This is part of a series in which I conduct short interviews with teachers from different Buddhist lineages in an attempt to promote non-sectarianism while at the same time developing a deep appreciation for our differences. Hō Sei Lana Berrington is a nun in the Soto Zen tradition and she runs the North London Soto Zen Group.
How did you discover Buddhism? At what point did you know you had found your path?
I wasn’t actually looking for a path – I stumbled across Buddhism nearly by accident. I had been reading a science fiction novel co-written by a couple, one of whom was a zen practitioner. The story line included some bits where one of the characters was discussing the problems and solutions surrounding practising zazen in zero gravity, in a space station. “Hmmm.” thought I, “what’s that all about then?” I googled “zazen practice london,” ordered a copy of Zen Mind Beginners Mind off of Amazon (couldn’t really make heads or tails of it), and stopped off for an introduction to zazen the next Monday evening after work. I was certain that it was an instance that I would be able to tick off of my list of things to try “tried zen, couldn’t sit still —Tick”. But instead I found it all rather interesting. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I knew I wanted to come back the next week and try it again. After my second meeting, I began a daily practice at home before the next Monday. After my third Monday I started going to other locations in London to sit with a group 4 times a week. It took me several years of daily practice, going to sesshins (retreats), and even receiving the bodhisattva precepts, before I would grudgingly allow my self to be called a “Buddhist”.
When I look back at this now, I suspect I felt intuitively that which Tozan Ryokai (9th century Chinese master), and other masters before and since, described as that which, like a great fire, can neither be faced, nor turned away from.
Could you describe the qualities or personality of your particular lineage?
Soto Zen is often thought of as being austere, stern, and very serious. Full of people who cast their eyes down and don’t smile or laugh. It does look like that from the outside I guess. But really, it is a tradition that has as its focus, wisdom and compassion, and a close, and intimate ‘family style’ of practice. In Soto Zen training is often carefully dealing with the most mundane aspects of daily life such as the washing up, or cleaning the loo – connecting our sitting practice with everyday life where the Bodhisattva vow unfolds. Soto Zen practice emphasises the practice of Zazen – seated meditation – or – more specifically – Shikantaza – just wholeheartedly sitting. Remaining still and upright, in the correct posture, offering ourselves completely to each moment. The 13th Century Japanese founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, stipulated that practice and enlightenment are not separate. Zazen practice forms the root, heart or core of Soto Zen practice.
What is the importance of love and compassion in your tradition?
Zen practice is aimed at manifesting the bodhisattva way in every aspect of life, moment-to-moment, which pairs wisdom with compassion. Love and compassion are really not different. Oh, certainly romantic love might be a horse of a different colour, but actual love is really the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom and compassion are really both necessary to express our buddha nature – which we are. Some will say that compassion naturally arises out of wisdom, others will say that they both grow from practice to fit together like two hands in a bow. Me, i’m not bothered about a chicken/egg scenario – Compassion is, Love is, Wisdom is – cultivate and manifest these bodhisattva qualities in practice both on and off the cushion. Apparently the Buddha was asked by one of his followers if compassion was a part of their practice. “No,” the Buddha answered. “The cultivation of compassion is all of our practice.”
Has your experience of reality changed through your practice of meditation and could you say a little about that?
Well, I don’t know really. I can’t really tell if anything like this has changed as a direct result of meditation practice, or as a result of me just getting older and clocking in more life experience. If only I had a “control” me – to compare me with – who hadn’t done meditation practice. However, I like to think that I’m less likely to believe, engage with, and identify with, the endless, horrible stories and dramas that my human brain produces.
What obstacles do you foresee for Buddhism in the west?
I’m not sure if Buddhism faces any extra obstacles in the west verses in other countries. Perhaps one obstacle we have is that apparently “doing nothing” is not seen as a valued life choice. So people who may want to dedicate themselves to practice, or even live monastically, find that they can’t afford to do that. Another obstacle that I think people face in general, not just in the west, is that we have a tendency as humans of this time to view all things in terms of a capitalist exchange. We want to know “what’s in it for me” – you don’t dedicate your free time or life to something unless you can answer with certainty the question “what do you get out of that?” Soto Zen practice places a very heavy emphasis of “no goal or profit seeking”. Zen master Kodo Sawaki roshi rather famously said “Zazen is good for nothing!” and went on to say “until you get it really into your thick skulls that Zazen is good for nothing, it really will be” So, sometimes when asked, “why do you do that?” I will answer “well, it’s good for my patience” – other times I’ll say “zen practice is very much more about the journey rather than the destination”.
You can find out more about Hō Sei Lana Berrington, and the North London Soto Zen Group here.