Sunday, April 27, 2014

Living Buddha Zen or What I Hate About Zen, Part Two

Lex Hixon (1941–1995) (born Alexander Paul Hixon Junior, also known as Nur al-Anwar al-Jerrahi in the Sufi community) was an American Sufi author, poet, and spiritual teacher and a true believer in the so-called “Perennial Philosophy,” practicing and holding membership in several of the world's major great religious traditions. His faith what that all the world’s “great religions” are true, and like many such believers, completely ignored the sometimes radical differences. While it would be extremely suspect if the various religious traditions didn’t have much in common (we’re all human beings, sharing one evolutionary heritage), I have long believed it a form of dishonesty to discount the dissimilarities in the world’s religions.

Living Buddha Zen is Lex Hixon’s commentary in zen master Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light which had been translated by Francis Cook and published by the Los Angeles Zen Center’s Center Publications in 1991. You know you’re in for some blatant zen obfuscation, mystical mumbo-jumbo and just plain bullshit when you read in the “Foreward,” “The modern, secular, skeptical, scientific view has not been casually jettisoned by Hixon, but shed slowly, through trial and error, personal inquiry, reliable spiritual guidance, and fearless commitment to a naked vision.” Such reasoned, empirical, skeptical thinking is anathema in zen and I've criticized it before. It's truly what I hate about zen.

The Denkoroku traces a mostly fabricated tale of the “transmission of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment down fifty-two generations,” beginning with the mythological transmission to Kashyapa in a story so made up to give “legitimacy” to an up-start new school of buddhism in China. Zen has used this story and the narrative of these alleged “transmissions” as its major sectarian polemic.

On every single page of this 253 page screed you will come across statements like: “Without verifiable transmission, there can be no fully manifest jewel of Sangha… Without this outward demonstration of transmission, there cannot be the authentic leadership that makes the Sangha an accessible place and principle of refuge.” I wonder what “the buddha” who is said to have said the following would say to Lex regarding such “transmission” and “authentic leadership?”

Ananda said, “Lord, I still had some little comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus."
Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

What you’ll find on every page is the reified capitalized “Wonderful Mind,” “Unborn Nature,” “Total Awakeness,” “Mind of Luminosity,” “Great Way” etc. ad nauseam. Talk of “destined successors” and “the wisdom spring” that can “gush forth only from the lineage holder.” What such zen teachers seem to not understand is that all talk of “essential mind simply abiding by itself” may be good Vedanta, but it’s not a buddhist teaching. The essentialism of zen, along with the transcendentalism and monism are as far as one can get from anatta, the core teaching of the buddha. Such teachers and teachings flinch in the face of the radical nature of this understanding of not-self. “I am essence, not name,” is a turning away from the shattering realization of the buddha, not it’s fulfillment.

That Hixon can speak for zen and be taken seriously when he writes “Sutras basically teach non-self. Clear, brilliant, ever-present awareness, or Original Self, bears no resemblance at all to the imaginal self-entity clearly refuted by the Sutras. The Sutra teaching of non-self is therefore extraneous to that Original Self. Non-self is the teaching, whereas Original Self is the reality behind the teaching” is enough for me to reject such distortion. Zennists will say I don’t understand. As Ernest Becker wrote, “No purposeful argument can be held with the mystic because in ultimate defense against a logically untenable premise, he invokes the bankruptcy of thought process to arrive at what he "really means." In other words, as Richard Payne writes: “there is no way that reasoned, reflective thought can be applied to the claims made on the basis of ‘religious experience.’” This is the true refuge of the mystic scoundrel.

Finally, I find it ironically amusing that the full moon is an image repeated incessantly representing full awakening. Hixon writes: “Can the moon’s reflection in the lake shine light on the great mountain? All Zen phrases and Zen gestures are merely reflected moons. We must encounter their true source. Only self-luminous awareness – the moon which remains always full – constitutes transmission.”

Pre-scientific people may have thought of the moon as “self-luminous,” but perhaps those of us who understand the moon is an arid rock in space whose light is but a reflection of the sun might rather – as Stephen Batchelor writes – think in terms of a solar buddhism. These zen teachings Hixon calls a mere reflection of the moon are actually reflections of a reflection – and one severely distorted at that!


Unknown said...

Thank you. After reading the first two chapters of Jiyu Kennett's translation of Denkoroku, I tossed the book aside, picked up my ipad and googled [Denkoroku + bullshit]. I didn't expect to find anything. But, here I am.
I suppose that, in part, it is with my quiet Northern Scots family background, that I have difficulty with bombastic, self-glorifying behaviour in certain other cultures. It's not only Zen. Much Tibetan text is the same.
I have benefitted greatly from many years of Dharma study and practice.
I like Pema Chodron's and Jack Kornfield's plain speaking. Teaching Bullshit-free Dharma.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

That's both awesome, funny AND a sad comment on zen culture. Awesome that you found your way here through a google search for Denkoroku and bullshit, funny that this little blog even came up on the search and sad that it's the only one. Tells you something right there.

And sure, it's not only zen. But as zen is my inherited tradition, it's the one whose bullshit I most feel the need to respond to. Thanks for stopping by, Johnny!