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!


Dharma Sanctuary said...

Thanks for your insights Frank, and your pointng to David Brazier's writings. I just finished New Buddhism and before that The Feeling Buddha. There is a lot of good material there.

My last two blog posts have drawn inspiration from him, and from you as well, and I give/gave you credit.

Here's my post before last:

Your discussion of lineage and its claim for authenticity is a good one to question. Coming from the Tibetan tradition, I used to think this unbroken lineage aspect was a sign of specialness and never considered that it might be unnecessary. It's easy to get sucked into the belief of the need for continuity to establish legitimacy. But really - Buddha's teachings don't need to be handed down only through such a line. The teachings are the teachings, and they are available from many sources. On the other hand, it is a fine goal to keep these teachings alive by passing them down from committed holders of the tradition to their students. Nothing wrong with that approach. However, traditions get ossified and then become a crutch. It seems everywhere I turn, this is the nature of the problem - what once worked in an early context, later became a problem of rigidity. At that point the edifice needs to be brought down and the light of day shown to clear away the cobwebs. Then we start over.

It seems we are in a major phase of bringing things to the light of day. Later we will have reconstitution - until eventually in the future the same problems will arise. It's all ebb and flow. The main job is to point out this entire cycle and have people see where we are on this wheel. That's the only way to keep it fresh, and to hopefully keep it that way longer before the invetiable ossification begins.


Glenn Wallis said...

"Zen naturalism" is nothing real or natural. It's a particular form of human hallucination, namely, "Zen naturalism."

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

I generally do not publish any comments not directly related to my post. And yours certainly doesn’t seem to respond to anything I write about above. BUT, considering that it’s you, Glen, I figured it deserving a response.

First, I must admit I’m not sure I agree or disagree with you as your statement seems meant merely to be provocative, and doesn’t really seem to clearly define what you mean.

For instance, I’m not sure how “zen naturalism” is any more (or less) “a particular form of human hallucination” than “speculative non-buddhism.” How do you mean the terms you use?

I just read your response to “Robert” at your blog. I’m unclear how the term “empty reality” is any less a “second-order naming game” than shunyata (or the term I prefer, shunya). To my mind, “emptiness” (when not reified as some Mahayana schools most clearly did) is a straight-forward description of how reality is experienced. “Empty reality” doesn’t seem to me to point to anything truly experienced, but then you’ve not truly defined the term, so I may likely be misunderstanding you.

The whole point of “zen naturalism” is that as neural beings, we can only experience the world through the body. “Empty reality” sounds to me like some kind of ‘unmediated’ experience of some absolute that I do not believe possible. But I can’t be sure that’s what you mean by the term. All sorts of Buddhists say things about “seeing things as they are.” What could that even mean when we experience pheonmena though the body?

All “zen naturalism” asserts is that all the various experiences meditators throughout time and space have had are somatically based. It's how things appear to the "human ape." There is no need to take the further step from the experience and say that there are “transcendent realms” that ontologically exist independently of the mind/body. If this is a hallucination, from what stance would you be able to know that?

One final observation, you often refer, as you do in your comment to Robert, to your decades of experience having led you to your present project/position/perspective or whatever you wish to call your “view.” I come to my position after decades of experience as well. But what kind of relevance does that actually have? What exactly are you asserting about your view by saying that? Are you saying it makes what you say “true?” And what would that mean?

Glenn Wallis said...

Oh, I agree with your post, and really appreciate it.

What makes something "Buddhism" rather than "just so" (everyday life) is just this business of naming. To me, empty reality is to shunyata, etc., what Joe Jones is to Joe Jikyo Jones Roshi; namely a rhetorical dressing up that serves to occlude what it purports to name precisely because it overwrites what it names (with its grandiosity, cultural-historical complexity, etc.). Some terms try to prevent pulling the heartstrings of the soul's vibrato. Spiritualized like, like "Zen," does just the opposite. The role of language in all of this interests me greatly. In fact, I devote an entire blog to it, called Ovenbird (

Empty reality, by the way, is not unmediated. It's right there always, as long as we have bodies.

The irony of Buddhism is that it encodes its own undoing. But no Buddhist is able to undo it. That would be impossible. (Hence: non-Buddhism.)

I think time served in apprenticeship does matter. Not that it ever produces uniformity of view. But in this age (enhanced by the internet), it seems, everyone's an expert.

Again, a great post. I would just like to see people like you--people who have served a long, productive, healthy apprenticeship--take the next step.

Dharma Sanctuary said...

Ouch....must be going for the jugular...

I suppose all titles are outcomes of hallucinations - we make up stuff all the time and hang our hat/head on it. Sometimes it resonates with others, sometimes it doesn't. Run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes (or fires a shot through it).

Not for the meek...

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Glen, I know you're probably quite busy with your own blog now that you're back from the mountains, however, I'd appreciate you explaining what you mean by "apprenticeship" as well as what you mean by "the next step."

I don't experience my life/practice as 'on hold' or in some state of "preparation." There's just 'this' and it is this to which I adjust, and direct my steps. I feel there is certainly no pre-determined 'next step,' and from what I've read at your blog, I don't think this is what you mean either, so I'd appreciate more clarification.


Dana Nourie said...

You point out the problems I had with Zen also, and even more so, Tibetan Buddhism. Hence, I've turned to secular Buddhism as a practice, meaning the focus is on our humanness as material, natural animals, sharing this planet with many other animals and ecosystems in this world, in this lifetime.

There are, of course, practices in zen that are really helpful, but I can do without the mystical treatment, with the lineage trappings, without the required rituals as sanghas.

I don't have a physical secular sangha to go too, so I'm content with the Secular/Skeptical Buddhist communities in Second Life, sharing on the web, and maintaining my practice as I breathe through life.