Once during a retreat led by the late Deshimaru Roshi one of the retreatants started acting in a very bizarre manner. She was screaming and running around – when she was supposed to be, like everyone else, sitting perfectly still and silently. Or maybe I’m not remembering the story right – it might have been during a question and answer session, not a silent zazen session. In any case her behavior was extremely disruptive, and Roshi insisted that she leave the retreat, and he explained that “the Zendo is not a mental hospital.”*
First of all let’s be very clear: a Zen meditation retreat is not a time or place where “anything goes”. All participants are assumed to be capable of making the kinds of commitments necessary for such a reteat. In particular, retreats are conducted mostly in silence, and there are many rules governing everyone’s behavior throughout the entire retreat. These rules are an integral part of a Zen retreat, and everyone knows what they are going into it (or at least they should, and as adults they are expected to prepare themselves properly before a retreat). A person who cannot remain quiet and still or in any other way can’t follow the rules simply has no business at a retreat in the first place.
One reason I am bringing this up is that the issue of Zen and mental illness seems to be making the rounds these days. Brad Warner has recently written an article on the question of whether or not Zazen might be dangerous for some people, in particular for trauma survivors (clicking this link will take you directly to the article at Suicide Girls, but as Brad sometime mentions on his website: “You don’t need to be a member to view this article and you will not be able to see any naked pictures on this page. So don’t worry!”). Even before Warner’s article came out, an online Buddhist discussion list I’ve belonged to off and on since the mid-90’s, Buddha-l, also had a discussion lasting several days on basically the same subject. And now just today the NYT has an article about a 63 year old Zen teacher who had a severe psychological crisis which led him into psychotherapy (click on this link to go to the article – unfortunately it does require membership but you still won’t see any nekid pictures). And that article, in turn, is now being discussed on another online Buddhism discussion group, the Zen Forum International.
But really the main thing prompting me to write on this subject is the recent suicide of JW Harrington, longtime Executive Director of the Kwan Um School of Zen, which I used to be a member of. I didn’t know JW closely. I had probably only met him in person once or twice, and had exchanged emails with him on several other occasions when I was still a member of the KUSZ. But he was such a presence in the KUSZ, really and truly a “fixture” in the best possible sense. A grounded, serene, friendly, and incredibly competent and hard-working guy. He always gave me the impression of being “above it all”, while at the same time still knowing exactly what was going on all around him. I know next to nothing about the circumstances, but I read on one blog that he had jumped off a bridge and that he had been sick for several months.
One of my closest friends of my youth, Steve Millen, also committed suicide. But that was almost 20 years ago now. He had attempted suicide by taking a drug overdoes on the night of Thanksgiving, 1990. At the last minute he called 911. But then on Christmas night he jumped from the top of Ballantine Hall on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, and died. Steve made a big impression on lots of people throughout his life. There’s even a discussion group dedicated to his memory: “Rebel Without a Cough“. The name is inspired by Steve’s life-long love-affair with recreational drugs in general and Robitussin-DM in particular. Steve’s friends and fans have also created a web archive of the ‘zine that Steve put out irregularly during the last 5 or so years of his life: Tussin Up.
Anyway, I bring up Steve, well, because I can’t help but think of him whenever the subject of suicide comes up. But not just that. From a very early age Steve was a political activist and all around troublemaker and provocateur. His friends were revolutionaries, punk-rockers, college students, college professors, Bloomington “townies” (like himself) and so forth. He had talents, friends, ideals, and a full and exciting life. But he was plagued with inner demons. I know it sounds cliche – but I don’t know how else to put it. He was severely manic-depressive, and suffered periods of intense depression. He had already been in therapy for years by the time I met him (when he was still in his early 20’s).
And here is my point: people view mental illness and/or suicide as some kind of failure. Steve Millen was an idealist and an activist, but his idealism and activism “failed” to alleviate his manic-depression. JW Harrington and Louis Nordstrom practiced Zen Buddhism for decades, and all that meditation “failed” to make them better.
I think Deshimaru Roshi was absolutely right, “the Zendo is not a mental hospital”. That doesn’t mean, fortunately for me, that maladjusted people are not welcome. It just means that everyone is expected to “sit down and shut up” as Brad Warner said in the title of one of his books. And that applies to everyone equally: there is no discrimination for or against anyone on the basis of their supposed mental health or lack thereof. In fact, precisely because the Zendo is not a place to come to “get better” it is the place to come “as you are”.
I’ll even go one better than Deshimaru Roshi: this world is not a mental hospital, and our lives are not “therapy”. How we live our lives is of great importance. But going through life trying to get better can be a lousy way to live – if it means constantly trying to be or wanting to be what you are not. But it’s also not as if we don’t need to get better – a lot better. BUT in trying to get better we cannot afford to disregard the assistance of our loving friends and teachers – just because they happen to be basket cases just like we are.
*[Note added later: The incident is described in Deshimaru Roshi's book "Sit: Zen teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru", on pages 22-26. I wrote the above post from memory without consulting the book, which I hadn't read for quite a while. Deshimaru actually did not say "The Zendo is not a mental hospital" - he said "The Dojo is a holy place, not a hospital." But I think "The Zendo is not a mental hospital" has a much better ring to it. It's what he should have said. Besides, why can't a hospital be a "holy place"??]