Who Owns the Dharma?

Warning:  This blog post has nothing to do with sex.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to post here at No Zen in the West.  As my last two posts (ancient, by blog standards) mentioned, it’s that my nose has been in the books.  I’d like to think that my belly has meanwhile been abiding still and steady in my belly, but I think my belly’s been in the books too.  As I wondered in my summer post, I think the jury is still out on this one:  if my nose is in the books and my belly is in my belly, then aren’t I just dividing my life, holding back from the book?  But if my belly is in the book along with my nose, then what happens when the room catches fire?  I could pop the escape hatch by claiming that in fact my belly – as the fulfillment of its Dharma position as simply and completely in the belly – has been precisely my nose itself, but that would also entail smoke coming precisely out of my ass and would be a different thing entirely.

In any case, the question of the “practice” of the “study” is still very much alive for me, but so is another question that is less about what I think of as “my practice” and more about what I think of as “my community” or “my people.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular section from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  It’s a book my ordination teacher considers “required reading for Zen students” and one which I find myself going back to again and again.  In this section the mentor demon (Screwtape) is advising the demon-in-training (Wormwood) as to how to use their target soul’s new secular social circle to their advantage in their project of tempting his soul to eternal damnation.  Among the options Screwtape recommends are the following:

He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea: the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction.


It’s easy for me lately indeed to fall into this “perception that the two sides of my life are inconsistent,” and – however subtly – to harbor the other when I’m meeting the one.  That is, since it’s clear from my Zen practice position that the “words and letters” inquiries of scholasticism are from the start beside the point of my “true life,” why not feel bemused or aloof from the words and letters, not to mention the scholars, at hand in a seminar?  The “real point of life” is this breath, is this body – the obscurities of history and doctrine are best left obscure.

When I’m at “home” at Zen Center, though, it’s just as easy to reverse the dynamic.  With the academic tools in mind, how could I not bring a scoff, or at least a condescending nod, to the simplifications and misquotations and misattributions and outright misunderstandings of “our own” tradition that flow forth so freely from the Dharma seat to the dining hall?  What’s passing for “traditional teachings” are just not-too-well disguised Protestant post-modern pop-psychological slogans.

A state of “permanent treachery” indeed.

It’s so easy, maybe even inevitable if straddling worlds, to hold the people at hand to the standard of some other group.  But I think it’s seldom fair, and I’m interested to cultivate the “shame” about it that C.S. Lewis talks about, to replace the “self-satisfaction” he notes.  I’m reminded of the teachings on the obstruction of disclosure and concealment – a Huayan Buddhist theme I’ve posted on before – the idea that “when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.”  I can see bringing that into practice to mean:  when one side is illuminated, keep the other side dark!  Don’t bring night into day or day into night.  Scholars are scholars, themselves and complete.  “Practitioners” are “practitioners,” themselves and complete.  That is, they’re all beyond compare.  To hold one to the standard of the other is ultimately to demean both.

It also occurs to me that it’s the problem of who owns the Dharma.  Scholars, with their linguistic and interpretative tools, can think that they have special access, even ownership of the access, to the traditions they’ve given their lives to studying.  And practitioners, with their devotion and ritual training, often feel that they have it, or even that they own it exclusively:  the unique set of keys passed master to disciples some-ninety odd times.

They are all right, of course, and also all wrong.  For me, I’m pretty confident that as long as I’m thinking in terms of this ownership or this “authentic access” – in effect, that someone owns the Dharma and that someone else rents – then I end up little more than Wormwood bait.  (Hondo’s old post on exclusive truth claims gets at the problem nicely.)

I share this all not just to update you  to my life and thoughts – and it has been too long! – but also because I suspect that C.S. Lewis is speaking more than just to me, and that my experience now of splitting worlds is far from unusual for Zen students.  In fact, now is the season when many of us pay respects to our families – not in the clean ritual memorial service way but in the much messier, living way of actually being with them.  And there is often this same problem:  how to let each world operate freely.  How to not bring the Zen stink home, or to school.  How to not bring the school stink home, or to Zen Center.

I think that for C.S. Lewis, though, from the start it’s a fabricated problem:  it’s not the problem of living in a split world, but the problem of imagining a split world, “perceiving inconsistency.”  And then of using that imagination, that misperception, to separate ourselves from the world and the people that happen to be right in front of us.

Does that sound familiar?


9 thoughts on “Who Owns the Dharma?

  1. Yes, it does. I do read the scholars, I am an adept and I feel that they have something tremendous to offer, and that for someone who is able to not pass this along, too, would be a loss. I invite them to the table along with everyone else. In his autobiography, Charles Prebish writes a few acerbic words as to his treatment as a scholar-practioner by Zen community. It is real, and in it’s generalizing form unfortunate.

    On the one hand, I read your post literally and on the smallish side, as above, and on the other I wonder if appreciating the different aspects of one’s life, their distinct qualities as found alongside of those who meet us there, amounts to no more than the self-satisfaction of an ego divided among many faces. This does not seem true to me, even as I accept that splitting worlds is an acceptable “coping mechanism” in a complex life.

  2. Hi Jiryu,

    We Practice a Tradition that itself is built on rewritings of history, misquotes, innovations posing as “ancient”, fake Sutra books written to seem like original texts, and a made-up “Lineage” filled with people who are made up stories. No problem, for the Truth there is something Timeless, and the “made up” and “fake” embody something very Real and Valuable beyond the packaging. You may have encountered in your university studies a fellow name Darwin who pointed out that there is evolution and change, and so it is for Buddhist forms and doctrines. The only question is what is at the Empty Heart of it all, and the “proof is in the pudding” nature of these Doctrines and Practices in our lives today. The evolution continues now, as Buddhism crosses to new times and cultures.

    Scholars, by the way, serve a valuable function is showing us how many of our prejudices and convictions about our history are not quite historical. For example, they point out how many of the biographies of our ancient Ancestors … Hui-neng, Bodhidharma, the Buddha … are hagiographical put-up jobs, sectarian propaganda and generally works of religious and romantic fantasy. No matter. It is the Truth and Teachings conveyed in these “works of fiction” that is as real as real can be.

    No conflict.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen

  3. Wake up in the morning, notice the daylight and the sentient beings in it, discern and then keep doing the next right thing, notice the nightfall and the sentient beings in it, stop doing, sleep. Repeat as needed or appropriate.

  4. This reminds me of the Sufi story of the man in the street who lost his keys. He’s searching for the keys under a lamp post and another guy comes up and says, “Hey, where do think you lost them?” and the man says, “Oh, in my house.” and the guy says, “Why are you looking in the street then?” and the man says, “Because there’s light out here!”

    How do we show up for our lives without staying under our chosen lamp post? We might think we understand super particles, or mind only, or emptiness, and then try and say, “Oh, string theory is just like super particles, and close to mind only, which is basically emptiness”

    I think this is how we get our pop-psych slogans, in this hungry search for ease and relevance. Instead of practicing or studying, and really facing a question mark, we try to fix Buddhism to these things we already know. I see myself do this over and over again! Everything starts to stink.

    I mean, I kinda feel like I just did this with the Sufi story.

  5. Might you have a connection to the Boundless way folks? “Screwtape” is on their reading list, in a category that is called “Other Excellent Books”. Of the dozen in that group, it is the only one that jumped out at me as a “HUH?!?” selection………but then googling the title along with “zen”, I ended up here. C.S. Lewis — not previously my choice for a Closet Buddhist!

  6. Pingback: Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil | No Zen in the West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s