Carolyn Atkinson Interview in Sweeping Zen.
Originally published in the on-line magazine, Sweeping Zen, December 25, 2009. (This magazine no longer exists.)
Carolyn Eiko Joshin Atkinson is a dharma heir of the late Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi through Vanja Palmers and has been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation since 1973. She currently serves as guiding teacher of Everyday Dharma Zen Center in Santa Cruz, California. I’d like to thank Carolyn for sitting down to talk with us.
SZ: I read a bit about how when you were 27 your best friend died of Hodgkin’s disease and how that was a particularly tough time for you. Somewhere during this period a friend gave you a book on Buddhist meditation that really made an impact. I wonder what book it was and how that helped get you through this period?
CA: When I was 27 years old, there were very few books about Buddhist meditation! A friend of mine put a copy of Three Pillars of Zen in my hands, as I was leaving for a year of living in Salzburg, Austria. I took six books with me that year; this was by far the most important one I carried. I started by reading the personal stories of participants, then I read the other sections, then returned to the stories and from there, I began to follow the instructions on how to do this thing called meditation. For the first year of my practice, I sat by myself, facing a wooden clothes cabinet in my bedroom. I became very familiar with the pattern of that particular wood! I assumed this meditation would be quick and easy, and I would soon have concrete results . . . . Instead, it became my lifelong practice.
SZ: I notice you’ve practiced traditional Chinese medicine for many years. How did you become involved in that? What areas did you specialize in and what treatments did you find particularly effective?
CA: After nearly a decade of Buddhist practice, I had the opportunity to attend one of the first schools of Traditional Chinese Medicine just opening here in the west. I had become interested in Chinese medicine because I was doing art work and having shows; each time I created a show, I would get ill from the stress. I went to an acupuncturist one fall, and amazingly, that particular season, I didn’t get my usual heavy colds and fatigue. Clearly, something was happening. So, four weeks after closing an art show, I found myself beginning this new training. I think the movement from art to medicine was perhaps easier because of my background with Japanese Zen Buddhism; it seemed, on the surface at least, a little less intimidating because of my Zen practice.
I maintained a general medical practice for twenty years, but found that over the years I specialized largely in mind/body balancing, and in cancer support treatments. I was not encouraging the use of Chinese medicine as a replacement for western therapies for cancer, but as an addition; in this way I often worked closely with my clients’ western doctors, as well.
As far as effectiveness is concerned, it’s my experience that each medicine has its particular benefits and its particular weaknesses. Western medicine is extremely good where high intervention is needed; Chinese medicine tends to be more subtle and supportive, by nature. Each of them has important functions, according to what’s happening in our lives.
SZ: Letting go seems to be integral to Buddhist practice and it is something you’ve written about in your book Quiet Mind, Open Heart. Could tell us a bit about the practice of letting go and also what you mean by quieting the mind and opening the heart?
CA: Ahh—letting go seems to be my constant practice. It’s everything from letting go of wanting different weather, to letting go after the death of someone I love. At its heart, I think that letting go is quite simple: it’s a practice in noticing when we want things to be different than they are. And it’s amazing how often this wanting, this wishing, arises for me—over and over, every day, every hour. What I find is that when I can bring my awareness to recognizing these moments of wanting, of longing that things would be just slightly different than they are, and I can remember to quiet my mind, to turn toward stillness in my mind, then I find that my heart is able to be more open to life. It’s not easy, it doesn’t happen quickly, it isn’t something that I can “do” and then “keep.” Instead, I have to notice, to remember, to make the effort, then I can feel the mind quiet, the heart open . . . temporarily. It is not a mistake that we call what we are doing a “practice.” We return to it over and over. And then over again. In that movement, what I experience is that I can remember the feeling of relaxing a little bit sooner, I can recognize the need for it more quickly, and I can find my way to “letting go” just a bit more directly. This is wonderful, this small shift in the heart and mind, this small shift that comes and goes.
SZ: I can imagine Kobun’s death in 2002 came as a shock to everyone who knew him due to the unanticipated nature. Everyone I’ve talked to about Kobun has described a humble and gentle man who offered a very simple a direct teaching style. I wonder if you could take a moment here to remember your teacher and tell us a bit about him?
CA: When I first met Kobun, he was a young man, recently arrived from Japan. He seemed exotic and mysterious, and those of us who became his students loved all the mystery that seemed to surround him. He turned out to be far more than what we naively imagined, though. We could see immediately that he was gentle and kind and shy. And he was welcoming. Most of us who were his students felt deeply seen by him, and we also felt completely accepted. For me at least, this was a wonderful healing balm for my life. But very importantly, over time we learned from him because he was willing to live his life in our midst. This was perhaps his greatest teaching for me: seeing someone I loved and admired be oh-so-very human, as well.
For many years, Kobun talked much of the time about posture, about the physical expression of zazen. When he did venture away from zazen as a topic, it often seemed abstract to me. I couldn’t understand a lot of what he said! But I loved him, and it didn’t really matter that I didn’t understand what he was saying. Over the years, however, I think that Kobun became clearer and simpler in his teachings. I imagine that, as he lived his life, as he experienced the suffering that all we humans must endure, his probably naturally kind mind was able to become more expressive. And, as I said, he was simpler to understand.
Here’s an example: he came to sit with our meditation group about six weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center. One of our members, a young woman, raised her hand and asked him an anguished question, “How can we deal with our anger and fear and pain and confusion around this terrible attack?” Kobun thought about it, he swayed back and forth as he often did, and then he said simply: “Do one kind thing for someone every day.” That was his answer. It seemed to me that this was a perfect expression of living zen, of loving life, and of the willingness to be with this tender suffering world in which we all live. We still talk about his one sentence teaching in our zendo.
SZ: What books would you recommend to someone interested in Zen?
CA: I usually recommend three books to people, depending upon which aspects of their practice are being emphasized. If someone is exploring the understandings or we could say the wisdom base, I almost always recommend Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. I think it’s a very approachable discussion of the basic teachings. If someone is asking about how we live our lives, I almost always recommend the Dalai Lama’s wonderful book Ethics for the New Millenium. And if someone is asking how we do this practice, how do we sit down and quiet our minds and open our hearts, I must confess, I usually recommend that they read my book Quiet Mind Open Heart. This seems to address the meditation aspects of practice.