I started to study with her in the 80s and sat several “sesshins” with her, one at her zendo in San Diego, most in Oakland. Though she eschewed formality (her second book is titled Nothing Special), she was nevertheless a formidable figure: big-boned, plainspoken, imposing, authoritative. Too, she urged one to be “meticulous” in everything concerned with practice: meticulous attention to one’s thoughts and emotions (she grouped them together as “emotion/thoughts”), meticulous attention to the physical care of one’s sitting space, to whatever job one was given. She never sugar-coated what we were doing or what life was about, often saying without ornament that it was hopeless, or simply, a mess. Once she compared our condition to someone falling from a tall building: ‘Are you going to focus on what the scenery is like or what your real situation is?’ In a recent interview, she said that the important thing in Zen practice is “Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.” In Nothing Special she wrote, “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. (47)” She also told me once, after a betrayal, that there is no one we can truly trust (in this she was following Huang-Po, one of the great Zen masters, who told his students, “There is nothing on which you can rely.”)
She knew this first hand. Her own life included disappointments and betrayals, not least her discovery that her own teacher, Maezumi Roshi of Los Angeles, could not control his drinking or his sexual attraction to her daughter. Her break with the traditional style of zen teaching came partly as a result of this. She determined that her style of zen would not sweep such ‘mundane’ concerns under the rug, but would place them at the center of practice. What resulted was one of the most influential modes of teaching and expression (her genius for making Buddhism accessible and comprehensible to westerners was uparalleled) in American Zen. For Joko, Zen was not some mystical, baffling presentation of esoteric stories or doctrines aimed at transcendence. It focused on the problems of everyday life—but as meditated upon in the very particular, silent environment of zen training—and with the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Of the many brilliant phrases I heard her utter, one sticks in my mind. I’m not sure what her subject was—perhaps something about being judgmental, or our penchant for putting ourselves above others—but at some point she said this:
“Everyone is trying their best.”
It’s as simple yet profound a sentence as one can imagine, the insight that, in essence, we are all always trying to do the best we can. This includes those who shine in a task, as well as those who fail miserably. It includes those who have endless talent as well as those who are hopelessly inept. It includes those who work hard and honestly as well as those who slough off and cheat; those who sacrifice themselves on behalf of others, and those who scheme to secure their own advantage; those who push through to victory and those who give up too early. It does not leave out the lame, the halt, the criminal, the saintly, the deluded and the visionary, the luminary and the suicide. It is, really, the ultimate expression of compassion and, typical of Joko Beck, without a shred of fake optimism or sugary solace in a divine plan. It is simply a profound insight into the fact that everyone is different, everyone is differently endowed, and that everyone is conditioned by whatever set of circumstances prevail at a given moment. In such a world view, the outcome of any situation is simply what conditions make it, with no grounds for anyone taking credit over anyone else. Taking credit, or assigning blame are the functions of that “personal, egotistic self” one has to study and know, and see for the self-coddling illusions they are. By contrast, comprehending that everyone, without exception, is trying their best is to see with the eye of compassion upon which Buddhism, or any spiritual tradition is founded. It is, I would suggest, the arrow pointing towards true wisdom.
Lest anyone think that because she spoke such words, Joko Beck was proof against the frailties of the egotistic self, it should also be noted that her retirement led to a public conflict with those she left in charge of her Zen Center, and a formal break with them. The letter she wrote on that occasion is living proof that she was not exempt from the mess of “emotion/thought.” But of course, she never claimed to be. She was “nothing special,” a frail and courageous human being who was, like all the rest of us, simply “trying her best.”
Joke Beck died, at age 94, on June 15. Though she would have scorned any notion of the ‘special’ place she occupied in American Zen, the truth is, she did. She will be missed.