Serving the Spirit

· Teachings · , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mondo by John Daido Loori, Roshi
originally printed in Mountain Record in the issue Spiritual Calling (2008)

In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are several ways of engaging with a teacher and one of them is mondo, an informal question and answer session on some aspect of the Dharma. This mondo was held with John Daido Loori, Roshi, the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, at Zen Mountain Monastery in 2008.

Daido Roshi: The focus of this evening’s mondo is spiritual calling. Historically, spiritual calling has been seen exclusively within the realm of the religious—people who make life vows to a particular religion—in other words, monastics. But tonight we want to look at spiritual calling in a broader sense. 

In the United States, Buddhism is quite unique among religions in the way in which people enter—not by way of a Sunday or Sabbath service or ritual, but as full participants in the practice of realization and actualization. There’s more to it for lay practitioners than simply belonging to a religious organization. And while most people are born into their religion, in more recent times people do convert in response to a religious calling. People convert for all kinds of reasons. For example, some people turn to their religion due to a crisis in their life. Is that a religious calling? 

How are vows a response to spiritual calling? In a theistic religion, vows involve making a solemn promise to God to follow a particular course. How does that work in Mahayana Buddhism—a non-theistic religion? To whom are we vowing? What is the basis of the vow? From where does it derive its power?

Vow is very important in Mahayana Buddhism—the most fundamental vow is the vow to liberate all beings. We chant it every night at Zen Mountain Monastery: Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them. Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them. The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it. By what power is that vow taken? What do we, as lay practitioners and monastics, have to say about religious calling and vow? And what about commitment? How does that relate to the religious calling?

Keep in mind that many of us suffer from what’s referred to as commitment-phobia—a disease of the twenty-first century. Making a personal commitment involves obligations which can be based either on a mutual agreement or solely self-imposed, explicitly stated or not. Commitment-phobic people are frightened by such obligations. Driven by their imagination, they see all kinds of possible problems arising out of commitment. Rooted in fear—fear of making a poor decision—commitment-phobia gets in the way of fully giving ourselves to anything. That’s why here at the Monastery we have the Guardian Council—a group of senior monastics and lay practitioners who help people to probe deeply into their own spiritual questions and motivations. This process helps candidates clarify and understand what they’re getting into when they ask to become a student or a monastic, or when they ask to enter residential training or the Daojin track—the oblate program for lay practitioners who wish to increase their level of responsibility and commitment to the Monastery. How do we understand these commitments? All of them require a fundamental calling of some sort. At many Zen centers you simply pay your dues and you’re in. That’s not the case here. There’s a process of clarification, of formation, and it derives from spiritual calling. 

In Buddhism, spiritual calling is the raising of the bodhi mind—the aspiration for enlightenment. Initially, to aspire to enlightenment is like aspiring to some imagined thing. Most of us don’t have a clue what that means. It’s simply an idea. Given that, you tell me, what is spiritual calling? What does it mean to you?

Student: I see a dual aspect to it. One aspect is, I have a spiritual calling and I’m going towards something that really attracts me. It has a certain mysterious quality that seems like it will really do something for me, something that I want to get. Then I learn about some of the particulars, and I go towards the thing that I want. But then there seems to be this other aspect to it, which is what I would call the looking under the rock aspect: Ewwwwww. And that part has to be accepted somehow, or the spiritual calling dies when it starts to get hard. 

DR: We won’t get into the “ewwwww,” but it’s true. I want to point out one thing, though. Usually people see spiritual calling as “What I want to get.” Spiritual calling has an essential element of “What can I give? What can I do? How can I serve?” As I recall, my spiritual calling had to do with the realization that I could offer something. 

First of all, I had tried a lot of things. And they were satisfactory. They were fulfilling. It was great to be a sailor and travel around the world, but I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. And I had loved science since I was a little kid, so when I started doing scientific research I was very fulfilled by it. And it paid well. I had grown up poor, so to have money and be able to have a big house and two cars and go on vacation was great. After a while I reached a point where I said to myself, “Is this what life’s about? Is this why I was born? To do this?” Once I acknowledged that I was never going to win the Nobel Prize, I knew I was going to be a regular old scientist and publish papers and get raises and retire at 65 and go live in Florida. It just didn’t seem right. I thought there had to be more to it. That’s when I began to question how I could use what I had, what I was born with, what the universe gave me, to serve that universe. How could I return to the earth, to the universe, that which I had received? And that’s what slowly led me in the direction of a spiritual calling. 

S: Historically, if you look at conversion, as with the lives of the saints or the great Zen masters, there’s generally a description of a sudden, very real yet mysterious encounter, like God speaking or showing a sign. And then there’s a radical shift within the person towards renunciation—a vow to leave the world to find unity with God—along with the struggle involved in that process. Renunciation seems clear-cut when the choice is monasticism or asceticism. So I wonder if you could speak about the aspect of renunciation within a spiritual calling, particularly for lay practitioners who do not leave the world, not only as the calling to practice, but as a calling to do some work within that world. 

DR: There’s no question about it. It’s clear that the practice of lay practitioners is to manifest the buddhadharma in everything that they do. That means the way they raise a child, the way they grow a garden, the way they drive a car, the way they live their life, the way they do their work, the kind of work that they do—that the work that they do is right livelihood. 

That was a problem with what I was doing. I realized my work was not right livelihood. What I was creating—not directly, but indirectly, and it’s easy to do a dance around that—was not good for people. My work in science was basic research. I would determine reaction mechanisms. The data that I was producing didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the company. My results would then go to the development labs where they were using them to create products that were going into the foodstuff that we’re eating now. That was my work. And it’s not good for people. I decided this was not right livelihood. I wanted to find another way of working, and that led me to search, and that search kept going deeper and deeper. There were a lot of dead ends.

Next I got into commercial photography. So what was I doing then? What was my right livelihood? I was doing fashion and product photography. I was creating a need where none existed. I made people drool, enough so that they would pay $1,000 for a dress worth a hundred. That’s not right livelihood. It’s not nice to do that to people. So I kept looking. I began an advertising and public relations organization where I could weed out clients that I didn’t think were doing good things or treating well their employees, and so on. And it got narrower and narrower. I had enough to make a living, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I had to be willing to do everything—aerial photography, hot dogs, office furniture—whatever came along. I couldn’t be a specialist. 

Ultimately photography led me to the dharma. I didn’t feel right until I was finally director of publications for Zen Center of Los Angeles. I said to myself, “I’m putting out my teacher’s teachings, and I think what he has to say is good for the world, and I don’t mind promoting that if it can transform people’s lives.” Every lay practitioner needs to consider this in terms of her work. Sometimes it’s useful for a lay practitioner to work in a very high-powered job, since then she’s in a position to shift things within that corporation. That’s a good reason to stay and to pursue such work. 

S: In your life, do you feel that there was a moment of calling? Or was it more like a gradual recognition? It seems that right livelihood can simply be an intellectual choice, whereas the experience of calling seems more mysterious. Did you experience that?

DR: Yes, but it wasn’t a sudden thing. Because of my scientific background, I’m usually careful. With me, the only time I made a spontaneous, non-reflective decision was when I decided to buy this place. It was totally intuitive. Everything else I did was very careful, done little by little, without burning too many bridges, until it seemed really clear. Until it was ridiculously clear! Everybody saw that I was already a monk except me. I was already there, but just would not admit it. I was tenacious about being Layman Pang of the twentieth century. But it didn’t turn out that way. So that was a moment of calling, but I got to that point slowly.

S: I’d like to go back to vow. The nature of my calling seems to be evolving, as well as to whom or what I’m vowing. It feels more like recognizing that I’m a part of this whole thing. When I chant I vow to save all sentient beings, I’m not separate from myself. Something is emerging out of that. I’m not making it into something. It’s a statement of what’s real, and that is enough for a calling. 

DR: If you know it’s real, I would say so. But think of vow in this tradition as something that you’re doing, witnessed by the bodhisattvas. When you create an invocation, that’s what you’re doing—you’re calling forth all the buddhas and bodhisattvas as witnesses to a monastic ordination, or to becoming a student, or whatever. Also consider that when you vow to save all sentient beings, what does that really mean? How do you save all sentient beings? Do you think of some knight on a horse, riding around, killing evil and rescuing sentient beings? To save all sentient beings means to be all sentient beings, to merge with all sentient beings. 

S: Compassion.

DR: Compassion. Exactly. 

S: Could you talk about the mysterious aspect of spiritual calling? For instance, meeting your teachers, Soen Roshi and Maezumi Roshi. What is that element of—I don’t know if it’s karma—that you happened to be attracted to certain people, or certain places, that started your life in a different direction?

DR: You mean you want me to give you the answer to the mystery? I don’t have a clue how it happens. There was no way that I could have known it years before. 

I remember very distinctly being completely taken by Minor White, thinking this was an extraordinary being. I loved his photographs. I looked at his photographs and they would just put me in a whole other world. I talked about them all the time. Then one day I got a letter inviting me to do one of his workshops. I looked at the price—I forget what the price was, something like $1,000. We didn’t have any money, so I threw it in the garbage. My wife at the time, Yushin, picked it out of the garbage, and she said, “Isn’t this that guy, Minor White, that you’re always talking about?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “He’s doing a workshop. Why’d you throw the letter in the garbage?” I said, “Did you see the price?” She said, “Send it in. It’s only a $50 deposit; the money will show up.” So I did. I sent in my portfolio. I sent in my astrological profile too. That was required. That was just so weird for me. I was still working as a scientist at that time, but I figured I was ready to do anything to study with this guy. And lo and behold I got accepted. He’s very selective. It turns out it had a lot to do with my astrology, more than my photography, I think.

So I went. The money did come—an income tax return or something. Then when I got there, the first thing I had to do was deal with the astrologer. This woman was very, very different. She was doing research in astrology, and she had all kinds of degrees and everything else. She had a funny kind of accent that I never quite placed. She looked at my charts and gave me a comprehensive evaluation. She told me that what I was doing at the time—that is, taking this course in photography with Minor White—really had to do with what I would ultimately do. I said, “What’s that?” She said, “You will be a high priest in a strange religion.” I laughed hysterically. I said, “Lady, you have no idea how wrong you are. I’m an atheist! I hate religion!” She said, “No, no—that’s what you’re going to be doing, many years from now. And this is all preparation for that.” I said, “Is photography involved?” She said, “Yes, photography’s involved. But what’s more involved than photography is books. You’re going to write a lot of books.” I said, “Books about what?” And she said, “About that religion.” I didn’t take her too seriously. Then I did the workshop. About halfway through that workshop I got turned on my head. 

That was step number one. I left there twenty feet off the ground only to come crashing down six months later. Back again I went to Minor, now in Cambridge. I visited with him for a day. We just talked—nothing profound—I don’t even remember too much about the conversation, other than it was pleasant to be with him. As I was leaving the hotel where I was staying in Boston, I saw in the lobby an advertisement for a talk about Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Visual Dharma.” It rang a bell for me. I went the following week to the talk at Harvard Divinity School. I was sitting there, waiting for the teacher to come out and I started shivering, my whole body was trembling. That’s step number two. 

That’s where I met Eido Roshi. I didn’t meet Eido because I was looking for a teacher. I looked at the pictures he showed during his presentation. They were awful. I said to myself, “This guy needs a photographer!” That was my excuse. I wasn’t going to study with him. I was going to make photographs to help him do what he needed to do. Another step. From there I met my teacher Soen Roshi. Then a friend of mine, Millie Johnston, said, “You should be teaching at Naropa. I’ll call Trungpa Rinpoche and send him your portfolio.” Then Trungpa wrote and invited me to teach there. Another step. 

Step by step. It wasn’t just sudden. While I was at Naropa, who do you think lived next door? Maezumi Roshi. He invited me over for Kentucky Fried Chicken and sake and then tea late into the morning hours. After the summer was over he called me up: “What’s your relationship with Soen Roshi?” That was his first question. I said, “Soen went back to Japan. I’m studying with Eido, but Soen was really my teacher.” He asked, “Would you like to come here?” “Yeah, but I don’t have any money.” I was collecting unemployment at the time. “Well what do you need?” he asked. “What am I going to do with all my furniture?” “Put it in storage.” “I don’t have any money,” I continued. “I’ll put Tetsugen on,” he replied. He put Tetsugen, his attendant, on the phone: “Put it in storage. We’ll pay for it.” I said, “I don’t even have gas to get across the country.” “How much do you need?” So we all went—my son, Asian, Yushin and me. Why did all those things happen the way they happened? Letter in the garbage, poster in the lobby, Kentucky Fried Chicken and sake…. 

Yushin: It seems that calling always involves a struggle because of resistance—the universe saying, “Do you really want to do this? Let me give you 9,000 reasons why you don’t have to do this.” When we moved, we left in a blizzard and traveled cross-country. The fact that we made it is remarkable. The fact that you wanted to be a monk, this teacher—well, it was annoying because I didn’t have that in my plan, but I was really impressed with the Don Quixote part of you. When we got to Los Angeles, I wanted to become a nun. I wanted Maezumi Roshi to ordain me. I asked him three times over the course of a year or two, and he said, “You are mother, you have child. Very difficult. Study tea ceremony.” So after a while I kind of let it go. But years later, I continued to pursue that with him, and he continued to say no. And then I thought, maybe I have to go a different route here, a different road. 

So being a lay practitioner works very nicely in my life. Once a mother, always a mother. So there’s a path for all of us, I think. Being a mother is it for me. It’s a wonderful thing to have a spiritual calling and think I want to be a monastic. But it’s also a wonderful thing to have a spiritual calling and approve of myself as a mother, or as the tea lady on the side of the road. It’s almost like the same thing, just a different road. 

DR: I think the bottom line is: What do we do with our practice? What is a calling other than a vehicle through which we manifest that which we’re called to do? Sometimes we don’t always recognize what it is that we’re being called to do. That’s why the very first thing that has to take place—as in the healing that I’m doing for myself now—is recognizing: This has something to teach me. My tumor has something to teach me. It has something to say, and I have to listen to it first and know why it is there. Then I can take the steps to heal it. So those subtle messages that are deep below the superficialities of our usual motivations—that’s what we need to hear. They’re the most difficult to hear.

S: I appreciate the obstacles along the way and the power that must be driving me to go through those things. I look back at the logic of my life, and I’m really struck by how I continually orient myself back towards something I don’t even really understand. It has a kind of gravity to it. But I’m a little confused about the relationship between what you’re calling religious calling and the raising of the bodhi mind. Are they the same, or is religious calling the same as monastic calling?

DR: Religious calling is the same as raising the bodhi mind. That’s the definition. But raising the bodhi mind is very specific—it’s the aspiration for enlightenment. What does that mean? People are aspiring to something they don’t even understand. 

Religious calling is a very broad statement. Let me give you an example. The Catholic version of spiritual calling is the voice of God. That’s quite different than the Born-again Christian who is awakening to Jesus. Raising the bodhi mind is what we have in Buddhism. 

To appreciate this concept we can look at how Dogen talks about it: Raise the bodhi mind, practice, realize, actualize, raise the bodhi mind, practice, realize…. Raising the bodhi mind is the mind of enlightenment. That’s what “bodhi” means—enlightenment—to raise the mind of enlightenment. How do we do that? We do it through practice. What happens when we practice? We realize. What happens after realization? We actualize it in our life. What then? We see that there’s more. We raise the bodhi mind. Practice, realize…. It’s an upward spiral.

S: Within our own tradition, the ways in which the ancestors came to their religious lives are described quite differently. For some it was instantaneous and apparently predestined. I don’t really know how to understand that.

DR: Understand it as what it is. It’s not historical evidence. That’s the way oral teachings are. To me, the value of oral teachings is the fact that the subsequent teachers thought they were important enough to keep and to propagate. It doesn’t mean I necessarily “buy them.” And the stories come from a different culture, a culture very influenced by Confucianism and the importance of historical relationships, family and heritage. But if Buddhism disappeared from the face of the earth for 1,000 years, and suddenly someone came along and realized himself, the connection would jump a thousand years—direct, mind-to-mind transmission. 

S: Can a crisis precipitate a religious calling? In my own path, there have been a lot of crises and failures. When I recognized that there was some dis-ease in my life, I started searching. That’s why I looked for something—to try to address my dis-ease.

DR: That’s “what’s in it for me?” There is more to religious calling: “What can I do?”

S: I guess that’s what distinguishes it from just someone having a crisis and flailing around saying, “Maybe this is going to help.” In thinking about conversion, is it safe to say that the actual conversion is recognizing a way to respond to the dis-ease?

DR: Conversion is when the abstractness of the calling has become an actuality. I look at the people in the Oncology Department where I spend a lot of time—six hours sitting there with drips going into me. I watch the medical staff take care of people. They’re all heart—that’s what I see. It’s real. These have got to be the finest people I have encountered in years. Some of them have been there ten or fifteen years. Isn’t that a calling? Isn’t that a religious calling, in a sense, to serve the way they do?

S: Is there something profound in that scenario for it to actually be a calling? If you feel called to do something, whether it’s to be a doctor or a teacher or a parent, and you have a feeling that you are doing what you are meant to do—is that spiritual calling? 

DR: “Spiritual” is a defining word—serving the spirit. 

S: But can you serve the spirit through being a doctor?  

DR: Sure you can, if it’s a spiritual calling. But sometimes it’s a monetary calling or a power calling. 

S: But when someone is taking a path in order to serve, is that a spiritual calling?

DR: I think you have to examine it more deeply. I was watching a report on a doctor in Burma: an American doctor who had had a lucrative practice, but left it to work in Burma. He’s working in near hopeless conditions, alone, with no medicine. He is devoting a big chunk of his life to do this work all by himself. To me he was spiritually called to do it. He’s the guy I want to go to if I need a doctor.

S: So what is it that makes that spiritual in your eyes?

DR: I don’t want my eyes; I want your eyes. What is spirituality to you? It’s a very overused word. We need to be careful of that word because it’s lost a lot of its significance. 

S: Can a spiritual calling sometimes take control of your life and end up directing you in unexpected ways?

DR: Yes. It becomes an imperative—there’s no choice anymore. 

S: I’ve always understood spiritual calling as a calling to something larger than myself. 

DR: Since you’re the size of the universe, how can you manage that?

S: I guess I feel bewildered a lot of the time in practice. It’s true that I came wanting enlightenment, and I thought I knew what that was. As I continued to practice I realized that I didn’t know. It’s weird because in everything else in life, I know what I want and I calculate the best way to get it, and if I don’t get it fast enough, I’m out. But in practice it’s not like that. What I feel to be my spiritual calling is a willingness to be undermined and bewildered. Rather than a force propelling me, I feel I have a lot of energy and I have to put it somewhere, and as it turns out, I’m putting it here. It’s not calculated. That seems to me to be the crux of it.

DR: You talk about enlightenment, but one of the things that has always been an obstacle to enlightenment is enlightenment. The minute you make it a goal, you separate yourself from it. It’s out there, and you’re here. 

People have described to me what’s happened in their lives from the time they walked through the doors here at the Monastery—the transformations that have taken place. It hasn’t necessarily been a bolt of lightning out of the blue and suddenly they were transformed. It’s a process of transformation that takes place over time. 

There isn’t a single person, in the thirty years that I’ve been here, who has spent any appreciable length of time practicing that hasn’t been transformed in some way. There’s no way someone can get up every morning and sit and confront herself on that pillow, and confront a teacher and engage the liturgy and work and study and create art and live the precepts—to be exposed to all this, surrounded by this, all the time—without really living it and making it her own.

That’s why cultivating the aspiration for enlightenment is so important. That’s why realizing ourselves is so important. Indeed, it is the most important thing any of us will ever do with our lives. Don’t take it for granted. It’s no small thing.

John Daido Loori, Roshi (1931-2009) was the founder of the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and of the Fire Lotus Temple. Throughout his life he was a veteran, research scientist, commercial photographer, Dharma teacher and Zen priest.

NextThe Immovable Spot