Joko Beck and the precious jewel

“…(T)he “path” of practice is not a smooth road.  It is littered with sharp rocks that can make us stumble or that can cut right through our shoes.  Life itself is hazardous.  Encountering the hazards is usually what brings people into Zen centers.  The path of life seems to be mostly difficulties, things that give trouble Yet the longer we practice, the more we begin to understand that those sharp rocks on the road are in fact like precious jewels; they help us prepare the proper conditions for our lives.”  (Nothing Special, Preparing the Ground by Charlotte Joko Beck)


Joko Beck’s Nothing Special was one of the first two books I read completely on Zen.  It grabbed me in a way that nothing had before.  There is a freshness and  simplicity in her teachings that makes the title so authentic: nothing special, just live well.  Picking it up tonight, I’m fascinated by two things in the passage above.  First, I’m struck by how complex I’ve made things in the 14 years since I first opened the book.  Talk about tripping up – or even throwing myself – on those sharp rocks!

Second, it’s interesting that my dharma name is “Genju” which is translated as “Precious Jewel”.  A dharma name is a gift a student receives from her teacher when she makes a formal commitment to practice as a Zen student.  To backtrack a moment, the teacher-student relationship is in itself an complicated gift – not just one that keeps on giving but one that is intricately packaged and a bear to unwrap!

The dharma name is like a reflection you’d see in one of those carefully placed mirrors where the reflection itself is reflected ad infinitum – student to teacher to student to teacher.  It can be a statement of one’s practice, a confirmation of what has been cultivated.  I particularly liked “True Joy of the Sangha” for a dharma friend who embodied that in every session.  It can be a challenge, a kind of raising of the bar.  That being said, I often thought a name like “True Thoughtful Silence” would have been a very useful gift for me.

Or a dharma name can be simply what it is: a reflection of what is true and transparent in one’s self.  Of course, as I read JB’s chapter on preparing the ground, I am filled with questions and self-doubt about Genju: cultivated skills? a higher bar to transcend? just me?  What does it mean to be the sharp rock or a precious jewel in cultivating my practice?  I find myself rejecting one, clinging to the other.

And I’m remembering an email from my dear roshi:

you are YOU.


4 thoughts on “Joko Beck and the precious jewel

  1. Maybe a dharma name is simply a koan, a bit of something that we accrue along the way. Like a koan, perhaps it burrows away deeply, churns around unseen, and only reveals its true nature when we’re ready for it.

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