Dao Du Jour II, Day 46: Unconscious Upaya

Chapter 45: Real Power

“True straightness looks crooked.

Great skill looks clumsy.

Real eloquence seems to stammer.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Several years back I attended a weekend Zen retreat. I arrived on the late side, and the only open cushion was on the left end of the outer horseshoe. I had been on retreats with this teacher before, and had the utmost respect and admiration for him. He was a natural, a “Buddha to the fingertips,” as they say: someone who in their movements, gestures, and voice radiates grace, self-possession, equanimity, lightness, and both humor and intensity all at once. After making a few introductory remarks, the roshi took his seat, which happened to be directly in front of me.

In zazen, you sit with your eyes open in soft focus gazing down a few feet in front of you, and given how still the room is, you notice the slightest motion in your field of vision. Halfway through our first twenty minute session, I noticed the roshi listing forward, then jerking back to an upright position…and a few moments later, doing it again, and a few moments after that, doing it again. The monitor—a senior student who keeps the time and rings the bell at the start and end of the session—was sitting across the horseshoe from him. I saw her see him and smile.

The Zen master was falling asleep.

Projection is an essential element of any kind of pedagogical dynamic. The student projects magical powers onto the teacher. His perception is a mixture of these projections, which are illusions, and correct apprehensions of superior skills, knowledge and qualities acquired after years of practice. The learning process involves the student mastering both his projections and acquiring those skills himself. A gifted teacher will not only model the technical competence to pass on the skills, but will use what in Buddhism is called upaya, “skillful means”: creative ways of imparting things that cannot be written down in a rule book or distilled into a neat verbal formula. Upaya are meant to disrupt the linear, logical mind, to disappoint expectations. The most powerful projection in Zen, and the hardest one to disable, is the student’s belief that the teacher possesses some kind of secret, special knowledge that he lacks.

Roshi Kennedy nodding off in the middle of zazen, I later realized, was an unconscious upaya: even Zen masters get tired.

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