Killing Buddha: Reflections from Clouds in Water

Last December, when I learned that Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota would host the 6th Annual Buddhism and 12-Step Retreat, I immediately began making plans to attend.  It was with great anticipation that I boarded a plane on March 7 and flew to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the 3-day retreat.  What follows are my initial thoughts and reflections from this remarkable event; but first, some background information is in order…

A panoramic shot of the zendo at Clouds in Water

Upon reaching the 8th Step last summer, I had made substantial progress in freeing myself of the closed-mindedness towards spiritual matters that had previously blocked my recovery.  Leading up to that point, while working the 3rd Step, I had come across Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and for the first time felt that I could honestly trust the process of recovery — an experience which I wrote about in an essay entitled An Appeal for Pantheism.  However, as I moved forward with the work of Steps 4 through 7, further spiritual investigation was forestalled in favor of Albert Ellis’ rational approach to cognitive restructuring.  Ellis’ techniques proved practical and effective.  But as I began to consider the 8th Step, I was drawn back to the search for a spiritual underpinning from which I could make sense of the amends process which I was about to undertake.  It was time for me to face, once and for all, the deep-seeded shame and resentment which had fueled my addiction.  And so, the search for a spiritual antidote to these problems resurfaced.

Enter Judith Ragir
It was during this time that  I came across a set of 12-step audio lectures by a Zen Priest named Judith Ragir.  The titles of the lectures immediately grabbed my attention — “what is a non-theistic god?”, “illusion of control”, “Buddhism is really living in ‘let go'”, “Thy will, not my will, be done (translated)”, to name a few.  And so I began downloading and listening to Judith’s lectures.  Her take on spirituality and the 12-steps resonated with me.  I found her delivery to be intelligent and engaging, genuine, often humorous and even self-deprecating at times.  I later learned that Judith (who is also known by the Buddhist name “Byakuren” which translated from Japanese means “White Lotus”) had studied for 17 years with Dainin Katagiri Roshi until his death in 1990.  It was from Katagiri Roshi’s lineage that Judith received her Dharma Transmission, the authorization to teach.  Currently the Guiding Teacher at Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, she also has a background as a professional modern dancer and is a doctor of Oriental medicine.  Of course, Judith is also a student of the 12-steps, having practiced them side-by-side with Zen Buddhism with remarkable success for 37 years.  As I listened to her lectures, I realized that I had found a message which carried with it the sort of depth and weight that I could use to propel my recovery forward.  It seemed in her teaching there might exist a god of my own understanding.

Speaking of the drug sub-culture of the 60’s and 70’s, Judith laughed, “Poor Suzuki-roshi (left) and Katagiri-roshi (right) . . . we were terrible students!”

Introductory Lecture: The Four Noble Truths & The Eight-Fold Path
It should come as no surprise then that I was thrilled to be attending the very event at which many of these lectures had first been given.  On the introductory night, Judith explained that one of her principle missions is “to help make the translation from the mainly Christian-based language of the 12-steps to the non-theistic language of Buddhism.”  According to Judith, Zen Buddhism and the 12-steps form a perfect union with each making the other whole.  “Zen doesn’t deal with the karmic conscious very well,” Judith observed, “I needed Steps 4 through 9 to clean up my issues.”  Dogen, who founded the Soto school of Zen, once said, “Practice as if your hair were on fire”.  Judith believes this statement is a better description of the 12-step practitioner than it is of the modern Buddhist who generally lacks that same sense of urgency as a newcomer to addiction recovery.  On the other hand, Zen brings spiritual depth to the 12-steps and provides fertile ground from which recovery may flourish — especially for those who hold non-theistic views.

To begin the translation from Christianity to Buddhism, an understanding of the most basic of all Buddhist teachings — the Four Noble Truths —  is necessary.  Judith described these Truths, which come from the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment, as follows:

  1. Life contains a constant dissatisfaction, suffering, dukkha;
  2. This is caused by desire, thirsting desire, constant craving; the 3 poisons (hatred – pushing away, aversion; greed – grabbing onto pleasure; ignorance – uncaring, denial, avoidance);
  3. This can be stopped, freedom from; and
  4. This can be stopped by following the Eight-Fold Path which is structured on the 3 bases, which are:

Many of the lectures during the retreat related the various elements of the Eight-Fold Path to the speakers’ experiences with the 12-steps and recovery.  For Judith, conscious contact with “God” is found through following the Eight-Fold Path, or as she put it, “doing the bases”.

The Retreat Overview
The retreat began in earnest over the next two days following Thursday evening introductions.  The mornings began at 6:25am with a period of sitting meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), and another period of sitting (zazen).  One of the highlights of the retreat was sitting in meditation as the rising sun shone through the large windows of the beautiful zendo at Clouds in Water.  As for technique, Judith gave us some instruction on sitting zazen including directions on posture (upright, straight spine), hand positions (I used the zen mudra); leg positions (I alternated half-lotus, crossed-legs, and also used a seiza bench), and eye positions (I kept mine closed most of the time).  The bell in the zendo had a beautiful tone, and together with the wooden han, were used to signal the start and ending of the meditation periods.  The han was hammered vigorously to alert us that it was time to return to the zendo, after which the bell rang three times to mark the start of another meditation period.  After meditation began, two rings of the bell indicated a period of walking meditation, while a single ring indicated the end of that meditation session.

(L) Han in Great Patience Hall; (R) Bell in zendo

Vegetarian meals prepared by the tenzo were served in the room just outside of the zendo called Great Patience Hall named after Katagiri Roshi.  It was during mealtime that the observance of Noble Silence seemed most awkward to me.  For the most part, however, as Judith had suggested, not having to engage in idle chatter was a relief.  I took the opportunity the silence afforded to try mindful eating, taking a bite, sitting down the eating utensil, noticing the taste and sensations of the food in my mouth and how it felt swallowing the food, and then what it felt like as the food moved down my esophagus and into my stomach.  This exercise stood in stark contrast to the furious frenzy with which I normally shovel down meals.  After eating, we washed our own dishes and then had a break period during which time I usually walked up to Mears Park in downtown St. Paul.

Upon returning to the zendo after meals, we alternated periods of sitting meditation and listening to speakers share their experiences with Buddhism, the 12-steps, and recovery.  Out of respect for the tradition of anonymity, I will refrain from identifying any of the speakers nor will I say much about the content of their talks.  I do want to say, however, that the quality of the sharing was incredible.  Each of them obviously spoke from the heart — with genuineness, sincerity, honesty, intellect, and doses of humor here and there.  Their experience ranged from being a newcomer to having many years in recovery.  The observation of Noble Silence brought even more significance to these moments for it was during this time that I first came to know many of the people with whom I was sharing this intimate experience.

On both days, we twice broke into small groups (of 5 or 6) during which time we shared with each other our experiences in retreat and in recovery generally.  At the close of each day, we formed an oval in the zendo, and participated in full-group discussion similar to what one might see at an AA meeting.  On the final day of the retreat, we were led by Judith in a Precept Ceremony which gave us a taste of the more formal, ritualistic aspects of Zen Buddhism.  Each evening, we broke at approximately 9:30pm which meant a full 15 hours in retreat each day.  I suppose this might seem a long time, and though I was certainly exhausted by the end of the day, I was nevertheless fully engaged in each and every moment.

Sitting Zazen
In Zen Buddhism, zazen means seated meditation.  Inspired by Judith’s lectures in which she often stresses the importance of meditation, I had already developed a beginner’s practice before attending the retreat.  Judith wants “to help people understand how to meditate, encourage daily meditation, and give support for sustaining a practice once established.”  When I first began meditating, I recall that sitting for even five minutes seemed an eternity.  Every minor annoyance, every itch, every pain, every sound, seemed an intolerable distraction that demanded my immediate reaction.  If this weren’t enough, my “monkey mind” chattered away, jumping from limb to limb, tree to tree — I couldn’t imagine it ever quieting down.  But I continued practicing, and by the time I headed to St. Paul for the retreat, I had worked myself up to a daily morning practice of twenty minutes.  Though my months of practice certainly helped prepare me for the retreat, little did I know as I headed to Minnesota, that I would be in zazen for four to five hours a day…

On the first night, during her introductory talk, Judith compared the retreat experience to a scene one might see in a chemistry lab. The flask, which represents the individual, is heated by the flame which represents the intensity of the retreat.  The temperature of the heat is controlled by the individual.  One of the main purposes of retreat, Judith explained, is to “turn up the heat”.  In this respect, we sit with emotional and physical discomfort with a purpose — to learn how not to react.  As Judith noted, in meditation we learn to increase the capacity to hold negative emotions — an ability that must be learned by recovering addicts who, in the past, often sought escape from such pain through the abuse of substances.  “Be with the present moment,” Judith said, “we practice being upright and dignified no matter what the situation.”

As for coping with the pain of extended zazen, Judith offered two suggestions:

  1. Go toward the intense negative sensation and make it the focus of the meditation itself; or
  2. As she prefers, think of the pain as energy — as a fire which helps refocus attention onto the breath as karma is burned up.

However, Judith warned that turning up the heat too high and scorching the flask is unwise.  Quoting Katagiri Roshi in her best Japanese accent, Judith said when it gets too hot, it is sometimes necessary to “take a blake!”  Conversely, a flame that it too low is equally ineffective.  In the end, the individual must regulate her own burner and decide what is too hot, what is too cold, and then adjust the temperature setting accordingly.

Along these lines, I found the heat of this particular retreat to be quite hot compared to my normal practice.  During one of the afternoon sittings, the muscles of my diaphragm began to radiate intense pain.  There was both a throbbing and tingling sensation that moved and ebbed in magnitude.  The fire was burning hot!  As I resisted the urge to react, I began to perspire profusely.  My mind screamed, “I can’t take this!”  The thought of jumping up and leaving the zendo, or even of yelling out crossed my mind.  Instead, anchoring back to my breath, I dialed down the burner just a notch by shifting my position ever-so-slightly, and then continued in zazen by again moving toward, instead of away from, the negative sensations.  The lesson here, which was retold during several sittings thereafter, was invaluable.

The view from my seat in the zendo at Clouds in Water

“Let Go and Let God”
One of the gifts of Judith’s teachings is her ability to translate the Christian-based language of the 12-steps into non-theistic terms while maintaining the integrity of the original meaning and purpose of the text.  In addition to the primary recovery literature, in Alcoholics Anonymous there are a variety of slogans designed for use by members in a manner similar to the way Buddhists repeat traditional mantras.  One of the oft-heard slogans in 12-step meetings is “Let Go and Let God” which, like many others, has a decidedly theistic slant.  And yet, this is the slogan that Judith says she uses most often in her own practice.  On the second day of the retreat, Judith explained how a Buddhist, or any non-theist, could relate to and find meaning in such a slogan.

Judith believes that in order to cope with anxiety it is first necessary to notice what she calls “pushing states” and to interrupt them.  In essence, we notice and then interrupt habituated patterns, and then make an effort to replace them with spiritual practices. This is done by:

  1. Being mindful of the habituated pattern;
  2. Consciously interrupting the pattern; and
  3. Placing the mind on spiritual practices.

In theistic terms, humans are made “in the image of God”.  This is not the case in Buddhism.  In what seems a nod to pantheism, Judith says “Buddhists are consumed with the mystery — many of them believe in something, just not some ‘being in the sky’ — in Buddhism there is no anthropomorphic, centralized intelligence”.  In fact, in Buddhism, just as “I” am not fixed nor centralized, neither is any “Higher Power” separate, fixed, and centralized.  Thus, the concept of “God” is more accurately expressed by the phrase “total dynamic functioning”.

Judith confessed that even the use of the term “Higher Power” invites the sort of duality into the discussion which Buddhism disavows.  Nevertheless, it is important to hold the paradox of form and emptiness in mind with the understanding that they work together — “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  A balance must be struck between the two for, as Dogen stated, emptiness and form are “intimate partners”.  “It is important to uphold the level of form so we don’t annihilate the mystery that is happening,” Judith asserts, “get out of the story line and connect with the awesomeness that is happening.”

So how might a non-theist understand the “God” mentioned in the 12 Steps?  One method might be to adopt as Higher Powers the Three Jewels of Buddhism — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  The Buddha includes the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) who lived over 2000 years ago; the Buddha within (our highest potential – free from the bondage of self); and Buddha nature (omniscient; is everywhere in everything).  The Dharma includes the teaching; the truth; and the form of the moment.  The Sangha is the community of practice, or in 12-step terms, the fellowship.

But can “God” ever truly be understood?  Not for Buddhists who might respond to such an inquiry with this infamous Zen koan:

“If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!”

“My brain thinks it’s right,” Judith explained “when it is actually arrogant and insidious.”  We think that our concepts, our ideas, and our beliefs are truth.  Buddhism says that the assumptions — such as those related to time and independence of objects — upon which our ideas are based are false.  The point of Buddhism, Judith noted, is to “take these assumptions away and throw us into the present moment.”  Because our belief systems are based on a faulty existentialism, “if you think you are seeing the Buddha, you are seeing a wrong concept based on illusions,” said Judith. “God cannot be understood through the mind — that’s not Buddha.”

So what can we do?  Where can we ground ourselves?  According to Judith, we must “trust that the world is functioning just as it is supposed to be.  I have to get myself and my desire system out of the way.  I don’t control it, I have to let go, and surrender to right now.”  All of this might seem to suggest that we can just do nothing and roll with the flow without taking responsibility for things like planning finances or moral values.  “Don’t be foolish,” Judith warns, “Buddhism throws in cause and effect to make the moment matter.  A mustard seed of goodness planted in the moment will grow into a large plant” as will the seeds of unwholesomeness.

Final Thoughts
On the final night of the retreat, I shared with the group that it was difficult for me to put into words what I had experienced over the preceding days.  I knew that I had been fully engaged, that it was a positive experience, and that I had faced and overcome both mental and physical challenges in the zendo.  I also knew that there would be a tendency for me to cling to the experience and allow it to drag me out of the precious present, and into the past or future where regret and anxiety reign supreme.  The experience happened, and now it was time for me to trust, or “Let Go and Let God” as best I could.  In keeping with Judith’s analogy, though the intensity of the flame has been lowered, I suspect that some simmering continues.  This, I trust, is my karma.

As a practical matter, in the days since I returned home, I have intensified my personal meditation practice — increasing it from 20 to 30 minutes each morning.  Meditation practice has, for me, become an indispensible ingredient in my recovery.  I am certain that as a result of my practice, I have become much less of a reactor, and much more of a responder.  There seems to be developing a “pause” in my conscious that was previously absent.   In the coming months, I hope that I can learn how to incorporate prayer into my 11th Step in a way that allows me to remain true to my own beliefs.  Along these lines, Judith gave me some practical suggestions for how I might put my newly acquired mala to good use.

In the final analysis, I have to express my sincere gratitude for the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Without the 12-steps, without the fellowship, without my sponsor, and without my home group, I would have never made it to the retreat at Clouds and Water.  I doubt I would have ever even heard of Judith Ragir, or even cared what she might have to say about Buddhism, spirituality, and the 12-steps.  Without AA, I might have been dead, or at the very least institutionalized; or still worse, at-large and enslaved by the “bondage of self”.  As it stands, thanks to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I wake up every day intent on killing Buddha, and for that I am so truly grateful.

At the entrance of Clouds in Water, visitors remove their shoes to show respect

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