Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More about zazen and "brainwashing"

I will expand a tiny bit on what I alluded to here.

Gniz says:

It's important to understand that meditation is a constantly changing process, and as such, our brain is going to be in varying states throughout. At times, the act of meditation could lead us to being in a more receptive, less intellectually critical mindstate.

In fact, a lot of teachers will tell us that this is EXACTLY where meditation leads. They won't say that it's a less intellectually critical mindstate, they'll call it "being free of opinions" or "emptying your cup" or "thinking non-thinking."

Let's be clear. I'm not implying that being free of the continuous machinations of the intellect is a bad thing, because it's actually quite nice at times. But there are some dangers involved. The first is that people who are overly ambitious will strive to cultivate being in this "balanced state" at all times, and may actually create a scenario where they are less mentally aware and less in touch with reality as opposed to more in touch with it...

There are some dangers with spirituality and meditation. People should be aware that you are playing games with your own perceptions, with reality, with your mind. To varying degrees you may become more likely to take on new beliefs in a state where you are either less aware and discerning, or perhaps just confused by a new experience that you can't process on your own...

For myself, I'd almost rather just sit and meditate and put absolutely NO descriptions, religious connotations or other mental constructs onto what it is that happens in these times. 

And Brad Warner says:

The general public doesn’t really have a clue as to what a Zen teacher is. So the model they usually chose to base their assumptions about what a Zen teacher ought to be is that of a religious instructor...

And so the idea has come down to us a hundred and some years later that Zen is a religion. I’m aware that there has been considerable debate about this. But mostly the debate has been framed in terms of the question: “Is Zen a religion or a philosophy?” I used to side with the faction that said it was a philosophy. But I’m not so sure this is even the right question anymore.

It has occurred to me lately that Zen is not a religion or a philosophy, but might better be seen as a form of art. 

 I side with the "Zen Buddhism is a religion" folks; if a religion is not first and foremost a set of behaviors to which one applies skill, regardless of institutions, deities, and funny clothes, then what good is it?

For medical benefits? That seems somewhat unnatural in the same sense that people in armies don't fight and die for their country, they fight and die for their brothers and sisters so they may live.

Furthermore, if your practice is only on your cushion,  it's not even like an artificial flavor versus the real flavor.   You have a verisimilitude of practice, sometimes.  But it's like having the keys to a Ferrari but only driving it out of the garage and into the driveway and claiming you "drive" a Ferrari.  No, this needs to be done as much as one can, in every situation.  And only you can be there to do that, and when you're there doing that, there is no brainwashing.

Now on to the bigger question, as raised by Gniz: having great faith and great doubt does not mean great faith is invested in your teacher and great doubt is invested in everything else that might run counter to what your teacher says. In American Rinzai temples in the tradition established by Soen Shaku we chant from the Mahaparinirvana sutra:

Atta Dipa
Atta Sarana
Anana Sarana
Dhamma Dipa
Dhamma Sarana
Anana Sarana

Which means:

You are the light
Rely on yourself
Do not rely on others
The Dharma is light
Rely on the Dharma
Do not rely on others

Any teacher which ain't teaching this, to get slightly fundie about it, is not teaching a Buddhism as taught by Shakyamuni.

Suspension of opinions includes opinions about the teacher.  If he's on a pedestal you're light years away.  And if you can't see your closeness to Pat Robertson, Mother Teresa, Pol Pot, Ben Stein, Sean Hannity and Michael Moore, you're not there yet either.

Regardless of what an unscrupulous teacher might say, and they are there, in this practice you cannot check your brains at the door.

This is embedded in the structure of the most fundamental of Zen koans; e.g., Case 39 (see here for another translation and commentary) of the Mumonkan says:

As soon as a monk stated Un-mon, "The radiance of the Buddha quietly and restlessly illuminates the whole universe", Un-mon asked him, "Are these you are reciting not the words of Chosetzu Shusai?" The monk replied, "Yes, they are." Un-mon said, "You are trapped in words!" Afterwards Shishin brought up the matter once more and said, "Tell me, how was the monk trapped in words?"
Mumon's Comments:
If you are able to grasp Un-mon's unapproachable accomplishments and follow through the monk's corruption (of being trapped into words), you will be the leader of humans and Devas. If not, you cannot even save yourself.
A fish meets the fishhook in a rapid stream,
Being too greedy for the bait, the fish wants to bite.
Once his mouth widely opens,
His life is already lost.

 Yunmen (Ummon) is saying the student is "trapped in words" or  has "misspoken" in response to his student quoting another's poem.  The context as to why the student quoted the poem is not given but clearly what was expected here was the student's expression of his understanding.  That's why you can read all the koan commentaries you want til the cows come home (just when do they come home?) but a reputable teacher won't confirm anything unless it's truly, authentically your expression of your understanding, and if he doesn't, you're going to understand anyway.

So no, Gniz, nothing to worry about.  Just keep going.


Barry said...

I rarely follow or comment on the various controversies that swirl around the Buddhist online community, as most of them seem to me self-inflicted.

However, I did see the recent post by Brad Warner. Since Warner Roshi has made it clear that he doesn't concern himself with comments on his blog, it seemed pointless to comment I'll inflict my thoughts on you!

I responded to his post rather differently than you (or, more precisely, to different parts of his post).

To draw an analogy with the role of the Zen teacher, Warner wrote, "...I could teach someone the basics of the instrument [guitar]...once I have instructed you, how you use that knowledge isn't really my business."

This suggests that Warner thinks of meditation as something rather clinical and detached from the world at large. Every important Zen master, dating back to Bodhidharma, has concerned themselves with how their students use the teaching. Modern teachers, such as Aitken Roshi, have written book about how dharma teaching and studying come alive through engaged living. Ancient teachers, such as Pai Chang, developed codes of conduct to govern how students interact with the world.

I just can't imagine a genuine teacher who isn't concerned with how students live in the world. (I mean, isn't that the point of the Bodhisattva Way?)

Warner also writes, "Good Zen teachers shouldn't try to unify what they teach any more than poets should try to make their poems all sound the same or novelists should try to write the same book. That would be counter to their art."

This viewpoint would probably come as news to the great teacher in the Zen tradition. The ancient teachers - Bodhidharma, Matsu, Linchi, Dongshan, and Dogen, just to name a few - worked tirelessly to organize and systematize their teachings.

Many modern teachers, including Zen Master Seung Sahn, Suzuki Roshi, Aitken Roshi and Tarrant Roshi have also "unified" their teaching in ways that are important and profound.

Perhaps Warner has something deeper in mind than he conveyed in his short comment. But the burden is on him to express himself with clarity and accuracy.

Okay, now I've put my foot in it. Better go take a shower...

Mumon said...

I agree with a lot of what you wrote here, especially your view that meditation is detached from the rest of one's life practice.

However, I do think there is a merit in Brad talking about a role as guitar teacher; but also as "coach," but not in the football coach mode, but more (but not entirely) in the mode of the stereotypically cheesy martial arts movie. Only regarding "coaching" or "training" meant for the goals of Buddhist practice.

Where Brad says:

"Good Zen teachers shouldn't try to unify what they teach any more than poets should try to make their poems all sound the same or novelists should try to write the same book. That would be counter to their art."

I think they should refine or constantly try to improve their teaching the way you indicate great teachers do.

I'm not sure that's "unified," in any sense as either you or Warner mean.