A month or so ago, while Devon, Gabriel, and I were visiting my parents in Chicago, Devon and I had this amazing outing where we went and saw something called a movie. Gabriel 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 Gabriel-watching 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?