This is a story about how a teacher can change someone’s life. The teachings, stories, poems, koans, and personal memories that make up this book are life-affirming, inclusive, and universal.
Nothing Holy about It is not a book just for Buddhists. It is for everyone who is on a spiritual path. It is also for the simply curious, as I was forty years ago when I came across a strange little book titled The Third Eye. It opened me up to a different way of thinking about myself and the world. Many years later, I encountered a teacher who showed me how to go beyond my new way of thinking to a new way of being. That teacher was Tim Burkett. I believe his book will do the same for a new generation of spiritual seekers.
Tim was only twenty years old when he became a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the first Zen center on the West Coast. Today Suzuki Roshi is one of the most renowned Zen teachers in the world, but in 1964 he was virtually unknown outside a small circle of dedicated students. Those early years of American Zen were difficult times, often tumultuous and always uncertain. As a part of that core group, Tim remembers the struggle to raise money for the now-famous Tassajara monastery, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia. He remembers the rising tensions between Suzuki’s American students and his Japanese congregation, and Suzuki’s tireless effort to be everything to everybody. Tim remembers the roaring applause when Suzuki followed Janis Joplin on the stage of San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom during a fund-raiser. And he remembers Suzuki’s compassionate support for his senior student Trudy Dixon during her struggle with cancer, and his tearful “lion’s roar” at her funeral. These stories and many more, told from the perspective of a student who is now himself an old master, create the backdrop and a wonderful ambience for this book.
Tim’s Buddhist name is Zentetsu, which means “thoroughgoing Zen.” He received it at his ordination in 1978 from his second teacher, Katagiri Roshi. But Tim is much fonder of another name—Ugly Duckling—given to him when he was a young student struggling to find his way. The story goes that during a two-month practice period at Tassajara, Suzuki Roshi declared that Tim had become . . . a beautiful swan. When Tim tells the story, his face lights up at the words “beautiful swan,” and he lifts himself off the cushion as if he might float away.
“Then my teacher said, ‘Or maybe you are an ugly duckling!” Tim frowns and drops back down to his cushion. Then immediately his face lights up again as he peers around the room, quacking like a duck: “Quack-quack! Quack-quack!” Then he bursts out laughing.
In his dharma talks, Tim’s teaching style is always fresh and unpredictable, fluid and compelling. One moment he may be chiding and reproachful: “Don’t try to be a good Buddhist. To hell with that! That’s extra.” The next moment, he offers a gentle whisper: “Just be who you are. Can you do that? Can you?”
Tim’s dharma talks are interspersed with unexpected peals of laughter and bemused looks. His view that we were all enlightened before we were born continually bubbles up in new and refreshing ways, allowing him to live lightly and laugh frequently at the folly of human beings.
With personal stories and anecdotes, he shows how relevant the teachings are in ordinary, day-to-day situations. His memories of Suzuki Roshi’s just being who he was are delightful. His stories about his family, especially his grandchildren, add a quality of everyday life that people can relate to. He also shares his personal tragedies, tragedies like those we all experience, often feeling isolated as a result. Tim assures us that we are not isolated―that by our very nature isolation is impossible―and that the home we seek is a place we have never left.
Although Tim’s teaching style draws on various forms of Buddhist literature, he urges his students not to use this literature merely to feed their minds. “Zen in not learned—it is imbibed.” Through poetry, art, parables, and koans, Tim shows us how to cultivate a Zen life in the small things we do, in how we relate to the people, objects, and activities of daily life.
Part 1 is “Commitment to the Unknown.” Tim says, “Committing to the unknown means shedding our ego skin and opening up to this vibrant, oceanic life, a symphony of color, form, and sound.” The commitment is to live life fully. To flow with the symphony. To ride the oceanic waves without withdrawing or freezing up. A commitment to the unknown demands our courage and our willingness to allow the heart to open—because when the heart opens just a little bit, the commitment blooms on its own. As Tim says, “It arises from the whole body—the heart, mind, and every cell make the commitment.”
Part 2 is “Calling in the Shards,” the phrase Tim uses to describe the horrible/wonderful entrance into phase two of our practice. Here we start to look closely at our rough edges, our personality shards, which arise from fear, desire, prejudice, aversion, and strongly held beliefs. These shards are like body armor we put on for protection against a tumultuous and unpredictable world. But our body armor is just an illusion; we can’t truly separate ourselves from the world.
In phase two of our practice, we start to dissolve the body armor. “Our shards isolate us,” Tim says. “And they hurt others with their sharp edges. When we see them clearly, in all their iterations, we are free of them. We just have to see them, because seeing is the beginning of freeing.”
Part 3, “When Snow Falls, It Falls on Everything,” is the heart of the book, taking us to the core of Zen practice. It’s about taking our practice into the world and learning to endure life’s sorrows while focusing on the cultivation of equanimity, the abiding stillness behind authentic compassion. A Zen life is not a life without pain. When the heart is open, the pain hurts even more. But there’s enough space to hold the hurt without closing down. This is the secret to living an awakened life.
In part 3 Tim shares the pain of losing his only brother to suicide. “It wiped me out,” he told me during one of our many interviews for this book. He even told me, “I don’t want you to write this chapter about my brother. It’s too painful for me.” But after his brother’s death, Tim dedicated his life to creating programs for those with depression and other forms of mental illness. Thousands have been helped through Tim’s nonprofit agency, People Incorporated. And yet, thirty years later, feelings of guilt, regret, and grief still reside in Tim’s heart. Tragedies mark us indelibly, but they don’t have to close us off from life.
Part 4, “Staying on the Track,” is about sticking to our commitment. In the beginning, a spiritual path is lonely. It feels isolating. But as our practice matures and our ability to focus increases, we begin to see through our isolating thoughts. One by one, the veils drop away. The world becomes a more vivid and vibrant place. The mind is waking up to something new, something beyond what is perceived by the thinking mind.
Part 5 is “Time Dissolving into Timelessness.” That time dissolves into timelessness— moment by moment—is one of the great mysteries of life. But life’s mysteries reveal themselves to us constantly. One glimpse can inspire and encourage us forever. This last part of the book is about cultivating the ability to see the world for the first time. Suzuki Roshi likens the experience to the warm, familiar feeling that arises when we receive a letter from home. “If you want to read a letter from Buddha’s world, it is necessary to understand Buddha’s world,” Suzuki said. But this is an imbibed understanding. It doesn’t come in through the front door of the mind. It slips in during quiet moments when the mind is still and open.
Having learned so much from Tim Burkett during my years of study with him, I have been honored by the opportunity to assemble this collection of stories, memories, and teachings on his behalf. I hope that many readers will find in these pages some of the wisdom, joy, insight, enlightenment, and delight that I have experienced as Tim’s student.