Max Erdstein is in the teacher-training program at Spirit Rock/IMS/IMC. As an early Google employee, he began practicing with Fronsdal just after graduating from Stanford in 1999. Erdstein has practiced vipassana and Zen in America, Japan, Thailand and Burma and studied Buddhist chaplaincy with the Sati Center. With Michael Wenger he coedited Umbrella Man: Recollections of Sojun Mel Weitsman (Max Erdstein, 2009).
Gil Fronsdal: Here in the West, many people participate in more than one tradition, finding them complementary. Both of us have been involved in both Soto Zen and vipassana practice at the Insight Meditation Society, at Spirit Rock and in Burma. I started with Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1975, when I was twenty-one. I would have found it harder to do vipassana practice, especially in Asia, without the foundation of having first done Soto Zen. As one of the new generation of teachers coming on, Max, how has that been for you?
Max Erdstein: My experience tracks yours in some ways but is also shaped by your experience, since you were my first Buddhist teacher. In 1996, when I was eighteen years old, I learned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) from a book in order to deal with a health problem, and had a positive experience with meditation. But after that, my practice was dormant until I met you in 1999 and, at twenty-one years old, began sitting with your group in Palo Alto.
I agree that Zen practice can be an excellent foundation for doing more intensive vipassana. But at age twenty-one I wouldn’t have been ready to start with Zen—it seemed too religious for my taste, with its robes and rituals. I entered through the doorway of your group, rooted in the Western Insight scene, which doesn’t use as many of the Asian outer forms. Then I heard you talk about your experience with Zen, and you mentioned Suzuki Roshi. That led me to Tassajara and Zen Center, which offered community, people my age I could practice with and even live with. I felt very held by that. Some years later, I returned to vipassana and the Insight tradition, which offered intensive residential experiences that were possible for people living in the world to plug into.
GF: It’s instructive to look at the overlaps and contrasts between zazen and vipassana. To me the core aspect of the two practices is actually different. It has to do with a view of the purpose of religious life and what it means to be human. In Zen, this world we live in is the place of awakening and freedom. Freedom is not something that you have to work toward attaining. Rather, it is something you allow to be expressed through you. It is already here. So zazen practice is more of an expression of Buddhahood. It came as a big surprise to me that in vipassana, you are looking at how the mind works. Investigation takes a huge priority that is not prominent in Zen.
ME: Yes, absolutely. After having sat with your group in the Insight tradition for a few years, I was surprised going to Tassajara as a summer student. I was hoping for deep concentration and instructions or koans. Instead, they said, “You always step with this foot, and sit this way, and put your hands like this. Make sure you have a straight back.” And then the bell would ring. Wait, what are we supposed to do while we are sitting here? No one would answer the question.
I was a student at Stanford and then working at Google, in that “if you have something to do, do it well” mode. So Zen practice was a mystery. But in a way, not having instruction was liberating, precisely because I couldn’t figure out “it”—“it” was outside the realm of doing it right or doing it wrong. Periods of zazen somehow felt more restful than periods of what I understood to be vipassana, where there were so many instructions and possible things one could do. Do I focus on the breath here or here? Or maybe not focus on the breath? Whereas zazen seemed so simple.
GF: Another way I benefited from Zen training was that it taught me discipline—which helped me when I started with vipassana in Thailand, where mostly I practiced alone. I was given a little cottage in the woods in which to do all my meditation. Through this solitary practice I realized that, in Zen, the discipline had come from the community practicing together. With vipassana, I had to discover the inner discipline to keep me going.
ME: My first residential vipassana retreat was a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock. I remember telling Guy Armstrong, a teacher I was interviewing with, how guilty I felt about staying up late to meditate. I wanted to keep the momentum going but then I was too sleepy to wake up for the first sitting.
In Zen, sittings aren’t optional. The bell rings and you go to the meditation hall and if you don’t go, someone comes and knocks on your door. Often there will be a little trail of students, of yogis who the Zendo manager is bringing in, who overslept. But at Spirit Rock, Guy said something like, “What’s so great about the early morning sitting?” That was a revelation for me. In Zen, you harmonize with the group and let go of your own preferences, habits and conditioning. In contrast, the vipassana retreat gave me a chance to discover how to develop practice for myself in a way that would be in harmony with the retreat but also with my own tempo and rhythm.
GF: The relationship between the teacher and student in Zen is also different from that in the vipassana world. When I was in Asia with U Pandita, he was only interested in my meditation. Whereas at Zen Center, conversations with the teachers would be about all aspects of your life, work or relationships. I think it’s very valuable to be seen as a whole rather than only by one’s meditation practice.
ME: I totally agree. At Zen Center you actually live with the teachers, so you see them as a whole too. The teaching is not only in talks and in interviews; it’s how the teachers move, how they walk, their presence. When you’re so close and intimate, it’s more difficult to idealize the teacher. You see how the teachers deal with their own difficulties, which is very valuable for a student to see. Whereas at Spirit Rock, if someone is just seeing a teacher up on the teaching platform and for formal interviews, there may not be a chance to experience their whole being.
GF: Some of the important experiences I had with my Zen teachers involved working side-by-side doing manual labor at the monastery or in the garden. Just working together planting lettuce seedlings in the garden was a kind of teaching.
ME: Working at Tassajara, I found that we absorbed teachings through the body, not through the thinking mind. It was a physical kind of intelligence. Then hopefully that bodily intelligence informed other aspects of our lives.
GF: It’s often said that Zen training is training for the body more than the mind.
ME: You can see that in the Dharma talks too, which are very different from university lectures. The Dharma expresses itself in the moment. There is a feeling that each moment is it, it’s not somewhere other than here. That’s a beautiful aspect of Zen.
GF: Yes, in Zen, how you are when you give the talk is more important than what you say. The how is that you are somehow manifesting your practice so some kind of truth about human nature gets expressed through you. You’re being the Dharma—free of greed, hatred and delusion—rather than talking about the Dharma.
In my Zen training, I learned the tremendous value of everyday practice. We practice in how we eat. We practice in how we take a shower. The same kind of presence, the same expression of truth that we had in zazen is something we tried to actualize in every ordinary activity. So there wasn’t this hard separation between the practice on the cushion and off the cushion.
ME: Yes, there is an integration that’s built into Zen practice—a way of constantly sitting and then getting up off the cushion and doing things and coming back and getting up. There are multiple sittings a day at Zen centers; someone can sit, leave for work, then come back and sit again after work. That kind of support is a real gift. If meditation is only retreat practice, perhaps something is out of balance. In my teaching, I’d like to offer a balance of both support for intensive retreats and also a lot of support for daily life practice.
GF: I’ve been watching the trends in what’s taught as vipassana in the West. There were times when the Burmese Mahasi approach was the main trend; it could be dualistic and striving and goal-oriented in a way that led some people to practice with a lot of tension. Then some vipassana teachers studied the nondual practices of Advaita and Dzogchen, where there was an emphasis on realizing freedom here and now. Over the years, the trends go one way or the other, I think in an effort to find a balanced approach between practicing hard and being relaxed.
So Max, now that you’re a vipassana teacher, what is the main legacy of your Zen training?
ME: As you said earlier, Zen emphasizes that the practice and the goal aren’t two different things. Funny enough, I needed intensive vipassana practice to clearly see this. When the mind is allowed to settle deeply, the need for goals drops away on its own. I cherish the immediacy and poetry of Zen and the simplicity, clarity and pragmatism of vipassana. Understood as skillful means, Zen and vipassana are not really much different at all.
GF: In intensive Zen training I learned a lot about bringing myself wholeheartedly into the practice. In intensive vipassana retreats I’ve come to a very simple understanding of the Dharma as a practice that frees us from suffering. I find it so satisfying to have a religious practice that’s free of religion, free of abstract metaphysics and philosophical ideas. It feels liberating to have a wholehearted and direct way to address suffering. Once you’re free of suffering, everything else takes care of itself.