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.”