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:

http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=16723429&postID=115760939365269267

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.

31 Comments:

At September 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

An image of a train wreck comes to mind.

For me, the core insight of Zen is that our thoughts and words about reality are always thoughts and words, never the reality they were intended to define. Yet there the temptation to cling to our own beliefs is strong even when those beliefs are about not clinging to beliefs. Even saying that, there is a danger of clinging to it.

Brad gives the impression that his idiosynchratic personal theories are in some way supported by Zen.

It has become a cliche now but Mike Cross has mental health issues, which don't appear to be helped by either Zazen or Alexander Technique.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

It might also be a problem with 'Internet Zen' in general.

Surely theorising about Zen, advocating those theories and Zen politics are not Zen practice.

I think that a good teacher has an inner quiet and openness, a freedom from clinging to beliefs that we can learn from.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

justin 1 & 2:

There does seem to be a lot of dharma drama amoung heirs/ex-hairs and all sorts.

"I think that a good teacher has an inner quiet and openness, a freedom from clinging to beliefs that we can learn from"

I'm not sure how much that can be manifest on the internet if at all.

I've moved towards the view held by Osho and others that the Teacher is the teachings and that words are at best just a convenient vehicle.

Frankly, I would evaluate a teacher on their character and their life rather than the words they teach.

I think for a relatively non-controversial example of Kelsang Gyatso. He teaches 'hardcore' technicolour tibetan Buddhism which is not really my personal bag but as a person I would say that he has 'it' and lives 'it'. I see in many of his students this 'it' manifest in various degrees.

But I see this because I have met or seen them in person.

I cannot comment on DS because I don't think I have met any of them although I think I might have met ML once via a friend.

As for MC, well he hasn't started from a good place but I think he is making progress. Bizarrely and amazingly.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Anatman,

regarding the critical thinking/ individuality/ authority/ picking and choosing topic, I understand where you're coming from. The way I see it at the moment is that we all need to think critically to make good decisions - I for one am practicing Zen precisely because of such critical thinking among other things. However, inconveniently, such picking and choosing conflicts with the practice of 'just being'. But rahter than abandon critical thinking altogether perhaps it is more helpful to just use it from time to time to adjust one's path? Of course doing so is to engage in goal-oriented thinking but there are other dangers to avoid too. When we sit we just sit, but sometimes we need to think and when we do we need to do it well.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I'm not sure how much that can be manifest on the internet if at all.

I was discussing the necessity of belief in literal rebirth with a teacher and she followed up by email with a helpful quotation from the Genjo Koan and a few comments about openness, and non-dogmatism. I responded at some length with details of my own ideas about life and death. But she didn't reply. I was slightly disappointed at first, but then realised that seeking to show how insightful I was and seeking some sort of approval I had in a sense missed the point. It's possible that there may have been another reason, but after reflection her silence on the matter seemed like a gift.

As for MC, well he hasn't started from a good place but I think he is making progress. Bizarrely and amazingly.

Well, I genuinely hope he is able to continue to make progress. One of the striking things about him is that he is not only very angry, but seems to recognise no need whatsoever to show any sort of courtesy or sensitivity in what he says. I'm not sure if this is a symptom of his problems or justified by an aspect of his interpretation of zen.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

Anatman,

I thought your post was well-thought out and sensible.
Really good.
Interesting that nobody really (aside from Justin) commented too much on it.
There's a lot of fodder there but perhaps people are tiring of the dramatics.
That would be nice.
Or maybe its that the traditional Brad/Gudo defenders are stumped as to how to defend these kinds of absurdities.
Sorry, i am kind of trying to stir things up. Work is so boring lately.

g

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Justin.

"...picking and choosing conflicts with the practice of 'just being'. But rather than abandon critical thinking altogether perhaps it is more helpful to just use it from time to time to adjust one's path? Of course doing so is to engage in goal-oriented thinking but there are other dangers to avoid too. When we sit we just sit, but sometimes we need to think and when we do we need to do it well."

I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head.

And it's true that "picking and choosing conflicts with the practice of 'just being'," but really, in the same way, all thinking conflicts with the practice of 'just being.'

Personally, when I sit, I try to sit skillfully, and just sit. But when I think, I also try to do so skillfully, and this means periodic critical evaluations of my own beliefs.

When we listen to proponents of other religions talk about Faith and "because the bible says so" and how theirs is the "one true religion," we scoff and feel glad that we are not so delusional and gullible.

Why? Because we use our intelligence and critical thinking to evaluate our beliefs rather than living lives of illusion based on fear, dogma, and blind adherence to some ancient superstition, or infatuation with a particula teacher... Right?

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Gniz:

I think the dramatics do get tiresome after awhile and, in the end, it doesn't mean much. I'm glad all the discussion took place, though. It prompted me to evaluate my own journey and, like Justin said, adjust my path. I think my practice is healthier now because I've experienced a bit of disillusionment with formal Zen tradition.

I'm grateful for the dis-illusion. Nothing like stripping away illusions to see what is left behind the curtain!

And personally, I don't mind how you stir things up.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Whatever you might say about the dramatics elsewhere you can at least see real people freely expressing real emotions. It might be a train wreck or a pile of horse shit or whatever you want to call it but at least it is largely genuine. That genuineness and frankness is to my eye what makes it worthwhile to see on a Zen blog.

In a strange way, I would rather see that than have everyone pretend to be nice to each other.

But with that said, being a Troll is just pretending in the other direction and it is equally false.

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

Well i called myself a troll in the interest of full-disclosure.

I have, in other posts, admitted to being afraid, confused, full of shit, and someone who needs more practice.

However, to some extent i mean what i say, and i really do question guys like Brad and Gudo and Jundo Cohen...etc etc.

I did like Hardcore Zen but i think Brad's blog postings, though entertaining, are specious and i view him with skepticism.

Mike, I assume you were referring to me with that troll comment. Anyhow, thats my reasoning.

BTW, Mike, i like your blog a lot.

g

 
At September 20, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

gniz:
The troll ref was to you. Yes.

But I also agree with much of what you say.

It is not clear to me what Brad is doing with his blog. It looks very much like he is just getting things off his chest. It does seem to be a lot of ranting and whining.

 
At September 21, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At September 21, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...

sounds like this ongoing conversation is mounting to a nice turbulent critical mass. Good luck with the results; sincerely.

 
At September 22, 2006, Blogger Drunken Monkey said...

For a Buddhist who condemns the actions of others, you sure like to rant and rave yourself.

Personally, I have no problem with the ranting of Gudo and Brad. I don't have the same knee jerk reactions that some of the more idealistic people here have.

I don't think Im gullible or dogmatic, accepting anything that comes from the horses mouth, but I know that I am pretty much on the same wavelength as these people.
I have a good feeling that these people are the real deal.

 
At September 24, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

"For a Buddhist who condemns the actions of others, you sure like to rant and rave yourself."

Drunken Monkey, the "ranting and raving" in the title referred to my own actions, not those of Gudo and Brad.

Yes, I am being critical and ranting and raving about the problems I see in traditional Zen.

 
At September 25, 2006, Blogger Kalsang Dorje said...

The whole critisism of the teacher, I think, is valid. We still have to recognize that the teacher is human, that we have to inspect our given teachings and give them time to percolate. If a teaching doesn't work for you, that's ok. Just let it not work for you and re-visit later. I think the big mistake is on the behalf of the student - allowing teacher be unquestionable, absolute, pure. We have to be able to question the teacher - we may end up fools, but it's worth while.

 
At September 26, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I haven't been on in some time and probably won't be on much after this comment. I had a bout with a serious complication following surgery and have not been well. Not being well gives you lots of time to think about things. One of the things I thought about besides whether I was going to get well at all was whether all this banter is necessary or even in line with buddhist teachings. Because of my personal experience I think you have to very carefully study your teacher as well as the teachings. Teachers are not gods that can do no wrong. And they certainly can't think for you. If you feel something is out of line, go with it. If you're wrong, you'll find out sooner or later. No big deal. If you're right, you may have saved yourself a lot of heartache. I personally cannot consider anyone a true teacher or guide that professes that their way is the only way or the true way because that is exactly what I was taught in CAtholic school. Since buddha nature or whatever you want to call it is inherent in all of us, do we truly need a teacher if we follow our instincts, see ourselves clearly, very clearly, no ignoring the ugly parts, and have the "faith" (not blind faith) that life will lead us where we are supposed to go? This may sound very hokey, but I think that faith plays a large part in any awakening. You get to the point where you are cornered by your own questions, kind of like koan practice, and you have to just give up. Accept this life as it is and do your best. Very simple philosophy but very difficult to arrive at. Read some of "Returning To Silence" by Katagiri for some views on faith

 
At September 26, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Karen, welcome back, if even for a moment, and thanks for your comment. I am sorry to hear you have not been well, and I hope you do recover soon.

I also went to catholic school, so I know what you are saying. It makes me smile to 'hear' you went through the same training in recognizing dogma ;-)

When you feel better, please come back, check in on us, and maybe even tell us what you have learned, on the 'main' page.

 
At September 27, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

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.

You value critical thinking now because that's all you've got. And critical thinking is a fine tool and I don't mean to disparage it. But thinking rests on some assumptions about how the world is. Critical thinking is linguistic and all languages embody assumptions about the world. For example, the agent-action pattern is fundamental to English. All this makes it extremely difficult to overcome our delusions solely by means of critical thinking.

So we have meditation, zazen, or whatever you wish to call it. And there are teachers, roshis, senseis, and so forth. Now the catch is, since meditation is a tool that doesn't use critical thinking, critical thinking can't be totally conclusive in who is a good teacher. And different teachers will say different things to try to lead their students to understand what can't be expressed in words. What you call dogmatism is really is just the inability to fit what the teacher says into a conceptual scheme. Really, it's nothing different than when your parents told you, "When you grow up, you'll understand." Didn't you always hate that?

I'm not suggesting you suspend critical thinking. Trust shouldn't be given blindly, it's something that grows over a period of time. But some sort of trust in the teacher is neccessary, absolutely neccessary. Because the truth is simple and obvious and we've heard it all before. But without meditation practice and trust in the teacher you'll pass it right by.

 
At September 28, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

well said jinzang

 
At September 28, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

Jinzang,
You wrote:
"And different teachers will say different things...What you call dogmatism is really is just the inability to fit what the teacher says into a conceptual scheme."

What you just wrote is the same idea as the "crazy wisdom" excuse of charlatans such as Andrew Cohen and Adi Da, etc etc.
'We', the unenlightened, are too spiritually immature to fathom the nonrational ways of these Buddhist masters, so we get 'confused' using our critical thinking.
I just dont buy it. Again, i dont actually know Gudo or Brad or these people so I cant say what they are...and even if i knew them, i'd still just be guessing.
But, yeah, i'll trust my critical thinking, thank you very much.
I think what you wrote is the start, for some people, of accepting charlatans and fools as as 'masters' simply because it is now spiritually accepted that we need to trust our masters in order to learn from them.
Why? The whole point of it--i thought--was to learn a technique or set of techniques that we would then apply in our own lives and determine for ourselves whether they hold value.
I dont need to trust Brad or the Dali Lama to do that. The whole thing smacks of fundamentalist rhetoric. Critical thinking, i agree, is certainly not the only way to ascertain someone's trustworthiness. But it is part of a package which can help us to examine and try to make the best decision possible so we are not taken in by fakes and scammers.
Honestly, i have a teacher that i trust (about 99.9% anyway)so its not as if i refuse to ever trust anyone.
A few of the unusual things he told me to look for (and i offer them up so others can use them) in the worth of a teacher.
1. Watch their eyes and see if they are still and present to the moment or moving all around and blinking constantly, lost in thought.
2. Watch their breathing to see if it is smooth and rhythmic or if it is hurried and unnatural, again, indicating disturbance.
3. Listen to how they talk and whether they are placing more emphasis on their verbal gymnastics, or do they seem to be paying more attention to "how" they say things.
4. See if they can be still or if they appear antsy and nervous, even little ticks can be a giveaway.

None of the things i listed are written in stone, i get that. But those things are observable and i truly feel that over time, you can observe someone to see if they are relaxed, peaceful and at home in their body. Even if this person isnt enlightened, its more likely they have at least something to offer. And probably are not a total fraud.

But when you view this advice against the typical "trust the master" crap, i think i'll take observation, especially self-observation any day. You can keep your leaders.

g

 
At September 28, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I totally understand where you're coming from gniz.

If someone has qualities of wisdom then I try to learn from them. I use my own intuition, judgement and yes, critical thinking to assess people.

If someone declares that what he says is true because he is enlightened or because the person who said it is enlightened (or knows God or whatever) I'm not really interested. It's just the same as the claim that the Pope is 'infallible' and that seems unlikely, especially now.

The whole 'you will understand when you are enlightened' argument is flawed and could be used as easily by a charlatan or deluded dogmatist as by a genuine sage.

No one has to accept anyone else as an infallible authority or even as a teacher if they don't want to.

Trust your instinct.

 
At September 28, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

The whole point of it--i thought--was to learn a technique or set of techniques that we would then apply in our own lives and determine for ourselves whether they hold value.

Meditation can be taught and used as a technique, but when used in this way has limited value. Let me give you an analogy. Using meditation as a technique is like holding a test tube over a bunsen burner. Zazen--if it's genuine--is like sitting in the test tube getting cooked, Somebody else has to hold the test tube--it can't be you. And you've got to trust them. Otherwise you'll jump out of the test tube before you're cooked enough.

I'm not saying you should trust the first guy in flowing robes with a gleam in his eyes. That would be crazy. But you've got to put your trust in somebody.

 
At September 29, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Gniz:
"1. Watch their eyes and see if they are still and present to the moment or moving all around and blinking constantly, lost in thought.
2. Watch their breathing to see if it is smooth and rhythmic or if it is hurried and unnatural, again, indicating disturbance.
3. Listen to how they talk and whether they are placing more emphasis on their verbal gymnastics, or do they seem to be paying more attention to "how" they say things.
4. See if they can be still or if they appear antsy and nervous, even little ticks can be a giveaway"


I'd agree with this quite strongly. It is very much in line with what I tend to do when 'assessing' someone. It is I think very difficult to fake.

If you haven'd done so already it is worth applying the same sort of thing to the video of Gudo Nishijima over on www.treeleaf.org.

 
At September 29, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

The nearest I have to a 'Zen Master' is Godo Guy Mercier who I have met only on two sessins. He certainly seems to have a stillness and awareness about him which I hope to learn from. Having said that, I don't necessarily believe everything he says nor feel a need to 'submit to his will' or his Truth or his Authority like some sort of cult guru.

It's just a matter of recognising people we can learn from.

 
At September 29, 2006, Blogger Grim said...

Here's my 2 cent late comment to all that crazy jazz -
Sometimes you gotta grab the sheet by the hem and shake the hell out of it. Just look at all the dirt flying through the air and you can see why this needs to be done.

 
At October 05, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

.

 
At October 06, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

sorry that was an accident! unfortunately i wasn't being really deep by just writing .

 
At October 16, 2006, Blogger yudo said...

You wrote:
[quote]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...[quote]

I think this is important. We have to be careful in this respect, especially since there is so much emphasis on the copying of orientalisms. Which are less than useless.

 
At October 18, 2006, Blogger Pirooz M. Kalayeh said...

I like the practice of Zen. It's a great feeling to sit, you know?

I've haven't felt particularly one way or the other about teachers. I figured out a long time ago that people are imperfect and what they are.

Funny thing is that I know deep down inside that this is perfect too. Exactly how it's supposed to be.

So I trust my gut, like you Zensters say. I just kick it with the homeless of L.A., or chat it up with some famous cat, or even the barrista at the coffee shop.

I don't really expect anything. I just keep my eyes open. Pay attention, you know?

Anyway, I hear ya'll about thinking people are going to rip you off and make you into bad Buddhists. That might happen.

But what if it's supposed to? Maybe, that's some good teaching, right?

Who knows? All I do know is that I've had lots of different kinds of teachers. They've taught me lots of different things.

Some of my favorie stuff has been from Trevor. He's a homeless guy on Hollywood Boulevard. He sits with me when I draw and tells me stuff about Marilyn Monroe. Those are some of my favorite moments.

There was even this other time when I was sitting at the coffee shop when this Shakespearian actor laid out the whole race problem for me. I hadn't ever thought about it like that. It was some good teaching.

Anyway, I hear ya'll and the gripes about Buddha and teachers and everything. It's making me want to go sit for a while. It's also got me writing.

Thanks for that. Thanks for writing this blog.

I'll catch you,

P.

 
At February 14, 2007, Blogger Blue Heron Zen Buddhist Centre said...

When a Zen master gives an answer to a student, it is for that student only. He may give a different answer to the same question to a different student. This is because the master knows his/her students personally and sees qualities and behaviours in them that they are completely unaware of having. It is for that reason that it is so important to have a teacher who knows you. You can learn some from the internet, some from books, but it only boils down to introjected material that has no basis in experience. Therefore, a professor of Zen can know a lot about it, but will never reach enlightenment unless they have the experience of Zen.

 

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