I was looking at the comments section of a blog about Zen recently and I saw something that said something like, “Brad Warner tends to give the impression that his personal idiosyncrasies are supported by Zen.” I thought that was a really weird statement. But I think it’s important to talk about because it tends to give the impression of certain things about Zen that are not supported by reality.
It took me a while to really get what was being said. I mean, I understand the intention, of course. The writer wanted to point out that Brad was a misleading, or perhaps just deluded, guy and we should all be careful about believing that what he says is really Zen. I totally agree that everyone should be careful about believing what I say, though I would never deliberately mislead anyone. I think the average person reading such a statement might tend to think, “Oh that darn Brad! Always trying to make people believe what he says is supported by Zen when it’s really just his own oddball behavior!”
What’s weird about the statement isn’t its implications about me, but its implications that there are statements, attitudes, modes of behavior and so on — by me or by anyone else — that are supported by Zen and those that are not. But what does “supported by Zen” mean?
The implication is that there is something out there that we can call “Zen” that exists apart from the individual people who have been sanctioned by various lineages to teach Zen. There isn’t. Which is not to say that there are not a lot of people who would like there to be.
In the West lately there has been an unstated movement to try and define and solidify what this nebulous thing that can be called “Zen” and that exists apart from those of us who teach and practice it is. What that something is tends to be a mishmosh of ideas gleaned from DT Suzuki, Alan Watts and a load of scholars who’ve written books about Zen, as well as what publications like Tricycle and Shambala Sun say Zen is, and the stuff we’ve seen on the old Kung Fu TV series and in Star Wars and what Richard Gere says Zen is and so on and on. A loosely defined but generally accepted picture is emerging in the West these days of what is and is not “Zen.” But I wonder if this picture is really true. Even so, we tend to compare what we hear from actual teachers of Zen to our image of what Zen ought to be. When there is a discrpency, we tend to want to go with our own ideas about what Zen should be.
We have a long tradition of trying to codify our religions and philosophies. This is what the fathers of what became the Catholic church tried to do when they chose which gospels were orthodox and which were not. The Catholic church has a governing body whose job it is to examine and authorize particular statements to be officially made on behalf of the church. Governments and corporations work the same way. I can’t just say any old thing I want about the rights to the movies my company produces without passing it by the management.
Truth be told, though, even in these instances there really is not any nebulous something we can really call “Catholicism” or “the United States Government” or “the Oscar Meyer Corporation” that exists apart from the men and women who make up these organizations. We just pretend there is. The difference in Zen is that we try not to pretend about anything, and when we find ourselves doing so, we stop. So nobody ought to pretend there is any Zen or Buddhism that exists apart from Zen practitioners and Buddhists themselves.
And yet Buddhist philosphy (or Zen, whatever) is only one. A long-time practitioner can recognize Buddhism and can recognize what is not Buddhism. But that recognition is a rather subtle thing. It’s not definable in words and no set of rules could ever contain it. Buddhism is balance. What is out of balance is not Buddhism. You can know what is Buddhism the same way you can balance a pencil on your finger and can know that you’ve lost that balance when the pencil falls to the floor.
If I’ve ever given the impression that the things I say and do are somehow supported by some nebulous thing out there in the ozone called “Zen,” I apologize. I’ve never deliberately set out to do so. Ain’t no such thang anyhow.