Buddha nirvana

Buddha Nirvana Zen

Posted in Buddha Nirvana by buddhanirvana on August 25, 2009

I blew the dust off of Zen master Joko Beck’s book, Everyday Zen (1998) and opened it to find I had underlined in green ink this part.

“Wisdom is to see that there is nothing to search for.  If you live with a difficult person, that’s nirvana.  Perfect.  If you’re miserable, that’s it.” (p. 151).

It came back to me why I had underlined it.  I thought Beck’s advice was off the wall and counterproductive—especially for a beginner.  Moreover, Beck’s remarks trivialized nirvana and the Buddhist notion of wisdom this being prajñâ

Perhaps Beck assumes that the Buddha’s teaching, which aimed at the beyond (param), which is treated as being synonymous with nirvana, is some kind of clever teaching strategy.  But what kind of strategy is it, in the context of religion, to tell a person that nirvana is simply about living with your ornery husband and your toddler?  Or that it is about being miserable?  It doesn’t make any sense; not if you’ve read much of the Pali canon and the major Mayahana Sutras.

So what’s going on here?  Why does someone like Joko Beck wish to oversimplify Zen Buddhism to the point where it has, essentially, nothing to do with the fundamental teaching of Zen or Buddhism in general? 

Unfortunately, I can only guess.  And one of my guesses is that Zen is easy to mistake for a religion that is telling us to live in the here and now while, at the same time, we must learn to accept things the way they are—not really changing but adapting. 

My next guess is that Joko Beck is presenting Zen as she sees it from her own personal history; not according to what the Buddha actually said or what Bodhidharma said, but what she finds in their teachings that chimes with her own set of ideas and values.  This, alone, is not a bad thing.  It becomes problematic when what Beck teaches and what the Buddha taught are not even on the same page.

There is always a human tendency to take what we find unfathomable, at the time, and attempt to simplify it—even oversimplify it.  But in religion, you can’t really do this because the religion is established on something other-worldly, of extreme subtlety.  Especially with Buddhism, the Buddha’s awakening sees what is truly deathless and untouched by suffering.  It is a profound reality (dharma); a very subtle reality (saddharma) of which he was reluctant to teach to us mortals.  He was also aware of the consequences of teaching such a profound and deep reality, in particular, that it might easily be misconstrued eventually leading to unforeseen problems down the road.

When you actually study the lineage of Joko Beck, namely, Sanbo Kyodan (Three Jewels Organization), reviewing its seminal text, The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, the importance of Mind is gone over extensively in the section entitled, Bassui’s Dharma Talk on One-Mind and Letters to His Disciples.  But in the subsequent works of Joko Beck, Mind is not treated in the same way Bassui treats it.  In fact, from what I can tell, it is not treated at all which is astonishing given that Mind is the centerpiece of Zen—at least Zen before it lands in the U.S.  Incidentally, Bassui (1327–1387) belonged to the Japanese Rinzai school of Zen who was celebrated as a religious genius (he surely was because of his emphasis on Mind).

For me, Zen master Joko Beck’s treatment of Buddhism and specifically Zen underscores how easy it is, once you are in a position of authority, to go your own way forgetting the fact that you were transmitted to carry forth your founder’s lineage, in the case of Joko Beck, Sanbo Kyodan.  You are only permitted to deepen the lineage, that is, to take its elements and enrich them—but not ignore them or oversimplify them.  I see very little evidence that Sanbo Kyodan Zen made any radical changes except to permit Zen to be more open to the lay population.  Given this, Joko Beck’s teaching is quite different as is the teaching of those whom she transmitted.


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