Are Zen people better than “ordinary” people?
Somewhat sloppily here, before I head off for a week of no internet, I wanted to share a few thoughts wrapping up the drama around my Fire Monks post of a couple of weeks ago. I appreciated the conversation and the strong feelings, expressed on the blog and elsewhere, in public and private, and am equally happy that it has died down. Many of the comments were of real interest, but I wanted to pull out a couple that point to me to issues much larger than the book.
One of these was Will Sherwin’s great comment on “egologizing”. I’ll copy it here in case anyone missed it. I feel like he put his finger on something really important:
In the history of psychotherapy and in my own experiences in psychotherapy circles it’s not uncommon for therapists who bring up dissenting opinions or beliefs to be pathologized. In Freud’s time analysts who expressed a different view of theory were sometimes met with statements that they hadn’t been fully analyzed and hadn’t “worked through” their issues. When I’ve expressed to other therapists a desire to study and engage with some of the environmental crises of our times I’ve been painfully told that my motive stems from unresolved family dynamics. I’ve heard that Foucault writes about how psychology is used as a form of social control and I think that’s a great example that I’ve seen and been confused by personally.
To me it seems like a similar thing happens in Buddhist circles I’ve been a part of and in this discussion in particular. People who express different opinions are sometimes “ego-ologized” (is there a better word?) — meaning their dissent is analyzed and reduced to an ego trip or “projecting” ego needs onto others. Does the operation I’m calling “ego-ologizing” have deep historical roots or is it mostly a modern Buddhist meets Western psychology thing? Anyhow, is it possible we in the Buddhist community can do this kind of thing less and find other language when we think something is “too negative” or disagree with someone? I would bet that it would support more people to speak when they have a different perspective if they didn’t have to deal with others reducing their perspective to ego issues.
So much could be said and reflected upon here, in our institutions and as individuals interpreting and judging one another. Last Sunday at Green Gulch I based a talk on this issue of “egologizing,” though I stopped short of using the term (new and wonderful though it is) and by some wisdom greater than my own ended up focused less on bashing our communal misuse of the Dharma and more on simply sharing my understanding of “no self” and authenticity: the way that being ourselves completely is what we mean by no self, that this self is precisely the object of the truth of no self. The audio of the talk is up here. (I mention too the other side, that authenticity [or Zen itself, in the words of RH Blyth] can just be an excuse to be rude – a sentiment that seemed to be on James Ford’s mind last week too.)
But the issue most on my mind tonight is from David Chadwick’s thoughts on the Fire Monks book. One of his points was this:
Some people don’t like the discrimination between the Tassajara heroes and the Tassajara others. I’d add that (not singling out the book here but the culture surrounding it) we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others – as if the Zen folks had some edge they’d gained that made them superior. I know it’s said to be that way but I’ve never noticed it.
Of course it’s David Chadwick, in his irreverent piety, who could say this so bluntly and perfectly. It’s interesting to me that for all of my Fire Monks whining I didn’t even notice this point, although it suffuses the book’s marketing as much as the heroes bit does, indeed underlies it. Somehow that assumption – that Zen makes superhuman heroes – is just so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that I don’t even notice when it’s affirmed.
After my talk last Sunday one of the first questions was from a disillusioned visitor who had spent a week at Green Gulch Farm and felt that we were all joyless automatons moving through the temple day under some sort of life-killing compulsion rather than any real inner freedom or even Way-seeking mind.
Yes, I’ve noticed that too. (I’ve also noticed some other things, something about these automatons that made me want to be like them, to get programmed how they were programmed, to have eyes like the kind of eyes they can have…)
David Chadwick of course has a feeling for temple life and would surely (?!) be more generous in his assessment than was this guest. He probably wouldn’t say that we’re any worse than people elsewhere, though he’d agree that he hasn’t noticed we’re any better either. What he has noticed is that we like to say that we are better. (Granted that “we” is sometimes coded as “our ancestors” or “people of the Way”.)
I find this not so much insulting as refreshing. A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”
David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!
The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.
I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.
At the same time, I have to say that I have noticed something. Not about “an edge” I have over someone else necessarily (although I can name a long list of people I find myself better than), but about “an edge” I have over the crazy, groundless, unhelpful me that came into this practice. I wouldn’t say I’m superior, exactly, but I’m WAY happier and WAY more together than he was!
Still, I feel inspired by David’s observation to not let my own real sense of my transformation, or my confidence in the palpable inner resources that can be learned in zazen, leak into a sense that it’s given me an “edge”. Leak into a sense that I’m (we’re) actually better than you (them) for it.
If it isn’t true that practice makes us better than other people, then aren’t we wasting our time? If it does make us better, can we bear the weight of that, can we bear to be part of something so righteous?