Joko Beck: “We have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.”

American Zen pioneer, Charlotte Joko Beck, died yesterday at the grand age of 94. Her Wikipedia entry says, “After years of declining health, Beck was placed under hospice care in June 2011. After her health rapidly deteriorated, she stopped eating and was dramatically losing weight. According to Beck’s daughter, Brenda, up until the end ‘She is happy as a clam and, as she told me, will die when she’s ready. She says it’s soon.’” And so it was.

Joko Beck studied and practiced with three important Zen teachers: Soen Nakagawa, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, and Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. In 1983, she started the San Diego Zen Center, and later founded the Ordinary Mind School.

I did not know Joko Beck but I know people who did and have heard a lot about her. It seemed to me that there was much to admire, and emulate, about her approach to dharma and teaching. Adam Tebbe writes in this article published yesterday that “She is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, a loose fit organization of her Dharma successors which is non-hierarchical. As a teacher of Zen, Joko Beck was free from the patriarchal trappings of Japanese Zen. Joko’s approach to Zen teaching was greatly informed by Western culture, and she discontinued shaving her head, seldom wore robes and seldom used titles.” Yes, hers was a modern approach, yet she didn’t try to reinvent the dharma wheel, pursue wild theories, or attempt to set herself up as an enlightened guru.

She was also the author of several books. I particularly like this passage from the beginning of Everyday Zen: Love and Work:

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won’t do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.

Copy this passage, write it down on a post-it note, stick it on your refrigerator, tattoo it on your arm or forehead, read it every day and every night, memorize it, share it with others. Make it your dharani, your mantra, your prayer. Find some way to engrave these words on your life, for they go directly to the heart of this thing called Buddhism.

And then don’t forget to say, “Thanks for that, Charlotte Joko Beck.”

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4 thoughts on “Joko Beck: “We have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.”

  1. I have a question about part of Ms Beck’s quote. She talks of the need to let go of goals. This seems to be a recurring theme within Buddhism and it’s one that confuses me. I’ve just been accepted into a Masters program in Criminal Justice. I have a goal of completing this degree within 2-2 1/2 years and doing well enough to either get a job or be accepted into a PhD program. I can understand the challenges of being fixated on goals and on being unwilling to change your goals if warranted. But simply having basic goals doesn’t feel unhealthy to me. Can you help me understand the Buddhist perspective on this?

    1. Hi Susan. This is a great question. Thanks for asking it.

      In Buddhism, we talk about things from two truths: the ultimate and the relative or conventional truth. It’s sometimes difficult to know which someone is speaking from.

      In the ultimate truth, there are no goals and there is no self. In the relative truth, it is impossible to live life without some goals and there certainly a self because we are here, we exist. Both truths are true.

      Ms. Beck is talking about the way in which we’ve been conditioned to look externally for things to give our life meaning. We all suffer from this to a certain degree. Some more than others. She’s not suggesting that we live an aimless life. And, as I said, it’s impossible to have no goals. When you set out in your car to go to the store to buy groceries, that’s a goal. Setting the alarm to wake up at a certain time in the morning is another goal. It’s natural to have goals and want to achieve them.

      Working actively to achieve some goal can be good for self-development. But goals can be like a carrot on a stick. We will run after the carrot thinking that if we can just reach it we will be satisfied and happy. However, happiness and satisfaction are already there, inside us. We just need to uncover it. Happiness in life does not depend on the pursuit or the achievement of goals. Real and lasting happiness is the kind that is natural, that comes from within and does not rise or fall based upon the achievement of goals, or the absence of obstacles.

      So, she’s really talking about our attachment to goals, our fixations on things outside of our life. The real challenge of being fixated, or perhaps I should say the crisis of fixation, is what happens if you don’t achieve your goal. Is your life destroyed? Not if you have the kind of inner happiness and satisfaction that is not attached to external things.

      You sound like a pretty well-adjusted person who’s not obsessed with getting a degree. Still, as you go along, there will certainly be pressure, some obstacles, competition and so forth, so reflecting on the nature of goals and attachments in this way could be beneficial. It will help you to pursue your goal with increased objectivity and insight.

      The other part of it involves our motivation, our intention. I imagine you want to go into criminal justice in order to contribute something to others, in whatever way you see that. But if your motivation is purely for money, to feed the ego of your fictional self (self in the ultimate sense) by becoming a famous police officer or attorney, or so that you can wield power over others, well, you probably don’t me to tell you that kind of motivation is unhealthy. If your motivation is selflessness, that is, having a concern for the welfare of others, recognizing that you are one with them and they are one with you, wanting to establish more justice in the world, that’s very healthy, and noble.

      All this applies to enlightenment, as well. If you go looking for enlightenment, you may never find it. However, if you are satisfied with having a peaceful mind and a balanced life, enlightenment might just unfold before you in each present moment.

      I hope this helps to clarify things for you. I hope I achieved my goal of making sense.

  2. Thanks for this, David. The quote is great and I have posted it to Tumblr. Your perspective on goals is really helpful too as it an issue which is often on my mind. So thanks too to Susan for raising the issue.

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