Friday, January 09, 2009

Roland Burris, Bad Catholic Priests, and Errant Roshis

I have in the past recommended, and still recommend the writings of Stuart Lachs as a way for any prospective students to have in mind when "kicking the tires" as they go about considering a sangha to join.

A bit of a counter to Lachs, I think is in order, and was suggested into my brain, as it were, by the Roland Burris appointed by Rod Blagojevich controversy. Stanley Fish (another one of my favorite folks to read on the internet) eloquently points out an argument I'd made at lunch to colleagues wherein I predicted the seating of Burris (I'd considered whether pedophile priests were still performing valid priestly duties & noted that according to the Catholic Church, they did):

It is not clear, however, that Mr. Blagojevich has actually done anything that merits either his conviction or impeachment. On that question, time will tell. And suppose that in the long run the governor is cleared of all charges, and suppose that in the short run Mr. Burris is denied a seat and someone else is appointed in his place. What then? Is the second appointee now dismissed because his or her appointment was “tainted” (he or she reached office as the result of an injustice)? Does the state start all over again and hold a new election?

Questions like these highlight the difficulties and conundrums that arise once the lawfulness of an official action is made to depend on the purity of the person who performs it. If the rectitude of the office-holder is crucial, how far back does one go in an effort to validate it? College? High school? Grade school? Sand box?

If an act can be declared null and void by a demonstration that those who signed off on it are unworthy, do all official acts rest on a foundation of sand? Can apparently settled decisions be undone in a second when evidence of venality is uncovered? Does your daughter lose her place in a college because the admissions officer who let her in turns out to be an embezzler? Do DWI convictions get reversed when the judge is revealed to be a drunkard? Is your marriage invalidated because the clerk or cleric who performed it cheated on his wife or stole from the poor box?

This last question is not new. It was debated in the 4th and 5th centuries in the context of what is known as the Donatist controversy. This debate was about the status of churchmen who had cooperated with the emperor Diocletian during the period when he was actively persecuting Christians. The Donatists argued that those who had betrayed their faith under pressure and then returned to the fold when the persecutions were over had lost the authority to perform their priestly offices, including the offices of administering the sacraments and making ecclesiastical appointments. In their view, priestly authority was a function of personal virtue, and when a new bishop was consecrated by someone they considered tainted, they rejected him and consecrated another.

In opposition, St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him.

I don't know if Buddhist scriptures go into such things in such detail, but they ought to, because there's good reasons within the foundation of Buddhism itself that that they should: Buddhism of the zen variety stresses the being a lamp unto yourself sort of thing. Nobody authenticates you higher than you.

Your status as being able to sense with the senses of the Buddha and being aware with the awareness of the Buddha is authenticated only through you, and whatever performative acts you need to express conclusion of this fact is up to you.

"The office" that speaks to a Buddhist is Buddha nature of the person, as expressed performatively for authentication through great faith, doubt, and resolve. It is ultimately that office that continually authenticates the teacher. Yeah, it helps him to have some fancy calligraphy scroll somewhere and to be able to claim that it gives him inka or what-not. But the rubber meets the road where the student/sangha member accepts to be taught by the teacher, and authenticates the teacher's teaching through the sangha member/student's own practice.

That's why Genpo Merzel can have followers who outshine him (though it's questionable to me whether his authorized successors are any better than he is, judging from their internet presence, IMHO); indeed that's why some Zen Patriarchs outshone others and why revivals can happen despite shoddy or 3rd rate teachers.

Now don't get me wrong: I'd rather work with folks like Robert Gallager (as an example; I've never actually even met him) than a dolt, and luckily in my life I'm not so much at the mercy of dolts that I need to worry about their doltishness rubbing off on me. But the student can and does outshine the teacher, from time to time. In fact, it's part of the student's job to have the resolve to do so.

It's just that some teachers are suckier than others, and some teachers are so sucky that they do indeed screw up their students. But if the student's not committed to "it" beyond whatever his teacher says or doesn't say, ...well, I can't say that the student deserves a defective teacher, but I can't say the student should be surprised at the results.

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