Friday, September 16, 2011

Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

Well, Barbara Bradley Hagerty set out to find the evidence of God, and the Transcendent reality she hoped to find and -- guess what? She found it! She asserts she's a "journalist" and "reporter," but her awards as a "religion correspondent" tell me more that what she is is a believer looking for any evidence -- or lacking that, any justification to lower the bar for what counts as evidence -- for grounding her belief.

She often asserts her feeling that "There has to be more" than this, and her final crowning realization is: "Earth is not our home." The problem with most religionists is right there, in that five-word negation! They look at what they see and, not happy with it because it changes, seek something that is eternal. The imagined reality is, for them, more real and more valuable than 'just this.' There is no lack of awe in the fact that sub-atomic particles, come together to form molecules that assemble to form bacteria, monkeys, you and me!

She leans heavily on William James and his defense of faith and non-evidential belief basically because it makes her feel good! The ethics of such a 'will to believe' leaves much to be desired, and yet, credulous folk still seek solcace in such pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking!

I had hoped for more from this book based upon the title.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Brad Warner's "Sex, Sin and Zen" A kind of review...

Brad Warner’s fourth book, Sex, Sin and Zen is thankfully a hell of a lot better than his last! It may not be as good as his first two, but it does offer plenty to think about. There is one trait that runs through his books that I do have an issue with, however. Though he will at times remind his readers that he is not speaking for all of Buddhism (in fact, he doesn’t speak for all of Zen!), he still falls into many generalizations and does indeed say things like “Buddhists believe….” when the truth is that "most" or "some" modifying what comes after would help the accuracy of what follows! Additionally, when he speaks for Buddhism, he all too often whitewashes the tradition or out and out offers wrong or misleading information.

Some examples:

1. Like many Zen teachers, he likes to talk up zazen as something ‘special’ or ‘unique,’ and perhaps not even ‘meditation.’ For instance, he says that most meditation is an attempt to “empty the mind” or “develop concentration,” while zazen has no goal and is not about concentration nor emptying the mind. While that is correct in how it is often taught and practiced nowadays, all one need do is read some of the old Chinese texts to see that they speak endlessly about “stopping the mind stream” and about developing various samadhis (which are nothing if not deep states of concentration!).
2. In response to the question: “Are Buddhists allowed to jack off?” he responds, “They’re encouraged to!” I’d LOVE to see him find a sutra where someone is encouraged to masturbate! Now, I want to be clear, I wholeheartedly endorse masturbation as a healthy and natural expression of sexuality. However, the Buddhist tradition generally sees it as unskillful (not sinful or evil) because of its sensual nature which it sees as tending to increase desire and craving.
3. He really blows it when he says “In Western culture we’ve been steeped in the religious view that sex itself is a sin. Whether it’s… within the bounds of holy matrimony or outside it…the act of sex itself is seen as a sinful activity.” This is plain bullshit wrong! First of all, in Judaism, sexual activity between married partners is a mitzvah (both a duty and a blessing) and in fact, the husband is required to make sure the wife is ‘pleasured.’ And even in Christianity, the whole point of it being called “holy” matrimony is that marriage is a sacrament, making married sex truly holy and sacred!
4. He repeatedly falls into the Zen error of speaking of some kind of “underlying reality” behind or grounding the subjective and objective aspects of experience. This monistic dhatuvada view is more Vedantic than Buddhistic, though it is an error that many in Eastern and Northern Buddhism fall into.
5. It’s become kind of “avant-garde” to criticize mindfulness and while there is some justification in the criticism of the “mindfulness industry” as it is now taking shape, there’s a lot of inconsistency and hypocrisy in the criticism. Brad says: “When you say, ‘I am mindful of (fill in the blank),’ you are already creating separation between you and your activities…This is the kind of separation we’re trying to uproot through our Zen practice.” Yet, only two pages earlier he writes, speaking of habits and attachments: “But once you become aware of them you find that you always have a clear choice whether or not to respond habitually…. If you can recognize your attachments, that in itself is very good…It’s useful to see your attachments for what they are, just thoughts inside your head.” Well, well, well. This is exactly the Third Foundation of Mindfulness! How would one become ‘aware’ of attachments and see them as mental formations without mindfulness?! Mindfulness is more than “paying attention,” which is what he seems to think it is, and because of his misunderstanding of sati, he argues that mindful sex would only bring about that ‘separation’ he seems to think mindfulness always implies.
6. His attachment to view leads him to say: “I’m not a fan of guided meditation. Meditation should never be guided.” Aside from the fact that guided meditation has its place and many have found it helpful, he can have his opinion, but he seems to go further in that absolutist condemnation.
7. He seems confused as to whether he really thinks Buddhism is a religion or not. He argues that it isn’t, that it isn’t even “spiritual,” but doesn’t explain how he can think of himself as a “monk,” or that Buddhism has its “clergy.” It may or may not have been a “religion” at the time of the Buddha and for those first few centuries, but it most certainly became one! Now, one can argue that they think that was an error, and many do as in the Secular Buddhism movement, but address the issue with more clarity next time, please!
8. He writes: “the powerful patricarchal religions of the modern world have mostly treated women like shit. Except for Buddhism.” I used to have such an idealized view until I actually met and practiced with Asian women! There are many books, written by women practitioners and academics that offer a more accurate portrayal of the lived actuality. A recent survey said that women fare best in Korea out of all the Asian Buddhist countries, where women have about 80 -85% parity with men! So, the BEST situation has women at 85% parity, and it goes down to less than 25% in other countries. This is a terrible historical situation, that thankfully, modern Western values are being brought to bear upon.
9. His weakest moment is in his handling of “right livelihood.” First, he snidely says that American Buddhists put more thought into other people’s livelihood and whether it is ‘right’ or not than into their own. This is just an example of loose talk, as I know people who, unfortunately, torment themselves with questions about their livelihood! But, he misses the boat right from the start on this topic when he says that the Buddha never offered any list of jobs or occupations that were disapproved of by him. Well, dear sir, what do we make of the following then:

"A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison." — AN 5.177

Again, I actually really liked this book. I just have my own issues with Brad’s often all-too-loose scattershot teaching. And yet, this is all along with some really wonderful points, and even tender, thoughtful and compassionate ones at that! I went into this book with some trepidation – after the crapola he churned out in his third book – but I have to say I’d recommend this book to anyone curious enough about one Buddhist’s take on Sexuality.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What I Hate About Zen

Over the course of my life, since my introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1974, I’ve read many books about Buddhism and Zen in particular. And perhaps that in itself is a problem! But be that as it may, I’ve never fallen into the trap of thinking that reading about Zen is what Zen is about. The reading has always been secondary to ‘practice.’

Yet, over the years, there have been quite a few things about Zen, and how it’s presented by its teachers and masters, that I have found distasteful, pig-headed, and quite frankly, morally and philosophically bankrupt. I’m not about to go into every one of these things here, but I am prompted to write after reading Zen In Plain English by Stephen Schumacher. The apparent sub-title of this book is Experience The Essence of Zen and in fact, the inner cover proclaims: “This book could well be called “The Zen of Zen.” It is not simply a book about Zen Buddhism; it is a direct expression of the Zen spirit itself.” What that means is expect posturing and obfuscation, and that is what you will indeed find here – along with some very good writing and explication. Zen is, truly, a mixed bag!

Schumacher studied philosophy, psychology and sociology, and then Japanology and Sinology, before heading off to Japan where he eventually “dedicated himself entirely to Zen practice.” From 1970 to 1975, his practice was within the Sambo Kyodan tradition, under the guidance of Yasutani Hakuuin Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi. Schumacher is the editor and co-author of the Shambhala Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen.

My qualms with Mr. Schumacher’s book begins with the first paragraph of his “Prelude.” He writes, and already begins the all-too-typical Zen blustering against historical scholarship:

"This book is a presentation of Chan or Zen from the perspective of Zen. It is not an account of facts and events which occurred in the distant past, a record that is merely meant to correct from the point of view of an academic understanding of history. A historical approach, helpful as it may be for an understanding of the development of the outward form, misses the very essence of Zen – and on should not forget that it is one of the characteristics of Zen to steer as directly as possible, towards the essential.”

The first line warns us not to expect much more than the self-aggrandizing tendency of the Zen tradition. The second reminds us that Zen will not let “facts” or historical “events” get in the way of a good story! He offers a bit of pablum by saying the historical approach can be helpful for understanding the outward form, as if the outward form can be separated from its significance and meaning! The forms took shape because of and along with, certain ideological, cultural, and political constructions, and to deny this or to turn a blind eye to this reality is simply willfully ignorant.

But finally, the major point of my criticism is this notion of “essence.” At the very least, Schumacher should clearly define what he means when he uses the term, as it is one (and he should know, considering his philosophical studies) laden with connotation for westerners. And Buddhism is an un- or even anti-essentialist teaching! What is the “essence” of Zen and what is the “essential” it allegedly “steers us toward?”

On the very next page, he goes on to argue an essentialist perspective by denying that the historical, social and cultural conditions under which an ‘enlightened Asian’ has said or done something have anything to tell us about enlightenment! Awakening is to conditions; to be ‘enlightened’ is to be enlightened about something. One of the tendencies of the Zen tradition is to reify enlightenment into something ahistorical and acontextual. Schumacher asks “Can (Zen) help me to find my solution?” and answers: “It can only do so if it is more than history, if is transmits a truth that is independent of historical circumstances. And indeed, what is transmitted by the Zen tradition is a truth of a different order than that of the historical truth of the scholars.”

The first part of that statement is bullshit. Zen doesn’t transmit some ‘transcendent’ Truth with a capital T. The ground of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, are not some such Truth, but truths about circumstances that we need to nobly face in order to live wholesome, free, creative lives! The second part of that statement is typical Zen tradition self-aggrandizement. Now, I am not saying there’s no difference between the academic, scholarly approach to Zen and the practitioner’s approach. What I am saying is that they are not at odds, and that increasingly so we find practitioner-scholars whose practice does not seem to be threatened or undermined by their scholarship, and indeed who find it nourished and broadened by such scholastic understanding.

One example of this is his treatment of the supposed ‘dharma transmission’ from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa. Anyone who has read any Zen at all, knows the story: a large group (some accounts say 80,000) were assembled at Vulture Peak to hear the Buddha give a teaching. (If you’ve been to Vulture Peak, you know this is one hell of an exaggerated number!). As they all awaited the Buddha’s words, he stood there, and held up a flower and blinked his eyes. Kashyapa broke out in a smile, and the Buddha said: “I have the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, the ineffable mind of nirvana. I entrust it to Mahakashyapa.”

The Zen mythos states that this was the first of a long line of dharma transmissions, first in India, then in China. There are many students of Zen who believe this is historically true. There are also many who, after years of believing so, have found out that this is pure legend, with no basis in historical fact, and have felt betrayed. That’s what you get when you pass along myth as “Truth.”

Now, let me be clear: I like this story of Mahakashyapa and believe it does indeed teach to a subtle, profound existential truth. And that I know it not to have actually happened doesn’t lessen this existential truth. BUT, also knowing that this story is a fabrication of the Chinese Zen school, pretty much as a strategy to gain “legitimacy” in the eyes of itself and other Chinese Buddhist schools, lessens the sectarian ‘one-upmanship’ that permeates the Zen school.

It’s clear the Buddha did not ‘entrust’ his Dharma to any one individual; that there were many enlightened practitioners; and that the Buddha exhorted his students to be rest in their own authority, as ‘lamps unto themselves.’

Listen to how Schuhmacher addresses this issue:

"If we are to believe the academic scholars of Buddhism, the lineage of Zen transmission… is a fake, a defensive lie. It is born out of the attempt by later Zen teachers, to justify their own claim to be authentic descendents of the Buddha through a lineage that was artificially constructed, a posteriori, to demonstrate an uninterrupted chain of ‘transmission of the light,’ from the historic Buddha to themselves. From a historic point of view, this may not even be completely erroneous.

Pull-eeeze! “It may not even be completely erroneous”???!!!! How ‘bitchy’ can one be? Does historical truth so threaten his faith that it has to be wrong? Of course, this is what we expect from someone (and a tradition) that likes to think of itself as ahistorical to begin with! Here again he seems to think that “a mere historical understanding of the transmission in Zen” misses “by far the essential truth of what the Awakened One taught.” Again he goes to his dearly beloved “essential truth” but it is Schuhmacher who is missing a deeper truth. If we close our eyes to the historical truth, we fall, hook, line and sinker for the political ploy of ‘transmission’ and cloud our eyes with mystic dust!

Philip Yampolsky writes: "To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled, tracing the Ch’an sect back to the historical Buddha…” The whole lineage chanted in many Zen centers is more fabrication than literal truth. Indeed, the idea of lineage was Chinese manufactured, reflecting the more Confucian ideal of ancestor worship and the hierarchal stratification of Chinese society. In the Pali Canon it is explicitly made clear that the Buddha rejected naming anyone as his successor. The almost obsessive emphasis on lineage and authenticity of transmission found in Zen has led to much abuse, and ironically, we see its roots at the very beginning with the story of Mahakashyapa, and then further elaborated in the story of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu.

But this is what the Buddha is reported to have said as he neared death, and was explicitly asked who would lead the sangha:

"The Dhamma I have taught has no secret and public versions: there is no ‘teacher’s closed fist’ about good things here. Surely it would be someone who thought this: ‘I shall govern the Sangha’ or ‘The Sangha depends on me’ who might make a pronouncement about the Sangha? A Perfect One does not think like that…each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge."

The concept of “lineage,” in the sense of meaning that every student and practitioner of the Dharma has learned from other students and practitioners, and that this line of succession goes all the way back to the Buddha in India is both unexceptional and true. It might even be accurate to call it a “truism.” And it works for our understanding and experience of continuity and connection.

However, lineage has come to mean much more than this in the Zen school. It has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, modeled upon the example of Mahakashyapa, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach, which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.

It is obvious that the idea of transmission and lineage is intended to impart the aura of legitimacy, but this begs the question of why would a school or a teacher need such “legitimacy?” Presumably, the answer would be that what they have to offer is non-obvious. What they have to offer is something those of us who are unenlightened would be unable to evaluate. David Brazier, in The New Buddhism, gives the example of using the services of a greengrocer and a doctor. We do not ask to see certification from the greengrocer. We just ask if he has cabbages for sale if that is what we seek. But we do ask to see certification from our doctor because if we wait to see if he knows what he is doing through personal practical experimentation, it may be too late before we realize he is a quack! The lineage system puts Dharma Teachers in the same category as doctors and not in the same one as greengrocers.

Interestingly, Brazier points out that the Buddha put himself in the greengrocer category. “Come and see and try it out for yourself,” he said. If you like what I offer and it helps you to overcome suffering, use it. If not, not. The Buddha did not appoint a successor (although the Mahayana created the legend of the flower sermon to legitimize the idea of succession through Mahakashyapa). The Buddha did offer his opinion as to who was enlightened when asked about particular people. However, there is a passage where Ananda, seeming to pester the Buddha with this question, is told by the Buddha that Ananda could simply see for himself whether someone is enlightened or not, telling him that the test of one’s enlightenment and understanding is how well they follow the discipline. So it seems that the Buddha thought that the matter was obvious, not non-obvious. If a person was enlightened, you could tell from what he or she did. You could know them by their deeds.

After the death of the Buddha, differing camps began to arise, each with its own slant on the teachings of the Buddha. Once the Majority Group (The Mahasanghika, the spiritual ancestors of the Mahayana) began to express willingness to change the rules and the form, criterion other than orthodoxy was required to establish legitimacy. Lineage was grasped onto as a way of showing that while the way a particular school practices or teaches may not look like the way the Buddha did; it is directly descended from and derived from him. Lineage also implies that as all the changes were made by certified enlightened Masters, they are not only authentic and true, they are perhaps even improvements on what the Buddha taught and how the orthodoxy practices! That is to say again, lineage becomes a means of legitimizing the non-obvious.

This use and understanding of lineage is highly problematic. First of all, lineage is a form of “argument from authority” which Western logic regards as a fallacious argument. Just because someone holds a high position does not, of itself, ensure that he or she is right. The Buddha himself stressed this in his "Discourse to the Kalamas" when he told them not to believe and accept something just because of the position of the person who has told you it – including himself. Things are not true simply because the Buddha says it. They are true if they are true, and regarding things that matter, like birth and death and how to live a “noble” life, while we may need wiser folk to point it out to us, we still need to test what they say for ourselves. Sadly, humans like to shirk this responsibility and simply accept authority all too easily. Those societies based upon legitimization systems, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as seen most recently in their handling of the sexual abuse crisis, tend to work quite badly.

The fact is that in the last sixty years there have indeed been some disturbingly significant examples of “legitimately authorized” Buddhist Masters acting in such ways that one must question the usefulness of lineage. I will only address one, and that is the case of Yasutani Roshi, one of Schuhmacher’s teachers, who received “transmission” and was legitimated by the lineage system of the Soto Zen School two months after publishing a book on Dogen which is full of militarist and anti-Semitic propaganda. The book uses the teachings of Dogen to support the war, deify the emperor, promote the superiority of Japan, foster anti-Semitism and encourage people to exterminate the enemy. Included in his commentary on the First Precept is the following passage: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.” Thankfully, most teachers within the Buddhist world do not hold this non-obvious “special characteristic”.

The merits of a system that rewards someone such as this with its highest seal of approval and spiritual authority when he is confirmed in such warmongering attitudes are also non-obvious! It is clear that if the function and purpose of lineage is to offer a “guarantee” of someone’s enlightenment it has failed to do so – in this case at least. A guarantee that is unreliable is no guarantee at all. It seems to me that lineage, as an authentication system is not a system that was accepted by the Buddha and is not one he would have approved of. I believe that Buddhism is hindered, not served, by unnecessary mystification, and much of “transmission” and lineage reeks of mystification and obscuration. While I agree that people rarely become enlightened without spiritual teachers, it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers. An enlightened being is one who embodies the precepts, and if someone says they are above the precepts, they have not fully understood the Dharma.

What is perhaps even more troubling is the response of those who were given transmission by Yasutani to the uncovering of their teacher’s ideology. All seemed to defend Yasutani through various twists of non-obvious logic, but Jiun Kubota, the Third Patriarch of the Religious Foundation Sanbo-kyodan founded by Yasutani published an apology for his teacher’s expressions of support for war that still harbors what I feel is a dangerous doctrine. He states in his “apology” that Dharma and political ideology are two separate things and that Yasutani’s disciples were only interested in the dharma and not in the ideology. I reject this unequivocally. The task of the Dharma Teacher is, not to be perfect perhaps, but surely involves “imparting values, vision and inspiration that touch all aspects of the disciple’s lives.” The doctrine that says Dharma and social attitudes are unrelated is not what I understand to be the teachings of the Buddha. It both, once again, reeks of essentialist obfuscation and – ironically, considering how loudly the Zen school proclaims its nonduality – a fundamentally dualistic worldview: there’s Dharma, and then there’s everything else!

With both an historical consciousness and critical thinking, Zen Naturalism finds no shame in admitting it breaks from orthodoxy, and feels no need to apologize, nor create some form of external ‘legitimacy.’ If it is to have a legitimate function, that will be proved in the arena of practice, and nowhere else. It accepts what works, it is not afraid to critically evaluate tradition, nor does it shirk from creative innovation – if warranted. It is open-handed, and open-hearted and open-minded. There is a rejection of the elitism and ‘specialness’ of much of the Zen tradition that strikes me as a form of institutionalized ‘self-conceit.’ Basically, Zen Naturalism is free of what I hate about Zen!