Next up: Tomorrow, Sunday March 31, 2013, I will lead a ZEN MORNING SERVICE at 10 AM at Against The Stream, 4300 Melrose Ave Los Angeles, CA 90029. This will be a full-on Zen Morning Service with bows and chanting and bells and stuff. Come watch the fun! How bad will I mess it all up? You will never know unless you go!
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A while ago someone sent me an article entitled Zen Has No Morals. It appears on a website called The Zensite and was written by a guy named Christopher Hamacher. I once stayed a Christopher’s apartment in Munich, Germany. I never met him, but he was very kind to allow me to live in his place. I can’t recall if Christopher himself sent me the article or not. Sorry if it was you that sent it Christopher for taking so long!
The article attempts to prove that Zen is intrinsically an immoral or at least amoral philosophy by citing the actions of Eido Shimano Roshi and other Zen teachers who have allegedly acted immorally — the Joshu Sasaki case hadn’t broken by the time the article was written or I’m sure he’d have been included — and by looking at the Zen literature and practices to find places where an immoral or at least amoral approach to life appears to be supported and encouraged.
When I told my friend Tonen O’Connor, resident priest emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center about the article, she said, “I don’t need to read that!”* I understand her position. If you look at the actions of their purported representatives and texts it’s simple to prove that any religion or philosophy has “no morals.” It’s no stretch at all to use this method to prove that Christianity has no morals. Remember the Crusades and the Inquisition? Hinduism has its share of incidents that could also prove it is immoral. There’s almost a cottage industry these days devoted to proving that Islam has no morals. Heck, if you gave me access to transcripts of everything she ever said or did in her life I could write a compelling article proving that your mom has no morals too!
That being said, Christopher makes some very good points in his article, and I encourage you to read it. I’m not just saying that because I hope he lets me use his apartment again when I travel to Germany later this year! The kinds of abuses he lists can and do happen. But they are all based on deep misunderstandings of the aspects of Zen philosophy that he sites.
For example, he writes about how the dichotomy between the absolute and relative views can be used abusively. He says, “since from this ‘absolute’ perspective there is no individuated self to feel suffering, one can easily deduce the conclusion that, ultimately, no abuse can ever occur.”
This is a common misunderstanding. But it’s just mental gymnastics. The rock bottom for anything in Zen is reality. If you can see it, feel it, hear it, taste it and so forth, then it’s real. Twisting words around to say that what people actually experience is somehow not what they really experienced in the “realm of the absolute” doesn’t change anything.
There is ultimately no individuated self who feels suffering. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean suffering doesn’t exist. The philosophy of “no self” doesn’t mean that what we mistakenly call “self” does not exist. It means that the definition of “self” is inadequate to describe the reality of the situation. What suffers is not the individuated self. But suffering is real.
One especially compelling point Christopher makes regards the institution of dharma transmission. He says, “All this evidence therefore supports Lachs’ suggestion that a certain ‘old-boys’ club’ mentality persists among Zen teachers who wield the institutional power of dharma transmission, which serves to protect the reputation of ‘long-time friends’ at the expense of preventing further harm to students. Indeed, if even one dharma-transmitted teacher does not live up to the promise of nigh-divinity, then the entire institution presumably becomes open to questioning.”
There do indeed seem to be folks out there in positions of authority who appear to believe that they must protect the aura of “nigh-divinity” of dharma-transmitted masters at all costs. But this idea is not at all universal among dharma-trnasmitted teachers. Neither of my teachers claimed anything even close to “nigh-divinity” for themselves or for anyone else, including Buddha himself. Nor did they protect anyone who did. Rather they were openly critical of anyone who made such nonsensical claims. Most other Zen teachers I’ve met feel pretty much the same way as my teachers.
But I’m aware that a certain degree of this kind of foolishness does exist. I’ve been doing my level best to demolish it. But I’ve met with tremendous resistance. I think this is why a lot of people were so upset by my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. In tearing down my own “nigh-divinity” as a so-called “Zen Master” I made it hard for anyone else to believe in such claims made by others. Astoundingly it’s not the teachers who have complained so bitterly about this but their students who desperately want to cling to the notion of their teachers’ “nigh divinity.”
What’s happened in the Sasaki case may explain my own teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi’s rather peculiar way of dealing with dharma transmission. Nishijima was the opposite of Sasaki in that he named a whole lot of dharma heirs. Sasaki has so far named none. I tallied Nishijima’s up a while back and there were well over twenty. Some of them were people he had very long and deep associations with, like me or like Mike Leutchford, Peter Rocca, Mike Cross and Jeremy Pearson. But in other cases he seems to have given transmission almost on a whim to people he barely knew but who impressed him somehow.
I once asked him why and he said that people who gave very few or even just one dharma transmission were “trying to control things.” At the time, this answer just puzzled me. But reflecting upon what happened with Sasaki, I think I see what he may have meant. If everybody is waiting to see who gets the be the one single dharma transmitted heir of the great master, they’re less likely to rock the boat by questioning or casting doubt upon the master. I’m not saying this is what happened in the Sasaki case or the others. I really don’t know. But I am saying that perhaps Nishijima saw this kind of thing as a possibility in his case and did what he did in order to circumvent it.
This leads some to speculate that it’s the one-to-one nature of dharma transmission which is the root problem. Dharma transmission is not like pope nomination. There is no committee of cardinals to oversee the process and collectively ratify the next dharma heir. It’s strictly down to one person’s subjective opinion. Some would like to rectify this in American Zen by making dharma transmission a matter to be determined by committee, but that’s because they don’t understand dharma transmission very well. It’s much more like falling in love than it is like electing the next pope. There are just some things that cannot be determined by committees.
San Francisco Zen Center’s solution to this is to allow dharma transmission to continue to be a one-to-one thing, but to separate the traditional connection between dharma transmission and abbacy. So a dharma transmitted person does not necessarily become the next abbot of their center. The abbacy is determined in other ways, which I’ve never really understood. Nor is abbot a permanent position in their tradition. The abbots serve for a certain time and then a new abbot is appointed.
This works if you’re the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and have a number dharma transmitted potential abbots to choose from. But most Zen places in the USA are not so well staffed with potential abbots and so this solution would not work for them.
The other more serious problem with the SFZC solution is that it makes the abbots beholden to what Marx called the “tyranny of the majority”. Wikipedia defines this as cases in which, “decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.”
When a dharma teacher is forced to act and speak according to the wishes of the majority of her students, she becomes unable to speak the truth as she sees it and the teaching suffers. Teachers of Zen need to be able to express themselves with absolute freedom. This is why Zen teachers are more like artists than religious authority figures. If you don’t like a particular artist’s work, all you have to do is stop supporting it. The same with Zen teachers.
I am well aware this doesn’t solve every problem. I’m really just trying to lay out the problems as I see them rather than suggest any solutions. I think the solutions may present themselves over time. But the one most currently in vogue these days — making Zen more rigidly institutionalized and democratic — is not going to work.
Just a little food for thought.
* Tonen told me she doesn’t recall saying this. And I could be remembering wrong. But says that if she did say it she was, “recognizing that it sounded like it was rehashing the age-old problem with misinterpretation of the Buddha’s teachings on the absolute and the relative, on ‘neither good nor bad’ and no-self. The literature has warned for thousands of years about misinterpreting these teachings such that one can be amoral and just do what ever one wants.”
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And speaking of food, that’s what Brad will be able to eat if you send a donation to support this blog. Seriously folks, donations to this blog have been my main source of income over the past two years. Far more than anything I get from book royalties or speaking fees (which often cost me more to travel to than I earn from them). Thanks!