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Great Tree Vision Interview

From a taped Discussion with Rev. Nancy Spence, October 11, 2002

Nancy: What is the meaning of DaiJu?

Teijo: It is a tree that is very broad and reaches in many directions, not a specific kind of tree but a tree that reaches in all directions – like the ten direction Dharma world, this is a dharma tree which reaches to infinity in all directions.


Nancy: What is the vision?


Teijo: The vision keeps getting bigger – that’s that tree. I keep going back to the convent. It was really a community. I think it was designed to be very self-sustaining initially. There was a farm and apple orchards and a greenhouse, one nun did nothing but fix shoes, . .A place for spiritual practice to the full extent for anyone who could do it and then for people who couldn’t do it, 1this is developing for me as a place to help people with their spiritual practice.


Nancy: So you see this as a place of service?


Teijo: I really believe that when people are fully engaged in spiritual practice, that is a service. Initially it would be a place for people to come and do spiritual practice. A full monastic practice for long-term guests, and a simpler version of that practice, more like a retreat, for short-term guests. I want to have two one-hundred day practice periods with three sesshin during each practice period. And men would be allowed to come to sesshin and workshops and short visits.


Nancy: So in terms of a vision, it is a community of women?


Teijo: Right, right. And the other part of it, what I would also like to make available is kind of an assisted living situation for women who are older and want to be in a place where they can live and participate in the practice. So you might call it an “Elder Practice Community”. It would be more like a practice community. I think I would like to come up with a schedule for them too, but I don’t know whether that would work, it might be better to just do it on an individual basis.

The thing that I keep going back to is in the convent, this whole community thing, making participation available to people whatever level they’re at. For example when people are very young, they have a lot of energy, and when they’re first coming into the practice it was very good for me to really have a hard practice to jump into. But as you get older your body really can’t handle that. So I want to make it multi-leveled. In the convent we had a residential place where older residents would live. I can’t imagine that in my life-time we would get to the point where we could actually have medical services available, although that would be very nice. In the convent some of the nuns were nurses, and the hospital was built by the nuns and it was right near by, so we had that level of care.


Nancy: It seems to me that nowadays bringing medical to people is easier, there are more people that are trained in that.


Teijo: Yes, and I don’t want it to be so isolated that that would be difficult So I have many ideas, I also want children to feel very welcome there. I want to have workshops during the summer time, and have a fair amount of practice opportunities available to children. For example, I go to Hokyoji in Minnesota every summer and lead the Community Practice Weekend, and children and parents and even unmarried people, all practice together. It’s a very different kind of practice schedule, but it helps children feel more comfortable with practice. And some people come who are just wanting to enter into the practice but want something that’s easier. I feel that parents will probably be able to bring their children and stay in the guest house at other times too. So that there really do have the practice available at all levels, you have a way to deal with people of all ages. The summer workshops wouldn’t necessarily all have to be family orieinted


So I see that sort of multi-layered aspect. And in terms of facilities, although that may be too specific to get to right now, wherever was going to be the temple or the meditation hall, that would have to be a separate place from any places where community people might be staying in, men might stay here, people with children might stay here, elderly might stay here.

When I was at Shasta, I noticed where the guest department was located in relation to the main practice area. The guest department was quite a distance from the main practice area. That is one thing I would definitely do, because I want to open it to men and people with children and things like that. So that would have to be very separate.


In terms of older women, I don’t think it needs to be quite as separate. I think it should be close enough and connected enough physically that it would not be difficult for them to practice. I do have a kind of vision of how I’d like it to be laid out.. I really want to base it on the Chinese temple architectural style, which is set up with the consideration of the energy flow of the universe. For example, the buddha in the meditation hall faces North, which means the zendo has to be oriented towards the North. And the buddha in the kitchen, which is often across a courtyard, faces the buddha in the zendo. It’s not in the kitchen, it’s usually in a room that’s adjacent to the kitchen. This is the way Dogen Zenji did it and I think he modeled it on the Chinese model, you have the meditation hall and the informal dining area/kitchen, and then there’s usually a ceremony hall, and they’re all connected with a covered walk. The dormitory spaces were just kind of stuck in. Anyway, it was in a kind of a U-shape and the Hatto was in the bottom of the U and the Meditation Hall was on one leg of it, and the informal dining/kitchen were on the other leg of it. And you could walk inside across the Hatto and over to the Meditation Hall. So to begin with what I’d like to do is to put in the meditation hall and put in the kitchen area and put in a walkway, and maybe even start to put in dormitory spaces back in these other spaces. And leave room for a ceremony hall if we do decide that we want it. It could be a lecture hall or something. But that’s not terribly important to me. First I want to build a meditation hall, of course we need a kitchen area, and then living spaces for residents and then guest spaces. Because there are a lot of people, particularly men, who are interested in coming to sesshin. And so I think the guest department has to be a high priority.


Teijo: I think we need to address this question of who could participate in the practice, who is the practice there, who is this practice designed for?


Nancy: What if we looked at “Why have a practice center primarily for women?”


Teijo: Let me start out by saying that I am a Buddhist. “Shikantaza” is the purest spiritual practice that I’ve found because it helps one really look deeply at what life is. And this is what I have pursued over the last 27 years, so I have kind of an idea of what it’s about. But one of the things I have discovered in the course of my pursuit is that the traditional style of Dogen’s Zen appeals very much to men, and has been developed by men, and so has a very male quality about it. And I’ve felt for a long time that somehow the feminine expression of Zen practice has not been embodied within the practice itself.


I like the simplicity of Zen practice, and I don’t want to approach it by saying, “Okay now, what is the feminine.” I don’t want to approach it in that way. The way I want to approach it is by putting women together, doing zazen and seeing what happens – doing zazen, studying and working together, which are the three components that Dogen Zenji suggests, and see what happens. I’ve already experimented with this a little bit in workshops. I feel something, but I don’t know what it is. I’d like to do some really intensive exploration of this with women who are interested in doing it (it doesn’t have to be a lot of women), for a period of time, a hundred days or so, following a basic schedule. Just trying to figure out what it is that would bring more of a balance to Zen practice. There is the masculine and feminine in life and sometimes we take that out of balance when things develop in a particular way. So I’m just trying to bring the feminine into it and see how that plays out.


I didn’t come to this because I’m a feminist because I’m not; I don’t have that particular bent. So I don’t have any ideas about what it means. I am only a feminist in the respect that I think the feminine has to balance the masculine – I’m more of a Taoist in that respect. I think there needs to be a balance. And I didn’t really even think about this early on. When I first went to the Minnesota Zen Center I noticed that there weren’t too many women who were spending as much time there as men, but I just thought, well maybe they think they can’t do this or something. Interestingly enough this is something I ran into in Japan, that women think that zazen is too hard; now that’s not true of all women, there were women practicing where I was didn’t really believe that.


Nancy: That reminds me of this quote: “Women very rarely take to meditation, they take to devotion, bhakti yoga, they can take to service, seva yoga, or karma yoga. But not meditation, dhyana, samadhi. Consciously, intellectually they understand everything, because regarding the brilliance of the brain there is no distinction such as male and female. But psychologically, at the core of their being is this fear. And that fear has to be dispelled.”


Teijo: What fear?


Nancy: That they are no one unless they are giving. And they have to find who they are, which is the struggle that women have, finding who they are if they give up their view of themselves as the givers, the nurturers, the nourishers in the world. It’s something that we’re culturally conditioned into, and it’s a very hard layer for most women to let go of. And I don’t know how you’ve stepped beyond that, but you don’t have it, because you’re one who does go right for dhyana, samadhi, shikantaza. Like you said, you saw that, that’s what you wanted, you knew that was the practice, that’s the simplest most direct way there. But why aren’t there more women that give up their lives for the practice? And this article is pointing out that the risk for women is that we’re judged as “bad” if we don’t give. And our safety is at stake.


Teijo: Well, my whole perception of giving has changed. To me the best way to give the teaching, and I learned this directly from Katagiri Roshi, is to practice, to do it. When people say, “Oh you help me so much when you . . .” sometimes it’s “when you said this”, which I never remember saying. But often it’s because of the way I acted in a particular situation, even at a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat someone said they were watching me eat. And I just had no idea, I was just eating, I was just at the retreat. But they were saying that they were very impressed because they felt like I wasn’t being rigid about it, but I was being mindful. It is certainly something I’ve tried to cultivate and Thich Nhat Hanh encourages that at the retreats, so I was trying to do everything mindfully. It talks about that in the Diamond Sutra too, that if you give as many jewels as there are sands in the Ganges river, and if each one of those sands in the Ganges river was a Ganges river with sands, if you gave that many jewels to someone, it wouldn’t be worth as much as your practice, your study, your actions, your effort to pursue the spiritual path. And I really believe that.


The other thing is I used to be involved in politics, both traditional politics and activism. I finally came to the conclusion that the kind of giving that I was doing in those situations was based on my ideas about giving and it wasn’t really addressing real needs, it became a very superficial thing. So, that’s a very deep reason why I think there needs to be some kind of monastic practice – it doesn’t necessarily have to be just for women, it just happens to be the direction I am going with it.


Nancy: I think that last point you were getting to was important about why have a practice center primarily for women. What is it that is advantageous for women about training just with women?


Teijo: Well, I think that we as women, particularly in the Zen world, have to find some clarity about what is the feminine in spiritual practice. To me, zazen is the thing that takes me deeper into life itself.


Nancy: Do you mean by that, allows you to expand conscious awareness?


Teijo: I don’t think of it as expanding. Expanding almost seems like it’s something to do, but “open to”.


Nancy: Letting go of layers of self, letting go of restriction, constrictions where . . .


Teijo: Perceptions. Or at least acknowledging perceptions to the point where they don’t appear to be real.


Nancy: And I think that the layers that come up in a woman when she’s around men, generally speaking are . . . I think it’s easier for women to have the experience that you’re talking about when men aren’t around. And then once they know the experience, then they can carry it into the presence of men


Teijo: Right. That’s what I mean by clarity. What I find in general, and this is not true just when men are around, is that if I feel that someone is not understanding what I’m saying, I often second guess myself. I don’t even take the experience as seriously as I might. That’s one of the nice things about zazen for me is that when I’m quiet and I’m not actually hearing from people who don’t understand, who are maybe either blowing it off or even making fun of it or something like that, than I can get more clarity about the experience itself. So when I’m in the presence of people who don’t understand my experience and don’t give me some acknowledgement, I find that I am not as inclined to take that understanding to the next level or sometimes not even take it very seriously myself.


Nancy: In other words, in some ways you would discount your own experience?


Teijo: Yes. And I think that’s very easy to do with the experiences we have during zazen anyway because we’re going into unfamiliar territory. And when we have a new experience that doesn’t fit into our system of thinking – I mean I feel like everything we experience we immediately try to fit into what we already know – we have this little framework. And the value of doing zazen for years and years is that it starts to become a familiar experience, starts to create not a framework of it’s own but kind of expand the framework a little bit. So that you’re able to say “Oh yeah that was a real experience” or “Maybe this is a real experience” even if you don’t understand it. Just like, my whole vision of the women’s practice center is something that has really grown inside me. The reason I have so much trouble trying to articulate it is because it’s not something I’ve developed very much intellectually. And then the experience that I had the first year at the women’s workshop that I did at Hokyoji, I cannot tell you what it was that was different, but it blew my mind. I feel like it took me to another level of clarity about going ahead with the Women’s Practice Center. The Women’s Practice Center is so old hat to me right now that now it just seems like a lot of work to make it happen. But there’s something inside of me that was strengthened so much by that experience of just three or four women coming together and sitting together for a week and studying the Diamond Sutra and eating and being together at Hokyoji and inviting the female deities, which I had never thought to do before, that just was a transforming process for me. And that just made me realize that it’s way beyond anything that I understand – my reasons for wanting to do it. It’s not even something that I’m just psyched to do or anything. It’s so deep that if I don’t do it I feel like I will have more trouble dying. So I really feel that I need to do as much as possible with it. And I’ve allowed myself to get distracted by other things, which is fine, it’s all been part of the whole process for me. I wasn’t ready, and now I’m ready.

So that workshop gave me a lot of clarity. That’s the kind of clarity I’m talking about. It’s not the kind of clarity where I know what the results will actually be. It clarity in that there is a little flame that’s burning inside of me that keeps lighting up this visceral kind of experience that . . .every time I think of that, the whole inside of me lights up. And that is what’s possible. I know that it’s possible because I’ve already had the experience of it. So, it wouldn’t even take many women to do it. I’m not trying to overlay something onto this. I really want it to come from an internal place.


Nancy: Does it cause you to come at it differently than you’ve done other things in your life.


Teijo: Definitely, definitely. I feel like my whole role in all of this is to stay focused on the Dharma of it and not worry about the details of it – however they come together will be okay. And fortunately there are people involved in this, that are taking it on, that I trust a lot. And that’s really great.


Nancy: So some of the reason why answering this question or putting something about this in the brochure can be difficult is that out there in the world of form it can look like it’s taking sides, it can look discriminatory?


Teijo: Yes. And I want to address that somehow. Because I don’t see it as a discriminatory thing. I feel like when women get clarity, they will bring something back to the practice when men and women are practicing together. That’s why I’m so grateful that Zen Center of Asheville is in existence, because it’s a place where we can see how it’s working. I don’t want to just say, well I’m tired of practicing with men so I’m going off here. It’s not like that. It’s that I want to bring some balance to the practice. I don’t want to just cultivate the feminine. And that’s also why if men come and practice at sesshin etc, that’s not a problem. Residents will have plenty of opportunity to really sink into the practice and explore this question outside of sesshin. And maybe the sesshin will be a good place for that balance to start manifesting.


Nancy: Well, in terms of what you’re setting out here. I am a feminist and I feel that women need to have a way to see themselves strong and whole, they need to have models for that. They need to look out at the world and see that “Oh women can do that” instead of what they see about what women can do. And Shasta Abbey is a good place for that because anything done in that monastery women do as well as men. And Jiyu Kennet t set it up that way from the very beginning. But the one place where to me she fell down on that is in the sutras because it’s just “He, he, he” And it made people very angry. And she said, well if you get beyond that the pronoun doesn’t matter. And I understand that. But most people who go there first aren’t beyond that.


Teijo: Well, and this is something I’ve been criticized for too. That somehow I am making these kinds of discriminations, that I am saying that the practice itself does not create non-discriminatory mind. Someone told me that there is no masculine or feminine and that my position is one of duality. They’re saying that there is no difference between men and women and that that’s just a position of discrimination or duality.


Nancy: Well, what I would say is that, you know how we say that Buddhism is about wisdom and compassion, or that sharp clarity. And I feel that men’s general conditioning will get them that route and women go the route of compassion. Women know that compassion has to include the self or it’s not true compassion and then be open to bringing in the clarity. And men, who can be sharp and clear and stand up and take an edge, (like Dogen is such a clear example of that), and where is the other side that we say the awakened experience is about, and that is compassion. And I think in terms of the routes there, generally speaking that women have to know what is it about being female or feminine that is just a natural flow towards that is the result of zazen which is that deeper participation or that deeper experience of life. And the structure we have in Soto Zen now is from the monastery which is a male structure. So we’re trying to create a practice place where women can go and find out, now that there are enough women who recognize this and it’s out there and it’s talked about and it’s an issue that we can stand up and not feel bad or less then because we bring up, we can have a practice place where women can go and find that out. And they need to see that modeled back for them, and they need to open themselves to it, find that in their practice, in addition to what . . . ?


Teijo: Yes, and I think that even though zazen opens us up and allows us to learn how to open our minds, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have the discrimination already within us. And somehow we have to . . . I mean, discrimination in terms of seeing things as one way or another, and that somehow we need to have some kind of a condition where we’re looking at something before we can see where our discrimination lies. We can’t just live in absolute reality, we live in discriminatory mind. And so I think we have to be able to recognize where our blocks are, and I don’t know if a person can even do that in one lifetime. Even Katagiri Roshi, who was an extremely open person, didn’t know how to pay attention to his body. I started telling him some things when I was studying Alexander Technique, and there were times when I remember him kind of computing it and hearing it, but he’d never thought of it before. It’s not something that just automatically comes up, it’s something that has to be maybe sometimes explored or discovered, because we all have our blind spots.
I think it’s kind of delusional to think that zazen is going to just suddenly make us into non-discriminating beings, when in fact that’s the function of the human mind to discriminate. And that’s what really keeps us alive. We couldn’t survive if we didn’t have any faculties of discrimination.


Nancy: You have to know “in” and “out”


Teijo: That’s right. But the main problem is when we allow our discrimination to dominate our lives without being aware of it.


Nancy: That’s right, to form judgment and then decision-making based on that. So to me, saying in the brochure why it’s for women, what it’s about for women, is important. Women need to see that, so that they’ll feel met there. I can see that you don’t want it to be offensive to males, but if they’re offended, they should pluck out their eye.


Teijo: I mean, I sort of feel like that. If a man is going to be that offended by it, then they’re just going to have to work with that, that’s their practice. But I want to continue to acknowledge this as not just isolated women practicing with women, but women doing this in order to bring that balance. Otherwise what’s going to happen is that it’s going to go out of balance in the other direction. So from the outset, I want to say that. I want to make that part of the whole vision, that somehow I want to find a way to create this balance. And part of what I know is that I went to all girls’ schools. And I have had this experience of when you say something there were people around who understood what you said, and you could feel their support, even if they wouldn’t say anything. You would feel their support and then you could move on. And I feel that that was an important part of my spiritual development. And I think my brother feels the same way about going to all-boy’ schools. And I talked to guys in the monastery that I stayed at in Japan, and some of them would say “Oh, it’s nice having women here.”, but other’s would say, “Well, it’s nice having women here, but it was really very different before women came, and there were some really, really good and important things about that.” So I think we have to acknowledge that, and not just say, this is a better way, to acknowledge the value of different ways of going about the practice in order to really create a balance

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