Tribute to Charlotte Joko Beck 1917-2011

Charlotte Joko Beck, one of the great pioneers of American Zen died on June 15, 2011 at the age of 94. She passed peacefully with her family.

Joko began Zen practice at the age of 40. She described herself as having had a nice life before becoming involved with Zen, but something was missing. She was divorced, with four children and working at the University of San Diego as an adminstrative assistant and teaching piano. She describes meeting Maezuni Roshi where he greeted her by gazing directly into her eyes and making contact. She was immediately interested in who he was and she wanted whatever it was he had. Thus she began to practice and study with him.

After completing her studies with Maezumi, Joko broke with Maezumi and the White Plum Asangha lineage that he had founded. She felt the traditional training of koan studies did not adequately address all the psychological issues that needed to be addressed to be a Zen teacher. John Welwood, another Buddhist teacher also concerned about this omission, calls it the “spiritual bypass.” In her own teaching she worked directly with how students were leading their lives and instead of koan study or sometimes in addition to koans, directed their practice toward clarifying problems in their lives. She wanted them to see how much the self directed and misdirected their life. Unlike psychotherapy she did not reinforce the ego, but helped them discern how to let go of ego to find happiness and inner stability.

Although she had ordained and was a fully empowered Soto Zen priest, Joko also let go of the complex trappings of Soto Zen rituals that have always been a large part of Japanese Zen practice. She did not, to my knowledge, ordain priests although several of her successors were already priests ordained by Maezumi Roshi. The story is that she had a large and beautiful rock placed on the altar instead of a Buddha. She was primarily interested in the core issue of training minds and transforming students.

As one of the early women teachers, she became an important model for women students and younger women teachers. She worked, mothered and managed a committed Zen practice. Her Zen center was established in her own home thus further modeling the bringing of Zen practice into our everyday lives. Her signature teaching was “Nothing Special”, that our practice is just living our lives through waking up to what’s before us. Both her books, Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen emphasized this point. She established, with some of her senior students, the Ordinary Mind School of Zen, dedicated to teaching this fundamental approach.

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