Before I got into Zen, there were a few people outside the world of Zen who influenced my worldview in deep and significant ways. A lot of my understanding of Zen comes not from within the Zen tradition, but from these outsiders. The main ones would be novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K Dick, and guitarist Robert Fripp of the band King Crimson.
The other day I was at Amoeba Music in Hollywood where I found a copy of A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson, a double-LP summation of King Crimson’s early years, compiled by Fripp in 1976, after the band had broken up (in 1974) but before its reformation in 1981. I have all the songs on it in other formats, but I wanted the booklet that came with the record. Plus, it’s nice to have some of this stuff on vinyl.
When I opened up the plastic I discovered that the previous owner had left a Xerox of an article Fripp wrote for Musician magazine in 1981 all about the reformation of Crimson. I remember reading and re-reading and re-re-reading this article back when I was in high school. Reading it again I was amazed how much I remembered of an article I haven’t seen in over thirty years. One section in particular struck me because it’s very similar to some of what I was trying to say last time on this blog.
In the article Fripp talks about what he calls the first, second, and third division approaches to life as a working musician. Some background is in order if you don’t know the history of King Crimson. The original King Crimson broke up in 1974, just as the band seemed poised to become hugely commercial like Pink Floyd and Genesis. King Crimson is, in Fripp’s definition, a “first division” band. Fripp retreated to monastic life under JG Bennet a student of Gurdjieff.
Around 1978, Fripp began tentatively re-entering the world of commercial rock music. For a few years, he was doing highly experimental solo concerts using a technology he called Frippertronics. That was what he called “third division.”
When the article for Musican magazine was written Fripp had just put out an album called League of Gentlemen by a “new wave” band he’d put together around 1980. It remains one of my favorite Fripp albums. It’s a damned shame he never reissued it on CD. League of Gentlemen was what Fripp called a “second division” band/project.
Here’s how he describes these divisions in the article, “The third division is research and development, interesting ideas and civilized lifestyle, but you won’t earn a living. Second division will earn you a living if you graft and you can get to be professionally respectable, but you won’t change the world. First division is an entirely different bag of bananas: at worst it’s merely ‘prime market penetration’ and success as mass culture; at best it means the top players, cream of new ideas, and the apex of popular culture. It also involves the commitment to what EG (Fripp’s management company) call the ’24-hour-a-day-man’: total commitment of belief, energy, lifestyle, and time. You put yourself on the line every time you play: you expose yourself to the ignominy of being considered deific by those who love you, being sliced apart by those who don’t: you risk losing yourself in your own press hand-outs and favorable reviews, and abandoning yourself with the bad reviews, without becoming cynical either. You’re on a tight rope: either way you have to jump and if you fall you lose your health, sanity, and occasionally your soul. But you just might fly away. So there’s your choice.”
I very strongly believe that Zen is not a religion, that its teachers are not clergy-people, and that its practitioners are artists — or at least artists’ apprentices — rather than followers of a faith.
I think working artists can often tell us more about Zen than religious people. Those who think Zen teachers are clergy are a lost cause. To a certain extent these folks may be able to keep the tradition just barely alive so that it can sustain itself during periods when no one understands what it really is. But that’s about all they’re good for.
Anyway… what Fripp says here about being deified by those who love you and sliced apart by those who don’t is precisely what I was referring to in the previous installment of this blog. This deification is especially dangerous when working in an art form that most people mistake for a religion. When people deify a rock star they’re usually aware that he isn’t really, literally a god. Sadly, when folks deify a Zen teacher they most often are not aware of this.
Since teaching and practicing Zen is an art form more than it is a religion, we could apply Fripp’s theory of divisions to Zen as well.
My first teacher was definitely Third Division, or even Fourth (I’ll capitalize the names of the divisions so as to make it clearer). He has never made any significant portion of his living from his work as a Zen teacher. So he can be completely independent. He can also be totally honest since there’s never any danger of him losing his Zen teacher job by offending those who pay him to do it.
Nishijima Roshi, my ordaining teacher, was Second Division. About this Fripp says, “Second division will earn you a living if you graft.” I assume the definition of “graft” he’s aiming at is “to make money by shady or dishonest means.” In the Second Division, you can make money if you are willing to get into a bit of graft, but you don’t have to get into the graft part. (Olaf Hvattum commented on Facebook: ‘Graft’ in English vernacular means ‘hard work’. If you get somewhere by ‘hard graft’ it usually means you got there by hard physical or mental work. There is usually nothing shady about it.)
In Nishijima’s case, he kept a “real job” at a soap and cosmetics company for most of the time he worked as a Zen teacher. Like my first teacher, his livelihood was not tied to his teaching, so there was no need for graft in his case. But, unlike my first teacher, Nishijima put himself out there for the public. He wrote a lot of books (mostly in Japanese), he went on radio and TV whenever he had the opportunity, he traveled internationally and gave presentations. I assume he made a little money with some of these activities, but certainly not enough to pay the rent.
As for me, I’m also Second Division, but I get into the graft side more than Nishijima did. My books are reasonably popular, though certainly not mainstream. I make most of my living through things that are somehow Zen-related. I get donations from this blog, I run retreats, I do lectures, I have a YouTube channel (that does not generate any money yet, but I hope it will someday), and I have a Patreon page that is also tied to my Zen work.
There is great temptation to be dishonest when you make your living this way. The more your message resembles what people think they want, the more people will show up for your retreats and whatnot, and the more money you’ll make. A few people have managed to slip from Second to First Division and accumulate a great deal of wealth.
I don’t think dishonesty is the only way to become a First Division Zen teacher. Some folks just have the proper karma and end up there without selling out. But I wonder if even these people can be entirely honest with their audiences. I am not sure you can achieve mainstream success at this stuff unless some portion of your audience perceives you as superhuman. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.
In any case, I hope this is changing. I think some of the scandals that have happened in the Zen world — unfortunate as they were for those involved — may have helped Zen as a whole to shed its image of otherworldliness.
So far I have managed to avoid becoming a First Division Zen teacher. I’m not sure that’s even available to me. There seems to be a certain amount of some kind of indefinable, uncontrollable something involved in achieving mainstream success at any art form. Some people do all the right things and never make it. Some people seem to fall backwards into it even though nothing about them as people or the art they create would appear destined to make them successful and popular. Robert Fripp himself may be a good example of this. As much as I love King Crimson, I’m always shocked at how large their audiences are. Their music is pretty weird. Maybe people think they’re gonna see Pink Floyd?
Every so often I’ll come across an article by some numbskull who characterizes my own lack of mainstream commercial success as a failure to achieve a goal I have set for myself. As if I would like to be as popular as Deepak Chopra and Thich Naht Hanh or even Sam Harris but I just can’t get it together.
I don’t think this is exactly true. But if I say that I sound like a guy who sees someone juggling knives and meat cleavers and says, “I could do that, I just choose not to!” In a sense that could be true. If I decided to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to becoming an amazing juggler there’s no reason to think I couldn’t develop that skill. But becoming not just an amazing juggler, but a juggler who gets on the Tonight Show is a whole different thing. You have to be amazing. But just being amazing isn’t enough.
I don’t think it’s arrogant of me to say that I am one of the best living writers on the subject of Zen. I think that’s objectively true. I know it’s polite for me to pretend I don’t think I’m great at what I do, but I happen to know that I am. And I continue to get better at it all the time. So there!
In some sense it’s frustrating to see people who aren’t as good at this as I am get much more famous. Sam Harris is a good example. He’s not even close to as good at writing or speaking about Buddhism as I am, yet he seems to get on every damned TV show as the world’s leading expert.
Then again, Sam Harris regularly gets death threats and this has turned him into a gun fanatic. I don’t have that problem. Harris probably gets recognized on the street a lot and has issues with privacy. I, on the other hand, can go wherever I want in Los Angeles, like Amoeba Music, and rarely does anyone notice me. That’s a big plus. I don’t get the best table in restaurants, but I don’t get stared at while I eat either.
So I’m happier as a Second Division Zen teacher using a bit of graft to make the rent than I think I would be as a First Division teacher with a lot more money but also a lot more problems.
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