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.