Teaching Philosophy of Rev. Toshu Neatrour
My approach to teaching Zen Buddhist practice is shaped by three principal sources.
Of these the most important is the approach practicing zazen of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi and those influenced by him. My teacher, Rev. Tozen Akiyama, began his priest training with Tosui Ota Roshi of Eheiji Tokyo Betsuin, who studied in the lineage of Kosho Uchiyama and Kodo Sawaki Roshis. The second is the ritual and daily practice style of the nyoho-e movement centered about Eko Hashimoto Roshi, the teacher of Dainin Katagiri Roshi and Tsugen Narasaki Roshi. The latter was my teacher during my senmon sodo training period in Japan. The third influence is the writing of Dogen Zenji and the literature of the Indian Buddhist tradition.
In general my style is democratic and professional but decidedly non-charismatic. Experience has made me skeptical of teaching styles that encourage the student to become too admiring or reliant of the teacher. I believe that relations should be socially smooth and cordial but professional. The charismatic style often leads to the teacher’s personality obscuring the teaching and tends not to help the student find their own true self. I believe that Zen practice is about each person becoming authentically themselves. Charismatic teaching can be an impediment to this.
I take a non hierarchical approach to group functions also. Positions and functions are assigned in rotation. Students are encouraged to take various practice roles during zazen and service. Ability to function is more valued than hierarchy. When enough trained folk are present to take on various roles I feel free to take any service role that encourages others practice. If a special service is requested I will officiate. But at a regular service since all the roles are assigned in rotation I may not.
With regard to feedback, I am open to hearing from members directly about ideas, topics for teaching, comments on and observations of how I teach. In the past, I have usually been approached privately on these issues and have followed up with informal group discussion during tea or before a study class or talk. I do not work through a board or select group of members. I prefer to receive input directly from any member and test any ideas offered by checking with others.
In professional and religious settings, confidentiality usually means that private information disclosed to physicians, therapists, clergy, etc. is not made generally public, but in actual practice is shared and discussed quietly among like professionals. However, I prefer to keep personal communications from students completely private. If a student speaks to me about issues of a personal nature, I do not share them with other teachers or senior students. I believe students should have complete control over the information shared with me.
With zazen my emphasis is only-just-sitting following the Sawaki-Uchiyama model, which I feel is most faithful to Dogen Zenji’s practice. Therefore, I teach a zazen that de-emphasizes counting or following the breath. Whether for beginners or long time practitioners, I encourage avoidance of all devices or methods that might create short term ease at the risk of long term practice problems. There are exceptions only in situations where conditions clearly indicate but they need to be almost clinical in nature.
I came to this approach rather late and as a direct result of practicing differently and experiencing problems. My initial practice began with groups that placed more emphasis on the practitioner manipulating their own states mind through counting or following the breath and performing some visualization or traditional analytic meditation practices. Doing these concentrative techniques better was equated with improvement. These methods can make it easier for beginners to find their way to sit long periods. However there is a tendency then to continually want to obtain an optimum state in zazen. This gives rise to dualistic practice flaws.
After almost twenty years of this practice I felt I was coming to a dead end and that there were consequences in my life that were not desirable. I came across a recommendation of Dogen Zenji in Eihei Koroku, Even if you think you have the heart of a leprous jackal, do not practice the Hinayana (Hinayana refers to a self-conscious, self-improvement style of practice not a sect in this context) methods of counting or following the breath. I also found that the Indian Buddhist literature cautions strongly against concentrative practices without supervision while labeling insight practices as safer. In these two sources, Dogen Zenji and Theravada meditation manuals, I found a challenge to the way I had been practicing. I resolved to start over again from the ground up and reform my practice accordingly. As a result I turned to the only-just-sitting style of Uchiyama Roshi and finally found, apart from zazen itself, my true teacher, Rev. Akiyama. My conclusion is that the meditation methods that involve focusing the attention on some device, even if that device is as benign as counting and following the breath, may make starting the practice of zazen easier but could create long term practice problems. I believe that emphasizing just-sitting at the start may be more difficult but is freer from long term practice risks.
That said, there are occasions in which a student may have some particular problem with sitting that requires some flexibility. For folks who simply have physical difficulties with zazen I encourage starting with short periods and gradually extending them. If the difficulty is more mental then some concentrative meditation device can be recommended. I have worked successfully with some people undergoing psychiatric treatment but close work and observation is required as well as coordination with a mental health professional. This approach is consistent with old Indian Buddhist traditions of practice. As one example, Theravada school meditation manuals such as Bhadantacarya Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga are at pains to emphasize that the use of specific concentrative devices requires close supervision from a teacher and possibly isolation from the workaday world. In some American Zen lineages there have been experiments with performing such practices without a competent supervising teacher. Since on some occasions the results have seen unfortunate outcomes, I feel more comfortable with proceeding to teach zazen on the basis I have outlined.
The daily practice apart from zazen is also important because it is complementary. Zazen can be viewed as allowing our obstructions to fall away dropping off the dusts from body and mind as Wanshi Zenji said or more familiarly as dropping off body and mind in Dogen Zenji’s words. Once body and mind drop off it is the daily practice that ensures something wholesome can replace that which has been dropped.
When I went to Japan to practice at Zuioji Senmon Sodo I had heard much for and against the style of ritual and daily practice that I was about to experience. On the contra side I had heard that ritual was simply empty, meaningless, and arbitrary. On the pro side I had heard that some people liked it but did not or could not explain why. I had prepared myself by reading as far abroad as Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist sources to absorb as much as possible on ritual and its rationale. In addition I read extensively in Indian sources such as the Avatamsaka Sutra, which I find to be the fundamental document underlying Mahayana and Zen ritual performance and daily practice. Accordingly I formed an hypothesis and went off to Japan to test it. My hypothesis was that ritual was primarily concerned with constructing a mandala in time and space to foster the development of healthy qualities. Mandalas are attempts to completely represent the nature of reality and so every human disposition or indisposition must be represented. Thus, ritual performance is intended to have a transformative effect.
As an example of how mandalas are related to ritual, take as an example the Soto Zen evening service. It includes the Kanromon, which is an invocation of the mandala of the Five Buddha Families familiar from Tibetan Buddhist and Shingon ritual practice, and the Mahavairocana Sutra. A difference in the Kanromon is that there are slightly different names for some of the Buddhas, based on Lotus and Avatamsaka Sutras and related texts. Each of the five directions, center, east, west, north, and south corresponds to virtues and defects. The east-west axis is primarily emotional in character representing anger and desire at the extremes. The north-south axis is primarily involved in energy, active and passive at the extremes. The ten elementary components of Soto Zen ritual map in pairs onto the five parts of this mandala and one-to-one to each of Samantabhadra’s vows in the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.
Since ritual and daily practice form a mandala in time, individual practitioners have problems with one or more ritual elements depending on their physical abilities and dispositions of character. A circumstance that arises with one or more individuals might be addressed by making an adjustment in the practice form. In this way the daily practice schedule functions in much the same way as a koan curriculum. Dealing with such matters using the practice forms rather than with koan is less susceptible to being circumvented by intellectual means. Often small adjustments can be made that do not require anything as drastic as schedule change.
I was very favorably impressed with the effect of daily practice on the other trainees at Zuioji and am persuaded of its benefits when implemented with some sensitivity. My year in Japan consisted of an initial month at Zuioji, five months at Shogoji, and the six month balance at Zuioji. The five month absence from Zuioji permitted me to have a vivid picture of the change in fellow practitioners, which I might not have been able to see had I been continuing with them every day. Overwhelmingly, the effects I observed were profound and positive. I should caution that my positive experience does not mean that Japanese style practice is automatically good for everyone under all circumstances. Whether the ritual and daily practice forms work well often depends on the makeup of the community of practitioners. A change of one or two people can have a profound effect on how a community of 30 functions.
An observation that may be interesting is that nyoho-e can be quite flexible within limits and need not be interpreted in a hierarchical way. It is not merely about doing things the right way. Individual work units were free to define their own styles within broad guidelines. Styles of performance were sometimes changed in order to teach more effectively or to deal with a particular practitioner’s personal issues.
The literature used in teaching is the writings of Dogen Zenji and the Indian Buddist tradition. Although much has often been made of innovations or change of style between India and East Asia I find that the differences in content are generally small and marginal. It is not uncommon for me to explain Shobogenzo passages by reference to less poetically imaged Indian Buddhist antecedents. So I emphasize the continuity of the tradition while acknowledging the small changes that culture and climate required.
I hope the above gives a picture of what to expect. I welcome any questions as opportunity for clarification.