“Abe Lincoln, wash your bowl!”

A month or so ago, while Devon, the baby, and I were visiting my parents in Chicago, Devon and I had this amazing outing where we went and saw something called a movie.  Our little one stayed home with the grandparents.  I’m not positive how long it had been exactly–definitely over a year, maybe even a year and a half–since we’d last seen a film on a big screen, and I think that was what struck me the most–just the size of the thing, and the sound.  I’m pretty sure I gasped.

This is part of parenting, I’ve realized, the way that stuff that was once pretty straightforward–hey, wanna go see a movie tonight?–becomes almost overwhelmingly complicated.  We nearly made it to a movie last fall, actually, but some intricate arrangements with friends who owed us a babysitting round after we watched their young son (while they saw a movie, naturally) fell through at the last minute and we never managed to find a weekend we could reschedule.

Anyway, the movie we saw was Lincoln, which I thought was great.  And one of the main ways that it’s stayed with me, or acted on me, is how it helped make concrete a question that I’ve been turning in my mind about the Zen tradition.  Basically what I’ve been wondering since I saw the film is what could the Zen tradition have said to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, as he wrestles with the issues around the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, that would have been of any benefit to him at all?

I’ll back up.  There’s a critique of Zen which points to the way that moral issues can seem to play a vanishingly small role in the tradition.  We talk about the precepts some, of course, but in terms of actual moral deliberation, of discerning how to act in a particular thorny real world situation, I don’t know that the Heart Sutra is where I would point anyone for advice.  This seems to be exactly what the neo-Confucianists in East Asia have always criticized in Zen, and it comes up again (appropriately in my view) every time there’s another sex scandal, of which we’ve had plenty in these last years.  It’s laid out especially clearly here by Dale Wright, who also made some of the same points in his talk last fall at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference.  I’m tempted to quote part of Wright’s essay, but really the whole thing is worth reading, and thinking about.  (More about thinking in a minute.)

So I saw the movie, and I’ve been thinking about this critique, and they sort of came together for me–I imagine Abraham Lincoln taking off his top hat and going into dokusan and making three full prostrations and saying something folksy and charming to the Zen teacher and asking for help.  Genuinely, humbly asking for help:  there’s a war on, and thousands dying;  there’s the blood-stained disgrace of human slavery;  there’s the bickering and horse-trading of political life;  there’s the heartbreak and rage of his marriage.  What the hell should he do?

First I want to acknowledge where the critique is on strong ground, and then maybe tiptoe out to where I think it might misread the tradition, or at least only read it one way.  The strong part first–I can’t imagine something less helpful in that situation than saying “Do all good, Abe;  avoid all evil.”  The Pure Precepts, our beautiful Pure Precepts, can so easily become pious and irrelevant, can’t they?  The four bodhisattva vows, our beautiful four bodhisattva vows, can so simply go the same way.  Which beings?  How?  Where do I start?  How do I discern the most appropriate next move in a chaotic and overwhelming world?

So there’s that.  I’ve made myself laugh a couple of times recently thinking about how inane different Zen zingers can be in actual difficult moral situations.  (“Abe Lincoln–wash your bowl!”)  How easily an emptiness response to a moral question can boil down to a kind of superiority, and a kind of hiding.  Wright’s essay, drawing on Brian Victoria’s work, has some horrifying examples.

Having said all of that, though, I wonder if it’s true, really, that our tradition ignores moral deliberation, ignores thinking and choosing.  It’s true that sometimes our rhetoric tips us over into privileging the nondual over the dual, the absolute over the relative, emptiness over form, but what I feel more than anything when I look at the Shobogenzo, for example, is that it’s a record of Dogen thinking.  He discerns, he deliberates, he takes sides, he praises some ways of acting and strongly criticizes others.  He turns particular doctrinal questions, particular received metaphors or ideas, over in his mind, looks at them forward and backward, questions them, criticizes them, tries to articulate exactly how to embody and express their truths in the concrete particularity of his existence in time.  He does all of this in an endlessly subtle and self-reflective and dynamic way, of course, but he definitely does it, over and over and over.  As Hee-Jin Kim puts it in his brilliant Dogen on meditation and thinking:

Dogen is concerned with the nitty-gritty reality of our flesh-and-blood existence from which we cannot escape for a moment when it comes to the pressing matters of truth and meaning, right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, and so forth.  Encountering moral and existential dilemmas and perplexities, our “vast and giddy karmic consciousness” must still operate in full capacity to choose, decide, and act, not only for mere survival, but for authentic living.

I don’t deny the force of Wright’s critique above–I think it’s salutary and wise.  I just want to suggest that there’s a living tension within the tradition between thinking and non-thinking, and that careful, moral deliberation, although not usually foregrounded, is right there in what we’ve inherited, especially in Dogen.

Still it’s the image itself I can’t shake, the idea of it–maybe because Daniel Day-Lewis is a really, really good actor, or maybe because the Civil War continues to cast its long shadow in such complicated ways over American life today.  Abe Lincoln comes in and does his bows.  He’s not sure where to put his zagu exactly, but he does his best.  He forces his long legs awkwardly into half-lotus and he asks for our help.  He doesn’t know what he should do next.  What do we have to say?


8 thoughts on ““Abe Lincoln, wash your bowl!”

  1. It has always seemed to me that one of the great strengths of Zen was this very lack of moral precepts and doctrine. Instead Zen recognizes that every situation is unique, that there is no set of rules that one can simply blindly follow. It does not tell you the right action to take; it teaches techniques for finding your way to right action.

  2. I can imagine a Zen hustler setting up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, then visiting the White House hoping to see Lincoln, and if he was lucky asking him for help. “The best help I can give you is for you to enlist; and get me votes when I need them.” But that’s a confucian take on it.

  3. Thanks so much, Dave, for your fine writing and thinking. I would say there may be no universally applicable single set of rules for “doing the right thing,” but there is one rule that universally pops up in all wisdom traditions, that impossible directive to “love your neighbor as yourself.” There is plenty in the Zen canon that points at this, but nothing as explicit as the Sermon on the Mount. I would suggest that Zen in the West has much to learn from the teachings that sustained Mr. Lincoln and Martin Luther King. On the other hand, the flip side question is how to preserve a genuine spiritual connection and not let the practice of ethical behavior replace direct religious experience (the problem of the mainstream Protestant denominations).

  4. Dave, Thanks for pointing me towards the Dale Wright article. It was well worth the read. You are certainly right about Dogen. He absorbed all of Buddhism, not just Zen. He developed his Zen practice within a broader Buddhist frame. Learn everything, but don’t get overly attached to it. (This is especially clear in the “Kankin” section of the Shobogenzo on Sutra reading. Like Zen Master Igen, read the sutras but “shield your eyes.”) He thought discriminately about a great many matters. Zen, by itself, provides too narrow a frame. We need to practice it with an awareness of a broader moral consciousness, one we have developed from the Precepts and our Bodhisattva vows, but also from the great moral teachers of the West (Aristotle, Kant, etc.). Wright makes a great point in saying that “no thought” only applies once one has already mastered a discipline and internalized its rules, be it calligraphy, archery, serving tea, or moral discernment. Loved the title by the way. Wash your bowl indeed! Thanks!

  5. Thanks, particularly for this: “I wonder if it’s true, really, that our tradition ignores moral deliberation, ignores thinking and choosing.” My experience is that where the practice is dominantly that of lay practitioners, there is no shortage of moral reflection. But I also know that historically in monastic settings there were monthly confessions, for ex. So I don’t understand Dale Wright’s sweeping generalization, other than that to make it helps his argument along.

    The context for it seems to be a perhaps justified turning of the lens away from historical explanations based on sociodynamic models, for ex. WWII Japan was a hegemonic relation of nation-state and religion, and early ’80s SFZC the dysfunctional American family in denial. And to pick up the thread instead through “practice,” or the working operations of what Heine refers to as the True Zen Narrative, opposed to Historical and Cultural Criticism. It is specifically a project to correct an historicist tendency exemplified and encouraged by Brian Victoria’s work, and a consequent polarization in the disicpline of Zen Studies. There are many twists and turns along the way, but it is in this context that Heine raises the value of repentance, explaining the differences between formless repentance (Platform Sutra and Shushogi) and ritualized (Ryaku Fusatsu), as “the skin and the marrow.”

    What Dale Wright brings to the table is conjectural hyperbole, most strikingly here: “If Zen practitioners had been encouraged to engage in debate on the meaning of “non-dualism” they might have more easily recognized the dangers of the dualism between “us” and “them” that advocates of the “unity of Zen and war” could not see.”

    Kim writes of this Dogen, “In emptiness [the steelyard] embodies equilibrium; fairness is the great principle of the steelyard. By virtue of this principle of fairness we weigh emptiness and things; whether it be emptiness or form [we weigh it to] meet fairness.”******* If you look at the steelyard balance linked to above, it has a very different feel than that of a rational debate in which some Habermasian consensus might land upon the true meaning of non-dualism in the present world. In Dogen’s sense of the scale, we are the body hanging in empty space and it is from here that we find our efficacy in the world. To my mind this is how we can speak of prajna, is it not?

    And here is the last sentence in Steve Heine’s book, contra Dale Wright and regarding the value of repentance:
    “On this basis, the abbot becomes a genuine social leader and reformer who, by virtue of continuously cultivated contemplation, helps to spread and disseminate the dharma, at once for and beyond an ever-expanding samgha.” (Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up? p. 172. c. 2008)

    Many apologies that this is so abbreviated (!) and thank you once more for posting an inspiring essay or talk. I have no advice for Abe as he has already done admirably well.

    With palms together, Seigen

  6. Dave- Rather than an answer, or advice, perhaps we could supply Abe with a useful question; something along the lines of ‘What’s important?’ He’s perfectly capable of sorting things out, yes? ( In which case, ‘wash your bowl’ might actually be a good place to start.) A shift in context can open up new choices, new avenues for action. What could it provide to consider the precepts (whatever your precepts are) as a set of questions – as in ‘ Okay, I said this, now how do I fulfill on it? How would I know I’m fulfilling on it? How would anybody else know? What difference would it make?’, rather than a set of (mostly ignored or despaired of) rules or ‘guidelines’? If we consider ‘morality’ as moral behavior, generated as a self-expression, rather than a ‘living up to’, then do the precepts provide a sufficient framework? Would altering our view of the precepts allow for more useful, creative expression? What would it provide to view the precepts, say, as a full-on set of commitments? Or as conditions of satisfaction, or koans, or grounds of practice, or expressions of awakened mind? Do the precepts apply to Zen practice, or not so much? Thank you for this interesting & informative post, & the thoughtful comments, too!

  7. Dear all,
    A correction: I assumed the essay by Dale Wright was recent, and read it in the context of more current scholarship. It was published in 2006, the year of Brian Victoria’s second edition (which btw includes the new chapter “Was it Buddhism?”). This was before Heine’s book then, a book that I took Dale Wright’s essay to be a rather bizarre response to/elision of, which of course I now understand it cannot be.

    Still, holding Kim’s Dogen beside this essay highlights a very different understanding. And what Heine brings to my mind at least is that “reflection” might be understood more carefully as a practice that is already taking place rather than something to be wanted. Of course there is going to be some syncretic/apocryphal hunger in the situation of No Zen in the West. Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bath water because she simply didn’t know it was there, this one who is groping finds herself in a more lingering mood.

    So, in Heine’s 2008 publication, some words on the strength of Zen:
    “Zen has claimed a contrast between the Christian approach, which is interpreted as mere apology (ayamari) that seeks automatic forgiveness and dispensation from a higher authority in a fashion resembling the deficiencies of zange metsuzai [remorse and punishment for wrong-doing], and the genuine Buddhist approach, which is focused on reflection (hansei) and self-transformation. East Asia is often referred to as a “shame” culture rather than a “guilt” culture in that Confucian influences stress the importance of peer pressure and social sanctions in curbing misconduct and guiding behavior through external means, whereas a sense of wrongdoing is internalized in Western society. However, Zen at the level of its marrow seeks to reverse this assumption by highlighting the role of internal mechanisms of self-doubt and self-discovery that can be referred to as jiko hihan (self-criticism in the authentic sense.) Zen’s strength lies in disputing alternative approaches – Eastern or Western – that appear reduced to the skin of artificial, superficial, externally induced remedies for complex inner states of mind.” (p. 170)

    For the purposes of this discussion, highlight reflection and self-transformation, self-doubt and self-discovery, as taking place in repentance. This takes place in the renewal of vows, for ex. And again, apologies that I was so vague.

    With palms together, Seigen

  8. Hi, all.

    Thanks as always for your comments–I really appreciate reading them. I just wanted to add a recent inspiring example of Zen thinking, an example that especially delighted me because of where it took place.

    The situation is as follows: my friend the wonderful Renshin Bunce, preparing for Dharma Transmission from SFZC Abbott Steve Stucky, is faced with a dilemma–the ceremony requires her to shave her head. However, as a hospice chaplain who works with many dementia patients, she has concerns about how her shiny bald head might disturb her patients. There’s also the problem of how bald heads read in the hospice settings where Ren hangs out–as chemotherapy more than anything else–which seems complicated since she isn’t sick. Being a modern gal, Ren posts her dilemma on facebook and the most incredible discussion ensues. People opine, discuss, disagree. There are debates about the merits of wigs and scarves. Like any debate, some of it is more helpful, some less so, but what I thought was so cool was the way it was a record (a virtual record, even!) of a Zen community thinking together. Deliberating, considering, analyzing, advising, coming down on one side or another. Beautiful to see, especially in the context of this post and the comments.

    I’m not positive what Ren finally decided–looks like the latest idea is to shave her head and wear a hat. But for me, again, the take-away is how inspiring it is when we think, really think, together.

    With deep bows,

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