“I haven’t seen you in a while, ” said Zen Master Bon Haeng as I sat down for a koan interview at the zen center the other night.
It was true. I haven’t been sitting with the Open Meadow sangha since I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, about half an hour away from my home.
“Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, huh? Jon Kabat-Zinn started that.”
This was also true. Kabat-Zinn began the Stress Reduction Program at the UMass medical school in 1979 based on the premise that meditation could be an effective tool to help patients manage chronic pain. A meditator and student of Buddhism for several years at that point, Kabat-Zinn understood that human beings create much of their own suffering. He had a hunch that by allowing people to become aware of their response to pain moment to moment, they would have an opportunity to change their relationship to their experience. Decades of research have confirmed that hunch.
“He used to practice here, didn’t he?” I asked the zen master, referring to Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Kwan Um School of Zen, respectively.
“Yes, ” he replied, continuing our streak of saying true things to each other. He then went on to recall how he and Kabat-Zinn, or “Jonny,” as he referred to him, were students of Zen Master Seung Sahn in the early Seventies, along with another youngster named Larry Rosenberg. As Bon Haeng explained it, Jonny and Larry had traveled to Asia and decided that “zen was dead there.” They returned disillusioned, determined that a new, “American zen” needed to evolve from the teachings that had migrated from the East with traditional teachers like Zen Master Seung Sahn. While they respected his teaching, they no longer saw the point of practicing the rigid, formal, and very foreign forms and rituals that he had brought with him from Korea in 1972.
When they approached Zen Master Seung Sahn with their desire to strike out on their own, he responded that once they had finished their training with him, they were free to do as they wished; to leave before their training was complete, however, would be irresponsible. The Dharma they passed on to their own students could be misguided, perverted, or, at the very least, incomplete. They parted ways with Zen Master Seung Sahn anyway, and the trails they blazed have profoundly impacted the spiritual landscape of America for the past 40 years. Larry Rosenberg joined with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield to found the Insight Meditation Society, and Jon Kabat-Zinn took the practice of mindfulness out of meditation halls and into the mainstream institutions of America.
It’s mindboggling how much a part of the popular consciousness the practice of mindfulness has become, but what is lost when we separate the practice from the Dharma? Three things, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng: the concept of No Self, the idea of Impermanence, and what Zen Master Seung Sahn called Together Action. Practicing only for ourselves, both Zen Masters insist, is incomplete practice…