I never met her, but did enjoy her books.
Charlotte Joko Beck dies at 94; American Zen pioneer
By Adam Tebbe
June 15, 2011
Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher, author and founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, has died peacefully today, June 15, 2011 at 7:30 a.m., at age 94.
Born on March 27, 1917 in New Jersey, Beck studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and taught piano for a time. She married and raised four children before separating from her husband and working as a teacher, secretary and assistant in a university department. She came to Zen practice in her forties and studied with the late Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi roshi. For many years she commuted between San Diego and Los Angeles to practice with the roshi. Of her experiences, Beck said in an interview with Shambhala SunSpace (http://www.shambhalasun.com/), “I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?” Otherwise, they get stuck there. It’s not the important thing in practice.” Asked what is the important thing in practice, she replied, “Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.”
Joko Beck also studied with both Haku’un Yasutani roshi and Soen Nakagawa roshi. She became one of Maezumi’s twelve Dharma successors in 1978 and went on to establish the Zen Center of San Diego in 1983 (where she served as head teacher until July, 2006). She is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, a loose fit organization of her Dharma successors which is non-hierarchical. As a teacher of Zen, Joko Beck was free from the patriarchal trappings of Japanese Zen. Joko’s approach to Zen teaching was greatly informed by Western culture, and she discontinued shaving her head, seldom wore robes and seldom used titles.
Joko was the author of two very important books that are frequently recommended by interviewees at Sweeping Zen— Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993). Her first book, Everyday Zen, is a book in which she described what meditation is and, more importantly, what it is not. Author Ruthann Russo writes, “…she says it is not about producing psychological change, achieving some blissful state, cultivating special powers or personal power, or having nice or happy feelings. She does say that meditation practice is simple, and it’s about ourselves. To practice effectively, we need to remove ourselves from all external stimuli. Then we experience reality, which is challenging for most of us.”
Her second book, Nothing Special, is, as Maezumi himself once remarked, very special. In it Joko expresses what is the original essence of Zen—unencumbered by some of the formal practices and activities we’ve come to associate with Zen practice over the years. For Joko, Zen is simply being right here in the moment, with nothing extra. Zen practice will yield us nothing other than this moment. In the book she answers her students questions and helps highlight, again, what Zen practice is really about. She says, “Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.”
In 2011 Joko began eating less and was rapidly losing weight. Her family placed her under the care of hospice. She is survived by her four children: Eric, Helen, Greg (Dharma name Tando) and Brenda (Dharma name Chiko).
Dharma successor Barry Magid says, “One of her great virtues as a teacher was that she did not try to clone herself. She let us digest her teaching and grow in our own different directions. Her Dharma seeds are scattered far and wide. They will go on sprouting in ways we cannot predict and cross-fertilize with other lineages. The Ordinary Mind School may grow or wither, but her influence is now everywhere.”
In Memoriam: Charlotte Joko Beck
It is not too much to say that Joko Beck transformed the nature of Zen in America. At a time when a focus on kensho experiences and becoming enlightened after the manner in which we imagined our Japanese masters led to a dismissive attitude to problems that were “merely” psychological, Joko restored a sense of emotional reality to a scene increasingly plagued by scandal and misconduct by our allegedly enlightened role models. She had the courage to say that her own teacher’s training had done little to curb his own alcoholism or deal with his character problems. Furthermore, his wasn’t merely an unfortunate exception but that it pointed to a deeply ingrained tendency to enshrine emotional bypassing into the very heart of traditional Zen training. She put dealing with anger, anxiety, pride and the self centered sexual exploitation of students into the center of what we must deal with in practice.
Joko does not leave behind a institutional legacy. There is no central Ordinary Mind training center. There is no hierarchy among her Dharma heirs, no single voice that clearly continues her message. Her legacy is broad and cultural, a sea-change in how our generation thinks about the nature of practice and its relationship to our personal psychological make-up. Even back when her Dharma successors still attempted to get together for an annual Ordinary Mind School meeting, they seemed designed to prove Wittgenstein’s dictum that members of a group could bear a certain family resemblance to one another without necessarily having having any single thing in common.
One of her great virtues as a teacher was that she did not try to clone herself. She let us digest her teaching and grow in our own different directions.
Her Dharma seeds are scattered far and wide. They will go on sprouting in ways we cannot predict and cross-fertilize with other lineages. The Ordinary Mind School may grow or wither, but her influence is now everywhere.
I first met Charlotte Joko Beck in 1972. In April the ice plant bloom along the highways in San Diego. I passed many fields of vibrant purple and violet blossoms on my way to the small sitting group in the home of Ray Jordan, where I came face-to-face with another vibrant flower. Joko’s page boy haircut, her dark cat’s eye glasses and her rather large breasts would be enough to make her stand out. There was also the fact that she was the only middle aged woman in the sitting group. We became fast friends.
Joko drove every Saturday for two hours to the Zen Center of Los Angeles to have dokusan with Maezumi Roshi and then she drove two hours back to San Diego. Together we would drive every month to sesshin and laugh all the way home on the two hour drive. That was her routine until she moved to ZCLA in 1977 when she retired as the administrator in the chemistry department at University of California San Diego. Since I also worked at UCSD, Joko and I would regularly meet for a sack lunch and walk around the campus talking about Zen. She would often comment on how unreal everything seemed. She had recently had an awakening experience at a sesshin with Yasutani Roshi . She would stick her finger out and say that she felt that she could poke right through everything to another realm.
Joko and I arranged to have Maezumi Roshi come to San Diego for a weekend sesshin at a house I was renting in La Jolla. He brought two young monks, Joshin and Tesshin. Joko and I arranged everything from the meals to procuring all the implements. When it came time for chanting service, we only had a bell. I still smile when I think of Joko beating out the rhythms on a thick phone book using a large wooden spoon as our make-shift mukugyo. The umpan was a pot lid which we struck with a large metal spoon. When the toilet gave out from over use, we all scurried down to the corner gas station to use the bathroom.
Joko was my best Dharma friend. Her dedication as a student of Zen was inspiring. Her devotion as a teacher of Zen is awesome. I feel fortunate to have known her in her formative years and to have witnessed how she matured into one of the most influential Zen teachers of our time. It is amazing that she started on the Zen path at an age when most people think of retiring and that she has accomplished so much in the second half of her life and touched the lives of so many people.
Gerry Shishin Wick
Great Mountain Zen Center