My Path | Jules Shuzen Harris' Journey to Zen Buddhism
An Excerpt from Zen beyond Mindfulness
I was born in 1939 in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town just outside of Philadelphia that was working class and extremely diverse. Based on this background, the path I ended up taking was exceedingly unlikely. It was unlikely that I would travel to India, China, Tibet, Egypt, South Africa, and Japan studying different religious traditions and practices.
It was unlikely that I would come to study Zen at all, let alone become the first African American man to receive transmission in the Soto Zen school and become a dharma teacher with my own center. But that’s what happened.
From the very beginning I was a seeker, always looking up, wondering if there was more than this. My grandmother was a Baptist, and when I was a young boy, she took me to church every Sunday. I found sitting through the long sermons incredibly dull, and I hated sitting still. (The irony of this doesn’t escape me.) That branch of Christianity never spoke to me, although one highlight of the Baptist experience was hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a sermon. (He was doing his internship at Calvary Baptist while at Crozier Seminary.)
Instead of the Baptist Church, I was drawn first to Catholicism. I took trumpet lessons from nuns and would occasionally go to mass. In this way, I met a Catholic priest who was a former professional basketball player with the Philadelphia Warriors. He impressed me so much that I briefly considered turning my spiritual yearnings toward the priesthood. One day we were discussing St. Thomas Aquinas and his second argument for the existence of God. The priest explained the impossibility of an infinite chain with the standard analogy of dominos. He argued that there could be hundreds of dominos knocked over by pushing the first in line, but all the action of those hundreds of dominos didn’t explain who set them up.
But I was more interested in the question “Who pushed over the first domino?” He laughed and said I might be better off with Eastern philosophy. I didn’t understand him entirely then, but he was right.
I’ve always been much less interested in the existential questions—Is there a God? What is his ultimate plan?—than in the practical questions of how to be a good person and find meaning in the here and now. I don’t care who set up all these dominos, but I sure want to know the best way to keep them from falling over and crashing into each other. By the time I was twenty-one, I’d been mentored by Quakers, joined and then left the Nation of Islam, and even considered studying Judaism.
Turning toward Eastern Philosophy
My seeking always had a practical or worldly focus. While studying at Staten Island College, I was part of a program that trained students to be ombudsmen for the community. We developed contacts at various social service agencies, so we could help people get the help they needed: we had contacts in various law offices, in the local clinic, and in different government services. We were there to make it possible for people to navigate the system. This work led me, in Zen terms, to great doubt. Seeing the pain people were in, day after day, and how people abused each other out of fear and anger, I felt I had to understand why people hurt each other so easily and whether there was more to life than just trying to find safety for oneself and one’s family.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was facing the same questions the Buddha faced: Why is there suffering, and is there a way out?
As I struggled with this great doubt, I became more interested in Eastern religions and philosophies. I began to study yoga—not the hatha yoga, the physical postures, that has become familiar to Americans, but dhyana, which is absorption meditation. I became interested in the teachings of Kirpal Singh and even went to India to meet with him, arriving just nineteen days before he died. When I returned home, I spent some time with others who followed him by listening to tapes of his talks, but that wasn’t what I was looking for—I wanted to engage in discussion with a teacher, not just listen to talks. Eventually, someone in that group told me about Tibetan Buddhism and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, saying that his teachings were the closest thing to the meditations we would do after we listened to Kirpal Singh’s talks.
I studied in the Tibetan tradition for a few months, learning from Trungpa Rinpoche and other Tibetan teachers who visited Woodstock, New York. Trungpa Rinpoche wanted his students to experience Zen. I went to a weekend Zen retreat in Vermont, and there I met Taizan Maezumi Roshi. I had an interview with him, and when I met him, I felt I had come home—finally, here was my path. I was so impressed by Maezumi Roshi and especially by his clarity: he had an intense focus and calm that I’d never seen in any teacher before. He had a beautiful kind of joy and was present in every moment. I always say, “His eyes didn’t roll back in his head.” By that I mean he didn’t take drugs or get blissed out on meditation.
For him, it was always about being really present and aware, and I admired that immensely. I wanted that for myself, so I knew I had to become his student and study Zen.
My Zen Practice
In the end, I settled into Zen because, despite its mystical reputation, it is the most practical and hard-nosed of all the religions I encountered. The goal of Zen is always the here and now. Through the ages, Zen teachers have used a variety of methods to impress on their students that what matters is this very moment. Some of the methods seem harsh or even dangerous now—shouting at students or hitting them. Others are almost certainly exaggerations or myths—Master Gutei cutting off his student’s finger, Nansen killing a cat in front of his students when none of them could speak a “turning word” (proof that they had fully understood their true nature). But what impressed me is that Zen was always about smacking up against the reality of suffering, not intellectualizing it.
For several years, I studied with John Daido Loori at Mount Tremper. At first, I advanced very quickly; because of all my years in the yogic tradition, I started on koans almost immediately, and I became Daido’s right-hand man. I gave talks, was involved in a discussion about setting up a center in New York, and even accompanied Daido on a trip to Japan to meet with Maezumi Roshi. So, at that point, I was fully committed to the practice . . . or so I thought.
The truth is that my practice was suffering. I was focused on my status and not my practice. I wasn’t sitting enough; instead, I was caught up in the ego trip of being on the board of directors and helping to run things. As I said, I became Daido’s right-hand man. I felt I had arrived, and the external validation helped me believe I was doing Zen “the right way.”
I was deeply involved in the organization but not really practicing. Finally, a senior student took me aside and told me that I wasn’t sitting enough and that other people who had less experience or who had started after me were surpassing me in terms of clarity and koan practice. It was then that I really understood how central sitting was to the practice and to waking up. In fact, my breakthrough came when I really dedicated myself to sitting. I had been stuck on the koan “Mu” for a long time, and I was frustrated beyond belief. I decided I was going to sit up all night if necessary, until I saw it. And that’s when I did pass “Mu”—when I just sat down on the cushion at a weekend sesshin and let tiredness and pain overwhelm my defenses and my beliefs about myself and the world. It was my aha moment. It was a feeling of just knowing. It was euphoric and confirming. What this moment confirmed was my belief that this path was the right path for me and that the teachings of the Buddha were the best solution to the inner turmoil and searching I’d experienced my whole life.
Unfortunately for many of us, the stressful life we live, the materialistic preoccupation we have, and the education we receive seldom gives us the freedom to understand our intrinsic nature, which is boundless. This is why the presence of the Buddha and his teachings in our time are so important. We need these teachings to show us the potential that lies hidden within our normal, distressed, neurotic, and busy minds. When we begin to explore through sitting, we inevitably encounter the wild and uncontrollable aspects of our habitual mind. But with some guidance and skillful practice we begin to recognize that the mind has an undercurrent of clarity and luminosity.
Excerpt from “Realizing Your Buddha-Nature”
(Dharma talk given at Soji Zen Center, 2016)
Jules Shuzen Harris is a psychotherapist and Zen teacher, founder, and abbot of Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Based on his decades of experience working with Zen students and psychotherapy clients, he has created a powerful method that combines the rigor of Zen practice, psychological insights of early Buddhism, and tools from a contemporary psychotherapeutic method known as “Mind-Body Bridging.” Learn more.