Excerpts from Baker Roshi’s Forthcoming Book


Zen is traditionally most fully taught through face-to-face meeting and speaking within a mutual context of practicing meditation and mindfulness. ‘Meeting and speaking’ has been the fundamental and classic context of Zen teaching and its transmission for over fifteen centuries, through at least sixty generations. It is a mutual, institutional, hermeneutical, tralatitious (handed-down) tradition. Except for craft-guilds, some artistic lineages, and word-of-mouth examples in business, science, and academia, ‘handed-down’ traditions are hardly emphasized in the West – especially in comparison to their importance in Asia.

In Zen, ‘meeting and speaking’ traditionally takes the form of living and practicing with a sangha in a monastic setting for five to ten or more years. ‘Meeting and speaking’ is focused through an apprentice relationship with a teacher, and also, in effect, by an apprentice relationship with the whole sangha. The written and enacted tradition of Zen koan practice, the main bearer of Zen teachings, formalizes ‘meeting and speaking’ as its primary dynamic.

‘Meeting and speaking’ is a regularly scheduled part of Zen monastic life. It is a mutually established attentional field. The hearers (the traditional term) are participants in opening up the teaching during the teaching. (In addition, throughout the day in a Zen monastery, there is a flow of meeting and greeting, often in the form of bowing, which has evolved as an attentional field of shared embodiment and as a way to instill equanimity and compassion.)

During formal oral and aural teaching, the hearers usually sit in meditation posture. Speaking occurs in a field of meditative attention which allows and draws out the teaching. Thus ‘meeting and speaking’ is as much aural as oral. How to listen is a big part of the practice of ‘meeting and speaking’. The hearers are an actuating part of oral teaching: allowing, inspiring, focusing, drawing-in, extending, conditioning, and limiting what is spoken about. The valences, parameters, and potentialities of the field of ‘meeting and speaking’ can be felt by everyone and especially by the speaker. The individual, inner dialogues of the hearers are also variously-sensed, catalytic aspects of the meeting-field.

Silence too then is a palpable part of ‘meeting and speaking’. It’s difficult to write silence (except perhaps in poetry). Silence intended in writing may be difficult to notice in reading. By contrast, in ‘meeting and speaking’, samadhic silence is an available station of body and mind. It may be present as an absorption, an omission, or simply as an openness to possibilities. Of course, every word arises from silence and returns to silence – if the speaker forms language this way. Also oral/aural teaching allows incommensurable and indeterminate aspects of teachings to be sensed and imagined, and allows teachings to be fruitfully juxtaposed fragmentally or paratactically.

Alternatives to and aspects of a teaching can often be felt through their absence or denied presence. The absence might simply be (the convenience of) the time allotted for a lecture running out, or because only some of the hearers are ready for specific teachings, or because the implications of a teaching are sometimes more powerful when only hinted at. They are almost always more effectual when opened up through one’s own inquiry little by little.

Finally, in the palpable silence within and surrounding a lecture, there can sometimes be a parallel, gestural or unvoiced, virtual lecture. Sometimes silence serves as a window. Sometimes as a door. Sometimes as a wall to be peered over. Even in the midst of speech, sometimes silence is what connects. [Some of these observations are from George Steiner’s Language and Silence, Atheneum, p. 21.]

The oral/aural, samadhic, unscripted, non-formulaic Zen tradition of ‘meeting and speaking’ is a mutual pulse of bodily and sensorial presence within sound and silence. It is an attensity (attentional density) which weaves speakers and hearers together in a mutually inward and outward field. Sometimes it is like a flower held up for a moment.

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