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Three dharma practitioners share their stories of healing after a spiritual crisis.
This article is part of our new e-book, Tricycle Teachings: Forgiveness, free to download for supporting and sustaining members. You can download it here.
“I’ve got to tell you about the dream I had last night,” a friend told me. Seven years had passed since her Zen community had come apart in an emotionally turbulent way, and she was still struggling to absorb the experience. In her dreams she often found herself back with her teacher and sangha—yet something felt distinctly different to her about this particular dream: “I walked into the little interview room with the roshi, as I had so many times in the past. I felt disoriented, because I knew that so much had happened and he wasn’t my teacher anymore. Then I looked directly into his eyes and I heard my own voice say, ‘It’s not about the story line. It’s the practice.’”
In the following essays, three long-term practitioners reflect on spiritual regeneration, on finding one’s way again after some form of profound spiritual disillusionment. We’ve all heard the stories—teachers who turn out to be psychologically unstable, misuses of power and money within a sangha, sexual transgressions on the part of the teacher or other students. Yet at a certain point what matters most is not so much what shattered one’s trust and scattered one’s sangha, but the question: What heals?
For each of these three practitioners, the process has been long and arduous—and much of it has, indeed, involved a struggle with the story. Like a jilted lover, or a parent who has lost a child, one goes over the sequence again and again, asking, “How could this have happened?” “What was my part in it?” “Why didn’t I see the warnings?”
Why is the process so difficult? As the realtors say, “Location, location, location.” Spiritual disillusionment occurs in the very place where one comes to seek relief from suffering. It occurs in a context that demands an extreme degree of trust, surrender, and self-exposure, a context in which one has made an immense investment of oneself and thus been deeply complicit with whatever it is that has happened—whether or not one had a starring role in the drama. It occurs within relationships that engender profound affection, admiration, attachment. In sum: it occurs in the exact spot where one has laid up one’s greatest treasure.
In a famous koan, the great Zen master Dogen declared that while “one may practice upward, step by step,” each step of the practice is “equal in substance.” Teaching this koan, the modern master Harada Roshi held up his Zen teacher’s stick and said, “Always golden. If it is cut, golden. At each end, golden still.” In their own way, the following stories embody this koan. Separated from the teacher and the community that had been the very center of their lives, at first these students were overcome with the sense of rupture, depreciation, ruin. But gradually they began to see in a new way, to understand that we can’t ever be truly separated from what is most precious. In the stories that follow, three broken hearts praise the home that can’t ever be lost, the gold that never stops shining.
Noelle Oxenhandler began Buddhist practice in 1970. Her most recent book is The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul.