No Complaining in the Precepts?

Zen teacher Dosho Port raised some interesting questions about Sangha while reflecting on “Two Shores of Zen” on his Wild Fox Zen blog.  Dosho wonders whether Zen Centers even warrant the designation “Sangha,” and explores refuge in the middle of unreliable everything.  It’s an interesting post with interesting comments, worth checking out.  I responded with some general comments on the Wild Fox blog – not the least of which was to clarify again and still that “No Zen in the West” (like “Yes Zen in the West”) is a position to take and get over, to take to encourage people, not to take and to make a nest in.

But here I want to focus on another point that Dosho makes.  Taking up an exchange in the book wherein the American Zen teacher scolds the young, idealistic American monk for “disparaging the Sangha” by calling the practice at his temple “bullshit,” Dosho writes:

“…to suggest that Jiryu’s earnest-sounding doubts about San Francisco Zen Center (and American Zen generally) – maybe like the kid who saw that the emperor had no clothes and was willing to call out – should not be raised because he’s breaking the precepts seems like both a way of repressing investigation in order to maintain the organizational status-quo and a missed opportunity for a full-out meeting.”

Or, as my friend Eleanor puts it:  “What an odd conundrum to be told you that if you criticize/form a critique you are breaking a precept. Red flag! Danger! Warning Will Robinson!!!!”

I muster to Eleanor some defense of the point of view that just nagging and cynically undermining is actually breaking a precept, not forming a compassionate critique, and that it’s counter-productive to just tear down without trying out/swallowing whole.  Eleanor’s agreement is devastating:  “Well yes, no one should talk before they’ve lived at SFZC for some amount of years. 2? 30?”

I can’t mean that!  Because just like Dosho notes that in American Zen 60 years old seems to be the new 40, for me at thirteen years of practice, ten years of practice is the new one year of practice.  There must be some notion of “membership” that admits a person into the conversation, but as soon as there is a cut off, as soon as “he’s been here long enough that he can speak” and “she just got here, so ignore what she has to say”, we’re on the slippery slope.  (Hierarchy is very much on my mind lately – a No Hierarchy in the West post will come soon.)

This feels very important.  As we shape and imagine and perfect this Western or American or Californian experiment – this experiment of a Sangha of us, not of better people – how do we “call out,” how do we say what we see and share what we think?  If we don’t have modes and mechanisms to do this, how will we grow better?  A person who isn’t open to feedback isn’t so likely to grow, and an institution is obviously the same.  It’s maybe easier to participate in this conversation and development of Zen in the “provinces” than in the San Francisco Zen Center “Vatican” where by default things progress slowly (like an ocean-faring barge, as Norman Fischer says).  But maybe not.  Maybe wherever we are it is hard to give useful feedback.  Maybe wherever we are we have the opportunity to share what we think constructively, as part of the thing, or destructively as separate from the thing.

“Obama is a war-mongering murderer and the so-called practice at this American resort/temple is a sham.”

R.H. Blyth sweetly and memorably says that people use Zen as an excuse to be rude.  I know I have!  I’d add:  peace as an excuse to be violent.  (Check.)  But I don’t want to let the masters of war off the hook and I don’t want to let my beloved temple and teachers off the hook and I don’t want to let myself off the hook.  But what then?  How do I relate my feedback to any of them/us?

The young idealist of “Two Shores” didn’t have other words, didn’t have another way to express his Way-seeking mind and to offer feedback to others than “bullshit.”  And that “bullshit” often made people defensive.  And Zen people – especially Zen teachers – when they are defensive often resort to “turning around the light” to shine in the student’s eyes.  Variations on the theme of “that’s your problem,”  “everything you see is yourself,”  etc.  People, especially young people who need to be heard but don’t necessarily have more subtle words, often pack their bags at that moment.  It isn’t genuine, and they feel that, whether or not they have the clarity to defy authority in the moment of meeting.

It is true that the student’s complaint is the student’s problem, but when the teacher leaps to the student side of the problem without first completely hearing, completely meeting, and completely “playing out” (in Dosho’s words) the attack, something really terrible happens.  The easy truth of the student’s suffering is used to obscure the hard truth of the disharmony, hypocrisy, or inefficiency that the student is trying to share.  This happens again and again and again.  I’ve seen it for years, and now – and this is the real horror – I see myself do it to others, even if subtly.

We can encourage each other not to separate from our own lives.  And we can point out to each other that complaining and cynically criticizing is fundamentally just cutting ourselves off and setting ourselves apart from our own lives.  But fear of separation, of losing our way, shouldn’t silence us, and speaking out against doesn’t mean we need to slip even a hairsbreadth from complete, wholehearted particpation in the community and one life that we’re speaking out against. 

I want to say: “We need to speak.  We need to listen.”  But that sounds like a cliche.  And it doesn’t sound very Zen.  Definitely not Japanese Zen.

But cliche or not, Zen or not, it seems right now like the most important thing.  We need to speak.  We need to listen.


7 thoughts on “No Complaining in the Precepts?

  1. Hi Jiryu! I enjoy reading your thoughts. Just earlier this evening I was eating dinner with a close dharma friend and he told me how often thought of some words from Kobun Chino Roshi, who stated somthing like that its remarkable what a high percentage of soto-zen students in the west who have difficulties with social interaction. I don’t know about japan, you tell me! 🙂
    Speak and listen! This was one of the first things i learnt on my journey. I learnt about it in Findhorn. they call it “sharing”. But work work work and maintaining status quo takes most of the attention, in the middle on a zen institution i praise you for giving your energy to this.
    I think your question is very sound and needs to be raised over and over again. I remember how Reb once told me of a “basic buddhist teaching” in dokusan, that disaster is immanent! Let us realize this and not play too safe!

  2. “We need to speak. We need to listen.” Right on!

    I think criticism gets a bad rap in a lot of ways. I know when I started I went through a idealistic process of projecting “The Thing” onto the Zen project. After building this edifice of beliefs around Zen cracks began to appear. I began to examine and deconstruct all the myriad truth claims that had been presented to me or that I had formed myself.

    Here’s one by the Dalai Lama:

    “The purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.”

    Is this really the purpose of ALL the major religious traditions? Do they all emphasize transforming the internal world of the individual rather than the collective structure of society? Is Liberation Theology the only tradition that explicitly focuses on class and decision-making equality as their religious goals over “goodness and compassion inside”? Now people might say that it’s not a choice of one or the other but when “goodness and compassion inside” is talked about way more than social equality than it does make a difference in how practitioners organize their lives and how much guidance they find when they want to tackle those issues from a spiritual lens. Is it disparaging of the Dalai Lama to deconstruct one of his statements?

    How many of us have faith that the American Zen project could survive a deconstruction “audit”?

    One truth claim I bought into was something like “One can’t help others until one has realized peace inside oneself.” Why? There have been plenty of passionate, neurotic, high-strung people who have brought great benefit to others despite their “personal” problems. It’s one approach but I think to present it as the “truth” limits a person’s mind. Maybe we all need mental frameworks to simplify life and make things easier but I wish they weren’t presented as truths so often.

    What comes after the deconstruction audit? Well Jiryu seems to have deconstructed American Zen, then Japanese Zen, and now he’s collaboratively constructing something with all of us. I’m still in the audit phase myself. And it feels very helpful to have a place to write and a place to be listened to as I re-organize my spirituality to incorporate postmodern philosophy and the social and environmental horrors that I’m more aware of.

  3. I think we’re all doing great.

    I think we all go through a similar arc of loving the institution (or whatever – could be the teacher or even something called “zen”), then criticizing it, and ultimately appreciating it.

    After I learned “the forms” at City Center, probably a couple months after I started practicing there, I stopped strangers in the hall to correct them. Brusquely, in that rudeness that D.T. Suzuki talks about. It was Zen! After I moved to Tassajara, I realized I didn’t know anything about “form” and began to study for myself.

    The two groups I’ve been a part of have both been American: AA and SFZC. Everyone who comes to AA is damaged. Everyone. I don’t know whether everyone who comes to zen practice is damaged but the percentage is probably pretty high. Both AA and zen require a level of desperation in those of us who stick around. So from my AA experience, I’m not so worried about SFZC being more pc or “welcoming” because I know that the ones who really need it will stay no matter what we — those of us who are also damaged and who are slowly slowly learning how to talk to another human being without passing that damage on — might do to offend or discourage them.

    To me it’s just silly to say that we shouldn’t speak until we’ve been around for X amount of time. How does anyone learn to do it right except through doing it wrong. So maybe sangha is those of us who are willing — who have the courage — to do it wrong together. A current favorite bit from ZMBM: “When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves.” Of course I’m ashamed. And yet my sangha continues to stick with me. And to the teachers and students who haven’t stuck with me: nine times nine bows to you!

  4. Everything I do or have done is bullshit. Everthing I have experienced and read or thought is bullshit. I get lost in practice and I get lost when I don’t practice. Anyone, and I mean anyone who thinks they have a leg up, or can really know what this is all about is bullshit.

    The most honest thing I have learned in my practice of Zen is that there is absolutly nothing to hang on to including Zen practice. All is bullshit. I am not able to get away from bullshit.

    Gary Shodo

  5. Maybe there is no Zen in the west. Maybe it needs a new name for it’s new occidental epoch…All is ephemeral, especially the convention of language, right?

    Schopenhauer states “Life is a thing that should not have been.” Zen, as a metaphor for life itself likewise should not have been. All of it is an illusion, dancing upon the thing that already is, i.e. bullshit. We are all qualified to speak our minds. There are no credentials. The best (or only) teachers are those who are able to continue learning, continue being open to new possibilities. The upstart should be listened to with as much care and serious attention as the thirty years deep practicioner. Isn’t it possible that the newcomer can show us something about our practice that we have become numb to? Isn’t this the meaning of the statement “In the beginner’s mind there are infinite possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”?

    When I tried college and eventually wound up leaving an instructor implored that I stay, encouraging me to talk to the older professors. He stated that they were wise and would have much to teach me. “So is a drunk passed out in the gutter,” I responded. He relieved himself of my company, affronted. His world view only allowed that true wisdom flourish in the minds of those who had devoted themselves to scholasticism. I can find the experiential realization of the possibility of “god” (sic) in a crack I the sidewalk, in a university professor, a gentle homeless drunk with a smile and a story, a woman giving herself to me in the heat of passion, the last beer in the fridge on a lonely night with the poetry of my own majestic soul… and last but certainly not least, in zazen. Your karma—the sum total of your voluntary and involuntary life happenings, actions, experiences—is your dharma.

    We all have something to teach, we all have something to learn. A sangha should not be an institution, but an organization that is constantly responding to the needs of the moment, the needs of the community. It is our responsibility to ourselves to challenge authority and institution always with a warm and inquisitive heart. I wish to thank Jiryu for his dedication to the practice of compassionate inquisition.

    The forms and metaphors through which we discuss and experience spirituality should always be changing, advancing, opening to new possibility. The Zen of Bodhidharma, Hui-Neng, Dogen, or even Shunryu have nothing to do with where I sit now on January 18, 2010. Their Zen may have informed my experience, my path, but eternity is this moment now.
    Thank you.

  6. “And Zen people – especially Zen teachers – when they are defensive often resort to “turning around the light” to shine in the student’s eyes. Variations on the theme of “that’s your problem,” “everything you see is yourself,” etc. People, especially young people who need to be heard but don’t necessarily have more subtle words, often pack their bags at that moment. It isn’t genuine, and they feel that, whether or not they have the clarity to defy authority in the moment of meeting.”
    It’s a relief to read this from a Zen priest! This has been exactly my experience at times. Newcomers often have a certain clarity that is not always welcomed, and also lack a nuanced understanding of the situation/institution that makes their input easy to dismiss. It’s tricky when the newbies don’t have a lot of investment in the situation. It’s also tricky for the old-timers to remain open to every upstart. I have a lot of sympathy for both sides of that scene.

    The critque of W. vs. E. zen practice does seem sort of like a game…moving around all the pieces to see who wins. You might as well critique American vs. Japanese cultures. Where can one awaken? Personally I’m grateful for the diversity and openess in SFZC culture (yes and postmodern…amid the forms) that sometimes results in chaos, levity and epiphany, even within the stolid hierarchy.

    Thanks for being fearless in bringing up these sticky topics, Jiryu. Your writings and the responses are among the more substantial things I’m reading anywhere lately.

  7. There are times when people don’t speak up due to fear or other reasons, and then everyone suffers. Just look at all of the drama and heartbreak SFZC went through in the past – a good part of that was a result of people not speaking their minds and saying “hey, something is wrong here, something needs to be done!” . If we didn’t speak our mind in those situations, we would be causing or at least allowing harm to build, and that may be worse than someone accusing you of disparaging the sangha. Just my 2 cents.

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