Institutional Zen & Me

June 28, 2009

Blogs are meant to be confessional, right? So here goes: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, these guys are my heroes. I want to be like them.

OK, not all that stunning as confessions go. But I did start meditating as a result. And I’m also reading an endless string of books about Buddhism. So where has this taken me?

First, I should say that I hardly knew where to start. The Dalai Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist, but Tibetan deities aren’t for me so that ruled out a Tibetan practice. Thich Nhat Hanh practices a Vietnamese version of Zen. He has written an enormous amount (several books sit on my shelf) and there are plenty of affiliated meditation groups in my town so I gave a couple of them a chance, but something didn’t quite mesh. I needed something else, but what?

I visited a local Thai Buddhist temple. The garden was beautiful. The monk was incredibly friendly. The temple was filled with beautiful, ornate decorations, but I was put off by the overpowering smell of incense, the giant gold (painted?) figurines (a couple of which looked incredibly terrifying), or the over-the-top use of swastikas as a temple decoration. Keep looking.

Then an Intro to Zen Meditation class put me in touch with a local Zen group. I went to meditate, but quickly got stuck. First, the literature and teaching talked about “seeing what is”, which left me to wonder, what about compassion and loving kindness? Second, even though the Zen decorations and incense were toned down substantially from those of their Thai neighbors, I still had an “allergic” reaction to the Zen rituals, chanting, robes, dharma names, and so on.

I could have given up at this point, but I decided to continue practicing with this group. Recently I’ve added sitting with another less ritualized/hierarchical Zen group to my practice. Does this mean that Zen is the solution for me? Am I ready to take the next step and begin studies with a teacher? Will Zen make me the next Dalai Lama?

Reading Stuart LachsThe Zen Master in America: Dressing the Donkey in Bells and Scarves made me cautious. I had discovered Lachs’ essay after listening to an interview with him on Buddhist Geeks. The essay, which is loaded with examples of abusive modern Zen masters, shows “that, in America, the idealized presentation of the Zen master is frequently, if not always, substantially different from the actual person who fills the position, or, in other words, that the supposed all-wise, all-knowing Zen master is more fiction than fact.”

I suppose some might argue whether “frequently” is an appropriate label, but Lachs argues that it is the institutional aspects of Zen, especially dharma transmission, that makes Zen problematic, and he supports his argument by comparing Western Zen practice to Pierre Bourdieu’s model of religious authority: 1) a deep/ancient origin of truth/perfection, 2) a method for bringing truth/perfection to the present, and 3) a sanctioned spokesperson for this truth/perfection. All of these elements seem to be present in the first group that I met. Although Lachs allows that “Zen practice under a Zen teacher” may have “merit”, his essay makes a strong case for treading carefully. A master may be awake, but she or he is still a human being.

(Update 3/12/2010: Stuart Lachs and Vladimir Keremedschieff have just posted related information about letters Robert Aitken Roshi wrote concerning problems with “Zen master ethics” at the Buddhist Geeks Digital Magazine.)

About the same time that I was reading Lachs, I also came across a copy of James Ishmael Ford’s “Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen in my public library. Ford’s well-thumbed book is an all-around treatment of Zen that provides insights ranging from the opaque, “Zen is a direct pointing to who and what we are”, to the revealing, “Throughout Zen’s history acknowledgement of awakening itself remained separate from monastic leadership.” Hmm. Maybe the Buddhist priest that I gave up my chair for in the San Francisco airport was only a “monastic leader”? Robes don’t necessarily equal awakening.

The larger, and for me, more compelling, part of the book is its reasonably up-to-date history of Zen in America. This section taught me about the background of all three Zen traditions in my town: the Soto center that is descended from, but no longer associated with, the Shasta Abbey; the Soto/Rinzai/Harada-Yasutani monastery/temple that is descended from the White Plum Sangha; the Ordinary Mind center that is descended from Charlotte Joko Beck (but traceable through her back to the White Plum sangha).

I also learned that all three of these groups come from traditions with skeletons in their closet and that the Harada-Yasutani lineage, while influential in America because of the White Plum Sangha, is a relatively small group in Japan. I even learned how one of its founders (Yasutani) had, during the World War II-era, written anti-Semitic essays and made use of Nazi-inspired rhetoric to favor the emperor and an authoritarian state. Ford’s response to this is interesting and deserves reflection, “the most important lesson here is perhaps that awakening is not an end; it’s a beginning. Used appropriately each of our awakenings, small and large, can become a gate to an ever deeper, more compassionate life.”

Ford’s book covers so many personalities that I find I want to flip back through it each time I read an article or check an advertisement in a Buddhist magazine. And, very importantly, given the reservations that Lachs had raised, the book reassured me that not every person in robes is a saint. Staunch Zen Buddhists (like Ford) acknowledge the many failings of modern masters in a clear-eyed way yet still find great value in Zen. And, maybe most important, American Zen is evolving and need not recapitulate Asian Zen/Chan/Son. Centuries of tradition have guided Zen institutions in China, Korea, and Japan, but transplanting these institutions in America necessarily involves many rounds of selection and mutation. Contemporary Zen practitioners in America must accept a potentially unstable tradition. To put it another way, the practitioner, even when aided by a teacher, must discover how to draw juice from the fruit of Zen practice. Bodhidharma and Huineng are not here to set our feet on the proper path.

Asking About Zen by Jiho Sargent covers some of the same ground from a completely different point of view. Sargent is an American-born Zen priest living and working in Japan. She works at a Zen temple and is fully immersed in Soto Zen as practiced in Japan. The laypeople in her community live in her neighborhood and are the descendents of many generations of Buddhists. They are not spiritual seekers in the American sense. Therefore, the 108 questions and answers that Sargent poses offer an American’s insight to a solidly-established religious tradition that need not justify or explain itself to a strange audience.

Many of the questions cover practical matters concerning the training of Zen priests, the operations of Zen temples, and the like, but some address issues concerning the nature of Zen itself. It was useful to me to read the answer coming “directly” from Japan and compare it to the answers that I was finding on this side of the ocean:

  • Why Zen? Zen can provide “a glimpse of unmasked reality” that “no matter how momentary, can forever change our ways of viewing, and of living, our lives.”
  • Why do people do zazen? “We all have reasons for starting”, but “what makes the difference is how we handle those reasons once we have established a normal place in our lives for zazen.”
  • What is the difference between zazen and other forms of Buddhist meditation? “Zazen focuses on experiencing the entire universe as united and discarding the false concept of a separate self.”
  • Will zazen make me feel peaceful? “My master often asks those seeking a peaceful mind through zazen just where it is they expect the peaceful mind to come from. It cannot float in through the window! … Zazen is not about gaining a peaceful mind or anything else. It is a silencing of our normal insistent desires so that we can perceive reality.”
  • What is the point of becoming a Zen cleric? “Although certification from a Zen sect as a person qualified to be resident priest of a temple does not mean anything with regard to a state of awakening, however that may be defined, it does show that the person involved has devoted quite a lot of time and effort to preparing for that position.”

One last thing to mention: Ford’s book identifies many books about Zen and contains several pages of notes and an extensive bibliography. My reading will continue.

  • Koans: Gateless Gate, Blue Cliff Record, Book of Equanimity, Record of Transforming the Light. See also: Zen Dust (now available as The Zen Koan) by R. Fuller Sasaki.
  • For those starting out: Zen Meditation in Plain English by J. Daishin; Taking the Path of Zen by R. Aitken.
  • Zen without dharma transmission: Grassroots Zen by M. Steger and P. Besserman.
  • Buddhist ethics: Mind of Clover by R. Aitken.
  • Histories: How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America by R. Fields; Zen at War and Zen War Stories by B. Victoria; Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism by J. Heisig and J. Maraldo.
  • Critical essays and books: Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen (1977), Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Chan/Zen Buddhism in America (1999), Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi (2002) all by S. Lachs; Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center by M. Downing.
  • Anthologies, ancient and modern: Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader (ed. N. Foster and J. Shoemaker); Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (ed. A. Ferguson); writings of Anshin Hoshin, White Wind Zen Community
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