8 February 2020

I finally self-published the book I’ve been working on: once called Wrestling with Angels, now called Facing Suffering. When originally describing it, I would say that it is an account of my three months of training as a hospital chaplain. Now I’m realizing that is not what the book is about. Out of the numerous review copies I sent out to chaplains, including ones who intimately know that same training program, only one sparked a response. I’m guessing that the book must seem to have little to do with others’ experience in chaplain training.

But I also heard from people training in Zen who read a review copy. And from their insightful responses I realize that what I really wrote was about my form of Zen training, Zen training that took place in a hospital and not a Dojo. Given that, I thought it might be useful to capture here some of what I needed in order to train intensely in Zen outside of a Dojo setting.


  1. “I didn’t ask for this.” – The first necessity is a compelling question, one that cannot be answered within a dualistic perspective. And it is not a question that you simply thought up – it is one that is overwhelming in its demands. In my case, I needed to find out how to face suffering. Suffering lies at the core of Buddhism, at the core of medicine, at the core of family struggles. And those three arenas – Zen, patient care, and family – are the core of my life.
  1. “I own this place.” – The second necessity is the place where you can face that question. Those grounds can be anywhere but I use that word “own” deliberately. By that I mean that you feel that everything within that environment is yours to use as a tool for training. Nothing is off limits. In my case, it was a community hospital, full of patients, staff, technology…and suffering.
  1. “Don’t give up!” – You need a commitment not to quit until the question is resoundingly answered. If it is a compelling question, it won’t crack easily. You’ll find yourself in some dark places with no way out. In my chaplain training, I needed help to remain committed. I hit one of those dark places – a place where I felt that I was injuring a fellow chaplain – and turned in my letter of resignation. Fortunately, it was rejected.
  1. “No!” – So that’s another thing you need in order to train outside a Zen dojo: someone to say “no” repeatedly. In most contemporary learning environments, it seems like the teacher’s job is to nurture, guide, offer reinforcement. But for those of you who do koan training, contrast that with your Zen teacher’s refusal to accept your most heartfelt answer when he or she knows that it is not genuine. In my chaplain training, I had a supervisor who likewise had the radar to know what was genuine and what was not. There were a lot of “no’s” in my conversations with him. As a result, I had to push deeper and deeper, working to get beyond what was genuine.
  1. “Take away every habit since the day you were born.” – The fifth necessity is a willingness and an ability to take yourself apart. By that I mean that you challenge everything about yourself that you think is true. Whoever you think you are going into your training, you are willing for that all to fall apart. Most likely you are not as strong, as smart, as kind, as sensitive, as friendly, as accomplished, as anything, as you think you are. The world doesn’t work the way you think it does. People don’t behave the way you think they behave. Things don’t get done the way you think they get done. As a result, you find yourself on a life raft with very few things left: in my case, my breath and my sense of gravity.
  1. “Keep throwing yourself against that brick wall.” – If you accept #5 as a necessity, you are going to make mistakes as “you” is taken apart. There has to be a willingness to accept that there is no taking apart without there also being mistakes. It is not a neat or pretty process. If you accept that, then you have no problem with picking yourself up off the ground after one failure, knowing that another failure is just around the corner.


I’m now rereading what I just wrote – not pretty stuff. Not the way in which Zen training is usually portrayed in America. Are those six elements necessary for any student training in Zen? I can’t say. I do know that I needed them for my training with Tanouye Roshi and I needed them to learn how to face suffering.

If you are interested in reading Facing Suffering, send an email to gmgreene@wisconsinzen.org. If you wait a few months, you can also order it from any bookstore or online sources, both in paperback and e-book format.