What we uphold and what we reject

I’m following with a lot of interest the recent comments on Jiryu’s posts “Whole Religion” and “In the beginning was the Dao . . .”  This debate about what exactly we uphold and what we reject as we engage deeply with our tradition is hugely important for the future of the Dharma, East and West, and it’s a sign of our growing maturity in the West that the debate is becoming much more nuanced and subtle than it has been historically.  Of course what seems nuanced to us will seem grossly filled with projections and distortions to our descendants, but that’s part of a tradition’s life as a dynamic, evolving set of beliefs and practices.  That part doesn’t worry me so much.

The issue, I think, is less one of trying to get the tradition “right,” whatever that means, as if we could simply transport ancient Indian, ancient Chinese, or medieval Japanese understandings into a globalized contemporary world, and rather more of clarifying and deepening our relationship (set of relationships, really) to the tradition, of clarifying what exactly it is we vow to maintain.  On the one hand, there’s a kind of arrogance and naivete in simply dismissing any part of the tradition that makes us uncomfortable and only reading into the Dharma the things we like–this, I think, was exactly Jiryu’s point in “Whole Religion.”  On the other, there certainly will be things we dismiss.  From the Majjhima Nikaya, for example, Bahudhatuka Sutta:

But, venerable sir, in what way can a bhikkhu be called skilled in what is possible and what is impossible?

Here, Ananda, a bhikkhu understands:  [. . .]  ‘It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One, there is no such possibility.’  And he understands, ‘It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One–there is such a possibility.’

[. . .] In this way, Ananda, a bhikkhu can be called skilled in what is possible and what is impossible.

It is impossible, it seems to me, that we will avoid transforming the Dharma as we take it up in the particular cultural circumstances of our time.  There is no such possibility.  And it is possible that we will distort the the Dharma as we take it up in the particular cultural circumstances of our time.  There is indeed such a possibility.  Also, it is possible that our distortions will be invigorating, will allow a new unfolding of the ancient way.  There is such a possibility.  We will absorb, digest some of our tradition, and spit some of it out.  What seems most important to me is that we do all of this in a way that isn’t glib, isn’t too quick or too easy.  There’s a Middle Way between a kind of cult of the past and a lack of respect for the past.  There’s a rich and honest struggle with a tradition that has always marked the deepest expressions of religious life.  We take responsibility for a tradition when we try as hard as we can to understand what it meant to our ancestors, and try even harder to understand what it most centrally means to us.

As an example of all of this in action, I’ll end by quoting a text that Nagarjuna, Hui-neng, and Dogen could never have read.  Here’s James Baldwin, from “Sonny’s Blues”:

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country and another depth in every generation.  Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, Listen.


3 thoughts on “What we uphold and what we reject

  1. Strangely, itrw I’ve spent much more time in NKT sanghas than zen ones. There was just so much that I disagreed with and the mythology so colourful and against my preferences that I figured it was worth spending time with them until I got over it.

    It’s still not my preference but I can see that some find it helpful and I can see how the technicolor stuff helps to concretise some concepts.

    But what does it mean to teach zen authentically in the west? Is copying Japanese culture authenticity? Is it authentic to throw it away arbitrarily? Is it wrong to ignore or venerate our personal preferences?

    In the end it’s all been made up by different people at different times. Adapting. Changing. Arbitrarily sometimes.

    My personal exploration at the moment is “what is the heart of zen? What can never be optional? What can be substituted?” “is there a gateway zen that could be used to introduce people to Classic Zen”.

    For example if you taught a “wall-staring” class you could do it in a way that made clear it wasn’t devil-worship or antithetical to whoever they happened to think they were. After doing a wall-staring class it wouldn’t be such a shock to walk into a zendo with its talk of Zazen and Shikantaza. They’d already feel at home with the core and could build on that.

  2. Speaking as a woman, I don’t dismiss the Bahudhatuka Sutta at all, rather I try to understand why such a thing would be said. I don’t just think its cultural or time specific. And I know how hard it is practicing as a woman, it’s about the hormones and desire and all that stuff.

    Also, it depends on what your idea of A Fully Enlightened One is. For some that means being just this present moment, whatever it holds, is it. I personally have set the bar much higher and won’t settle for anything less than anuttara samyak sambodhi – the complete cosmologic, big bang, multiple universe, all are saved, vision of reality. And yes I do think its possible through developing deep samadhi and wisdom.

    I’m a lay person, my husband is non buddhist, I work as a carer, and live in the world. I’ve never felt any need to modernize the tradition to fit in with my life. If anything I’m going in the other direction and trying to rediscover those ancient roots, that ancient way of seeing before it gets lost.

    This example in the Bahudhatuka Sutta comes up again in the Lotus Sutra, ch 11. the Naga kings daughter. Manjursri tells of how he has been teaching the Lotus of the True Law to the 8 year old in the sea, Sariputra says it is not possible for her to reach Buddhahood because she cannot occupy the 5 ranks. She then changes herself into a male Bodhisattva, an easy way to get around the situation.

    Then there is the example of Tara, with her f**k you attitude, I’m doing it anyway, approach to Buddhahood. I mean, really who wouldn’t want to be female?

    But now we are getting back to the ‘Whole Religion’ thing again aren’t we!

  3. Hi Dave,

    Thank you for the stimulating post.

    Not only should we seek sometimes to follow the old path, and sometimes cut the new path according to modern, very different circumstances …

    … but we should realize that no one path need be right for all, no one dosage of the Buddha’s medicine for each patient. I now believe that no one flavor of Buddhism (or even Zen Practice) is appropriate for every Buddhist! I dare say (though the saying was certainly not about religions) … that when it comes to “Expedient Means”, and pointing out the right way for each, individual … “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his/her particular needs”.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

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