James Daikan Bastien interview

Originally posted by Sweeping Zen.

Daikan began training with Zen Master Soeng Hyang in the Kwan Um School of Zen  where he trained for the next 10 years while administering human service organizations….
 James Daikan Bastien began his Zen training under the direction of senior monastic students
of Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Nebraska Zen Center in Omaha, Nebraska in 1979. In 1990, Daikan began training with Zen Master Soeng Hyang in the Kwan Um School of Zen where he trained for the next 10 years while administering human service organizations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In 2005, he was asked to serve as President of the Zen Peacemakers organization while doing “work practice” with Roshi Bernie Glassman from whom he received Dharma Transmission in March of 2011. Daikan was also given transmission as a Lay Preceptor in the Zen Peacemaker Order by Roshi Eve Myonen Markoin August of 2011.
Daikan’s practice centers on the provision of dharma informed human services which he has implemented across a diverse number of human service settings including group homes, foster homes, residential treatment centers, residential schools, child and adult psychiatric hospitals and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Thanks to Janet Pal for he excellent transcription help!
SZ: How did you get involved with Zen practice? What was going on in your life at the time?
JB:  I think my first encounter with Zen was when I was in college back in the 1970s while living in Massachusetts. I took a class in comparative religion and during the class I read a book by D.T. Suzuki; that got me interested initially. About six months later, I took up the practice of transcendental meditation (TM). It was popular at that time. My experience of the effects of meditation motivated me to continue a regular meditation practice. Then I moved to Nebraska. I had been sitting by myself and thought it would be interesting to sit with other people. I got out the phone book for Omaha, which is where I was living, and went to the last page where I found a listing under ‘Zen Center’. I dialed the number and reached the Nebraska Zen Center. It is a satellite group of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center (MZMC). Dainin Katagiri Roshi was the Abbott of MZMC at that time.
So, I began to sit with the Nebraska Zen Center sangha and every once in a while Katagiri Roshi would send Rev. Teijo Munnich, one of his senior students from MZMC, to train with us. After training for three  years, I received Jukai from Katagiri Roshi in Minnesota. I continued to practice at the Nebraska Zen Center until 1990 when my family moved to Rhode Island. After locating there, I discovered there wasn’t a Soto Zen practice group anywhere close by. So I started practicing at the Providence Zen Center (PZC) located in Cumberland Rhode Island which was founded by Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. In time, I became a student of one of his dharma heirs, Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Bobbie Rhodes).
SZ: Right. Was [Seung Sahn] already back in Korea at the time?
JB: Yes. He had already left the states to take up residence back in Korea although he still came to the U.S. on a regular basis.
SZ: Okay.
JB: PZC had a monastery, a practice center, and a large sangha. I started practicing there in 1990 and trained in that lineage until I moved back to Western Massachusetts. Then, I briefly trained, for about a year and a half, three or four times a year, at Zen Mountain Monastery. I didn’t work with a teacher at that time; I just took part in a number of workshops. One day I was reading the newspaper only to discover that Roshi Bernie Glassman was living five miles from my house. He had recently moved to the area to begin a practice center in Western Massachusetts.
SZ: That’s pretty convenient!
JB: So, I sought out the Zen Peacemakers and I went to a sesshin that was held at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was the first sesshin that Roshi Bernie had done in about five years. My first encounter with him was in the dokusan room. By the end of the sesshin, he became my teacher. Several weeks later, he asked me to leave my job as the Vice President of a large residential treatment center for children and youth to become the Chief Operating Officer of the Zen Peacemaker organization.
SZ: Most readers are familiar with them but, for those who are not, please tell us about the Zen Peacemakers.
JB: Well, it is the lineage of Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. He was the first Dharma successor of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, who many know as one of the principle Japanese Zen Masters who introduced the Soto Zen lineage to this country. Once Roshi Bernie received Dharma transmission, he moved to New York from Los Angeles and founded the Zen Community of New York which was the beginning of the Zen Peacemakers sangha. He was also a founding teacher of the White Plum Asangha which is an association of all of the Zen teachers in America who have received dharma transmission within Maizumi Roshi’s lineage.
SZ: Yes. I have always been intrigued because it seems like in the White Plum and all of that there is like, some identify more with the Soto aspect of Maezumi and then some kind of with the Harada-Yasutani. So I was interested to know if there was koan work there as well for you?
JB: My teacher, Roshi Bernie, received dharma transmission within the Soto Zen sect from his teacher Maezumi Roshi. Maezumi Roshi received dharma transmission from his father within the Soto Sect but he also studied with and received Inka from Koryu Roshi, a lay Rinzai teacher. In addition, he received Inka from Yasutani Roshi in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. As the principle student of Maezumi Roshi, Roshi Bernie also studied with Koryu Roshi and Yasutani Roshi.
SZ: So he had all three lines going for him there.
JB: Yes. The Maezumi lineage is somewhat different from the traditional Soto Zen lineage where shikantaza is the fundamental Zen practice. Maezumi Roshi made koan study available to his students as well as the practice of skikantaza as a result of the influence of his studies with Koryu Roshi and Yasutani Roshi.
SZ: Right.
JB: And as a result of my teacher’s training with Maezumi Roshi, Koryu Roshi, and Yasutani Roshi, he made shikantaza and koan study available to his students as well.
SZ: Bernie helped set up the White Plum Asangha, is that right?
JB: Actually the White Plum was started by Maezumi Roshi. Roshi Bernie was the first guiding teacher of the White Plum.
SZ: Going back a bit, what was it about Zen practice for you? Was it the meditation aspect?
JB: I guess for me personally, because of issues that came up in my family, I had a pretty deep interest in trying to understand the nature of suffering. My father was a POW in WWII. He was a Wake Island Marine and was captured by the Japanese 14 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He spent the entire duration of WWII in Japanese prison camps in China. He suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but of course in those days nobody knew what that was.
PTSD wasn’t even a mental health diagnosis until 1980. He was discharged from the Marine Corps at the age of 21 after four years in captivity. The rest of his life was an ongoing struggle with the long term effects of that experience. He eventually became a chronic alcoholic and our family; i.e., my mother, sisters, and myself, spent most of our lives trying to figure out how to help him. Because of his suffering, we, as a family, also suffered the long term effects of his imprisonment. I remember as a young boy, holding the question, “My father is a hero, so why does he suffer so much?” As a kid, I was brought up to believe that heroes are people to look up to and model ourselves after; and yet, I saw my father really struggling with his life.
SZ: Reality was not matching up with the ideal.
JB: Yes. Even as a teenager, I had this question as to why people needed to suffer so much: what’s the point of it all? So, I think I was attracted to Buddhism and Zen because it was the first practice I encountered, that delved into the nature of suffering itself. I mean, not that other religions do not touch upon that, but Buddhism is founded on this question about the nature of suffering, why do we suffer, and is there a way to be liberated from suffering, etc. So, I think that was the draw for me.
SZ: Sometimes I think that really there is maybe not a way out of suffering. I don’t know that we can escape it. What do you think?
JB: Well, the thing I often like to say is pain is mandatory, suffering is optional. What I mean by that is we all have emotional pain, we all have difficult thoughts, we all have physical pain, and there is no getting out of that. If you have a body and mind and you are engaged in this life, you are going to experience pain. A principle cause of suffering is our response to pain. So, for example, I like to think of pain as either clean or dirty pain. Clean pain might arise due to a physical problem, let’s say chronic back pain. Dirty pain is all the thoughts and emotions we have about this pain, “why did this happen to me”, “why won’t this pain ever go away,” “this pain is destroying my life,” “I can’t live fully until this pain goes away,” etc. That is what I call dirty pain. Dirty pain exacerbates the physical pain transforming it into an experience of suffering.
SZ: It is hard when you have also a physical ailment to get that clarity.
JB: Yes. And there can also be the pain of having been abused, emotionally, physically, sexually; of having grown up in an alcoholic family; of having grown up in severe poverty, etc. There are a lot of different ways that people experience pain. I think what happens, particularly in western culture, is that we get the message that you shouldn’t have to feel pain, that there should be a way to work around it – get rid of it. For example, let’s take depression. If you’re depressed you’re not usually feeling all that happy. In our culture, we are conditioned to chase after happiness and avoid pain and suffering. If you are depressed you are not happy. If you are not happy then life is not going well for you and you’re not going to be happy or contented until you get rid of your depression.
This culturally conditioned belief transforms psychological pain into suffering. I think what I have discovered through Zen practice is that we don’t need to get rid of depression. We can just stand up fully within depression. It doesn’t have to become a barrier to living a life worth living. In other words, we can go in the direction of what we care about in life and take our depression with us, because it is part of who we are—as opposed to trying to cut off or deny that part of our self.
When we try to separate from our experience rather than accept our life as it is, we suffer.
SZ: Meet the truth of our lives fully.
JB: Yes. I mean, you will hear a lot of people say, “you just need to let go of that.” That is actually not a skillful way of working with a problem … thinking that “letting go” means getting rid of it somehow. Letting go means allowing you to be completely present with what is while not trying to escape or avoid it. It entails being present with what is showing up in this moment. Katagiri Roshi had a great saying: “Stand up in your life”. Stand up right in the middle of your life. Don’t try and run away from it.
SZ: Yes. It reminds me of how when someone close to us dies, society might tell us to get over it quickly.
JB: Exactly.
SZ: You receive a few allotted days to grieve and then you are expected to be right back on top of things, like a machine.
JB: It is a little bit like encouraging you to adopt the stance that someone you love is not worth grieving over; but, in fact, the depth of our grief is a measure of the height of our love for someone. Why would we want to avoid experiencing that?
SZ: I think so, too.
JB: So grieving is part of the process of loving people. One of my other teachers, Eve Myonen Marko has a beautiful saying which is: “If you really love somebody, that means you will either be present for their death or they will be present for yours.”
SZ: On this topic of death and grieving, it has been suggested that grief is inherently selfish. That is to say that most of one’s grief stems not so much from the fact that this person is no longer walking about in the world, but from the gap they felt this person helped fill in their own life. I don’t look at this “selfish grief” in negative terms, however. I think it’s a natural process and all too human.
JB: Yes. Well, let me share this little story with you, speaking to the issue of selfishness. I heard this story a long time ago and I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but it has stuck with me ever since. It is a story about a Zen master and his jisha (his attendant) who were travelling together. They were seeking shelter and a place to stay and they came upon a home where a funeral was underway for someone who had just died. Everyone was crying and upset, and the Zen master began to cry as well. He was sobbing as he fully entered into the grief the family was experiencing. After, his attendant said, “Why are you crying? Why are you carrying on like this? You’re a Zen master.” The master replied, “Because someone has died.”
So, in that sense, taking the self completely out of it and just being present with what is; entering into it completely. To me that is selflessness.
SZ: It looks like you first got involved with human services early in your practice, important for you in these years since in the work that you do with veterans. Did you decide to go in to this line of work because of your father?
JB: Yes. I think in some sense, probably way down deep inside, I have been trying to save my father from his suffering in every person that I have ever met who is in need of support. I have been involved in human services now for over 35 years. I was actually involved in human services before I got involved in Zen. My desire to understand the nature of suffering led me into human services and I spent the first 30 years of my career working with severely emotionally disturbed kids, youthful violent offenders, youthful sex offenders, etc. In the last 10 years, I have focused my work with adults who suffer from PTSD, alcoholism and other co-occurring disorders – mostly firefighters, veterans, police officers, EMTs, etc. One of the reasons I was attracted to Bernie Glassman, as a teacher, is his emphasis on dharma practice out in the world, off the cushion, actively engaged in the alleviation of suffering. This type of practice speaks to me as the very embodiment of the bodhisattva path.
SZ: Taking one’s work well beyond the confines of monasteries, Zen halls, retreats and the like.
JB: Yes. I’m not saying that is the only way to practice Zen. There are many paths for entering the Way. It’s just that for me, I have met so many amazing people in human services who have never heard of Zen, people who I would consider true bodhisattvas. Having said that, I encounter many people in human service work that are missing one very important ingredient in offering what my teacher calls the ‘supreme meal’ — and that is the practice of acceptance. There are many good people that are willing to work long hours and devote a lot of their lives to helping people. Sometimes though, they don’t practice acceptance of those they serve. There is an objectification of the “helper” and “those who need help.” There is a tendency to see the “client” as fundamentally different from themselves, hard to relate to, understand, or empathize with. People who are suffering don’t usually embrace other people’s attempts to help them wholeheartedly. For many people, the cause of their suffering is not easy for them to admit. There is often a lot of blaming others for what is wrong.  There is also a lot of rejection of the efforts of others to provide help and assistance on their behalf. A lot of people go into human services with a noble heart. They really want to do good, yet when they encounter people that are really suffering, they quickly realize this work is really not all that fun, that it is serious business, and it’s not so personally rewarding.
SZ: Realizing that they aren’t going to save or fix the world.
JB: Yes. It’s actually very stressful and difficult. One of the traps that helpers can fall into, in order to obtain relief from what they are experiencing, is to become very judgmental about the people they are trying to help. You see that a lot, more than people realize. There is a lot of objectifying of the individual who is suffering. When they don’t respond to attempts to help them, then they become a source of stress. Reasons can quickly emerge that place the blame for treatment failures on the person in need of help. They are related to in terms of a diagnosis which makes them into an object and shifts the focus so they are no longer seen as they are. Unfortunately, this provides some relief for the staff who are struggling with particularly challenging individuals. The relief reinforces the labeling and the process goes on and on.
I know a Catholic priest at Boys Town (I used to work at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town), his name is Father Val Peter. He taught me a long time ago that the word compassion comes from the Latin root which means to suffer with. The message is that when people are in a lot of pain and you want to help them, you have to be willing to take on some of that pain yourself. In other words, learn to suffer with them while offering them your assistance and caring. I used to see this with kids whose families had given up on them, kids who had bounced around from 12 or 13 different placements by the time they were 15 years old. They had really had it with people saying, “I am going to care about you. I am going to help you.” One of the ways they would test people was to really act out and be very difficult. A lot of people have a difficult time standing in that place without taking it personally. As a result the client is labeled and objectified as someone who is really troubled, beyond treatment, and not capable of being helped.
This, as opposed to seeing the kid as yourself, and realizing that we are all suffering and that suffering is a part of life. It is then when it becomes possible to stand there and keep offering your hand even when this offer is rejected over and over. When that happens, people will sometimes suddenly wake up and find their heart again. Standing by them in this way can help to transform their suffering. Not always, but often enough that you see it as a way to proceed in many situations. If you just don’t give up on them, in time, that can make a difference. It doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always work out that way. That too is part of life.
SZ: I think it’s quite easy for those in the helping profession to become jaded, some working in agencies that seem to churn out “broken people” like it’s a factory rather than a clinic. One’s worldview can easily become warped in that environment and you can start viewing people as cattle, especially if you’re feeling burned out because you never seem to actually help anyone. One can care too little, yes, but burnout can creep in when one is overly invested, as well.
JB: I think it was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who coined the term ‘idiot compassion’. It might sound harsh, but it’s the kind of teaching that gets your attention. Helping can be another form of spiritual materialism, particularly when the helper is motivated by a desire to feel better about themselves – either consciously or unconsciously.
The problem is that the level of suffering you will encounter in trying to help others can be so intense that no amount of self-gratifying or self-satisfying experiences will allow you to stay with that work over a long period of time. Why?  – Because, it is just not that reinforcing when you are coming at it from the perspective of, “This is going to make me feel good.”
SZ: I’d imagine one also would tire of the work if they looked only for clearly defined results (something of a rare commodity in the helping profession).
JB: Exactly. When I look back over my 35-year career in human services, there are not that many people (on a percentage basis) that stay in it over the long haul. People come in and they do it for a while, and then get out. It is more common than most people realize. But I think if you stay in this work long term you get to a point where it is no longer about you or your needs. It’s not about your idea of yourself as being a helper, or even fixing things. This is why Zen has been a very, very powerful teacher for me in terms of doing human service work. It is simply about offering help — bringing yourself to each situation, whatever it may be, and offering yourself to the other in whatever way you can. You can’t worry about the outcome.
SZ: As your teacher might say: ‘bearing witness’.
JB: Exactly. When you come to a situation, come with no fixed ideas about who this person is — no ideas about what this person is going to need to move to a different place in their life. To approach each person and each situation from the perspective of not knowing, no fixed ideas, and then bear witness to what the person is telling you that they need, both verbally and through their actions.
If you are open and coming into it with a mind of not knowing that creates some space, and if you carefully allow yourself to be present with that person, of itself the fruit is born. Right action will arise. When we can trust in this process, and not be afraid of it, allowing it to happen; people are often surprised how much better that works. This is different from the stance that says, “I have this degree and I have this license and I have this number of years in the field,” or, “This person is a borderline personality disorder, I know exactly what they need, and I know exactly what treatment they should receive.” Of course the person, who is suffering, has heard this for years and is yet to be helped in meaningful ways.  This can be a very difficult, lonely, and a tough spot in life, feeling like you are on the outside looking in and no one is really getting you.
SZ: I would imagine, being on that side of things, you would feel that nobody sees you as a person.
JB: Exactly.
SZ: You’re just a diagnosis.
JB: The thoughts of human service professionals can sometimes take the form of, “I have got X number of patients today and, given your diagnosis, you get this medication and you go to this group. Next!…”
SZ: Like a machine.
JB: Yes. There are lot of people who are practicing the dharma who are working in human services. My hope is that dharma informed human service practice will gradually pervade the field and transform the current understanding of how the mind works. We are seeing that happen already. Some of the hottest new interventions in mental health services are dharma informed treatments such as mindfulness meditation and trauma focused yoga.
I mean, I have been doing this for 30 years and I can remember a time when you couldn’t even say you were a Zen Buddhist because people might get concerned that you were part some kind of cult. Now, 30 years later, mental health treatment is infused with ideas about mindfulness, as well as other forms of eastern practices. Jon Kabat-Zinn, probably more than anybody on the planet, has spread the teaching of the dharma in the West within the human service realm, yet he has never called what he does Buddhism. But, it basically is. It’s Buddhism devoid of all its religious trappings.
SZ: I actually think that is probably going to be an effective model here in the West. This is a very Christian nation where aren’t always open to something that is ‘Zen Buddhist’ or ‘Buddhist.’ But if it is available to you in a more secular context, such people might be more receptive to it. It’s more inclusive that way. I often hold up a website a friend runs called Do No Harm, which similarly has Buddhist influences without once mentioning it or any other religion.
JB: Very cool!
SZ: It really is. It’s just a very simple and up for interpretation — grounded in Buddhist principles, but the overarching message is just ‘Do No Harm.’
JB: Exactly. These principles are inherent within dharma influenced mental health interventions and they just work. You don’t have to call it religion, or dharma, or Zen. What is important is that people are exposed to the teaching in a way helps them.
There is an old saying: “If you build a better mouse trap, people will beat a path to your door.”
I think that is why mindfulness meditation and other forms of eastern practices like yoga are becoming so popular, particularly within mental health treatment. Clinicians are getting results with clients they didn’t always see with more “mainstream” treatments and medications. So, it is going to happen of itself because it works.
One of the things that is going to be interesting to watch is what mindfulness meditation and other eastern practices will look like, once they are separated from the religious traditions that gave them life. For example, I have met people who are licensed clinical psychologists who teach their clients meditation but don’t meditate themselves. So, my question is: how can you really convey the benefits of such a practice if what you are offering is not situated in your own experience of it?
SZ: Fair question. In such a scenario, how would a clinician respond if someone has questions about the meditation experience?
JB: Exactly. I have worked with folks who do that. It is hard for them to respond in ways that speak directly to the client’s experience. As a consequence, the client does not receive clear guidance about their mindfulness practice which is not particularly helpful.
SZ: Acceptance, which you mentioned earlier, is really a key word in all of this. In my understanding of it, it looms large in work done with those suffering from PTSD. I believe the literature refers to it as ‘grounding’, which always struck as a kind of meditative exercise.
JB: Yes. You can think of PTSD as the fear of one’s own experience. People who experience PTSD, have been exposed to life situations where the amount of fear that is generated causes them to believe they might die or the event is very intense and overwhelming. The fear encountered in the initial experience can evolve into long-term chronic fear, a continuing fear that something terrible could happen at any time.
The issue with PTSD is that these experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. The always happen where there are people, places and things. For example, we work a lot with OEF/OIF veterans (OEF is Operation Enduring Freedom and OIF is Operation Iraqi Freedom which are military code words for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). In Iraq, soldiers found themselves in a 360-degree battlefield. There was no safe area in the rear where the risk of dying was absent. It didn’t matter whether you were a frontline combat infantryman or you were working in a hospital or doing logistic support. Every day there was a real possibility that you could be killed.
These young veterans are still living with that fear, day in and day out. One of the weapons used to kill GIs in Iraq is called IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. IEDs are often concealed in bags lying on the side of the road, waiting to be detonated. Many young soldiers lost their lives to these devices. When these young vets come back home and are driving down I-91, and see an object lying in the road, they swerve around it as if they are back in Iraq – not understanding what is happening to them.
SZ: An automatic response programmed in to them.
JB: Yes, they have a conditioned fear that is a part of them now. A soldier once said, “They say only the dead have seen the end of war, but I have seen the end of war. The question is, will I ever live again?” That captures the essence of what PTSD is, because even though you are back here “in the world,” you are still living that war every day in your head.
SZ: There can also be guilt over being the one who did not die.
JB: That is very common. We call that survivor guilt. It is an existential question that asks, “Why did all these other people die and not me?” It just seems completely arbitrary. When one faces that, it brings up powerful questions about the meaning of life … how impermanent it is and how it can end so quickly, with no rhyme or reason as to why this person died rather than me. I remember my father would sometimes break down, especially when he had been drinking, and say things like, “There were men that I fought with who I looked up to, who I thought were better men than me. Why did they die and not me? They didn’t deserve that.” So, there are deep questions they struggle with about “the great matter of life and death.”
SZ: To live that way every day following a trauma – one would almost have to start feeling like a ghost.
JB: For some people it can actually work through them in such a way that causes them to pull back from their family, their friends, their wives, their children, and start to isolate. They don’t want to spend time around people because it is very hard to have relationships after traumatic experiences. Relationships are fraught with pain and loss and all the kinds of things that remind them of their trauma. So, it is very hard to be in relationships with people when you are carrying this kind of internal struggle.
SZ: It has to be tremendously difficult work for individuals, because the PTSD responses are so automated – like in your example of swerving at an underpass. It must be very discouraging for someone to work through that, having reactions that aren’t conscious decisions.
JB: It is a conditioned response. That is another thing about Buddhist practice – it teaches us a lot about the process of conditioning. We are what we have experienced, and we bring all of our experiences into each moment. We don’t necessarily understand how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are conditioned but, if you look at life as the interconnectedness of all things, each of us is a unique expression of this interconnectedness.
SZ: Is PTSD work about reconditioning or de-conditioning?
JB: I don’t think it is about reconditioning or de-conditioning. It’s about having them see the conditions that are arising and then working with those conditions.
SZ: So meditation is probably very helpful in that work.
JB: Yes. It can be very helpful because one of the skills involved in Zazen is seeing thoughts as just thoughts, feelings as just feelings, etc. Just seeing what is arising and just allowing it to be there, without engaging with it. That can be extremely helpful for someone who is tortured by thoughts and memories of intense, terrifying experiences. To be able to see these difficult and horrifying internal experiences, and come to the realization that as much as it hurts to experience them, they can’t actually harm you. In the end they are just thoughts. For example, If someone comes up to you on the street and points a gun in your face and pulls the trigger, you are going to die. However if someone appears in a dream you are having and pulls the trigger, you might be frightened but you won’t die. Thoughts are formless forms. But, when we are experiencing them, they can cause us to feel as if they are as real as the actual life experiences that generate them.
SZ: They might as well be real.
JB: What PTSD is about is trying to get away from terrifying thoughts, as opposed to seeing them for what they are. They are just thoughts. If a person will simply allow them to be present without taking any action, they will go of themselves. No feeling is final. No thought can maintain itself by itself because everything is impermanent and changing. So Zazen is a beautiful practice for seeing this process. Whatever arises will pass away, in time, of itself.
SZ: Then again, there is the Lotus Sutra.
JB: Exactly (laughter).
SZ: I think we have covered really good ground here. Tell us a bit about Howling Dragon and how you got started with that.
JB: Howling Dragon is a dream that I have to create a lineage committed to bringing the dharma into human services and other forms of helping. One of the things my teacher, Roshi Bernie, has been talking about for years, going all the way back to his development of the Greyston Mandala, is to see the bodhisattva path as taking action in the world to directly alleviate human suffering. So, Howling Dragon is a form of Zen practice that uses human services as a vehicle for taking direct action to alleviate human suffering – dharma informed “work/practice” if you will.
SZ: What is meant by the quote on your website: “a dragon howling in a withered tree.”
JB: Oh, there is a koan that Dogen Zenji wrote about in his 300 koan collection, and the koan states: “A monk asked the master, ‘What is the way?’ and the master replied, ‘A dragon howling in a withered tree’”.
So, once you experience this koan you will discover the Howling Dragon.
SZ: Fair enough! In closing, are there any books you might recommend to readers on Zen practice or on any of the topics we explored today?
JB: Yes. One book that I would recommend is Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. It’s the story of a man who lives a life of privilege and goes off to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. He has some pretty traumatic experiences as an ambulance driver. You might say he develops PTSD and spends the rest of his life trying to understand the nature of suffering. I would highly recommend this book.
SZ: I’ll have to order that one.
JB: There are a lot other Zen books nowadays. I also highly recommend a couple of books that my teacher wrote, Instructions to the Cook, which is a great book about bringing the dharma into the world of human services and social action, and Bearing Witness, which talks again about the theme of bringing your dharma directly to the people you serve in the places where they live and work.

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