Reading Hakuin in the Age of Trump

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for big hardcover Dharma books, especially ones that have the word “complete” in the title. Complete? Who can resist? So when I saw that Norman Waddell’s translation of Hakuin Zenji’s Complete Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn had come out last month, I ordered it. Hakuin’s great, I thought. Maybe I’ll leaf through.

Right around the same time, I was really interested to read a wonderful series of posts over at Dosho Port’s blog. Dosho’s on a Hakuin kick these days—I recommend looking at all of them. (Start with this one, then here, herehere and here)

So I ordered the book, and read Dosho’s posts, and remembered how great Hakuin is, and I started to read. And what I’ve been struck by is less anything doctrinal or any particular Dharma points in Hakuin’s writings, at least so far (Dosho has some interesting things to say about Hakuin doctrinally, especially in contrast to Dogen)—instead, what’s been powerful for me is more the tone, or the style, or the stance. The feeling of Hakuin. I’ve been really drawn to it, reading a lot—I went back and re-read his autobiography, and looked again at his letters, and I’m joyfully tearing through Complete Poison Blossoms.

It’s taken a few weeks, though, to realize why it is that Hakuin is speaking to me so deeply and directly, why he seems like such good and inspiring Dharma medicine for my practice right now. And the reason, of course, is our time—this cultural/political/historical moment, with Donald Trump in the White House and my whole wounded culture boiling up all around me. Hakuin’s decades-long religious crisis marched right through the emotional extremes of terror and anguish and despair. He was a dramatic and wounded guy, and he practiced within and through the exact states of mind that I feel in myself and in my culture right now. He’s the Zen master of desperation and anxiety and dread, and in a cultural moment so marked by those emotions, he’s just right.

For a set of slightly convoluted reasons, I’ve found myself taking cold showers these days. It all started with trying to drink less coffee (those of you who know me know how much coffee I drink.) It turns out—according to the Internet, at least—that caffeine works on dopamine receptors in the brain and so one of the ways to lessen the impact of caffeine withdrawal is to look for other ways of getting a dopamine boost. And one easy, cheap dopamine boost comes from taking cold showers.

So I’ve been giving it a try, and it’s worked—I’m drinking less coffee, and they really are energizing, the slap of them, the shock.

All of which is just to say: that’s just what reading Hakuin is like. Forceful, direct, enlivening. Like an icy blast of water.


Changing the subject: some of you know that I published a book of fiction—my first!—last fall. Here’s a link to an interview I gave about the book (namedropping Dogen and the Avatamsaka Sutra). You can order the book from Amazon, of course, or directly from the publisher. If you’re curious, I hope you’ll take a look. It’ll generate lifetimes of merit, I promise.


Our Practice Now

When I was a kid, in Uruguay and Argentina under the dictatorships, I learned some things. I don’t mean learned in an abstract or intellectual way—I was too young for that—but in a visceral, embodied way. Something about violence and terror, something about silence. Hard to put into words.

Partly because of this, I think, I’ve never believed that it couldn’t happen here. Of course it could happen here. It can happen anywhere. It does happen anywhere.

(We can describe the “it” a lot of different ways: fascism, authoritarianism, bigotry. I don’t really care what we call it.)

So last year, when Donald Trump began his campaign for President, I recognized something. My body recognized something. Little twinges, little movements. I could smell it. My body knew.

Jiryu caused a little bit of a commotion in my tiny corner of the Internet recently with his last couple of blog posts suggesting that SFZC take a public stance against Donald Trump. I think it’s a complicated question, of course. The bodhisattva vow, our radical beautiful bodhisattva vow, is vast, and I appreciate deeply the way that our vow can never leave out Donald Trump or his supporters, can never fall into easy or self-congratulatory assurances that we know what’s right or can see the whole picture.

But a bodhisattva responds to the cries of the world. Has to respond.

So that’s a tension. That’s the koan that Jiryu laid out, and called for us not to wiggle out of.

I think his statement is clear, and I just have a couple of thoughts to add. One is that part of how fascism comes to power—one of the ingredients—is always that people can’t believe it’s happening. It takes too long for people to grasp the scale, the magnitude. There’s a kind of inertia and a trust in the institutions of the culture.

I believe that our practice can help us to see through this inertia. Our training is partly training in responsiveness, in turning on a dime to meet things as they truly are. I think that’s valuable in this context: part of what I hear in the pushback against Jiryu’s posts is the idea that they somehow go too far, are too alarmist. It’s good to be cautious about being alarmist. But there are also times that an actual alarm is sounding. I think an actual alarm is sounding.

(Along these lines, a friend wrote on facebook the other day, “I’m only alive because my grandparents in Europe were alarmists.” That’s worth chewing over for a minute.)

I’m also thinking about fearlessness. The perfection of generosity includes the gift of fearlessness, and I’m curious to explore what Dharma fearlessness looks like in the context of a Trump presidency. It’s partly the courage to take a stand, of course, to put bodies in the streets, to make phone calls, to organize, etc. But in a more subtle way, I think it’s the willingness to be wrong, to misspeak. Maybe Jiryu’s suggestions about SFZC are wrong. I don’t know. How could I know? Bodhidharma didn’t even know his own name.

But just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I don’t have to act. I have to act, or our talk about bodhisattva practice is just a game. And I don’t think it’s a game.

One more thought. Part of resistance to fascism has always been human connection and human vulnerability. Fascists and authoritarians only see others through lenses of domination and fear, never connection. And they worship invulnerability. So when we reach out to each other in mutual human vulnerability, we do something they can’t, and that opens up another world. You know how Woody Guthrie’s guitar had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it? I thought of that the other day while I was watching Patti Smith sing, and make a mistake, and feel embarrassed, and stumble, and apologize, and start over, and keep singing. That’s our way forward. May our practice be always this fearless and humble:


No Limits to Shakyamuni’s awakening?

It’s been a long time since Jiryu or I have gotten it together to post something here, but I wanted to share a link to a dharma talk I gave in Houston last week at the end of rohatsu sesshin.  In it, I try to take up the question of where different Buddhist schools have drawn the limits of the Buddha’s awakening as a way to try to understand our particular Soto Zen way.  Limits and limitlessness–it was fun for me to consider.

So is it cheating to use a talk as a blog post?  Yes.  Yes it is.

Shakyamuni’s father

In most of the versions I know of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, his father King Suddhodana serves as a kind of setup man. Maybe you’ve heard the story the same way. The king’s overbearing attempts to insulate his son from the realities of impermanence and death are what the young man rejects when he leaves home on his quest. Shakyamuni’s insights into the nature of suffering and change come in contrast to–stand as a repudiation of–his father’s misguided belief that a life without suffering is possible. The son sees through his father’s foolishness and comes to wisdom.

Or at least that’s how I’ve always thought about it.

In the last year or so, though, I confess that I’ve been seeing and feeling the story in a sharply different way. I’m a father now, of two–Leo, our youngest, was born March 1–and I think about the story of the life of the Buddha with a new flood of sympathy for the king and a new feeling for a parent’s role. I turn the story in my mind in a different way.

I guess the difference is that I used to think that the king was trying to protect the boy, and thought he could. This is nuttiness, even if understandable nuttiness. But what if he were trying to protect the boy and knew he couldn’t? What if he were trying to create a set of experiences for his son that would create the stores of confidence and courage the child would need to face difficulties later on? Well, that feels to me like what most of the parents I know are doing. That feels to me like what Devon and I are trying to do.

If I could build my children a palace, I probably would, at least for a while. That’s the pivot, I guess–that for a while bit.

In my work in hospice I pretty regularly encounter families who choose to keep the truth of serious illness from young children, sometimes even from adults. This is all really tricky, of course. With much of myself I think that we can’t ever know all of what’s going on in a family, and that the whole complex set of cultural expectations around illness and death make it really, really hard to judge what’s right and wrong in any particular case. I have a lot of respect for people’s own decisions.

But I do judge, finally, and I think that people, even really young people, do eventually need to be told the truth. The truth, even when it’s painful, has value. And lying to kids about reality doesn’t actually do them any favors.

So was that what the king was doing? Was the palace a lie? Sort of. It erected a barrier to certain truths, and created the conditions for certain other truths. As a child, under a rose-apple tree, Gotama had an experience of deep peace and concentration while his father worked in the fields and many years later, after nearly starving himself to death in his efforts, he remembered that experience, and used it as a guide.

I’m trying to learn how to be a good father. If the king thought he could keep his son imprisoned in the palace forever, then I’m not interested. But if he knew that the palace itself was temporary, a bubble in a stream? If he wanted to help nurture the qualities his son would later need to encounter difficulties with great courage? If he wanted to share the experiences of deep safety and love that we can see when the son one day touches the earth to ask for support? Who wouldn’t be proud to be a parent like that?

Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma

Over the last several months, I’ve been slowly (very slowly!) making my way through an incredible, dense, thought-provoking, boring, brilliant, obvious, startling book called A Secular Age, by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Part of why it’s taking so long is that I’m not always in the mood for it–it’s basically a detailed intellectual history of the West, and can get pretty dry in some sections. It also really is kind of obvious, or feels obvious at first blush. As I continue from chapter to chapter, though, the bits that seemed the most obvious, the most unproblematic and clear, start to get stranger and stranger, more complex, more surprising. It’s a disorienting experience.

Taylor begins with the fact that religious belief, for the first time in the history of the West, is now an option for most of us, rather than a given. At first, that feels like a pretty straightforward observation. We all know that, right? As he digs down, though, and looks at this in more and more detail and nuance, the observation gets deeper and stranger. As I read, I start to see more and more clearly how odd our particular cultural moment is, how different our lives are from the lives of our ancestors even just a few hundred years ago. I find myself reminded for the millionth time how inside of history we are, inside of culture, and how much in our general understanding of religion (or our general understanding of anything) is actually a very particular, historical view from a very particular, historical, conditioned, (we could say karmic) place–our Dharma-position.

Taylor is pretty committed throughout the book to dispensing with what he calls the “subtraction” story–the idea that once upon a time in the West people held all sorts of superstitious beliefs, but then with the rise of science we pruned away all of the magical nonsense and now live in the same world as our ancestors, but without the extra, unneeded bells and whistles. That’s a pretty common view of the rise of secularism, and Taylor demolishes it pretty thoroughly–it’s not the case that there’s a worldview with bells and whistles and then a worldview without. It’s rather the case that a particular worldview with particular bells and whistles is replaced by another particular worldview with particular bells and whistles. Not subtraction as much as change, or shift–from one complex, nuanced, internally dynamic way of being in the world to another.

So what is it that’s arisen in the West to replace the religious worldview of the year 1500, say? (Again, what entirely different worldview has arisen–not the same worldview with the superstitious bits taken out.) On Taylor’s telling, what’s arisen, for the first time in human history, is what he calls an “exclusive humanism,” a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life, rather than with reference to some reality outside of or beyond human life. It’s not exactly that people in medieval Europe were against finding meaning in the ordinary joys of human life–rather that there was understood to be an even deeper type of meaning available that was in quite serious tension with what we usually think of as human flourishing. Vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, for example, aren’t totally coherent if what we’re after is a good human life with reference only to human meaning–they only come into focus with reference to another, non-human-centered source of meaning.

Like everything else in Taylor, this point about exclusive humanism seems like a pretty straightforward observation at first. Okay, some of us in our contemporary age locate meaning exclusively in human life, rather than in something other-than-human, and that option wasn’t available in other historical eras. As I let the point simmer, though, I start to feel more and more its power and strangeness.

Which brings me to the Dharma. Taylor mentions Buddhism several times, but really he’s writing a history of the West, and stays pretty focused. I can’t help but think about the Dharma, though, and the place of an exclusive humanism in a Buddhist context.

In the Indian layer of our tradition, the importance of other-than-human fulfillment seems pretty clear. Nirvana is about getting free of our human experience in samsara, not about finding deep meaning in it. The Chinese situation seems less clear to me—Confucianism and Taoism are pretty this-worldly influences, but I think that there’s still a reference to an other-than-human, more-than-human realm—to the Heavens, to being in harmony with something other. A good life is in harmony with the Tao–but the Tao isn’t an exclusively human measurement.

But what’s the situation now, in the Buddha-dharma’s postcolonial postmodern global evolution? Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it humanism? Or does it continue to point towards the deepest source of meaning as somehow outside of or beyond human life?

I think this question is really profound, and I think there’s a genuine tension here. Some contemporary Buddhists, I’m sure, would be happy to fold Buddhism under a humanist umbrella–a lot of what’s sometimes called Buddhist Modernism is precisely the celebration of the ways that Buddhism offers a set of practices (centrally mediation practices) which can help perfect, transform, improve a human life with reference only to a human life. All of the pieces of the Dharma that seem to be in tension with exclusive humanism get played down, usually, or dismissed as superstitious accretions–devotional practices, for one.

On the other hand, I think there’s a thread in lots of contemporary Dharma understanding that’s suspicious of exclusive humanism. There’s an environmentalist critique of exclusively human-centered ways of making meaning, for example, that I think really resonates with lots of contemporary Dharma practitioners. Many people are drawn to practice in the first place, after all, out of some dis-satisfaction with the meaning available in an exclusively human-centered life: get a good job, go to therapy, take interesting vacations! Seems a little thin on some level.

Part of why this matters, I think, is that it points to the question of what we think a good human life is. If the best human life is one marked by exclusively human flourishing, then bodhisattva practice is about improving human lives with reference only to human lives–making sure people are fed and clothed, that our illnesses are treated, that we have shelter and community and so on. That we’re happy, as happiness is generally understood. On the other hand, there’s something very deep and very basic in the Dharma that points to the unsatisfactoriness of precisely all those things. The First Noble Truth is a pretty serious attack on the “good” things in a human life–family, friends, work. All of that, a piece of our tradition whispers, is in some way not-enough. Even in Zen, we call a priest ordination a home-leaving, right? To mark precisely the fact that even a home, even a happy, stable, loving home, is somehow not the entirety of a life. That there is a source of meaning which is in reference to something else.

If we connect to this piece of the tradition, then, a bodhisattva’s practice is not necessarily helping people be happy as that’s usually (humanistically) understood–food, clothing, shelter, medicine, good friends, stimulating conversations, good books, etc. A bodhisattva’s practice then would be actually to undermine that stuff, to return again and again to not-enoughness, to basic dissatisfaction, to pointing beyond.

A bodhisattva vows to help beings. But how we think beings should be helped depends a lot on what we think a good life is for beings. And some pretty different conceptions of that are tugging back and forth at each other about this, right at the heart of our tradition.

As I say, I don’t know that I’ve finished feeling my way through these questions. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at answers. But the questions themselves keep acting on me. Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it exclusively humanist? Does it point to something beyond a good human life? How, if we’re committed to helping each other, do we think we can actually be the most helpful? By adding to human happiness as it’s generally understood–or by undermining it, and pointing to its limitations? That last question especially–that’s a good one.

“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?

Repost: No Sex Scandals in the East?

There’s been a flurry of activity in the last few weeks over at Sweeping Zen and other places in the online Zen world about allegations of sexual misconduct by Joshu Sasaki Roshi.  In reading what’s been written, I was reminded of this post from a year and a half ago, during the last round of allegations against well-known Zen teachers, and thought I’d repost it . . .

In the context of the recent heartbreaking tangled situations involving Eido Shimano Roshi and Genpo Merzel Roshi (a good summary of the events are here for those of you who haven’t been following it), I was amazed to read last week about an 18th-century Zen priest sex scandal in Sagami Province (now Kanagawa Prefecture) in eastern Japan.

The whole thing is described in Duncan Ryuken Williams’ The Other Side of Zen:  A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan, which is a fascinating and useful book.  In the convert Buddhist world, we’re really beginning to grow up in our Dharma understanding, I think—and it’s largely through the work of the amazing scholarship that’s been done in English in the last twenty or thirty years.  We’re finally approaching a place where we can play fair in talking about our tradition.  For too long, I’m afraid, we converts were able to claim the deepest, most beautiful insights of Buddhist philosophy–or what we took Buddhist philosophy to be!–without having to acknowledge the hypocrisy and greed of Buddhist historical institutions.  Imagine if all you knew about Christianity was Meister Eckhart or St. John of the Cross.  It’d be amazing, right?  And it would be a deep sign of maturity once you found out about the Crusades, or the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, and had to wrestle with, absorb, confront those deep failings and limitations.  As convert Buddhists, we’re finally there—or beginning to approach it—in the West, I think.  It’s a very good sign and I’m very grateful to those working on the academic/historical/scholarly side of the Dharma.  May they continue to surprise us.

The story, as Williams unfolds it, takes place in the 1780’s.  A Soto priest named Tetsumei, an abbot of the local temple, occasionally had a married parishioner named Towa repair his robes.  On one of his visits, he made advances towards her and was rejected.  When time came for him to enroll Towa’s family on the Registry of Religious Affiliation, he visited her again and said that unless she had sex with him, he wouldn’t put his seal on her family’s registration.

For context here, we have to remember that anyone who wasn’t registered with one of the official temples ended up on the Registry of Nonhumans (!) and was subject to all sorts of discrimination, both in this life and in the funeral rites that prepared for the next.  Tetsumei’s threat, then, was a naked abuse of his power over her and her family, and Towa agreed to sleep with him.  On several occasions in the ensuing years, Tetsumei and Towa were caught together by Towa’s husband, Matabee.  The first time, Matabee was convinced to let the matter drop, at least partly because reporting the abbot would be insulting to the family’s ancestors.  (The logic is sort of skewed there—I confess to not quite following how exactly that would work.  But it’s a sign, again, of the power of the temple priest—power to affect the spirit world, the world of the ancestors, and the world of the parishioner’s next lives.)  The second time the husband catches them together, though, he threatens to divorce his wife, and in the ensuing chaos, she writes a letter to the authorities (which Williams quotes at length.)

Tetsumei denies the whole thing at first (he eventually confesses) and the abbots of neighboring temples all close ranks and support their fellow-priest.  The most amazing wrinkle to me, though, is that the villagers themselves don’t back off.  Furious not only at Tetsumei’s transgressions, but also at the fact that he was rumored to be bragging about how he had gotten away with it, they demand his resignation.  From a 1786 letter from one parishioner to the Soto authorities:

How is possible that we could trust a man of such character with the abbotship of our family temple, which means he is in charge of memorial rites for our parents and ancestors?  Eventually, we too will have our funerals conducted by this man.  This is completely unacceptable for we will be the butt of jokes.  Even if we ignored what others thought of us, we [would nevertheless] absolutely refuse to accept him [in this position.] (quoted in Williams, p. 33)

Under this pressure from the villagers, the head temple removed Tetsumei from the abbotship, although since he doesn’t seem to have disrobed, Williams admits that it’s possible he was simply moved to another temple.  Still, the most interesting part of all this for me is less the scandal—although remembering that people have always been nuts is hugely helpful—than the fact that even in Tokugawa-era Japan, it was the laypeople’s organized, outraged, public response to the abuses and hypocrisy of power that changed the situation.  They held their religious leaders accountable.  I say there’s a lot of wisdom in taking them as our inspiration.