Are Zen People Better?

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?

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20 thoughts on “Are Zen People Better?

  1. What is better? I don’t ask this in the Zen Koan kind of way, but in the this human is better than that human kind of way?

    I don’t understand what better is. I have this mind that compares myself to everyone else, I have this idea that I usually fall short in that comparison. I also have a mind that creates these ideas despite all evidence to the contrary.

    But I honestly don’t know what “better” is. Since “better” always comes with a price, and I think the difference is who is willing to pay that price and who isn’t.

  2. Where are all these ‘ordinary’ people? How ‘they’ are seen varies with zen practice over time.

    Psychology 101 tells you that a feeling of superiority may in fact indicate that the truth is elsewhere.

    My own feeling is that zen has helped me to be ‘ordinary’, that the result of all this zen stuff is that I get to rejoin the human race.

    Otoh in my office there are some people who have also done zen-like paths and we can relate to each other in a way that feels richer.

    I wonder if ultimately the goal of zen, the endpoint like in Taoism perhaps is that you can be ordinary, just another human being who will die one day.

    Otoh zen has given me to not be self-conscious and that is not so ordinary for many people. It’s also allowed me to enjoy being alive. That is also not so ordinary fir many.

    But I think it has taught me there are many ways to be ordinary and some are better than others.

    It hasn’t helped me get laid so there’s a chance I didn’t do it right…

  3. The whole issue of “better” or “not better” doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with Zen or Buddhist practice — maybe it’s called a “category error”? I’m not sure the technical name for it, but like arguing whether Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin is the better Democrat — they’re not Democrats at all so whatever is said in those terms is misleading or mistaken. Not sure if I’m making sense. Transformation, in the way Jiryu describes in his own life, and in our own lives, and in what we see with others, is real, and Buddhism has its particular paths and flavors of transformation (as do other spiritual paths, and healing paths, and creative paths, etc.). But “better” isn’t the issue, and comparison to “others” is misunderstanding reality. It’s not that we don’t do it comparison, but we know we’re in the mind of suffering when we’re doing it, or at least I hope we do. Then we’re in that mind of being “ordinary” in the sense expressed in Mike Haitch’s post. It takes all of us to make one of us. How could we possibly be separable enough to compare?
    Catherine
    PS — Love the new Frankie blog post

  4. I like how this conversation is developing. One question that came up for me is not ‘are zen people better?’, but ‘are zen people happier?’ I know that I am not happier all the time, but I have a better appreciation of the times I am happy and a better handle on the times I am not. And there is a line between the view – not uncommon – that we are all blank-eyed robots, and the view I also hear that some people come to Zen Center, as I did, and perceive a certain quality, content, grounded or accepting or whatever you want to call it, and say to themselves “I want whatever it is that they have”. And it is often just about being ordinary, and trying to make a little sense of what it means to be human.

  5. I could share some of my own thoughts about this post (most of which I agree with), but I think I’ll just quote Dogen Zenji:

    “Do not think that you learn buddha-dharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the Buddha-way. Just practice the buddha-dharma for the sake of the buddha-dharma. Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion has worn out, it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking.” ~ Shobogenzo Zuimonki 5-18.

    In my own life, I will be happy to become utterly ordinary, while continuing to practice.

    Gregg

  6. “If you continue your practice, more and more you will have some wonderful power.” – Rev. Shunryu Suzuki. He’s right, you know. And the Zen story he uses to illustrate this ends with the punchline, “What do you think my dream was?” Just being ordinary, which no one “knows” how to do, is about the most powerful thing I’ve ever run across. “Tsk, tsk… Such a pity…” 🙂

  7. I find the beauty of practice to be that by following the schedule and outwardly expressing a state of joyless automation, what is occurring on the inside becomes more noticeable. It’s almost as if the exterior representation becomes somewhat of a control as I hold a grand experiment based around my thoughts and sensations. So if anyone comes to hold an opinion that something is better or worse, to me it’s irrelevant. The relevant factor is that now they have an opportunity to experience for themselves what they hold as better or worse and to understand what is the reference point that those comparisons are coming from.

    So are zen people happier? It depends so much on the reference point that we compare “zen people” to. Those with material wealth with who horde every penny till death do they part, or the pennyless man who sits on a corner, joyful as each car passes by sending a breeze his way.

    I feel that a more potent question is if the individual feels they are moving in the right direction with the reference point that which is behind them.

  8. I wonder if both “better” and “happier” are not the issue, or signs of whether or not the practice is working, but less grasping of fixed views (and other illusory phenomena) and deeper compassionate openness to others that naturally arises with less self-centered grasping? I also wonder if these “signs” don’t seem to be manifesting to ourselves or others, if it might be worthwhile (for the benefit of all beings) to closely examine whether our practice is on track or not. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said somewhere that if a practitioner doesn’t notice any transformation in his or her practice every six months, she should immediately check with her teacher and make a shift in the practice. (!)

    On a somewhat related note, I just returned from a Dharma study seminar (at Nitartha Institute) with a group of wonderful teachers, including the translator and teacher Karl Brunnholzl who writes in his introduction to the newly released book “Gone Beyond” which he was teaching from: “Even people who have been Buddhists for decades and have heard hundreds of Dharma teachings or read many books surprisingly often show an amazing lack of active knowledge about even basic Buddhist principles. The same people have no problem with intensely studying for ten or more years to become a surgeon, engineer, or psychotherapist, but seem to deny the need for applying the same seriousness and persistence to studying the Dharma. Who would dare to perform open-heart surgery after just having listened to some lectures on how to do this and without having thoroughly familiarized oneself with every little detail of the necessary techniques and procedures? But this is precisely the approach of many people when they think they can perform the most advanced Buddhist practices without a thorough grounding in the underlying view and an idea of the bigger picture into which such practices fit.”

  9. Great article that touches on so much.

    When one has, after years of effort, a deep awakening experience, or even when one is first ordained, the ‘zen stink’ of superiority is pretty darn odious. And it can last for years, at least for some of us. In the edification of the kensho experience, what often fails to be recognized, is that it is the very beginning of practice. An entrance to a long, challenging, rewarding, and fraught with peril, journey. Just like a newborn.

    And if there’s still room for ‘better’; ‘ordinary’; ‘self and other’ or any other concept, then there’s still quite a ways to go. Always beginning anew. Or, no beginning, no ending, nor end of them.

    I did like Will Sherwin’s insights a great deal , so relevant ( so often) in in Zen centres.
    Great blog.

  10. I have also had the experience of being captivated by that thing that Zen people have and not knowing exactly what it is, but trying to get at it anyway… So far my sleuthing has revealed that some Zen people can be generously gentle, some are bluntwith their truths, some are shy, some are real assholes. We are a multifarious bunch. The thing that seems to unite is that intention to “study the self”, cultivating mindfulness and awareness of with and for all that we do. It is the desire to live a life that is actualized in it’s awareness of the meeting of and melting of that ego-contrived “hair’s breadth” between self and other…. A life wich actualizes truer intimacy with life itself, even if the liver of that life is by the standards of the dusty world “inferior” or “superior”… Either of these catagories can be a platform for learning, a hinderance, a blessing and anyway that’s not the point. My assertion would be that Zen has nothing whatever to do with self improvement, though true self improvement is likely totally impossible without an earnest study of the self…

    “If you are meditating for the sake of self improvement you are missing the point and you are not meditating.”
    –Alan Watts

    Forehead to floorboards,
    -b

  11. Anderson:
    The concepts to watch out for are the ones you don’t think you have!

    If one thinks that keeping the precepts is ‘better’ than not keeping the precepts then that may be a concept or it may be true. However one would not choose to keep the precepts unless behind it there was some underlying belief that doing so was better than ot oing so. Of course one may say “I keep the precepts because of the benefits I see in my life” but who is to say those benefits are not illusionary or not arising purely from the warm hug that a belief gives.

    There is a stage of practice where concepts are dropped. There is another stage where the thing that holds concepts is dropped. Them there is a stage where things are picked up or dropped as required.

    Dropping is a concept as is ‘picking up’. Is the concept of dropping better or worse or the same or different to the concept of picking up?

    Nagarjuna’s “fundamental wisdom of the middle way” is full of concepts. But it looks like the work of a man who has dropped all of them. However if that were the case could he have written that text???

  12. Thanks Jiryu for another controversial and interesting post.

    I started questioning the value of Zen about 10 years ago when I feel into deep depression. As a good zen student I sat with it, let it keep me company, in short, fully embodied it. For about 2 years I didn’t see any friends, found it hard to leave my apartment, but managed to keep working and do the basics to keep functioning. It was a very interesting place to be in, not uncomfortable but gave my practice an intensity that I had never experienced before. In many ways, as long as I didn’t by into my thoughts, it was very grounding.

    Then one day I had this thought ‘I’ve had enough of this. 10 years of practice and this is what I get’. I started to doubt everything I had been taught. The ancestors, the ones I had revered for so long now appeared to me as grumpy old men. And I rebelled.

    I started reading sutras, I started doing visualizations of Buddha Lands and I started asking for guidance from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And I got it. I knew they were just another aspect of mind, but it worked and I found way to be happy again.

    So now my Zen practice has become very eclectic, and I like it a lot.

  13. In order to answer the question of whether we Zen Buddhists are superior to people who don’t practice we must clarify what we mean by better and what we mean by we. Zen Buddhists vary in their depth of experience with meditation and therefore are not really a proper object of comparison. Therefore I will compare Zen priests with ordinary people. This, however, assumes that Zen priests were at one point ordinary people. My experience in the Zen community is that many of the people who are attracted to Zen have deep problems. The observation made by some that Zen people are no better and no worse than ordinary people actually proves that Zen makes people better, because we Zen people have started off worse.
    Let’s use a thought experiment to address the question of whether Zen priests are better than ordinary people. In order to do this let’s start with a great Zen priest. Jones has been a Zen priest and is responsible, well-versed in scripture, diligent in meditation, calm, peaceful, wise, and kind. He speaks authoritatively about all things Zen and even has learned all the traditional Japanese arts. Now Jameson has attended Ivy league schools where he played sports and excelled in academics. He went on to climb his way up the corporate ladder and eventually started his own non-profit helping small farmers acquire land. He is creative, articulate, multitasks like a mad man, and is a excellent problem-solver. He is a great worker, a loving husband, and a trustworthy father. In what possible use of the word better could Jones be better than Jameson? I mean can a person who lived there whole life in a traditional Japanese monastery really “do” anything useful or cool? So from a certain angle the question is not so much how do we protect ourselves from the title of “superhuman heroes” but rather the title of “boring escapists.” My Uncle recently made this accusation of Zen Buddhists and I was surprised how jarred I was.

  14. In order to answer the question of whether we Zen Buddhists are superior to people who don’t practice we must clarify what we mean by better and what we mean by we. Zen Buddhists vary in their depth of experience with meditation and therefore are not really a proper object of comparison. Therefore I will compare Zen priests with ordinary people. This, however, assumes that Zen priests were at one point ordinary people. My experience in the Zen community is that many of the people who are attracted to Zen have deep problems. The observation made by some that Zen people are no better and no worse than ordinary people actually proves that Zen makes people better, because we Zen people have started off worse.
    Let’s use a thought experiment to address the question of whether Zen priests are better than ordinary people. In order to do this let’s start with a great Zen priest. Jones has been a Zen priest and is responsible, well-versed in scripture, diligent in meditation, calm, peaceful, wise, and kind. He speaks authoritatively about all things Zen and even has learned all the traditional Japanese arts. Now Jameson has attended Ivy league schools where he played sports and excelled in academics. He went on to climb his way up the corporate ladder and eventually started his own non-profit helping small farmers acquire land. He is creative, articulate, multitasks like a mad man, and is a excellent problem-solver. He is a great worker, a loving husband, and a trustworthy father. In what possible use of the word better could Jones be better than Jameson? I mean can a person who lived there whole life in a traditional Japanese monastery really “do” anything useful or cool? So from a certain angle the question is not so much how do we protect ourselves from the title of “superhuman heroes” but rather the title of “boring escapists.” My Uncle recently made this accusation of Zen Buddhists and I was surprised how jarred I was.
    Ultimately I think the idea that Zen consistently creates heroically virtuous people is not true and the individual must periodically examine how helpful Zen has been for them. Additionally the question of better or worse should be re-framed to be better or worse for any given individual at any given time. I would gladly exchange being better than people for being happier and there is some evidence in my life that Zen has made me happier.

  15. This is a good thread and it is interesting that people have tried to turn the question around to are zen people happier.

    – The new age romantic enlightenment ideal of the pursuit of happiness and its corollary that there is one special thing that is our true thing. Hence the questions are Zen people happier? Americans caught up in this ethos must always be evaluating themselves all the time whether they are happier or not. But what does meditation have to do with happiness? When you are meditating you are simply being aware of things and learning how to be at ease with whatever you feel, happiness or unhappiness.
    – The frontier do it yourself mentality. Hence I will carve my own shape of my practice according to my needs and preferences andin so doing rather than learn no -self only blow my self up even more. This can lead to communities of isolated do it yourself loners who have no real emotional connection or responsibility to each other. It is remarkable how alone a person can feel is such a community.

    What is the answer? Stop worrying about whether zen people are better or worse, or whether you are happier or more sad. Or if you are going to worry about it know it is just a game like any other and stay busy living.

  16. In the comment above something got edited away erronously. For clarity here is the complete comment.

    This is a good thread and it is interesting that people have tried to turn the question around to are zen people happier.

    There are a few aspects to the American ethos that intersect in a with this tradition borrowed from Japan in some beneficial ways, in some disastrous ones too.

    – The new age romantic enlightenment ideal of the pursuit of happiness and its corollary that there is one special thing that is our true thing. Hence the questions are Zen people happier? Americans caught up in this ethos must always be evaluating themselves all the time whether they are happier or not. But what does meditation have to do with happiness? When you are meditating you are simply being aware of things and learning how to be at ease with whatever you feel, happiness or unhappiness.
    – The frontier do it yourself mentality. I will carve my own shape of my practice according to my needs and preferences andin so doing rather than learn no -self only blow my self up even more. I, I, I. This can lead to communities of isolated do it yourself loners who have no real emotional connection or responsibility to each other. It is remarkable how alone a person can feel is such a community.

    What is the answer? Stop worrying about whether zen people are better or worse, or whether you are happier or more sad. Or if you are going to worry about it know it is just a game like any other and stay busy living.

  17. Pingback: Tending the Inconceivable | No Zen in the West

  18. Resting in the space between the thoughts …THIS…. is who you are.
    Not-Knowing one just rest in who one is, then talking or not talking is not all that interesting.

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