Zen training in the U.S.: tradition, modernity, and trauma

Mushim Patricia Ikeda
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Mushim and son at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in 1990 when she was a penniless single mother, following six years of monastic practice under a vow of poverty. (Photo credit: Jack Van Allen)

Moderator’s note: Many practitioners of Asian medicine and Asian-based health modalities are grappling with questions concerning the historical roots and cultural status of their disciplines today as never before. In response, Asian Medicine Zone is launching a new series of practitioner essays exploring how changing conceptions of “tradition” and “modernity” are impacting their practice and field in the 21st century (these are organized under the tag “tradition/modernity”). If you’re interested in contributing to this seriesplease email a short description of your proposed essay to the moderators. Here, we’re pleased to share our first offering, which artfully explores the encounter between traditional patriarchal authority and contemporary social justice commitments in the author’s life, practice, and community.

Having spent over 30 years of my adult life as a Buddhist practitioner in the U.S., I’m certain of only one thing, which is this: in the process of spiritual maturation, the path is not always clear and straightforward. In my personal experience as a practitioner, there’s been a lot of both/and – a particular experience can be abusive and traumatic, and it can lead to insight and breakthrough. Necessary spiritual surrender can mix potently with what Western psychology calls poor boundaries. And, it seems to me, some people will always be drawn to take paths of greater risk in varying degrees, up to so-called crazy wisdom. Others will develop by staying true to conventional mores with quiet patience.

In 1984, I was living as a renunciant under a vow of complete poverty in a Buddhist community in the United States. Our teacher, a strong-willed Asian man, resided most of the time in Canada, with periodic visits to our startup temple in the Midwest. Probably like most of our convert Buddhist community, I had moved into the temple full-time with a great deal of hope and projection that the teacher, who was described by his senior students as a Zen master and enlightened being, would be my major role model of elevated qualities of compassion and wisdom as I somehow imagined them to be.

I had immediately been appointed office manager and treasurer when I moved into the temple. I started the office with a landline phone, a cardboard box for petty cash and receipts, a checkbook, and a small wooden bench that could be used as a tiny desk if one sat cross-legged on the wooden floor. There wasn’t enough money in the bank to pay our utility bills and mortgage when I moved in, so we cut every corner and pinched every penny.

It was under these pressured circumstances that I was quietly working in the office when the “Zen master” suddenly walked in and began screaming at the top of his lungs at me for making a long- distance phone call for business reasons during a time when rates were higher. As Zen students, we were taught to “eat the blame,” so I did, and simply apologized until he went away. A few days later, having complained to the temple director who told him that the reduced rate times for calling were different in the U.S. than in Canada, he sheepishly reappeared in the office and said he hadn’t had full information. This was somewhat short of an “I’m sorry I unfairly vented my rage on you.” But it was the best I could get under the circumstances.

I couldn’t talk to anyone outside our temple system about such incidents because they would immediately say, “Why don’t you leave?” And the fact was, I was also learning a great deal. There were so many beautiful aspects of our communal temple life of meditating together and manual work, cooking and cleaning and eating together. The teacher was also immensely talented and caring in many ways. It was confusing, and in the Buddhist practice we were doing, it was okay not to know everything at once.

Traditional Zen stories and Zen lore are full of anecdotes that involve hitting and yelling and enduring unfair accusations. By the time I became a renunciant, I was an adult woman with a master’s degree. I’d been married and divorced. I had worked various jobs in the secular world. And I’d been exposed to the women’s movement and lived through the civil rights era in the U.S. I was open to going through some strong, and even traumatizing experiences for the sake of spiritual training.

Things continued to be a dynamic mess. I ended up in an Asian monastery for 8 months in 1987-88. There, my life and identity as I had known them continued to be blown up. As I said some time after I returned, I felt as though I got completely chewed up by the patriarchy.

It is also completely possible that if I had been smarter and had better boundaries, I wouldn’t have ended up as badly as I did.

But I survived. I got back to California, and, struggling continuously with extreme poverty, raised a Buddhist child, and continued my practice. I promised my son and myself that I would find a way to live in Buddhist community where power was more equally distributed, and codes of ethics and democratic structures were in place. Buddhist life might continue to be a mess. But I wanted, at minimum, a more workable mess that aligned with my cultural values. I distinctly remember thinking, upon returning to the U.S. from the Asian monastic system, “I don’t have to get my way, but I will be damned if I don’t at least get to vote. I am an American, and I want my vote!”

I didn’t want to overthink any of this. All systems and forms have limitations, and attachment creates suffering – this is a universal principle of Buddhism which I personally have never found to be untrue. That being said, the reason I began Zen meditation in the first place was because I wanted to find a situation in which I could live with other people with forms of practice that encourage well-being, kindness and justice, while at the same time providing support for Awakening. And I’ve been fortunate, because I’ve spent the last eleven years working with others to create a diverse and social justice-centered urban meditation center in Oakland, California, where I live. For me, and for many others, East Bay Meditation Center has been the intersection of Dharma practice and community-based social justice activism and awareness where I can constantly explore Liberation in ways that don’t separate the spiritual world from the real experiences of structural violence that I experience or witness every day.

As a Buddhist teacher at East Bay Meditation Center, I teach in trauma-informed ways that I have learned as a yoga student from the social justice-based Niroga Institute in Oakland, California. The traditional forms of spiritual training that require students to withstand humiliation and abuse from those above them in a hierarchical model are, I’m convinced, not essential to a 21st century Eightfold Path. Why? Because for most people, especially those in communities targeted for oppression, life is already full of traumatic humiliation and abuse. What we need are ways to become resilient, whole, and wise in seeking environmentally sustainable ways to coexist nonviolently and joyfully.

My Bodhisattva vows, the same as millions of others who have taken these vows, are “to save the many beings.” Where the rubber meets the road is that we are different from one another, love is not always the answer, and conflict is inevitable. I’m fine with this particular dynamic mess of imperfection, as long as it’s worked with in the service of systemic justice and equity.

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