Friday, June 28, 2013

On the "Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering"

For those unfamiliar with the Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering that took place earlier this month at Deer Park Monastery, please read the summary here.

On the surface, such a gathering seems simply and only positive: what could be better than teachers from the various buddhisms gathering to dialogue with one another? But there are so many questions and issues that simply remain transparent for such participants, too many unquestioned assumptions that the “shadow” appears in the very light the conference was meant to shine.

First: the opening paragraph states that the conference was for “Western teachers – of any recognized Buddhist lineage that offers refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha…” As a Gen X conference, the invitations were limited to said teachers from “recognized Buddhist lineages” “for whom teaching is a major life direction” born between the years 1960 and 1980. Someone born in 1960 would be 53! Seems a bit old to be considered "Gen X!" That's still well within the "Baby Boomer Generation."

This question of "lineage" and being "recognized" or "authorized" is one that gets little superficial attention. I would hope younger teachers would be questioning this very notion rather than seemingly unquestioning the very structure of "lineage." I recently had a personal experience around this when a few months back, Michael Stone passed along in an email to me that he was being asked by some elder zen teachers who had only just heard of me, “Why wasn't Frank nominated to come to the Gen X meeting?” (I am so outside the radar of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism’ that the fact I’m too old to be invited had they even  known about me made me laugh when I read that question). The other questions asked bear some relevance to the first point I wish to raise: “Who has the right to “recognize” whom or what is “legitimate?”  How is such "right" granted? And by whom?

These zen teachers – rather than reaching out and asking me directly their questions – went through Michael, which at best seems a breech of their holy “right speech” ethic! Michael, as a friend of mine, was put on the spot by these zen elders, and forwarded their questions to me. What prompted their questions was their having become aware of a dharma training program I am offering two-dozen students that had only just begun! Keep in mind, this is a multi-year program requiring a commitment that will be for over five years, and this was only in its first week! You’d never know from the urgency of their questioning!

Their questions: “Who is he? Can he empower dharma teachers? Why not a mentorship program? Why dharma teacher? It's a 2000 year old lineage that isn't perfect but... What lineage exactly? Does he have a teacher now? Do you know the students? Are they ready? Why is this the first I have heard of Frank? How come the lay Zen teachers associations have not heard about this? Are these going to be Zen teachers?”

Can you hear the mixture of proprietary investment and status preservation? So, who determines whom is “recognized?” Who determines what “lineages” are recognized? When zen started out, it was a bunch of upstarts not recognized by the mainstream contemporaneous buddhist schools in China. The fact that they made up a lineage going back to the buddha was clearly an attempt to create a sense of legitimacy, and over time the zen school became rather powerful and dominant.

The story of Hui-neng’s dharma transmission in a “secret” meeting with his teacher one night (for me, such “family secrets” are a red flag alert) was created by Shen-hui, a student of Hui-neng in yet another upstart movement designed to wrestle institutional power from an established lineage holder, Shen-hsiu. Shen-hsiu was acknowledged as one of the great Ch’an masters, honored by court and populace alike. He was the great leader of the Lankavatara School, which later came to be known as the Northern Ch’an and was, according to all contemporary records, one of the most eminent priests of his time.

The first mention we have of Hui-neng is found in the Leng-chia jen-fa chih where he is simply listed as one of the eleven principle disciples of Hung-jen along with Shen-hsiu, Fa-ju, Chih-hsien and seven others. This same text states that Shen-hsiu transmitted the Patriarchate to P’u-chi, and that along with P’u-chi, Shen-hsiu had three other principle heirs: Ching-hsien, I-fu, and Hui-fu. While this Ch’an of Shen-hsiu and his disciples was enjoying great popularity and prestige, a then unknown priest from Nan-yang, Shen-hui, intent upon promulgating a new school of his own launched an attack upon the Ch’an of Shen-hsiu, and after years of struggle, eventually carried the day. One of his methods was the disparagement and undermining of Shen-hsiu. The Platform Sutra is a wonderful example of propaganda, even if it contains some cool teachings.

Despite the self-congratulatory nonsense about the “different views” expressed at the Gen X conference, there is a ringing hollowness in the proclamation that “No one voice was dominant. No one tried to take over and make it their show.” This hollowness is the shadow peaking out over this movement to create and maintain a hegemonic monopoly on what they might refer to as the “true dharma.” The “one voice” that dominates is the “one voice” of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism.’ Where are the current “upstarts” looking to create truly new expressions of the dharma – maybe even a new dharma? The real questions are being asked outside the accepted, “recognized” lineages as it has been true throughout buddhism’s history. 

I don’t know if I can find the words to express the dismay I felt when I read “And so it seems that a kind of template has been set…there are already several groups and projects forming from the retreat that will in some way shape the direction the dharma takes going forward.” Can they not hear the egoic, self-inflating tone of this statement? Of course not, because real dialogue would include questioning the decisions made before the conversation even began. All the differences in opinion and perspective expressed in such gatherings take more for granted than they acknowledge and are nothing compared to what a real dialogue would require. While I don’t agree with every argument they make, the only real "dangerous"  and vigorous questioning that dares to investigate what "goes without saying" that I see regarding buddhist teachings and practices is at speculative non-buddhism.

The second point I’d like to raise is the blindness evident in the following:

“Gone are the days of the culty and isolated rockstar dharma teacher beyond question — or at least the Gathering’s participants hope them to be gone. Those who would assert that they or their lineage alone hold the sole keys to the Buddha’s truth would have been very out of place in the midst of those of us who gathered at Deer Park Monastery for our sessions of conversation and interaction.”

Are they insane???? The contemporary commodified buddhist “marketplace”  couldn’t be any more obvious to me if it hit me in the face! Oh, they “hope” such days are gone! Good one, that! From the cult of personality around Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama to the newest ones being created around Lodro Rinzler, Brad Warner and Noah Levine, (among others) I see “dharma rockstar” trappings in the packaging, in the way they brand themselves, and how they market their image to a degree not possible before social media and the ubiquity of advertising and public relations. It’s actually hard to resist this momentum!

That this statement could be expressed in the same year we became aware of four scandals (Geshe Roach, Eido Shimano Roshi, Genpo Roshi, Sasaki Roshi) alone in the buddhist world strikes me as avidya (ignore-ance) plain and simple. And, do I need to point out these were “authenticated, recognized” teachers? 

Laying my cards on the table, not that it matters or is in any way necessarily relevant to the discussion, but for the record, I was ordained as a dharma teacher by Samu Sunim on July 4th, 2007, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. By 2008, I declared myself independent of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, the order established by my teacher. There were no secret dharma transmissions or empowerments. I'm a nobody, that way. In 2009, I established the Empty Mountain Sangha in Tucson, Arizona. I cannot foresee us ever being "recognized" or accepted by the growing cultural institutionalized western buddhism as evidenced in this and other conferences such as  the one held by Buddhist Geeks. If you find yourself passing through Tucson, please feel free to come and sit with us. 


Kevin Knox said...

Great post Frank.

I, too, am quite taken aback at the utter lack of the sort of inquiry and empiricism that the Buddha so strongly recommended on the part of both many of these teachers and mainstream Buddhist magazines like Shambhala Sun and Tricycle. The Speculative Non-Buddhism site is certainly a shocking contrast to the pablum offered by the aforementioned publications, but there is so much anger there from Glenn Wallis in particular that I think we badly need some sort of "middle way" alternative forum where critical thinking AND right speech have a place.

In 2013 there's no excuse, in my opinion, for any Western teacher or practitioner to still think, let alone, claim, that there are any lineages that go back to the Buddha, or that Mahayana or Vajrayana texts have anything to do with the teaching of the historical Buddha. I find myself quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan an awful lot these days: "everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."

It seems to me that many of these supposed leaders and teachers ought to be asking "what do I know for sure?" - about the origin and credentials of their teachings, about what the Buddha taught and practiced, about what is true and viable in their own direct experience on and off the cushion. If the concern is the legitimacy and integrity of the teachings, I would suggest that a whole lot more focus on precept practice and teacher's codes of conduct and a lot less (as in none) hiding behind lineage and transmission are in order.

The other thing - and it's huge - that I see with so many of these folks - and I am thinking here of Buddhist Geeks, Wisdom 2.0, mindfuless "apps" for iPhones, teachers like Shinzen Young, the steady drumbeat of 30 second or 5 minute "mindfulness" drills on Huffiington Post - is the incredibly naive embrace of the internet, computers and smartphones.

I get the sense that none of them have read Nicholas Carr's essential book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" - or - going back a generation, Jerry Mander's famous "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" (published in 1977!). I'm not being a Luddite here, but we are dealing with technologies that by their nature diminish concentration and calm, increase distraction, destroy retention, etc. As with the lineage and content issue there seems to be a pervasive swimming in what has been received and the spriit of inquiry and renunciation of what is untrue and harmful that informed Buddha and the whole sramanera tradition is nowhere to be seen.

Your blog is essential, and I'm grateful that you take the time to write it.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Hi Kevin,

While I totally understand your point about the "strong language" from Wallis and Tom Pepper (I think Wallis is relatively restrained compared to Pepper, though I find much of Pepper's writing quite helpful for my own 'thinking through' process), I've come to think a bit differently about it.

Perhaps because I've seen -- in my own experience with Thich Nhat Hanh's community, and in the wider buddhist communities -- how "right speech" has all-too-often become a kind of "buddhist political correctness" that has marginalized all criticism, alternative, and dissenting views, I am less bothered by the stylistic rhetoric of the speculative non-buddhist writers.

In fact, while I was initially turned-off by the rhetoric, when I saw how other buddhist teachers and "leaders" kept harping on the "tone" and never really addressing the content, I saw what they were doing as a kind of strong tonic akin to the rhetoric of Lin-ji for instance. Only, it seems easier to romanticize the harshness of long-dead Chinese "ancestral teachers."

And then again, Glenn was a punk-rocker (like me) and perhaps you just can't take the punk out of the teacher... :-)

As for your other points, I totally agree. And yes, that whole "Wisdom 2.0" thing just bugs me out! I love your closing sentence. I think you nail it!

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...


You might want to check this out!

Kevin Knox said...

Hi Frank - is there a link missing in your last comment?

Thanks for your thoughtful feedback on right speech. Upon reflection I have to agree with you: pointedness and even somewhat violent argumentativeness is certainly preferable to the kind of suppression and party-line mentality that "right speech" has become in many Buddhist circles.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Hi Kevin,

Yeah, I meant to include this link to a recent interview Glenn gave to mark the re-issue of his band's work.

jAmes bOnes tOmaselli said...

Buddhism moving from India to Asia was thus transformed to the Zen form, perhaps the West (cap.W) too will develop its own; Thich Nhat Hanh states in Zen Keys, "Zen & the West" 'the process of Zen finding roots in western soil is an ongoing one. Cultural economic and psychological conditions are different in the West. One cannot become a practitioner of Zen just by imitating the way of eating, sitting, or dressing of Chinese or Japanese practitioners. Zen Is Life, Zen does not imitate.

He continues; "If Zen is to fully take root in the West, it must acquire a Western form, different from Oriental Zen."