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


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