Mirror of Zen Blog

No “Safe Spaces,” No “Trigger Warnings,” and “Micro-Aggressions” Abound

The way that Dae Soen Sa Nim used to teach would simply be impossible today. He was so direct, so striking, so cutting straight down to the point — I am sure he would have been “called out,” in the last few years, if he employed his usual laser to today’s minds as he had freedom to do with his post-6os first-generation (and Communist bloc) disciples. It would be total social/political suicide today to teach the ways he taught. He would definitely be cancelled.

The eminent meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first Western disciples, some years before he developed the revolutionary method which has become known to us as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). Some years ago, I contacted him to ask if he would contribute a Foreword to the collection of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings I was then working on, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake. Despite his very busy schedule (and a nasty cold, I remember), he readily agreed. Such was his love and gratitude for his first Dharma teacher.

The essay he submitted tells so much about the knife-edge style that Dae Soen Sa Nim employed, back in the 70s and 80s, which I fear might be far far too “dangerous,” even offensive, to employ in today’s politically hyper-sensitive environment:

He writes: “One night, with Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’ Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”

Quoted from Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006)

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