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….