothing else to do with your time. And that will solve the Opportunity problem.

The Buddha inside you won't quit his job. Sometimes we have to have faith that even though nothing seems to be going right in our interfaces with the world, there is a deeper stratum in which things are developing on schedule.

If you don't lose faith and do gain patience, you'll rediscover your voice. We look forward to the day we can put your thoughts on the website for the next generation to consider. A number of us monks have grown old and gray. For some of us in ZBOHY's "Zen and the Martial Arts" scheme, the martial arts' part is trying to develop smooth, fluid ways of getting out of bed.

Shakahachi Shakahachi

A few years back when I was doing a lot of Zazen, I decided to explore the Shakahachi flute to see if I could "Blow Zen," as they say. I had this fellow make me two flutes out of very old and mature bamboo. One was set to "D" and the other to "A". If you have never tried to Blow Zen let me say that the Shakahachi style flute is VERY difficult to get any sound out of, and there are not many people around to get lessons from. Anyway the guy that makes the flutes is a real artist and takes Zen seriously. (He had made a couple of flutes for a great player named Riley Lee.) He lives in California and while he was making my flutes we had a number of email discussions and got to know each other vicerally. These flutes were very expensive so I'm sure he thought I was a serious player. He contacted me a few days before they were ready to ship and that's when I made, what must have seemed to him an odd request. I asked him with dead seriousness, "How do you actually play these things?"

After a couple seconds he said, "I'll send some instrucitons with the flutes."

A couple days later they arrived and in there was a small index card with the D flute that had the instructions. It read as follows

"Take flute from case. Go to the nearest stream. Sit down in meditation. After a few minutes begin playing."

Same thing probably applies to writing Dharma Talks.

Talk to ya soon,

Abbott John

Humming Bird
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict