Monday, September 29, 2008

Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up

In his book, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up, Steven Heine again serves up a tasty treat of information and insight on and about the present circumstances concerning Zen Buddhism communities both East and West.

In this book, Professor Heine surveys the overall condition of Zen in the present day from two extreme viewpoints. One extreme, which he calls the "Traditional Zen Narrative" (TZN), is the view of Zen from the romantic perspective that "Zen is an idealistic, utopian vision of nondual experience." TZN is presented as the type of Zen that claims to be beyond rules and definitions, where only the "enlightened" understand and "silence" is exalted as the highest expression of wisdom. Heine's outline of the TZN view of Zen immediately conjures images of the kinds of western Zen centers where "Roshi" and "Scandal" seem to be nearly synonymous.

At the other extreme, which he designates as "Historical Cultural Criticism" (HCC) Zen is viewed in terms that recall T.S. Elliott's dreary line about "stubby fingers stuffing stubby pipes..." The HCC view is portrayed as dry and literary, rational to a fault, categorized, discriminative, and most importantly, nothing like the TZN adherents claim it is.

Steve Heine seems a little more sympathetic to the HCC view in that he does not posit it quite as extremely as he does with the TZN view. However, those familiar with the scholarship of "Critical Buddhism" within the Soto Zen academia in recent decades can easily fill in the gaps. Suffice it to say that the extreme adherents of this view would offer little more than a sterilized, air-tight philosophy devoid of both practice and realization.

After defining, outlining, and critiquing these two camps, Heine sets about trying to dicover some common ground for mutual communication (or at least some rules for a fair fight). He then suggests a that perhaps the two "extremes" might try to suspend their contemp of the "others" view--at least long enough to acknowledge their right to hold their own view.

He suggests that if the TZN and HCC camps can manage to holster their guns for a moment, perhaps they could both forget notions about winners and losers and instead they experiment with a very "Zen like" idea of co-existence. Heine is even willing to offer a model that might prove to fill the bill.

His model is based on Dogen's masterful handling of the classic Zen koan: "Bodhidharma's Skin, Flesh, Bone, and Marrow." Professor Heine outlines his take of Dogen's reading. Heine's presentation of this classic koan, and his explication of "Dogen's view," which he refers to as a "minority opinion" (as well as other koans presented in the book) differs widely from my own (admittedly TZN "sympathizer" view) understanding of it, nevertheless, the plausability of this view is validated by a clear presentation of its underlying reason. Regardless of whether or not Heine's interpretation of the koan accords with Dogen's own view, his use of it is not aimed at Zen soteriology, but as a model for finding some common ground between TZN and HCC, and with this goal, his usage of it is consistent with his interpretation.

With his usual humor and vast store knowledge, travelling this precarious road with Steve Heine is an adventure that offers entertainment as well as a multitude of subtle details that might otherwise go unnoticed. As a brilliant, profoundly achieved scholar (and a Dogen scholar at that!) Heine (not interested in watering-down his message) writes in the language of advanced academia which is often complex and requires sustained, concentrated effort (not to mention some handy reference books) on the part of the reader. Such effort, however, is not rare, or even unusual when it comes to the profound, extraordinarily rich literature of the sacred texts of the worlds great traditions, especially the literature of Zen (especially Dogen's Zen!). Zen Skin, Zen Marrow is one trip that is well worth taking.

Overall, Heine's model for as an attempt to discover a 'neutral' approach to co-existence (if not co-operation) seems like more of a compromise between the two extremes, than a collaboration. Neither camp is really required to shift their own position, rather, both are granted an 'equal' voice, that is, the 'Skin' is acknowledged equal status with 'Marrow' (at least in thoery).

Professor Heine does acknowledge that there are Zen communities and individuals whose 'views' issue from the middle ground, yet, it might be too easy for readers unfamiliar with the language and methods of typology (and the dramatic shifts in the landscape of Zen following the extraordinary revelations of recent Zen scholarship) to miss the fact that the HCC and TZN presented in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow, are typological extremes. That is to say, it could be easy to forget all of the gray area between these extreme views. In reading typology it is always important not to forget that very few people would actually fit into either extreme view (which is why they are referred to as 'extreme'). Forgetting this can lead to bias and a tendency to categorize people, label them, put them on a shelf, then move on--without helping anyone, or learning a thing. I am not saying that there are no "Zen masters" that actually fall into the extremes of "beyond rules", "everything is enlightenment", "just sitting is it", or "nothing special", and "roshi worshiping", anti-rational zealotry of intellectual suicide, but, for the most part, it seems that this kind of extremism is confined to the minority. (That such extremism seems more prevelant than it is may be due to the fact that some of these extremists are the most prolific writers of popular "Zen" books).

The bottom line: Heine's book is a journey into the landscape of Zen in the modern world, offering deep insight into the dynamics or its evolution (devolution?) and perhaps some light on how it may be possible to shift from extremism to acceptance and tolerance, and maybe even move a step or two closer to that "all too Buddhist" ideal of cooperation, and mutual encouragement to foster wisdom and compassion in a coordinated efforts to allieviate suffering.

Ted Biringer

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A genuine Dharma Heir explores the cosmology underlying Dogen's Zen

A truly unique book on Dogen's Zen.

"Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra, by Taigen Dan Leighton, is a unique examination of the records of the thirteenth century Zen master, Eihei Dogen.

In this book Taigen Dan Leighton, a Soto Zen priest and Dharma heir, reveals how Dogen's teachings are thoroughly grounded in the classic Mahayana Buddhist Sutras, primarily the Lotus Sutra, as well as the classic Zen records, especially Zen's most unique contribution to Buddhist literature, the great koan literature collections.

Leighton begins by emphasizing that because Dogen was an authentic Buddhist master, he was primarily concerned with the liberation of all beings, hence his teachings on practice-realization, or enlightened practice can only be appreciated in the context of the tradition and cosmology from which Dogen addressed his listeners/readers; the Buddhist sutras and the classic Zen records.

This Soto Zen master then introduces the basic Buddhist teaching that the universe itself is not apart from the myriad things, demonstrating the fact that any attemt to understand Dogen, or any Zen master for that matter, must begin with a fundamental understanding of the cosmological field from which they teach. Leighton highlights the fact that for the authentic Zen master, each thing, time, and event is itself the full expression of reality, or Buddha nature.

In the words of this Soto Dharma Heir, "Zen cannot be fully understood outside of a worldview that sees reality itself as a vital, dynamic agent of awareness and healing."

Leighton then offers an explication furnishing the reader with an overview of the Mahayana teachings as expounded in the Lotus Sutra. He emphasizes the key passage of that sutra in which myriad Bodhisattvas suddenly emerge from under the ground (a scene he returns to repeatedly throughout his exploration). His discussion moves naturally into an examination of the vital dynamic of Buddhist hermeneutics from a variety of historical Buddhist contexts.

Next, Taigen Dan Leighton presents Dogen's own interpretation of the story from the Lotus Sutra (of the Bodhisattvas emerging from under the ground), citing some of the numerous references, familiar to Dogen students, which permeate his massive corpus of writings. With all of this firmly under the reader's belt, Leighton proceeds to present a grand view of Dogen's cosmology, revealing some surprising implications of time, space, and existence.

While using the Lotus Sutra as his primary pivot point, this Dharma Heir draws on his own extensive familiarity with Dogen's work as well as the classic literature of Buddhism and Zen. From Dogen's collection of 300 classic koans to the "ten times" doctrine of the Avatamsaka Sutra, Leighton demonstrates the his skill for using language without being used by language to present a wonderful overview of the universe through the eye of Zen master Dogen.

Rising way above the simplistic formulas and myopic dogmatism of popular sectarian cultists, Leighton transcends those presentations of Dogen propagating narrow views of "only-one-right-practice," or superstitious notions that "sitting like Buddha is being Buddha."

This Soto masters refuses to 'water down' Dogen's profound teachings and offers a spiritually mature explication, illustrating that Dogen's revelations of the nonduality of practice-and-enlightenment should not be confused with the simplistic cultic declaration that 'practice equals enlightenment', but understood as the continuous ongoing practice of enlightenment, and enlightenment of practice.

Rather than the familiar dull mantra that 'sitting is itself enlightenment', this Soto Heir declares that Dogen's teaching is a, "complex vision... as multidimensional, dynamic and not separate from or independent of the actual existence, activity, and awareness of each particular being..."

Other areas where he bucks the familar cultic and pop-psychology opinions of Dogen's Zen include:

* Koans - Leighton sees the role of koans in the same light as Mahayana sutras, "not didactic works presenting systematic doctrines, but rather spiritual texts aimed at inciting particular samadhi, or concentration, states and insights..."

* Goals - Rather than asserting that Dogen preached a Zen of "no goal", this Dharma Heir insists, "The purpose of Buddhism is liberation from the karmic cycle of suffering via awakening, and the goal of the Mahayana is the awakening of all beings."

* The role of literature in Zen- Noting that although many take a narrow view of the dictum of Zen being "outside words and letters", he illustrates how texts and verbal teachings are as important to authentic Zen as wholehearted practice, clearly revealing Dogen's teaching that "expression is itself the Buddhadharma."

* Duality - Leighton points out that, contrary to some popular opinions, duality is as important to authentic Zen practice-enlightenment, as is nonduality. For instance, "Dogen here profoundly reaffirms the reality of nonduality. Usually nonduality is considered opposed to duality... But... he is clearly talking about the nonduality of duality and nonduality, not about merely transcending the duality of form and emptiness. This deeper nonduality is not the opposite of duality, but the synthesis of duality and nonduality..."

* Sudden enlightenment - Discussing the important work of Jan Nattier, Leighton analyzes the story of the "Bodhisattvas emerging suddenly from under the ground" in the light of what Nattier characterizes as "leap philosophies," Leighton points out that "this story embodies the leap out of the realm systemized stages of accomplishment in practice, based on insight into the fundamental emptiness of all stages."

* Other views setting this Soto master apart Psuedo masters include, Dogen's implementation and exhortation of a wide variety of practices (not just sitting meditation), the nondual aspect of "practice and ordinary activity", and the vital importance of deep, continuous textual study in the authentic practice/enlightenment of Zen.

The Bottom Line: Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra, by Taigen Dan Leighton, presents an inside view of the cosmology, or "worldview" informing the writings of Eihei Dogen. In the process, this book manages to debunk many of the simplistic and cultic notions espoused by quacksalvers dressed up like Zen masters, which have resulted in the reductionism of sectarian stereotypes that are all too common among writers of popular "Zen" books. By restoring Dogen's Zen to its proper place as one of the all time greatest expressions of Buddhism, Leighton demonstrates the authentic characteristics of a genuine Dharma Heir.


Ted Biringer

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Part of life

Did you make a difference today?

Do not waste time.

Take care,


Friday, September 19, 2008

Definitive Zen doctrines, absolute Zen truths...

Excerpt from The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

A visiting student said, "It seems to me that your teaching is sometimes contradictory. One time you say, ‘There is nothing to seek.’ Then, at other times you say, ‘Arouse your determination to cease conceptualization.’ I am confused."

Louie Wing said, "That is because you are looking for some definitive doctrine in my words. There are no definitive doctrines, no absolute truths. In fact, there is nothing to attain. You should not allow my words or anyone’s, to come between you and your own fundamental awareness. The best you can hope for from any so-called teacher, are clues and hints about which direction to turn.

If you want some guidance, the best I can do is to tell you this; do not allow yourself to be caught up in perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Stop indulging in making useless discriminations between this and that, self and other. Whenever you notice that you are caught up in discrimination, step back into your own fundamental awareness. Do not waste your time comparing differing ideas and notions about this teaching and that teaching. Cease all this futile conceptualization and step back into the clear and pure awareness of your own mind. Only after you have experienced it directly will you be able to accurately discern the teachings"

From The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing
by Ted Biringer

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What does Dogen mean by enlightenment?

Even if we have not yet given rise to the mind that truly aspires to realize full enlightenment, we should imitate the methods of the Buddhas and Ancestors of the past who gave rise to the mind that seeks enlightenment. This mind is the mind that has resolved to realize enlightenment; it is the manifestation of a sincere heart moment by moment, the mind of previous Buddhas, our everyday mind, and the three worlds of desire, form, and beyond form. All of these are the products of our mind alone.
Shobogenzo, Shinjin Gakudo, Rev. Hubert Nearman p.491

If anything should be revered, it is enlightenment. If any time should be honored, it is the time of enlightenment..
Tenzo kyokun (Moon in a Dewdrop, p.64, Kazuaki Tanahashi & Arnold Kotler)

In order that you may now push on in your training to realize enlightenment in an instant, I show you the marvelous path which the Buddhas and Ancestors have directly Transmitted, and I do this that you may become a genuine follower of the Way.
Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Rev. Hubert Nearman

Clearly remember: in the Buddhist patriarchs’ learning of the truth, to awaken the bodhi-mind is inevitably seen as foremost. This is the eternal rule of the Buddhist patriarchs.
Shobogenzo, Hotsu-Bodaishin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross, v3, p.271

Those who have not yet attained the mind of enlightenment should pray to the Buddhas of former ages, and should also dedicate their good works to the quest for the mind of enlightenment.
Eihei Koroku, 4, Thomas Cleary

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Dogen, nonduality and practice-realization

This post is an attempt to address a notion that seems to be prevalent (though NOT exclusive) on a number of blogs as well as contemporary books in regard to Dogen’s teaching on Zazen. This is the notion that the mere act of sitting upright (usually in lotus or half-lotus posture) is the equivalent of enlightenment.

I am not suggesting that ALL teachers/students/practitioners and others propagate this view. Yet, it does seem that this "question"(?) is one of the most persistent in all Dogen’s teachings. While I have never been certain enough of my own views of Dogen to assert that "I know what Dogen meant…", I do think I have been able to discern some things that he did not mean.

DISCLAIMER: What I write here is simply my own, no doubt flawed, understanding. This understanding is subject to change at any moment, as it frequently does (especially regarding Dogen!) I often use "positive" statements for lucidity. Rather than qualify each statement below—I clarify my position here: are my views accurate? I don’t know. This is just my understanding today…

I think it is a major mistake to posit the notion that Dogen regarded practice—Zazen (sitting meditation) and/or shikantaza (sole sitting)—as synonymous with, or equivalent to enlightenment itself. In my view, this would be just as flawed as positing a notion that practice was absent from enlightenment (though that does not seem to be an issue with people).
I believe that this is a distortion based on a misunderstanding, or misrepresentation of Dogen’s teaching on the nonduality of practice and enlightenment. It manifests in several forms, and is expressed by its adherents in varying degrees of religious zealotry ranging from simplistic dogmatic insistence to fervent monomania.

It seems clear to me that to posit such a view requires a rejection of the traditional Mahayana teaching on the nonduality of practice and enlightenment (really on nonduality in general). Adherents of this notion insist that practice and enlightenment are "equivalent," (which is untenable in the traditional teachings on nonduality) rather than "nondual," thus rendering both terms (practice and enlightenment) impotent and meaningless.

This assertion seems to amount to a kind of superstition. The superstitious notion that simply sitting "like Buddha" is itself "being Buddha." This view is openly expressed by an increasingly large number of westerners (there are of course many teachers and practitioners that reject this notion).

Perhaps followers are attracted by claims that Dogen’s Zen offers a method that instantly transforms ordinary mortals into Buddhas. While there are variations regarding the details of the sitting posture (some insist of just the proper posture, others claim it makes no difference how one sits), the underlying superstition is basically the same: practice is equivalent to enlightenment.

I have read "teachings" that suggest the wisdom of Zen consists of just sitting and aspiring to no goal. This, such teachings claim, is enlightenment. As those familiar with the classic Zen records know, this is not a new phenomenon, but simply a new incarnation of an old one. There have always been people willing to propagate notions of "magic zazen" (or any other formula people are willing to buy). And again, it is not a view propagated by the All teachers or Dharma heirs, but sadly, a number of popular "Zen" books offer a number of variations of this formula.
This can only happen by failing to study and understand some pretty basic Buddhist principles. For instance, the basic principles of the Buddhist teachings on nonduality.
Here I offer a kind of "rational" description.

First it is important to remember that any two "poles" (or "foci" to adopt the apt term of Professor Hee-Jin Kim) in Zen are necessarily methodological designations (i.e. upaya "skillful means", techniques, devices, practices, etc.). More specifically, they are the methodological designations through which the practical application, or implementation of practice and enlightenment on the path of Zen is accessed. Hence, if one foci (pole) of any nondual unity is eradicated, or equalized, the very reasoning behind its use as a methodological designation is undermined, which effectively renders both foci meaningless.

While nonduality is one of the easier teachings to understand, it does offer some complexity, and is often difficult for beginners unfamiliar with the concept. Nevertheless, it is neither mystical nor intellectually difficult to grasp. The basic Buddhist teachings on nonduality assert that within the unity of any two foci (e.g. practice/enlightenment, samsara/nirvana, enlightenment/delusion, etc.), the affirmation of either one does not (and cannot) eradicate, or replace the other; nor does one come prior to or successive of the other. Each foci differs from the other dependent on perspective, while both (poles or foci) are coextensive (exist in the same space) and coeternal (exist in the same time) as a continuous event, or process. As such, without an accurate realization, or understanding of both the indivisible nature and the distinctive nature of each (foci or aspect), neither one of them can be accurately grasped or understood—much less incorporated into ones life.

Applying this fundamental doctrine from the perspective of "practice" within the nondual nature of practice and enlightenment we would say, the affirmation of practice (in the dynamic unity of practice and enlightenment) does not eradicate or replace enlightenment, nor does practice precede or succeed enlightenment. Practice differs from enlightenment dependent on perspective, while both practice and enlightenment are coextensive, and coeternal in the dynamic ongoing performance, or process of practice/enlightenment.

Thus, one must, as Dogen says, "learn in practice" (actualize, or personally realize) the indivisible and the distinctive nature of both practice and enlightenment for practice to be considered "authentic practice" (i.e. true zazen, shikantaza, sanzen, etc.).

It is reasonable to expect beginning students and practitioners to be unaware of these fundamental aspects of Buddhism. It is also understandable why people may find them difficult on their initial encounter with them; they are simple enough to grasp, but they do present perspectives that are unfamiliar to beginners. At the same time, not being equipped with a firm grasp of these basic principles while presuming to teach Zen (or any other school of Buddhism) is, in my view, inexcusable—to say the least.

Ted Biringer

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who are we going to trust?

One of the extraordinary implications of Dogen’s insistence of the inseparability of one's understanding and one’s expressions is his assertion that we can accurately evaluate someone’s understanding simply by examining their expressions. I say "we" to preclude any arguments that Dogen was referring only to the ability of "enlightened" beings. This is clear from Dogen’s own experience. Even before he had traveled to China and resolved his quest to accomplish the "task of a lifetime," he granted greater authority to written texts than he did to certified "Dharma heirs." In the Zuimonki Dogen explains how his reading of a text brought him to the realization that his own "distinguished" certificate-holding teachers were teaching something vastly different from the classic records. Base on the words of that text, his "Great Teachers" were seen as "worthless", and Dogen says that his "whole life was changed completely":

"I came to realize that they differed from what my teachers taught. What is more, I realized that thoughts such as mine, according to their treatises and biographies, were loathed by these people. Having contemplated the nature of the matter at last, I thought to myself I should have felt rather humbled by ancient sages and future good men and women instead of elated by the praise of despicable contemporaries… In view of such a realization, the holders of the title of Great Teacher (daishi) in this country seemed to me worthless, like earthen tiles, and my whole life was changed completely."
Zuimonki, V:8 (Hee-Jin Kim)

It seems to me that there are many "Great Teachers" active in our own time whose teachings differ widely from the "treatises and biographies" of the "ancient sages." When the classic records say one thing and contemporary "Dharma-Heirs" say another, who are we going to trust?

Ted Biringer

Author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

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