Interview with a Zen Teacher

Cheri Huber, the gifted teacher of Zen, deconstructs the inscrutable

This is a transcript of an hour long interview with the gifted and charming Cheri Huber, who is the director of the Zen Monastery Peace Center in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California.  While it is long, I have read and reread it and still find it both entertaining and illuminating.  I am new to Zen, so I hope my questions will mirror those of other neophytes and the curious.

Your approach to teaching Zen seems to contradict many of the stereotypes people harbor about Zen.  Words like abnegation, detachment, austerity... a military almost macho approach to the self... the idea that Zen is somehow a cold spiritual practice, unlike, say, the warmth, sensuality and humanity of Hinduism. But what I encountered in my first retreat with you was a deep well of compassion and an understanding that this is what is at the heart of the Zen experience. Can you speak about that?

Yes, I can. I do know exactly what you mean and the difference, I think, that people tend not to understand is between what the Buddha taught and the cultures into which it arrived. So Zen, of course, comes most recently from Japan. It started out in India as dhyana then went to China as chan then when it got to Japan it became Zen.  It’s all the same meditation, basically, looking inward, sitting...

Now, nobody’s ever accused Japanese culture of being loose, or casual, so when the teachings got to Japan... the thing that has made Buddhism so successful around the world is that it doesn’t argue with anybody. So it just comes into the culture, adopts the cultural norms and then quietly begins to attempt to assist people to end suffering. And it’s done that in cultures around the world. It’s doing that in this country right now, so it’s finding its own form. But Japanese Zen is very much a kind of Samurai sort of a thing.  I like to tell a story of some American guys who went over there to sit a Sesshin...

So this group of guys had heard about Zen, and that it’s a macho thing and you’re going to sit a Sesshin and you just gut your way through from about four in the morning til midnight. You don’t shave, you don’t shower, you don’t anything, you know, you just sit... like a samurai, until you have this great breakthrough, satori experience and then... nobody really knows what happens after that.

So these guys get off the plane, get to the monastery and they’re ready to sit. The teacher welcomes them in and they’re having tea and sticky buns and they’re chatting and talking and drinking tea and having buns and chatting and talking and suddenly this poor guy loses it and says “I didn’t come here to drink tea and eat cakes. I came to sit.” And the teacher just looks at him, smiles, signals to the attendant and says “Can we have some more tea and cakes, please?”  Zen is meant to thwart the ego even if, perhaps especially if, the ego is focused on spiritual attainment.

 So that’s the deal. You know, people who approach Zen with that kind of contest mentality - it becomes hierarchical, patriarchal and so - that’s swell - but it really doesn’t have anything to do with Zen. So we go to Sri Lanka and we get another form of Zen, we go to Burma we get another and if we go to Korea we get yet another, but when you get through the cultural stuff, when you get down to it, what the Buddha taught is really very simple and it’s actually much more compassionate. It’s strict in its compassion but it’s not austere, it’s not harsh, it’s actually very, very kind... but it’s not kind to the ego.

That’s a beautiful way of looking at it.  I’m curious though; I’ve met one other Zen - I’m not sure what to call her - an Abbess, a monk? What do you call yourself?

I’m just Cheri.

(I laugh) But as somebody who has been heading up a Monastery, or rather two different monasteries over 30 years, and inasmuch as you’re a woman, do you feel like you’re bringing a different awareness to it than the old guard Japanese style or even to what was originally brought to the US?

Zen Monastery Gardens

Well, I think American teachers are bringing another feel to it, whether male or female. When I first started practicing, you know it was a long time ago, the only folks here were pretty much Japanese males and precious few of those. So that form of Zen is what was brought. But they were teaching American students... and so the shift, the change, to a more American flavor is gradual. And the next generation even more so and the next generation even more so and then, goodness knows where it will go next. But if it goes from here, it will be an American form of Zen that will fit the next culture.

How would you categorize the American form of Zen as you see it right now? And are you kind of at the forefront of that or part of a larger movement...

Well here’s the happy news for me - I don’t have a clue.  One of the things that I like best about Zen and Buddhism is that there’s no organized church, right? Now there is a huge lineage thing that goes on. Everybody wants to be able to trace their teacher from teacher to teacher to teacher all the way back to the Buddha. Well, that’s nice but it doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot, at least as far as I’m concerned.  But people are concerned that if you don’t have that kind of lineage, then who really knows what you’re teaching, how do you tell?Well I think how you tell is, is the person teaching you helpful or not? Is what you’re learning leading you toward suffering or away from suffering? And that’s really the only thing that matters, so I have zip involvement with any other Buddhists. The type of Zen that I studied and teach is loosely, at this point, Soto Zen and there are many other Soto Zen mentors and teachers. (she laughs) You know, the path to awakening is very much an individual thing. It’s not a belief in God, so we’re not attempting to please some external authority. We’re not social and so there’s really no reason to have community connections. We just practice; that’s all we do. And so, I don’t even know what other places are doing - because it’s irrelevant to me.

You mean you don’t have big conferences in San Diego?

Exactly. Or I don’t, maybe other people do, but I don’t. For me there would just be no reason. What I want to do is just practice.

As I understand it, one of the goals of Zen is to end suffering, and the place to start is one’s own self. What we learned at our retreat was that ideally a process of self-inquiry runs parallel to our meditation practice. And in your retreats, you work with some fascinating processes to encourage people to discriminate between the ubiquitous flood of chatter we have been led to believe is our self, and the authentic human spirit that is  our genuine core. Can you talk about those ever-present and troublesome elements of our psyches that you call egocentric karmic conditioning and self hate?

zen monastery
Yes. On Tuesday I had the pleasure to meet with three really important connections in my life. One is a Canadian woman, there with her husband - and what they’re passionate about is inspiring young people to be all they can be.  The second is the fabulous John Furey, who has created this thing called Mind/time, mapping the world of thinking. It’s a way of understanding how people think - not the process of thinking but the style of thinking. I am convinced it’s going to revolutionize the world.  And the third was my grandson who is a student of Eastern spirituality, and a mathematician and a philosopher.  And I essentially had the same conversation three times with these different people and now you make the fourth time.

What we were looking at was this: so now, with my hand, I am pointing from head to foot at this form that we call Cheri. You see this is an apparatus, a system that has the capacity to live in direct experience with and of life.  If we were Christians we would go with “The same eyes with which I see God, God sees me.”  If we were Hindus, we would say “This apparatus is how God knows itself.” So here is this apparatus, and if we think of it kind of like a computer, well, it’s loaded with viruses. And the way it gets all these viruses is so under the radar and so kind of undetectable; it’s a slow ticking process of sickness, until the apparatus is so clogged that the only thing it is now interacting with and serving is a world of viruses.

So awareness practice is a de-fragging process. What we’re doing is clearing out the system, cleaning up the apparatus, throwing off those viruses, so the system returns to the strength and power it has when it’s not bogged down by all these parasites. And  when it returns to its potential, then we are available once again to be the expression of life that is our potential and is our reality.

Wow. That’s fabulous: Zen as a kind of anti-virus software, which we in fact all possess.

Exactly. So if we look at it as a medical thing: here’s a human body, and the Western approach is - so I’ve got something going on and I go get tested, find out what it is and take medicine to kill the symptoms. But the symptoms are there because there’s a weakness. The Zen approach is to see what the weakness is and to heal that, not to introduce something to interact with the disease. We want to interact directly with the form, to strengthen and heal it.

So actually that feeds right into another question I have - which is that rather than denying the body, Zen works with the body and calls upon the body to help us rediscover our authentic self. Does that seem accurate?

Yes, in fact everything. Body and mind are one. Everything is the Buddha. Nothing is left out of the equation and, yes, we use everything in our experience to awaken to authentic nature and end suffering. Keep in mind, Zen is simply the direct immediate experience of what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught how to awaken and end suffering; Zen is the experience of that.  That is a differentiation.  So the thing people fail to realize is that what the Buddha taught is that this is a non-separate reality. So there isn’t the kind of differentiation that happens in the West between body and spirit. That did not exist in the world of the Buddha.

So there is nothing that is not authentic being. The thing that I think is so, I don’t know what other people would think, is that the whole idea of wanting, desire - and the Buddha talked about not falling into wanting, not clinging, about non-attachment, not desiring - people interpret that as “And so I shouldn’t have any thing that I care about.”

I suspect that what he was talking about is that the only way to want something is to believe that you are separate from life.  You have to be standing outside of life saying “Okay, that’s what is but I want something else.”  So it’s not the wanting, it’s believing oneself to be a separate ego. That’s the problem. And it’s also my experience that when we no longer are coming from that illusion of a separate self, we tend not to want much.  Legitimately not wanting would come from that same place of no separate self, however trying not to want is just an ego that is trying to be detached. So I kid people that an attachment to non-attachment is still an attachment. 

Zen Monastery Hermitages
So it seems like we really can be our own worst enemies. It’s funny - the first course I took in college was The Mind/Body Problem; it was a lot of Descartes and, sadly, everybody that came after, all descendants of his either/or polarity.  Think of how deeply that dualistic thinking runs through Western thought. We're all victims.

Well, you did touch a little bit on the idea of God.  What is the Zen concept of God? I mean is God just everywhere, in everything and in us? But then God is such a strange term that doesn’t seem to mean the same thing to anybody and so why even use that word?

Exactly, the difficulties that using words like that make. But I would say if you’re going to use it, then the Buddhist orientation would be that there is not anything that is not God. And that is really different from ‘God is in everything.’  ‘God is everything.’

Ahhh, yes, an essential distinction and a truly expansive definition... Can you discuss a little bit about how you came to Zen and what your process of growth has been?

So... I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t troubled by the world, just deeply troubled. It seemed like there was an inordinate amount of time and energy spent inflicting useless, needless suffering onto everything human beings could get their hands on. And so everything from killing animals to cutting down trees to concentration camps, the history of humanity, war.. all just so cruel. It made no sense to me whatsoever.

Then, I was now in high school, I was trying to grapple with the idea that, given all of that, I’m supposed to go to school and get a good job, have kids, make a lot of money and save for my retirement. Really? And I kind of never got over it.  I was probably 30 when I discovered that potentially those questions I had were the same questions that the Buddha had.  And I was so deeply grateful...(she laughs) that there was someone else who had looked around and said, “What? What are you doing?” And so at that point I pretty much committed my life to Zen practice and have never turned back.

And where did you start? In San Francisco?

No, there was a Zen Center in Los Angeles and Jiyu Kennett was at Shasta Abbey; I mean they were just putting these together at this point. I could only find two books on Zen. D.T. Suzuki was one of the first chaps to bring Zen to the West and he wrote a book called ‘What is Zen.’  And I actually learned to meditate from a book, only years later did I find the teacher I studied with.

Now, I had studied philosophy and I had the same experience that you had. Well, Gee, a lot of really interesting questions and a lot of people assuming a lot of stuff that seemed ridiculous. Okay, how about religion? And I wasn’t raised with any religion at all but I’ve always been fascinated by religion. I used to make my friends take me to church with them! So when I encountered D.T. Suzuki, I knew that he knew what I wanted to know. And I didn’t know what it was but I knew he knew.  He was the first person who spoke with authority that I didn’t go “Really Dude, really?”  It was just a completely different experience... because it was so intelligent. It was not someone telling you what to think or what to believe: it was saying ‘Everything you want to know is available to you. You have to figure out how to find it. Here are some tips...’

Zen Monastery Lotus Pond
There is an introduction to a book of D.T. Suzuki’s essential writings by William Barrett, who wrote Irrational Man, the famous book about the Existentialists. This was a guy who was entrenched in Western philosophy, and was clearly in awe of Zen. He wrote a quote from Heidegger, who had been reading Suzuki: “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings...”

Yes. And you know Carl Jung was also studying Zen when he died and Thomas Merton, the biggest of all possible lights in the Catholic church, died while in the Far East studying Zen.

Well there’s something that’s so modern about Zen, which is what floors me. It’s so clean and pure and simple. It’s all right there and there’s none of the verbiage and the over-complication of Western Philosophy or certainly none of the ritualization and gobbledegook that comes along with organized religion. It’s extremely appealing.

I like it.

I guess you like it!

And I especially like a Western approach. Because, you see... about as ritual as we get is bowing.

Yes that element of gratitude seems to be at the very heart of it all and it’s hard to quibble with that. Just be grateful.

Yes, be grateful..

About 10 years ago, I had a few introductory experiences with Zen, but at the time I guess wasn’t quite prepared for it, or it just wasn’t the right setting. Anyhow, I had this book sitting on my desk, even before I came to the retreat: Not Always So, Practicing the True Spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki.   And I came across a quote I thought was really nice and wonder if you could elaborate on it.

“We do not practice Zazen to attain special enlightenment.  Just to be ourselves and to be free from our useless efforts or tendencies, we practice Zazen.” 

Yes. Yes. We simply sit and sit. And it does have a great deal to do with the gratitude - the gratitude of realizing that this is a non-separate reality. You know - there’s nowhere to go, there’s nothin’ to do, you’re not going to get anything - that this is it. (she chuckles.) And so, to be completely here in the moment that we’re in.... it’s just the best. To me that’s what he’s talking about. 

I also would like to read a quote from your blog: “Inquiry through correct dyhana (deeyana) guides us to see clearly, directly from insight that arises in conscious, compassionate awareness. We don’t look to conditioned mind for answers, instead we allow the intelligence that animates to inform us.” Can you talk a little about this and the concept of ‘dropping in’?

Yes... It’s an experience that everybody knows, but it’s so under-appreciated that most people don’t recognize it. That life is, obviously, that life is living us - that’s another one that we don’t often think about but, when we consider it, it’s obvious that it’s true. We live as long as life animates us and when it no longer does, it’s called dead.  And so to become aware that life, the intelligence that is us, is constantly guiding us, informing us, that it is living us, not even living through us, because that gives an impression of a separation that’s not even there.  It is us. We are it.

And so to recognize that it is possible for you, this is actually the conversation I had three times in the past few days, to realize that everything you’re looking for, everything, literally that you want to know is available to you when you turn your attention to the source of that information. It’s not just an intuitive stance or hunch about something. It’s not airy fairy. It’s literal, it’s specific.

In fact, one of the gals from our last retreat spoke to this very clearly: You know, you’re getting ready to leave the house and the information comes through Don’t forget your keys. It’s that level of literal - everything from that to what do you want to do with your business, what about your relationship... It’s a matter of aligning ourselves with that intelligence. And when we do, we have that experience of being in sync with life, in the zone, is how people talk about it.  Which, by the way, is a result of de-fragging the system.  Then all that is there is the light, the clarity, the wisdom, the compassion.

And that’s an ongoing process, day in and day out...

Yes, moment by moment by moment by moment by moment. And of course the ego says... Oh gosh, that’s too hard. Arggggh. But it’s not true; that’s just more vibes from Virus Land.

That sounds like a Hollywood animated feature.

Yes, let’s make that one.

I can just see that happy little Buddha, whose image is sprinkled here and there at the Monastery, coming through and striking all those viruses dead.

(She chuckles) Or just slapping them into enlightenment.Well, each answer yields more questions. But I think is my last question is - Do you think that Zen, or mindful awareness,  if practiced by everyone, could save the world? Or at least save humanity from itself?

Yes, I do, I absolutely do. In fact I was talking to someone recently, and I think I mentioned this in our retreat, that ADD, OCD and Bi-polar disease - back in my day it was Manic-Depression - those were the physical, mental, emotional things that I brought to awareness practice and awareness practice kind of put me on the other side of all three of those.  Now those are some serious (she laughs) seriously medicated, misery-making situations and awareness practice can absolutely put a person on the other side of them. So do I think it would? Absolutely, I know it would. But people don’t want it. That’s the reality. Will it for those who do want it? Yes. And I really want to be a part of assisting in that process. But to have a hope that all of humanity will ever sit there ... No. Not everybody is there.

Do you think they don’t want to because they don’t understand it or because it’s never been offered? Because I think in a way, if people knew more about it and were aware... And actually your personal story sounds like it would be very convincing. Because I don’t think people know about it or are aware of awareness practice as an option in that sense. If it’s in America, your average American is either Christian or maybe they’re Jewish or they’re entrenched in whatever they were brought up in and it’s probably the farthest thing from their mind to contemplate Zen or consider this concept that Zen can help release you from grievous issues of the soul and the mind. I know you don’t proselytize, but I think getting this message out about Zen is really important.

I do too. And what I think is that you think that because you’re ready to hear it. Truly - you would project that other people would be as open to it as you are. My business partner - who is the editor of everything I do - her gift is to make it accessible to a housewife in Ohio. That’s how she edits what I say. It’s not some esoteric something that if you’re not a scholar locked in a library somewhere you’d have no idea. Because  what the Buddha taught was very simple and straightforward and down to earth. It was the message of - How do I end suffering for the regular person? It’s people who have turned it into all of the other, especially money-making, operations.

Yes, it is a very simple message and I do wish more people knew about it. But I’ll tell you this, the ego is an awe-inspiring opponent.  That virus is as invested in staying alive as is the host. Sometimes the virus is more invested... So when we get to certain point, and in Buddhism we call it having suffered enough, when we’ve suffered enough, now we are open to alternatives. But for most people, until they have exhausted every other possibility, they’re really not going to take on the ego.

Well I guess it’s a terrifying concept to contemplate that the ego is not necessarily your friend, and yet that it’s something you can live without. I think everyone just assumes that without their ego they melt into nothingness.

Precisely, that is precisely it. That’s the biggest coup for ego-centric, karmic conditioning - is to get people to believe that they are it and it is them... and that if the ego goes, there is nothing to them - which is as far from the truth as you can get. 

Well you did a great job during the retreat in helping us see that - that our authentic selves have this innate beauty. It’s not like it’s without qualities. That who you are at base is -


Yes, there’s a whole rainbow of characteristics and loveliness that can come out of that authentic self and I don’t know why we’re all so afraid of it.

Well, but you see again. That’s the great success of the virus. People are afraid of everything except it.  It’s impressive.

It really does make me think of the Matrix.

Yes, exactly so. And that was a great depiction of it. Terrifying and threatening. But the thing is, I don’t hold the belief that anything bad ever happens to anybody, because there is nothing that isn’t God, right? And when people are ready, when you tire of following all the rules, doing all the stuff and having all the experiences, then... you saw Groundhog Day?  When he realizes he can’t die and he jumps off a building and drives off a cliff and he’s having all these experiences because nothing can happen to him? I think it’s actually a pretty accurate picture of what karmic conditioning is.  And then we get to a certain point and say. “Okay I’m done. Enough.” And we begin to have a desire to awaken. 

It’s such a lovely word - awaken.

You know that story about the Buddha?

This fellow meets the Buddha, and you know when you’re around the Buddha you’re not around an average guy, and the fellow asks the Buddha “Well... What are you - are you a God?”
And the Buddha says “No.”
“Well, are you a Supernatural?”
“Well, what are you?”
And the Buddha says “Awake.”

(LOL.) Wow.

For further information on the Monastery, its various programs and the marvelous retreats held there:

As well, look for an upcoming article on the Monastery's work in Africa - where they currently help support 800 orphans in the worst slum of Zambia.