Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Karma of Spiritual Hucksterism

Sedona has no major churches, no relics, no established holy sites. But what it does have are “vortexes” – a series of unmarked points around Sedona’s various cliffs that locals and visitors alike imbue with new-age significance. 
Where that significance comes from – like the actual number of vortexes in Sedona, which varies from guide to guide – is subject to debate. Locals cite legends about the area’s sanctity to local Native American tribes. However, Sedona didn’t become America’s new age capital until the 1980s, when a US psychic named Page Bryant identified the vortexes after a vision. These vortexes were places where spiritual energy was at its highest point, where you could tap into the frequencies of the universe, where you could, by closing your eyes, start to change your life. Spiritual seekers across the country listened. In 1987, Sedona was host to one of the largest branches of the Harmonic Convergence – a new age synchronised meditation – when 5,000 pilgrims came to get in touch with the universe at the Bell Rock butte, believed by many to be a vortex. 
Now, among the juniper trees, you can find strip-malls full of crystal shops, aura-reading stations and psychics. At ChocolaTree Organic Eatery, shiva lingams – statues normally associated with Hindu temples – stand against the walls; next door, a UFO-themed diner called ET Encounter (formerly the Red Planet) serves Roswell-themed burgers and old Star Trek episodes play on the TV. Every other office along the state route running through town offers a “spiritual tour” of the vortexes. The national forests are full of small cairns people have left as spiritual offerings. These are regularly removed by forest service rangers in order to preserve the site’s ecological integrity. 
Near the centre of town, the McLean Meditation Institute avoids the language of what owner Sarah McLean calls the “woos” – those locals who take their magic and their crystals a bit too seriously – by offering mindfulness and meditation classes that, though influenced by eastern traditions, are geared toward the spiritual and the just-plain-stressed alike.

Now I always get intrigued by stuff like a "McLean Meditation Institute," as I've been doing the practice for about 25 years or so myself.   Mindfulness is a pretty marketable thing these days; it's bigger than Jazzercize was in the 1980s.  So if you haven't already clicked on over to there, let's see just who Sarah McLean is and what's with this "Institute." Her bio page states:

Sarah McLean is a contemporary meditation and mindfulness teacher who has been inspiring people to meditate for over 20 years. With kindness and humor, Sarah shares her secrets to creating a successful meditation practice and how the it can lead to increased self-compassion, clear communication, and a more peaceful life.

Sarah first learned about meditation while training in the U.S. Army as a Behavioral Specialist to help soldiers address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the Army and college, Sarah took a nine-month mountain bike journey from Europe to Asia seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment. When she returned, she began her daily meditation practice and studied mind/body health with Dr. Deepak Chopra. She worked with him as the Program Director for the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in California.

After eight years, Sarah took a sabbatical to seek the origins of meditation. She lived in a traditional ashram in South India for six months, and was a two-year resident at a remote Zen Buddhist monastery for two years. In 2001, she settled in Sedona, Arizona and founded the McLean Meditation Institute, a center which offers meditation and mindfulness classes, weekend meditation retreats, and a 200-hour teacher training program.  The Meditation Teacher Academy® is a licensed, post-secondary educational facility that trains meditation and mindfulness teachers worldwide.

Sarah is a popular facilitator at retreats for the Chopra Center, Esalen Institute, and many world-class destinations. She has been interviewed on national television, featured in a variety of award-winning movies, and her work has been touted in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Her best-seller, Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation (Hay House), has inspired study groups worldwide. Her upcoming book, The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and it’s Unlimited Potential with Meditation  (Hay House) is due out in February 2017.

So evidently Ms. McLean was a "Behavioral Specialist" in the Army, did a nine month bicycle  trip  in order to be "seeking secrets to peace and fulfillment," became "Program Director" for Deepak Chopra, and then did a two year residence at "a remote Zen Buddhist monastery." So many random:

  • Where is that "remote Zen Buddhist monastery?"  Presumably she must have taken vows, if indeed she attended said monastery. 

  • Why would there be "secrets" to peace and fulfillment?  A secret is something hidden from other people; but secrets in order to be secrets must have been hidden by someone.
  • What's the connection to Deepak Chopra, a wellspring of woo?

It's that last bit that intrigues me.   Chopra's wooishness and spiritual huckestering is well known, and has been well criticized, and deservedly so, over the years.  (Just look at his website!)  As a guy that's done Zen for about 25 years, Chopra's schtick bears as much similarity to my practice as "Professional wrestling" bears similarity to Greco-Roman wrestling.  That is to say, Deepak Chopra is woefully unqualified in the area of expounding on "spirituality" - which I'll take as a "way to live."

What about Sarah McLean?  Well, let's go back to the McLean Meditation Institute site.  I'm immediately put off by the corporate (stock?) photography.  I realize that's an esthetic criticism, but I would submit,  like 茶道,書道, 武士道, 生花 there is probably ウェブ道 - the Way of the Web.  Moreover, the imagery is conveying information: this looks like a white woman thing and the meditation thing looks dodgy.  It's fine that there's practices centered around women of course,  but I suspect it's more exploitive of women then benefitting them.   As for meditation the images do not seem to be practicing it in a way that we Zen folks can relate to, to put it mildly.  The models look fairly blissfully asleep.  That's not what we do.

Moreover,  there is the implicit quid pro quo of having "more peace" and "less stress" as a result of a meditation practice.  And there's the "guided meditations."   Now I know that a couple of Zen folks of reasonable repute (and ill repute) have done "guided meditations,"  but I remonstrate. The whole problem with these two things combined together is that if you're actually ever going to transcend the sufferings of conflict and "stress" you will have to clear your own path, and walk your own path, not some that hinted by some teacher.  A BIG part of Zen practice - and Zen practice, if practiced deeply enough is every damn thing you do - a BIG part of Zen practice is understanding and acting both in the understanding of Mind or Buddha Nature and having to urgently deal with diarrhea (or equivalent) at the same time.  A guided meditation won't do that for you.

Another issue with their "meditations" is the more peace and less stress pitch itself.   While with kōan practice the "point" is eventually to be able to convey an understanding of the relationship between the Absolute and Relative related to the  kōan,  you can't do that unless you're deeply focused on the kōan  itself and only the kōan, without any "gaining idea" as the Sōtō folks say.  You have to deal with the stress and lack of peace yourself.

I have many more things to say about this organization. (E.g., they seem to have swiped Deepak Chopra's swiping of Transcendental Meditation.)   But the main thing I would conclude is that they are probably doing damage to people by making them dependent on either their organization or teaching ineffective techniques and purposes or both.   I bet they are doing well though sucking the teat of the Corporate Mindfulness craze, and that's bad in the short term. 

But, here's what I'd like you to takeaway from all this: You don't need them.  You can do this yourself.  Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness" is a good start.  Save yourself time and money.  And if you get serious, seek out someone with longstanding credentials in a longstanding organization, which probably does, yes, mean you have to find an explicitly religious group.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Dukkha of Christmas

I come from a family with six kids, and as a young child my Christmases were usually anti-climactic, and sometimes worse than that.  Every year my parents would buy clothes that were cheap, unstylish, and identical to my brother's who was 18 months younger than I.  They also contained assembly flaws now and then.  There were usually a couple of toys, but as the middle kid in a cohort of 6, basically Christmas for me was marginalization,  with my older brother and older sister and youngest brother and youngest sister.  I'm sure my 18 month  year younger brother felt similarly to me.   There was extreme pressure given by my parents to accept any and all gifts, which was strange because my parents weren't so much giving gifts often as buying a whole lot of junk and distributing it.  They were filling orders; about the only thing that was often taken into consideration (and often not) was clothing sizes.

And I might add the stuff my parents bought was junk not because my parents were poor, but because they were  miserly.   The Depression had screwed them up mentally.  And one result of that was they bought a whole lot of low quality stuff for a lot of kids rather than less stuff but higher quality.  Their Christmas approach was maximizing the amount of stuff to unwrap and open.  Period.  In a sense then, I don't think any of my brothers and sisters often got what they wanted for Christmas; in a sense my parents weren't actually  buying stuff for any of us.

I come from a large family, and traditionally, for Christmas, that once one was old enough everyone got gifts for everyone else, and of course as nephews and nieces started getting born, well doing a gifting Christmas (literally) became exponentially more difficult.  I was single until I was 43, and what this meant  in practice is that this time of year I was redlining work,  Christmas preparation,  and social life.

At some point I had had enough; that point was sometime after I moved out to the Pacific Northwest from the New York area.  I've sort of resolved to have a minimally labor intensive Christmas efforts.  I have not wrapped any packages this year.  Yes, we don't have that distracting tinsel on our tree either.  But we do have a tree representative of our family.

What remains is the idea of social obligation.   It's that little voice in the back of the head saying you have to get something for X because otherwise Z won't get something from Y.

But that's not a gift giving at all is it? One should give a gift in thought that there are people at the other end, and forgetting yourself. And luckily those to whom I give gifts now are mostly nephews and nieces and their kids. 

But YES,  all the stuff above notwithstanding, I give 'em all gift cards, because frankly, our lives have unfortunately  diverged, and yes, I'm very busy these days,  and so while they're all the same gift, when the receivers do with it is exactly what they want.  In that sense my gift cards are empty too!  

I try to treat social obligation as an itch on my nose when I'm sitting in zazen.

So to me, Christmas has always had and will always have an aspect of emptiness, of a nullity.  Christmas is the stuff of dreams unfulfilled,  of the cheap toy that is broken upon opening the package, after the transient joy of opening the package fades.   Christmas is fundamentally empty.  Christmas is about eternally receiving less than you give.  It's really why it's better to give than to receive - because what you receive will always fall short of what you had hoped, and when you realize that,  you can give without fear or hindrance in the mind, knowing that we're all in the same boat with receiving falling short in our lives; it's a form of dukkha

I am able to be at peace with that.  Christmas is the memory of being forgotten.  And in remembrance of being forgotten on a day that is supposedly joyous,  I will try to be  aware of others.

A peaceful, if not merry Christmas to all. 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

座禅, after 25 years or so of practice, is worth it.

I've practiced Zen for something like 25 years or so, that is, Zen meditation or Zazen (座禅). I don’t often talk or write about it (unless you count 書道/書法) on FB, and I haven’t written about it on the blog much lately, but I do think it’s a good time to write something about Zen practice that appears on FB.

Having done Zen practice for as long as I have, as well as Wing Chun practice now for 5 years, I cannot un-experience what I have experienced. Hakuin, the Zen ancestor in whose tradition I practice, stated more or less that everything that rights what’s wrong, cures what’s sick, etc. that arise from Buddhism arise from 座禅. There's truth in that. Before you go somewhere, you need to know where you are in order to get to a place in which you are not presently abiding.

Many years ago, when I started practicing, I went to the Zen Studies Society in New York City. I attended a teishō (提唱), a talk on the Buddhadharma given by the now disgraced Eido Shimano. The disgrace part is a long story, involving abuse of some women, and if you want to know more you can Google it, since it’s not the point of this writing. The point of this writing is something Eido Shimano said during his 提唱; he said if you practiced 座禅 for ten years, and if you derived no benefit from it, you could cut his head off. While it may be true that Eido Shimano might deserve to have his head cut off, he does not deserve to have his head cut off for recommending 座禅. I myself, who continually still screw up in many ways with many people, might deserve to have my head cut off, but not for recommending 座禅. Hakuin was right about 座禅, but like any skill, 座禅 takes time to master, and I’ve only just started.

When you do such a practice as 座禅 for a long enough period of time, it cannot but unalterably shift your perspective. Your perspective of who you are, your nature, your relationship with others, with the world, with what you experience, all of that is changed. (Though as they say, at the same time nothing changes.) After a certain point, there’s no going back. And because of the way in which perspective is shifted, one tends not to be categorically rigidly fixed in one position mentally. One acquires the capability to transcend the slavery of one's thoughts. I know some folks on FB may think I have rigid fixed positions on things, but that is usually because they, themselves, have rigid fixed positions and are often surprised that their views don’t get unconditional approval and encouragement. Instead they think they are facing diametric opposition. There’s a great 詠春拳 metaphor for this, but most folks wouldn’t get it. Suffice it to say the world doesn’t work at all according to the presumptions of American football, or one's thoughts. It's not what you or I think it is, whatever it is.

So for example, most folks have views about Donald Trump one way or another. Truth is, he’s likely to be the next president. I admit to the view that anyone who voted for Trump or supported him who wasn’t on the gravy train of grift was conned, and any sincerely expressed outrage about expression of that view has more to do with stages of grief than it does my view. But my views about what to do are tempered by the perspective shift I’ve acquired over the years. It’s why though I am pretty left of center to some rightists/conservatives/libertarians, it’s only because it is seen by them from the perspective of rightists/conservatives/libertarians, many of whom don’t get that the world doesn’t work at all according to the presumptions of American football, or one's thoughts. It's not what you or I think it is, whatever it is.

I’m very grateful for the practices that have been demonstrated to me; personally, I would not know how to survive in this world with everything more or less intact. And I’m grateful to my family for giving me the space to practice, and to try and fail, and try and fail again.

Friday, December 02, 2016

I wouldn't go that far...I'd go further

Many of us, perhaps even many Trump voters, don't want fascism in the US.

Brad Warner I think finds the tumult in the aftermath of Trump's election a bit much.

Ven. Warner says:

What distresses me is that a large part of the Buddhist community in America has demonized all of Trump’s supporters and made a lot of blanket assumptions about them. I am not a fan of Trump either (I have made that clear already in my blog). But unless we start communicating with each other, the problems you’ve cited will only get worse.

I will plead to being loud and vocal about my distaste for the politics and outlook Trump's supporters.  They are nothing less than a clear and present danger to the health, wellbeing, and livelihood of most Americans, including themselves.   Ven. Warner may call what I just wrote demonization, but I would submit it is objectively true.

Many of us, perhaps even many Trump supporters, don't want fascism in the US.   But those of us who are fans of history see far too many parallels to remain silent.

Ven. Warner is right that we have to start - or continue - communicating with each other.  But the primary thing we should be communicating now, when US fascism is a threat is this: We will not refrain from defense of ourselves and others out of a sense of compassion and benevolence.  Rather, because we act out of a spirit of compassion and benevolence,  we will not refrain from acting until fascism, racism, sexual and other forms of oppression are extinguished.

This does not mean "the precept throws the bomb," but it doesn't not mean that we  ignore what is really meant by "skillful means," according to the Lotus Sutra.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

"What is your exercise goal?"

Today, two people at worked asked me essentially the same question.  I was actually confused; isn't the "goal" of exercise to sustain and cultivate one's existence?  I was going to say "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West," but that would have been too inside baseball.

When I explained, - putting into words the best I can - "So that can exist!" one person mentioned it was very Zen, which is kind of funny to me. 

Saturday, June 04, 2016

From the Founder of Falun Da Fa, which had been listed as attending today's Portland Buddhist Festival

Sorry for 2 posts in a row about this topic, but I think it's important for people to know just what we're talking about when we talk about Falun Da Fa, and its relationship to what ethnic Buddhists think and what liberal convert Western Buddhists think about Buddhism.

So here's Li Hongzhi himself, on Zen Buddhism:

Zen Buddhism Is ExtremeThere are two types of people, namely, those who are extreme and those who take the middle road. From the outset Zen Buddhism has been in the extreme category, and it does not amount to a cultivation system. Controversy has always surrounded Zen. Though people have cultivated according to Zen’s methods, they have actually been under the care of Buddha Shakyamuni, owing to their intention to cultivate Buddhahood and their seeking goodness. Zen doesn’t constitute a system. Boddhidharma does not have his own heavenly kingdom, and thus cannot provide salvation to people. The fact is that Boddhidharma himself, back in his day, took Buddha Shakyamuni to be the founding master. Though he is called Zen’s patriarch, he was in fact Buddha Shakyamuni’s disciple—a disciple of the twenty-eighth generation, and one who very much venerated Buddha Shakyamuni. Working from Buddha Shakyamuni’s theories, he focused his enlightenment on “nothingness,” and this didn’t depart from the tenets of Shakyamuni. With the passage of time, Zen went downhill. Later generations came to regard Boddhidharma’s approach as a cultivation way in its own right, and believed it to be supreme. His wasn’t supreme, however. Zen was actually declining with each successive generation, and Boddhidharma said it himself: His teachings would only extend for six generations. 
Boddhidharma gave a relatively large amount of weight to the “nothingness” that Buddha Shakyamuni taught, and held Buddha Shakyamuni in great esteem; he was known as his disciple of the twenty-eighth generation. But the generations that followed were completely trapped in extremes. And once that became the case, it arrived at the stage of degeneration, where Boddhidharma and Shakyamuni were seen almost as equals. People began to venerate Boddhidharma, and considered Boddhidharma’s theories to be the one and only Buddhist truth. This basically amounted to going astray. 
That’s because Boddhidharma cultivated to a low level and reached only the celestial rank of Arhat—meaning, he was merely an Arhat. How much could he really have known? When all was said and done he had not reached the level of Tathagata. The gap between his level and that of Buddha Shakyamuni was phenomenal! And for this reason, his teachings are closest to the philosophy of ordinary people, and his theories are easiest for ordinary people to accept—particularly those who treat religion as a form of philosophy or ideology. Those who take an academic approach and study Buddhism as philosophy tend to accept his theory the most. It closely resembles ordinary philosophy. 
Buddhas are to be found on every plane, however high one may go. [But according to Zen,] you cultivate and cultivate, and then, supposedly, nothing exists. In their cultivation they don’t even acknowledge so much as human beings. Living, visible human beings are right here before us and yet they don’t acknowledge them as real. It’s even worse than with those ordinary persons of poor spiritual insight who say, “I’ll believe it if I see it, and won’t if I don’t.” These people don’t even acknowledge what they do see. Why live, then? Why bother opening your eyes? Shut your eyes, don’t lie down, don’t stand… Nothing exists, right? They’ve gone to extremes. Boddhidharma said that his Dharma could be passed down for only six generations. It’s folly how people today still cling tightly to this doctrine that was never valid in the first place. It’s a dead end that they have gone down. They don’t acknowledge themselves, don’t acknowledge Buddhas, and how about planet Earth? If they don’t acknowledge even their own existence, what’s the point of having a name? And what’s the point of eating? You could just go hungry all day, not look at what time it is, and block out all sounds…  
And after all that, everything is gone. So doesn’t that discredit Buddha Shakyamuni? If Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t teach anything, what was he doing for forty-nine years? Do they know what the true meaning of “emptiness” is in Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching? When Buddha Shakyamuni [said that he] didn’t leave behind any Fa, he was saying that he didn’t truly teach the cultivation method or the Fa of the universe. What he spoke about were only things at his cultivation level, and what he left to ordinary people was Tathagata Fa—in particular, cultivation experiences and lessons learned. The real Dharma that Shakyamuni imparted when in this world was the rules and disciplines (jie-lü), and he discussed certain insights of different levels, which is the Fa at a certain level. But Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t want people to be trapped at his level, and thus said, “I have not taught any Dharma in my life.” He said that because he knew that the Dharma he taught was not the highest. A Tathagata is a Buddha, but not one at the highest level. Buddha Fa is boundless. A cultivator shouldn’t be limited by his Dharma. A person with a great spiritual potential (da gen-ji) can cultivate even higher, where insights both higher and deeper, as with corresponding manifestations of Fa, await. 

This could have been written by a fundamentalist Christian; its characterization of Zen - indeed, Mahayana Buddhism,  is  an ignorant caricature.  (And if you haven't guessed, Li Hongzi is better than all practitioners of Zen because... he's fully a Buddha and you're not.)

From the same source:

The Decline of Mankind and Dangerous Notions
If back in ancient China someone spoke of cultivating the Way, people would say he had a “virtuous foundation.” Those who talked about Buddhas, Daoist deities, or Gods were considered really good. Yet, today, talk of cultivating Buddhahood or the Dao invites laughter. Mankind’s moral values have undergone enormous changes. They are sliding downward a thousand miles a day, so quickly. With the erosion of their values, people have actually come to believe that the ancients were ignorant and superstitious. Man’s thinking has changed dramatically, and it is frightening. Consider that Buddha Shakyamuni once said: The changes in society with the Age of Law’s End will be truly terrible. Case in point, in today’s society people have no law in the heart (xin-fa) that might serve as a restraint, especially in China. This is true in other countries as well, though it assumes different forms. In mainland China, the Cultural Revolution shattered the so-called “old thinking and ideas” that people had, and forbade people to believe in the teachings of Confucius. People were left with no moral restraint or moral code, and weren’t allowed to have religious beliefs. People came to disbelieve that doing wrong would lead to karmic retribution... 

...The gangster businessmen depicted in the TV series The Bund have been eagerly imitated in China. Yet it was only a portrayal of the old Shanghai of the 1930s, and took artistic license, at that. Real life wasn’t like that. Hong Kong’s gangster movies and TV programs have had a terrible influence on mainland China in terms of people’s thinking. Mankind’s values have changed, and in China too we now see homosexuality, drug abuse, drug trafficking, organized crime, promiscuous sex, and prostitution. It’s gotten out of hand! There’s a saying about how when a poor country bumpkin strikes it rich, look out. He has no self-control and will dare to do anything. Isn’t it scary to see mankind reaching this point? What will become of mankind when things go still further? The concepts of good and bad are now inverted in people’s minds. Nowadays people admire those who are ruthless, those who will go to any lengths, and those who will kill and maim. That’s what people esteem... 
When I discuss what has happened with society, people immediately get it, which indicates that man’s innate nature has not changed. However, mankind has slid to a terribly dangerous point. When I talked about homosexuality while giving classes in the West, I said, “These wanton sexual practices in the West have gotten almost as bad as incest.” Someone then brought up that “homosexuality is legally protected by the state.” Good and bad are not to be gauged by the approval of some individual or collective. Human judgment of good and bad is based entirely on people’s own notions. People think, “I think he’s good…” or “He’s good to me, so I would say he’s good.” Or he has formed a set notion, and, if according to his notion someone is good, he will say that person is good. The same holds true with groups. When something is in the group’s interest or it furthers a certain goal, the group will say that it’s good and consent to it. But it is not necessarily truly good. The truth of the universe, the Buddha Fa, is the sole, unchanging criterion that measures human beings and everything that exists—the sole criterion that determines what is good or bad. I told them [the students in the West], “To be perfectly frank, your government may approve of it, but your Lord does not!” Each time mankind has reached this point, it has in fact been in grave danger and out of control. Now that it has become what it has, if it goes further, what will it be like next?! Buddha Shakyamuni said that during the Age of Law’s End a multitude of demons would reincarnate as human beings and become monks in monasteries who damage the Fa. Taiwan, in particular, now has many renowned monks and lay Buddhists who are actually demons. They extol themselves as the founders of religions, but fail to realize that they are demons. They had laid out their entire lives before reincarnating and coming here, and they live out their lives in accordance with the damage that they plotted. The human world is terrifying. Many of the well-known, supposed “masters” in India are possessed by giant pythons. Among the qigong masters in China, quite a large number are possessed by foxes and weasels, though there are snakes as well. The Age of Law’s End is a time of chaos. The head of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan is the incarnation of a demon from Hell who came to the human world to foment chaos. Human beings are right in the middle of all this, and, being here in the human world, they don’t have a chance to think about such things. They can sense that something is amiss with the world, but have no idea how bad it is. Once it is spelled out, people are startled.

And finally, Falun DaFa's founder has this to say about Buddhism:

Buddhism’s Teachings Are the Smallest and Weakest Part of Buddha Fa
Sentient beings! Don’t use Buddhism to measure the Great Fa of Zhen Shan Ren, for that simply can’t be done. That’s done only because people are used to calling the sutras of Buddhism “Fa.” The cosmic body is in fact so vast as to exceed a Buddha’s knowledge of the universe. The Daoist Taiji theory is likewise but an understanding of the universe at a lesser level and, on the plane of ordinary man, no longer constitutes a real Fa; rather, it encompasses merely a few, limited phenomena from the periphery of the universe with which people can cultivate. Since ordinary people are the lowest plane of man, they are not allowed to know the true Buddha Fa. But people have heard that sages have said: “Paying respects to Buddha can sow the karmic seeds of the opportunity to cultivate,” “The chanting of incantations by cultivators can invoke the protection of higher beings,” “Observing the monastic rules can allow you to reach the standard required of a cultivator.” Throughout history, people have always looked into and debated whether the Awakened One’s words inherently amount to Buddha Fa. What a Tathagata says is an embodiment of Buddha-nature, and it can be called an expression of Fa. But it is not the universe’s true Fa, for, in the past, people were strictly prohibited from knowing the true embodiment of Buddha Fa. What Buddha Fa is, was something that could be discerned only after cultivating to a higher plane; thus, even less was it the case that human beings were allowed to know the essence of cultivation. Falun Dafa has, for the first time in all the ages, revealed the special property of the universe—Buddha Fa—to human beings. It is equal to bestowing upon man a ladder to heaven. Seen in this light, how could you evaluate the Great Fa of the universe with things from Buddhism’s past? 

Clearly, Falun DaFa's founder has said - and I'm quoting his official English translation - one link away from the site on the Portland Buddhist Festival's site - that Buddhist Fa - the Way, the Law - is inferior to Falun DaFa.  It says it right there! Right there they are distinguishing themselves as not Buddhist in precisely the way that a Buddhist from anywhere outside of the liberal Western convert Buddhist community would recognize themselves as Buddhist!

So tell me again why they're included at the Portland Buddhist Festival if they, themselves distance themselves from Buddhists???

I'll be skipping the Portland Buddhist Festival this year...

Last year I showed up and Falun DaFa was there.  They're there again this year.  I brought this up to the BPF organizer, Heidi, and received some not too kind vitriol in response; something about me not being inclusive or something or other.

I hate to say it but it's times like that which cause me to wonder how so much anti-Chinese weirdness has infected the American psyche.  There's a lot to have against the Chinese government these days, which, among other things means there's a lot to have against the Chinese Communist Party these days.  Like any government party,  made of human beings, they need to acknowledge wrongdoing and change some of their ways.

But the Western  largely-European-descended liberal Buddhist community comprising Boomers, Gen Xers and (to a lesser extent) Millennials seems blind to the issues with some of the PRC's critics.  I've written quite a few times on the Dalai Lama, and frankly, compared to Falun DaFa, the Dalai Lama is the Dalai Lama of said liberal Buddhists.  So I want to take this opportunity, in the spirit of inclusion, to include in the narrative of Falun DaFa that will be presented today some of the other stuff about Falun DaFa.

But, first, I have to get this out of the way: I understand it's a Buddhist festival.  Buddhism is a religion.  So while I have no major beef with the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh (and they have their own issues with the government of Vietnam, naturally), nor do I have any major beefs with the Unitarian Universalist Church,  I do wonder about a group that claims to practice "Mindfulness in a non-religious manner," especially since the eventual place Mindfulness winds up is nothing but religious.  Like I said, I've no major beef with the Vietnamese Zen folks or the UU folks; it's just that it seems "Mindfulness in a non-religious manner" sounds suspiciously like "spiritual not religious," which has been deconstructed by many better than me.

But back to Falun DaFa.  First of all,  I notice that in all the participating Buddhist groups, there are no mainstream Chinese groups participating at all. This is not for lack of the existence of Chinese temples in the area; in fact there are quite a few Chinese temples in the area. For example, not far away is 妙法禪寺 - "Excellent Way Cha'n Temple."  I would hope the  organizers of the Portland Buddhist Festival continue in their efforts to reach out to the Chinese community of Portland.  They might begin to understand that many in the Chinese community view Falun DaFa in the same way that many view Scientology, or Frederick Lenz's cult (the latter which led to the formation of the "Portland Buddhist Festival" as distinct from "Change Your Mind Day.")

Secondly, it's easy to find a lot of websites if you google "Falun DaFa ex-Members."  Some might be put up by the Chinese government, but many are undeniably not, and are either politically neutral or not sympathetic to the Chinese government.  Here's one example:

Over the year, I immersed myself in Falun Gong material – Li’s speeches, videos, books, nd Falun Gong publications. Li’s coercive and inflated style (which Dean Peerman describes as “gaseous-cosmic” [2004, p. 30]) contrasted with the polite and humble nature of the participants. More significantly, Li’s speeches repeatedly contradicted both what Falun Gong members were telling me and what they were telling the media. I had hoped that my research would help Falun Gong, but I became increasingly aware that this would be unlikely.  
…The Western media get most of their information about Falun Gong from press releases disseminated by the Rachlin media group. This group is essentially a Public Relations firm for Falun Gong, managed by Gail Rachlin, who is one of Li’s inner circle.Journalists also get their stories from interviewing participants. However, Li forbids practitioners from talking about what he calls “high level things” to ordinary people, and instructs them to lie to those uninterested in spiritual matters (“tell them that we’re justdoing exercises” [Li, 2002, p. 21]). Therefore spokespeople tend to be evasive about their beliefs, and resort to formulaic principles and repetitions of their slogan ‘truthfulness, compassion, forbearance’. Moreover, Li sets the terms of the debate by directing members to get sympathy by telling listeners about the persecution, with the hidden intention of later turning them into converts (Li cited in Rahn, 2005; see also Li, 2002, 2003a). Members do not see this strategy as deceptive: a Falun Gong spokesperson told me that by focusing on the persecution and not pushing their religion or leader, members were being inoffensive. 
Generally, practitioners do not know if the information in the media is accurate. They themselves get most of their information from reading press releases, and usually if I asked them if something was true they replied, “Yes – I read it in the newspaper”. FalunGong also have their own media (Li, 2005b), and are heavily involved in the  Epoch Times, a free newspaper that is most well known for its polemic  Nine commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party , which Li promotes (Li, 2005c)
As practitioners do not teach Falun Gong beliefs, I found more information from Li’sbooks and speeches. Copies are available on the Internet, but they are not necessarily thesame as the originals. For example, disciples removed a chapter of Li’s improbableautobiographical claims of supernatural exploits from  Zhuan Falun, as well as from theInternet (see Penny, 2003 for a discussion on the content). They also removed Englishtranslations of   Zhuan Falun 11 , a book in which Li makes several scientific slip-ups(such as mistaking a light year for a measurement of time) and offends potentialsupporters by condemning homosexuality and Buddhism. Curiously, when I asked aresearch assistant to translate parts of   Zhuan Falun 11 for me, his car was broken intoafter he left my office, and my instructions on what to translate were stolen. Although Iam sure this event was a coincidence, it helped me to appreciate the wariness Falun Gong and the Chinese government have of each other. 

Further, as Deng and Fang (2000) observe, English translations of Li’s speeches have a
less strident tone, they sometimes differ from the original Chinese in critical parts, and the most anti-gay, racist and anti-human scriptures have never been translated into
English. Also, Li has instructed followers to destroy any unauthorised versions of his
speeches (1998b). While these sources shed some light on Falun Gong beliefs, an equally critical issue in relation to Falun Gong is the torture and persecution of members. The press often quote Amnesty International, but Amnesty’s reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources (for example, Amnesty, 2000). 
The Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights is the only independent source of information, although the Centre is actually not an organisation, but one man – Lu Si Qing. However, statistics of arrests from both Amnesty and the Hong Kong Centre are often much higher than those reported by Western journalists who were present in China when the arrests were made (Rahn, 2000), which suggests that other information may be similarly exaggerated.

This is pretty fair and balanced, and comes from someone who took the trouble to spend time with members.  I suggest the organizers of the Portland Buddhist Festival look further into Falun DaFa, and in particular seek out Chinese Buddhists from Chinese Buddhist temples to get their viewpoint on this group.

I first heard Falun DaFa probably 20 years ago, when my future wife and I joined by a Professor of Chinese from Portland State University, Wu Qianzhi, at an event at PSU where Falun DaFa members spoke.   What he said in translating what they were saying pretty much did have "cult of Li Hongzhi" written all over it. 

Like the Lenz cult, I can't say that what Li is propagating has much at all to do with the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, or anything like that.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

見性,臥龍, and how to talk about something you might not want to talk about. Oh, and Buddhist Ethics, too!

The more I think about it, the more I think about how the ethos of the hidden master - the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" ethos (or more Japanese-y 臥龍, (がりゅう, garyū), hidden talent, literally "reclining dragon") permeates Zen practice.  Or perhaps it ought to do so.

Maybe Philip Kapleau was too clever when he would not answer as to whether or not he was "enlightened." (I prefer to use the term awakened; it's more accurate as a translation, and really has a bit more of a pedestrian hint to it, in my humble opinion.)  Maybe not.  But at any rate it appeared to be that he was upholding a longstanding protocol in Zen circles that one does not talk about one's awakening, and doing so by noting that there's no separate "self" that gets awakened.

Regardless, if  one has thought they had such an experience, and if one were to think the experience were deeply important, deeply personal, and regardless of the depth of experience, if one thought that experience was to be respected, one might think that a practice of absolute humility in considering the experience, and conveying those considerations of the experience  would be called for.   

Part of the reason I write this is there are some people who call themselves Buddhist teachers - or at least Western Convert Buddhist Authorities - that say the idea of reporting one's 見性 to the world is a taboo that's not useful.

I beg to differ.

Whatever anyone has experienced, to put it into words would trivialize it, regardless of whether or not it has an official seal of approval or what-not.

James Ford writes about the kenshō experience here. And it was said, admittedly by Eido Shimano, that according to Hakuin, paraphrasing,   if you did this practice with enough ardor and duration that you would not fail to have a  kenshō experience even if you could not get out of bed. 

While I have much to agree with in James Ford's post, I can't, as they might say in certain telecommunications standards bodies, endorse it.  Which is another way of saying, I would not have written about kenshō that way.   Mostly because of the things I wrote above.

That said,  among other things, yeah,  reports pretty much universally confirm that nothing changes, so it's not surprising to see certain oshos get into spats with each other.   And among the things that might cause these spats are what seems on some level to be a rather silly dispute, although the reasoning behind it is largely well intentioned.  The dispute centers around which "teachers" of Zen are "teachers." 

Now there are levels of recognition in Japanese Zen Buddhism, and to some extent they've evidently filtered their way over here.  There are in Rinzai-shu,  kōan curricula.  There are probably other requirements too.  Sōtō folks don't all do  kōan practice, so what seems to be the case is that there is a set number of hours you have to clock in, and bam! - you get some kind of title or recognition.

This is where the reclining dragon comes in.  Regarding on who's got what position in Zen and what that position is or is not called, it's been generally recognized that there's clergy and there's laity more or less. These relationships between clergy and laity have changed over the years and will probably continue to change in the future.   Sōtō-shu  doesn't have a monopoly or didn't even start new models for laity/clergy relationships. Despite what's written in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, new models for laity/clergy were not started via Shunryu Suzuki in the 1960s.  It didn't even start with Sokei An.  It started with Imakita Kosen in Japan in the 19th century.   (There's an imperfect Wikipedia article about it.)

My point is that there seems to be a heck of a lot more attachment to titles than there ought to be.  I think I've said that before,  but I think it bears repeating every now and then.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Dharmakaya and the deity concept

I have never written a post on the Dharmakaya in the 10+ years this blog has existed.

I'm not sure anyone else has either, except possibly for Brad Warner , and if he didn't, he should have. (Sorry Brad I didn't read your book.)  Because he might be more qualified to write about the topic than me, except for the more than average education I had in Christianity, though, to be honest, I forgot most of what Thomas Aquinas said about Christianity, mostly because his "proofs' for the existence of god were... how shall I put this?... stupid.  And Bertrand Russell was more than a bit priggish in his refutations of Thomas Aquinas's stupidity, but that's neither here nor there, except to say that Russell was more engaging than Aquinas.

I pretty much marginalized the Dharmakaya in my own head when I read Shaku Soen make comparisons to monotheism that I thought were off.  I attributed that to a combination of a hyper-adherence to the literal meanings of Sutras with a lack of understanding of Christianity. Or to put it another way, a kind of Orientalism meets Occidentalism: the demand for understanding an "exotic" religion is made in terms of its Oriental apprehension of the Occidental. 

But  I kind have been missing the point all these years. 

What the heck is a Dharmakaya and why should I care - or not care - if it exists or doesn't? 

On a brief reading of the Wikipedia page, though, I would say that I would understand the Dharmakaya really, really apart from the Western concepts of a monotheistic deity, and not incompatible with my experience.  But definitely not an essential thing "one must believe" in order to be a good Buddhist. 

That is to say, the Dharmakaya is an effort to verbally express implications of an experience of Mind or  awareness of Mind, and its perfection of wisdom.

This is not a single "person" or a trinity, by any means. 

Shaku Soen wrote:

At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience. Again, Buddhism is not pantheistic in the sense that it identifies the universe with God. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is absolute and transcendent; this world, being merely its manifestation, is necessarily fragmental and imperfect. To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, "panentheism," according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence. 
One of the most fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that all the multitudinous and multifarious phenomena in the universe start from, and have their being in, one reality which itself has "no fixed abode," being above spatial and temporal limitations. However different and separate and irreducible things may appear to the senses, the most profound law of the human mind declares that they are all one in their hidden nature. In this world of relativity, or nânâtva as Buddhists call it, subject and object, thought and nature, are separate and distinct, and as far as our sense-experience goes, there is an impassable chasm between the two which no amount of philosophizing can bridge. But the very constitution of the mind demands a unifying principle which is an indispensable hypothesis for our conception of phenomenality; and this hypothesis is called "the gate of sameness," samatâ, in contradistinction to "the gate of difference," nânâtva; and Buddhism declares that no philosophy or religion is satisfactory which does not recognize these two gates. In some measure the "gate of sameness" may be considered to correspond to "God" and the "gate of difference" to the world of individual existence. 
Now, the question is, "How does Buddhism conceive the relation between these two entrances to the abode of Supreme Knowledge (sambodhi)?" And the answer to this decides the Buddhist attitude towards pantheism, theism, atheism, and what not. 
To state it more comprehensively, Buddhism recognizes the coexistence and identity of the two principles, sameness and difference. Things are many and yet one; they are one and yet many. I am not thou, and thou art not I; and yet we are all one in essence. When one slays another, there is an actor, an act, and a sufferer, all distinct and separate; and yet 
"If the red slayer think he slays,
   Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
   I keep, and pass, and turn again."
Buddhism, therefore, says that while we have to acknowledge the world of particulars in which individuality predominates, we must not forget that looking through the gate of sameness all distinctions and contradictions vanish in a higher principle of unity. A Japanese poet thus sings: 
"Rain and hail and ice and snow,
Neither like the other. So!
When they melt, however, lo,
See one stream of water flow! 
Intellectually, the coexistence of the two mutually excluding thoughts is impossible, for the proposition, "Mine are not thine," cannot be made at the same time the proposition, "Mine are thine." But here Buddhism is speaking of our inmost religious experience, which deals directly with facts and not with their more or less distorted intellectual reflections. It is, therefore, really idle to say that Buddhism is pantheistic or atheistic or nihilistic. Buddhism is not a philosophical system, though it is the most rational and intellectual religion in the world. What it proposes is to make clear facts of the deepest spiritual life and to formulate a doctrine which leads its followers to the path of inward experience. 
Thus, according to the proclamation of an enlightened mind, God or the principle of sameness is not transcendent, but immanent in the universe, and we sentient beings are manifesting the divine glory just as much as the lilies of the field. A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human  reason. God must be in us, who are made in his likeness. We cannot presume the duality of God and the world. Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world, but to find him in it. Our faith is to believe in our essential oneness with him, and not in our sensual separateness. "God in us and we in him," must be made the most fundamental faith of all religion.

It's the personalization  of the notion of God that is troublesome for me here.  What Soen is pointing to does seem to pervade Buddhism, both in its "operatic" form with myriad personages, throughout space and time and so on  This I have no issue with "A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human  reason."  But I think it's a bit much to say "God must be in us, who are made in his likeness."  That's not to say that the "sameness principle"  samatâ, isn't a reality; it most certainly is, and we do indeed resonate  samatâ with breath, with each cycle of our life, with birth, with death, with love, laughter, and with tears.

I often say "Void forbid" or some other such statement in place of god; it's because Void is probably a better stand-in for the Dharmakaya than god.  I still think it does a bit of injustice to refer to the Dharmakaya as god, and it's an injustice to not only Buddhists, but monotheists and atheists.  I think it's better to keep these kinds of categories separated with respect to discussion their particular religious or secular terms of reference.  Sure, there are functional similarities between the Dharmakaya and the monotheist deity or the universe as we (don't) know it.  But the Dharmakaya wasn't put forth to be a placeholder for something in another religion or philosophy.  Or to put it another way, you don't really have samatâ without a corresponding nânâtva, gate of difference.

And yes, that's not necessarily the Buddhism of the practitioners of a Cha'n temple in Xi'an, but Buddhism tends to lack required catechisms that all must memorize by rote.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Buddhist Ethics?

Via Buddhist Geeks, I came across this piece on (")Buddhist ethics(") by David Chapman, who I have to say is a guy I haven't heard about before.

Mr. Chapman notes:

I use “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) to refer to the ethics taught by Consensus Buddhism. (Consensus Buddhism is the American synthesis of the ideals of the 1960s youth movement with Asian Buddhist modernism.) Traditional Buddhist morality is quite different, as I’ll explain in upcoming posts.

As I understand it,  Mr. Chapman sees it "Buddhist ethics" is somewhat indistinguishable from some kind of bourgeois Whole Foods kind of progressive hipster ethos, or something like that, or at least something a college left-leaning Californian non-Buddhist might ought to find as different from his ethics, even if it's not the case.

I beg to differ.   And I think Brad Warner would too.

There’s a damned good reason the early Buddhists taught ethical precepts along with meditation. They understood right from the start that meditation without ethics can be a very bad thing indeed. For the meditator as much as for anyone else. But now we have to make our meditation courses completely secular. So a whole generation is learning to meditate without any training in ethics to go along with it.

Mr. Chapman is correct in asserting  that by and large, traditional Buddhist morality wasn't all that great.  However, although traditional Buddhist behavior of clergy was often intimately related to political intrigue and horrors such as slavery,  considering that there was no such thing as Western enlightenment philosophy from which to build (which itself carries a whole bunch of horrible baggage, e.g., as can be found from Marxist critiques of Locke),  it probably was more or less the best thing out there religion-wise at the time.  In fact,  later philosophies built on Buddhism as a religious tradition in the West.  Then there's the real likelihood that at least some aspects of New Testament Christianity were influenced by Buddhism (see for example, the Prodigal Son parables of the Lotus Sutra and the New Testament.)

But about that hypothetical Californian, I still beg to differ.

First of all,  Buddhist ethics - at least to me anyway - proceeds from something far more fundamental than the straw-man Californian ethics Mr. Chapman posits as identical to (")Buddhist ethics.(") It implies karma and compassion, but the fundamental thing is the emptiness of all phenomena.  There is a reason the Heart Sutra is written the way it is, and its point is not to promote a touchy-feely New Age kumbayasity.   All dharmas are fundamentally without an essential substance.    Buddhist ethics, as a dharma, is not non-existent, but perennially "in play."

I doubt the empty nature of ethics as a dharma is going to one day unfold into making us all regular Kodos the Executioners however.  Why do I say this? Well, folks wiser than me, and more learned than I am have been considering Buddhist ethics for a while. (Why, there's even a Wikipedia page on it. Though I admit it is ironic that a page on Buddhist ethics features Dennis Genpo Merzel.  But just because there's bugs in the system doesn't mean the system doesn't exist.)  Much of what has been written as Buddhist ethics does rely on textual analysis and criticism.  But regardless, ethics is a little like science or history, or case law.  One of the cool things about being a bipedal ape-descended life form called homo sapiens is that we are really good at using information as a tool to preserve learning across generations.  (Notice I didn't say we're unique in that.  I don't know about whether chimpanzees can do something like that, but slime molds might be able to do such a thing, for example.  It's just we're really good at using information.)

So naturally what is seen as Buddhist ethics in one century is going to have the potential to look quite different 1000 years later!  People, being people, are going to revisit questions about how to live and they're going to compare it to what people wrote down previously about the subject!  Based on this alone, there's really no difference in the relative "fixedness" of Buddhist ethics compared to any other ethics!

Secondly,  like a lot of Western Buddhist writing, it kind of ignores the fact that there are Asian practitioners of Buddhism, who would tell you that their own appropriation of Buddhist ethics might not be yours or mine.  Yes, there are no deep ethical treatises in Buddhism, at least none that I know about,  and in English.  But that does not mean that there is an obliviousness to wrongdoing or that there is no such thing as wrongdoing.  It is just that especially from a Buddhist perspective  emptiness + the nature of learning → what we see as acceptable behavior today might be unacceptable tomorrow and vice versa.   That's not a rightish or leftish thing, although to paraphrase Stephen Colbert the accumulation and advancement of knowledge might well have a liberal bias.

But more than that,  if a David Chapman writes "there's no such thing as Buddhist ethics,"  I do think that there is inherent in that statement an erasure of norms of Buddhist behavior or "case ethics" l as practiced by non-Western Buddhists.  There's literally millions of people who practice Buddhism who engage in certain behaviors because they see it as morally and ethically beneficial from a Buddhist perspective.  Would a "leftish" California person see the point of going vegetarian or Vegan depending on phases of the moon?  Yet quite educated and intelligent Chinese people do such a thing and could explain to you why they do such a thing.  And they and their clergy would look at you like you were from the planet Ogo if you were to tell them that their ethics and moral practices came from some "Consensus" Buddhist fusion of some Western stuff with some Buddhist stuff.  Or they might roll their eyes at the White Convert Buddhist-splaining of their take on ethics and morality.

Yeah, it's an elephant and we're all blind.

And if "case ethics" is "situational ethics" to you so be it.  Buddhist "absolutes" - that which in Western terms one would juxtapose against "situational ethics" or "moral relativism,"  - would be sunyata itself.  It's one of my many beefs with conservative moralists who inveigh against the lack of respect for "moral absolutes" that they have no idea what is absolute.  But I digress, except perhaps to say maybe a better idea for an essay is "There's no such thing as Western ethics."

Thirdly, what Brad Warner said.   Clearly it was the intent of early Buddhist monks to convey some type of behavioral norms.   And there were reasons why these behavioral norms were  conveyed, not the least of which was to try to get a bunch of mendicants not to go all People's Temple, I suppose.  Moreover, I think the privileging of meditation over ethics as is often represented in Western Convert Buddhist circles has consequences.  Mr. Chapman might say that's a trite statement, but experience has shown meditation without ethics is associated with certain problems arising from a lack of ethical practice, trite or not.

Fourthly, Chapman writes:

What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics. Mostly, Westerners take the “whats” as given; we don’t need to be told not to kill, steal, and lie. That’s kindergarten stuff. What we want to know is how to use principles to resolve conflicting moral considerations.

Coincidentally,  I was watching Richard Dawkins talking about science versus religion and he made the point that in regard to questions concerning things like how we got here, and such "why" is not an meaningful question to ask.  "Why" is not the same thing as "what is  the cause?"

In my apprehension of Buddhism,  my take on Mahayana Zen Buddhism,  a similar point applies. Cases of how to act when conflicting moral considerations are in play are dealt with based on our awareness of them, and our understanding of the implications of how to act in such cases.  Pay attention! And if you can't wrap your head around the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra, or have to ask "Why?" about that,  I submit that yes, there's ethical issues, but it's not because there's an issue with the existence or nonexistence of Buddhist ethics.


If you're asking that question you're probably not paying attention.

I think this is a good start for now.  I see that as part of this series Mr. Chapman has a take on the mindfulness movement.   I might respond to that too, later. But this is good for now.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Get dressed, get blessed. Try to be a success. Please her, please him, buy gifts. Or,on being a 臥龍

Brad Warner has an interesting piece out that deals with issues that have been on my mind for quite a while.

Success depends on measurement and comparison. On the one hand, I am successful because I have six books out, all of which are still in print including the first one I published over ten years ago. I don’t have to punch a clock every day. I’m my own boss. I earn enough to pay my rent and my bills and have some left over to buy old records over at the Goodwill.
On the other hand, I am unsuccessful because none of my books has ever won a literary prize. They don’t sell as well as those by many other writers in my field. I’ve never been reviewed in the New York Times and no doubt never will. I’ll never be on Oprah’s Super Spiritual Sunday. NPR routinely ignores every book I put out. Bill Maher doesn’t want me on his show even though every other person who writes a book about religion gets on. I was once told by someone who deals with the big names on the spiritual scene that I am “not even on the radar” when it comes to the real stars of the meditation world. My retreats don’t pack ‘em in like those run by the big boys in the scene.

The sangha to which I belong is a very small sangha.  We've had one or two new members in the past 10 years. Yet, the osho of my sangha is a pretty accomplished guy.   It's just that in the US he's even less on the radar than Mr. Warner. (Japan is a bit different, let's just say.)

So sometimes I get the feeling that my osho's Zen doesn't get the attention it deserves. It probably won't appear in Adam Kōshin (meaning "Shining Heart") Tebbe's documentary on Zen in America if that ever gets made.  Our sangha doesn't get any mention on Sweeping Zen, though pretty much all the Rinzai osho's I've spoken with in the Pacific Northwest have heard of him.  We've never put up a booth at the Portland Buddhist Festival. 

There's reasons why my osho's sangha is small.  Part of that has to do with the fact that our sittings are done at his residence, and it would be kind of unusual for 60 people to suddenly show up for a zazenkai.  It also has to do with the fact that my osho also manages a temple in Japan, so much of the year he is not in the US.  Finally, it has to do with the fact that we have a really minimal internet presence.  We could actually have more of an internet presence, but we don't have one as of now.

Yet,  none of that really matters all that much.  It doesn't matter all that much because it's not the point of the sangha.  It's not the point of sitting, as Brad Warner points out either. 

This blog has been around for over 10 years.  I have something like 40 followers, and when I tweet about a post,  I might get a hundred or so readers, occasionally more if I'm posting something about a Zen scandal.   Adam Kōshin (meaning "Shining Heart") Tebbe might still disagree with me, but from the analytics it's obvious even in Zen Buddhism, scandal sells.  But I want this blog to be a bit more than about scandals, and besides, if it's only about scandals, then your source of content is exhausted once scandals die down.

I'm pretty successful, as the world defines success, in my career.  Substantially less so in other areas of my life.   But I really stopped worrying so much whether we have a "name" sangha or such.  This also has to do with something that Hakuin mentioned more or less: If you do this practice for enough years,  and with good intent, and attempt at least to be ethical, it can't not benefit you. That's not the same thing as having an explicit goal to make what I think is an obvious point.

In fact, I think some of the issues with American Zen/Convert Zen/... stem from the desire of some oshos to want their sanghas to grow and be popular or "successful." (You might think you know who I'm talking about, but besides them there's others.)

I should mention one other thing.  My osho's temple in Japan sits on a large hill (small mountain?) called 臥龍山, (がりゅうさん, garyūsan), which means "unrecognized genius," "exceptional person hidden among the masses," or "dragon laying down," or more colloquially, "sleeping dragon."  The word がりゅう is also a homonym for 我流, which has the kanji for "self," and "flow," and means, "self taught," or "one's own way."  That's a pretty apt name for a mountain on which to put a Zen temple, no?  It's finding one's way, and being a sleeping dragon, or as Lin Chi put it, a person of no rank.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Japanese Zen Culture, and American Zen Culture

I wanted to write a bit on this piece I found by Koun Franz on Zen Culture, from my perspective as a guy who's been doing Rinzai Zen practice for more than a couple of decades or so now, and as a guy who's practiced at temples in China, Japan, and the US, although not regularly outside of the US.

I don't think Franz's piece is necessarily wrong, but rather that it's self referential in kind of a way.  The blog Speculative Non-Buddhism might have more to say about this topic from their perspective than I would (but see self-referentiality with respect to them as well.)

Franz writes:

... I’ve noticed, especially recently, that one of the defining characteristics of Zen culture is a tendency to speak negatively about Zen. It’s built in. It’s fashionable. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve heard in Japan in which priests lament the state of the tradition, of the priesthood, of the monasteries. Someone I know once asked her teacher (a very high-ranking and respected Japanese monk in his own right, a teacher of teachers), “Are there any Zen masters in Japan?” He thought about it and replied, “No, I guess not. Well, maybe that guy in…. No, well, no. Maybe not right now.” Older monks love to talk about how the young monks just don’t get it, and the young monks can see that a lot of the old monks seem to be all talk and no action*. Everyone knows that the monastic standards have gone lax — again, there are exceptions, but one doesn’t have to look far to find an authorized training monastery that is a monastery in name only, where even zazen practice is maintained at only the most basic, basic level (once a day, maybe). 
If you’re new to Zen, this may all sound a bit shocking (or just sad), but it goes way, way back. 800 years ago, Dōgen (the founder of the Soto school in Japan) spent a good amount of ink complaining about how Buddhism has gone down the drain, how the people in authority have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, Dōgen believed that the teachings he had received from his teacher, at least, were authentic; he just felt that he was more or less alone in what he was carrying. 
Some of these complaints about Japanese Zen are absolutely real — I am deeply pessimistic about the trends I see here. But some of this way of talking is also cultural — in a country where self-deprecation is as fundamental as gravity, one shouldn’t be surprised that so few people are prepared to say, “This is the real deal.” I suspect that in his time, a lot of Dōgen’s enemies despised him not for what he was teaching, but for the unapologetic confidence with which he taught it.

First of all, the * in the quoted text references a piece by Noriyuki Ueda-san on Zen in Japan (page 8).   I will make a few comments about that piece, too.  But, as I live in America, and Sweeping Zen has a wish to be somewhat authoritative in on-line Zen matters, I'll deal with them first.

There's a tendency amongst American Sōtō Zen oshos and practitioners to view Sōtō Zen as the Zen and Dōgen as the guy, the authority from which argument can be justified.  It's kind of strange from my vantage point, because from that vantage point Dōgen is not separate from the Buddha or the ten thousand things.  Dōgen was a pretty brilliant guy, but a lot of people want to make an icon out of him it seems to me.

Moreover,  when it comes to the bit about how "Dōgen's enemies despised him not for what he was teaching..." this needs a bit of unpacking because it's a bit oblivious to history.  Dōgen lived during the Kamakura shogunate.  The "official" Buddhism during that period was originally Tendai Buddhism, but Shingon Buddhism was also in Japan for quite a while as well.  However, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, during the Kamakura period other schools started to flourish as well, and the Zen schools arose in part from the Tendai school. 

Moreover, the Tendai school during this time was politically connected to the Shogunate, so naturally Dōgen (as well as Nichiren) wouldn't fare well challenging the status quo, especially, in Dōgen's case, because Zen would challenge the ecosystem wherein Tendai Buddhism was accommodationist with respect to Shinto.  Which is another way of saying it wasn't Dōgen's confidence that was the issue,  but rather the status quo, and Dōgen being the "nail that sticks out."

Next though, let's get to the main point of the quoted text: Is Japanese Zen "in decline?"  I don't know about Soto Zen, other than to say that at Sengakuji, they only have sitting for lay people once a month, and if you go to Sengakuji during a weekday, you'll find that most of the visitors are older people (because, duh, people are working during the day generally).  I'm also told it's a place to go for school field trips. Yet if you go during a weekend, you'll find that yes, there are younger people there. 

(A similar dynamic exists in Chinese temples whether they're more Pure Land or more Zen, though I don't know if schools have field trips to them; I sort of doubt they do.)

As for my recent visit to Engakuji, as I wrote elsewhere,  there were scores of practitioners, many beginners on the Sunday on which I visited.   That temples like Engakuji are also tourist meccas makes it somewhat wrong to me to conclude that Rinzai Zen is dying out in Japan faster than the decline of population of Japan in general (though that's a serious issue.)

And to me, the very question of the "decline of Zen in Japan" is irrelevant.  Why oh why, in a practice which purports to be one "not founded on words and letters, but pointing directly to one's mind," is so much verbiage spent on "whether they're doing it well," and "is it in decline?"  It seems to me to go there in thought is to self-confirm the decline itself! 

Moreover, even though the narrative of Zen in America as a reboot of "real" Japanese Zen, was definitely a narrative that was used,  it seems to have been problematic to even make that narrative as it was a bit of a case of adding another head to one's own.

I don't entirely disagree with Franz, but I would offer that the way Rinzai Zen has evolved in Japan (and its presence in Korea as well) has been "tuned" so that this non-reliance on words and letters and direct pointing to the mind is kind of baked into the practices in my experience, despite the variations from temple to temple and school to school.

Don't get me wrong; there are indeed mediocre oshos in Zen schools, and there are still the real history of scandals in the US, especially in Rinzai Zen in the US.  But that doesn't indicate a "decline of Zen practice" in either Japan or the US. (For some reason, probably because it's an example of what I'm trying to point out, but for whatever reason I want to note that although I didn't understand the teisho given at Engakuji except for words here and there, the osho who gave it gave it in such a way that various sections of it were chanted, and done with great energy.)

With regard to Ueda-san's piece, yes, there's such a thing as Funeral Buddhism in Japan, and because of Funeral Buddhism, there's a critical view of Japanese Buddhist clergy amongst Japanese.  That is definitely true.  But that's more an issue with Japanese culture than Japanese Buddhism actually.  There is so much that Japanese culture has evolved through that they've kind of forgotten how Japanese Buddhism - and Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular informs their culture.  And in those areas I'd cite: 

  • The way Japanese use personal space - and space in general - compared to other cultures
  • The way in which Japanese language tends to avoidance of conflict, and promotion of the "flow" of conversation
  • The continued existence of Japanese arts related to Zen

But at the same time there have been trends in their culture that have stifled growth (via excessive bureaucracy)  and trivialized aspects about life.  There's a place for trivializing aspects of life, of course.   But the kind of thing I'm trying to talk about here you can see at Sengakuji: Lord Asano's death was avenged by having his antagonist's head placed upon his grave at Sengakuji.  In the museum you can see the receipt they got for giving back his head.   Even then, Japanese culture required receipts for such things. 

In addition, I should note that Funeral Buddhism in Japan is closely tied to the Confucian notions of family;  families having ancestral burial grounds going back ten generations is not unheard of, to say the least, so that kind of bakes in a necessity of Funeral Buddhism culturally.

And finally, all of that said, we in America, whether convert Buddhist or Buddhists by ethnic heritage have our own problems, and one answer to those problems is to transmit Buddhism with and without words in our daily lives.

It's very difficult as Japanese might say, but still must be attempted because of endemic suffering.