Thursday, June 28, 2007

Zen Teachings and Idolatry

For my first (but hopefully, not only) contribution to "Flapping Mouths" I would like to address one of the major barriers to an accurate understanding of Zen Buddhism: attachment to words. In my experience with practitioners, teachers, and scholars I have discovered that Zen teachings seem to be particularly susceptible to something that is often regarded as the very antithesis of Zen Buddhism, namely, rigid adherence to dogma.

Rigid dogmatism in Zen, as in other spiritual traditions, manifests as a fixation, or attachment to words and doctrines. Dogmatic adherence to views (especially when based on "authoritative interpretation") not only makes people vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, but also blocks them off from the very wisdom it is intended to transmit. The "words and letters" of Buddhism, like those of poetry, have no intrinsic value of their own. Their value is found only in the reality that they are intended to reveal. As one western expression has it, "Even the Devil can quote scripture." The classic Zen text, Transmission of the Lamp, presents this point in the form of a dialogue:

The Master {Kuei Shan, Ling Yu} asked Yang shan, "Of the forty books of the Nirvana Sutra, how much should be ascribed to the Buddha and how much to the speech of devils?"

Yang Shan answered, "It is all devilish talk."

The Master remarked, "From now on, there will be no one who can correct your opinion."
(Trans. Sohaku Ogata)

In Zen texts, this affliction is referred to as "dependence on words and letters," "attachment to doctrine," "mistaking the finger for the moon," etc. In western religions, it is called idolatry: the worship of an idol or idols.

All the great spiritual traditions recognize the danger of doctrines indicating reality becoming grasped as reality themselves. The scriptures and sacred writings of the traditions themselves repeatedly warn us not to make doctrines into "graven images." Erich Fromm, in his study of idolatry, You Shall Be As Gods, defines idolatry as the worship of any thing that is not reality itself, including doctrines. He discusses how tenacious this tendency is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He writes:

Anyone who reads the Hebrew Bible cannot but be impressed by the fact while it contains hardly any theology, its central issue is the fight against idolatry.

Dr. Fromm then reminds us that the very first commandment in the Judeo-Christian "Ten Commandments," is the prohibition of idolatry, he continues:

The war against idolatry is the main religious theme that runs through the Old Testament from the Pentateuch to Isaiah and Jeremiah. The cruel warfare against the tribes that lived in Canaan, as well as many of the ritual laws, can be understood only as rooted in the desire to protect the people from contamination with idol worship. In the Prophets, the theme of anti-idolatry is no less prominent; but instead of the command to exterminate the idol worshipers, the hope is expressed that all nations will give up idolatry and be united in its common negation.

Fromm’s statement could be applied to a generous amount of the literature of Zen Buddhism. The tendency towards idolizing the words, doctrines, and techniques in Zen Buddhism easily matches that of the western traditions. So persistent is this tendency in Zen that even the words "outside of scriptures" and "no dependence on words and letters" have become idols of worship in aberrant Zen schools.

This brings me to the point of the present discussion. When reading Zen texts we need to understand that Zen masters use words with the intention of transmitting spiritual wisdom (prajna). The words, expressions, doctrines, and techniques that the masters employ can become idolized through attachment and conceptualization. The words "Buddha", "Dharma," (teaching, law, reality, etc.) and "Bodhi" (enlightenment) are especially susceptible to idolization. In Shobogenzo, Gyobutsu-Yuigo, the Zen master Eihei Dogen explains how these terms can become "fetters" that actually bar us from the very wisdom that they are intended to convey:

Before verbal expression, the leaking out of the gist of the teaching covers Time, covers [all] directions, covers buddha, and covers action. If we are not acting buddha {awakened and functioning in reality}, being not yet released from the fetter of Buddha and the fetter of Dharma, we are grouped among ‘Buddha’- demons and ‘Dharma’- demons. The meaning of "the fetter of Buddha" is as follows: when we view and understand bodhi as ‘bodhi,’ we have been directly fettered by that view itself and by that understanding itself.
(Trans. Nishijima & Cross)

In one of the most popular scriptures of Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha explains that he is like a father who uses statements that are not literally true in order to induce his children to come out of a burning house. He tells them about wonderful "gifts" that await them outside the house. Although he "fabricated" these gifts, he did so with the knowledge that his "true gifts", which the children would not have been able to imagine, were much greater than the "toys" he promised them. In such a case, he is not guilty of lying. Being attached to words is like taking the fabricated gifts as real, thereby missing the true gifts.

In the light of this, all of the expressions of Zen are true in that they direct us to the truth. At the same time, they are all false in that they are not truth in themselves. Truth in Zen is not concerned with semantics. For example, look at this well-known Zen koan:

A monk asked Joshu, "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?"
Joshu said, "No (Mu)."

Later, a monk asked Joshu, "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?"
Joshu said, "Yes (U)."

This kind of dialogue is common in Zen. Joshu (Zhaozhou) is one of the most highly revered masters in the history of Zen Buddhism, and none within the tradition would say that he missed the mark in either of these responses. "No" is the right response, and "Yes" is the right response. Each of these responses points directly to an aspect of the indivisible truth of reality. To view one of these responses as right and the other as wrong is to set up an idol; that is, to be "fettered by a view." This applies to all the Zen teachings (including the exhortation not to become "fettered by a view").

Eihei Dogen, one of the most ingenious koan masters ever, commented many times on Joshu’s koan about the Buddha-nature of a dog. In the Eihei Koroku he pointed out the fallacy of a one-sided view like this:

The teacher Dogen said: Zhaozhou {Joshu} said it like this for the sake of this person, and was most kind. However, if someone asked me, "Does the dog have Buddha nature or not?" I would say to him: Whether you say yes or no, either one is slander.

If the person were to ask "What?" at the very moment of his speaking he would be hit with my stick.
(Trans. Leighton & Okumura)

If we read Zen texts with the idea of gaining ordinary intellectual knowledge or some formulaic statement of truth, we are heading for confusion. When we contemplate Zen expressions, the attitude to embody is not, "what does this say?" but "what truth or experience is this intended to indicate or provoke?" Failing this, we will quickly find ourselves entangled in all sorts of contradictions and complications.

Zen literature is like an etching of reality; serving to outline, provoke, or otherwise indicate the reality beyond the words themselves. If we are to grasp the significance of these expressions, they need to become, in the words of the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, "transparent to transcendence." (The Power of Myth)

When any statement is taken as literal truth, it becomes opaque, concealing the reality behind it and becoming a barrier to any truths that seems to conflict with it. In the words of the great T’ien-t’ai Buddhist master, Chih-i:

The various scriptures and treatises open people’s eyes, yet they cling to one and doubt another, affirm one and deny others. When they hear that milk is like snow [in that it is white], they think that means it is cold. When they hear that milk is like a crane [in that it is white], they think that means it moves.
(Stopping and Seeing, Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Zen doctrines are not reality itself, they are intimations of reality. The language, doctrines, and devices of the Zen masters are as susceptible to idolization as those of all other religions and spiritual traditions. This susceptibility is often magnified by sectarian exclusionists claiming spiritual authority based on sect or lineage.

The wisdom that Zen literature (and practice) is intended to convey is not exclusive to any Zen "school", or even to Buddhism; it is the common wisdom of all beings throughout space and time. Zen teachings, when viewed as dogmatic truths, only become barriers to reality. Zen teachings are worthless in and of themselves; their true value lies only in their ability to reveal reality.