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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11 Comments:

At September 12, 2008, Blogger Jinzang said...

When the classic records say one thing and contemporary "Dharma-Heirs" say another, who are we going to trust?

A better question to ask is who is capable of making this judgement truly?

 
At September 12, 2008, Blogger Harry said...

"...I hear dead people..."

:-)

Regards,

H.

 
At September 13, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hello jinzang,

Thank you for your comment.

I am not sure I understand what you mean. Are you suggesting that we allow someone to make judgements for us?

Or are you pointing out that our inquiries would be put to better use in discerning who we truly are?

If the former, how could someone else judge for us? If the latter, it seems to me that practice-realization (discerning our true nature) must begin with some guidance. No?

Gassho,
Ted Biringer

 
At September 13, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comment.

While I agree (that you hear dead people), I have to ask, what sound do they make?

Gassho,
Ted Biringer

 
At September 13, 2008, Blogger Jinzang said...

I mean that we should have a little humility about our ability to interpret the classics and to judge teachers. In Buddhism there are many levels of profundity. Things are not always as they seem on the surface ... nor are they like they appear to be after thirty years of practice.

I have many opinions. Most I keep to myself.

 
At September 14, 2008, Blogger Harry said...

"While I agree (that you hear dead people), I have to ask, what sound do they make?"

Hello Ted,

They seem as if to say: "Unless you want to be a ghost too don't take our word on ANYTHING"

Best Regards,

Harry.

 
At September 14, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hello jinzang,

Thank you for your comment.

I agree wholeheartedly with your observations here. It seems that, for me anyway, as practice and study has progressed over the years, humility has increased in direct proportion to gratitude.

This is clearly true, as you say, "in our ability to interpret the classics and to judge teachers."

While I have benefitted greatly from my own teachers as well as the classic records, I have certainly not discovered anything that would lead me to believe in the infallibility of anyone, or anything--especially myself!

At the same time, we have to start somewhere. I think it was Spencer that pointed out, "There is a principle that will keep a man in ever-lasting ignorance, that principle is contempt prior to investigation." I think the corallary of this is also true, "reverence prior to investigation."

I have not yet discovered any absolute truths, but I have achieved a certain amount of confidence on some basics. For instance, I agree with Dogen's statement that, "In our pursuit of the Buddha’s Way, first off, we should consider our mind’s search for Truth to be foremost."
Shobogenzo, Dōshin (Hubert Nearman)

In my own experience of this, I have found it best to keep an open mind, listen attentively, study deeply, and finally, and most importantly to TEST IT in practice. If it really works, okay, if not, move on.

I have noticed that if I follow the guidance of a teacher and it bears the fruit that they attribute to it, I come to trust them more and more. This has also been my experience with Dogen's work. In fact, Dogen's writings have not yet (in over 20 years) led me astray. I hasten to add that I would never assert that my understanding of his teaching is in any way infallible--in fact, it seems it is constantly shifting, expanding, opening out, flowing, so to speak... Yet I have personally found his teachings to be extremely reliable in the real every day world.

Thus, I have come to trust him to a certain degree. In the context of the original post here, I find his guidance on "Trust" here, to be good sense:

"Even though people in general are said to have a mind that is searching for the Truth, there are those people who truly do not have a searching mind. And there are some people who truly have a searching mind, though it is unrecognized by others. Thus, it is difficult to know who has or does not have such a mind. For the most part, we do not listen to what foolish or wicked people say, much less do we trust them. And we should not treat our own mind as foremost, but consider only what the Buddha expressed to be foremost."
Shobogenzo, Dōshin

Dogen's teaching in Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku, where he discusses the differences between the consequences of monks that study the sutras and those that fail to are pretty straightforward (don't require much interpretation). Dogen summarizes that teaching with:

A virtuous one of old once said, “Those who study the saintly Scriptures know, for the most part, what follows upon what, so, should they go beyond the proper bounds, their fault is easily recognized and corrected.” How true are these words of that virtuous one of old! Though people give rise to personal opinions, if
they have studiously learned even a little bit of the Buddha’s Teachings, they will not be deceived by themselves or be deluded by others.
Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku (Hubert Nearman)

It is one thing to give teachers the "benefit of the doubt", and not judge them outside of the context of the Buddha's teachings, it is another to follow them blindly, or submit to those that slander the Dharma.

For these reasons I trust Dogen's words when he says, "...if
they have studiously learned even a little bit of the Buddha’s Teachings, they will not be deceived by themselves or be deluded by others."

So far, this has been the best guidance I have found--while I am open to hearing something better, this is the best I can do for now.

Thanks again!

Warmly

Ted Biringer

 
At September 14, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comment.

I agree, totally.

That, to me, is one of the hallmark teachings of Zen Buddhism: listen, study, practice, all fine in theory--but until one experiences it through actual personal realization, theory is all it is.

Gassho,

Ted Biringer

 
At September 15, 2008, Blogger Harry said...

In that case I can only repeat that a proper and fair criticism of "Dharma Heirs" and the accuracy of their teaching can only really happen if you are prepared to go into the details of specific cases.

I don't think sweeping statements of the kind you are making re "Dharma Heirs" etc. are fair, representative of the whole story or representative of specific cases within the whole story.

This sticking point mars your otherwise excellent treatment of Dogen's work and good observations in general.

Where is this all coming from? Cough it up and spit it out, Ted.

Regards,

Harry.

 
At September 16, 2008, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thanks for the comments. It is good to hear you.

I understand your point, and I will increase my efforts to clarify my meaning.

When I wrote:

"When the classic records say one thing and contemporary "Dharma-Heirs" say another, who are we going to trust?"

I did not mean to imply that ALL Dharma-heirs contradict the records - in my view, they don't.

I am eternally grateful to those Dharma-heirs that I have worked with over the years, including my present teacher of the last 15 years. I have also benefitted greatly from a number of Dharma-heirs that I have corrosponded with.

I was just trying to share something I learned from Dogen's writings that that has been helpful to me over the years for finding teachers, and teachings that I could comfortably trust--and has also steered me away from others that seem to be offering something totally unrelated to the Zen of the classic records.

As for your kind words in regard to my treatment of Dogen's work, thank you! I hasten to add that it is really Dogen who deserves any credit in that regard; his works have a way of seeping into the bones...

Take good care,

Gassho,
Ted Biringer

 
At October 26, 2008, Blogger s.c said...

So, I'm noticing that this Zen thing is a lot different than the brochures. I'm glad it's not a cactus, either, those are hard to grasp.

-- s.c., zen tourist

 

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