A NASTY BIT OF WORK**

I been reading this weird-ass Buddhist flame war on the Internet lately. I don’t usually follow such things, but a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of this one and I started following it the way you might follow One Life to Live or General Hospital. One of the players in the thing is a would-be Zen Master who has lots and lots and lots and lots to say about various ceremonial structures and about Newton’s Laws of Motion and a whole bunch of other stuff.

He also has some very serious beefs with his former teacher, who he denounces and yet two sentences later begs to be re-admitted into his order. Some of the stuff he says about the guy is truly unbelievable. The person who turned me on to this soap opera especially recommended one post in which he tells his former Master, an elderly Japanese man, something like, “The time will come soon when you will go to Hell.” His former Master apparently once worked in the automotive industry, so the ex-student accuses him of being responsible for global warming and the general paving over of the countryside. In another particularly comical posting the ex-student says something like, “I will now drop the atomic bomb and wait for the Japanese surrender” before launching into some bizarre theory which I couldn’t make heads or tails of.

Judging by the response this guy is getting, pretty much no one actually takes him very seriously. But there are some people posting on the site who do seem to think the guy has something to offer. A couple of these are obviously the man himself posting under assumed names. But others appear to be real. Their logic seems to run like this: While the guy may be mean to his former teacher, nasty to everyone else who posts to the site and generally rude, uncouth, foul-smelling and obnoxious, there just might be something to his various theories.

That way of thinking is not Buddhism. Here’s why.

Buddhism is not intellectual or theoretical. It is practical. Practical means it is not something which works in the realm of theory and abstraction yet which does not work in real life. Buddhism is also a philosophy of morality. Morality to Buddhists is not abstraction either. Buddhist morality is practical morality. If you tell an old man that the time is coming soon for him to go to Hell, that is an immoral act. If you taunt a Japanese person who lived through World War II with casual remarks about the atomic bombs that killed his countrymen and quite possibly his neighbors, friends and relatives, that is an immoral act. It does not matter what ends you are trying to achieve with such an immoral action either. Bad manners are not Buddhist. Never were, never can be. You can rack up all the “Enlightenment Ecperiences” you want, if you cannot behave yourself, you have no Enlightenment at all. To be Enlightened is to behave politely. Being able to act like a decent person is an essential part of being a Buddhist. End of story.

If this guy on this website and the people who seem to believe him were the only example of this kind of behavior, I wouldn’t bother writing about it. After all, he has a total of one student as far as I can tell, and even that one student doesn’t like him very much. Unfortunately, though, the guy is just an extreme example of something that’s tragically common. There are a number of other people like this guy who are far more successful at what they do by virtue of their ability to keep their emotions slightly more in check. These aren’t always — or even usually — Buddhists. But they are always trouble.

Here’s the deal. Buddhism is about what is really obvious. So if someone comes off as a nasty bit of work, but seems to have Deep Knowledge, that’s exactly what he is a nasty bit of work who seems to have Deep Knowledge. Lots of people can affect the “seems to have Deep Knowledge” bit. It’s not hard. Any good actor can come off really “Zen” if they want to. But it’s a lot harder to keep that persona up off stage. Seemingly Deep Knowledge that’s just out of reach if only you could grasp it has no value at all.

There may be people who are mathematical geniuses but also wife beaters. But there are no Enlightened Masters who just happen to be impossible to get along with.

Another thing about Buddhism is that it is a tradition and it is a social structure. If you repudiate your teacher and the things he or she taught you, you may very well still have something of value to say. There are lots of bad teachers out there who deserve to be repudiated and to have their teachings denounced. But, if you repudiate your teacher and the things he/she taught you and go off on your own with no teacher at all, then whatever it is you have to say — valuable or not — is not Buddhism and can never be Buddhism. There are no exceptions to this. It is not Buddhism by the very definition of Buddhism. No tradtion, no Buddhism. That’s all there is to it.

This is something I struggled with for a long time. I do not like traditions and social structures. I got into punk rock in order to tear down all traditions and social structures. It was very difficult for me to accept the role of one who carries on a tradition and plays a key role in a recognized social structure. But I found that Buddhism, in spite of its being a tradition, had something of real value. As I got deeper into it, I began to see that it was specifically because it is a tradition and social structure that it has the value it has. There’s a very good reason the ancient monk scribes created fictional teachers for Buddha himself in order to prevent him being an exception to the rule that all Buddhist Masters must have a Master of their own. It is an absolute requirement of Buddhism that one must have a teacher. It may be acceptable in extreme cases to repudiate a bad Buddhist teacher and to take another teacher. But if you do not do the second step, if you don’t find another teacher, you are not a Buddhist. No “buts” about it. You just are not.

So the moral of the story is: Don’t read Buddhist flame wars on the Internet. They’re a complete waste of time. Plus you’ll end up writing dippy articles like this one.

** “Nasty Bit of Work” is the title of a song by Starvation Army on their Exection Style album (Rave Records, 1990). Sorry for the obscurity of the reference. Sometimes I forget the rest of the world doesn’t know about what happened in Ohio….

81 Responses

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  1. RepeatDose
    RepeatDose July 8, 2006 at 3:30 am | |

    There is a direct causal relationship between:

    1.Brad branding MC as a ‘total prick’

    and

    2.MC’s escalating anger.

    This relationship is there for anybody to read in the archives of MC’s blog.

    Brad’s insults are not THE cause of MC’s problems but they are A cause, a contributing factor.

  2. RepeatDose
    RepeatDose July 8, 2006 at 3:38 am | |

    I would suggest there is also a marked distinction between

    1. A critique of MC’s doctrines which adumbrates the flaws in his argument and methods e.g. the lack of tradition issue.

    and

    2.Insulting him, which

    a.causes MC further suffering
    b.Undermines the critique by leaving the author open to the charge of hypocrisy

    and

    c.Adds fuel to the flame wars.

  3. oxeye
    oxeye July 8, 2006 at 6:53 am | |

    aaron, you are criticizing someone for their perceived questionable behavior while calling that person a whiny bitch. it is ridiculous..

  4. oxeye
    oxeye July 8, 2006 at 6:53 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. karen
    karen July 8, 2006 at 7:00 am | |

    Dan,
    I am asking the question, “When did pointing out other peoples shortcomings, without being asked, become a part of the Noble Eightfold Path?” That is a question I have. Does asking that question mean that I am pointing out someone else’s shortcomings? Or could it be that I’m asking the question of myself and everyone else that posts here if this is the kind of action taken by one who deems themselves to be a Buddhist teacher. IF it is, then I think I have, after 26 years, the wrong idea of what Buddhism is. That is not to say there isn’t a place for truth telling. When obvious abuse is happening, such as has happened in the Catholic church, one would not point out on a blog that these kinds of things are going on, you would rather go straight to the police, Catholic or not, and turn the person in. People who are criminals as described by the law need to be dealt with as such. But, as I said before, I don’t think that any of this has to do with Buddhism. I know Vince Anila’s teacher and her teacher’s teacher and her teacher. I have met Vince briefly and he is a sweet guy. BUT, you don’t even want to know about the bullshit behind all the teachers involved in that situation. Yeah, you have to call shit, shit. But you don’t have to make a career out of it. If you really want to do something about it, refuse to follow in your nemesis footsteps.

  6. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 8, 2006 at 7:58 am | |

    Wow. People like to gossip, don’t they?
    But when it comes to practicing zazen, they are too lazy or just can’t be bothered.

  7. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 8, 2006 at 12:47 pm | |

    “BUT, you don’t even want to know about the bullshit behind all the teachers involved in that situation.” All of them? Really? Only one situation? Karen,please reread your own question about gossip and the Four Noble Truths. Its a good one for you too.Gassho,Devin

  8. karen
    karen July 8, 2006 at 4:03 pm | |

    Dear Zenvolution,
    I know what I wrote. I didn’t write anything about the Four Noble Truths or gossip. Someone did post after me commenting that people sure do like to gossip. I did question when pointing out shortcomings became part of the Noble Eightfold Path. My point is that I have experienced this situation before. And it seems to me that when it is convenient for any so-called “teacher” to call the kettle black, it’s OK. Just don’t YOU do it. And you especially better not do it to them. That doesn’t just go for Zen teachers either. How many Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons have overlooked their own bad behavior to point the finger at other peoples bad behavior. Which is the reason for my original comment that none of this has anything to do with the teachings of the Buddha, except maybe to serve as an example of what they aren’t. These kinds of sticky situations, where you are dealing with someone who is mentally unstable, are where the rubber meets the road, and as a teacher you naturally would be expected to act like one. And for the record, I think that Nishijima is a good example of what the Buddha taught. He isn’t fighting fire with fire. His actions speak for themselves. And he obviously doesn’t feel the need to respond to the outrageous comments made by one person. I mean think about it, would you get angry at a two year old for smearing poop on the wall? Honestly, they don’t know any better.

  9. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf July 8, 2006 at 7:24 pm | |

    Would anyone get mad if I smeared poop on the wall?

    You really don’t have to answer that, I just thought it was funny.

  10. gniz
    gniz July 8, 2006 at 7:36 pm | |

    I agree with drunken monkey–only instead of saying, “do zazen” i say “pay attention.”
    Its much simpler, and i believe most people sitting on zafus arent necessarily paying attention to anything but how amazing it is that they can do the lotus posture.

    Aaron

  11. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 8, 2006 at 7:38 pm | |

    Karen,my point was more about what seemed a careless, broad implication you made about bullshit and a bunch of teachers. Since “When did pointing out other peoples shortcomings, without being asked, become a part of the Noble Eightfold Path?”

  12. karen
    karen July 8, 2006 at 8:34 pm | |

    zenvolution,
    I think you are right. It was a broad and careless remark about teachers. And it does seem “gossipy”. You have my apologies. I am far from a perfect Buddhist and am in no way shape or form a teacher. AS you can see by my post, it is very easy to spout off about what is a contradiction and then go on to prove yourself to be just the same as what you are pointing out. This is a very slippery slope because that little thing called the ego is always more than ready to step in and help you. And to lone wolf, you can only smear poop on the wall if you are two and under. After that, you know what poop is and where it should go. My three year old grandson can attest to that.

  13. oxeye
    oxeye July 8, 2006 at 10:00 pm | |

    Karen, I liked your last post. You admitted to making a broad and careless remark, much like what me and gniz and others do all the time. Brad does this too..

  14. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 9, 2006 at 2:02 am | |

    gniz, zazen is about incoperating the concentration of both body and mind in the present moment. Think of it as an excercise in the present moment.
    Trying to pay attention without some kind of excercise is impossible. Also with the kind of crap in our subconcious mind and how it penentrates our mind conciously and unconciously, even if your intention is to be aware of the moment, you are not all there with mind and body.
    Once your mind/body becomes more balanced, you wouldn’t need to care about being in the present moment because it happens spontaneously and you see thoughts as mere thoughts.

    Of course, you could ignore what I just said and not believe a word, but its for your benefit, not mine.

  15. Dan
    Dan July 9, 2006 at 3:14 pm | |

    ” only instead of saying, “do zazen” i say “pay attention.” “

    mate, there’s no way that sitting down and not moving for x amount of time could get any simpler.

    telling someone to “pay attention” is pretty vague and so not actually that simple an instruction at all.

  16. Dan
    Dan July 9, 2006 at 3:16 pm | |

    you’ve also kinda contradicted what you said on flapping mouths when you said.

    “I believe bare attention (awareness to the present moment) can be practiced at any time, any place, but obviously the more simple the situation the easier it is at first.”

    again the simplest situation i could think of would be sitting down in a quiet room and not moving.

  17. gniz
    gniz July 10, 2006 at 5:13 am | |

    Drunken Monkey and Dan, you both make good points. Sitting still is the simplest thing one can do.
    One can sit still and be quiet in a chair, on a lawn, or one can even stand still and lean against a wall. Sitting on a zafu is not a prerequisite to being still and quiet.
    Its a good place to start but most people end there. My teacher says you need to pay attention to something that is constant, whether it be your breath, your vision, your hearing, something that is constant and follow it. Bring consciousness to the moment.
    But you need to practice doing more and more things and keeping that awareness.
    It seems many practitioners of meditation sit still and meditate, but then when they are talking, typing on a computer, etc etc, they cant do it anymore.
    Its like an athlete. You can hit a tennis ball from the baseline, but can you hit it from the net, can you serve it, hit an overhead, while on the run, etc etc.?
    Practitioners who simply sit on a cushion and meditate are like a tennis player who only learned to hit one shot. Yes, its better than nothing and better than most will ever learn.

    Aaron

  18. Bizarro
    Bizarro July 10, 2006 at 7:02 am | |

    Hello.

    I’m a little confused about Brad’s comments that one needs a teacher in order to be ‘Buddhist’. I’m hesitant to even say I’m Buddhist, but I do my best to practice zazen daily, and I try to stay mindful in everything I do, even though I frequently falter and get back on the path. Isn’t that all that matters? Isn’t that the heart of it all?

    I may not have a formal Master (although I have deep respect for the importance of a Master and the sangha), but I’ve learned so much through other means, done my best to incorporate those principles and practices into my own life, and I know I’m on the right track. The futility of labeling aside, maybe I’m just an Agnostic that happens to practice zazen. But for the sake of not confusing others who ask the religion question, I don’t think I’m lying when I choose to keep saying I’m Buddhist, or that I practice Buddhism. It’s only a word, right?

    This creates a tangential question in my head: Is a Christian who never attends Mass still a Christian?

  19. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 10, 2006 at 7:27 am | |

    “It seems many practitioners of meditation sit still and meditate, but then when they are talking, typing on a computer, etc etc, they cant do it anymore.”

    I don’t know how you can say that.
    Have you magically entered the conciousness of somebody who has practiced meditation and noticed that they do not act in the present moment?

    Its a baseless statement.

  20. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 10, 2006 at 7:52 am | |

    I would just like to add that when a person practices zazen, the balance and awareness that comes from practicing zazen, naturally and gradually becomes incorporated in everyday life. Without personal effort to pay attention. It just happens. Naturally.

  21. gniz
    gniz July 10, 2006 at 8:27 am | |

    Drunken Monkey,

    It isn’t a totally baseless statement to say that I can tell to some degree when a person is paying attention.
    When someone is paying attention and present, they exhibit certain characteristics. Their eyes tend to be still and clear, they tend to be relatively still and calm (when not engaged in a lot of activity).
    People who are caught up in their thinking tend to be staring off into space, at the floor, their eyes dart around while they talk, they hold their breath, become agitated, etc. etc.
    I cannot know for a fact that this person is not paying attention or is unconscious, but it is a good indicator.
    From my own experience, I have found that I need to practice being aware and awake while sitting, talking, moving, etc etc.
    Perhaps, as you say, this will naturally move into life activities without effort.
    It has not been my experience.
    Also, I have seen many so-called masters who are clearly lost in thought.
    Perhaps I am wrong and I mean that sincerely. But it corellates highly with my own experience and thats the best thing I have.

    Aaron

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  24. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 10, 2006 at 10:51 am | |

    Gniz, I’m glad to see that you are sincere.

    If you have the time, please read the short article; “seize the day” on Jule’s Blog.
    http://fleetingimpressions.blogspot.com/

    A worthwhile read, most definately.

  25. gniz
    gniz July 10, 2006 at 11:06 am | |

    DM,

    I am quite sure that Zazen can be used in such a way as to promote continued moment to moment awareness.
    Whether it is effortless or not i do not know.
    I practice what I practice because I have a teacher I believe knows what he is talking about.
    It doesnt happen to be Zen but many of the principles apply.
    I have seen some of those research articles as well.
    Aaron

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  31. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer February 21, 2014 at 10:31 am | |

    Since I am not very clear on what a Buddhist teacher is, I am also not sure if I have a teacher. It’s an old question for me and I am tired of it.

    After re-reading “Shoe’s Outside the Door” I am pretty down on the idea of being a part of any organized Zen group whatsoever.

    Sometimes it appears to me that the amount of human damage that can be caused by a group of people goes up as the square of the number of people in the group.

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