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Dharma Talk with Seishu John Wiley : The Teachings of Sojun Mel Weitsman

  • Thursday, April 04, 2024

Seishu John Wiley offers a reflection on the teachings of Sojun Mel Weitsman.

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Tonight, I am going to talk about some of the teachings of Mel Weitsman that I have found particularly helpful over my years of practice. For those who haven’t heard of Mel, he was a student of Suzuki Roshi, started a zendo in Berkeley in 1967, which became the Berkeley Zen Center. He practiced and taught there for 55 years, and died in 2021 at the age of 91.  He was the teacher of Red Cedar’s founding teacher, Norman Fischer and also the teacher for Andrea Thach, who practiced with us for a few years before returning to California. Mel’s one and only book—-Seeing One Thing Through—-the Zen Life and Teachings of Mel Weitsman was just published early this year and I read it during practice period. I never met Mel, but have read many of his talks and found some of his teachings very helpful.

He wrote a number of times about Zen forms—-the precise schedule, bowing, eating together in the zendo, all of the rules about moving around the zendo. I appreciate our forms and haven’t minded learning and following them, but I still found his explanations very helpful and informative. Here is a quote: “There are many forms of spiritual practice and everybody has their own way. It is not up to me to decide whether someone is doing it right or wrong. If people don’t like the formal practice we do at Berkeley Zen Center, there are plenty of other places to practice. But if someone wants to do this practice they should follow our way and we will help them.

I am trying to keep our practice pure. We are not doing it just any old way, because then, we wouldn’t actually be doing it. As soon as we start adapting the practice to what everybody wants, we find out that this one wants to do it this way and that one wants to do it that way, and pretty soon, we are just accommodating everybody and nothing is left of the practice. You can’t bend the practice to fit your idea, you have to soften your mind to fit the practice. You have to walk through the small door. It is not up to you to determine how the practice goes. It is up to you to conform to the practice. When you can do that, the practice becomes your own.”

Early in my time with Red Cedar, I attended some retreats put on by other groups. I was still looking around to find the best fit. At one retreat, there were no instructions about what to wear or where and how to sit. So, some people had bright clothing and some were leaning against the wall. There were backpacks and water bottles and coats here and there. Nothing wrong with that way—-but it made me appreciate the peaceful, orderly way we set up the zendo and move through it as a group.  

In the Norman Fischer/Susan Moon book What is Zen? Norman talks about a conversation he had with Mel about bowing. Why do it and what does it mean? Mel’s response was something like “You bow to the Buddha and the Buddha bows to you. You aren’t bowing to an external power, you are bowing to your true self, which is identical to the Buddha. Your bowing is conditioning you to respect what is deepest and truest within you and in everything and everyone else.” I don’t mind bowing—- I like the physicality of it—-and I have always appreciated what a physical practice zen is—-paying attention to the breath, to the body, to the posture—-to where and how emotions show up in the body. Bowing is part of that body practice.

In the reading I have done on forms, two things are always mentioned: following the forms allows us to move through the zendo smoothly, as one body. We bow together. When the bell rings we sit or stand or walk together. The movement from one thing to another just flows. Secondly, once you are familiar with the forms, you don’t have to think about what to do, when to do it or how to do it. That is really freeing and leads to a deeper meditation experience. Mel adds a third point: zen intentionally puts you in limitation—-so you get to see how you respond to limitation. We don’t get to decide the schedule, or when to go to the bathroom or walk or eat or anything else. Since our lives off the cushion are filled with limitations, it’s good to have some skills in dealing with them. Whether we are taking about little things like the slow line at the post office or bigger things like serious illness, we all encounter limitations.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned from zen practice came during my first residential retreat just a few months after I started to practice. During the 3rd day, I was experiencing severe knee pain and really struggling with it mentally. My whole body was tense and I having thoughts like “I hate this” why did I come here? When will the bell ring? Maybe I should leave, how will I get through the next 2 days? etc. etc. You get the idea. When the bell finally rang my pain immediately decreased by probably 75 percent—-before I could move at all. My knees still hurt, but I realized that most of my pain was caused by my mental reaction. I tripled my pain by tensing my body and hating the pain. It was a great lesson and because of that lesson, I have learned to pay more attention to how I handle limitation. As a recent example of that, a few weeks ago Carolyne and I were returning from Florida by air to Seattle, then Bellingham. We were scheduled to fly on a Saturday, but had several flights canceled or delayed and didn’t get home until Tuesday morning. We spent 3 days in various airports. Nothing we could do about it. During that time, I talked with many ticket agents and customer service agents and was able to remain calm and friendly. I didn’t say anything I regretted, and I think we made the best of a frustrating situation without making it worse. I credit many years of zen practice and working with limitation for that outcome.

Mel has also written about the balance of the passive and the active in Zen meditation. “The passive side is letting things come and go. Opening completely to everything without trying to block anything and without trying to inhibit the difficulties and problems—-not holding anything. The other side is purposeful effort of body and mind—-maintaining posture and focus. When we put forth our total effort to maintain the form and at the same time, open ourselves up completely in a passive and accepting way—-we have the perfect balance between doing and being. It’s the harmony between these two which accounts for our being comfortable or uncomfortable. Even though we may have pain or discomfort, it doesn’t succumb to suffering. That is a very helpful description of where to put your effort: paying attention to posture and maintaining awareness of the breath and body and what the mind is doing. Whatever arises in the mind is ok——notice it, acknowledge it, don’t feed it, let it Mel’s teachings emphasize bringing practice off the cushion into our day to day life. Here is a comment about that: How do I do what is in front of me? How do I practice moment to moment? The first thing is to be grounded. The first order of practice is always to be grounded. When you pick up the cup of tea, pick up the cup with both hands. Drink the tea with no separation between you and the cup and the tea. The cup is not an object, the tea is not an object—-there are no objects.

I listened to a talk by Gil Fronsdal—-one of Mel’s dharma heirs—-and he talked about ways Mel would bring practice into daily life. He didn’t label things as problems—-they were situations he was dealing with, and he would always ask himself “what is requested of me in this situation?” Mel was on the board of the San Francisco Zen Center when a big scandal occurred in 1983. The Abbot resigned due to sexual misconduct and some other issues. According to Gil, he never labeled any of the upheaval as a problem—-only situations that needed a response from him. He was able to stay grounded.

Another value that comes through in all of Mel’s teaching is to do the practice day after day, year after year, and trust it. He demonstrated this every day during his years of practice. At Berkeley Zen Center’s first location on Dwight Way, he was present every day for 5am meditation. He served as Abbot at BZC until October 2020—steady, ongoing practice until just a few months before his death.

I will finish with a comment Norman Fischer made about Mel in his introduction to the book: “He was my friend and teacher for 50 years—-always reliable, always kind, always patient.”

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