Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!

September 24th, 2017

I had two interviews with Zen Master Ji Haeng during the last Zen retreat. I hadn’t had an interview for a long time, probably ten years or so. Previous Zen interviews had been underwhelming for me. I never got the point. Maybe I still don’t. As a Catholic, I always felt that visiting the Zen Master was a cross between going to confession and meeting the Great and Powerful Oz. Other people in the sangha were quite eager to spend time with Zen Master Ji Haeng. My response to their enthusiasm was, “Yeah, whatever.”

Both priests and Zen Masters possess some kind of spiritual authority, at least in an official sense. A priest is ordained and shares a lineage that goes back to the Apostles. A Zen Master has inka, and he or she can trace themselves back to Bodhidharma. They embody their respective traditions. They start off with some credibility and authority. How long those things last depends on how these persons preform their duties. Credibility is often fragile and short lived. Authority is likewise ephemeral.

Since my two recent interviews, I have revised my opinions on the value of the Zen interview. I have noticed some odd similarities between a Zen interview and the Sacrament of Confession. Now, I have been to confession with a priest many more times than I have spoken with a Zen Master, so my observations may be inaccurate. Also, there are many differences between the two processes that can’t be reconciled, but I tend to look for connections.

Both a confession and a Zen interview start with ritual. I’m not sure why that is. It might be to establish a clear delineation between the outside world and a sacred time/space. Both the priest and the Zen Master wait for somebody to come to them. They both have certain symbols of their office: the priest wears a stole, the Zen Master has his robes and his stick. There is a ritual greeting that the person making a confession gives to the priest. The sangha member bows to the Zen Master. All these things set the stage for the coming exchange.

One of the first things that a Catholic tells the priest during confession is how long it’s been since the last time he or she received the sacrament. Sometimes the priest asks that question at the very beginning. The first things that Zen Master Ji Haeng asked me were: “What is you name”, “How old are you?”, Where do you come from?”, and “Where are you going?” These questions give both the priest and the Zen Master a feel for where the person is. It’s a starting point.

To backtrack a bit, a Catholic preparing for the sacrament is required to make a ‘thorough examination of conscience”, that is, to take a hard look at recent thoughts, words, and actions. A Zen practitioner may be musing over the meaning of a kong-an prior to going into a Zen interview. Is there a similarity between pondering one’s mistakes and pondering a kong-an, an ambiguous riddle? Maybe not. If anything, both exercises force the person to be conscious. Both forms of meditation are invitations to wake up.

Sin. Confession is all about sin. It is about getting rid of sin. One of the Hebrew words in the Bible for sin is “chatta’ah”, which comes from the verb which means “to miss the mark”, as in archery. Using this word, sin then means to miss the target, which implies that the person is not seeing clearly. Sin is sort of a blindness that must be cured. What is the point of Zen? It is to see reality as it is, to see things clearly. Confession and a Zen interview share a common goal.

Traditionally, a person goes to confession with a laundry list of transgressions. That list may or may not be helpful. It can be useful if the priest can connect the dots and perceive a common theme behind the roster of sins. A Zen Master likewise should be able to find the source of attachments, and to recognize the blind spots of the person being interviewed. The person sitting across from the priest or the Zen Master cannot easily see the pattern. That is why that person is there. The priest or the Zen Master has to help them to understand.

Zen Master Ji Haeng told me something that resonated deeply with me.

He said, “People like us, we are attracted to Zen because we don’t like book answers.”

Right on, Brother.

A good priest, or a good Zen Master, cannot hand out ready made answers. They cannot be superficial. They usually don’t tell the other person what to to do. The person sitting in the other chair or on the other cushion knows what they need to do. Deep inside, that person knows what is broken, and they already have the answer. The Zen Master and the priest need to draw that answer out. That’s the challenge. There isn’t a book that teaches how to do that.

Dear Zen Master Ji Haeng,

Thank you for your teaching.










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