Thursday, March 09, 2006

Lying for Jesus?

Yesterday, while aimlessly surfing the 'net at a good time to take a break, I noticed that Robert Turkel, who also goes by the nom de net as James Patrick Holding, and is famous for being an autodidact in Christian "apologetics," had written a few articles for He appeared about 10 years or so ago on the 'net, attempting to be a talk-radio inspired "answer" to, which didn't jibe with the "they'll know we're Christians by our love" ethic that is present in the best Christians.

It was while doing this, though that I ran into a "Stephen H. Short." Or at least a writing purported to have been by him, which has since been uncritically cribbed elsewhere.

It also rings as phony as a 3 dollar bill to any serious Zen Buddhist out there.

I first began reading about Zen the day before I graduated from college. I wandered into a campus bookstore and asked for a good introduction to this curious, mystical philosophy I'd heard so much about. I was given Alan Watts's The Way of Zen.

The attraction was immediate. I was drawn to the mystery of it all. Watts claimed there was a knowing beyond knowing. But, no one could tell you about it; you had to discover it yourself. You did this by becoming still.

But it was the promised fruit of this discovery that was most fascinating to me. It seemed that this knowing -- called enlightenment -- released one from pain, suffering, and death.
Now enlightenment is NOT a release from pain, suffering, and death. The founder of the school to which this article is referring has said, "Zen is understanding yourself," which is a far cry from being released from pain, suffering, and death.

Zen ...promised freedom: freedom from confusion and freedom from fear, particularly that fear that seems to lurk behind all others -- the fear of death. Those who attain enlightenment, I read, are beyond life and death. They are beyond every opposite, even "me" and "not me." This transcendence seems to give the enlightened almost godlike power and understanding.

Now I will admit something: I have never read very much of Alan Watts. I guess I was not impressed by thumbing through his books in bookstores, as well as my own knowledge of those who considered him as a wise man (he called himself a "philosophical entertainer," I guess in the same way that Rush Limbaugh would be considered a "political entertainer," except that one had experience with hallicunogens and was a relatively peaceful, benevolent human being, and the other was Rush Limbaugh).

But if someone "believed" in this aspect of Zen from Watts' readings, then you would imagine reality would set them straight...

After years of reading about Zen and its claims, I was driven to test them when my marriage broke up and I sank into a state of crushing despair. I stopped by a Zen center in my area and, by coincidence, a famous Zen Master was visiting that night. Compelled by my pain, I insisted on an audience.

Ushered into a muted, incense-laden room, I was confronted by the stare of a shaven-head Korean man, about 50, dressed in long, gray robes. His expression was completely impassive, as though he weren't really there. And his eyes looked straight through me, as though I weren't there, either. He seemed to know everything I intended to say, so I dared not conceal anything. All I could blurt out was, "Why am I so unhappy?"

"Because you don't understand your true nature!", he shot back without a pause. "Don't ask 'why.' 'Why' is a very bad word. You come to the Zen center, do hard training, and then you will understand your true nature."

This part seems to ring true (with the exception of the "claims" of "Zen.") But...

With a clean mind-mirror, we are at last able to act "correctly." With a clear perception of each new situation, and no thought of self, we can respond according to our true nature. For example, if we encounter a man who is starving, and our mind-mirror is perfectly clear, our response will also be perfectly clear -- we will give him food. This is the unthinking and hence correct response. The "don't know" mind-mirror only reflects hunger and is not obscured by preconceptions, evaluations, or selfish motives. It is as if the observer himself is starving, for his mind is holding no idea of separation between "me" and "other."

I questioned, though, whether it is possible to have a truly "don't know" mind. Aren't we always holding something? If we feed the hungry man, for example, aren't we holding a value for human life? To a truly "don't know" mind -- not attached to anything -- whether the hungry man lives or dies shouldn't matter.

It is here that the note of phoniness is hit: whether the hungry man lives or dies actually doesn't matter. Just feed him. And it continues...

It made me wonder where the value for human life -- or any impulse toward good -- comes from. But I stopped wondering. If I'm to be a Zen student, I told myself, I must get rid of such thoughts and always keep a "don't know" mind -- even when listening to the Zen Master extol the "value" of letting go of all values.

No doubt in the Kwan Um school these sort of issues that come up in practice would be discussed in their version of sanzen (it wouldn't be discussed in the Rinzai school, or in any advanced Sambokyodan training). This guy supposedly trained for 13 years, and never once brought these issues up? But wait, it gets better:

But, I pondered, if we only go straight ahead and don't think about such dangers to our survival as falling off a roof or bleeding to death, why bother to feed ourselves or the starving man? I asked myself if there were some trustworthy values we should hold onto, perhaps preserved somewhere in language. But I decided not to continue asking such questions.

Instead, in the true spirit of a "don't know" mind, I chose to "go straight" to the next step on the Zen path: living in a temple. Because I was also interested in writing popular songs, I decided to move to my Master's branch center in the Korean section of Los Angeles, a city well-known as a center for commercial music.

Now in fact the first part could allude to a common genjokoan that students invariably grapple with in training - except for its phrasing. This is an intellectual exercise for this writer, not reflecting an actual experience of practice amidst the exigencies of day to day living, perhaps with a hungry baby involved. Anybody who's done that with dilligence- and fed the baby- knows the answer to the quandary. And you know what? Just feed the baby.

"I decided not to continue asking such questions." Either these questions were coming up in this guy's life, or they weren't, or as I suspect, this whole story was made up from a couple of visits to a Kwan Um Zen center. But I find it difficult to believe that they would uncritically take everyone. It's just not done at that level in any Zen center I know about. Well, maybe a couple of less than useful ones. But the standard is as in the Sambokyodan school, some kind of gatekeeping function. Not everyone who knocks is admitted.

The irony of becoming wrapped up in the self in order to lose the self was not lost on me. We were told that bringing our attachments to awareness was a prerequisite to letting them go. Might not increased awareness subtly lead to increased attachment? Were we trading bondage to desire for bondage to self-absorption?
Again, I can't imagine - and don't believe- that Kwan Um training is ignorant entirely of Buddhist sutras, but anybody who'd gotten to living at a Zen Center who wasn't familiar with what is known as the "relaxation of thoughts," well, it strains credibility.

This awareness of suffering, and attachements, also brings forth the cessation of suffering and attachments, as rain eventually stops. It's not a philosophical thing; it's like hitting a basketball through a hoop. You just do it.

Every morning we prostrated ourselves before the Zen Master. And on retreat weekends and other times, we went to him for personal interviews. These interviews were both guidance sessions and tests where we were challenged with the infamous Zen koans (questions): "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" "What did your face look like before your parents were born?", and so forth. Because they were impossible to answer by thinking about them such questions were supposed to help us stop thinking.

By our answers, the Master gauged the progress of our "don't know" minds. The validity of our answers was subject to his judgment alone. In fact, the whole of our efforts in our practice depended on his direction. He represented the only returned traveler we knew from a place we desperately wanted to go ourselves.

Again, 13 years, and this guy didn't get it? I haven't had the benefit of maybe 2 months in a center, and with the 12 years or so practice I've had, and my experience with the Kwan Um school, I can't believe that this "Master" was a real Kwan Um teacher. They're just not that full of themselves, in my experience.

So I have to ask who was this guy? How long was he there? How much Buddhism did he really know, because the writer of this article is woefully lacking in even basic Buddhist thought - or experience.

Why is this guy apparently lying for Jesus?

Coming soon: Zenmar. The kind of guy whose writing inspires me to say, "I admire him, and I've learned things rom him, but I sure better not be like him," and he'd probably agree. Which is to say, he's got good points, and I'm sure he'd laugh at what I wrote above (and if you get a chance to read this, Zenmar, there's a reason why I don't practice in those schools).

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