Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen picked up one of the strands of the Sanjie Jiao conversation that also had a little activity here some time ago – in his latest post he links to a talk I gave at Green Gulch a couple of Sundays ago (Absolute Refuge) and adds some of his thoughts about this strange and wonderful “refuge in evil” teaching I’ve been trying to infect people with. “Refuge in evil” might freak some people out, but I’m confident that Screwtape would not approve – this sort of total refuge is the mark of a whole, not a broken person.
(Dosho summarizes the issue well – before you click away thinking Jiryu has crossed to the Dark Side, check out his post or listen to my talk!)
For those of you who do think this makes some sense and/or is more interesting than offensive, I wanted to connect it to one more strange (possibly even stranger, and likely more offensive) Buddhist teaching: the “five meats and five ambrosias.” In the last week I’ve been reading a book by Christian Wedemeyer called Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, largely about the question of what the hell is going on? with some of the farther out Tantric Buddhist practices. Wedemeyer’s favorite of their far out prescriptions is the “five meats and five ambrosias,” a set of first millenium Indian esoteric Buddhist rituals involving the consumption of “five meats” seen as taboo at the time: beef, dog, elephant, horse, and human flesh; and the “five ambrosias” that last I checked were still taboo: feces, urine, blood, semen, and marrow.
What?! Gross! This is sweet, nice, clean Buddhism?
Wedemeyer nicely summarizes the basic types of modern Western flipout about this kind of teaching, the shrieks of “degenerate!” and the desperate attempt to exile them from real Buddhism, writing them off as “non-Buddhist” or the result of “primitive” influences. Pushing this kind of reaction aside, Wedemeyer gets into these teachings to try to really understand what is going on them, and his conclusion (buried in some layers of interesting but I think not entirely necessary structuralist and semiological lingo) is that these teachings aren’t concerned with these perverse rituals themselves so much as they are with a real commitment to a nondual understanding. They express a truth beyond relative, human-centered value systems. For a person who thinks they are “down” with nonduality, I think they are kind of like koan checking questions: “You say understand the true meaning of this pure and pristine Buddhist ritual that you are doing, but do you understand the purity that is beyond purity and impurity?”
Or, more to the point, “You say you understand the purity beyond purity and impurity – please eat this shit covered human arm.”
It turns out that the language of these distressing practices seems to match really closely with the language of the more mainstream Buddhist practices. It’s more or less that wherever the mainstream Buddhist rituals call for something pure, these rituals substitute something impure. Again, it’s like they are asking: “Do you think sandalwood is closer to Buddha than human feces is? Do you think it’s a more worthy offering?”
Or, more to the point, “You say you understand offering beyond relative conceptions – please offer this shit in your high ceremony in honor of the Buddha.”
It is likely that 99.99% of Buddhists, even those who read these texts, continued just to offer sandalwood – scholars are hard pressed to find any convincing evidence of the actual observance of these twisted rituals. Wedemeyer makes it clear that it’s not so much about whether these practices were “really” done or not so much as it is about the possibility of them that give the ritual texts their function to point out that biggest of big minds that would be required to enact them. And I really appreciate that challenge. I think that finding that big, equalizing mind would give even the usual sandalwood offering a depth, a completeness that I think is really beautiful and really vital to what we claim we are doing as Zen practitioners.
And this is the same move that I think the “refuge in evil” folks are making – I revere the good, but I understand that it is not separate from the evil. I offer sandalwood, but I know and appreciate it’s ultimate non-separation from shit.
And just as when evil is in front of me that particular evil is, as Buddha, my refuge – so if shit is in front of me, then shit is the offering. Wholehearted and pure and pristine beyond conception, its scent – as precisely Buddha – permeates the cosmos, awakening beings everywhere…