Friday, October 29, 2010

Spiritual Materialism, slapping, punching, hitting, it always abuse?

This post is a bit of an expansion of comments made on Barbara's blog post on women in Soto Zen.  I think she equates some of the more harsh-sounding experiences at Eihei-ji with the kind of testosterone fueled stuff that goes on in football training, in which (full disclosure) the author has never participated, save for quite a bit of touch football games in my youth, and, I suppose the beer-swilled game watching of my later youth.

But what is it then?  And is one way "good" and the other way "bad?"

First of all, let's consider the background of what Barbara takes to be the state of things at Eihei-ji in Japan. Now I have never trained at a Japanese temple; I've sat at Japanese temples (Rinzai),  and stayed overnight at one, but I have never had the experience of Nonomura Kaoru, author of Eat, Sleep Sit.  Nonomura-san writes:

When we arrived, we each laid our cushion and bowls at our assigned place on the platform before carefully seating ourselves in the prescribed way. First you drew your cushion up to the edge of the plat¬form and set your buttocks on it; then, supporting your weight on your fingertips (using all but the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand), you hoisted yourself into place and crossed your legs, taking care that your feet and buttocks never touched the wooden edge. Under no cir¬cumstances was stepping up permitted, even if you could do it with¬out coming into contact with the edge. The practice of eating is such an important part of Zen discipline that you assume the same formal cross-legged posture for it as for sitting in meditation.

As we clambered awkwardly up on the platforms and settled into place, a small door opened and, one after another, in came monks bear¬ing buckets and trays. Without a word they went straight to work, draw¬ing out shelves along the far wall, setting down the buckets and trays, and laying out small tables on the floor. I watched them, entranced, until suddenly the sound of the wooden gong at the entrance announced the start of the evening meal...

In a Zen monastery the evening meal is not a formal meal, and so does not involve the sacred Buddha bowl. The procedures for the
evening meal and the morning meal differ considerably. Back in the temporary quarters we’d been drilled in all the fine points, but it was so complicated that we were thrown into hopeless confusion and no longer had any idea what to do or which rules were for when. Yet here we were, about to be put through our paces.

Five or six instructors stood planted in front of us with arms folded and eyes gleaming, on the lookout for miscues. In this tense, forbidding atmosphere, drawing on indistinct memories, we proceeded cautiously to lay out our things.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Somebody was getting yelled at before his bowls were even out of the wrapping cloth. It was Daikan, at the other end of the row. Arms crossed, the monks all went over and glared daggers at him.

I managed somehow to spread out my kit and put the bowls where they were supposed to go. But I was stiff and clumsy with nervousness, and when I took my chopsticks out of their bag, I almost dropped them.

Daikan still hadn’t got it right. Now, with all the instructors lined up in front of him observing his every move, he was falling completely apart. “No! You’re the only one who can’t do it! Pay attention!” Another vicious slap across the face. Helplessly, he pressed his shaking palms together. “What do you think you’re doing? Fine, stay like that till you die. If you can’t lay out your bowls, you don’t eat. Remember that!” As this little drama unfolded, the servers went quietly about their business,, oblivious.

Daikan wasn’t the only one to earn the instructors’ wrath. “No! No, no, no! Come on!” As the meal progressed, the yells grew steadily louder and more menacing. The sound of slaps rang out ceaselessly...

For all of us, the acts of eating and drinking were carried out in a state of abject terror. The least mistake brought an instant cuff from one of the eagle-eyed senior trainees standing watch. The food had no taste; there was no sense of enjoying a meal. The pace was fast and it took intense concentration to keep up. Now the chopsticks. Next the lap cloth. You had to confirm each step mentally before you could act.

If you paused to savor the food, before you knew it, second helpings were being served and you had to rush to get your share. If you took time eating that, next thing you knew the servers were coming around with tea, then hot water. Even after we’d memorized exactly what to do and the routine grew familiar, there was never any time to linger over our food.

Eat carefully and you fell behind. Rush and you ran the risk of drop¬ping your chopsticks or bowl. Washing up was fraught with danger, too. You had to turn each bowl in hot water with one hand while scrub¬bing its sides and bottom with the other, and the slippery bowl was in constant danger of skittering from your grasp. When wiping and stacking the bowls, if you got them out of order they wouldn’t nest properly. I have to say that when I finally tied the wrapping cloth I felt intense relief, nothing more.

Our first meal using the bowls, conducted in this highly charged atmo¬phere amid the unceasing scramble to keep up, was over before we knew what had happened. It left us in the state of mental numbness that follows extreme tension. Amazing feats of physical strength may be possible under duress, but the human mind, by contrast, shuts down to the most primitive, instinctual level. Extreme stress and fear had instantaneously frozen the minds of some of us, leaving us literally at wits’ end, unable to do a thing In the end it was not with our minds but with our bodies that we memorized the compact and intricate form and motions, clenching our teeth as we were slapped and knocked about.

Now on reading this, a quite a few warning lights flashed in my head:

1. Did these novices think this was somehow a vacation? I mean, if you're going to spend a year as a monk at a Zen temple, wouldn't you, you know, read up on the policies and procedures and disciplines involved in a Buddhist temple? I  have worked for an employer whose company is based in Japan for over 13 years, and I assure you that I took quite seriously the act of reading all about my employer and the customs of the company to which I would be employed.  It would seem to be common sense to do this if you're going to stay, full time, at a temple for a year.

2.  One of the things that most anyone who's read anything about a temple knows, the evening meal is not supposed to be that important; there is no big deal about not eating an evening meal or only a very light evening meal if you've had your nutrition at the other two meals.  The actions described here are the actions at the evening meal.  In fact, as I'd recently posted here, it's not a bad way to moderate one's eating. And that leads to my next point:

3. That whole description of the rate at which the monks ate rings completely false to me, and I would submit, to anyone who has ever eaten with Japanese in a work setting, except, for business trip situations or where  the -kai meals eaten in celebration of something: see Jake Adelstein's description of the ryonenkai in Tokyo Vice for the exception that proves the following rule:

In a work setting in Japan, all meals are eaten quickly, and in such a way as that all finish their meals at roughly the same time.

That Nonomura-san is decrying  the rate at which the meals were eaten - what is plainly typical behavior for millions of Japanese -  must have brought quite a chuckle to them.

But, what about the slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, etc?

It does sound over the top to me, but then again, so does the complaining about the rate at which the  meals were eaten, so I'm not sure this is completely credible.  But even if it were, what about the tales of the ancient masters, and even the Chinese Chan masters such as Lai Guo and Hsun Yu?

Master Lai-Guo liked to compare Chan sessions to ancient China’s Civil Service Exams. For the exam, a scholar would study rigorously for years, come to the exam, do their best and… Bam! The next thing he knew, he was up in the Imperial Court working with the Emperor and his ministers. The rules in the exam room had to be strict so people could concentrate. Similarly, Gao Min Monastery is well known for its rules. Master Lai-Guo is also famous for being strict in the Chan hall and hitting people with his Chan stick to help them in their practice. Once, a wealthy lay person offered Master Lai-Guo 7 gold bullions (equivalent to US $200,000~$500,000) if he would hit her with his Chan stick to help erase her karma. He refused, saying, “My Chan stick is reserved for people with the potential to become patriarchs.” 

There are a lot more severe things described in the lives of these two Chan masters, but it is clear that the aim of the training is to persevere despite the circumstances.  Nomura-san describes being "numbed" into just reacting with the body to the forms given.  That may well be true, but, so what? It is what the marines do in basic training, to be sure. Perhaps another way of looking at it, is at a certain point it all simply doesn't matter. And that's perhaps the point, perhaps crudely delivered of this kind of rough training.  And the ancient Chan masters, breaking legs, slamming doors, etc., made Nomura-san's experience seem like a walk in the park...but then again, perhaps those stories were over the top, too.

The older I get the more I realize that there's a lot of things that just don't matter that much.  And, as a guy who majored in Electrical Engineering at one of the (at the time) 10 best schools in the country, where we were told in the orientation meeting meeting "Look to your left and your right. Two thirds of your classmates will flunk out," I can't help but think that this sort of thing as described by Nomura-san does not matter that much if the point is transcendence of suffering.

So to a certain extent, at least what is here, the descriptions of "boot camp" at an Asian monastery versus "nurturing" of the Western Zen tradition rings somewhat like spiritual materialism on the part of those who would immediately decry such practices instead of spiritual abuse on the part of the Asians...and of course if you decide otherwise, it does call into question how much else of the Asian's tradition might be fought with ignorance that only the enlightened Westerners can bring to the unenlightened Asian Zen and Chan practitioners!

So, call me skeptical on some of  these points, and somewhat indifferent on some of the others... and, as I noted on Barbara's blog, it's a matter of taste, ultimately.  My own lay parent practice is demanding enough, and frankly, there's much more to deal with than a slap or a punch or a kick, and it's not all touchy-feely "being vulnerable."

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