Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Zen Ranting & Raving Buddhists

I've got to comment on all the drama happening in this corner of the blogosphere. I think everyone that reads this blog is also reading Brad Warners's blog, as well as Gudo Nishijima's, and perhaps Mike Cross'.

Nishijima's last entry created quite a stir, and is worth reading, if you haven't done so already. Be sure to check out the comments by Mike Cross and Michael Luetchford, both former students of Nishijima's:


Following so closely on the heels of the "eyes wide shut" debate and the very emphatic but contradictory views expressed by various experts on Zazen, I have linked these two debates in my own mind.

What I find interesting is not that such disagreements occur, but rather that they seem so controversial.

It has really been an education in the rigidity and politics of "traditional" Zen.

Let's face it, if you ask the same question of 10 different Zen "masters," you are likely to get 10 different, contradictory responses. And each Zen "master" is likely to insist that his answer is The Truth. And no, don't even think about questioning it, because "Reality does not bend in order to please you and neither does the philosophy and practice of Zen."

Well what about when all the Zen "masters" disagree? Which one reflects the REAL Reality?

You always hear, "Find a teacher, and stick to that teacher's teachings." Personally, I think the danger of wasting time on dogma and cults of personality may outweigh the potential benefits of having a teacher.

I think the Buddha himself might have been a pretty good teacher, though. Problem is, I haven't come across the Buddha on the road lately. And if I did, doesn't Zen philosophy tell me I would have to kill him?

And while I'm being critical...

A problem I see in Zen Buddhism is a general pride in ignorance. To be more specific, the little sound bytes that practitioners cling to, such as "Just Sit," "Sit Without Intention," and, "Zazen IS Enlightenment." The problem is not the 'pearls of wisdom' in themselves, but rather the thinking that such pearls are so important, at the expense of all other knowledge, and definitely at the expense of critical thinking.

I think an unintended consequence of this attitude is wrong thinking, and gullibility. Practitioners think they know what they are talking about because their "teacher" told them, or because they had some "feeling" during Zazen.

Even some Zen "masters" seem to take pride in their ignorance of Buddhist teachings other than that of their personal teacher.

I think the Zen tradition of not placing so much emphasis on the teachings of the Buddha (is it a Zen tradition?) may have made more sense historically in Japan, because the teachings of the Buddha were already culturally integrated... Here in the West, though, we do not have the luxury of that context...

A master/student relationship of blind faith and obedience at the expense of critical thinking makes me shudder. Reading accounts of sexual misconduct and financial scandals perpetrated by Zen "masters" while their students accepted the behavior as the unfathomable and unjudgeable "in-the-moment" action of an enlightened being, makes me think... cult.

I don't think that is what the Buddha had in mind.

Don't get me wrong. I am not down on Buddhism, and I am not down on Zazen. I just think that as students of both, we must be critical and vigilant in our thinking.

There is a tendency to put the "master" on a pedestal and revere him, because he is called "master."

I say the measure of a man is his actions--master or no master--Dharma Transmission or not--lineage, SCHMINEAGE.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Check out the big brain on Brad!

Sorry, couldn’t resist the quote in the title, which you may recognize from Pulp Fiction.

Have you noticed your baseball cap is fitting a bit too snug lately? This may explain it:

Meditation Found To Increase Brain Size

People who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don't. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

In one area of gray matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. That's intriguing because those sections of the human cortex, or thinking cap, normally get thinner as we age.

Click HERE for the full article.

Monday, September 11, 2006

“Suck-ass Advice” and “Crap Teaching”

Seems my “eyes wide shut” posting/question on 8/29 resulted in quite a bit of discussion. That is the beauty of the blogo-Dharma-sphere. I am amazed that we can ask a simple question like that, and get responses not only from our fellow e-Sangha practitioners, but also from the likes of Sensei Nishijima and the famous Zen author, Brad Warner!

Frankly, I am a bit in awe of Sensei Nishijima, so I would have never even thought to ask him the question directly. Dan, thanks for forwarding it on to him.

Apparently, Brad Warner was also cc’ed on the question when it was posed to Sensei Nishjima, and Brad joined the discussion in his post, “Zen is Not a ‘Bottom Line Whatever Works for You’ Philosophy.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love Brad’s confrontational style and ‘hard core’ attitude. It is refreshing. But I think he jumped the gun a bit in his posting.

My original question had to do with advice on sitting with eyes open or eyes shut. In the COMMENTS section, I later posted an email response from “a trusted advisor on matters of Dharma.” His response started, “Some people prefer to meditate with eyes open and some with them closed. Bottom line is what works best for you. As far as the 'official' zen position though...”

Now Brad’s commentary seemed to really focus on the snippet, “what works best for you,” and Brad railed against this statement, and how it is not “Zen”:

“There are lots of guys out there in the Blogosphere giving advise on Zen practice and, unfortunately, most of them are like the guy who told the Truth Seeker that ‘bottom line is whatever works for you.’… Nothing personal, but that advice sucks ass. Zen is not a ‘bottom line is whatever works for you’ philosophy. ‘Whatever works for you’ is crap teaching. Don't ever accept crap teaching. I take so much flak from people who've learned from God only knows where that Zen is ‘whatever works for you’ and are driven to madness by my insistence that it is not. But it isn't. Nope. Never. ‘Whatever works for you’ means you accept what massages your ego and reject what doesn't. That is not Buddhism. That is not Reality. Reality does not bend in order to please you and neither does the philosophy and practice of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki said, ‘If the teaching doesn't feel like it's forcing something upon you, it's not good teaching.’ That is the real spirit of Buddhism. If you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Buddhism.”

Whew! Brad, read the quote more carefully. He never said that “Zen is whatever works best for you.” He specifically separated the “whatever works best for you” statement from his commentary on ‘official’ Zen tradition.

My question to him was based on the fact that I come from a tradition that teaches closed-eye meditation, and I am now having difficulty with the open-eye practice of Zazen. Knowing that I am a student of Theravada Buddhism that is learning more about Zen, my friend’s advice regarding “whatever works for you” was not commenting on the proper attitude in Zazen. It was advice on whether to follow the Zazen tradition in the first place.

In the COMMENTS section of Brad’s post, Gesus wrote, “Zazen is a discipline. Every discipline has a proper form. Anything else said would be mere tautology on the subject.” Beautifully stated, Gesus.

Zazen, as a discipline, seems to have very well-defined postures and attitudes. That is wonderful. However, life is not so well defined. What about the question of whether to practice Zazen or a Theravada method in the first place?

Would the Buddha answer, “Thou shalt practice Zazen, for all else is crap”? I doubt it. He may respond something like this (Kalama Sutra):

1.] Do not accept and believe just because something has been passed along and retold through the years.

2.] Do not believe just because some practice has become traditional.

3.] Do not accept and believe merely because of the reports and news spreading far and wide through one's village, or even throughout the world. Only fools are susceptible to such "rumors," for they refuse to exercise their own intelligence.

4.] Do not accept and believe just because something is cited in a Pitaka. [The word "Pitaka," which is used for the Buddhist scriptures, means anything written or inscribed upon any suitable writing material.]

5.] Do not believe just because something fits with the reasoning of logic (takka).

6.] Do not believe just because something is correct on the grounds of naya (deductive and inductive reasoning) alone. [These days, naya is called "philosophy."]

7.] Do not believe or accept just because something appeals to one's common sense, which is merely snap judgments based on one's tendencies of thought.

8.] Do not believe just because something stands up to or agrees with one's preconceived opinions and theories.

9.] Do not believe just because the speaker appears believable.

10.] Do not believe just because the Samana or preacher, the speaker, is "our teacher."

Buddhism is different from other religions in that it does not require its practitioners to become mindless, unreasoning zealots, accepting beliefs and practices “just because.” Buddhism encourages us to be skeptical, and to question everything.

And that is hard core.

Love ya Brad, keep keeping us on our toes.

Karma Police

I recently had a bit of a run-in with the administration of a large Buddhist internet forum. The administration had recently changed and the new powers were taking a dim view of the free-form expression and allegedly almost 'anything goes' attitude of many of the posters on the Zen forum and were taking steps to purge this element. References to burning Buddha statues, killing the Buddha or questioning the authority of the mainstream interpretation of Buddha's teachings were to be forbidden.

Now, I've never been much into posting pictures of flowers or *gasp* pop lyrics on that forum. Most of my involvement was relatively serious discussion. Nor have I seriously challenged the accepted view of the content of what Buddha taught. However, I freely express my own agnosticism or doubt about unknown metaphysical truths such as the traditional descriptions of karma and rebirth.

Because of not accepting this, I thought I would have to always remain on the periphery of Buddhism. Yet it is clear that the Soto Zen sect I belong to does not insist on such beliefs. It appears that Brad's branch of Zen does not insist on such acceptance or belief either since when I asked Gudo Nishijima directly about the afterlife he replied essentially that when we die 'that's it'. This as far as I understand could actually be classed as the view of Annihilationism - definitely regarded by Buddha as a 'wrong view' but this is another story and perhaps I misunderstood him.

Even though these administrators were not Zen practitioners they took the view that 'Zen Buddhists are Buddhists first' - in the sense that Zen Buddhists too had to accept 'Right Understanding' and that Right Understanding included acceptance of karma and rebirth.

My take was that a Zen practitioner does not cling to beliefs one way or the other. That moment-to-moment rebirth renders life-after-death meaningless and that belief that 'we' will be reborn ('sans self' or not) may be a form of covert Eternalism. But it was made clear to me that my views were not welcome anywhere on the board, so I have voluntarily avoided the place since.

I'm be interested in other people's experience with these issues in the context of their Zen practice. Have you had experiences which suggest that such beliefs are required for Zen practice or that they are not required?