Buddhism is not an espresso machine or Zen Heart, Vajra Heart

I attended my first Zen Heart, Vajra Heart day-long workshop last weekend. This was taught by Lew Richmond, an heir of Suzuki Roshi, and Lama Palden Drolma, an empowered teacher in the lineage of Kalu Rinpoche.

I’ve been interested in attending one of these events since I first heard about them a year and a half ago. One of the areas of doctor work that I had considered focusing on was the way different traditions of Buddhism cross fertilize or cross train in the West.

Here is the video presentation from their site:


The site explains the background as follows:

“When we started Zen Heart Vajra heart in 2009, Lama Palden and I did not have a well-formed idea of how we were going to proceed. We felt deeply that there was a strong resonance and affinity between the Mahamudra and Zen traditions, and through our long teaching collaboration we knew that the best way to bring out that affinity was to combine a sense of the planned and the spontaneous. [..] The Heart Sutra—as a vitally important text for both traditions—was an important starting point. The unity and full interpenetration of form and emptiness is a good jumping off point for both traditions, so we started there.

Our concept for Zen Heart Vajra heart was to explore the intersection of two great Mahayana Buddhist teaching traditions, but as we went forward we realized that there was a third tradition in the room and in the air—the fact of our all being Americans, today in the 21st century, dedicating ourselves both to understanding these ancient wisdom traditions as well as apply and integrate that wisdom into our lives of today. The minute we all gather in one room three streams are there, not two—Mahamudra, Zen, and America.”

I have a personal background in the Vajrayana, having initially taken refuge in 2002 with a Sakya teacher and having practiced with both Kagyu and Nyingma teachers on retreat. I eventually wound up in Zen for reasons that I’ve discussed elsewhere but here were two well established and respected teachers focusing on the union of the traditions, their points of commonality. As someone participating in a non-denominational Mahayana seminary, this was of great interest to me.

So I set my expectations and went to the daylong event last weekend. My response to it is probably going to seem critical and there are elements of that but I want to say up front that I have a great respect for Rev. Richmond and Lama Palden. They’re definitely putting heart and mind into what they are teaching and their dedication to it is clear.

When we first arrived in the morning, the group of us settled into the space. There were 15 of us and I was the only guy (not counting Rev. Richmond in this). The rest of the participants appeared to be mostly followers and students of Lama Palden. This fell into the normal demographics that I’ve seen in much of the Buddhist community, being mostly older (than me at 39) women. This was not unexpected, actually, and I’m pretty used to being either the youngest person at a Dharma event or often one of possibly two or three men.

We did a guided Shamatha practice with Lama Palden giving guidance and prompts during the session. I found it a little difficult to focus but I’m used to fairly silent Zen meditation these days so I don’t ascribe that to anyone. Following this, Rev. Richmond did a Dharma talk on Genjo Koan He talked at length about life as a koan and compared this to curricula koans, such as the structured koan traditions present in many Zen schools. Not knowing Dogen well (I’m in Korean Zen after all) and being part of a structured koan tradition, I found this quite interesting and engaging.

During this talk, Rev. Richmond uttered a line that stuck in my head, probably more for amusement value than being especially profound to all beings. He said “Buddhism is not an espresso machine.” By this, he explained that while Buddhism (and life) take an input, which is coffee, perform grinding, and end with tasting, enlightenment or awakening is not an automatic result of putting the right mix of things into the grinder and having enlightenment as the push button result. It takes work and struggle and different ways work for different people. He then spoke about Life Koans, as opposed to curricula koans, with which we struggle. These are universal issues, not purely personal, that we as individuals will encounter and fight. He said that the Buddha found one when he saw the afflictions of disease, old age, and death and asked himself, “Why do beings suffer?” The Buddha struggled with this for a long time until he found a solution, which led to his awakening and the Buddhadharma that he taught to others.

Following the talk, we, the participants, were instructed to pair off and try to find out what our current Life Koan was. Not to solve it but to identify it. One of us would speak to our partner for 15 minutes and the partner would listen, prompting us with “What is the life difficulty you are struggling with” or “What is your life koan” if we were silent for some length of time. This was supposed to involve some inner reflection and searching as a kind of stream of consciousness, not some kind of long and organized, pre-thought out, speech to the partner. After one spoke, the roles would switch.

I did this with a partner, a very sweet and elderly lady. I did my bit and found it an interesting experience, though a bit odd. She then did hers and I simply witnessed, listening to what she was saying. I felt a lot of empathy for the struggle expressed in what she said and for the process that she was going through.

Afterwards, we had a break for lunch and then we, as a group, spent a considerable amount of time where individuals were asked to relate to Rev. Lew and Lama Palden what the Life Koan was that they had encountered, in front of the whole group.

Following this, Lama Palden had us all sing aloud a song of realization, the “Seven Delights” by the Tibetan siddha, Götsampa. She then unpacked the song a bit, explaining its meaning, verse by verse, and relating it to the experiences we have. This was compared to the Heart Sutra and its contents. After this, we had a brief period of sitting and we ended for the day.

The combination of paired work and group witness and commentary by the two teachers is what I think caused me to feel that I was not the target audience for this teaching and event. I thought that the paired work was interesting, as were the comments by the teachers, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the Zen Heart, Vajra Heart site and presentation. I had expected some sort of event where one or both teachers would teach on the Heart Sutra, relate it to their tradition in some manner, and then we’d do some sort of meditative practice related to it or to some union of the ideas of both traditions. The paired work felt much more psychological, for lack of a better term. That isn’t to say it isn’t useful but I am not one of those people attempting to merge psychological work into Dharmic practice. I think both are valuable in their own spheres and since both deal with the mind, its behavior, attitudes, attention, and so forth, there is overlap between the two but I am a believer that psychology and the Dharma are both better served by remaining distinct. I did more than a year of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) a decade ago for anxiety problems (panic attacks, specifically) and found it to be very valuable. Two of the teachers in my tradition (including my own teacher) are either clinical psychologists or training to be one but this all felt somewhat out of place to me.

In some sense, I expect it is a matter of “making something” or of coming to this event with a set of expectations. That is silly of me and my own fault. That being the case, I think some people may react badly to having interpersonal paired psychological work being given to them as a task with no warning at a Dharma event. It was a bit outside my comfort zone but I’ve gotten used to the idea that my comfort zone is, after all, an ego thing so I’m pretty willing to roll with something and see what the experience is like. Others, including myself ten years ago, might react more negatively.

As I said, this sounds a bit like a criticism of Zen Heart, Vajra Heart and that is true in a fashion. I am being critical of aspects of the presentation but I want to be clear that I do not think that the event was without value or that the practice isn’t useful. I think it has a value and a use and I believe that both Rev. Richmond and Lama Palden are doing a service in pushing the normal boundaries of Dharma practice. I do think that it might do them well to clarify on their website and when discussing events when they are going to expect people to do something pretty far outside the normal range of either Zen or Vajrayana practices as people are likely to be at least occasionally surprised.

I had to really think about whether to post this because I am sure that someone associated with the event with read this sooner or later, the Internet being as small as it is amongst Buddhists in many ways. I decided that outlining what was actually done at one of these events, since they are so new, and my reactions to it would hopefully outweigh any seeming negativity that my comments my engender in the others. If people take offense, I do offer my sincere apologies. I offer these as my honest thoughts and reaction.

There will be another Zen Heart, Vajra Hear day-long event in May and it was stated that there were planning their first multi-day (four day?) event for late Summer this year at Lama Palden’s new center. If this kind of work sounds interesting to you, I do encourage you to attend and encounter it.