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!


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