Challenging Cherished Beliefs

This morning a reader forwarded me an open letter written by Lichen Brown to the folks in charge of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) about her father Ed Espe Brown. The letter can be read via Ed Brown’s website, Peaceful Sangha. More on the case including SFZC’s response can be found at this link.

Ed Brown is — or rather was — a teacher at San Francisco Zen Center. Tassajara, SFZC’s monastic retreat center, had operated for many years as a secular vacation spot before SFZC bought it in 1967. Ed was working at Tassajara before SFZC bought the place and was the only person that stayed with Tassajara after the change of ownership. Ed studied Zen and was ordained in 1971 by Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of SFZC and author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. He was also the subject of a film called How to Cook Your Life , one of the few really worthwhile movies about contemporary American Zen practice.

Now he has been ousted by SFZC because someone mistakenly thought he talked about having an erection.

My previous entry on this blog was about inclusivity in Zen. As I said there, I think it is important that people should not feel that they cannot practice Zen for silly, superficial reasons like race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. But, I said, Zen practice needs to remain what it is.

I do not know precisely why SFZC chose to oust one of its core people — one of their few remaining connections to their founder — over the clearly mistaken impressions of someone who was apparently not listening very carefully to Ed’s talk. But I can make some guesses.

SFZC is a very large institution whose annual expenses run into the millions of dollars. They are highly dependent upon donations from a number of wealthy folks in Northern California. These donors, I would guess, have very specific political views and they expect the institutions they support to adhere to these political views.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to make a further guess that the views of some of SFZC’s biggest donors have been increasingly shifting toward the more radical side of the left over the past few years. Therefore, if SFZC wishes to survive financially they need to also shift in the same direction.

Ed Brown’s talk was not political. Nor would it have been characterized as insensitive or offensive to anyone apart from those whose identities are increasingly bound up with taking offense at anything that even remotely hints at the slightest deviation from their cherished opinions. Yet it seems to me that it is the emerging class of professionally offended leftists who now dictate what can be said at the San Francisco Zen Center.

And let me be really clear. It would be just as alarming to me if the Tea Party or some other group of professionally offended right wingers started dictating things at SFZC. Actually, it would be more alarming to me if SFZC started kowtowing to right-wingers. But this is still alarming.

It’s a damned shame it’s come to this. I used to like the San Francisco Zen Center. I even have some close friends who call the place “home.” But Ed Brown no longer can, even though he’s been there longer than anyone currently in charge of SFZC.

One of the functions of Zen teaching is to challenge our most deeply cherished notions. For example, I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, longer than I’ve been a student of Zen. Vegetarianism is very important to me.

Yet I remember hearing a story of how SFCZ’s founder, Shunryu Suzuki, once tricked a vegetarian student of his into eating a hamburger. Suzuki and the student were at a diner together. The student ordered some kind of veggie sandwich while Suzuki ordered a burger. When the food arrived, Suzuki grabbed the student’s veggie sandwich and quickly scarfed it up. Then he said, “Don’t worry! You can have mine!” and offered him the hamburger.

If a teacher at SFZC did anything like that these days I am certain they’d be booted out of the place. Then again, maybe not, since vegetarianism hasn’t become a political football the way issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation have in the last few years, with so many people trying ridiculously hard to prove to their supporters and donors that they hold the “correct” beliefs.

What Ed Brown said wouldn’t challenge any rational person’s ideas about supporting marginalized communities. And even if you want to argue that it did, it certainly doesn’t challenge those ideas to anywhere near the levels that Suzuki’s hamburger incident challenged his vegetarian student’s ideas.

But these are the sorts of deeply held, deeply believed ideas that Zen students need their teachers to challenge and to question.

It’s hard to make comparisons, but I’d bet that if such things could be measured, my commitment to not eating dead animals is as strong as anyone’s commitment to their cherished ideals of inclusivity. Yet I have had my commitment to vegetarianism seriously challenged by both of my Zen teachers. And I am very grateful for that.

I’m happy to say that I am still a vegetarian. I still feel like it is one of the best life choices I have ever made, and I have no intention of going back on it.

And yet I am far less of a pain in the ass on that subject than I used to be. I’m OK with meat eaters. I’m even dating one — although I tend to (literally) look the other way when she eats carne asada, cochinita, or pancita. I have my Zen teachers to thank for my better attitude because they called me on my treasured convictions.

You can’t do that if you give in to the demands of those who cannot stand even the remotest hints of their beliefs being questioned.

And if you can’t understand that, you are not qualified to call yourself a teacher of Zen.

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