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.

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Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil

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…

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“Abe Lincoln, wash your bowl!”

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?

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American Buddhist Apocrypha

There’s an important book in the academic Buddhist Studies world called Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha – I’ve mentioned pieces of it in previous posts (here and here).  What was important about the book, if I understand correctly, was that it was part of a turn in the field towards really taking seriously the self-proclaimed “Indian Sutras” that were clearly written in China.  Though some people read “apocrypha” as some kind of put down, the point of the book was to revalue and appreciate the texts that had until then tended to dismissed as merely “fraudulent” or “forged” or “invented” in China.  Scholars started looking more closely at them not because they revealed what the “Buddha really taught,” or what “real Buddhism is,” but because they spoke so precisely to the religious needs and insights of the Chinese Buddhists who composed them.

Even though we don’t so much claim to discover sutras anymore, and I think we’d have a different kind of moral perspective (Gary Snyder aside) than the medieval Chinese did on outright forging one, the term “apocrypha” has been bouncing around in my mind recently as a way to think about American Buddhism.

The point of a good forgery is that it’s not acknowledged as such.  “Of course this is not a forgery, it’s just we discovered this sutra that happens to be about China!”  And it’s this non-acknowledgement of our forgeries that I’m interested in, or bugged by.

I suppose there is something beautiful, and even profoundly true, about passing off our American forgeries as the real thing  – “the Buddha really said to take care of your heart and express yourself completely” – but it’s also the thing that gets most under my skin.

With Zen in particular, since the idea is that the living teacher is the real teacher, and that their Dharma is the Buddha’s Dharma, admitting “forgery” gets admittedly quite complicated.  Still, though, I’d like to hear more of it.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to be as transparent as we can about what we’re inheriting and what we’re making up.  To do so is to make this whole transition of Buddhism more conscious, more clear:  “Here’s what we’re taking; here’s what we’re leaving.”

Part of what got me thinking about this was a really interesting lecture I heard recently from the Institute of Buddhist Studies podcast treasure trove:  Dale Wright on the teaching of karma, and how the doctrine should be re-interpreted to make it relevant for the modern or postmodern West.

His argument, very roughly, is this:  the Buddhist teaching of karma can be of great use for our time (grounding moral action in a world no longer watched over by God), but in order for us to make use of it, we need to sever it from the hopelessly foreign concept of rebirth.

I don’t know you three readers of No Zen in the West well enough to know if you’ll pile on at this point already, and anyway I plan to say more about the details of Wright’s argument in a future post.  The thing I’m getting to about his talk this time isn’t this actually pretty standard American Buddhist point about karma so much as it is how much I appreciate his consciousness about his reworking of the tradition.

He knows enough about the tradition – and I think respects it enough – to not twist the teachings of rebirth into something other than rebirth.  He doesn’t write an apocryphal sutra about it:  “Thus have I heard, at Vulture Peak the Buddha declared that the true meaning of rebirth is simply that this single lifetime is inextricable from the timeless network of being.”

And he doesn’t say (at least as far as I recall): “The essence of the teaching of karma is that it has nothing to do with rebirth.”

He says, instead, Here’s what the tradition really says about karma (that it’s mostly about rebirth), but for the teaching to be relevant to our world today, I propose that we take it in this other way.

That is, I propose that we leave X behind and keep Y intact.

My furious ambivalence at this “leaving X behind and keeping Y intact” in general is of course the engine of most of my posts on this blog.  But in thinking about Wright, and about American Buddhist apocrypha, I realize that the piece I’m most bugged by may just be the unconsciousness or casualness of our transformations of the Dharma.

So the way Wright did it just sounded really right to me:  aware that we’re making it up, and aware of the good reasons for making it up, we bow to what the tradition actually says and then write our own sutra.

It was very refreshing that he didn’t skip any of those steps.

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Who Are American Buddhists?

I recently heard what may be the most important piece I’ve come across on American Zen, and though I share some thoughts about it below, the bottom line of this post is that I can’t recommend highly enough this profoundly moving talk by Duncan Ryuken Williams at the recent Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference.

There’s a funny and disturbing thing I’ve noticed about myself that I think I share with some others in the family of “Western Zen,” that is, we non-Asian, “convert” Zen students.  I saw it more clearly than ever this summer while I was reading the great critique of Western Buddhism, Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by the first rate Western Buddhism-critiquer Donald Lopez (more on his work in later posts, I hope).  A basic “Orientalist” pattern revealed throughout Lopez’s book is the tendency of Western Buddhism to simultaneously appropriate and distance itself from Asian Buddhism.  That is, we naturally tend to draw our Buddhist authority in large part from our connections to Asian Buddhism – from Suzuki Roshi, for example, or any of the other handful of important Japanese missionaries, or our Asian robes, or our knowledge of Asian texts, or our skill in Asian meditation practices.  But at the same time we tend to distance ourselves from the living Asian traditions these people and objects and teachings and practices come out of and represent, repeating themes like “you know, in Japan they don’t really sit,” “it’s just funerals in Japan,” “it’s just ceremonies in Japan,” “what they do in Japan isn’t relevant to us,” etc.  It turns out that at some level we seem not too much to respect the actual tradition we give ourselves so much credit for being heirs to.

Maybe that’s too harsh, and certainly it doesn’t cover the whole span of whatever “American Buddhism” is, but it’s a dynamic I recognize in my own life and to some extent in my community.  I think my book is actually a good case study of it – as I detail my “misadventures in wacky Japan,” I get the benefit of association with the “authoritative” Japanese Zen while at the same time disparaging and distancing myself from it.  The two shouldn’t work together – if you are insulting a thing you shouldn’t get credit for being part of it – but paradoxically they seem to somehow fuel each other.

But more than just personally or even as a single Zen community, this appropriation and distancing is a dynamic that colors the way that the history of Western Buddhism has tended to be presented, and it continues to  mark “American Buddhists’” relationship with the Asian kinds of Buddhism in America – the Asian and Asian-American Buddhists who are present and active in the West alongside “us.”  Drawing our legitimacy from Asia and appropriating the tradition as our own, we then turn around and distance ourselves from these actual Asian and even Asian-American Buddhists who have the whole time been practicing and investigating and evolving the same traditions we are.

The truth is, of course, that Asian and Asian-American Buddhists have been practicing the Dharma in the U.S. for far longer than our usual genealogies acknowledge.  We tend to say that American Zen started in the 1950s and 1960s with these great Japanese missionaries, but what about the Japanese and Chinese temples that were in the U.S. long before?  Why don’t we look to them for what American Buddhism is?  Why don’t we really think of them as the founders of American Buddhism?  Why don’t we ask them about the problems of integrating with mainstream culture, with finding a place alongside Christianity, with creating thriving American Buddhist congregations and relevant American Buddhist observances and institutions?  Why do we so easily imagine that we starting making this “American Buddhism” up in the 1960s, when great priests and practitioners have been thinking about it since the century prior?

Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Japanese-American Soto Zen priest and well-known scholar, recently gave a very powerful talk before the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of North America – and it may be the most important piece on American Buddhism that I’ve ever heard.  It tells some very moving stories of some of the Japanese Buddhists who predate our standard chronology of when “Buddhism arrived” and whose practice can’t be reduced to anything like “mere ceremony” or “not relevant” or, most perniciously, “not really American.”  And his talk holds the seeds, I think, of a new approach, a new mutual appreciation and real exchange, that could break – I hope for me at least – this cycle of appropriation and distancing, of respect for the abstractions of Tradition alongside the dismissal of the people who “own it” at the very least as much as “we” do.

Please listen to this talk!

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Who Owns the Dharma?

Warning:  This blog post has nothing to do with sex.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to post here at No Zen in the West.  As my last two posts (ancient, by blog standards) mentioned, it’s that my nose has been in the books.  I’d like to think that my belly has meanwhile been abiding still and steady in my belly, but I think my belly’s been in the books too.  As I wondered in my summer post, I think the jury is still out on this one:  if my nose is in the books and my belly is in my belly, then aren’t I just dividing my life, holding back from the book?  But if my belly is in the book along with my nose, then what happens when the room catches fire?  I could pop the escape hatch by claiming that in fact my belly – as the fulfillment of its Dharma position as simply and completely in the belly – has been precisely my nose itself, but that would also entail smoke coming precisely out of my ass and would be a different thing entirely.

In any case, the question of the “practice” of the “study” is still very much alive for me, but so is another question that is less about what I think of as “my practice” and more about what I think of as “my community” or “my people.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular section from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  It’s a book my ordination teacher considers “required reading for Zen students” and one which I find myself going back to again and again.  In this section the mentor demon (Screwtape) is advising the demon-in-training (Wormwood) as to how to use their target soul’s new secular social circle to their advantage in their project of tempting his soul to eternal damnation.  Among the options Screwtape recommends are the following:

He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea: the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction.


It’s easy for me lately indeed to fall into this “perception that the two sides of my life are inconsistent,” and – however subtly – to harbor the other when I’m meeting the one.  That is, since it’s clear from my Zen practice position that the “words and letters” inquiries of scholasticism are from the start beside the point of my “true life,” why not feel bemused or aloof from the words and letters, not to mention the scholars, at hand in a seminar?  The “real point of life” is this breath, is this body – the obscurities of history and doctrine are best left obscure.

When I’m at “home” at Zen Center, though, it’s just as easy to reverse the dynamic.  With the academic tools in mind, how could I not bring a scoff, or at least a condescending nod, to the simplifications and misquotations and misattributions and outright misunderstandings of “our own” tradition that flow forth so freely from the Dharma seat to the dining hall?  What’s passing for “traditional teachings” are just not-too-well disguised Protestant post-modern pop-psychological slogans.

A state of “permanent treachery” indeed.

It’s so easy, maybe even inevitable if straddling worlds, to hold the people at hand to the standard of some other group.  But I think it’s seldom fair, and I’m interested to cultivate the “shame” about it that C.S. Lewis talks about, to replace the “self-satisfaction” he notes.  I’m reminded of the teachings on the obstruction of disclosure and concealment – a Huayan Buddhist theme I’ve posted on before – the idea that “when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.”  I can see bringing that into practice to mean:  when one side is illuminated, keep the other side dark!  Don’t bring night into day or day into night.  Scholars are scholars, themselves and complete.  “Practitioners” are “practitioners,” themselves and complete.  That is, they’re all beyond compare.  To hold one to the standard of the other is ultimately to demean both.

It also occurs to me that it’s the problem of who owns the Dharma.  Scholars, with their linguistic and interpretative tools, can think that they have special access, even ownership of the access, to the traditions they’ve given their lives to studying.  And practitioners, with their devotion and ritual training, often feel that they have it, or even that they own it exclusively:  the unique set of keys passed master to disciples some-ninety odd times.

They are all right, of course, and also all wrong.  For me, I’m pretty confident that as long as I’m thinking in terms of this ownership or this “authentic access” – in effect, that someone owns the Dharma and that someone else rents – then I end up little more than Wormwood bait.  (Hondo’s old post on exclusive truth claims gets at the problem nicely.)

I share this all not just to update you  to my life and thoughts – and it has been too long! – but also because I suspect that C.S. Lewis is speaking more than just to me, and that my experience now of splitting worlds is far from unusual for Zen students.  In fact, now is the season when many of us pay respects to our families – not in the clean ritual memorial service way but in the much messier, living way of actually being with them.  And there is often this same problem:  how to let each world operate freely.  How to not bring the Zen stink home, or to school.  How to not bring the school stink home, or to Zen Center.

I think that for C.S. Lewis, though, from the start it’s a fabricated problem:  it’s not the problem of living in a split world, but the problem of imagining a split world, “perceiving inconsistency.”  And then of using that imagination, that misperception, to separate ourselves from the world and the people that happen to be right in front of us.

Does that sound familiar?

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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.

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