Charlotte Joko Beck dies at 94; American Zen pioneer
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By Adam Tebbe
June 15, 2011
Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher, author and founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, has died peacefully today, June 15, 2011 at 7:30 a.m., at age 94.
Born on March 27, 1917 in New Jersey, Beck studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and taught piano for a time. She married and raised four children before separating from her husband and working as a teacher, secretary and assistant in a university department. She came to Zen practice in her forties and studied with the late Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi roshi. For many years she commuted between San Diego and Los Angeles to practice with the roshi. Of her experiences, Beck said in an interview with Shambhala SunSpace (http://www.shambhalasun.com/), “I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?” Otherwise, they get stuck there. It’s not the important thing in practice.” Asked what is the important thing in practice, she replied, “Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.”
Joko Beck also studied with both Haku’un Yasutani roshi and Soen Nakagawa roshi. She became one of Maezumi’s twelve Dharma successors in 1978 and went on to establish the Zen Center of San Diego in 1983 (where she served as head teacher until July, 2006). She is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, a loose fit organization of her Dharma successors which is non-hierarchical. As a teacher of Zen, Joko Beck was free from the patriarchal trappings of Japanese Zen. Joko’s approach to Zen ">">teaching was greatly informed by Western culture, and she discontinued shaving her head, seldom wore robes and seldom used titles.
Joko was the author of two very important books that are frequently recommended by interviewees at Sweeping Zen— Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993). Her first book, Everyday Zen, is a book in which she described what meditation is and, more importantly, what it is not. Author Ruthann Russo writes, “…she says it is not about producing psychological change, achieving some blissful state, cultivating special powers or personal power, or having nice or happy feelings. She does say that meditation practice is simple, and it’s about ourselves. To practice effectively, we need to remove ourselves from all external stimuli. Then we experience reality, which is challenging for most of us.”
Her second book, Nothing Special, is, as Maezumi himself once remarked, very special. In it Joko expresses what is the original essence of Zen—unencumbered by some of the formal practices and activities we’ve come to associate with Zen practice over the years. For Joko, Zen is simply being right here in the moment, with nothing extra. Zen practice will yield us nothing other than this moment. In the book she answers her students questions and helps highlight, again, what Zen practice is really about. She says, “Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.”
In 2011 Joko began eating less and was rapidly losing weight. Her family placed her under the care of hospice. She is survived by her four children: Eric, Helen, Greg (Dharma name Tando) and Brenda (Dharma name Chiko).
Dharma successor Barry Magid says, “One of her great virtues as a teacher was that she did not try to clone herself. She let us digest her teaching and grow in our own different directions. Her Dharma seeds are scattered far and wide. They will go on sprouting in ways we cannot predict and cross-fertilize with other lineages. The Ordinary Mind School may grow or wither, but her influence is now everywhere.”">