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I got the following email the other day:
Currently I’m in the Ordination process with a group called the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist order) founded in the UK. It is an ecumenical order but they clearly implicitly have their favored and schools, methods and doctrines.
This is perfectly reasonable and understandable, but what I take issue with is the subtle (or not so subtle) putting down of other traditions, which seems totally unnecessary and a violation of speech precepts and slanderous towards the tradition, if there are no grounds for the criticism.
I hear this kind of talk a lot from others in the order. My main question regards to a statement made by the order’s founder Shangharakshita in print:
“Just because a figure appears on the Refuge Tree doesn’t mean that what he taught can be taught at an FWBO centre. It may be that it can, if there is something that is useful and compatible with our particular presentation of the Dharma, but not necessarily.
“In the case of Dogen, for instance, we must acknowledge that much of Far Eastern Buddhism, especially Japanese Zen, seems to have been greatly influenced by something of a Vedantic character, which therefore calls into doubt the complete orthodoxy of all of Dogen’s teachings in that some may depart from the Buddha’s fundamental teachings of pratītya samutpāda and anātman.”
Sangharakshita (quote from p.7 of following link)
In my personal view Dogen has one of, if not the, most penetrating and subtle/mystical interpretation of the Dharma. I don’t think he would fall into simple errors.
I would be happy to hear any thoughts you have on this issue!
Here’s what I said (edited and rewritten somewhat):
I’ve often been accused of not following “right speech” or of violating the precept that says not to slander other Buddhists because I’m critical of certain other teachers and sects, most specifically Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind™ stuff. But there have been others. Then again, lots of teachers past and present have been guilty of this sort of thing.
For example, Dogen was very critical of the teacher Ta Hui (called Daie Sōkō in Japanese) and his followers particularly when it came to their use of koans as a method of attempting to induce enlightenment experiences. In a chapter of Shobogenzo called Jisho Zanmai, or “Samadhi as Experience of the Self” he says this about Ta Hui, “He is an extreme case of negligence in practice. Through greed for fame and love of profit, he wants to break into the inner sanctum of the Buddhist patriarchs … Because he is like this, in the lineage of Zen Master Sōkō there is not one true nose ring, or even half of one, but there are many whose basis is unreal.” The reference to nose rings alludes to the ring used to lead a water buffalo by the nose. It means a person of self-control. It does not refer to being a hipster.
This kind of stuff appears all the time in all sorts of Buddhist literature both ancient and current. It can be disconcerting. But consider this. One needs one’s teacher to be confident in his/her teachings. For example, if I didn’t think Soto style Zen and shikantaza style goalless meditation were the absolute best, I wouldn’t be doing them. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to ordain as a teacher of a practice that I thought was only just as good as anything else out there. I wanted the best and I got the best, the hottest meditation in the world, shikantaza, to paraphrase the guy who introduces KISS in concert. So I can forgive others for saying their style is the best even when I disagree with them. It’s part of many teachers’ ways of instilling their own confidence in whatever path they’ve chosen in their students.
A big problem when this happens over here is that our Western tradition has a bad history of moving from statements like “my religion is the best” to “let’s kill everyone who doesn’t believe in it” very quickly. Witness the Crusades and contemporary Islamic terrorism. But Buddhism generally doesn’t go that far, or hasn’t until very recently, such as in the unfortunate cases in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. If you look at the cases of Buddhist violence that Wikipedia lists, they’re not pretty. But they do not even begin to to compare with what has gone on in the West in terms of scale, and most are recent enough that I tend to suspect they’re being influenced by us.
As a result of our own history, we are sometimes a bit overly sensitive to statements coming from our Buddhist teachers that seem to put down other traditions. Theses statements are generally pretty harmless, though. They’re mostly just expressions of deep confidence in the teacher’s chosen tradition. I used to sometimes sign books with the phrase “kill the non-believers” as a joke until I started worrying some psycho out there might take me seriously.
As for the specific contents of what Sangharakshita and the folks in your order are saying, the idea that Zen may not be Buddhism is pretty common. Shambhala even published a very useful book called The Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, whose title indicates their own ambivalence about whether Zen was really Buddhism or not. Personally, I think that Zen is actually much closer in spirit and practice to what Gautama Buddha actually taught than the other forms of Buddhism out there. Then again, I would say that because that’s Zen doctrine. Dogen even argued that it was heretical to call what he taught “Zen” because it was nothing but real Buddhism.
The case could be made either way, depending on what sources you look at. Sometimes Gautama Buddha seems to be advocating something very much like shikantaza style “just sitting” practice with no goal and very minimal technique. Other times he seems to be advocating more technique-oriented and goal-directed meditation practices. So you’re left arguing about which of these versions of the canon is what he really said or if maybe he prescribed different styles to different people. But I think arguments based on this kind of search for historic certainty are doomed to failure. We’ll never all agree on what Gautama Buddha actually said any more than we’ll all agree on who killed JFK. That’s the nature of history.
But going back to the stuff about Dogen, I find the statements you provided from Shangharakshita about Dogen puzzling. Dogen is very clear in his statements regarding the non-existence of the soul (anatman) in Bendowa, Genjo Koan and elsewhere and his strong belief in cause and effect (pratītya samutpāda) is laid out in great detail in the Shobogenzo chapter Shin Jin Inga or “Deep Belief in Cause and Effect” (The Nishijima/Cross translations of Shobogenzo Book 1 and Shobogenzo Book 4 are also available as free PDF downloads from Numata Press). They even sell a t-shirt at Tassajara with 深信因果 (shin jin in ga or “deep belief in cause and effect) on it. I can think of lots of other different reasons one might criticize Dogen as not being truly Buddhist, depending on one’s definition of what “truly Buddhist” means. But to pick out these two as examples seems absurd. I can’t imagine anyone who actually read Dogen would select these particular topics since Dogen’s views on them are extremely orthodox.
If I were going to criticize Japanese Zen as being untrue to classical Buddhist doctrine I’d be more likely to cite things like the fact that Japanese Buddhist monks are not required to be celibate (see the book Neither Monk Nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism or my book Sex Sin and Zen for more on this). If I was going to criticize Dogen as being unorthodox I’d compare his teaching of shikantaza to the much more methodical types of meditation sometimes described in some early Buddhist sutras. So it just seems odd to me he would pick out areas in which Dogen is so orthodox.
To return to whether Zen is “real Buddhism” or not, my personal feeling on the matter is based on experience and (I think) common sense. It seems to me that the story of Buddha’s life is a tale of trying to find a truth that is completely different from absorbing a tradition or parroting what one has been told. In his book An End to Suffering, Pankaj Mishra puts it this way, “the Buddha claimed originally that such knowledge of the eternal self (claimed by his former teachers) was fixed in advance. The meditator had actually trained himself to locate it in the attainment of the deep state… (Buddha’s former teachers) had not realized it from within; it was an abstraction, a product of speculation… Buddha taught that such an experience was samskrta (conditioned)… it sprang from certain clear causes — frame of mind, will, intention, and so it could not be identical with an eternal and unborn Self.”
The only way I can think of to come to an unconditioned realization is the goalless practice of shikantaza or at least something very much like it. I realize that absolutely any method or technique of meditation — including shikantaza — is prone to some sort of conditioning. But I can’t imagine anything that could possibly come closer to truly unconditioned sitting than the practice Dogen talked about. Also, my personal experience with the practice leads me to believe it is all that Dogen says it is.
Now, if you want my advise on ordination, I’d say just do what feels right to you. However, if you think you might end up butting heads with the home office once you start teaching, that could be a problem worth considering before ordaining with them.
Thanks for writing!
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