Fundamentally No Hierarchy?

 If there is anyone left out there who hasn’t yet noticed, the Zen institution we are so fond of is deeply conflicted about a lot of things. One of these fundamental conflicts that has been on my mind for years now is around hierarchy. I’ve long thought that I want to explore here the issues of hierarchy, particularly as the strict hierarchy of Japanese Zen is one of the most clearly identifiable distinctions between Zens East and West, and I’d say is always just beneath talk of “No Zen in the West.” We have plenty of strict hierarchy on this side of the ocean, but it’s held fundamentally differently. Some of that was explored in my last post on relating to teachers, and in Two Shores. What I want to bring up now, though, endures in Zen across place and time – the fundamental tension between hierarchy and “no rank.”

 This tension is rather devastatingly highlighted at a few places in Bernard Faure’s The Rhetoric of Immediacy, a severely over-written and unabashedly postmodern-pretentious “cultural critique” of Zen that despite its general impenetrability has really meant a lot to me in my ongoing reconciliation of Zen rhetoric and Zen social reality. I will quote some lines below and maybe just leave it at that. They so bit into me when I read them! So true and disturbing and intractable and interesting and familiar, familiar, familiar…

 First, Faure suggests that the hierarchy in Zen becomes conflated with the path itself (i.e., “I’m senior so I must be well along the path”):

The ritual identification of the Chan adept to the patriarchal lineage, first through ordination, later through the “seal of approval,” and the certificate of authentication given by the master, came to replace the traditional Buddhist notion of the “path” (marga). (22)

 Then he looks at Zen hierarchy in terms of a “strategy of condescension” (a notion he attributes to Bourdieu, who I’ve never heard of), and says:

The claim of having “no rank” can become one of the (more of less conscious) strategies to get a rank, or to keep it. (39)

The master is sufficiently assured of his position in the hierarchy to be able to deny the hierarchy, thus cumulating the profits tied to the hierarchy and its symbolic denial. (20)

 (In this context, my raising this is subject to it. Why would I dwell on this issue? To record my resistance to the hierarchy as a way of ensuring my place in it, of course – thus winning twice.)

 Or getting at the same thing a couple of other ways, he says:

“But precisely such a statement [that distinctions between men and women had no importance to the Way] is essentially rhetorical: just like the equality between passion and awakening, it is denied in practice or in discourse as soon as it seems to threaten the established order.” (242)

 Or, citing Lévi-Strauss:

“It is from a perspective of power that A sees the village as symmetrical and reciprocal; it is from a position of subordination that B pictures the village as hierarchical… These opposing positions give rise to two discordant ideological maps of geographical and social space.” (319)

 I could elaborate on this discord, but I think the drift is clear, and excruciatingly clear to any of you presently embroiled in hierarchical Zen dramas. While I think it’s ridiculous and over-dramatic to call the Zen institution “dangerous,” I think it is important to notice this inherent dysfunction and if not overcome it, then at least like old fox Baizhang not be blind to it. I wonder if there is some other way to move forward that resolves this tension, or whether noticing is really all we can do (and might of itself open up other avenues…).  I do know that pushing the whole thing away doesn’t help, as I maintain there really is a baby in that bathwater.  Some people say they can fish out the baby or drain out the water… but I’m afraid it’s really not that way at all.

I’m afraid we’re stuck with this legacy, this problem, this opportunity.

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One Response to Fundamentally No Hierarchy?

  1. Ellliot says:

    I think authority is best established by a demonstration of spiritual might. This demonstration is achieved in community through chanting and the observation of conduct. In a democratic monastery, through group practice discussions it becomes clear who has clear knowledge of the dharma. Through the practice of communal charity it becomes clear who has a fearless work ethic and embodies the qualities of love, compassion and bodhicitta. His Holiness encourages a spirit of friendly competition and even “jealousy,” amongst dharma friends. I think this is wise. There are some systems that maintain leadership is to be achieved chiefly by time spent in monastery. This encourages laziness amongst high ranking practitioners because they are essentially on a tenure track. This is not my theoretical knowledge but my practical knowledge. In addition if you hold the doctrice of rebirth to be true the notion of time in training becomes more complex. In conclusion San Francisco Zen Center is in desperate need of reform in the leadership structure to more closely resemble Shakyamuni’s order, and I beseech Jiryu and Furyu to lead the charge in this affair. May all beings be happy.
    Happy Omens

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