Everyday Zen – Charlotte Joko Beck

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The Laundromat is atypically uncrowded and I get two jumbo washers right next to each other so I don’t need to take a deep breath and remind myself to accept life “just as it is.” I was ready for it, though, after spending the morning immersed in Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, a book-length collection of dharma talks on Zen practice, its purpose (no purpose) and the philosophy behind it all. I did manage to misread the SOAK and WASH cycles and dumped the detergent and bleach in the wrong ones. Oh well. Perfection is not the point, after all.

Beck was a plain-speaking, no-nonsense Zen teacher (she died in June at age 94) who covered the Zen precepts from basic practice to enlightenment with stories, examples and candid directives. Sitting zazen—the Zen term for a meditation session—seems uncomplicated: sit, breathe, empty your mind. But it is a rigorous practice that exacerbates or initiates aches and pains and could torpedo your psyche. Get too emotionally uncomfortable, a very real possibility, and you might abandon the effort in order to avoid confronting your callous, misguided and unattractive dark side.

The dharma talks explain how—and why—to persevere. “From the withered tree, a flower blooms” is Beck’s favorite quotation from classic Zen teachings, much repeated. Uh oh. Guess who’s the withered tree in this metaphor? The flower represents your progress—maybe a joyful breakthrough or an experience of inner peace. Don’t count on a big explosion of light, O Buddha-wannabe. Imperceptible change is the norm—very incremental. Sit down on your cushion and settle in for the long haul.

It’s a seductive practice, though, tough as it may be. “Enlightenment is not something you achieve,” Beck writes. “It is the absence of something.” Sounds nicely minimalist and elegant, unlike the life of someone with every towel and bathmat in the house putting the soap in the wrong cycle and trying not to splash bleach on herself. I think I soaped too early the last time I was here, too.

Beck cautions that to seek enlightenment is futile and ambitious. Zen is a progressive clarification, a lifetime of lifting veils, shedding misperceptions, accepting the moment. She details ways to handle anger, pain, disillusion, confusion, even breathing. She punctures all the bright balloons of dreamy, nirvana-like states and says simply that you get better at knowing what is true for you and making decisions about your life as you progress.

Duality and individuality are false notions in Zen. Everyone and everything is connected, no separation, no difference. That maniac neighbor who screams and cusses at his kid for six hours straight on Saturday night? You. Every Presidential candidate with his hand out for corporate largess? You. That prune-faced fourth grade teacher who kept you in for almost every recess all year? You. The Dalai Lama? You. All the same. Zen is great physics. Nonduality contradicts James Hillman’s theory of The Soul’s Code, the book I read before this one. Hillman builds his work around the concept of individual fate. Zen is a zebra of another stripe. Not only are you interrelated to the entire universe but nonattachment is a central issue and benefit of all that focused sitting.

Nonattachment loosens the bonds that lash you to your desires so your life becomes calmer, less driven to get and do things, less tinged with disappointment at all you want but don’t have. People who aren’t in the grip of attachment tend to have fewer things, Beck says, but that’s really irrelevant. What is crucial is that you can tell the difference between what is impermanent and what is important. Soap cycle—impermanent. Clean towels—a greater good. All the toys in the toy box? Fine. Few or no toys–make do with your imagination? Also fine. You become free, light and smarter about how to live.

Zen isn’t for everyone. But it isn’t some esoteric practice reserved for a few hardy initiates either. Sit every day, according to Beck, and you’ll gradually open your life to a quiet joy and a peaceful acceptance of each moment as it is.

Everyday Zen: Love and Work (Plus)   Charlotte Joko Beck | HarperSanFrancisco  1989

6 responses »

  1. Love her books! So clear and so accessible. You didn’t mention that she was one of the first females to receive Dharma Transmission in the west. I found myself really appreciating some of her observations, which seemed so distinctly female. Perhaps it isn’t this book, but I remember in one of them where she talks about being a mother as a practice. It was a huge relief to hear someone talking about Zen using experiences I could directly relate to as examples of how to practice. She cuts through the bullshit but without a lot of drama. Really, really good book…..

    • I own her book Nothing Special and always liked how accessible it was. This one is the same style. No arcane, abstruse verbiage to get in the way of explaining why it’s fine to sit as your knees scream in pain and your horrible habits parade before your weary eyes. Would be lovely to wander off for a weekend of inspirational dharma talks and sitting in silence–and I might do that one of these years but the motherhood practice thing takes precedence at the moment. One of the most reassuring points in this book is Beck’s idea that sitting improves your ability to make solid decisions–she says we have no problems, only decisions to make. And that Zen lets you see clearly and quickly enough to know the best choices, almost without thinking. That seems worth it.

    • Perhaps not so totally out of reach….I sit with a sangha in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, that has a great Sunday morning program – two periods of sitting and a dharma talk. Lots of mothers (and fathers), all trying to make it work somehow. Lucy even helps out with the once/monthly Zen Kids Program.

      It IS worth it!

      The place is called the Zen Center of NYC – they have a website. It is in the same lineage as Joko Beck (Maezumi Roshi – White Plum Sangha). I am there almost every Sunday if you wanted to see a familiar face….although, oddly (to me), I seem to be the only homeschooler. Not sure why.

      Anyway – to stay on topic. Her books are some of my absolute faves for all the reasons you give. Also love Aitken Roshi’s books.

    • Somewhere around here there is at least one book by Robert Aitken. I’ll have to dig it out. I think I have some of his haiku translations, too. Good tip about the Zen Center. There are a couple in Manhattan that I used to go to but not so regularly–and not at all once single parenthood rearranged my schedule. Could be time to revisit the idea.

  2. Pingback: Be a Light unto yourself: Zen Moments #6 « Ritu’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: Mindfulness. . . where mischief fears to tread. . . « Namaste Consulting Inc.

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