Interview with Jack Maguire
- I had a health crisis with my back... suddenly I wanted very much to break away from my self-absorption, and that led me to Buddhism.
- Buddhism teaches that the only authority you have is your personal experience.
- I’m doing one book now on essential Buddhism, which is an introduction to Buddhism in general, and then a book on a week in a Zen monastery, which is a first person account and very much about Zen. And I’ve worked Zen parables and teaching tales and stories into other books.
Ann: In which spiritual tradition were you raised?
Jack: My father was Catholic and my mother was Protestant, and I was raised as a Christian; I went to Catholic school till I was twelve, and I was allowed to choose where to go after that. I chose to go to a Protestant school, and I stayed with that into college.
Ann: Was it specifically a religious school, or was it a local high school?
Jack: Oh, the school was local; I was raised in Columbus, Ohio.
Ann: Would you say that you've been following a spiritual path since you were a young boy?
Jack: I suppose; I never questioned the fact that I was spiritual. I stopped going to church in college, and I was very much a hippie. My spiritual search in the sixties was pretty much through drugs. But I did think of that as a spiritual search, as did the people I was with. Although I didn't call myself Pagan, it was something like the way I understand the neo-Pagan movement. I'd always had a sort of personal quest idea, but it was very personal, it was very much about self-development. But as I understand spirituality now, I wasn't pursuing any formal spiritual path other than trying to be a nice guy.
Ann: You weren't looking for the deeper messages in life; you were looking for your own self-development, your own expansion?
Jack: Pretty much. I did that until I was about forty-eight, and then I had a health crisis with my back. I finally found out that I had a herniated lower disk, and it gradually got worse and worse. It was the first serious health crisis I'd ever had that no one could identify, and no one could tell me whether it was going to get better, it was just degenerating.
This happened over a period of maybe three or four months, and sometimes I'd have days when I'd have to lie flat on my back. Other days I could hobble around, but it was painful. It really made me address questions of life and death and ask, How am I going to be able to survive something like this? Suddenly I wanted very much to break away from my self-absorption, and that led me to Buddhism. I knew that I wanted a meditative spiritual path, something that would still the chatterbox in my mind that was always either censoring me or giving me anxiety. I also felt that my back was a sort of mind over matter thing. We're taught to think pain is bad, and we're not supposed to have it, which makes it worse. We think there's something wrong if we have pain, and I wanted to get out of that mindset-I figured I might have to in order to live. So my desire for a meditative path sort of pre-inclined me to Buddhism, because at the time I didn't associate any other religions with meditation. I had a friend in California who was involved in insight meditation, and she took me to Spirit Rock, in Marin County. I didn't ask her point-blank about Buddhism or the practice or what it meant for her, but I've always really liked her, and her example inspired me. So I came away from that experience wanting to practice Buddhism. For a few months I went to the Tibetan Center in Woodstock for periodic retreats. I finally wound up going to Zen Mountain Monastery, which is about an hour away from here, in Mt. Tremper. I think the first time I went there was February, 1994, for a retreat. I really responded to it positively right from the start, and became a student later that year. And then I took Buddhist vows in September of 1996.
Ann: So you're a monk?
Jack: No, taking vows is just a confirmation that you are a Buddhist.
Ann: You just declare that this is your path?
Jack: Well you take the five precepts, and Zen Mountain Monastery has an additional five. It's the culmination of a training program that you go through. You sew a rakusu, which is a bib-like garment. It has all these traditional forms-the front of it looks like a rice paddy. You sew it in the context of a retreat; every stitch you say, "One with the Buddha, one with the dharma, one with the sangha." And then there's a ceremony in which you receive your dharma name and your student robe. Because it's a teacher-based religion, right from the start you're in an educational training program that involves reading, face to face teaching contact. So it's more than just going to services, it's not a devotional religion, you're not praying.
Ann: And is it Tibetan, or Chinese, or something else?
Jack: It's Japanese Zen. Buddhism has three divisions: One is called Theravada, and that's mostly practiced in Southeast Asia. That was the original sect in India (although Buddhism has sort of faded out of India now), so it's the most ancient. And then there's Mahayana Buddhism, which spread through China and then into Tibet and Japan, Korea, and then down to Vietnam. And Mahayana Buddhism has many sects, one of which is Zen, which began in China as Ch'an. And then Tibetan Buddhism became something all its own. It's a division of Mahayana Buddhism, but it evolved into something called Vajrayana Buddhism, which is more Tantric and magical. So that's a quick overview!
Ann: Now, did this help you with your back?
Jack: Yes, it did. I think it was helpful to be very, very mindful about my back. Zen is pretty much the study of the self to the point where you can forget the self, you can be done with it.
Ann: So the pain is still there, but you're done with it?
Jack: Well it doesn't get so bad anymore, because I'm aware much earlier of doing things that might be the origin of the pain. I'm much more aware of myself and much quicker to make the right response, so I've been able to keep it under control.
Also, there's a lot of sitting in Zen-well, I actually kneel. There's a little bench you kneel on, and that teaches you very good posture. For six months of the year I sit for one-half-hour a day, at least. I might sit more. The spring and fall are more intensive study periods in Zen Buddhism, because during the monsoon time in Asia, the wandering monks in Buddhism's early history went indoors and did
things more intensely. So at those times I sit twice as much, an hour a day. And then in the course of going to the monastery, there are a lot of retreats; you have to spend two weeks a year there-one in each of the intense practice periods-when you're sitting seven hours a day in thirty-five minute segments. You learn to keep your posture healthy and comfortable, and you also learn that your pain escalates dramatically if you start to resist it, or fight it, or deny it, or stonewall it, or detach yourself from it. And even though you're in physical pain, you learn it's not going to kill you, and it's not going to get better if you wiggle. You learn that it's temporary, and it's not evil; it may not be pleasant, but you don't have to panic and leap to extreme judgments about it, you don't have to think, "This is intolerable."
Ann: You're a writer?
Jack: I've been a writer since about 1978. Before that I was an English teacher at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ann: Do you miss that at all?
Jack: I do miss teaching. I storytell now, that's how I make half my living. So that helps-there's contact with all sorts of students.
Ann: When you moved into being a Buddhist, did it change your writing?
Jack: I wrote a lot more in the first person after I became a Buddhist, by choice, because Buddhism teaches that the only authority you have is your personal experience. And the religion actually comes out of personal experience-there's not a book, it's not a religion of the revealed word, like Christianity, Islam or Judaism. There's no central text, it's all mind to mind, teacher to student-learned by face-to-face teaching.
Buddhism stresses being true to yourself and what you are actually experiencing, the belief being that if you're experiencing something authentically then it's a human experience that anyone can relate to. Zen teaches that it's dangerous when you have false authority or stand as a representative of something other than yourself. So yes, I've done a lot more first person writing in my projects, a lot more anecdotal writing. If it's not about me, then it might be about someone else's experience; I use a lot more quotes from other people. Plus I'm doing projects that are actually Buddhist. I'm doing one book now on essential Buddhism, which is an introduction to Buddhism in general, and then a book on a week in a Zen monastery, which is a first person account and very much about Zen. And I've worked Zen parables and teaching tales and stories into other books.
Ann: And was it your choice to do this or were you asked to?
Jack: No, the Buddhism books came to me through my agent; I was asked to do both those books. I didn't think I was ready to go out and claim authority and write about Buddhism, but as long as I keep it about personal experience-or very basic, so that I'm not teaching religion, just offering information about it-it's not too bad. It was my choice to make other books more anecdotal and to incorporate Buddhist stories.
Ann: And the next question is whether you've ever lost faith in your tradition, and it really refers to the tradition you grew up with; but you didn't have a deep faith in that, did you?
Jack: No, my faith in Christianity just sort of faded out. I had an extremely intense Christian period when I was right at puberty. Almost psychotically so-I really wanted to be a perfect person like Jesus, and I was extremist about it. It separated me from other people, it was very isolating-to the point where my parents eventually had to take me out of school, and I went to a shrink for a while. I feel like I had my religious crisis or catharsis then. After that I still went to church-I mean I liked going, and I liked the feeling I got there. But I always used to assume, given the Christian idea of God, that God was something one human being couldn't possibly fathom or understand or envision-the human mind was too limited to do that. So I didn't even try to do it, I just went to church with the attitude of obedience or devotion. I really didn't see a way to grapple with faith intellectually or emotionally-the God part of it just seemed too remote.
Ann: You went to a Protestant Church?
Jack: It was interdenominational, very much on the model of Norman Vincent Peale and fairly progressive. The teen-age program at the church I went to consisted of going around to other churches and visiting them and then talking about them, very non-judgmentally.
Ann: So that was quite a broad experience.
Jack: It was a very nice, very ecumenical experience.
Ann: So it wasn't fundamentalist?
Jack: No, just the opposite. My mother had a lot of faith, and I liked that about her, but my mother is also a disciplinarian, pretty stern. And I was definitely looking for something much more open about my lifestyle. I never thought that attitude fit with what I understood Christianity to be. Although I never lost my respect for it-I guess I didn't feel like I was important enough to reject it. It just didn't draw me. I tend to be drawn to spiritual people though. Most of the women I dated were pretty religious, though they weren't necessarily all Christian.
Ann: But their spiritual path was important.
Jack: Yeah, that seemed to draw me to them. And Tom's a very spiritual person.
Ann: So you have a good background in Protestantism and Catholicism, and now a strong knowledge of Buddhism. Are there any other spiritual paths that you've looked into?
Jack: Well, my mother's side of the family is Jewish, and they came over here before World War I and converted-changed their name, changed their religion and became Protestant. And they never told my mother-and I didn't even learn, my mother never told me, until I was in college. I was very attracted to Jews as friends, I was very drawn to their faith. I think partly because there was no Christ figure, to my mind there was a little less mythology Jews were asked to accept. And it was tribal; I think I was probably looking for a community. I was very drawn to Judaism, I don't know if that had anything to do with my roots. It amazes me that my grandmother would convert-I just don't think of that as something Jewish people do, except under extreme duress. So their faith must not have been that strong. I think they just really wanted to live out the American dream. They were probably escaping some sort of persecution in Germany, because they weren't impoverished.
Ann: And do you see anything harmonious about those paths, any ways in which they are similar that would enrich a person's spiritual path?
Jack: I always saw in all of them some way to avoid the monolithic corporate consumer culture and its emphasis on being an isolated individual making your way to the top. I really thought of spirituality as a correction against that sort of arrogance. I saw it as a way of learning how to be more grateful for what was already available-or what was available to you every moment, instead of being constantly restless for more, or complaining, "This isn't quite it." And community was tied into it. I don't see much community in the workplace, I don't see much community in schools, I don't see much community even in people just living together, because I've been to communes a lot. It really has to be something more-community teaches you to respect others as living beings, and it teaches that you have a kinship with others that's more than biological-it's spiritual.
Ann: Would you consider that questioning time a good part of your life?
Jack: Very much so. It was wonderful, I was really glad I was able to do it. You know, there are many young people at the monastery I go to; some of them just stay and go on the monastic path. And it just amazes me when I think of kids being mature enough to do that. I have to remind myself that what I did was also spiritual seeking, it just took a wildly different form. I really think that that's what people want to do at that point in their lives, and I feel so sorry for all the people who are just stuck immediately-they're pushed through school, and then they're pushed into the job market. It seems to be easing up, but during the seventies and eighties it just seemed like the competition was so great, there were just so many people, there was no question that you had to nail down a job. When I grew up it was this cornucopian society; you didn't have to worry about that.
Ann: Now, of course you practice meditation as a Buddhist. Do you do that here at your own house?
Ann: Is it silent meditation?
Jack: Yes; I'm doing koan study. There are many ways to focus your attention when you're meditating. A very crude way of putting it is that you're trying to empty your head of thoughts. But, of course, you'll never do that, there will always be thoughts bouncing around. So you're trying to minimize them or tame them or be able to let them go if you want to and move on to the next thought, rather than holding on to them, attaching to them. There are various mechanisms that aim at this. One is just counting your breaths; you might count up to ten and then start over again. It's just amazing how hard it is to even get to ten.
Ann: I have a wonderful tape of a Tibetan master and he says he never got to ten! This fine old Buddhist gentleman, and he says, "I never got to ten." So we don't need to beat ourselves up.
Jack: It's hard, but the idea is that whenever a thought arises you just acknowledge it, you don't try to deny it or shove it down, you acknowledge it and you just let it go. In some other traditions-they don't necessarily do this in Zen, but it's not like you couldn't I suppose, it just happens not to be a Zen technique-in other traditions they'll say something dismissive to themselves about a thought they're having, like, "That is an angry thought," or, "That is about my concern for Ruth."
Ann: But you honor it by saying, "This is what it is, I really see it."
Jack: Well we try not to articulate it, just note that it's there and let it go.
Koan study is another means of focusing attention, and typically after you've done the breath for a few years, you move on to koan study, or you have that option. You get a sort of statement, or a story that doesn't make any rational sense, there's no way to have it make rational sense. And you sit with it, sort of pondering it, not thinking about it, because thinking just won't go anywhere. Inevitably you think about it, but it winds up not helping. Then you periodically have a meeting with the abbot, and he tests your understanding of the koan. And that's how you know that just thinking about it doesn't work.
It's very hard to talk about because it's the type of thing you have to experience. A sample koan, one that's most often used as an introductory koan, is this story: A monk went up to Master Joshu and said, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" and Joshu answered "Mu," which is the Japanese word for "nothing." That's the koan.
"What is mu?" is the question that comes out of the koan. Whenever you run in for your conference with the abbot, he'll say, "What is mu?" And you're not supposed to say it, you're supposed to show it. So again, you have to get out of words and verbalization. You know you can't use your intellect or your charm or your sense of humor or your rationalizing-all that stuff you do in your head to avoid facing
things. So it's hard. It took me-well it can take people years and years and years to pass mu. And it took me a long time. Another koan is, What is the sound of one hand clapping? You can't make sense of it rationally. It's about trusting yourself. We're so used to thinking, "BANG, I'm already onto the answer," or "I'm already onto thinking about the answer." We have no tolerance for just sitting with mysteries, and trusting that eventually your mind is going to go, "Oh! I get it!" That's what happens.
Ann: But you can't say it, so even if you get it?
Jack: That's why it's lasted for centuries; you wonder, Well, why can't we tell each other? But that doesn't work, it's different for every individual.
Ann: So it's just your presence in front of the teacher that demonstrates that you got it? Or do you make a movement or some change?
Jack: You have to do something, but it may be your presence, or it may not.
Ann: I can just feel tension in the back of my head thinking about it, because I like to find the answer. I'm very American and very absolute!
Jack: I think Christianity is often presented as easy. The way I was brought up in Christianity, I was spoon-fed it as a kid and then spoon-fed a little more. I always felt I understood it on some level. And then you reach a point where you think, "This is far more mysterious than I was ever led to believe," and you drop it. Whereas with something like Zen it's roaringly mysterious from the beginning-so the people who stay on are the ones who are going to sit with the mystery, and the people who want an immediate answer just fade out. There's nothing for them to do! They can just sit there, trying to think of nothing-some people just never get comfortable sitting still, I mean just physically still.
Ann: Absolutely, their whole being is into action and movement.
Jack: It's very much a religion that has physical demands. It involves you physically and mentally. In addition to the sitting I also have small things I do. There's a little work verse I recite?
Ann: Could you share that?
Jack: It wouldn't mean a whole lot! It doesn't say anything about work. It's simply a way of saying that this too is something that you're going to do with your Buddha nature, with your best self. So there are little things, mindful things. Every ango period, in the spring and fall, you sign up for a bunch of different projects you're going to do. You have art practice, a project is due at the end of three months. For me it's storytelling, I have a story to tell based on whatever particular sutra we're studying for that ango. The ango is what the period is called. And then there's a simple mindfulness activity you undertake for three months. It might be something like going up and down stairs. So that every time you do it you don't just do it without thinking about it. Brushing your teeth is another typical mindfulness activity, or washing the dishes.
Ann: Wash the dish as if it's the Baby Buddha, right? I heard that, and I thought it was so lovely. Rather than bitch and complain, "Oh, here are the dishes again," you really do it with great care and love.
Jack: It emphasizes that no moment is more sacred than another.
Ann: It's not Sunday that's sacred, or whatever day you make it church day or temple day, it's every day, and everything that you do. That's a beautiful philosophy.
Jack: Although of course, Buddhists do have Sunday service.
Ann: But it is really about the moment to moment?
Jack: Yes, which also means that you don't have guilt, because you don't dwell in the past, you don't dwell in the future, it's all about now. I mean, we definitely have regret, you can feel bad feelings-but other spiritual paths I've been on were pretty much about accumulating guilt; or that was how I responded to them. I felt like I wasn't being good enough. That involved comparing myself with someone else, which is separating yourself from yourself. Or it involved trying to be good for a result, "If I'm good I'll gain this." There's no gain in Zen. Other forms of Buddhism have different ways of talking about rebirth and going to a better life if you're good in this life. But Zen's pretty much like, you die-and you die! Well, I mean, no molecules ever get destroyed, you go back into the universe somehow.
Ann: Is there any rebirth, or no?
Jack: Well they just don't address it much. I mean they don't deny it-it's like they don't say that God doesn't exist, they just don't address the issue. Which is why a lot of people feel comfortable being Christian Buddhists, Zen Christians, like Thomas Merton. A lot of people think of it as a philosophy, because they can only think of a religion as something that is about God or worship or afterlife. In
many bookstores you won't find Buddhism under "Religion," you'll find it under "Eastern Philosophy," or something.
Ann: Have you moved on so that you're a monk now?
Jack: No, I'm a student; you always remain a student, even if you're a monk. A monk is someone who takes even more strict vows and, in most cases, lives in a monastic community. And if a teacher ever transmits to you, then you finally become a teacher.
Ann: So the teachers make the choice?
Jack: Yes. There are usually just a few transmissions at most in the teacher's lifetime; that's after years of study on the part of a student.
Ann: Do you have just one teacher or do you have many teachers?
Jack: I have a primary teacher who supervises me and with whom I do koan study. I have access to two other teachers-I can't do koan study with them, but I have access to them because they teach at the monastery. My teacher is in his seventies, and he's transmitted to two of his students who have been there for fifteen years, one woman and one man. They have about twelve monks altogether. But no, to be a monk I'd have to be living at the monastery. And then eventually I'd need to give up all my worldly possessions, I couldn't be in a relationship-well I could, but I wouldn't be able to see Tom except on weekends!
Ann: That idea will just have to die on the vine, right? Now are these Asian teachers or are they American?
Jack: They're American; my teacher's teacher was Asian. So we're now in the second generation of American teachers. But if you go back two generations they were all Asian.
Ann: I have some kind of classic questions, which may not fit at all. They're really talking about God. The question is, Can God hear us when we talk to Him or Her? But in Zen you're not talking to a higher being are you?
Jack: No, you're venerating the Buddha and all the ancestors as teachers, as human beings. I have a chart that lists the eighty-eight people from Buddha to my teacher. Ancestor veneration is very important in Asia, so I know the whole teaching lineage: this person taught this person face to face, this person taught this person face to face-and I can go all the way back to Buddha. So you're tapped into that lineage, and you're also supposed to honor your family lineage.
Ann: Can you call on them? Can you call on that lineage?
Jack: Not really. It's tricky, I haven't been able to figure that out. I sort of miss prayer, and when I brought that up with my abbot he mentioned this book by Evelyn Underhill called Mysticism, in which she talks about the seven levels of prayer. First there's asking for something, but then there's tapping into something you recognize as a larger sense of being, and just opening yourself up to it, not asking for anything. I think that's the level of prayer Buddhism is aiming at, and I think maybe that's the whole point of meditating.
We call it raising the bodhi mind or realizing your Buddha nature. It's like you're letting go of whatever makes you separate. You're allowing your sense of connection to the universe to arise. I find it very grounding in that respect. Times when I'd be tempted to pray, I might just study and maybe sit with whatever dilemma I'm facing and treat it like a koan-not try to rationalize it but just sit with it. That helps a lot sometimes. And there are services on Sundays where they wish health to people who are sick that week. I go to services on Sunday, and I also go Wednesday night for koan study.
Ann: So koan study; what does that look like?
Jack: Well, technically you're just going to sit. And if the abbot's there-sometimes he's not-you'll be sitting and then suddenly you'll hear a bell ring from the abbot's room, and then you dash to the line outside that room. The rush is traditional, it shows your eagerness, but it also gets you in line-the ones who don't dash might not make it. And the abbot rings the bell again, and the one who's in the front of the line runs in, and there's a little bowing, and formal gestures you go through-it's very formal inside. And then you present your understanding of the koan. He may just say, "No," and ring the bell and you run out, your whole presentation can last for a few seconds. Sometimes he'll ask you if you have any other questions, and then you can go into something that's a little more like a talk about a problem you're having. But it's not an intellectual discussion.
Ann: Or a counseling session.
Jack: Right, they warn against coming to religion for psychotherapeutic purposes. They're really trying to distinguish if you just have a psychological question, or if you have a religious question. And the religious questions are the ones about life, like, What is the meaning of life and death? The psychotherapeutic questions are, How can I live a happier life? How can I be happier? How can I be more fulfilled? How can I be less fearful? To me it's a fine line, but they seem clear about it.
Ann: But something about your back?
Jack: Yes, that was deep enough to lead me there. Before that I'd always had questions like, How can I be happier? How can I be a better person? And I was sort of satisfying my need just by doing nice things, being good, thinking good thoughts, reading. You know when you read about it, you say, "Oh, when someone's threatened with a major illness of course they're going to turn to religion." But then when it happens to you, you realize it's not just that they're afraid they're going to die and not go to heaven or something. You suddenly think, "What are you doing with your life here? You're just earning money and buying things." And you really want to do more with your life, you really want to have a deeper connection. I've been through other life traumas-they took psychological forms, or psychotherapeutic ones-and those can bring people to religion, but they didn't for me. I was too able to satisfy those crises in the secular world.
Ann: There are people of all ages at your monastery?
Jack: Yes, although the two big groups are people that in their twenties and people in their forties. And there are people there who have families, but it's pretty much an individual path, oddly enough. Buddhism doesn't have the tradition that Christianity has of weaving family life into religious life. So that's a little odd. There tend to be single people or people whose children have grown up-but there
are some families that come.
Ann: Are there any family gatherings at all?
Jack: Not many. They have a kids program once a month at the monastery. But it's sort of like Sunday school, the kids aren't mixed in with the adults.
Ann: Zen Buddhism seems so austere to me.
Jack: Tibetan Buddhism's a lot more colorful. This is making the most superficial type of judgment, but I was originally attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because it seemed to have more heart to it, or more art to it. It was more like the Catholic Church. I think there's more of a devotional element in it, and there's more magic involved. I don't know why I wound up with this very austere, almost militaristic regimen. I was really surprised that that was what I wanted. It was a real lesson to me. I remember talking to a Tibetan teacher because I knew I wasn't quite settling there. Of course, the Tibetan teacher didn't speak English, and we spoke through a translator, which also sort of bothered me. But he said, "Oh, you'll know your teacher when you find it."
I thought, "Sure." But that's what happened. You just have to trust those things. There's nothing you can buy that will show you how to do it.
Ann: No, but there are guides, and there are stimuli?
Jack: Yes, and they have their use. But you really have to take a risk.
Ann: Absolutely, and it's in the risk that you become centered or grounded or tapped in-whatever language you want to use.
Jack: There are three basic pillars of Zen, or the three basic qualities of Zen: great faith, great doubt and great determination. And they want you to have that great doubt. They want you to think at any moment, "This is hogwash." You've got to keep challenging it; if you just accept it blindly, what good is that? You're just making a fetish out of it.
Ann: Well it becomes bland, you're just repeating somebody else's words?
Jack: So I'm always thinking, "Why am I doing this? What does this mean?" It does force you to constantly question, which was a drag for me for a while. For a while before you start koan study, every time you meet the abbot he's going to ask you if you have a question. And I would think, I have tons of questions! But could I think of one question to ask the abbot when I got in there? I couldn't. It really shows you how many things you think about yourself that just aren't really true. You may think you have loads of questions, but you haven't formulated any of them. But it gets easier the more you do it.
Ann: And you can feel the depth of your own questioning.
Jack: You really feel the changes, but you have to have a lot of faith if you don't feel the changes right away. It's really only looking back, rewinding, that you sense the difference.
Ann: What about looking at the people? When I've tried to choose spiritual teachers, if they're radiant in some way then I stick around. It's like I see something there that's more. And then I'll do the work, because I want to be in a place where the light is larger and the questions are more important and the service is higher. Otherwise it just becomes mundane.
Jack: Sometimes it's just seeing someone's eyes, sometimes it's hearing a voice, sometimes it's seeing someone move. As I said, you're asked to live at the monastery two weeks a year. That provides opportunities to see the model of the monastics. You see that they have energy with no sleep, and you see how they do that. You see them treating everything very reverentially, and you just want to do that, because it looks like it feels so good to have that ability. It keeps you from hungering, from thinking, "Well I've just got through this hour because I have this fifteen minutes to look forward to tonight." The monastics just don't have that strain in their lives-they look like they're really looking forward to each moment, whatever they're doing. It's really inspiring, and hard to translate to the outside world. There's too much distraction outside, too much need to be with other people and not living this whole separate life.
That's something that's unique to American Buddhism, they're really wrestling with it; there's no lay practice in Asia. You're a monk, or you're not a Buddhist. I mean you may support Buddhism-there are lots of Asians who would call themselves Buddhist, or we would call them Buddhist, but they support monastic life rather than leading Buddhist lives themselves. But here in America they actually want people to have a lay practice. That's tricky; you really have to decide how much you're going to compromise.
Ann: Your lay practice consists of doing meditation?
Jack: Well, you bring certain precepts to your life. They're sort of like the Commandments, except the precepts are more like guidelines. For example, the first one is "Affirm life, do not kill." And you have to interpret that on your own, there are no fixed rules. You don't have to be a vegetarian if you're Buddhist, but a lot of Buddhists are, that's how they interpret that precept. Some feel that you can't swat a mosquito.
I don't have those particular rules for myself-I eat meat and I swat mosquitoes and wear leather. So it's up to you to decide how much you're going to let each precept into your life. Now if it became more and more intolerable for me to make money and participate in the capitalist culture, then I would eventually find myself on the monastic path. I think that's how you decide if you're ready for it or not. But it's not as if one path is better than another. You can have a calling to a lay life, and there can be all sorts of valuable work to do there. You're not supposed to be down on yourself because you're not obeying someone else's image. Wanting not to eat meat would need to be a conviction that bloomed within me, not a decision not to eat meat because so-and-so doesn't, or because my religion tells me not to.
Ann: It's like a purification, and then you're ready for the next step.
Jack: Well, in Buddhism they think you're inherently pure and perfect. There are just habits and conditions you've acquired that you have to strip away to get to your Buddha nature, which is the inherent perfection. Which is why when you sit and think nothing and do nothing, you're closest to being your perfect self. All the other responses you tend to make during the day are conditioned habits, so it's a matter of reconditioning yourself, and everyone takes that at their own pace.
There are certain habits that I'm ready to let go, and there are others I'm just not. That's authentic. If I were to embrace vegetarianism now it'd be an intellectual decision. I might decide to experiment with it at some point-but then if I drop it, I'll think I've sinned-and Buddhists just don't have that sin/redemption thing.
Ann: My next question is whether spiritual community important to you.
Jack: I don't think you can do it alone, I really think you need other people. You can't direct yourself if you're an actor-or maybe you could, some people do. But you need someone else to tell you how you look. You can't be trusted to really know that yourself. I think you need that little corrective. In Zen you have to have a teacher, you can't do it with-out. Which is sort of a burden, I mean they're not everywhere.
Ann: So you have to live someplace where you can follow a teacher.
Jack: Yes, or visit someplace regularly. They're thinking that maybe, with the Internet, there might be other ways of working this.
Ann: There's still the limit of the teachers.
Jack: Yes, and their goal is to actually see what you're doing-but it might work with interactive video.
Ann: But there's something profound about face-to-face contact. What does Zen Buddhism say about bad things happening to good people?
Jack: They're very hesitant to label things good and bad in themselves. It's when you start thinking, "Oh this is awful, this is bad," that your experience is going to be bad, no matter what! There are all sorts of stories they tell about this. One of them is about a poor man who lives with his teenage son. Their one possession is a horse, and they need the horse to ride to market, to pull their cart, to do the plowing-and the horse runs away. So everyone says, "Oh, what bad luck!"
And the man says, "No, wait and see, wait and see."
Well, the horse winds up leading a whole pack of wild horses back to their farm. And everyone says, "What good luck!"
He says, "No, wait, we'll see, we'll see."
Then the son rides one of the horses and tries to tame it, and he falls and shatters his leg. Everyone says, "Oh no! What bad luck."
And the man says, "No, we'll wait and see."
Before long an officer comes around from the court, conscripting young boys to fight an impossible war. And of course, all the boys in the neighborhood go except for the son, and they're all killed, and all his neighbors say, "Oh what good fortune you have!" And it goes on and on.
Even if you're capable of judging a horrible thing intellectually, what good is going to come out of that? It presupposes that there's a good thing, and if you get it things will be fine. If your goal is health you think, "Once I get my health restored my life will be perfect."
Ann: My back doesn't hurt anymore?
Jack: Yes! I'll find just as many things to complain about. So they try to get you out of thinking that things are good and bad in that sense. Also, whatever happens to you can be looked at as a challenge to your faith. And I think this is true of Christianity and all religions. But it's a testing ground, and you want to have those testing grounds. It's part of that great doubt idea in Zen-you really want to have those confrontational things. If it's easy, what's the point of doing it? It's just not going to give you much, you get what you pay for. So-this is like an abbot speaking-embrace misfortune! You've lost your job? How wonderful! Fear is the flip side of excitement; when you're in that position, you're wide open to a million possibilities. When something awful has happened, you're on this trail that's an adventure. You have a chance to rework all sorts of conditionings.
Ann: But in those situations you need knowledge and community?
Jack: And maybe then you'll appreciate the value of that experience, when you didn't before. Or maybe then you'll see that this horrible thing has happened for a reason and not just totally out of the blue. Although that's getting intellectual, and then you can start blaming yourself. The point is to be one with whatever's happened to you, without separating from it and making judgments. So if something bad happens, the tendency is to say that there's some force that inflicted this on me for a reason, if I could only find out that reason. As I understand Buddhism, the universe doesn't work that mechanistically.
Ann: So it's certainly not karma?
Jack: Well, some forms of Buddhism would say that.
Ann: This challenge is because you're paying off a debt?
Jack: Yeah, you had some karmic thing going on. But karma's not fate or predetermination, tit for tat-karma is just cause and effect. So the way to start breaking out of that chain is to change what you do to produce better effects. You don't lament where you are or things that are in the past. A real misunderstanding of karma would be, "Oh this person was born poor and ugly. They must have done something horrible in their previous life." That's not what it's about.
There's collective karma. If someone drops an atom bomb on you, and your child's born deformed, that's not your fault. Whole nations have karma that can affect individuals. So it's much more complex than, for example, if you swat a fly here that means you're going to be reborn with a humped back. That's why Buddhists in Japan were just in agony when the Japanese government was leading them into World War II. Karma is chains of events. One chain is what you do, one is what the people around you do. For us karma exists on the national level, whereas maybe that chain doesn't exist for peasants in some remote area of China who never connect with other people on a national level. Just by being in the world most people actually make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of karmic connections.
Ann: You've already spoken about what happens when you die; it's just not a question.
Jack: It's more or less not a question-I think Zen doesn't address it because they think, what's the point? As a Buddhist sect I don't think that they can deny rebirth, that's a big deal. But rebirth is not reincarnation. Some schools of Buddhism do believe in reincarnation; in Tibetan Buddhism certain great masters are reincarnated, but not everyone.
Ann: So, the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation?
Jack: Yes, but by rebirth, Buddhists just mean that your little spark of energy sets the next life in motion. The analogy they often use is a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball. It doesn't mean that your personality carries over. They just believe that that dynamic matter is back to inspire another birth. So you could maybe trace your lives back, but it isn't as if the reason you're left-handed in this life is that you've been left-handed in previous lives?
Ann: How about wisdom? Or even gifts, such as your gift for writing or storytelling?
Jack: That would not be reborn. Those are personal attributes that one develops. Now those things might come through genes; Buddhists also acknowledge the genetic line.
Ann: So these are family traits that have been passed down and developed? And then if you're born into a family of storytellers, the possibility that you'll be a storyteller is that much greater. But that spark of life comes into the world quite free of personal attributes.
Jack: Yes. You know, because of the angle of the billiard ball, when it starts the next life it's going to start it at a certain angle, and that's sort of what karma is about. This life was the cause of this life, or this life is the effect of this life. But again, I'm speaking about something that I don't know that much about. Zen just doesn't address it.
Zen believes you can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, so it doesn't have to address rebirth that much. Other sects pretty much guarantee it'll take a number of lifetimes, innumerable lifetimes. So they have a different outlook on rebirth. I found that very comforting about Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism acknowledges both options. You can be enlightened in this lifetime, but that's only if you're at the end of a long chain of lifetimes. More likely it's just one little part of your journey. I liked that because it made me less important as an individual but all the more important as a little seed of life. If I lived wholly and shiningly in this life, that whole strand in the future would be a better path. So it was less about my personality and more about my core being, this spirit of life. I love that about Tibetan Buddhism. But I like that you don't even have to address that in Zen. You just die and go back into the universe.
Ann: So to close, what else would you like to say about your journey or about Buddhism to people who are questioning and hungry?
Jack: Well, it amazed me that I needed to have a faith or a religion to give structure to my spirituality. I really thought, sometimes overtly and sometimes just subliminally, that I didn't need that structure as long as I was a nice person and spiritually attuned in general. It surprised me that I wound up in a religion-there was a thirty-year period during which I really didn't associate myself with a religion.
You know we tend to put down religion-structure, authority. But it's like a garden-you really can dig, you really can grow. It's a context. I guess when I finally wound up in a relationship it was similar. I'd been just sort of batcheloring it around, and I was in my mid-thirties. I'd lived with people; I guess the longest relationship was a year and a half. But when I really found a relationship I could commit to, it was like I suddenly went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. It was like I was more than one person-I got out of myself, I could see things from this other person's perspective. It opened up a whole universe to me. It was a little bit like that going into a religion. It opened doors that people have used for centuries and centuries and centuries. You don't just dismiss that by saying, "Oh this doesn't have meaning in my life!" I know there's the danger now of what they call a "designer God" religious approach-a little of this, a little of that. I was doing that a bit, and I just stayed in the search mode. It's like if you stay in the search mode when you're flipping through TV channels with your remote. To me, really investing yourself in a religion is like staying to watch a full program instead of five minutes of this, five minutes of that. There are going to be moments when you think, "Well, this isn't going anywhere," or "I don't particularly like this." But if you don't commit, you just never get a full program. So you can have the intention, but then there has to be a decision and a commitment.
Ann: When the decision is made, something happens inside, right?
Jack: Well, that's the neat thing. If you're just struggling along or wondering, or it just hasn't happened, if you just keep hoping it'll happen, I think it will bloom, sooner or later-something. And I think the more you put yourself in environments where that could happen the more likely it is to happen. When I was trotting around because of my back pain, I just decided, "Well, rather than trot around to all these physical doctors, I'm going to trot around at least equally much to these religious places." I think if you just decide that for maybe six months or a year you're really going to be more intense in your search, even if you're still just searching, something will be more likely to bloom. But I really think there's something in people that's tapped into the deep-seated spiritual impulses that have created all these religions. All religions are about that little thing inside opening up.
Ann: On some level we know that, and that's why we go on a search. And with a great deal of work you find what you need, but it's not an easy search.
Jack: Well if you want to always feel good, you'll never be satisfied. Nothing will make you feel good all the time. Our abbot always says if someone promises you happiness and peace and joy and everything, run away! Run quickly! There are going to be periods of boredom, anger-it's going to be hard, frustrating. There's this spa world, which is fine, I think, but it's not for the same purpose as the spiritual path, which has always been characterized as hard. There's no way to finesse that.
Ann: And the spa path gets hard after a while too. I've known people who've done that-more and more pleasure, more and more delight, more and more diversion. And all of a sudden there's such emptiness, and then they begin to seek. On some level we know that there's more to life. So it's sometimes a valuable thing to go through the pleasure on that path.
Jack: And the advantage of having other people around is that they help you to stay on the path.