Roots of Mindfulness: Foundational Attitudes - Talk 1

Talk 1 - October 16, 2017 - Beginner's Mind and the History of MBSR - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2017

Talk 1 recording


Talk 1 notes 

Warning that I seem to give long talks and you can see it as encouragement or entertainment, don't worry too much about remembering all of this. Sit comfortably. Especially this talk I let myself dip into some Buddhist history so it goes on a while. Remember that they are recorded and I'll post my notes if you want to dig back into this later. Maybe this will at least distract your from the anxieties and pains in the body for a while.

The way we're practicing together this week owes much to a class in mindfulness and awareness which most of us are familiar with called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late '70's back when this way of being and practice was little known. Sometimes we say it was little known in the West but the truth of the matter is that this way of being and practice has never been all that popular in Asian cultures either.

Serious meditation retreats like we're doing has mostly been the province of specialized monks and nuns in the Buddhist world. For most Buddhists worldwide Buddhism has been much like the other religions: about venerating the wonderul example of the founder and his or her teachings, about expressing a feeling for life through ritual, about making sense of major life transitions like birth, marriage, and death, and a way of being together as a community. In Japan there are something like 30,000 Sōtō Zen temples of various sizes (some quite small) but only a dozen or so places where a schedule of all day meditation is practiced. Although the priest in your neighborhood temple would have gone through at least a year or two of meditation-based training as part of his or her formation as a priest, but most likely he (I keep saying or she but they are of course mostly "he") doesn't practice daily himself and wouldn't be very comfortable showing you how to sit in meditation. Probably you'd be moved by his sense of presence in his body, his attentiveness and a ready repetoire of ritualize ways to meet life's challenges but he probably wouldn't be what we would see as a serious meditator.

There have been a few interesting Buddhist reform movements that have emphasized meditation and even meditation for lay people - one of them in Burma in the 18th into 19th centuries along with a monastic reform movement in Thailand a little later - is largely responsible for what  now call Insight Meditation which is probably the most popular forms of Buddhist meditation in America. But although it references a set of old Buddhist texts it's not so much part of an unbroken line of lived tradition. Although most reform movements do use that trope to justify themselves - this is the way it's been done since the time of whomever. Historial reality is usually more complex.

I call all of this because of our overall theme of these retreats: Buddhist Roots. And when we hear that or think about it we might assume a kind of simple direct living tradition from the Buddha's day where all Buddhists are faithfully meditating every morning and going on lots of retreats and eventually in the 1960's some of them brought that practice over to America.

There's some truth to that notion but reality is much messier and more complex.

But the interesting thing about meeting people in Buddhist cultures is there is a real feeling of groundedness in the body and steadiness of attention that you see, even though most of those Buddhist practitioners are not, in fact, regular meditators. So there may be a lot more going on here than meditation.

So the amount of formal meditation that Jon asked his students in the 1970's in Worcester Massachuettsets was actually a lot more meditation than the average Buddhist would ever practice. Interesting eh?

Jon himeself learned meditation from a Korean Zen Buddhist named Seungsahn who came to America in 1972. He did this on his own without support from the Korean Buddhist establishment and supported himself working as a washing machine repairman in Providence, Rhode Island.

But somehow people heard that a trained meditation teacher had appeared from Asia and students soon gathered allowing Seungsahn Sunim to start a center hang up his toolbelt again. A group of students form Brown University, I read, and I know Jon heard about all of this at MIT so maybe Seungsanh was smart about making connections with college students as a way to get started.

In the Korean tradition there is, possibly more than many other Buddhist cultures, a strong tradition of serious meditation practice and Seungsahn had been through that system. But he wasn't a particularly remarkable or important monk there. And certainly wouldn't have been seen as a teacher 

This is part of why he left Korea most likely. In the monastic establishments there wasn't much room for innovators and he certainly was one. He created his own order of practitioners and empowered serious lay people to do monastic-style training and receive his authorization to teach meditation and the Dharma 

I've meet Jon and talked to him a bit about his practice and read a good bit of what he's written about how he got into all of this but I don't know why he left Seungsahn's temple. He was for a while the director of the place. Perhaps he realized he just had too many interests and ideas to fit into a new and innovative but still pretty rigid system of practice. One of the thing that was happening in those days is a big bout of what scholars call Reverse Orientalism. Perhaps that's what turned Jon off.

Orientalism is the the paternalistic chauvanism with which the intellectual west first met Asia. It includes a wide range of attitudes from really dismissive, racist stuff about coolies and so on to a kind of uniformed valorization of the "eastern mind" and the "unscrutiable oriental" - but basically although the eastern cultures may have something useful for us they are in some way childish or naive compared to the sophistication of the West 

Reverse Orientalism is when that flips over and Western people see Eastern culture, or their idea of it anyway, as much superior. And that was part of what was happening when these Asian Buddhism monks started appearing, usually on their own, in America to teach in the 1960's and 1970's. The students, largely young hippie types, were rejecting their own culture (and with some good reasons to do so!) and enthusiastically embracing this new, better way of being. And in the case of Zen Buddhism this was even more rarified in some ways because Zen was seens as the best of Korean culture or the best of Japanese culture to name a few cultures we'll focus on today.

My friend Anita Feng who teaches at Blue Heron Zen Center in Seattle which is a practice style that derives from Seungsahn lived with him at the Providence Zen Center that he founded with his students and she said that after a while she realized there was a creepy undertone of veneration and emulation of everything Seungsahn did, done to people even talking like him with a fake korean accent and broken English. I fall into patterns like that myself so I'm sympathetic, one doesn't really realize one's doing it.

Perhaps Jon noticed that too. I've never asked Anita if she knew Jon back then, but he was Director and co-founded of a satelite group in Cambridge so maybe not.

Jon was also into yoga and soon was teaching yoga classes in Cambridge. And finishing his PhD in microbiology he got a job teaching medical students at a teaching hosptial in Worcester, Mass, and soon started noticing how miserable many of the patients there seemed to be as he'd walk through the halls to work. He's a pretty gregarious guy and getting to know the physicans there he started asking them how it was going with the chronic pain patients. Shocked to hear that medical intervention was only helping a small percentage of them - 20% or 30% I forget what he was told - he got interested in whether the practices from Buddhism and Yoga could help. Before long he had a major flash of insight as an Insight Meditaiton retreat and envisioned this class we now call Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

So that's a long winded introduction to the idea of Beginner's Mind beause Jon is a good example of it in this story. Curious about meditation, curious about yoga, curious about other applications of it already I think of his encounter with the doctors and patients as the Worcester Medical Center as a great example of beginner's mind. He didn't just take at face value that meditation and surgery are the only ways to treat chronic pain and it's just too bad that this only helps 20% of people, he wondered instead. What else might be helpful here? Maybe even something never seen before in this setting by these people. Why not?

And of course he had the wisdom not to call it Buddhist meditation. In our teacher-training group we recently watched the 1993 NPS show with Bill Moyers Healing and the Mind which featured Jon's work with this class and they spend a lot of time in the show talking about whether Amerians are likely to accept something as foreign and strange as Buddhist meditation. In there Jon says, "this had never been tried before and we had NO idea if people would accept it, this isn't Berkeley or something!" and later in the show one of the participants says in her Massachuettsets accent, "This is UnAmerican but I love it!"

Instead of calling his class Buddhist-Inspired Stress Reduction or something he pulled the name of one of the important mental factors in Buddhist psychoogy - mindfulness - out  and used that to stand for the whole system of Buddhist meditation training. About the same time the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was using the term mindfulness in a similar way and his first book translated into English, The Miracle of Mindfulness, was published in 1975 so that might have been why Jon picked "mindfulness" - it's so common now but in Buddhism it actually doesn't have quite the same broad meaning that after Jon we are not using it for here. 

A little earlier than the Korean Zen master Suengsahn or the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh came to the West, in 1959,  a singular Japanese Zen master named Shunryu Suzuki was sent by the Japanese Buddhist church to San Francisco to minister to the Japanse immigrants there. It's clear he angled for the assignment and had long wanted to go to the West and teach English-speaking Westerners. And just like with the other two masters it wasn't long before enthusiastic young students gatherered around him looking for a better way to live and be, and to a large extent looking to reject and replace the dominant American culture in their lives. In deep ways they saw themselves not just as serious students of Zen and meditation but as quiet revolutionaries creating a newer, better culture. And even when I arrived at San Francisco Zen Center a few decades later there was a similar spirit to Anita's Dharma friends talking like Koreans with people using their own verisons of Japanese mannerisms and honorifics. People called me Tim-san and so forth.

And yet the huge over the top enthusiasm these students felt, tinged by this Reverse Orientalism as it may have been, led them to really commit deeply to the practice. They threw themselves into in in a way that's hard I think for us to imagine now. It was like an oasis in a cultural desert for them and they drank deeply. Some deeply refreshed and opened and others of course got a little drunk on his nectar.

Perhaps now we've learned a more balanced approach. But we owe a deep debt of gratitude to these pioneers who devoted themselves to completely to the practice of meditation and to doing their best to understand the culturally-shaped container this practice arrived in. How the different streams of movement from East to West treated the container varied a lot. Some got too excited about it as I mentioned, some tried to leave it behind in Asia as a kind of unneeeded husk feeling they could extract the essence and bring that forward.

Perhaps Jon's in the latter camp. Can we extract the essence of this and leave the cultural stuff behind? Can we see the insights of the Buddhist monks and teachers as universal human insights that have been offered to the world and now through our careful effort and practice we can experience and share with others?

Jon likes to say he's not a Buddhist and that's okay because the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. Which is true enough since the term "Buddhism" was invented by Protestant Missionaries and academics trying to make sense of the wide range of practices and beliefes they encountered in Asia. Buddha himself, as best we know, called what he offered the teaching and the discipline. In seventeenth-century Europe there were four religions known: Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedism, and Paganism. Eventually paganism was exploded into more -isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism and so on. So even the term "Buddhism" is a kind of product of this tangled relationship between West and East even though now you can open any encyclopedia and it says "Buddhism is a religion common in Asia characterized by...blah blah blah."

All of these great teachers saw that it wasn't just doing the practices that mattered but the attitude we bring to them and the Zen school has always emphasized in it's teachings a sense of intimacy and immediacy. A sense of presence. But of course like any human movement it gets a big stogy and heirarchical and rulebound. So we are lucky that these few people - Suengsahn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Suzuki Roshi, Jon, and I know that I've mentioned only men so far which is too bad, were all creative innovators trying to breathe life back into this.

They all recognized deepy that tender human beings aren't just transformed by sitting here like statues. That the spirit we bring to it, the orientation we take to it, is key.

Zen training Japan is actually pretty rote - even the training with lots of meditation in it- it's about how you move around the monastery, how you stand, how you bow, the words you say. There is formal dialog between the monks during ceremonies that's all scripted. And there are short expressions they all memorize. And depending on your teacher may never be explained. Having not trained that way myself I don't know many of them but one that Suzuki Roshi brought with him is an expression called "shoshin" which is probably part of a list of desirable minds to cultivate. Sho () means beginning or starting, and shin () means mind.

The mind we have when we start something or begin something.

And just mind like the mind that things but a broader vision of mind. The word shin means heart too. Often like other terms that don't quite land right in English we use a hyphenated word heart-mind.

So we are here this week to explore the heart-mind of beginning. Begining again and again. Approaching each moment with beginner's mind.

Here is the famous little talk Suzuki Roshi gave on this which was recorded and edited into the prologue of the book of his talks Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

[ZMBM p. 21 2nd paragraph to p. 22]

And Jon extended this idea of beginner's mind - fleshing it out into a set of 7 connected attitudes he called the Attitudian Foundation of Mindfulness Practice. We'll dig into these more over the week but for now just to name them: non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go.

So this is our topic this week. What is our attitude. What is our intention. How are we meeting this life as it appears moment by moment.

And in our study of beginner's mind we might notice "expert's mind" arising all the time. We're all experts on all kinds of things. And especially we think we're experts on ourself and how we tick.My teacher used to say "Everyone's a philosopher" - we all have a philosophy, a theory of everything, how i am, how I should be, how you are, how you should be.

And like so many wonderful projections of the mind these are useful thoughts and a handy short hand on what's going on so we can function but we do notice from time to time that our projects are all a little off. Or a lot off. We find out we were making assumptions about someone. That we were totally wrong about something. That we were operating under false pretense in all kinds of ways. And what is the usual result of such mismatches between our ideas and reality? Suffering. Usualy suffering 

 Retreat is so great for studying all of this. We can see in the quiet and relative simplicity of retreat that our mind is inventing various studies based on little snatches of information. We can see how we meet things with all kinds of extra little dramas built in when our preferences arise. We can see how emotions and judgments and evaluations of all kinds come and go and change.

And really this practice of beginner's mind seems to me to come down to meeting. How do we meet each moment? And to starting to wonder if there's actually a bit of a fallace - a non-beginner's mind - built right into this idea of "me" meeting a moment. Maybe it's more like letting a moment meet me. Or letting me disolve and open into an ocean of moments too rich and full to really quite understand.

Suzuki Roshi loved to study his famous forebear in the tradition Eihei Dogen who was the 12th century founder of the Soto school of Zen. One of Dogen's famous teaching is appropros:

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion.
That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

Myriad things is a translation of a the Buddhist term "dharmas" which here means everything that can every be experienced. So to carry yourself forward and experience these moments has a kind of delusional quality to it. Our idea of the me who's carrying herself or himself forward is an manifestation of the experts mind in some way. There is a narrowing of possibilities there.

Maybe today, this week sometime, we can relax this self-focussed view a little bit and just let our experience arise. Maybe we can let our moments meet us.

Putting Dogen's teaching into the language of our mindfulness movement maybe we have:

To think that you are meeting your life is full of confusion;

 to allow your life to arise and welcome you into this moment is clarity.

Something like that. So this week we can study this meeting. Self meeting other. Sounds and sights passing through eyes and ears to meet the mind with allof its complexity.

Perhaps this week we can open to wonder and curiosity about all of this. And go from "What is this?" to "what is this, wow!"

We can notice our preferences our expertise, our openneess and our freshness. That we can be wide open and curious and narrow and upset.

Is all of this something we do? Is it something we allow to happen? Is it about this experience of "me" doing this practice? Is it about when this "me" finally gets so tired of being me that he or she settles down enough to let something else through?

How do we meet our moments? How do the moments meet us?

Thank you very much.




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