Interview with Roshi Oâ€™Hara (Part 3 of 4)
Your Five Expressions of Zen are meditation, study, communication, action and caring. How did you come to develop these expressions?
There is a rubric, in the Tibetan tradition in particular, of the Five Buddha Families, each of which represents one aspect of an enlightened mind. That’s what inspired me to develop the Five Expressions. They cover what we need to cover.
What makes Zen Buddhism unique in the Buddhist practice?
First we have to look at the cultural source. Zen Buddhism is profoundly influenced by Taoism. Tibetan Buddhism was profoundly influenced by the indigenous Bon religion of the Himalayas. That was a mystical tradition, so a certain mysticism flowed into the Buddhism that arrived in Tibet and Nepal. Likewise, the Buddhism that went to Southeast Asia incorporated cultural elements of those regions. In the early 19th century, Westerners did not know that those were all variants of Buddhism and thought they were different religions. They looked so different and they they began to realized that they were all talking about this person called Buddha. [laughs.] And Zen means “mind.” It’s Taoist, so it tends not to be deity-oriented, much more secular, much more grounded in the everyday. Zen “says” we don’t believe in writing and conversation. However, what’s a little embarrassing is that there’s more written in China and Japan than in the other traditions. Zen had an appeal to the intellectuals in China, and then Japan. But our form of practice is to continually critique the use of language as a way to understand the world.
Is that why there’s a lot of silence in Zen?
Exactly. And there’s also a lot of [makes sudden loud yell] to break things up, which says you’re not going to capture it with words. Words are fine. But they are not the truth. So that’s fundamental to the Zen tradition. Whereas, say, in the Tibetan tradition, there’s much more attention to analytical thought, more scholarship, more debate. In the Southeast Asian tradition, there’s an incredible emphasis on the “Vinaya,” or rules that outline morals and ethics.
As part of my own meditative practice, and because I’m also a visual artist, I started doing sumi ink drawings. How can this type of activity help achieve mindfulness?
Because they really are the same thing. You have your brush ready, you have your ink and paper ready. And you take a moment, a breath, and then pick up the brush and start painting. That’s it. That’s what we’re doing on the cushion. These practices interact with one another quite beautifully.
Do you think that because of the heavy influence of the arts in the Zen Buddhist tradition, that artists and artistic type might gravitate more towards the Zen style of Buddhism as opposed to the more theory-heavy Tibetan Buddhism or the more yoga-centric Buddhism of India?
That’s certainly true of this sangha. We have a lot of artists here. Most Zen communities I’ve experienced have a strong artistic element.
Can you recommend one Zen artist or poet as a good introduction to the artistic creativity of Zen philosophy?
Definitely check out the Edo-era poet BashÅ. He was a great master of haiku. Also Ryokan, who was a late 18th- and early 19th-century Buddhist monk and hermit who revealed the essence of Zen life through poetry and calligraphy. And Hakuin Ekaku, a painter and calligraphist from the late 17th- and early 18th century who helped revive the Rinzai school of Zen. I really suggest going to the Japanese wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
How is Zen meditation different from other meditation traditions?
The body, breath and mind are the foundation, the tripod, of Zen meditation. We do not do affirmations, mantras or Metta, a Theravada tradition that involves sending loving thoughts to others. We don’t imagine deities. We’re actually facing the wall. If someone says to me, “Oh, I’m starting to see something,” I’ll tell them, “Well maybe your posture isn’t right.”
It’s really more basic. More raw.
Absolutely. Ordinary. Plain water. No traces.
Some meditators recommend closed eyes so that you turn inward, some say half-closed so your mind doesn’t think it’s time to go to sleep. There’s also Hindu “fixed-gaze” technique of trataka in where the eyes are open and staring at a single point. Which technique do you teach?
We instruct eyes half-open, looking down. This prevents you from having hallucinations or sleepiness. In my experience, the wide-open technique tends to put too much strain on the eyes and they start to water. And you want your eyes relaxed.
Obviously a big part of meditation is about sitting. Can you explain walking meditation?
We do it all the time. We sit for half an hour and then the bell rings. We stand, and we do one of three different kinds of Zen walking meditation. There’s very slow walking, so you take a half-step with every full cycle of the breath. Talk about mindful. You have to be very aware, or you’ll start walking fast. It’s inhale, exhale, half a step, inhale, exhale, half a step. That was at the temple where I studied in Japan. And it was so fascinating; I’d see these guys across the hall and you never saw them move, but somehow, after five minutes, you’d look over and they were in a different location. It was so gradual, it was amazing.
It’s like butoh.
Yes, very much so. It’s very Japanese. So we would do that for five minutes and then we’d hit the clappers a normal walking meditation. Now, when we go on retreat and we can go outside, sometimes we’ll lead the group out. But everybody follows one another in a line. And the third kind of walking meditation moves at a trot. We don’t do that very often. That’s a Rinzai style. But everyone does it at some point. If I feel things are getting really sleepy, I’ll say, “OK, let’s speed up now.”
I know several people who tried to incorporate meditation into their daily lives, but weren’t able to stick with it. What would you recommend to them?
In my experience, the only way to do it is to join a group. That is just it. And I’m not a “joiner” and I could never join groups, but it’s what I have learned through my own life experience and the people who have come. Maybe there are a few people who can sit on their own, but not very many. But when you come here, you agree to sit still for 30 minutes. You’re not going to get up and check you phone, because we won’t let you. We’ll say, “Sit down.” [laughs] What’s most important is to find a group, a place that where you like the people and the setting that will make you want to go and sit. That’s all it takes.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final installament of my chat with Roshi O’Hara, in which we talk about social justice, compassion and whether or not meditation can be used for evil ends. — Reynard Loki
ABOUT ROSHI PAT ENKYO O’HARA
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara serves as Abbot of the Village Zendo. She received priest ordination from Maezumi Roshi and Dharma Transmission and Inka from Bernie Tetsugen Glassman. Roshi Enkyo’s lineage comes through Maezumi Roshi whose teaching was uncommon, bringing together Soto priest training and study of the Rinzai koan system. Moreover, Roshi Glassman’s focus on social engagement and peacemaking underlies much of her vision of Zen practice. Roshi is a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Family, a spiritual and social action association. Roshi’s focus is on the expression of Zen through caring, service, and creative response. Her Five Expressions of Zen form the matrix of study at the Village Zendo: Meditation, Study, Communication, Action, and Caring.
ABOUT VILLAGE ZENDO
The Village Zendo is a community of people who come together to practice in the Soto Zen tradition. The Village Zendo offers zazen (sitting meditation), one-on-one instruction with a teacher, dharma talks, chanting services, retreats, workshops and study groups. Co-founded in 1986 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, the Village Zendo is committed to authentically continuing the Zen tradition while keeping it contemporary and relevant to today’s world. The Village Zendo is located in lower Manhattan, offering a place of healing and sanctuary in the midst of one of the world’s busiest and most vital cities.