Who Are REAL Buddhists and How Can You Say What They SHOULD Do?!

In my last blog post I said, essentially, that I know what REAL Buddhist are and moreover I’m here to tell you what Real Buddhists SHOULD Do.  Some people got mad about that, and for good reason.  Who is this jerk claiming to pronounce “real” and “unreal” Buddhists, and who is he to tell either variety what they “should” do?

You could call it “normative” to be fancy, or “pant-pissing” to be crude, or “preachy” or “rigid” or “hurtful” or “colonialist” or any other fine number of things.  And I find all of that entirely fair.  So then why would I raise this “real” “should” nonsense in the first place?

I’d really like to explain, because I feel some real urgency about all of this, but first I need to back up and give a quick history of my thinking on this blog.

A while back (hmm… was it around early November?), I made clear my feelings about Trump – if I recall, “racist, ecocidal homophobe” was the phrase that most excited and enraged the readers.  I felt (and feel) that he represents pretty much the antithesis of the Buddhist worldview and the Buddhist way of life.  Feeling this way, I also argued that my temple, San Francisco Zen Center, should publicly ackowledge as much.  (It was not lost on me that the power of my conviction on this point was not unrelated to my safety in the knowledge that I was in no position to actually be responsible for any such statement.)  I argued that by speaking out against Trump and the “White Wave” that brought him to power, SFZC would go beyond the fog of “let’s all get along” spirituality and shine as an actual and active ally to those Trump was (and is) explicitly scapegoating.

There followed then something of a shitstorm, in which I learned that there are many people who agree but also many who disagree.  Some felt that there was no problem at all supporting Trump and being a Buddhist – nothing in Buddhism implies anything counter to what Trump was expressing.  And all of these people, plus another set of avowedly “apolitical” types, insisted that Buddhism should have nothing to do any politics –  left or right.  In other words, that whole Bodhisattva thing is just about spirituality, not the mess of the world, and my anti-Trump Buddhism is just a mistaking of secular lefty California culture for the actual transcendant Dharma.

Then there was a lot of shouting, in which I noticed that saying explicitly “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” may not be such a useful statement.  It is too susceptible to this critique that it simply conflates Buddhism with lefty politics or the Democratic Party.  And it furthermore had this ring of “REAL BUDDHISTS SHOULD” which is, well, see above: “normative,” “pant-pissy,” “preachy,” etc.

I tried to appreciate and hear the call in that.  So ok – what exactly are the ethical demands of Buddhism?  I have written about this before – in Zen at least the ethical precepts are so flexible and broad that they in some sense fail us – they don’t give the ethics any particular teeth, and they lend themselves overly to subjectivity.  So aside from these Bodhisattva generalities of “do good appropriate to the situation,” what does Buddhism demand?  Do Buddhist ethics really demand we resist Trump?  Why didn’t the Buddha say so?  (Buddha is omniscient after all, he could have seen Trump coming and given us some guidelines.)

So if I were to leave Trump out of it, leave “left” and “right” out of it, what do I think the Mahayana asks of us?  What do Buddhist ethics mean in this place and time, in the world we have now?

Here I turned naturally to this idea of interdependence.  It feels endlessly rich and rewarding to turn over.  For one, it points to deep freedom in its aspect as emptiness (i.e. the things that are interdependent are thereby empty of independence, and thus cannot be captured conceptually).  For another, especially when joined with the Zen insistence on enactment, it becomes the call of a way of life – a way based in the freedom of emptiness and devoted to enacting, making real, our complete dependence on each other and all things.  (The idea that “interdependence” is inauthentic, Buddhist Modernism, “apocrypha” – unattested in the earlier tradition, is a really interesting one which James Ford discusses in a recent post defending interdependence and perennialism.)

This slogan “enact interdependence” has been hugely resonant for me, and I thought I would propose it as an alternative to “Resist Trump.”  My feeling was this:  if some Trump fan really believes that increased coal mining or a big, beautiful wall poses no conflict with Buddhism, how will we talk about this?  What Buddhism will be the ground of our discussion?  If we’re just throwing around our political talking points, we’re not getting any closer to the question of how Buddhism informs us.  Instead of arguing the proposition on its face, I can just ask them to account for how this position “enacts interdependence”.

For example: “It’s ok to be a Buddhist and want to keep out the refugees.”  Ok, maybe so.  I can’t say Buddha loved refugees because I don’t know if he did; I don’t recall an official scriptural position on this.  But please let me know how you see that as enacting interdependence?  Because the way I see it, big beautiful walls in general are about enforcing the delusion of independence, rather than enacting interdependence.

If we are Buddhists we have at least this common ground, right, that we would at least need to debate in terms like “interdependence”?

To attempt to introduce this line of reflection, I wrote a blog post.  I called that post, “What Real Buddhists Should Do,” which brings us back to the present issue of how Jiryu is a preachy/pants-pissing/rigid/normative jerk who knows what Real Buddhists are and what they Should do.

“Real” and “Should” are in some sense an attempt at asserting this common ground, along the lines of the above.  Isn’t there something we Buddhists all agree on?

And also, as I hope is clear in light of the above, “real” and “should” are also pokes at the whole line of criticism I’ve been so acutely feeling – a poke at the criticism that my “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” line was guilty of a big-time “Should.”  Ok, you’re right, I’ve saying what’s “real” and what you “should.”  Got me.

So this time I wanted to own it, flamboyantly, indefensibly own it, because now I’m not talking about lefty or righty anymore, I’m not talking about politics anymore – I’m talking about what Buddhism is explicitly about, and I’m inviting us all (as “Buddhists”) to be accountable to that.

I’m saying, you’re right, it’s maybe a little much to say:  “Real” Buddhists “Should” resist Trump.  It’s a little normative/pants-pissy, etc.

And I know that “normative” is the ouchiest of academic insults, the gravest of intellectual crimes, for good reason.  Who is setting the norm, from what power and what privilege, and who is excluded in that?

If we say that “Real” Buddhists “Should” meditate, for example, then what of the myriad Buddhist forms, ancient and modern, that have had little or nothing to do with meditation?  This is precisely the story of the White American Buddhist demeaning and erasure of the practices and views of Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities who have been (and too often still are) seen as failing to uphold this Buddhist “norm” of meditation.  (I’ve talked about this here, and a more useful perspective is here.)

To say “Real Buddhism is this but not that” is a big problem.  These norms are always a problem – whether we’re using them to leave out Trump supporters, or Song Dynasty Chinese syncretisms, or Soka Gakkai, or even McMindfulnessers

But then where will we draw the line?  And if there’s no line, then what is Buddhism at all – what is it actually offering?

Can we say at least that “Real” Buddhists “Should” honor the Buddha?  Take refuge in the Triple Treasure?

“Should” “Real” Buddhists practice loving-kindness, honesty, and non-greed?

Here my vocations diverge – as a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, I see that there is truly nowhere to draw the line.  (Jonathan Z. Smith’s comments on the taxonomy of religion have struck me deeply – there is truly no single element that can be held as a definitive norm, even if there is a common pool of characteristics.)  There is no “Real Buddhism”; there are only “Buddhisms”.

But my primary vocation is as priest and lineage holder in the Soto Zen line through Dogen, Keizan, and Shunryu Suzuki.  As such, I take very seriously my explicit responsibility to assert a Dharma teaching, turn the Dharma wheel, and maintain the tradition of our school.

To do this entails making a claim about – yes – what “Real” Buddhists are and what we “Should” do.  It is to make a exclusive claim – this is the True Way, and that is a False Way.  Hondo has written beautifully on this – how can we in good conscience, wary of norms, make such a claim, fulfill such a responsibility?  The Buddha did so, Dogen did so, the many lesser ancestors have done so and, I, perhaps regrettably, also must do so.

If I don’t say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m abdicating my responsibility to the lineage.  And of course, as soon as a say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m also abdicating my responsibility to the lineage.

Therefore, I say “here’s what Buddhism is.”  And these days the words for that are this:  “enact interdependence.”  Please don’t be fooled by other ways.


16 thoughts on “Who Are REAL Buddhists and How Can You Say What They SHOULD Do?!

  1. You could say “This is my understanding of Buddhism based on my Soto Lineage. There are other forms that also do OK but for whatever reason I chose this one”.

    You could say “The way I choose to honor my vows is….”

    You could say “based on my vows and realisation I choose to act in a certain way and to encourage others in the same way”.

    Jundo Cohen, also Soto Zen manages to be clear on these things. Brad Warner is clear on these things. Others are clear on these things. I’m clear on these things. My teacher was clear on these things. My teacher was even more clear in saying “I took these vows, live like a monk and teach like this. That might not be a good choice for you but it’s up to you to choose”

    Your arguments are constructed backwards based on the conclusion you wanted to reach, “Therefore” is a segue that hides the gap.

    Remember the end-game is relinquishing of beliefs not making sure you and others have the ‘right’ beliefs and act in the ‘right’ way EVEN if there are beliefs that are ‘about right’ and actions which are ‘generally more right than not’.

    • A Manjusric tour-de-force Mareep! Plaudits! … and I agree that Jiryu’s rhetorical choices have been unfortunate but he continues to move around the dirt he’s piled around the philosophical hole he has been digging for himself, albeit more slowly of late. I, for one, caution people who as me about becoming a buddhist that they should enter buddhism from the buddh rather than entering by the ism: Practice before theory, authenticity before authority, etc. I speak to Jiryu directly below, but wanted to appreciate your clarity right out loud and directly.

  2. My biggest concern is the history of appropriation and entitlement enacted by white Western Buddhists. There is a long history of white Buddhists telling Asian and Asian American Buddhists what Buddhism “really” is–we could go all the way back to Henry Steel Olcott and his hubris in lecturing Sri Lankan Buddhists on what Buddhism “really” is. We can be Buddhist and enact our values–stand by our values, say “I think this was the Buddha’s message,” and “Our tradition teaches XYZ for these reasons,” and “I think interdependence is central to our lineage,” without claiming to **KNOW** decisively what every Buddhist “should” believe. We can advocate for our values without silencing other people. We can even talk about how wonderful and important certain things are in our practice traditions without creating a shibboleth and agitating sectarianism. I don’t think maintaining norms is at stake here–we can still honor our traditions and engage deeply in them, speak persuasively about them, point out what’s important in them and why (I think Mareep spell’s that out really well). Transparency of power is at stake, humility is at stake, appropriation is at stake, silencing others is at stake. But as for saying, “Our tradition values this, and we intend to make this central”–that doesn’t require a shibboleth. Thank you for these articles, they’re really wrangling with issues that are quite important! A great article, if you feel like discussing its implications for the present conversation: https://www.lionsroar.com/weve-been-here-all-along/?utm_source=Lion%27s+Roar+Newsletter&utm_campaign=71f3943247-WR-Mar-31-2017&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1988ee44b2-71f3943247-22292633&mc_cid=71f3943247&mc_eid=85401e63c8

  3. Jiryu, your choice to use the words REAL and SHOULD in this case are unfortunate in the sense that they precipitate bad fortune for your message.

    It’s my hobby horse, certainly, but I am a passionista for beginning practice and only out of that — perhaps more fun in my leisure but never from status — will do the inevitably whitey-privilegy thing of abstracting my practical experience into a theory of the case … the ism I tack onto the buddh.

    … I won’t tell you that you SHOULD NOT have used the word SHOULD… such a statement is a poisonous mushroom.

    As for REAL well … what is reality?

    Nevertheless, there are well known central organizing principles that have guided whatever words might constitute a skillful means of modelling whatever conceits might issue from an awakened mind about what issues from an awakened mind.

    They are, quite simply, the Four Seals of Dharma. (https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-nutshell-four-seals-dharma/)… and I suppose there is a marginal justification for using the word SHOULD if only as a way a thirsty man might consider pointing to a mirage for a glimmer of hope on the broad plain of spiritual desert he trods.

    But saying one SHOULD embody interconnectedness — especially from one’s own unsettled emotional state — is rather like an impatient and distracted shrink slapping his client in the face while saying “Get over it” and then billing the client for one session of brief therapy.

    From my experience, one might enter the buddh- from the -ism, rather like some people whose cancerous stomachs have been removed can be fed through their rectum … but, it’s a desperate measure — ultimately untenable — that usually fails to generate anything but a false hope and rage.

    Better to enter the -ism from the buddh- which is not what your article or any of its revisions actually do. Your theory of refuge does not fulfill its aspiration.

    Let me just toss this into the fire: The buddha was not a buddh-ist.

    It turns out that the practice of buddh- [of REAL-izing] IS and ONLY is a practice of pre-verbal embodiment generally: mind and body operating as one thing, here and now out of which such stuff as words about impermanence, interconnected, suffering, nirvana, emptiness etc might gratuitously flow and might even be amusing for a very small cadre of elite leisurists. But these words are all painted rice-cakes that hang on the walls of the refectory that has no kitchen.

    One of the most profound and finally common experiences of my buddhan practice is that no suffering is personal, after all. This insight indicts, prosecutes, and convicts any attempt I make to separate myself from any person — even Donald Trump.

    My action instead is not to say Donald Trump is bad, but to put on my bodhisattva suit and mingle — a hard thing to do if I am strapped into a dharma seat with ungainly clothes.

  4. Hi Jiryu

    You wrote “For one, it (interdependence) points to deep freedom in its aspect as emptiness (i.e. the things that are interdependent are thereby empty of independence, and thus cannot be captured conceptually)”

    I have to agree that interdependence ultimately trumps independence. But acting in the world is not always so clearcut, especially in terms of finding a balance between the needs of the individual versus the collective.. Still it’s worth making that effort.

    • I would rather say that Trump’s action on climate change is *divisive* rather than *whole-some*… and while you are not *demonizing* trump, per se, your statement does sit precariously close to *divisive*. However, I take your point — from the Buddhist Mythology — that Donald Trump seem to have been taking his advice from Mara, but also that the Buddha’s response was not to banish Mara, but rather to touch the earth.

  5. “Interdependence”. Can I give a more technical definition–the “way of living” outlined by Gautama the Shakyan revolved around sixteen elements of mindfulness, and the closing four were these:

    “[One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out beholding impermanence… beholding detachment… beholding stopping (of “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit”) … beholding casting away (of “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body”)’.”

    (MN III 82-83, Pali Text Society III pg 124, parentheticals added: “voluntary control… concealed from the consciousness by habit” borrowed from Feldenkrais’s “Awareness and Movement”, “latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body” from MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society III pg 68; “zest” and “ease” from SN V 310-312, Pali Text Society V pg 275-276, in place of “rapture” and “joy”)

    Gautama said this, regarding the power of concentration:

    “…making self-surrender (one’s) object of thought, (one) lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness of mind.”

    (SN V 200, Pali Text Society SN volume V pg 176)

    He described the feelings that go along with seated concentration, and he spoke of four initial states of concentration, each of which involved a particular “stopping” or “cessation”. In particular, the first state was marked by the cessation of dis-ease, the second by the cessation of unhappiness, the third by the cessation of ease apart from equanimity, and the fourth by the cessation of happiness apart from equanimity. The fourth state was also marked by the cessation of habitual activity in inhalation and exhalation.

    Gautama also described several further meditative states, and he offered a description of what he said was “the heart’s release” connected with these states:

    “[One] dwells, having suffused the first quarter [of the world] with friendliness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; just so above, below, across; [one] dwells having suffused the whole world everywhere, in every way, with a mind of friendliness that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence. [One] dwells having suffused the first quarter with a mind of compassion… sympathetic joy… equanimity that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence.”
    (MN I 38, Pali Text Society volume I pg 48)

    Gautama described the first of the further meditative states as “the excellence” of the heart’s release through compassion, the second as “the excellence” of the heart’s release through sympathetic joy, and the third as “the excellence” of the heart’s release through equanimity (the “excellence” of the heart’s release through friendliness he described as “the beautiful”) (SN V 115-120, Pali Text Society SN volume V pg 99-102).

    When habitual activity in inhalation and exhalation has ceased (also described as action of the body has ceased), how is it possible to act at all? Based on my own personal experience, I would say that the induction of such a state depends in part on the extension of the mind of friendliness as Gautama described, and the action in such a state can be as close at hand as the upright posture of the body, or as odd as Kobun Otogawa’s “you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around.” This is the action of interdependence, to me.

    In “Embracing Mind”, Judy Cosgrove and Joseph Hall report that Kobun said:

    “When we ask what it is which senses this suffering, we have to understand that the one who is breathing in and out, in and out, doesn’t suffer. But it does sense suffering.”

    (“Embracing Mind”, edited by Cosgrove & Hall, pg 48)

    To me, the practice is an aspiration, in the medicinal sense of the word. I cannot realize action that is interdependent from a place that does not suffer without the extension of the mind of friendliness, it’s just a practical reality.

    What I’m doing here is agreeing with you, Jikyu–I know that my heart-felt beliefs will translate into action, and that I need to be careful to base my beliefs on the real causality of this world, yet there is no escaping the experience of the state where there is no happiness apart from equanimity (Buddhist or not, it’s a necessity of physical and mental health) and the experience of that state requires the extension of at least the mind of friendliness.

  6. Rev. Zesho Susan O’Connell
    Zen priest, President of the San Francisco Zen Center

    Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
    Xiushan said, “From the South.”
    Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
    Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
    Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
    Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
    Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”
    — Book of Serenity

    “Time and again during question and answer sessions after a Zen lecture, someone will ask: ‘What is the use of just sitting in silent meditation when there is so much suffering in the world?’ This question is usually meant as a challenge to what seems a kind of passiveness. It is true that the world is full of suffering beings; humans, animals, plants, even the planet itself is deeply suffering. Shouldn’t we be having extensive discussions, protesting, implementing solutions? This koan does for me what I think is the intention of all koans – it stops my mind in mid stride. It brings my awareness to the importance of asking questions before acting. Questions like: What is the nature of suffering and what is its ultimate cause? How can I help a world that I see as separate from myself? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for me to deeply understand how the world is not something ‘out there’ that needs saving? If I consider the way we are all constantly, every moment, making the world then each simple, ordinary action I am able to take right here is ‘doing something about the world.’ And when it is time for other kinds of action, less simple or potentially more widely impactful, it is my intention that these actions will be grounded in not knowing what the world is, or what helping is.”

  7. Thanks for all your comments here and elsewhere. I see that I’m not communicating well, that I continue to let the facebook snark culture infect my writing more than it should, and that the last two No Zen posts in particular haven’t been landing for many people. I do appreciate the feedback. I really am happy to put aside the “real” Buddhist thing – I have less commitment to those terms than you may think. It was a shot in the dark and I felt like running with it. It was an attempt to get at my deeper commitment and question, which maybe I could put better this way: do we stand for something (ANYTHING?!) together as a Buddhist community, or does this always just come back to “see it your way” and “do your own thing”? Knowing what we share as a core value, then we can consider our different positions (on action or non-action, sitting or standing, coal, immigration, sex, meat eating, silence or speaking out, whatever) in terms of those shared core values. If we’re not willing or able to name core values, then there’s no basis for the conversation. And most importantly for me, if we all insist on going it alone, aren’t we missing a huge Bodhisattva opportunity of actually standing together for something in the world? For example, I am glad some churches came together to make the civil rights movement happen, and I feel that some other churches missed a big Bodhisattva opportunity in failing to stand up together for something in, say, Latin America or Germany during dark times. Which kind of churches can or will we be? That’s all. I’m trying to ask this question and a lot of the answers I’m getting are making me feel like many of us in American Buddhism are happy to just let it go, let practice be personal, let action be private, and let the Dharma stay removed from “worldly affairs”. I hear that and get how that makes sense, but it also feels like a loss. Of course given that loss is what we sign up for in human birth, I’ll be ok rolling with it. But I hope some of us keep asking and hearing the question. I really do thank you for engaging with me on all of this – the praise and blame alike has been really helpful.

    • Thanks for posting this. I appreciate you starting a dialogue. I hope the responses don’t discourage you from posting whatever is on your mind in the future.

    • I respect the fact that you want to explore so many things and are willing to engage from a place of openness. I’m going to respond from the images that have been arising in the context of this conversation.

      I think you are looking for a Magic Book and a ‘Church’. A Magic Book that contains a list of things that we can all agree on AND a way of putting those things into action. Ignoring in the process personal circumstances, karma, cultural conditioning, cultural opportunities and of course beliefs of self and others.

      It just feels like a category error and a fundamental one for a Buddhist to make based on overr-thinking. You are perhaps looking for absolute answers and the confidence that what you believe is ‘right’. Then perhaps you are looking to impose your ideas on others who disagree with you. By force? By campaigning? By democracy? By The Church of Jiryu? By being President Jiryu?

      Let’s assume that there is a set of core values that Real Buddhists (TM) can agree on. If that is so why is there not already a Magic Book with these values in them? Why is there not a Buddhist People’s Party? Will “clear seeing” automatically make these values self-evident.

      What about non-Buddhists. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslim, Pastafarians? Can they find a set of core values to agree on with you? If not, what happens to them? Re-education camps? Leaflet drops? Blog Posts? Bad Juju?

      Rosie Parks had a bad day. She changed America through it.

      I think after all this meditation stuff I have a set of core values but I’m not sure what they are or that you’d agree with them and they’re not fixed. They’re also quite nebulous.

      I generally think Vegetarianism is A Good Thing but this body sometimes disagrees with that and starts to crave meat. I can try and get philosophical about it or deny it but in the end eating some meat resolves the issue.

      I generally think that helping others to end sufferring is A Good Thing but the people I choose to help might be different to those you choose to help. That’s because I have finite time and finite resources.

      I generally prefer to live in a world that is messy and complex and uncertain becaue it seems to me that people with certainty make a real mess of things. The more certain they are the bigger the mess.

      There’s no need to be Superman. Just by Jiryu and let others be themselves. Unless that’s a problem. In which case stop them. Maybe.

  8. You asked for someone to let you know how keeping out refugees is enacting interdependence.

    The question looks to me to be just a variant of the famous trolley car ethical problem, the classic setup for which is that you see an out-of-control trolley that’s going to run over 5 people, but you have it in your power to switch the trolley to a track where it will hit only one person instead. What is the most ethical choice?

    There are people who give rational accounts for believing that certain categories of refugees have the potential to destabilize the societies into which they might take refuge. Their view, in trolley-problem terms, is that doing this one bit of good now entails a high risk of high harm later. Therefore based on the ethics of interdependence, the most ethical thing to do is a big beautiful wall, and those who are opposed to this solution are enforcing a delusion that doing this seeming bit of good now not only does not produce harm to others, but produces much greater harm than whatever good it did.

    You might find the views of Brad Warner on this point instructive: http://hardcorezen.info/us-and-them/5124

    To be clear, I do not object to the view on refuges you espouse. I am concerned about the deceptiveness of the bad arguments you give, and I object to this separating of self and other by way of declaring people who don’t agree with you as not real Buddhists as a function of their adherence to or rejection of your dogmatism about what are actually difficult ethical questions with non-obvious answers.

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