We live within our personal ecologies of meaning construing our relations with the "outer" world on the dimensions of space and time. Yet, in everyday experiencing, place and time often seem separate modes of being rather than inseparably related. Standing in front of a fine landscape painting we witness a timeless space. The landscape is static, frozen in time, it is all space. Contrariwise, if we gaze from a window witnessing the movement of the traffic in a. London street everything is change and change is time. Yet reflection tells us there is just one continuing "arrow of time" pushing us relentlessly to our personal deaths and, in whatever way we experience space, time never ceases.

There are many ways of classifying time and therefore experience. Some of them are as it were embedded within one another as in a Russian doll. The most basic time is the natural one of days and seasons, which depend on, and indeed measure, the rotation of the earth and its annual tilting set within the time of our solar system, our galaxy, and the universe.

Universal Time

Physicists tells us there is no sense in talking about whatever "existed" before the "Big Bang"; neither time or space existed then for matter had not yet begun. As if from a point the results of the explosion have flown outwards like the ever-expanding circumference of a sphere. Time is the changing, expanding surface of universal matter while space arises as the consequence of the movement of matter in time. And, apart from wobbles in the surface (which may have broken free as bubbles of space-time out of contact with the original universe and thereby creating other worlds, the number and existence of which we can only guess), that is all there is. Space is not only co-emergent with time but as time went on matter coalesced to form places.

Planet Earth was such a place, a globe that revolves and wobbles in regular rhythm in the light of the sun to generate days and seasons. As human life emerged people found themselves making their livelihood within this pattern of time and having their consciousness shaped by it. Master Sheng Yen speaks of such time as being of "the eternal"1. The agricultural round, emerging from a world of seasonal hunting, and becoming the prime mode of temporal existence for many millennia, still obtains in many parts of the earth and, in the alternation of green leaf and frost, underlies and shapes our consciousness and our imagination.

Economic Time

The emergence of exchange, the buying and selling of products surplus to subsistence, began the development of places where commerce could best occur and the establishment of geographical linkages for transportation of goods. Agricultural areas became focused on commercial loci where exchange occurred and the system of routes connecting them.

With the appearance of industrialisation the pace and nature of commerce changed radically. The relation between time and money became more critical and that between distance and time also. Within the "eternal" time of the seasons became superimposed the rigorous times of the work day, the hourly schedule, the annual holiday, time spent in getting to the office and back again for "time off", the precise regulation of meal times, pub times and sleep times and the leisure time of the rich with the emergence of leisure activity with its own separate timing, casual time.

The feel and atmosphere of place became dependent on human activity rather than on some natural quality of wind and water, rock and air. The relatively unchanging rhythm of time in a work place became experientially reified more or less as an entity, a period, an "event", more like a quality of space in fact than the movement of time.

Frozen Time

When we visit a place of character, a cathedral perhaps, or spend a holiday on an island or in an attractive city, the time we spent there appears to us afterwards as a singularity, an intact timeless memory, an apparent fixity, a constellation. Place may appear to stop time - even though of course we know it has done nothing of the sort. We remember a period of unitary character, being a student at Cambridge for an example, almost as a thing, we forget the impermanence of persons and events, the flux and the fragility of the moment.

Periods of still time and the places in which they occur can become very important for us because they suspend for a while the awareness of our mortality. Seasonal festivals, long holidays, certain experiences like an afternoon in an art gallery freeze the arrow of time and give us a fleeting sense of security, a momentary immortality. Because we can all share such times and places, a culture builds up around them so that they become embellished with the trappings of the sacred. In large measure they are what the sacred is. Memories are often like this.

Turbulent Time

The sacred place gives us the sense of something enduring. Identity itself comprises location and locality. Yet embedded in history are the processes of change. At certain times these come together to produce great shifts in our lives and in the form, appearance and importance of locations, places and institutions. Since we are identified with these forms such change, reminding us of impermanence, is threatening, frightening maybe and can generate stress, anxiety and depression. We may feel our world to be falling apart and us with it.

The same experience emerges during those periods of transition generated by our personal progress in life. The periods spent at school, in university, as a trainee, as a professional with his office or laboratory, all have their particular qualities and mode of being to which we become attached. During such periods our experiences become a constellation of patterns which in later retrospect appear as having one quality, the character of an "age" as it were. As we necessarily move from one life period to another the transitions generate uncertainty, again our illusion of fixed identity is challenged.

Such changes may be forced upon us by marriage, childbirth, divorce and separation, redundancy, bereavement, retirement, ageing, ill health. At such times the relative stability of a "time of life" is broken and our identification with that period has to be opened up to something new and other.

Catastrophic Time

Sometimes the turbulence takes the form of great economic and social crises, wars, famines and natural disasters. Time then freezes in a period of discomfort, deprivation, disaster or distress. There may be experiences of horror that shatter the personality so that the personal identifications of previous years are broken down. At such times only those who have inner resources upon which they can draw are likely to be able to survive psychologically in a positive manner. The victims of terrorism, of torture, of political imprisonment, have to face such issues and need the help and consideration of others - not their prejudice and racist concern.

Fantasy Time

In imagination and dream we create places and events that reflect and reconstruct our wishes and uncertainties often in highly symbolic form. The understanding of symbols is vital for the comprehension of our lives since our experience of the symbolic often conditions our responses to changes of a more immediate nature. The time we spend in fantasy has a particular significance for us.

Some sacred places become more real for us in imagination than as experiential realities. Places such as Jerusalem, Mecca or ancient Canterbury become places of pilgrimage where the timeless presence of the past can be evoked and the arrow of time seemingly annulled. Some places beyond our capacity for travel exist in this way almost solely in imagination, Timbuktu, Lhasa, imaginary spiritual abodes of the gods or the godly with whom a salvation from time can be imagined2.

Symbols also express our values and these may be derived from collective ideologies of great persuasive power. A failure to receive loving care of an appropriate kind in childhood may cause an individual to seek out comfort not in physical and psychological intimacy with another but in some other safer "transitional object", a teddy bear or a pet for example, so called because in a beneficial sequence the transition leads back into adult intimacy. Where the personality is damaged the transitional object may take the form of a belief system which justifies the mode of restricted being which the person has adopted. Ideological symbols become "places" of refuge from the inner processes of the abused self. Such an individual spends great lengths of time in the service of such ideologies sometimes causing major cultural disaster and personal distress to others. Personal time has here been captured by the symbolic in an attempt to stabilise a distress that is repressed and not understood. Time becomes illusion.

Time spent in the symbolic may however also carry intimations that are not yet conscious. Archetypal symbols represent the root features of personal life acquired in childhood, experiences of parenting, personal heroes, strange old persons, the otherness of nature, sun time and rain time, dream time. The working through of such symbolic experiences can lead to a recovery of the repressed and the emergence of an adult mind ready to live a more open life in a space and time less characterised by fantasy.

Psychology and Time

The contrasting ways of experiencing time form a sort of evolutionary series. With the development of commerce there has been an increasing fragmentation of the 'eternal time' spent by agriculturists in relation to nature. We live in worlds of temporal dualities; work-play, travel-office. Such dualities together with others such as profit-loss, pleasure-pain, we-them are experienced in a characteristic frame of mind in which whatever happens is related to the individual's egoistic concerns.

Margaret Donaldson has classified the modes of human experiencing. In the first, the focus of experience is the ongoing present-continuum, attention to the moment is predominant. In the second, the focus is on relating the present to the immediate past or future while, in the third, the findings of the second are related to a context of structured memories that allows planned intention in relation to knowledge. In contemporary life most of us spend virtually all of our time preoccupied within the second and third modes of mental activity3. This is inevitably a highly evaluative process providing us with the basis for making choices between multiple alternatives most of which refer back immediately to self in relation to others.

Inevitably this process gives rise to considerations of approval or disapproval by others, of others by oneself and oneself by self and such thought entails a constant low-level stress punctuated by times of crisis or demand. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown experimentally how concern generated by the relationship between the difficulty of a task in relation to expectation of personal performance may give rise to a sense of alienation. Where a task is easy, boredom and mistakes may follow. When a task is too difficult, anxiety may arise in the expectation of failure. Where task difficulty is matched by confidence in an expectation of success, the experience of work tends to be one of optimum enjoyment or "flow" however difficult the actual task may be objectively4. Clearly such relationships depend greatly on the attitude brought to the life situation by the subject, especially when the tasks in question are essentially to do with social relations and with self. Modern life involves most individuals in a constant anxious and often largely unconscious enmeshment with self-concern.

Meditation can break this insistent self-concern by anchoring ourselves in the actuality of the present moment. In the simplicity of "being now" release can be obtained and here lie the seeds of "enlightenment". Few realise that such another mode of life exists in which recurrent contact with the ongoing present by an undivided mind can reveal an inner peace even in active living. Such a mode of being is not attained however without training.

Unfortunately today the conflict between a failing humanism and forms of superstitious spirituality increasingly divorced from either a scientific understanding of the Cosmos or meditational realisation creates a paralysis in creative thinking against which a few struggle often in vain. The task of Buddhism is to meet this challenge and open up the world to a recovery of the human heart.

1       Crook, J.H. 1991 Catching a Feather on a Fan. A Zen retreat with Master Sheng Yen. Element. Pp 60-61

2       Bishop, P 1989 The Myth of Shangri-La. Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape. Athlone. London.

3       Donaldson, M.1993.Human Minds: an Exploration. Penguin. London

4       Csikszentmihalyi, M.1975. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. Also Csikszentmihalyi, M and Csikszentmihalyi, I.S. (Eds) 1988. Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. University press. Cambridge.



John Crook

Most of us have read the story of how the great yogin Milarepa trained in Dharma practice in the household of his teacher Marpa. It is one of the classics of Tibetan religious literature and extremely important as a guide for those concerned with questions of how to advance on the Dharma path.

As a boy Milarepa had to endure extreme pain in family life as an uncle deprived his mother of welfare following the death of his father. In revenge Milarepa learnt black magic and achieved the downfall of his uncle's household. Ashamed of his behaviour he sought teachings from Marpa.

Marpa had gone to India, survived the diseases of the Plains and returned with the profound teachings given him by Naropa. These were to become the foundation of the Kargyudpa lineages in Tibet. When Milarepa arrived at his house Marpa greeting him mockingly, "Oh Great Magician, what do you expect to do here?" 'Great Magician' became the nickname with which he taunted Milarepa, while setting him impossible tasks to do, only to tell him to undo them or do something more useful. It seemed to Milarepa that it was impossible for him to please his teacher and he was on the point of leaving. Only the kindness and wisdom of Marpa's wife kept him back. Marpa was an irascible man, his methods were rough in the extreme but he had a clear purpose. He knew that unless Milarepa could overcome his personal pride and self-concern he could never inherit the Dharma and receive meaningful empowerments. Magic and pride go together, the Dharma requires absolute humility. In training a magician there could be no half-measures. In the end he succeeded and his pupil became one of the most renowned figures in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, the inspiration of generations down to today.

Shi fu's account of his training under Master Tung Chu (see above) reveals the same method only this time in the context of Chan. As we have just read, in spite of the severity of this training, Shi fu acknowledges it was critical to the acquisition of a selfless mind that is essential for advanced training. If fellows of our lineage in Europe wish to advance beyond a mere middle class "hobbyism" they too must understand the import of such training. This is especially vital when we are conditioned, almost unconsciously, to forms of self-indulgence that are inevitably concomitants of the consumer society and its world view and within which we aspire to practice.

Some Personal Stories

To my great good fortune I have experienced a number of encounters which impressed upon me the great need for self-confrontation in the manner so heroically endured by Milarepa and by Shi fu in his turn. I cannot claim to have made the best use of these teaching experiences but I believe that together with other forms of confrontational training at school and in the army something has rubbed off on me. I have come to consider it essential to hand on an understanding of these methods to those who train with me because not to have done so has led to a weak and relatively ineffective training in Dharma in the fellowship. Some recent pettily emotional events in the British Sangha and a tendency to argumentative disputing in the Polish Sangha have demonstrated this most clearly. We need to correct and understand this - at least those who are serious about training must do so.

One day I went to see the Austrian nun Myokyo-ni, formerly Irmgard Schloegl, who, at that time taught in the Buddhist Society in London. I knew she was of the Japanese Rinzai tradition and would give me outspoken comment. I told her about the Western Zen Retreats which I had then recently started to run in Wales. I waffled on at length, telling her about various aspects of these retreats and my role in them but she made no comment. She simply looked at me as I went on talking - perhaps with increasing anxiety. Finally, I stopped and asked her '"What is your response to what I have told you?" She said, "I have no response!" - and that was the end of our meeting. I was devastated, not by what she had said, but by the way in which, in one move, she had exposed to me my underlying need for her approval. She was warning me that I had to find my own approval for myself.

In another solicited interview I discussed my practice with her and my attempts at Zen teaching. She remarked, "You are like a person who sits at his desk writing innumerable articles and letters with great enthusiasm while ignoring the accumulating pile of unwashed underwear in the corner of his room." O dear, that hurt. I still recognise the truth of that remark today. Although I cannot say I loved Myokyo-ni for her comments, I remain immensely grateful to her for what she taught me about myself and about the training of others. I once had the opportunity to thank her and reminded her of these stories. "My goodness, did I really say that?" she had replied, smiling. A great teacher.

In training with Shi fu I have also had my petty ego pricked on several occasions and have had to learn how to handle such an event positively so as to learn from it. One day on retreat in New York my task was to clean the bathrooms. I had just finished polishing one bath and toilet when Shi fu looked in. He scowled and fiercely pronounced it "Filthy - do it again!" and marched off. I re-examined my work and could see no blemish in it. I felt angry and hurt and began swearing away in my mind, furious with my teacher who only half an hour before had been so kind and welcoming in interview. But then I remembered both Milarepa and Shi fu's own account of his training. I could not tell whether Shi fu was actually playing me a teacher's trick, was genuinely of the opinion that my work was defective or whether he was just in a bad mood. Whatever it was, I resolved to take no notice. Whatever he throws at me will not make the slightest difference to my practice - I decided.

There were to be several occasions when Shifu put this resolution to the test - sometimes by his deliberately grim failure to acknowledge my presence when I had just arrived for retreat, sometimes by his ticking me off in interview, and sometimes in fierce letters in response to some naive but innocent comment in one of mine to him. Always I returned to my resolve, realising these were ego confrontations which I simply had to set aside as of no importance, relying in humility on my own feel for what I was about - mistaken as it might possibly be - and upon my trust in Shi fu's underlying wisdom.

On one occasion I had felt it necessary to ask him in a letter whether he so disapproved of me that he did not want me to continue teaching Chan. In that case, I had added, I would continue on my own! Shi fu responded with a warm appreciation. Once I had incautiously mentioned the word "God" in a letter. I received a rollicking reply. I wrote back explaining that for me the word God was "empty". I got a reply warning me to make clear what I meant. Some months later, in my first interview on retreat after this correspondence, I was met by a smiling Shi fu, "Is it alright about God now?" he asked.

Training of this kind is training in the development of what I call the "Zen attitude". This starts with courage to be oneself and to submit to the ego testing of difficult experiences, of hardships on retreat, on pilgrimage and in relating without resentment, irritation or rejection to a demanding yet insightful master. It continues into learning to develop this containment of subtle egoism in everyday life. This is a very different set of demands from merely learning how to sit. It is deep training in reflexive mindfulness. Problem - how to teach it?

Problems in Teaching Westerners

Several Eastern teachers have remarked to me on the difference between teaching Asian people and Westerners. Shi fu has said that Western would-be practitioners, most of whom have had a good education, have little difficulty in grasping the intellectual ideas underlying Dharma practice. In addition, initial enthusiasm may lead them to quite quick realisations and to an apparent deepening of practice. Often however this is not maintained, practitioners failing to sustain practice through inevitable habituation and boredom. In worst cases, psychological insight is not matched by ethical advance. When such an individual becomes a teacher serious scandals have occurred. More usually, however, individuals begin prospecting elsewhere for spiritual experiences, whether within Buddhism or outside it - in Sufism for example, or various forms of "do-it-yourself" pseudo-Christian mysticism.

Such behaviour is natural in persons conditioned to the values of contemporary "consumer" society. There is a broad market place of "spiritual" ideas and practices ranging from the more religiously inclined psychotherapies through the emotional group experiences offered in many "new age" practices. Anyone acquainted with the spiritual shenanigans available in Glastonbury or Totnes will recognise the peculiar mix of wisdom and foolishness that is on offer. It follows that when one approach does not deliver the goods quickly there is another to try out round the corner on another shelf. This absence of consistency at the behest of self-indulgence is a deep enemy of serious practice.

Our Western society is also rooted in a marked "individualism" that characterises the Western, especially the Anglo-Saxon, self1. The strengths of individualism lie in the maintaining of independent judgement, in a self-confidence that allows effective personal action and in a social responsibility that underlies functional democracy. Sadly however such individualism may also lead to merely petty egoism and self-indulgence and a challenging of authority by mere amateurs with little understanding of a matter in hand. Every Joe Bloggs can have an opinion on the economy as if he were Chancellor of the Exchequer - a tendency encouraged by the gutter press. Opinionated persons with inflated egos fail to recognise their own mediocrity and can wreak havoc if they have any power, money or influence - which is often sadly the case.

These two aspects of contemporary culture mean that within Buddhist practice a Western individual may consistently overrate his/her insight and progress and reject or misunderstand a teacher as soon as they are corrected in any matter whether theoretical or practical. Unfortunately such an attitude towards teachers means that any challenge provided by a teacher is often unrecognised or perceived as some sort of an affront. And there is always another self-promoting teacher of poor quality waiting to attract cheap followers of this sort. Teachers are in the market place too, their overstretched smiles decorating the pages of their advertisements.

Challenging the Subtle Ego

In Tibetan Buddhism indulgence in such petty egoism is considered a major enemy, a thief of Dharma understanding. Anyone learning Dharma can soon recognise the effects of gross egoism, pompous self-importance or aggressive assertion demeaning others and will do their best to eliminate such behaviour. Subtle egoism is however commonly unconscious and only realised through mindful and reflexive self-examination. This is the egoism of small scale, self-concern, none the less insidious as an enemy to practice.
Examples include such things on retreat as worrying whether or not one has eaten enough porridge, rushing to get a preferred seat at table, arguing in favour of a late start, thinking about going walking rather than sitting, fussing about the sniffs of a neighbour with a cold, failing to cope with snoring companions in a dormitory or worrying pedantically about hygiene, warmth, or any aspect that disturbs one's sense of personal comfort. It is not that some such matters may not need attention, it is the obsessive concern that disturbs practice that becomes the enemy. The underlying attitude is that one should not be disturbed from perfect sitting through minor inconveniences - failing to see that coping with such matters is the essence of training.

The assumption of consumers is that everything should be directed towards their personal comfort, all inconveniences should be eliminated. The purchaser buys comforting experiences that shield him or her from the basic facts of life and death. In paying for defensive avoidance the consumer sustains a world of illusions. A teacher who confronts such an attitude is liable to be rejected, ignored or becomes a butt for argument and rationalised criticism.

Subtle egoism avoids the basic insights of Buddhism. A practitioner with subtle ego intact is merely comforting herself with nice experiences that give an illusion of spirituality. At most such a Chan practitioner may learn something about calming the mind but can never progress to insight whatever intellectual knowledge they may possess. The wayward heart remains unconfronted and devoid of clarity. These are mere "hobbyists" to use Simon Child's expressive term.

We see the world through our own psychological mechanisms, it is not the same world as that of frogs, cats or horses, they have their own worlds too. Depending on the focus of experience, this 'virtual' experience may be interpreted as an expression of agents (selves) in interaction or as motion within an interpenetratively active field of causes and effects interpretable at many levels. While Buddhism stresses the latter viewpoint it does not argue that one perspective is more true than another. Both are aspects of the experiences we draw from virtuality. The essence of insight lies in an understanding of the relation between varying modalities. We learn to handle different ways of seeing our modes of being, seeing things "in the round" as Huayen philosophers express it. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners of Mahamudra, for example, speak of the 'co-emergence' of particularity and emptiness as aspects of experience. That which is perceived depends on how one looks.

What then does it matter if one has had a sleepless night? What does it matter if one has ingested a few grams less of porridge than would be felt as optimal? If Shi fu is irritable - why let that disturb me? He is in his own space, I am in mine. Even if I disagree with a decision by a teacher do I need to pursue an argument, to ring up others for support, to set up a social disturbance which others may never have considered. Do I need to play the petty politics of Dharma gossip? Since my thoughts define my 'self' arbitrarily as a result of personal karma may I not reframe my own reflexive understanding in other ways? When the "view" is corrected one can perceive the relativity and inconsequence of so much that we do in defending our petty ego and its fears of affront, discomfort and the possibility of being wrong.

It follows that a Buddhist teacher must help his or her practitioners to confront the insidious undermining of insight through the operations of the subtle ego. The teacher needs to confront this negative process at every turn. That is what Milarepa had to face in accepting Marpa as his teacher. It is what Shi fu endured in the house of Master Tung chu. A Western teacher has a problem, however, for he or she belongs to the same consumer culture as his followers and can suffer from spiritual undermining in the same way. If he or she stands out against this and confronts practitioners in whatever manner, some of them will resist, basically on the grounds of their precious sense of what is comfortable. Such resistance can easily become destructive and personally insulting. There is the danger that such confrontation may be perceived not as it is but as an abuse of power.

The question arises as to what authority a Western teacher of Dharma may possess? Eastern teachers tend to be idealised as remote and mystical figures of perfection who know the answer to life and death. A mere Western teacher, whatever his transmission or empowerment, is viewed more sceptically - especially in Anglo-Saxon society. Unfortunately abuses of power by some Western teachers have created a not unreasonable basis for such scepticism. We have to distinguish the false from the true and this is part of the training a good teacher must provide.

The nature of a teacher's authority needs careful definition. It is not the authority of a boss. Our own constitution has carefully eliminated that possibility for the WCF teacher. Nor can a teacher tell a practitioner what he or she should or should not do. A Western teacher is primarily a facilitator. He/she facilitates that which the practitioner needs to develop. When the practitioner is clear as to what that may be, the relationship is not problematic, but, when a practitioner is confused, opinionated or resistant, the teacher has to proceed with great skill - often determining what may be a minimal move towards Dharma understanding. The role is not unlike that of a physician who seeks to facilitate the health of a patient but cannot dictate whether he takes the medicine. The Buddha was known as the "Great Doctor" with good reason.

Yet the teacher is authoritative in his or her understanding. He or she will have trained, sometimes for years and with great persistence against difficulties, with one or more Dharma masters in lineages of revered transmission. His or her experience will transcend that of beginners and of most old hands in practice to a very considerable extent - although this does not mean that a teacher's learning from practitioners is not also always present or that his judgement is perfect. It follows that when a teacher offers a challenge a practitioner needs to consider his or her position with mindfulness and not with some immediately prejudiced reaction. The authority of a teacher's experience demands respect.

Teachers of course come in various shapes and sizes. Some may be kindly and gentle by nature. Some may be quite aggressive and forthright. Some may be plain bad tempered like Marpa. Some may quite idiosyncratic in a variety of ways. The practitioner needs to seek the wisdom inherent in a teacher and not to be put off or concerned with their psychological traits as characters in the world. Of course if no one can see any wisdom in a teacher then it is time to look elsewhere!

There are two main ways in which a teacher confronts and challenges a practitioner. The first is through the programme of an orthodox retreat. Everyone knows that retreats are demanding and many people would like to see them made easier. This would however eliminate one of their main purposes - to challenge the attitude of the practitioner in a test of their zen pretensions. So we get up early, we spend many hours in practice, silence and retreat discipline are maintained. The subtle ego is confronted again and again and observed in interview. If you have not experienced this sufficiently at the Maenllwyd, go try Throssel Hole! This is not the only way of running retreats but certainly an important one that cannot be missed from any well-planned programme. Shi fu once told me, "In running a retreat be tough on the group but kind to individuals". I have experienced his own conduct in running retreats in this light many times.

One thing is essential in a teacher. He or she must be incorrigibly themselves. It is pleasant to fulfil others expectations, to please people so that they smile at you and love you. Yet this way dependency lies. Being oneself inevitably confronts others sooner or later. Shi fu's often dismissive stance towards practitioners when they are arriving on retreat is one example. Whether it is deliberate or not I have not determined but it is often quite a shock causing one to recollect one's attitude. Sometimes a teacher may have to make rapid decisions about whether to run a retreat or not, whether to accept an individual trainee or not, whether to offer criticism or not or utter a sharp correction or command. In this the teacher must act from his or her heart. The task of the practitioner in training is to respond mindfully and not to react from the dictates of subtle egoism. Many Westerners fail in this, start posturing in ways that reveal their inadequate training and shock the teacher into an awareness of the inadequacies of his methods. His skill in means is then tested to the full.

Of course a teacher is not always right. Marpa could have been kinder to poor Milarepa. He was a bad tempered man and chose to be true to his nature. Shi fu sometimes seems distant and uninvolved. I believe at such times he is simply being himself - perhaps needing some space in which to be. I like to please others but am learning to be blunter and more direct in my stance within teaching. I believe this is essential - if I may seem bad tempered or irritable, unusually sharp tongued maybe, it is because I am bad tempered and irritable - right there and then. Yet that is not all of what I am. Maybe it is worth your while to hang in there. Equally, maybe not. It's up to you.

In conversation with Roshi Reb Anderson, I once asked him about teaching. He said. "If you say one thing you can be sure it will be wrong. If you say the other, again you can be sure you are wrong. Whatever you say will probably be wrong. Why say anything? Well - you just do so in trust." And I was reminded of my favourite definition of zen -"One big mistake after another!"


The experience of being a transmitted teacher is not easy. Although there is often affection and friendship, being oneself incorrigibly, sticking to a 'zen attitude', challenging the stupidities and confusions of others, does not necessarily earn one praise, more usually blame or criticism. Yet the target is the subtle ego both in oneself and in practitioners. Without such confrontation there can be no true insight for that depends on the setting aside of self. I do not believe there is any essential gender difference in this matter. I am sure women's concerns cover a different range than do men's and that retreats for women and men separately are sometimes well worthwhile. In matters of fundamental egoism there is however little difference and women who attend our Chan retreats do quite as well as men. In whatever way it may be appropriate both genders have to confront their essential self-concern and to explore in what way that may be most clearly achieved. Gender relations in the Western world are often tortured and problematic and exploration of these issues within the Dharma is appropriate. Where selfishness is concerned we all have to come to terms with our innate intolerance of others. What else is the Dharma about?

Since I received transmission I have come increasingly to see where the difficulties in teaching really lie. They lie neither in showing people how to meditate, in giving Dharma talks, nor in arranging retreats or pilgrimages from which people gain a certain benefit. They lie much more deeply in the dynamics of self, my own and that of others. I have experienced all of the difficulties mentioned above and some others not treated here and I have done my best to understand them and to respond within the range of my own potential. I propose to continue in this way for only in confrontation is "ignorance" exposed. Whether this can become the heritage of the Western Chan Fellowship I cannot say - and no doubt there will be more to discuss anon.

May 10th 2001

1       See: Neisser, U and D.A.Jopling.1997. The Conceptual Self in Context. Cambridge University Press.


A Voyage to Japan. MV Hermod. 1954

Uncoiling waves hover a moment caught between sunglance and foam.

Catch the incandescent moment in a loop of light and hold it to yourself alone,

Catch the spangled spray in the finger tips at the mind's end

And lie spread-eagled on a second's dome.


Passing the Pescadores a flying fish leapt and flew, a drifting tern tripped a wing on a wavelet

and turned again towards her barren home. The dreaming Pescadores!

Sunwink on spray and lighthouse blink,

a flying fish leapt and flew before the prow's dividing wave.


The first sea-mists of Japan, the smoke haze of our ship swirl together above the small light at the mast head. This much the ship has always known

but that far off coastal light and I on this damp deck

usually see the one without the other.


Between the word and the realisation there's a space where none may go. Even authors in their blind conceiving

know not the meaning of the seeds they sow.

Maybe the universal music master cannot understand the pain

that rings from his own bell's chime

and durst not seek an answer in a world he cannot know.