Amy Gross interviews Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck about everyday practice, American Buddhism, and making koans out of monkeyshines
Charlotte Joko Beck, 81, started practicing Zen in the mid-sixties after raising four children on her own. She grew up in New Jersey, where she attended a Methodist church and “learned a lot of good quotes.” At Oberlin College, she studied piano, and later performed professionally “with little symphony orchestras—no big deal.” She supported her family by working as a schoolteacher, a secretary, and finally as an administrator in the chemistry department at the University of California, San Diego. When she retired in 1977, she went to live at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 1983, the Zen Center of San Diego opened—in two little houses, side by side, no sign—with Joko as teacher. She’s evolved her own way of teaching, which is always open to change. “I’ll pick up anything if it’s useful. It’s a question of seeing what really transforms human life. That’s what we’re interested in, isn’t it?” She’s just discovered Pilates, a form of exercise combining yoga, dance, and resistance training, and “probably I’m learning something there that will get mixed in, too.”
Why did you start practicing?
I had a fine life. I was divorced—my husband was mentally ill—but I had a nice man in my life. My kids were okay. I had a good job. And I used to wake up and say, “Is this all there is?”
Then I met Maezumi Roshi, who was a monk at the time. He was giving a talk in the Unitarian Church downtown. I was out for the evening with a friend, a woman, a sort of hard-boiled business type, and we decided to hear his talk. And as we went in, he bowed to each person and looked right at us. It was absolutely direct contact. When we sat down, my friend said to me, “What was that?” He wasn’t doing anything special—except, for once, somebody was paying attention.
I wanted whatever he had. I found a sitting group of two in San Diego, and I became the third. Maezumi would come down once in a while. Eventually, I began to go up to Los Angeles every week or two for the sittings. And occasionally I began doing sesshins with Soen Roshi. At one point I had a little breakthrough or “opening”—which I now think is a waste of time, but at the time, I thought it was important.
What was your “little breakthrough”?
Just a sense of everything being whole and complete, with no time or space—no “me”—that sort of thing. It was terrifying! And I was furious. I went in and threw something at Soen Roshi. [laughs]. He ducked. I said, “You mean to say we sit and struggle and struggle just to realize this—that there’s really just nothing at all?” Because I didn’t really understand. He said, “Well, it’s not terrible; it’s just astonishing.”
You think it’s a waste of time to have a breakthrough?
Not a waste of time, but it’s not the point. It doesn’t mean you know what to do with your life. You can sit for twenty years and be wasting your time. What I’m interested in is the process of awakening, the long process of development, which may, or may not, have breakthroughs as natural fruit. What genuinely concerns me is the necessity for a student to learn to be as awake as possible in each moment. Otherwise, it can seem as if the point of practice is to have breakthroughs. I’ve spent years thinking about this, and seeing how it’s ordinarily done, and I’m just saying there’s a way to teach so that people learn to use their daily life as practice—as the key to awakening. And that’s how we do it here.
How did you start this center?
A group of people got together and bought the two houses, next door and this one. I had to have a place to live, and you need a place to sit, and I really wanted a little separation. We juggled space, and it isn’t ideal, but that’s part of why this place is interesting. Nothing has ever been quite right, but we learn to make do and make that our practice. A little chaos is often useful.
It’s in keeping with your book titles—Nothing Special, Everyday Zen—that this is a regular little suburban street and a regular little suburban house—nothing temple-like about it.
Hopefully not. We’ve abandoned almost all of that. We keep a simple framework of practice, but we’ve dropped almost all the Japanese terms, and use American phraseology. No robes, no titles.
What’s a retreat like here?
They’re crowded, hard to get into—we have to cut them off at fifty. The longest sesshin we do is five, six days. I’m not trying to get people into an extreme state of exhaustion. Five days seems to be just right. It transforms people enough for one go. We get up at five, we start at six, and we sit until ten o’clock at night.
How do people practice here?
Basically, new students usually learn to experience their body and label their thoughts. I don’t mean to analyze thoughts or pick them apart. It’s a little like vipassana, but instead of saying, “Thinking, thinking,” I like people to just recite their thoughts back. If you do that for three or four years, you’ll know a lot about how your mind operates.
How might you label thoughts?
Mmm, “Having a thought about Mary. . . . Having a thought that I really don’t like Mary... Having a thought that I can’t stand the way she bosses everyone around.” That’s the way we think, right? And in time, as we watch our thoughts our thinking becomes more objective. But most people, instead of just having a thought about Mary, go further: “Gosh, I can’t stand her; she really makes me mad.” Now they’ve got an emotion. What we need to learn to do is to see the thought as a thought, and then feel the body tighten. The body is going to tighten if you’re angry with somebody, right? So just be the tightening. Forget the thinking at this point, and just be the anger, the tension or vibration. When you do that, you’re not trying to change your anger. You’re just being with it, totally. Then it is able to transform itself.
That’s transformation as opposed to change—a critical difference. Religion always is trying to change you: you know, “You’re not a good girl; be a good girl.” But here, in labeling and experiencing, you’re learning to be less emotional, less caught by every passing thing that goes on in your head. The anger gets a little weaker, a little less demanding, and at some point, you begin to notice the difference. Something that would have made you jump with anger—you can watch it. The observer is beginning to grow. And in experiencing the bodily tension, you’re not suppressing the emotion; you’re feeling it. You’re transforming the dualism of self-centered thoughts, opinions, and emotions into the non-dualism of direct experiencing. So when people come in to talk to me, after a few months I’ll probably say, “I want you to bring in an episode that bothers you and tell me how you see that as practice. Suppose somebody yells at you in an unfair way. What is practice?” We work through it, and the next week we do it again with another episode.