In an evening talk some 800 years ago, Zen Master Dogen said that we should do good things secretly while people are not watching and if you make a mistake or do something bad, you should confess and repent of it publicly. On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I invited members of the Atlanta sangha to confess their bad deeds and repent publicly, and not surprisingly, not one person took me up on the invitation. But I will publicly confess to my shortcomings here, and continue the story of my recent insights into the nature of my self and my motivation to enter into Zen practice. This public confession is not a posting from which I am going to emerge looking good, or wise.
Among a great many other things, when Zen Master Dae Gok was the visiting teacher at the Atlanta Zen Center a couple months ago, he participated in a Sunday morning mondo, or "dharma combat." Mondo is not a debate and certainly not a fight - no one "wins" in dharma combat and no one loses. Instead, the participants use the encounter to deepen their understanding and practice, just as a boxer trains with sparring partners not to "win" against them but to improve his skills. In a typical mondo, at least in our tradition, a student publicly poses a question to the teacher and there usually follows some sort of exchange as the student either challenges the answer or asks for clarification. It is somewhat similar to dokusan, or private teaching, except that it is done in front of the rest of the sangha. A mondo exchange might go something like this classic example:
A monk approaches the teacher saying, "I'm going to ask you a question. Can you answer it?"
The teacher replies, "Please, ask your question."
The monk says, "I've already asked it."
The teacher replies, "I've already answered."
The monks asks, "What did you answer?"
The teacher asks, "What did you ask?"
"I asked nothing."
"I answered nothing."
In our tradition, the questions don't have to be challenges - they can be sincere inquiries into life or practice or dharma. So, on a beautiful late-summer Sunday morning, I approached Dae Gok during the mondo period and sat across from him in the middle of the zendo and in front of the sangha gathered for the event and asked, "In the Eihei Koroku (or, Master Dogen's Extensive Record, the book that Dae Gok had open in front of him from his earlier sermon) there's a famous passage wherein Dogen says 'I was not deceived by my teacher, but my teacher was deceived by this mountain monk' (meaning Dogen). You've talked to us about acceptance and trust, but Dogen talks about deception between teacher and student. What is this deception?"
Not a bad question, I thought - I kept it relevant by referring to the book which he had in front of him and had wove the theme of the weekend's teachings into my question. However, it's not the first time I've asked that question - I've asked it of our teacher, Elliston Roshi, once before during a mondo, and not satisfied with the answer I had received, asked it of him again during another mondo (only to receive the same answer). But Dae Gok could not have known that it was a recycled question, and besides, I still wasn't satisfied with the answers I had received from my teacher and was curious to see if I'd get the same answer again. I didn't.
"But you already know about this deception," Dae Gok replied. "You're deceiving us now."
A shock of recognition shot through me because I immediately knew exactly what he meant. My clever question, or at least my attempt at a clever question, was not a sincere inquiry but an act, a disguise. Deception. It was not sincere in that it was not a question to which I felt a great need to have answered, but instead one to which I thought I already knew the answer, or at least knew what the answer wasn't. If I'm to be completely honest here, I was vainly trying to prove to myself that my teacher was wrong and that by implication I was right.
"You're deceiving us now." To some degree, since no one had gone up voluntarily with a question before me, I was showing off in front of the sangha by arrogantly approaching the Master and demonstrating my self-assurance and insight by asking my recycled question. But the insight and the assurance were just an act to make others think I was something that I was not. I was hiding my true self behind the mask of my actions and my so-called clever question.
He, on the other hand, was being completely sincere as he looked directly into me. You can tell by the eyes whether or not you've got a person's full attention or if the person is just waiting for you to finish talking so they can speak. I could see in his piercing blue eyes that I had his full and complete attention, as he was staring at me with a laser-like concentration as if we were the only two persons in the world. He was fully present and there was no place to hide, and that was making me uncomfortable. I felt like he was seeing me for who I really was, including all my faults and all my many flaws, and like Adam in that garden, I wanted to hide to cover my nakedness.
"You're deceiving us now." Most of all, I didn't want to admit to my deception in front of the rest of the sangha. Pride and ego-attachment, those twin barriers to enlightenment, were manifesting themselves within me. It was bad enough that he could see that I was a phony, but I didn't want tout le monde to know as well. I sat there and tried to buy myself some time to figure out what to do next by asking him, "Please explain."
Kindly, he began a Socratic explanation of deception, asking me questions such as "What if I said the sky was green? Or the sun was dark? Would that be deception?" But I wasn't listening - my ego was too busy worrying that he was going to reveal me as a phony in front of my peers, and my mind was spinning trying to think of a way to escape this fix into which I had gotten myself. His smile was friendly but I was thinking "Please don't make me look bad" as his eyes were boring into me. He was not hiding anything, not covering anything - no deception. I, on the other hand, wanted to retreat - my fight-or-flight impulse was telling me to flee and to flee fast.
It was then that I realized that he had just asked me a question and was waiting on my answer, but I had no idea what he had just asked. My mind had been so busy plotting its "damage control" and pleading "please don't make me look bad," that it had entirely missed the question. So now things had gotten even worse - if I asked him to repeat himself I would be revealed in front of everyone as inattentive; if I answered wrong (and how could I not since I didn't know the question?) I would reveal myself as a fool.
Fundamentally, I didn't want to reveal myself at all. Not as inattentive, not as foolish, not as anything. I wanted to remain hidden, concealed behind my clever question and rakusu and black wardrobe, and maintain my mystery so that no one would know that I was . . . what? What was this "I" that I felt was so important to keep concealed?
But I had to say something right there and then, so I mumbled some sort of answer to the last part of the conversation that I could recall, something about the sky being green that I'm sure entirely missed the mark and bowed in gassho to signal my escape.
"Oh no, you're not getting away that easily," he said, cutting off my retreat.
This went on for a few more minutes and I honestly, or possibly mercifully, can't recall now all the details, but eventually he finally rang the bell signalling our mondo was over and I was finally able to retreat back to my zafu.
I felt embarrassed but even more, curious as to why I had such a prideful and egotistical reaction to our encounter. To have been bested in mondo by a Zen Master is surely no disgrace, just as losing at chess to Bobby Fisher or finishing last in a foot race with the Jamaican Olympic team is no disgrace. When I approached him that morning to start our mondo I hadn't expected not to have been bested and had hoped that I would learn something from the way that I would be defeated, just as a kung fu student can learn from being taken down by the Master.
But I was profoundly uncomfortable at having been seen, at having had no place to hide, and having to face my unadorned and unconcealed self. I had felt naked in front of the sangha, and wasn't used to being revealed.
As it turns out, like that theoretical kung fu student, I did learn something after all from being taken down by the Master. As I sat in zazen over the next several days, the question kept arising of why I had reacted that way and what it was that I was trying to hide, and a series of psychological insights came to me - aftershocks following the seismic mondo - that have given me a great deal of understanding of my life and my behavior over the past many years.
I said at the beginning of this post that I was going to confess my shortcomings and I have kept my word and revealed some of my arrogance and my cowardice, as well as my vanity and my deceptiveness. I don't mean to tease this discussion along but, but having fulfilled my promise for this post, I ask the kind reader to indulge me as I take another day or two to describe the nature of those psychological insights in subsequent posts. Publicly detailing your shortcomings is not easy work (try it some time), especially knowing that this blog may well be read by some of the very sangha from whom I I had been hiding myself. I've provided the narrative of what triggered the insights, so please allow me some sleep tonight and in return I will let you look under the hood as it were and show you what I've realized was my motivation to enter Zen practice in the first place, and how that same motive has driven so many other decisions in my life.