Zen Master Barbara Rhodes is Not a Woman [ Reply to a Reader ]

Question:

Dear Sunim,

I hope you are fine. I really like that you continue to spread the Dharma. In the first lockdown, I practiced for 45 days in a row every morning and evening with you on Youtube [cloudpath108]. Then my job got so demanding that was not possible, but still I have stable practice consisting of daily meditation and chanting. I also took the precepts online by Jason Quinn, Kathy Park and Zen Master Soeng Hyang. Soeng Hyang is a great teacher and helped me with Kong-An practice.

I know many people are contacting you and I don’t want to steal your precious time. When reading your last blog [“Three Kinds of Killing”, February 1, 2021], some questions came to my mind: I still don’t see that a “gay-me” is “some false, socially acceptable or fashionable ‘self'”. When I look back being gay was also painful. I survived two attacks in the streets, quit a job, was rejected by half of my family… This caused much more suffering than other parts of my gay identity like addiction to the music of Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, and ABBA. So it is difficult for me to relate to this part of your blog. Why do you think it is helpful to compare a “gay-me” to an “Instagram-me”?

Being gay in this society means accepting one’s condition even if others tell you that is wrong. Yes, any label is problematic, but it is also problematic not to use them. Please let me give an example. In one of your Dharma talks, you mentioned that some people believed that they are transgender, started surgeries, and later it comes clear that they are not. But why is it so? Friends who consider themselves as trans, non-binary, and even de-trans explained this as follows. They have a special condition called gender dysphoria. Unfortunately, we don’t understand this condition very well yet. Even science believed that only trans people have it. It is important that people with this condition find about themselves in detail. Some might find out that surgery will help them. Others may find out that this is not the right choice. Those people will define themselves perhaps as “non-binary” (neither-nor or in between) or “gender-fluid” (sometimes this – sometimes that) or “agender” (gender not relevant). Don’t you think that finding a label which describes own’s condition in the most concise possible way, can be very wise and prevent wrong choices? Doesn’t the problem start when we stop questioning and start thinking that our views are the reality?

I hope that this whole pandemic is over and that I will be able to visit the Zen Center in this year. And I hope you don’t feel annoyed because of my stupid message, my questions and opinions.

In the Dharma,
M. J.

Reply:

Dear M. J.,

Thank you so much for your wonderful note. It is really great to hear from you. I am so happy that you took the Five Precepts recently. This is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

You shouldn’t worry that I might “feel annoyed because of my stupid message, my questions and opinions.” Nothing could be further from the truth! I always value our karma together since our very first chance meeting and discussion back in that Korean restaurant in Mainz some years ago, and your many retreats here at Zen Center Regensburg. You are a very valued member of our community, and everybody here loves you very much.

I am also very glad that you have been participating in the daily livestream when you can, and that you are practicing with other members in other “rooms” of our big-minded lineage when you cannot. As you remember when we first discussed this possibility of sometimes practicing in Kwan Um centers, when you asked in the coffee shop in Regensburg after that retreat, Dae Soen Sa Nim always said, “If a teacher truly believes in their Dharma 100%, then their students can practice anywhere, with any teachers, with no hindrance. If a teacher does not believe in his or her Dharma, then they just keep their students tight, and they cannot practice other places and with other teachers.” This is why I have always encouraged all of you to practice the Dharma wherever you can, and have encouraged you and many others especially to do practice in Kwan Um centers whenever it helps. Of course! Some of our Kwan Um colleagues (most notably Zen Master Dae Bong) also have this mind, which is wonderful. That is why we send people to Mu Sang Sah Kyol Che every year. And every other center is also possible for you to go to, as you have known. It will change more in the future, as peoples’ practice gets stronger. I am very sure of that.

Your question about the recent post, “Three Kinds of Killing,” is a good one. Actually, in silent practice, you and I understand exactly the same thing. But then this very faulty method of communicating things with printed words can give the wrong impression. For example: There is no intent in that post to compare a “gay-me” to an “Instagram-me”. It is merely looking forthrightly and radically at the provisional nature of all conditioned experiences (perhaps in too broad strokes), in order to point at something completely unconditioned, and express that all in one terse sentence. (Remember, I’m trying to take the advice to teach on forums like Instagram, which demands a certain over-compacting of expression. Of course, all of this is already a really big mistake.) But these words are pointing at something, and that “something” is absolutely important and worth being clear about. It is especially true these days, where so much conflict is exploding around “identity” and the creation of hardened camps based on belief and thought and tribe and culture.

Let me explain:

I am not “attacking“ the work of having an identity – – we all have one. How would we function in this world without an identity? Our social/political/racial/religious/national identities can merely be described as a “user interface” for our true nature to connect with phenomena in the physical world — nothing more. And they can change, this way and that. As you notice, I also criticize a “monk“-me. I have very, very, very strong progressive politics, but I also criticize “progressive“-me. (Of course, these might seem or even BE more superficial than your “gay“ experience of identity. But they are all that I have in this necessarily insubstantial mode of communication. Please forgive that.)

But deeper spiritual work does not stop with this “user interface” identity: Real spiritual practice points to another dimension: “What am I?”

You have often heard me say that “Zen is the ultimate mind-hack.” Zen practice is, itself, a living, experiential, totally radical — and therefore, dangerous — critique of the very notion of “identity“. Sitting in silence, no longer engaging further mental inputs outside of this moment’s direct experience, coming back to intimacy with the breath, and turning the gaze inside to regard the very place from which thinking arises, we get reflect on the question; “What am I?” When practicing like this, we arrive directly at the very real and clear experience of “no-I“. My Teacher called this “don’t know”. Zen Master Bassui called it the Unborn. Osho Rajneesh called it “no-mind”. Yet it has no name, and no form.

When we first begin practice, it is a very short “blip“ of an experience. But as our practice matures, we see that this “before-thinking“ place is actually something vast and continuous and borderless, nameless and without time or space, and it is always present, whenever and wherever we are. “It”  is not a “thing” or “idea” or even a “place” that I have just described it being: it is actually WHAT we are. It is the very nature of reality itself, the nature of the whole universe. And every thing has it.

Now, though this has no name or form, some people call it “true Self“, some call it “true I”, some people call it “original nature“ (or “true nature”), some people call it “Soul“, or “consciousness“, or “spirit“, or Brahma, or Christ-nature, or the Absolute. These are all just names and forms – – dead concepts, limited by language and tradition and history: thinking. These words are not “it“ – – they are just the temporary descriptions, conceptual “identities” that we give to something which actually has no real or separate “identity”. But you know that, when you are truly experiencing “it”, there are no words or speech or form to describe it. And when I experience “it”, I also see that there are no words or speech or form to describe it. And when your friend experiences it, or my monk-brother experiences it, or my Teacher or the Buddha experienced it, or when a dog experiences it, there are also no words or speech or form to describe it. The moment a word or form appears that tries to capture it, that is already no longer “it”.

You have seen me demonstrate this many times in this way: if you hold your hand slightly above the floor, there will be a shadow on the floor which looks very, very much like your hand. It is shaped more like your hand than my hand or her hand. But that shadow, no matter how much it resembles my hand, can never be perfectly my hand. It is not the same thing. The shadow is only a crude, indistinct approximation of my true hand.

This is the same with any words or concepts which we try to use to describe or communicate “it”. That is why it says in the Bible, “Be silent, and know [that I am] God.” Dae Soen Sa Nim would put it this way: “Opening your mouth [to call it something] is already a big mistake.” 

So, when you experience it, and I experience it, we are experiencing exactly the same thing. There is not one single iota of difference in our experience, whatsoever. If you are very educated and I am not; if you are very artistic, and I am not; if you are very athletic, and I am musical; if you are really anxious all the time, filled with panic attacks, and I am depressive; if you are deeply engaged in political activism, and I’m just a self indulgent selfish pig only concerned with myself; if you are “good”, and I am very, very “evil” -– in the moment of experiencing “it“, both our experiences are exactly and perfectly and infinitely the same. There is no “this“ and “that“. And there is definitely no different “identity”.

This is what I am pointing to in that blog post.

Here is another way to explain it: If you look out your window right now where you are now in Mainz, and you see some clouds in the sky, and I look out my window down south here in Regensburg, Bavaria, and I see some clouds in the sky – – those cloud formations are both different. But the sky behind them – – the infinite, never coming/never going boundless borderless blue — that is completely the same. 

In your letter, you speak about the great challenges and beautiful gifts of your “gay“ identity, and you need not deny that or diminish its importance. Yes, that is true, on one level. And I celebrate that with you completely!

Yet however much you justly treasure this precious identity, still, it is really not your true identity, as I was pointing out in the post. That is an identity maybe of conditions and thinking, maybe of biology or formation or just happenstance or genes or trauma or whatever. It is not a true, absolute identity: it is based on conditions, and anything based on the coming together of conditions can also “change,” so it is not the Absolute. If your “gay“ identity (however justly precious to your own sense of meaning) was really an absolutely true identity, then why don’t I experience it, too? And why don’t you experience my “monk“ identity, or New Jersey-identity which has been such a very helpful and precious (and also very very very challenging!) experience for my life?

Though I were to live here in Germany for the rest of my life, I could never experience reality here with the full depth of your German identity that you do, which has been shaped since birth; in the same way, no matter how much bad American TV you experience, or how many years you live in America, you can never see things the way my American experience shapes them to my mind. These are just our temporary, conditional, name-and-form identities. They are useful identities, and they help us do different things better or worse than others who do not share these identities. But that does not make them our true identity. They are like a kind of set of clothing: they fit us better than someone else’s clothing, and they agree with our sensibilities and our experience, our job that day and our social class or function. But they are not my skin. No matter how much those clothes represent something important to the world about us — and about the world back to us, through peoples’ reactions to my clothing — they are not my true skin. 

An eminent teacher once said, “The clouds are part of the sky, but they are not the true sky.” Open your window right now and look outside at the cloudy sky on this chilly German (also a mistaken identity!) morning. The cloud formations that you see outside your window, and the cloud formations that I see outside my window are different. And yet what you experience are true for our experience. But they are not the “true“ sky. The true sky is the one behind the clouds – – never coming/never going, never appearing/never disappearing, never increasing/never decreasing. Our Zen practice strongly trains us to get insight into that.

(I even called this “Germany,” which is true for me and you. A true identity which no one could sanely dispute. Yet since Regensburg is quite near the border with the Czech Republic, I wonder what a bird would say, flying back and forth over this very true border, if we asked it what is “Germany” and what is “Czech Republic”!)

You mentioned that you recently received precepts from Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes). She is a very great practitioner, and you have excellent karma to practice and receive precepts from her. I respect her very, very much. 

Perhaps you remember the wonderful story she tells about an exchange she once had with our teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn. As you know, Barbara is a great model for all serious practitioners, and a wonderful inspiration for anyone, especially as a  woman. Did you know that she once hosted the first major gathering of first-generation female Dharma teachers in America, back in the 1980s? This was a landmark happening that gave voice to many women teachers emerging into their important role in spreading the Dharma in the world! So, she is considered a strong, fearless voice for the empowerment of men and women in the Dharma and, well, everywhere – – as she should. She is also the first Westerner ever to receive formal authorization from our Teacher, and he appointed her very early to the highest leadership roles in the sangha he established in the West. (In addition, it must be noted, Dae Soen Sa Nim himself strongly encouraged and supported her in hosting that historic conference of women at his own Head Temple, the Providence Zen Center.) And as you know, she is the top teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen, today, also by his appointment. A woman teacher at the head of one of the biggest Zen sangha in the West — how proud that makes me feel about my Teacher and his students, like her!

One day, when she was a beginning Zen student, she asked Dae Soen Sa Nim, “Sir, you teach that anyone can get enlightenment. Can women also get enlightenment?”
“No!” he said, and he left the room.
Wow! This answer made her blood boil! So she followed him into the next room and said, “Sir, I cannot understand your teaching. You always say everyone can get enlightenment. Why can’t women get enlightenment?”
“Oh, so, are you a ‘woman’?”, he asked. She completely got it! She tells this story often.

I think this is one of the greatest Dharma exchanges in the transmission of Zen to the West. It cuts right straight to the heart of the matter of “identity” — relative and absolute. So this exchange also points directly to your own question about my blogpost. In this short, terse exchange, an exceptionally keen-eyed and truly fearless Teacher trusts his student very much. He liberates his young student from her cloud-based, conditioned, socially-determined concept of “identity” — however “significant” it might be or seem for her various functions and experiences in the world — and lifts her up to a view of the Absolute: our True Nature has no “female,” has no “male”; has no “gay” or “straight”, “black” or “white”. (And remember: he supported her work for “female” teachers!)

Instead of letting this wonderfully empowered woman stop there, he points her to the true sky! He does not let her become hindered by the conditional, cloud-like changeability of some “identity“ which is malleable, controlled by different laws here or there, etc. Even today, we hear that “gender is fluid“, and “gender is a social construct”. That means that gender is determined by thinking and experiences and ideas and philosophies and socialization. Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am“. If my thinking or experience is like this or that, then I am this or that. This is a kind of identity, and I will not proclaim any sort of socio-normative judgments on such assertions — you have already addressed them in your email. Dae Soen Sa Nim cuts through that whole matter with laser-like clarity.

But, however self-identity needs to be accepted or respected by this society or that society’s social conventions or laws, it is not true, absolute identity. It is the clouds in the sky. As you state in your email, we hear of young people who can have the identity crisis of adolescence, and might believe that they are something different from their birth-gender, and perhaps maybe some make transitional procedures or at least strong social adjustments to their environment. For some this is a great liberation, finally coming into a fuller “ownership” of their gendered self; and sometimes, a not-insignificant number might decide later that they made a mistake, and wish to “transition” back. And a part of human beings might agree with them, and support, and another section of human beings will disagree, and even oppose that: opposites — conflict.

Human thinking-mind is constantly moving and changing, especially in social contexts, and oftentimes further life insights can confirm that what I earnestly believed about myself at one point in my life might no longer hold true at another point in my life. This is also possible. This is not not good or bad. It is cloud-sky identity. Nowadays, speech like this can also be interpreted to be “de-legitimizing” of others. But nothing of the sort is intended. I have no one to please or cater to in my experience: again, I do not pretend or wish to make socio-normative claims. I only speak from the standpoint of pure meditation, from the absolute realm of our before-thinking nature, before any kind of gender whatsoever ever appears!

So, Zen meditation is pointing to something far, far deeper than any kind of socially constructed, “fluid” or “solid”, binary or non-binary identity. All of these things have opposites. Zen meditation is pointing to the “something“ behind the clouds, something which was “there“ before today’s clouds appeared, before yesterday’s clouds appeared, and will remain after tomorrow’s clouds disappear – – non-opposites, infinite in time and space. You have heard the Zen question we work on: “What was my original face, before my parents appeared?” All gender-studies and gender-theory might be helpful for some, but it can only grasp the social face you have after you are born, male or female, binary or non-binary. This is still opposites, not the Absolute.

But Zen — alone among all teachings — points us to regard my face “before my parents were born.” It does not “disregard“ the cloud-sky identity, but it definitely shows that that cloud-sky identity is not the true, immovable identity beyond birth and death which is common to us all. Zen points to the gender (orientation, whatever) before my parents were born.

So, Zen meditation means becoming absolutely clear about the true sky. Then, any kind of cloud formation – – coming and going, binary/non-binary -– any kind of storm or serenity, can be more profoundly understood and used for the benefit of other beings, trapped and limited in their own cloud-sky realities. Zen practice does not “deny“ any kind of identity, or set up any kind of “identity“ above or against another. How could it ever do this?

Zen means perceive clearly, and then naturally follow situation. It has no “good” or “bad”. I have a friend in Germany who practiced in the sangha for many years. When I knew this person in the sangha, this person “was” self-identified as male. Some years later, the person I knew as a novice monk has come to peace with themself now as “female”. In her social media posts and expressions, she wishes to have it known that she identifies as female. Wonderful! After some years of non-contact, I met this really good person again, recently, after her realization, and greeted her warmly and embraced her place in life as a female, pronouns and all. It just happened naturally, even though the habit was to operate automatically from what I remembered and understood before. Reflect clearly, and just do it. So be it! If I have this “clouds-and-sky” view of the absolute reality of things — the relative and the Absolute — there is no denying the emerging truth that is very real and true to her, in the same way that I or anyone else should regard the relative truth I live (monk, Zen student, American, cis-hetero male, whatever). Perceive that, and operate. But I never lose sight of the Absolute, and in that, she and I are exactly and completely the same. It is like the two wings of a bird!

For someone like you, who already has a strong practice, having a strong sense of your “gay“ identity, or any other kind of identity, is very wonderful. It might not be such a problem in the way that most people believe too strongly only in the strong reality of their “relative” identity. But most of the mass of humanity have zero insight outside the conditioning of their received identity, their constructed identity, their social identity, their political identity, their racial identity — their “fluid” identity and their “solid” identity. We read all the time about an increase in tribalism, toxic nationalisms, and strident “identity politics“ that drive people further and further apart. These are the people that I worry about, and to whom such a post could be perhaps more meaningfully disruptive and hopefully constructive (i.e., leading to practicing “What am I?”), I would hope. 

As for us Zen students — human beings looking straight into the matter of our face and gender and orientation before our parents were born — understanding our true identity is only arrived at through looking deeply into the question, “What am I?” Only when we abide there — that place before thinking arises, gendered or otherwise — does our True Face appear.

Again, thanks for writing. I hope these faulty words are some benefit for your practice.

Yours in the Dharma, 

hg

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