Friday, May 30, 2008

The depth of the drop is the height of the moon

In Shobogenzo, Genjokoan Dogen offers an amazingly succinct and profoundly illuminating presentation of the Buddhist doctrine of mutual interpenetration and non-obstruction. Dogen manages to present the very heart of this labyrinthine doctrine with a simple analogy that illustrates what it is like for a human being to embody the entire universe. A person, he says, “contains” the whole universe (all time and space) like a single drop of water reflects (contains) the whole sky. In the words of the Genjokoan:

"A person experiencing enlightenment is like the moon being reflected in water: the moon does not get wet, and the water is not broken. Though its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected in a puddle of water an inch wide. The whole moon and the whole sky are reflected in a dewdrop on a blade of grass and are reflected in a single drop of water."

If you go out into a field on a clear night with a magnifying glass and look closely at a single drop of water, you will see that it “contains” the moon, the stars, and all the space in-between. Likewise, each thing and each person contains all the many things of the universe. You cannot see them with an ordinary magnifying glass, however you can see them with the magnifying glass of Zen practice and enlightenment. In fact, seeing that reality is Zen. The Genjokoan continues this analogy:

"Enlightenment does not break a person, just as the moon does not pierce the water."

The reflection of the moon (and sky) does not “pierce” the drop of water. In other words, the drop of water is not altered (does not expand or change into something else) by containing the whole sky. It is in fact an inherent quality of the true nature of water drops to “contain” the moon. Similarly, “enlightenment does not break a person;” to contain all of space and time is an inherent quality of “a person.” The Genjokoan continues:

"A person does not constrict enlightenment, just as a dewdrop does not constrict the sky and moon."

The moon and sky do not “pierce” the drop of water, nor does the drop of water “constrict” the moon and sky. In Huayen Buddhism, the quality of “containing” is called “mutual interpenetration,” and the quality of “not constricting” is called “non-obstruction.” The sky and the moon seen within the drop of water are seen as they are. In the same way, an individual (person) contains but does not constrict the whole of space and time (and in fact, this is true of every particular, thing, time, and event). The Genjokoan continues:

"The depth of the drop is the height of the moon."

Looking at the drop of water with the magnifying glass you see that all the space between the stars and moon is contained within it, so too the space between the drop of water and the moon. In other words, although the drop of water is a fraction of an inch, you can see “down into” it for thousands, even millions of miles. You see the moon, then millions of miles (and light-years) deeper in the drop of water, there is the Big Dipper. As Dogen is using this analogy to illustrate the nature of a person experiencing enlightenment (oneness with all of space and time), the depth and height of enlightenment (all time and space) are contained within a person. As the Genjokoan says:

"Whether large or small, and whatever the length or shortness of its duration the whole sky and the whole moon are discerned in each body of water."

As with each “body of water,” each person, wise or deluded (large or small), whatever “its duration”, a one hundred-year-old man or a one-day-old baby, contains all space and time (the whole sky). Therefore, Dogen exhorts you to “discern” the myriad aspects of this reality. The moon, the sky, and the Big Dipper are just the beginning; there are whole galaxies to explore. Not only that, but the “longness and shortness of its moment” reminds you of the ongoing newness, or unfolding of it all. That is to say, the moon, the Big Dipper, and all the galaxies of today, are not yesterday’s moon, Big Dipper, and galaxies.

Comments Welcome!


Copyright Ted Biringer 2008

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The vast unnamable fathomless void

Louie Wing said, “The vast unnamable fathomless void is not created by some kind of spiritual practice; just cease screening it off through conceptualization. When perceptions, feelings, and thoughts arise, simply act accordingly without attachment or aversion. All of the myriad things are identical to the vast unnamable fathomless void, which is identical to your own mind. There is not a single objective particle anywhere.”
--From The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing: The Second Ancestor of Zen in the West by Ted Biringer

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Delusion? Conceptualization?

Ceasing conceptualization frees you from attachment to objects, illumination of wisdom frees you from attachment to no objects. To hold any view of objective reality is delusion based on conceptualization; to hold a view of no objective reality is delusion based on conceptualization.
~The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing


Monday, May 19, 2008

Dharma Dollers!

X posted from here: Slow Zen: Asura Dharma: Tea Pot, Zazen Bamboo?<br> found at Target

Since I am a fan of tea, bamboo, and ZaZen, I am quite happy to be able to get all three for the low low price of 9.99!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Certification/Transmission of Enlightenment

Me talk about the "E" word? say it ain't so!
Yeah folks I guess it is about time. All of Ted’s talk about transmission has dragged it out of me. I am going to quote an ole dead (maybe not really so dead) guy too.

So why am I doing this? To express a certain point of view, and because people are unreliable. The history of transmission in the “Zen” tradition has been corrupt since it began. And while there are good teachers out there, even most of them are bound by customs, curtseys, policies, and procedures which have little or nothing to do with much of anything accept self aggrandizement and self perpetuation and doctrine.

So how do we, unable to find a reliable person, get certification of our own enlightenment? (Leave out a few concepts here, we’re already enlightened, I know the whole universe is enlightenment itself, yep, got that)

So where do we turn? Well, I know a monk who initially sounded pretty pretentious.
He said “I have overcome all foes; I am all-wise; I am free from stains in all things; I have left everything and have obtained emancipation of craving. Having myself gained knowledge, whom should I call my master? I have no teacher; no one is equal to me; in the world of men and of gods no being is like me. I am the Holy One in this world, I am the highest teacher, I alone am the perfectly ever Enlightened One; I have gained coolness and have obtained Nirvana. To set in motion the wheel of the Dharma, I go to the city of the Benares; I will beat the drum of the Immortal in the darkness of this world."

Wow! I think we would consider it pretty rude to talk like that nowadays.
So we should put this to the test! What is the criteria for all of that big stuff you say you are?

And he said:
"There are two extremes, which he who has given up the world ought to avoid.
Those extremes are, a life given to pleasures, devoted to pleasures and lusts—this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and profitless.
And a life given to mortifications—this is painful, ignoble, and profitless.”

Ok so we should avoid extremes that seems like it ought to be common sense, but as I look around, I am sad to see it not so common after all. Besides, people like to party! What is to be gained by avoiding these to extremes?

And he said: “By avoiding these two extremes, I have gained the knowledge of the Middle Way which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to Supreme Enlightenment, to Nirvana."

Whoa, there you go talking that smack again like your all that. So how the heck did you get that way if it is so?

He said: “It is the Noble Eightfold Way, namely: right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right meditation.

This,is the Middle Way the knowledge of which I have gained, which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to perfect enlightenment to Nirvana.

This is the Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha): birth is suffering; aging is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; presence of objects we hate is suffering; separation from objects we love is suffering; not to obtain what we desire is suffering. In short, the Five Components of Existence are suffering.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Origin of Suffering: verily, it originates in that craving which causes rebirth, which produced delight and passion, and seeks pleasure now here, now there; that is to say, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for continued life, craving for nonexistence.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Cessation of Suffering: truly, it is the complete cessation of craving so that no passion remains; the laying aside of, the giving up, the being free from, the harboring no longer of, this craving.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Way which leads to the Cessation of Suffering: verily, it is this Noble Eightfold Way, that is to say, right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation.

This is the Noble Truth concerning Suffering. Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition.

This Noble Truth concerning Suffering must be understood. Thus, monks, in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and intuition. This Noble Truth concerning Suffering I have understood. Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and intuition.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Origin of Suffering. Thus in things which had formerly not been heard of I have obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition. This Noble Truth concerning the Cause of Suffering must be abandoned . . . has been abandoned by me. Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and intuition.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Cessation of Suffering Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition. This Noble Truth concerning the Cessation of Suffering must be seen face to face . . . has been seen by me face to face. Thus, monks, in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition.

This is the Noble Truth concerning the Way which leads to the Cessation of Suffering. Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition. This Noble Truth concerning the Way which leads to the Cessation of Suffering must be realized . . . has been realized by me. Thus in things which formerly had not been heard of have I obtained insight, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, intuition.”

Ok, so that was from Gotama Buddha’s first “Dharma” talk at Dear Park. In the last chapters of the Nishijima and Cross translation of the Shobognzo you will find something quite similar. This paticular version was adapted from Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translation, and E. H. Brewster, Life of Gotama the Buddha.

In that first sermon Gotama Buddha set forth the criteria for enlightenment.
It takes something special though, it takes self discipline, courage, poise, self confidence, the willingness to meet a challenge, the ability to be honest with yourself. Basically heroic guts. But you can do it. And if you are even moderately successful, when you have met this criterion, this is the transmission of the truth from Buddha to Buddha. This is what the unscrupulous covet but will never have. This needs no silk or paper document because when it is there you will radiate it. You will know, and others will figure it, and you will not need any certification at all because you are the certification.

In Gassho,
(stepping down from the high seat)


What does Dogen mean? No monks were ever enlightened?

What was Dogen teaching us when he spoke about transmission?
Check this out:

"The veteran monk Shugetsu, while he was assigned to the post of head monk on Tendo, showed to Dogen a certificate of succession of Unmon’s lineage… Mahakasyapa, Ananda, and so on, were aligned as if [they belonged to] separate lineages... Dogen asked... "Master, nowadays there are slight differences among the five sects in their alignment [of names]. What is the reason? If the succession from the Western Heavens has passed from rightful successor to rightful successor, how could there be differences?" Shugetsu said, "Even if the difference were great, we should just study that the buddhas of Unmon-zan mountain are like this. Why is Old Master Sakyamuni honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth. Why is Great Master Unmon honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth." Dogen, hearing these words, had a little [clearer] understanding."(Shobogenzo, Shisho, Nishijima & Cross)

In the same essay, Dogen tells us about an encounter with his own teacher:

"My late Master, the eternal Buddha, the great Master and Abbot of Tendo, preached the following: "The buddhas, without exception, have experienced the succession of the Dharma. That is to say, Sakyamuni Buddha received the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha, Kasyapa Buddha received theDharma from Kanakamuni Buddha, and Kanakamuni Buddha received the Dharma from Krakucchanda Buddha. We should believe that the succession has passed like this from buddha to buddha until the present. This is the way of learning Buddhism." Then Dogen said, "It was after Kasyapa Buddha had entered nirvana (Died--i.e. he was a dead guy) that Sakyamuni Buddha first appeared in the world and realized the truth. Furthermore, how could the buddhas of the Kalpa of Wisdom receive the Dharma from the buddhas of the Kalpa of Resplendence (i.e. since they were dead, how could the transmission come from them)? What [do you think] of this principle?" My late Master said, "What you have just expressed is understanding [based on] listening to theories. It is the way of [bodhisattvas at] the ten sacred stages or the three clever stages. It is not the way [transmitted by] the Buddhist patriarchs from rightful successor to rightful successor. Our way, transmitted from buddha to buddha, is not like that. We have learned that Sakyamuni Buddha definitely received the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha. We learn in practice that Kasyapa Buddha entered nirvana after Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma. If Sakyamuni Buddha did not receive the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha, he might be the same as a naturalistic non-Buddhist. Who then could believe in Sakyamuni Buddha? Because the succession has passed like this from buddha to buddha, and has arrived at the present, the individual buddhas are all authentic successors, and they are neither arranged in a line nor gathered in a group. We just learn that the succession passes from buddha to buddha like this. It need not be related to the measurements of kalpas and the measurements of lifetimes mentioned in the teaching of the Agamas... We learn that Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Kasyapa Buddha, and we learn that Kasyapa Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Sakyamuni Buddha. When we learn it like this, it is truly the succession of the Dharma of the buddhas and the patriarchs." Then Dogen not only accepted, for the first time, the existence of Buddhist patriarchs’ succession of the Dharma, but also got rid of an old nest."(Shobogenzo, Shisho, Nishijima & Cross)

What does Dogen mean about getting "rid of an old nest." Is he saying we maybe grant too much significance to the theory of transmission? Does he want us to realize there is something deeper, more significant to transmission?

Both Dogen and his teacher seem to be going out of their way to show us that transmission has nothing to do with being "arranged in a line nor gathered in a group." It seems he may be warning us not to get caught up in systems of thought. He admits that he did not believe in transmission himself until his teacher finally was able to get the point across. Only then did "Dogen accept for the first time the existence" of transmission. He seems to be telling us to forget all the external BS, and penetrate into the living heart, that is the experiential reality of authentic transmission.

In Dogen’s voluminous teachings on transmission, he clearly seems to think that it has very little to do with lineage charts or certificates. Dogen usually describes transmission as "Buddha to Buddha," or as "oneself to oneself."

Of course, in Zen those phrases mean the same thing.

Dogen speaks of transmission as transmission of wisdom (prajna) by wisdom, to wisdom.

Remember Dogen’s explanation of transmission in the story of Hui-neng?

First, Dogen reminds us that Hui-neng, was never exposed to the "teachings" yet he was "suddenly enlightened" when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra.

Dogen then says:"This is just the truth of those who have wisdom, if they hear [the Dharma], they are able to believe and understand at once. This wisdom is neither learned from other people nor established by oneself: wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom ... It is beyond coming and beyond entering: it is like the spirit of spring meeting springtime, for example. Wisdom is beyond intention and wisdom is beyond no intention. Wisdom is beyond consciousness and wisdom is beyond unconsciousness. How much less could it be related to the great and the small? How much less could it be discussed in terms of delusion and realization? The point is that although [the Sixth Patriarch] does not even know what the Buddha Dharma is, never having heard it before and so neither longing for it nor aspiring to it, when he hears the Dharma, he makes light of his debt of gratitude and forgets his own body and; such things happen because the body-and-mind of those who have wisdom is already not their own.This is the state called able to believe and understand at once... [people] are like a stone enveloping a jewel, the jewel not knowing that it is enveloped by a stone, and the stone not knowing that it is enveloping a jewel. [When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it. This is neither something that the jewel is expecting nor something that the stone is awaiting: it does not require knowledge from the stone and it is beyond thinking by the jewel. In other words, a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom."(Shobogenzo, Inmo, Nishijima & Cross)

What else could Dogen mean by, "wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom."?

This is one of Dogen's best descriptions of transmission. He breaks it down, showing that wisdom (prajna) is Buddha-Dharma (Buddhist truth). Hence, wisdom transmits wisdom and is received by wisdom. Transmission implies, a "transmitter" and a "receiver." So, Buddha to Buddha (or oneself to oneself) means that Buddha is both transmitter and receiver. Just as Hui-neng "received" the wisdom "transmitted" by wisdom (the Diamond Sutra).

That is the "ever-present nature of air" and "the action of fanning." That is Zen practice and enlightenment.

When the Zen practitioner opens him or herself to the wisdom transmitted by the wisdom (of Buddhas (yes, even dead ones), Zen masters, texts, koans, birdsong, raindrops, walls, stones, etc.), that practitioners own innate wisdom is actualized.

Like Dogen’s "jewel inside the rock." The jewel (wisdom) has been in the rock (human beings) from the start. As soon as the "rock" realizes this, the "jewel" is already transmitted. In his own words, "[When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it." That is to say, transmission is the actualization of (inherent) wisdom.

We are drawn along the path of Zen by that wisdom within us, which is seeking actualization through practice and enlightenment. When we become intimate with the message of a sutra, or Zen sermon, wisdom is realized, that is, transmission occurs.

It is not that something "comes out" of a scripture or sermon and "goes into" people. The scripture or sermon activate what is already inherent. We can’t "learn" it or "understand" it, as Dogen said, "a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom."

Isn’t this the meaning of Dogen’s teaching about "Buddhas alone, together with Buddhas?"

His writings are full of references about "only Buddhas realize Buddha." For example:

"The Buddha-Dharma cannot be known by people. For this reason, since ancient times, no common man has realized the Buddha-Dharma and no-one in the two vehicles (hinayana, and mahayana -to which Zen belongs) has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. Because it is realized only by buddhas, we say that buddhas alone, together with buddhas, are directly able perfectly to realize it."(Shobogenzo, Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu, Nishijima & Cross)

Pretty powerful statement. If no-one in the two-vehicles (which includes Zen monastics) has received the Buddha-Dharma... Well, it seems pretty clear that the "exoteric" theory concerning transmission from teacher to disciple is not what Dogen sees as the essence of transmission.

Correct me if you see another explanation here, but the way I understand Dogen's teaching on transmission is: the Buddha-Dharma (wisdom) is transmitted by Buddha (wisdom) and can only be realized by inherent Buddha-nature (wisdom).

If so, when Dogen says, "not a single lay person has ever realized enlightenment," we can understand that neither lay people nor monastics have realized enlightenment, for "it is realized only by Buddhas."

Of course it is easy to say that I don't know what I am talking about. Or tell me that I am way off the track-- and I expect that. But, what I would really like to say is, rather than telling me how wrong I am, please, share your own view and how you came to it.

Thank you all. Comments are most welcome!

Ted Biringer

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Unskillful rant on Teaching Zen

I think there is a lot of arrogance out there in the realm of so called “Zen” teachers.
I read words like “Doctrine” and “Transmission” and feel it could easily mislead others.
I grow more and more suspicious of some of the “Ideas” I hear on Zen.
While I do feel the responsibility of figuring things out ultimately rests with the seeker. There is allot of bad gouge out there. That makes the path a little trickier.

*side note* YES there are good “teachers” out there, I have even met a few, and conversed with a few more. And even the worst of teachers and scripture masters can be helpful! Do find a good “teacher” if you can! And DO NOT take what I am saying here as the gospel, YOU have to figure it out for yourself.

Anyone who has an inkling for teaching Buddhism or “Zen” might after a short or long amount of time practicing might feel compelled to “teach” “Zen” And I think there is a bit of helpful “Doctrine” out there that should be taught. For example: I like Master Dogen’s rules for meditation quite a bit for this I just think it is useful.

Actually I think there are a lot of devices that can be useful. But few recognize when they are beyond being useful. The problem with these “Doctrines” is that people do what people do. They get attached to them. Any scripture master can pull doctrine out of their backside but when it comes down to it, doctrine can become a hindrance to actual liberation. (Yes I accept that such a thing exists) Being a true person is what is important. Not knowledge of Koans or scripture.

The basics are OK. And they are important as training wheals. But the training wheals have to come off and the seeker has to be able to ride on their own. Otherwise there is no point and the seeker just gets hooked on another tether.

Personally, I don’t really have much faith in the so called zen teachers of today.
Most of the very best teachers I have found don’t sell zen at all. They actualize it in their daily lives both work and play (often it seems they are lucky enough to have them be the same thing). They may teach the flute (no, not me, I am not that good!) they may sell tea, they might even make skirts for men, who knows! The applications may be as limitless as the universe.

Me, yeah, I may seem pretty arrogant too, but I am not a “transmitted teacher” either. I just enjoy planting seeds and pulling weeds.

May you be free from suffering,

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Teaching Certificates - Dharma, or Priestcraft?

Mike’s (joke?) about getting a certificate, brings up one of the major difficulties faced by beginning students. This difficulty revolves around propagated distortions concerning the Zen tradition of mind to mind "transmission."

Nor is confusion regarding Zen "transmission" relegated to beginners or non-scholars alone; many scholars as well as those within the Zen orthodoxy openly acknowledge their own muddled understandings about some of the issues surrounding transmission. One of the reasons for this confusion arises from the fact that the term "transmission" has been appropriated by various Zen Schools, in various times, to validate, clarify, and establish a variety of unrelated doctrines, traditions, and rituals. At the risk of oversimplification we could say, "transmission" has meant different things, to different schools, in different times.

The major roles that authentic Zen Schools have appropriated the term "transmission" for include, the transmission of particular teaching "styles," e.g. Rinzai’s dharma, Tozan’s dharma, etc. The secret, or "esoteric" transmission rituals from teacher to disciple (which scholarship has shown to be apocryphal creations designed primarily to legitimize claims of superiority among competing Schools). The tradition of "mind to mind" transmission. Mind to mind transmission is briefly, the transmission of wisdom (prajna) from Buddha to Buddha (that is from the Buddha mind of Buddhas and Zen masters, to the Buddha mind of students and practitioners).

Although there are others, these three include the most common and influential roles that transmission has been called on to fulfill according to the classic teachings of Zen. The distortions of these doctrines that students should be wary of appropriate and combine some or the more superficial aspects from all three authentic roles, while failing to incorporate any of the essential spiritual aspects of them. While the various groups and individuals propagating the distorted teachings on transmission may differ regarding their particular "formulations," these distorted doctrines share enough characteristics to allow them to be described in the same general terms.
The distorted teachings propagate "transmission" as the conveyance of the "Dharma" (essential truth, law, teaching of Buddhism) from one individual human being, to another individual human being, who is thus "certified" as a "Dharma-heir." The human being in the role of transmitter, himself (or, in some Schools herself—at least theoretically) was the recipient of the "Dharma" from another individual human being, and so on all the way back to the "historical" Buddha. The newly propagated "Dharma-heir" is thusly "qualified" to "teach with full authority" and in addition, "empowered" to propagate "Dharma-heirs" of their own.

A few interesting side notes on this "amazing" spiritual tradition include the fact that there does not seem to be any limit regarding the quantity of Dharma-heirs that any single Dharma-heir can propagate. Some Dharma-heirs propagate very few or even no Dharma-heirs of their own. Other Dharma-heirs, especially in the modern West, are quite fruitful, propagating Dharma-heirs left and right, and propagating things other than Dharma-heirs as well. In addition, the charts used by the "orthodox" Zen Church’s to trace the purity of lineages (back to Buddha), which are similar to those the AKC (American Kennel Club) uses to keep track of canine purebreds, fail to acknowledge any women in the entirety of their 2500+ year histories. This in spite of the fact that official dogma of many orthodox Churches acknowledges women as "equally" qualified to be "Dharma-heirs." If it is true that women are equally qualified, one can only marvel at the nearly impossible mathematical odds that have been realized by the astonishing fact that not a single one has yet been recognized.

Returning to the issue at hand, this distorted version of "transmission" is often veiled in mysterious and mystical terms designed to imply that only "enlightened" beings (such as Dharma-heirs) can understand it. Even in Schools that promote milder versions, and clearly deny any supernatural or mystical implications to transmission, the "true" meaning of transmission is discussed in hushed tones and concealed in a hazy cloud of esoteric innuendo.

Objective observers can usually see the motivation behind these distortions of authentic Zen teachings; the age-old lust for power. When we grasp the not so subtle corollary to this subversion of authentic transmission teachings is that it forces a division between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (or in this case, the "enlightened" and the "deluded"). When only "Dharma-heirs" are enlightened, and everyone else is not, they will always be "right"—they can only "appear" wrong to us because we are just too deluded to grasp their profundity(which explains the common "teaching" that "good students" trust the teacher avoid critical questions, and "shut up and sit down"). Also, when only Dharma-heirs are qualified to teach with full authority, students quickly learn that failing to do what the "master" wants them to do will deny them "transmission of the true Dharma" and thus condemn them to eternity as ordinary deluded beings. This is the fundamental art of what William Blake called "Priestcraft."

Since nearly every modern "School," even those that include "authentic" teachers adhere to some version of this distortion of transmission, how should students avoid being exploited? First, by simply being aware of the fact that it exists. Second, by familiarizing themselves with the basic knowledge of the authentic tradition of transmission outlined in the classic Zen texts. Third, apply that knowledge to the evaluation process of discerning the qualifications of particular teachers.

Although very few honest people that know anything about the history of transmission in Zen would seriously claim that certificates prove an "unbroken" lineage going back to Bodhidharma (much less the Buddha), certificates can be useful. Certificates that designate "Dharma-heirs" can be useful for students when it comes to narrowing the field when seeking instruction from a teacher. They can be useful in the same way that a recommendation for a doctor or lawyer can when it comes from a trusted friend. For example, if a student has familiarized themselves with the basic classic records of Zen, and find they harmonize with published teachings of a contemporary Zen teacher, and that teacher has a "Dharma-heir" teaching in the student’s area, that might be a good place to check out.

At the same time, the authentic teachings on Zen transmission continue to be an important part of Zen training. Because of the profoundly subtle implications of the authentic function of transmission, its deeper import cannot be truly appreciated until students have advanced through some of the initial experiences of Zen practice and enlightenment, especially their initial experience of true nature. Nevertheless, an understanding of the fundamental points regarding the function of transmission is easily within the beginner’s ability. While I will present a brief outline here, I urge any serious students to examine the records of Zen for themselves. My summary here is brief and simplified and in no way am I any kind of an "expert." Who knows, I might be trying to lead you astray. Having put my disclaimer in, let us proceed.

The fundamental truth underlying the authentic teachings of transmission concern the conveyance of wisdom (prajna) from the Buddha mind of Buddhas and Zen masters to the Buddha mind of practitioners. This is the function that the term "mind to mind transmission" is used to indicate. Eihei Dogen often uses variations of the term "Buddhas together with Buddhas" when speaking of this function.

Zen transmission is implemented by utilizing meditation (Zazen, shikantaza, no-mind, etc.) to illumine the wisdom of "Buddhas" (as presented by teachers, scripture, treatises, practices, etc.) under the "light" (of Buddha nature) inherent in the practitioner’s own mind. This inherent "light" is the "Buddha nature" that is wakened from dormancy with the practitioners initial experience of "seeing into their true nature" (kensho). When the wisdom of "Buddhas" is illumined by the light of "Buddha nature" that wisdom is realized (made real) in the practitioner. Thus, the "Dharma" (teaching, law, truth, of Buddhism) is transmitted from Buddha (teachers, doctrines, practices) to Buddha (the inherent Buddha nature of all beings).

This summary is of course an oversimplification and as such is no more the whole "truth" than those previously discussed distortions above. Nevertheless, I believe it is closer to the mark than the above distortions, and is much less vulnerable to being used as a tool for exploitation.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

A year later and I still have not been kicked out! Weeeee!!!

It has now been nearly a year since my first post (on Zen and Idolatry) here at "Flapping Mouths." It has been great ride, and I have made some friends and learned a few things along the way (like not to take myself too seriously—though some might think I have not earned a very high grade in that area). Thank you all!

Here, and "in the field" I have met many Zen students and a few teachers that give me reason to be hopeful about Zen’s continued assimilation in the modern West. One thing that we western students seem to have grasped firmly is the necessity of some form or regular and consistent meditation, in Zen (and many Tibet schools) this usually takes the form of sitting meditation (Zazen). Though interpretations of "sitting meditation" vary widely, nearly all forms of Buddhism (including Theravada) include it as one of the fundamental "rules."

In my own life, it has become as natural as eating and sleeping. I heard (or read—I don’t remember which) about someone saying, "The wonderful thing about Zazen is that you get to do it whether you want to or not." Ha! Ain’t that the truth.

Another positive thing I have noticed is the sharing of ideas and resources among differing Buddhist communities, even between different sects—more, a friend and I were once given permission to host a sitting group in the sanctuary (not the basement) of one of our local Christian churches. For a year or so, we held (open to the public) meetings that included an hour and a half of Zazen followed by tea and cookies (sometimes cake).

I have also noticed a number of groups that include regular members that do not even identify themselves as Zen Buddhists, or even Buddhists. In my own local group the two most consistent members (I don’t think they have missed an evening sitting in two or three years) do not affiliate themselves with any tradition at all. One of our "senior" members (he has been sitting Wednesday mornings for about six years) is a devout Christian.

Nevertheless, every generation in Zen’s history has had to meet and deal with its own unique challenges and difficulties, and the present generation is no exception. Several objective observers have sounded the alarm about some of the most flagrant discrepancies between the classic Zen teachings and those being propagated by some who identify themselves as "Zen" teachers. Yet, few inside the Zen community have been willing to admit, much less announce that the "Roshi has no clothes."

I would like to take the opportunity to advise all students, if the Roshi is naked and invites you to sit in his or her lap, be very careful.

Moving right along; the major pitfalls that modern students face are, in my muddled opinion, the practice of idolatry (still), distorted teachings on the Zen tradition of transmission, and cultic, or superstitious doctrines concerning the nature of practice and enlightenment. I would once again like to take a stab at the topic of my first post a year ago (idolatry).

Idolatry, while often acknowledged (at least implicitly) in most scholarly studies of Zen, is usually overlooked or ignored by teachers and authors of popular Zen books. When it is addressed in popular books, it is usually given short shrift and its most serious dangers are not even acknowledged. Of course, scholars are familiar with the various roles and limitations of language, images, and symbols so they naturally seem to be able to use language without being used by language.

At the same time, many of us non-scholars do not have a solid grasp on the differences between metaphors, similes, and analogies or between connotation and denotation, symbol and sign, etc. Moreover, concerning the various modes of language, such as hyperbole, irony, satire, and propaganda, understanding among many of us non-scholars is often haphazard or vague. While being unfamiliar with the linguistic possibilities and limitations of verbal and written language does not in itself pose any problem, it can augment ones vulnerability to misrepresentation, unhealthy dependencies (on teachers and "fellow" members), and exploitation.

Many of the Zen masters used language at the very cliff-edge of its limitations—and beyond. Koans, for example, which form the basic texts, and are the primary feature distinguishing Zen from other Mahayana Schools, are one of the most misunderstood forms of language in the world.
The definitions of koans found in most dictionaries do not define koans, but instead define their effect on people that do not know how to read them; e.g. puzzles, riddles, irrational sayings, etc. This is, of course, no more an accurate definition of koans than defining Sanskrit as, "variously shaped lines and squiggles."

Another obvious example are the records of the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master, Eihei Dogen. He pushed the limits of Buddhist language (and Japanese language for that matter) farther than it had ever gone, excepting (maybe!) some of the Buddhist sutras.

Because Zen teachings (which is not to say "Zen" itself), like all teachings, are ultimately and necessarily verbal, they are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. At the same time, the very thing that makes Zen teachings vulnerable to misuse, also provides us with the tools for testing their authenticity or inauthenticity.

Being "verbal," the teachings of Zen are also, by extension, subject to literary inscription. Because Zen teachings have been recorded, studied, tested, refined, and developed for centuries we can access the wisdom and experience of many of the greatest Zen masters of all time. More on this shortly.

I am not, of course, suggesting that the actual "experiences" that Zen teachings refer to are verbal. The actual experiences described by Zen teachings are, like all experiences from doing the dishes to skydiving, beyond the limitations of language to convey. If words could convey the facts, we could eliminate world hunger with a sentence. It is simply not the function of words to convey experience, but only to denote, connote, refer to or describe experience. Even children understand that talking about baseball is not baseball itself.

Nevertheless, words, doctrines, and texts often become objects of attachment to the spiritually immature in all traditions, and we Zen students are not immune to this malady. Nor were our predecessors. A vast amount of Zen literature consists of warning beginners to avoid becoming attached to texts and doctrines. Such attachment (which includes both grasping and aversion) amounts to, what western traditions refer to as "idolatry" and what Dogen calls "loving the carved dragon (doctrines) more than the real dragon (experience)."

Ironically, the very doctrines designed to warn Zen students away from idolatry have themselves become the most powerful idols of worship in Zen. The most popular of these idols is "Zen is a separate transmission outside of writings, not dependent on words, pointing directly to the mind, and the realization of Buddhahood." Recent scholarship seems to suggest that this particular "carved dragon" was reified and idolized so fervently that it was a major factor in the dramatic intellectual decline of the Zen Schools during the last several centuries.

While most of us can see that this Zen dictum merely points out that Zen "experience," is separate from Zen "teachings," extremists have interpreted it to literally mean that Zen "teachings" are non-essential to authentic Zen practice and enlightenment, they are valueless, or even a hindrance to Zen "experience."

In spite of the fallacious logic of this interpretation—which would nullify their own "teaching" that "teachings are valueless"—intellectually naïve students took this interpretation seriously. To this day, many that identify themselves as "Zen practitioners" turn to this idol whenever they are asked about their seeming avoidance of shouldering the arduous task of serious Zen study.

Many of us have been "taught" that Zen is "just sitting" and having "no goal" and simply knowing that everything "just is." When asked where we "learned" such "Zen" teachings, we, like devout followers, or fundamentalists in all traditions, often resort to irrational innuendo and broad generalizations. When anyone tries to probe beyond the superficial layers of dogma and blind faith, out comes the idol, "Zen is a separate transmission outside writings."

Although it is easy to understand how and why this occurs when we are novitiate students, who by definition are spiritually (and often intellectually) inexperienced, it is difficult to fathom it when it comes from senior students and even "teachers."

Now I don’t think there is any problem with practicing anything we want to practice, or not practicing at all. But, like my good and great friends that have been sitting with me for years, if they do not follow the teachings of Zen, they ought not to identify themselves as "Zen Buddhists." And if they have developed their own particular views that are not based on Zen teachings, they ought to be up-front about it and say, "in my opinion (or experience, etc.)" rather than, "Zen teachings say," or "according to Zen (or Dogen, etc.).

I mean, would it be appropriate for someone that has never read the Holy Bible to walk into a Christian Church and proclaim the teachings of Jesus Christ based only on what Reverend Billy Bob had told them? I know it happens all the time, but if I was a member of that church I think it would appropriate for me to ask for some clarification. Especially if I noticed some discrepancies between his or her teachings about Jesus Christ denouncing gays and lesbians (or whatever), and what I had read in my version of the Bible—after all, my child might be a member of this church.

I don’t think I am saying anything about Idolatry that has not already been said by others that are wiser than I am. Just simply pointing out its existence and some of its common characteristics in an effort to help others avoid this all too common form of what I believe is a misappropriation of Zen Buddhism.

Thank you all. Comments are most welcome!