Robert Kennedy Dharma Talk: House of One People

House of One People

by Robert Jinsen Kennedy

The House of One People is a place where the world sought for unity in diversity is housed. Here students from every race, tradition, and culture come and practice zazen. This House can be a zendo, a barn, a hall, the streets; any place where people come to live their vision and where teachers promote the highest ideals of Zen insight and integrity.

When did I become aware of the House of One People and myself as a member of it? It was one hot summer afternoon some years ago. My Zen teacher Glassman Roshi led several of his students on a street sesshin for a time of living, eating, and sleeping with the homeless of New York City I their own habitat, the streets. As we walked from the Manhattan Bridge to the Bowery, I overheard one student as Glassman Roshi, “How can you make Father Kennedy a Zen teacher and your dharma successor? After all, he is a Catholic priest!” Glassman Roshi turned on his student with some show of impatience and replied, “Are we one or are we not?”

Then, as always, I was struck by the extraordinary generosity of Glassman Roshi who did not turn away from students because they were not Buddhist, and did not scoff at traditions other than his own. hence I am not surprised that he now expresses his Zen vision by welcoming all his students and friends into the House of One People. Now that I am a Zen teacher myself I remember these lessons learned years ago; integrate them with my own personal style and convictions, and make my own contributions to the House of One People. What follows is a brief description of my perception of the role of a teacher in this House:

As a teacher in the House of One People where my students are not Buddhists but Jewish and Christians and atheists as well, I have changed the procedures for bowing during interviews with my students: instead of having them bow to me, I rise and we both bow together to the image of the Buddha. The traditional procedures for bowing during interviews date from the feudal period of Japanese history. I believe they can be inappropriate in an American setting, can lead to misunderstanding and need not be imposed on an American student. The Buddha is an image of truth, the student’s truth, my own truth, and the truth we seek together in the interview.

Because I am a Catholic in the House of One People, I see my role as a Zen teacher is not only to tolerate and accept the truths found in other faiths, but to promote them. No faith has a monopoly on truth and students are not expected to renounce the truth that life has taught them. My role is to promote a truth other than my own and to repay the debt I owe my Buddhist teacher by helping Buddhists be better Buddhists when the occasion calls for it.

Being a teacher in the House of One People, I know I am not a model for my students and should make no attempt to clone them after my personal vision. No teacher should deflect students from their own truth, by neither speech nor silence impede their personal path. The great Bodhidharma said he taught his student Eka nothing; he just corrected his mistakes. Even correcting “mistakes” must be done with the greatest care. I believe only those should be Zen teaching who have made a serious therapeutic effort to know their own unconscious motivation that would lead them to correct a splinter in their student’s eye while ignoring the log in their own. The Tao says we should so teach that when we finish our student says, “I did it all by myself.”

Although I am a teacher in the House of One People I don not have a Zen center of my own. When my students are ready to lead a group in sitting, I encourage them to do so. I urge them to start their own center and I teach at their center with them and slowly empower them to take greater responsibility and to find their own voice and vision. Then when they are ready to become teachers themselves, they won’t have to leave my center to find their way alone, but I will leave their center and begin my work with another student.

I believe Zen teachers in the House of One People should guide their students free of charge. None of my teachers charged me for my development into a Zen teacher and now I freely give what I freely received. I support myself with work outside the Zen world and do not charge my students for the dharma or for my personal support. My students rent an apartment near me for their use, but it is their apartment with their own board of trustees that accounts for all expenses.

It is a privilege to teach in the House of One People where students who do not usually agree with one another still dwell together in peace and support the efforts of all who sit with them. And if we teach well in the House of One People we will learn from our students that we do not know the truth even in a dream, but that we will see it blaze before our eyes moment by moment in the lives they live together.