Spiritual Authority

I gave this talk on Friday, July 29, 2022, during our Greater Boston Zen Center summer sesshin. You’ll find a recording of the talk at the end of this post.

This is the koan “Dr. Doctor Rides the Bus” from the Book of Householder Koans, a new collection of contemporary koans—koans from our time and place—assembled by Zen Roshis Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egokyu Nakao:

Dr. Doctor has a common cold, but he still rode the bus to work.
He began to cough and sneeze into his handkerchief. Every time
he coughed, all the people on the bus tried to cough. Every time
he sneezed, all the people on the bus tried to sneeze. Finally,
the doctor exited at his destination.
“Whew!” the driver sighed. “What would we do without good
medical advice?”

The name of the central character in this koan, Dr. Doctor, tells us we’re dealing with a revered authority figure. This isn’t just Dr. Smith; it’s Dr. Doctor.

And the first line tells us immediately that something is amiss. Dr. Doctor is riding the bus, exposing other people to their illness. Shouldn’t the good doctor know better?

All the passengers riding with Dr. Doctor seem to believe coughing and sneezing is what they should be doing too. If Dr. Doctor is saying or doing it, it must be what they should do, right? The driver even praises the good doctor’s example as Dr. Doctor leaves the bus.

Replace “bus” with “zendo,” replace “Dr. Doctor” with “Sensei” or “Roshi,” and it becomes clear this koan is inviting us to take a hard look at authority in the realm of spiritual practice.

Let’s imagine the story continues. That night, one of the passengers starts feeling sick. Now her coughs and sneezes are real, not feigned; Dr. Doctor really was ill, after all. Now this passenger also is exhibiting these symptoms, but maybe she tells herself it’s okay. She denies or suppresses doubt. Or maybe she calls a co-worker with whom she rode the bus and learns he also now has these symptoms, but they minimize their own feelings of discomfort. These colleagues assure one another it’s no big deal. The koan tells us Dr. Doctor has a common cold, not something more serious, after all.

Let’s say they both go to work the next day, and one goes to dinner with friends that evening. That weekend, someone who was at that dinner, infected but not yet coughing and sneezing, visits his aging mother in her nursing home. Several residents catch the cold, and one particularly vulnerable person doesn’t survive it. Dr. Doctor’s conduct, and the riders’ acceptance of it, has caused great loss and pain.

Like one of my favorite novels, Catch 22, we the readers of this koan readily see there’s something wrong with the picture it paints, even though the characters in it do not. All of

them—Dr. Doctor, the bus driver, and all the passengers—are just too enmeshed in the field they inhabit. They are not really subjects in it, they are subject to it.

I’ve extended this koan’s story in a dramatic way, with a tragic conclusion. This community knows all too well that such tragedies are possible—that teachers can behave in inappropriate ways, whether minor and seemingly benign or wildly inappropriate, and that they can fail to realize the depth and breadth of the harm they are causing. Authority figures even may come to believe, consciously or not, that they’re so special the rules don’t apply to them. One key teaching of this koan is that we need to be on guard against this. We need to be aware of our own needs and desires that can create a propensity toward enmeshment and blindness. We need to heed signs, including our own discomfort. That teaching is critically important.

There’s another teaching here I’d like to spotlight: It’s no good to imitate, whether in our individual practice or as a community. We should always be open to good ideas and examples wherever we may find them, yet we always need to tailor them to our needs, circumstances, concerns, and objectives. That’s the balance we need to strike. No other response is truly agentic.

Many people who feel burned by an authority figure, or by our institutions or systems, not only lose faith in the authority of others; they also subtly lose touch with and lose faith in themselves. When this happens, we are prone to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. We can reject what is still of potential value and legitimate use to us.

Most of us eventually get burned and disillusioned by someone or something we’ve looked up to or relied upon to a greater or lesser degree. This community suffered something

cataclysmic, yet who among us had not at least experienced a mild loss of faith in another authority figure, institution, or system at some earlier point in our life?

I’m a parent to two teenagers, and I see daily how skeptical they have become about many of our institutions and the adults in my generation. This is understandable, and I share their perspectives to a great extent. Yet I also know they presently are painting with a very broad brush—or erasing with a very, very wide eraser—as they react to what rightly concerns them. As teens, they have not yet developed confidence in their own capacity to separate wheat from chaff, so they are inclined to reject all people and ideas associated with what they have received, reactively pivoting toward what they imagine to be its opposite.

We’re adults, and so we’re hopefully less inclined to do that. Still, when Dr. Doctor has let us down, and we begin to wonder whether the whole medical profession has let us down too, it’s natural to question whether there was ever anything of value there in the first place. It’s possible there was not, but another possibility is that this moment in which we find ourselves is offering us an opportunity to separate wheat from chaff; to discover the real pearl of great price within the shell, the outer packaging, on which we previously were focused.

I’ve always loved that old Zen proverb, “Barn burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” In one way or another, it seems our Zen barn eventually needs to burn to the ground. How I wish it always were a controlled burn that didn’t leave someone scarred and in mortal pain. Controlled or not, however, our barn must burn down to reveal the moon.

We must sift through the ashes in the light of the moon, deciding what’s left of the barn that is still useful. We must decide what to construct in its place—a structure that fits and suits us, now with skylights to receive the moonlight. We must find our own style; our own way of

receiving and expressing the Dharma in the context of our own lives, personally and as a community. Many of the forms, practices, and structures we have received from China, Japan, and our forerunners in the West have enduring value to us, but we must honor them by adjusting, stretching, and supplementing them as fits our time and place.

Each of us must discover ourselves as the stable ground and structure we are seeking. Any authority figure worthy of one’s respect and admiration will want nothing less for and from us. They will simultaneously strive to provide an example worth imitating and they won’t accept mere imitation.

Here’s the verse that precedes the koan with which this talk began:

Depending on circumstances,
Everything is medicine,
Everything is disease.
Doctors are no exception.

Indeed.