Interview with Jo-Alma Potter JDPSN
In Februay 2018 Jo-Alma Potter was interviewed by the Austrian Buddhist Society (ÖBR)
How did you get to the Dharma Path?
Walking on the Dharma path is a moment by moment decision-ever-changing– and as my life has progressed, the question which led to searching the Dharma Path, has changed words, but never its direction and intensity.
My mother’s death when I was 12, introduced the following question: What happens to us after we leave our bodies? This question produced a kind of anguish, a state of being where my mind repeatedly posed the question. When I was 17, a wonderful high school teacher encouraged me to start a personal meditation practice. I went to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the teacher-guru that the Beatles practiced with. I remember rushing home after school every day and before I started homework, closing my eyes and deeply investigating what or who it was that was sitting there, what was meditation?
Now—47 years later, I wake up in the morning and daily life emerges, I brush my teeth, drink tea, go the Dharma Room, and everything the day brings is the beginning of the Dharma Path.
What’s special about the Kwan Um School?
Zen points always to this very moment thus Zen practice is the most natural and intimate interaction with life— not special at all.
One of the really great things in the Kwan Um school, is that the focus of awakening is on the individual, rather than on one teacher. We practice with 14 teachers in Europe, 20 in the USA and 10 in Asia. These teachers rotate regularly throughout the 100 or more Zen Centers globally. Zen Master Seung Sahn encouraged many different teaching styles to reach the many different Karmas. When I started my practice in the school, I had one teacher for about 3 solid years. After that I never studied with him again. Instead another teacher naturally appeared. And then another and another. Each teacher was so valuable and necessary. By not attaching to one teacher, our students begin to form a very strong center and a belief in themselves. Eventually we awaken to the true teacher, which is always in front of us.
Zen retreats sit at the core of our Dharma activity— we regularly take part in retreats-long and short, and at the same time we enjoy times of ease, sharing our lives with each other, we find ways to help each other and the planet.
Our practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen, is navigated by the mind which does not know and which is clear like the blue sky on a cloudless day. The direction we give to our practice is the cultivation of a mind, which without judgement or attachment to conceptual understanding or to personal opinion, remains solidly in the moment, ready to assist and to help, fresh and awake to the ever-changing situations of our lives, to directly perceive our function and relationship to those situations which life puts in front of us.
We use 5 primary techniques: Meditation in sitting, walking, chanting, bowing, and Kong-an (Jap: Koan) practice.
What are the most common questions you encounter/get asked as a Dharma teacher?
The most often questions asked are: “ I don’t know what to do! Can Zen help me to know if what I am doing is right?“
I feel lost and wonder if Zen can show me what to do with my life. If I practice Zen enough, will I someday not suffer strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, jealousy? How can I best help others who are suffering? Many questions point to knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair.
Which questions would you like your students to ask?
Each student that comes has a unique life and set of life conditions and each question they ask is fascinating! By applying complete attention to the situation of each student, there is no space for any wish left.
A few months ago, we had debates about gender-equitable spelling. What do you think about this?
In Europe-as opposed to the USA– we experience so many languages. Each language is the expression of each country’s conditioned political, religious, educational and social background. In one country I taught in, the entire Sangha, both men and women insisted on referring to the Buddha as male, even though the chant was not referring to the historical Buddha, but rather to our Buddha nature. Each situation is so very different. Our teaching is to observe the situation keenly and follow it. Each moment is new, each situation requires a fresh view– free from previous opinions or ideas. At times, we refer to gender, at times gender has no significance. Who or what is it that will confront death, when that moment comes?
Do you have any special message you would give to the ÖBR and Buddhists in Austria?
One of our very main teachings is that of „together action“— which means learning to work side by side with each other, helping and caring for each other, meditating, chanting, and bowing together. We let go of attachment to personal opinion, ideas, concepts and wishes. At the same time, each member of our school or the ÖBR or any other organization is an individual with his or her profound sense of responsibility to the Dharma and to alleviating the suffering on our earth. The message when speaking directly to each unique human being is: Awaken and help all sentient beings!
Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Holding hands and walking together through the good and the difficult times, our lives become brilliant and meaningful. Real strength comes through this. How will we live our lives fully and whole heartedly, awakening to and celebrating each moment?
Kwan Um Zen Schule (Wien)