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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

5/27 - Josh Bartok

                My wife and I had never previously been to Boston—other than dropping people like Dosho Port off at the airport—and this trip provides our first opportunity. Our hotel by the airport overlooks the harbor, and as I type this, a sailboat race is taking place below us. The view isimpressive; the short city tour we did was informative and fun. The driving . . . Well, the only way it makes sense to me is that driving has been deliberately made as unpleasant as possible in order to encourage the use of public transport. James Ford had a simpler explanation; he told me that the system behind the way streets are laid out in Boston is officially known as “Fuck you.” James [See 5/4 entry for 2013] is the teacher of Josh Bartok.                
                It is Josh I’ve come here to interview. He is the resident teacher of the Greater Boston Zen Center which is actually located in Cambridge. Google-maps makes the run from my hotel to the center look much simpler than it is. The GPS instructions (“Left turn, then left turn ahead”) come more rapidly than I can follow and usually when I’m two lanes from where I need to be. So I arrive a little flustered. 
                The first thing one notes about Josh is that he’s young—43 last Friday, he informs me. “I’m youngish for a Zen teacher,” he admits. After completing his undergraduate work, instead of going onto graduate studies at MIT as he’d intended, he spent a year and a half at Zen Mountain Monastery. Then he fell away from practice for a while, even had a stint as a professional Tarot reader. Finally, through his work as an editor with a Buddhist publisher, he met James and began his first intensive work with a teacher. By my calculation, it was less than twelve years later that he was authorized as a teacher himself—maybe not a record, but it leads me to think he probably has a natural affinity for the Dharma. He obviously has a great love for it. He speaks with both emotion and passion, making large gestures with his hands. His voice has power, and I suspect that his Dharma talks are dynamic.                
             And there’s something a bit boyish about his manner as well.  
             We sit in a small area he calls a foyer set off by a set of shoji screens from the main body of the zendo. Although we are on chairs, he sits cross-legged. This appears to be an old warehouse or commercial building. We are on the second floor, and I can hear the patter of feet on the floor above us. The zendo has 35 zabutons set out; more—he informs me—can be added. There are three calligraphies by Shodo Harada in the entry way, and a set of the 10 Bulls along one wall of the zendo—the Zen equivalent of the Stations of the Cross. Josh admits he admires the Japanese aesthetics of Zen.
                The second thing that strikes me about him is that he is a man of great personal courage. He speaks with touching frankness about his continuing struggles with mental health issues. There are times when he pauses, looks off, and I fear we’ve strayed into areas he would prefer not to pursue further, but then he finds the words he wants and continues. “When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I’d be talking about these things, but I’m willing to.”
                It is not a minor issue. Zen is not a means of escaping one’s difficulties, of hiding from them, or ignoring them, pretending they don’t exist. One thing Zen can do, however, is help one gain perspective about those difficulties. More importantly, those challenges in no way prevent one from coming to those intuitive insights which are the heart of the practice.
                Josh is one of the four teachers of Boundless Way Zen; he came up with the name. Melissa Blacker and David Rynick in Worcester [see 5/3 entry for 2013] along with James are the others. In some ways, they are a conservative school, although Josh is adamant that the elements of Japanese Zen they retain are done so wholly because of their efficacy. But the school is also innovative in one very significant way: students are encouraged to attend dokusan with all four teachers.
                “If you only go to dokusan with one teacher,” Josh says, “you can come to equate the Dharma with that particular teacher’s presentation of it. But when you go to four teachers, it is like Venn Diagrams; there is a very real and essential area where all four circles overlap. But there are also large parts of those circles that do not overlap.” He has a talent for coming up with analogies like that. Another is his description of the current dissemination of disparate Zen practices as being similar to the explosion of life forms during the Cambrian Age. Some experiments will prove successful; others won’t. 
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Bartok, Josh – 203, 213, 223-233, 467

Addendum - September 2022:
I owe Josh a debt of gratitude for the Venn Diagram analogy. The importance of being able to distinguish the Dharma from personal character should have been self-evident, but it hadn’t been until Josh pointed it out. That affected every other interview I have conducted since then. I recognized from that point on that the focus of my writing would be the areas of the diagram that did not overlap.
In 2020, Josh, of his own volition, gave up his status as a priest and a Zen teacher. He admitted having been in a relationship with a student and in a public apology to his community stated:

“I acknowledge that I inappropriately crossed boundaries in relationship that were my own sacred responsibility to hold and that I created circumstances of secrecy and deceit. Caught myself by the energies of suffering, I amplified suffering in others rather than diminishing it, and I disrupted this community. I betrayed all of your trust, and I betrayed the vows and values I myself hold most dear. I am so deeply, deeply sorry for these things. I make this apology to you all and in front of you all as embodiments of the Three Treasures. I assure you I take to heart the implications of this transgression, and I vow to continue my deepening work in understanding and addressing the causes and conditions that led to my failures and my harm-causing so I can prevent them in the future.”


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