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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

Charlotte Joko Beck

In the popular imagination, Zen practice consists of sitting cross-legged, preferably on a mountain or within the confines of a monastery, in a state of perfect calm. His hands positioned in the “cosmic mudra” and a beatific smile on his face, the Zen Buddhist practitioner sits at a comfortable remove from the petty conflicts and mundane concerns of ordinary life. In a word, he is detached. He has transcended the human fray.

This stereotypical image of Buddhist practice has widespread currency, even among the intellectual elite. A recent manifestation may be found in the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019), where the author defines the general aim of Buddhism as “a detachment from everything that is finite.” Reviewing this book in The New Yorker (May 13, 2019), staff writer James Wood endorses Hägglund’s view, alluding vaguely to “those doctrinal aspects of Buddhism which insist on detachment.” “Everything that is finite,” one might note, is a very large category. Not only does it include buildings and boulevards, mountains and rivers, rocks and trees. It also includes one’s family, friends, and loved ones generally. Why on earth would anyone wish to be so detached? If that is what Zen is about, one might conclude, so much the worse for Zen.

Hägglund’s view and the consensus it represents are not without a basis in Buddhist iconography, but they have little resemblance to actual Zen practice. In a manifesto entitled “What Zen Practice Is,” Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), founder of the San Diego Zen Center, defines the nature of Zen practice through a series of declarative statements. Among the most salient are the following:

Practice is about being with our life as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Practice is about the clash between what we want and what is.

Practice is about turning away from constantly seeking comfort and from trying to avoid pain.

Practice is about willingly residing in whatever life presents to us.

Practice is about turning from a self-centered view to a life-centered view.

Practice is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.

Practice is about learning to say “Yes” to everything, even when we hate it.

As can be inferred from both the spirit and the content of Beck’s descriptions, particularly points four and seven, this characterization by a longtime practitioner and a recognized authority on Zen practice stands starkly at odds with the notion of detachment. To willingly reside in whatever life presents to us, and to say “Yes” even to those things we find odious, is to immerse oneself in the messiness of being human. Rather than attempt detachment, contemporary Zen practitioners cultivate attitudes of engagement, openness, and radical acceptance.

The disparity between the idea of detachment and the reality of Zen practice may stem in part from Western images of Eastern culture, but I suspect that its primary source is semantic. Just as Western Zen teachers speak often of “awakening” but seldom of “enlightenment,” in the American Zen community the word detachment is rarely if ever to be heard. What one does encounter, however, is the term “non-attachment,” which may sound like a synonym for detachment but means something altogether different, especially in the context of Buddhist meditation.

“All I teach,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “is suffering and the end of suffering.” And, according to Zen teachings, the fundamental cause of conditioned suffering is our attachment to impermanent experiences, ideas, and things. But an end to suffering is not to be attained through detachment, insofar as that term implies denial, withdrawal, or an affected indifference. Rather, it is fostered, first, by an acute awareness of our attachments and, second, by the active practice of non-attachment. The aim of this practice is not to abjure our thoughts and their emotional subtexts or attempt to rise above them. Rather, it is to observe those phenomena as they arise and allow them to disperse of their own accord. Having the self-congratulatory thought, “I’m better informed than she is,” for example, we can embrace and pursue that thought—and deal with the likely consequences. Or, alternatively, we can practice non-attachment, observing the thought for as long as it lasts, then letting it go.

Zen practice is often viewed as a solitary endeavor, but in truth, it is profoundly relational. It is primarily concerned with our relationships, first to ourselves and then to those with whom we live and interact. More often than not, an attitude of detachment subverts those relationships, as do attitudes of grasping and clinging. By contrast, an attitude of non-attachment deepens our connections with other people by opening us to the truth of the moment. At once a discipline and a way of being, this nurturing practice engenders freedom, joy, and compassionate understanding. And it has nothing to do with detachment.


Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

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