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 Interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen Center, and facing shadows

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen Center, and facing shadows   Mon May 20, 2013 4:32 pm

This was posted on facebook somewhere and then reposted, so not sure of its original web location. I have bolded some of the thoughts I think are relevant to our dialogues.

Black Mountain Zen Centre
To Be of Benefit
An interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, former abbot of San Francisco Zen


“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” said Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce’s young alter ego in Ulysses. For anyone born in Ireland, enlightenment often begins with escaping the clutches of the past.

Ryushin Paul Haller, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, was born in Belfast. Like Joyce, he left Ireland when he was young, but he never became a complete exile. Twelve years ago Haller returned to Ireland and started a Zen center there, where he began to incorporate socially engaged Buddhism. He now returns to Belfast twice a year to teach at the center.

I came to know Haller’s teachings through his Saturday morning dharma talks in San Francisco, lectures punctuated by the mostly contemporary American poetry he quotes and the dry, almost cackling laughter that stops the clock anytime something strikes him as truly absurd. This March I spoke with Haller in the dining hall of San Francisco Zen Center, where he still serves as a senior dharma teacher.

- Sean Elder, Tricycle Magazine

Twelve years ago you returned to Northern Ireland, where you grew up, and founded a Zen center that incorporates socially engaged Buddhism and peace work. What form does working for peace take there?

Northern Ireland is a unique place. It’s not very big. And it’s kind of homogeneous; it’s Catholic-Protes­tant, but they’re all white folks. There’s a strong sense of the whole community of Northern Ireland being in recovery—not in the AA sense, but recovering from 30 years of trauma and division. And because it’s small you can bring a deliberate attention and strategy to that in a way that’s not possible in a country the size of America. We work with community groups, of which there are a lot, coaching them on mindfulness.

The amazing thing is that mindfulness is now in the field of mental health; especially in the last five years, it has been accepted as a legitimate, effective modality. Part of the challenge is, how do you deliver it?

You can give someone a bottle of Prozac and tell them to take one every day. You can’t deliver mindfulness in a bottle, tell them to take a mindfulness pill every day.

How do you deliver mindfulness in that environment?

Britain and Northern Ireland have a strong social welfare system. It provides an infrastructure that can implement things within the community. When teaching mindfulness and stress reduction to community workers, I’m thinking: Here is a resource. I can work with these folks, teach them basic elements of mindfulness that they can bring out and deliver to the folks they have hands-on contact with. My notion is that if we engage these folks, tutor them, coach them, then they are going to turn around and offer a modified version of mindfulness teaching to the community.

Mindfulness as a technique is sort of value neutral; it’s taught in business, even the military. In an environment where you are trying to promote peace, is there a special spin you put on it?

I’m looking at a society that’s in the aftermath of 30-plus years of sectarian strife. When 9/11 happened and the American population realized people could come here and bomb us, and there was all that fear and shock, I thought: Yeah, welcome to this harsh reality. I grew up in a place, as many people on this planet do, where you can be bombed on any day of the week. Throughout Northern Ireland any major locality was a target—from a retail store to a pub. And you could decide to stay home and never go out, or live in a world that was precarious and dangerous. When you have decades of that, you have an aftermath: the disintegration of a predictable, secure future. Kids become wild and lawless, people become embittered and entrenched in their politics and worldviews. So we try to provide a potent resource that can help to bring some mental, emotional, psychological, and interpersonal stabilization. It can facilitate some form of healing for that array of suffering. Hopefully it’s apolitical.

Why did you leave Ireland when you did?

I looked at the community torn in half with religious bigotry, and the question was, “Are you with us or against us?” As far as I was concerned, that question was not one I wanted to have define who I was and who I was going to be.

Where did you go from there?

I went to London, and then, as in many Irish stories, my mother died and it was kind of a radical shift for me. I was 22. I grew up in a lot of poverty but in a strong, passionate Irish family. When my mother died, the glue, the central person, was gone. It was like I now had permission to roam the globe. And that’s what I did. It was one of those existential moments when you say, Why am I doing this? And I didn’t have a good answer. When you grow up in poverty, one of your agendas is to get out of poverty. My motivation wasn’t political considerations;­ I was trying to lift myself and my family, particularly my mother, out of poverty. And then she died, and I said, Well, that’s not going to happen. So I just started to roam.

At what point would you say you began a spiritual quest?

Almost as soon as I started to travel. I started off reading existentialism.­ I studied engineering. Let me tell you, engineers are not taught much philosophy, or anything except engineering, in my case.

After wending your way through Europe you ended up in the Middle East in the early 1970s. What was it like then?

Wherever I ended up I found myself fascinated by how people constructed life—because I was very religious as a kid, so I was fascinated by religious beliefs. And amazingly, in those days you could wander around the Middle East. If you can imagine, I spent time in Syria and Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan, and it was no big deal back then. You’d meet people and you’d talk and you’d go back home for dinner. But when I got to Buddhism, it was a love affair from day one. I ended up in Japan, and that’s where I got into Zen. I was 25.

Did you join a monastery in Japan?

No. I went there to teach English. I’d just wander around and put something together wherever I ended up, just make it up as I went along. I’d marvel at these Americans who would call home and say, “Could you send me another thousand dollars?” [Laughs.] I discovered by coincidence I was living two blocks from a Zen Buddhist university and became a close friend of someone who was training to be a Zen monk. But even then the notion of a Westerner going to a Zen monastery was impossible. It wasn’t totally true, but that was the message I got: it just doesn’t happen. And then a friend said, “Why don’t you go to Thailand? They’ll take anyone there.” So I went to Thailand, and indeed they took anybody. And they put me in a solitary 10-day retreat, a little room twice the size of this sofa. And you’d just stay in the room.

Was that hard for you?

Are you kidding me? [Laughs.] If I hadn’t been so earnest—I mean there was no way I was going to quit. Little room, thick walls, single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and absolutely no furniture, a grass mat to lie on. They’d bring your food; you’d go outside to go the toilet. And you’re there, and there’s the instruction: Just do this, 24/7. And to this day I couldn’t tell you if they just thought, Weird foreigner! Let’s put him in that room, he’ll leave in a few hours. But I came out of that room, out of that retreat, like, “Okay this is it. Sign me up!”

How did you end up in San Francisco?

When I was in Thailand I met someone from San Francisco, and I was very impressed with him. He’d been here with Suzuki Roshi, and when Suzuki died he went to Thailand to be a monk. So I cut short my plan [to try different monasteries in the East] and came here.

You arrived in San Francisco in 1974. Did you join the Zen Center right away?

Totally. I got off the plane and came here, knocked on the door, and said, “Hey.” And they said, “You can’t just turn up!” And in good Irish fashion I just looked at the guy and said, “Well, I just have.”

Ten years after you arrived, Richard Baker Roshi resigned from San Francisco Zen Center over allegations of sexual misconduct. How did the sangha work through that so that it wasn’t a distraction from what you were trying to do as a community?

Well, it was an enormous distraction. There was a lot of secrecy; for many of us like myself who were sort of integral members, it was a shock: “I didn’t know that!” A good half of those core members just up and left. Folks who were peripheral were now turning up for everything, to express their indignation and condemnation. Which was more than a little dysfunctional. It was like, “Who are you? You came to a dharma talk last year, and now you’re here demanding we do what you say? Why would we do that?” At those things the loudest voice gets attention. We brought in a facilitator for the community, we set up a group process, we tried to look at what happened: Who are we now? How do we move forward? What do we need to address within ourselves, collectively, that will allow us to come to terms with the sense of betrayal? How do we feel about the veracity of Zen practice? We did a lot of group work. And it was consuming for two to three years. When people are hurting, that’s what they want to talk about.

There have been recent upheavals in the American Zen communities led by Sasaki Roshi and Eido Shimano, after both teachers were accused of sexual misconduct. How has your sangha responded?

Both were significant in that they were happening for a long time. One of the big dilemmas is not being familiar with what’s exactly happening within the community, and also seeing something of the level of seriousness that is actually asking, or demanding, to be addressed. Because seeing nothing is to be complicit, in a passive way.

We at SFZC would never condone that behavior or support it, but being far removed from it, we haven’t needed to be proactive. Only yesterday, central abbot Steve Stucky wrote a piece in our weekly sangha news addressing sexual misconduct. And it says we do take it seriously and we have our mechanisms in place for people to come forward and say they were mistreated. That’s good for in-house, but how active should we be in criticizing or condemning Eido Shimano, who’s in New York, and we’ve heard the scuttlebutt for decades and decades? If you’d come to me personally and said, “Do you think I should practice with this guy?” I would have said, “Well, there’s something you need to know. I’ve heard it secondhand, but I’ve heard it often enough that there’s got to be some truth to it. It’s not someone I would recommend.” But am I writing letters to The New York Times, or following him around with a placard?

We struggle with that. Personally, I struggle with that.

Do you think your experience in Thailand had an effect on how you relate to communities outside of San Francisco Zen Center?

When I was in Thailand almost 40 years ago, my experience of if was of an almost singularly Buddhist country. There were two primary Buddhist sects, but I wasn’t savvy enough to even know the differences between them, so that didn’t influence me much at all. In my own practice, I don’t separate Vipassana practice and Zen practice, I see a lot of commonality. I don’t hold either of those two kinds of Buddhism very separate, even though the way they manifest in the world is quite distinct and different.

I do see those communities, Zen and Vipassana, coming together. My hope for Buddhism in the West is that it will draw from the best of both those traditions—I don’t know enough about the Tibetan tradition to speak to that. I do see a lot of students, many of them very dedicated, who will do training in both. I’m doing this three-month retreat, and many of [the participants] are hoping to go off and do intensive Vipassana practice. I wouldn’t say I encourage my students to do both, but many of them, knowing my background, are inclined to do it, and when that inclination is there I encourage it.


There’s been a lot of community outreach—especi­ally in hospice and jails—at San Francisco Zen Center since you became abbot. Was that something you were very keen on?

That all snuck up on me. I was involved in the hospice pretty soon after we started that program, and I’m still on the hospice board—I’ve been involved all these years. Before I was abbot I was in charge of outreach, and a lot of these programs I dreamed up. Who can say why we do anything? But I think it had to do with the background I came from. I came from a tough part of town, a lot of poverty; I was a second-class citizen—those things make their mark on you. And either they embitter you and diminish you, or they set you on some odd notion that you can offer some benefit and temporarily alleviate them. And I got caught in the latter.

Robert Anderson

Steve, I appreciate your comment and would like to note that I am aware that all have a capacity for change. I would guess that you are right about Zen in Ireland, Spain and Poland. I am happy to hear that people in your community are socially engaged and I think that those efforts truly count but please don't conflate my concerns with critiques that your community mat have been exposed to locally. My issue with the Haller interview has to do with his suggestion that following the Baker debacle that he and his fellow senior students had to tolerate recommendations from irate students who were somehow not fully fledged SFZC students. My over all point is to ask 'how can an individual teacher or community be GENUINELY involved in so called 'Socially Engaged Buddhism' when they mischaracterize a "social event" that unfolded right at their own door step. The very people who reformed SFZC happened to be many of those senior students who had kept the lid on things by doing Bakers bidding before the debacle. Afterwards they were defensive and placed themselves in the price lodged position of deciding who's points of view were valid and whose were not valid. This was a remarkable vote of self confidence given their active role in repressive behaviors: "Shut your mouth and practice" was a popular quote deveined from Katagiri Roshi (an early SFZC teacher) but during the period of which I speak the message from many of those hold over senior students was to 'simply 'shut your mouth'! Paul's supposed neutral stance on he or SFZC's becoming involved particularly in expressing concern about the Shimano scandal is epically concerning. There are many other teachers who have accurately used the word "predator" or "predation" to describe Shimano's behaviors. As a clinical psychologist, I would suggest that this is an accurate description. See the Sweeping Zen Blog for more. Haller is at least partially responsible for the vanilla middle way non response of SFZC to the Shimano problem. "Don't rock the boat' in the Zen family of communities is the same rubric that is proffered by sexual predators with in their very own families as they continue to victimize their own children. I can't stand it when Haller proffers his brand of vanillaism as wisdom. Socially Engaged Buddhism requires some real foundation, some real guts, some ability to not kid yourself..............and in the midst of the reformation at SFZC we have an abbot chasing a thief into the nearby projects and shoving a .357 into the muggers face. This is a good example of psychological repression. You can Wiki Freud and repression to get a clear picture of what repression looks like from the psychological perspective. Best of luck with the social!


Gyokuzan Steve Williamson

Hi Robert, I doubt Paul would thank me if I felt I ever needed to defend him lol. The interview is there for all to read and take from it what they will. Personally I think it's a good read and there's an honesty about the struggling and the suffering which is more refreshing than the bandwagon approach on a particular blog. I don't wish to negate any of your own memory or experience and think it's vital that anyone involved in any of the things you mention is heard fully. That will often involve other people having their own take on it too. And that's ok. But as I say the good folk at SFZC may be better placed to respond to your specific points. Warmly, Steve.

Robert Anderson

I left additional commentary which addressed the issue of Haller's passing off SFZC's supposed 'middle position' in the community or the SFZC teachers not becoming vocal about Shimano's long term sexual predation of female Zen students. My point was that many other American teachers have finally become more vocal about this and yet Haller appears to find virtue in his community being mute on this issue. I also noted that the culture of repression that worked well for Baker in maintaining secrecy about his various affairs happened to carry over into the period of post Baker reformation of the SFZC community.the crust of the matter for me is that I saw Haller's critique of newer Zen students as not being valid and that older, "serious" Zen students protected the integrity of the institution is a false dichotomy. If anyone presented a view that challenged the establishment the response was '....if you are serious about Zen then "...shut your mouth and practice." My concern is that anyone making claims for socially engaged Buddhism must have the courage to examine the issues that happen to be closest to home. It is my belief that this culture of repression had at least one very dramatic psychological consequence with an abbot of SFZC having just been mugged, then giving chase and catching the thief in a near by project and shoving a .357 into the muggers face. See wiki on Freud and repression. Haller has had considerable influence on his community to not publicly address concerns with predators like Shimano. To draw a parallel between a family under the spell of a sexual predictor and a culture of repression in the great family of Zen communities, both must maintain silence, must quell descent. My central point is that if one hopes to cultivate a genuine socially engaged practice then one needs to be honest about the need to take action with pathology within our own community.

Gyokuzan Steve Williamson

Ok thanks Robert. Personally I'll leave it there. It feels like you've a lot to say based on your time at SFZC and your history there in the 70's/80's with Baker etc but rest assured all your commentary is completely visible. I don't have anything more to add to it. That's your experience. I've asked around briefly and there is an American teacher called Grace Shireson who has set up a listening and witnessing panel about such matters. They may be more informed and I can probably find out contact details if that's helpful. Please message me if so. I wish you well.

Robert Anderson

Yes, I am very familiar with Grace and others who have taken a much more vigorous stance than Paul. They are not afraid to address one of the most serious challenges to confront American Zen communities and they are not advocating a middle way vanillaism when it comes to serious social/psychological issues unfolding in our midst: as a consequence I am inclined to take them seriously and follow their lead when it comes to something called "socially engaged Buddhism".

Gyokuzan Steve Williamson
Ok that's great, hope they can help. Ta
.
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chisanmichaelhughes

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PostSubject: Re: Interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen Center, and facing shadows   Tue May 21, 2013 3:48 am

Interesting,and I like the point Robert Anderson makes
The very people who reformed SFZC happened to be many of those
senior students who had kept the lid on things by doing Bakers bidding
before the debacle

It comes back to haunt people should have spoken out years ago,turning a blind eye to self and others is not right practice for me.
I can't quite believe the shut your mouth and practice,and then Katagiri Roshi was not whiter than white himself,but then who is,the problem lies with the teachers pretending they were or allowing others to think that they were whiter than white or perfect beings!!.

Maybe part of the problem lies in Japanese Zen the type of people they are and culture,which is different from the type of people and culture that USA is which is different from English. I think that Zen in Japan is quite one dimensional the culture is a culture of respect and obedience to elders and authority,it breaks down when the people at the top are not what they appear to be. Personally (and surprisingly) it suited me, If you don't know me the surprising bit is that I am not so much laid back as horizontal! But there were no other westerners there and when they gradually did come they left very quickly,what suited me did not seem to suit any one else!

The Buddhas teaching of suffering for me is the core of our colours and shadows, prolonged meditation or sudden deeper insight may well show the impermanence, or unsubstantial, or emptiness of our make up. Incorporating insight and meditation into daily life when realizations get trampled on is zen practice,with some sort of awareness of the path comes some sort of personal responsibility to speak out ,shout out and say not quite right.

For me turning a blind eye to teachers discretions, or trying to cover them up,or interpret them as crazy wisdom or special teaching does not say much for the original teaching or real understanding , certainly for accepting responsibility for one's own zazen
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen Center, and facing shadows   Tue May 21, 2013 9:48 am

so this interview above with Paul Haller is appearing in Tricycle Magazine this current issue
http://www.tricycle.com/interview/be-benefit

But not clear where the comments were posted - not on Tricycle's site- clearly a facebook page.
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chisanmichaelhughes

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PostSubject: Re: Interview with Ryushin Paul Haller, Zen Center, and facing shadows   Tue May 21, 2013 10:32 am

What is you take Josh.
Do you think that the 'teachers' we have talked about thought they were doing no wrong, or were in denial about their behaviour,or in the case of maezumi , Trumpa and Gempo,accepted what they were doing was not right but through their strenghth of meditation somehow made it OK,sort of like I can be at one with my actions so that makes it Ok.
Or do you think they just did not give a [banned term].or if they get away with it it is sort of OK.
Or possibly they do not have the awareness to see! There are 2 aspects the dodgy teacher and the willingness or unwillingness off followers to say or not to say something.
The whole picture is a picture of the blind leading the blind
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