Saturday, February 19, 2011

Response to "Lineage Delusions: Eido Shimano Roshi, Dharma Transmission, and American Zen"

Before I run off to next week's retreat with Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi, I've got to loose these feelings about this highly recommended (and agreed with by those who have recommended it to me) essay/article by Erik Fraser Storlie on Sweeping Zen concerning the controversy surrounding Shimano Roshi as well as the validity of Dharma Transmission as an institution and its role in the future of American Zen.

I happen to strongly disagree with almost every argument in this piece and find it borderline offensive.

First of all, I'd like to address the statement that spiritual leaders of Eastern traditions in America engage in inappropriate behavior which is then explained away as a teaching is taken out of context.  This implies that these teachers willingly and intentionally engage in these behaviors for the express purpose of teaching us a lesson.  I find this as ridiculous as the author, but not for his reason.  These behaviors are referred to as teachings in an accidental way.  Happenstance has provided us with this series of events, and as good bodhisattvas, we see the dharma gate and walk right in.  These are not intentional lessons, they are examples of imperfect people doing imperfect things, which I'll get back to later.

I don't know the specifics of the situation's history or supposed cover up, but for my point, I don't think that matters.  I may not even have been in the know about this scene for very long, but what I do know is what I've been told and what I've experienced for myself.

Do I think it's a shame that unsuspecting individuals were hurt by teachers of the practice that I believe in and follow myself taking advantage of their authority? Yes, I do and it is tragic.

Do I think this is a one way street where an irresistible authority overwhelmed an individual, who even if not helpless and trusting, would have been seduced anyway?  No, I don't.  But that also doesn't mean that this wasn't a case of a vulnerable and trusting person being taken advantage of.

On this point, I'd have to agree with Brad Warner that authority figures only have the power that we agree to let them have.  This opinion is not coming from some sycophantic blogger that can't think on his own; this makes real sense and can't be argued against. 

I have been taught, and verified myself, that Zen is about discovering the illusionary quality of what we hold to be true.  That, like scientists, we should doubt what we observe (or are told) until we're able to confirm it through experimentation and thus experience the truth for ourselves.  It's not about dismissing the objects of the senses, but just not blindly trusting them.  Given these instructions, why would I wholeheartedly and blindly agree with anything a teacher told me without testing it myself?

I want to know where these "masters" are that are said to:

“dwell in the absolute,” or is a lineage holder in “crazy wisdom,” or can raise the kundalini energy, or read our chakras and past lives, or help “burn up” our karma, or is offering to share our wife, husband, girlfriend, or boyfriend so as to assist us in breaking our unfortunate attachments – all of this, of course, to stretch us beyond our parochial notions of right and wrong and bring us to the ultimate attainment enjoyed by the master himself (the master almost invariably being male)
  - cause I'd say "thanks, but I think samsara's a better deal."  Sure some people would fall for this, but surely not enough serious practitioners under him, and especially not his peers or superiors.  To what kind of ridiculously poisonous teachers has the author been exposed?

Sure, tradition expresses such poetic sentiments concerning Zen teachers as "dwelling in the absolute" or "realized masters," but this doesn't make them perfect.  Anyone who has spent any amount of time around a teacher with their minds open will have seen them make a mistake, this doesn't accord with perfection.

These individuals are recognized as having "realized" the true nature of the Dharma, not "actualized" it; they're not assumed to be Buddha.  They're still working on life.  Just because they know all the rules to the game now, doesn't mean they can win.  Because they're recognized by their teachers as knowing the rules, they're allowed to teach them to others, but enlightenment cannot be taught, you have to win it yourself.

We play the game against Mara, and the more we play the better we get.  The Buddha just got so good that Mara couldn't beat him anymore.

So the matter of authority and the legitimacy of Dharma Transmission comes down to one question: Do the rules this teacher is telling me sound like they'd help me win this game against suffering?  We must further explore and inform our answer to this question by asking if it looks like the teacher is, in fact playing by those rules and do they seem to be winning themselves.  Yes, this will take a serious investment of time and effort for us to find out for ourselves.

As the author states "the most important thing we can bring to these inquiries ... is our sincerity and selflessness."  There's where the sincerity comes into play.  If we're serious about getting to the root of it, we must be sincere in our practice.

But we must tie that in with selflessness, if things don't seem right, we should set aside our egocentric opinions and accept our losses, remembering the lessons we've learned and move on. This is where so many get caught up and look the other way, allowing abuse to happen.  If we are sincere about our practice, as in defining what I expect my teacher to teach me as Soto Zen in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi, we would question the teachings if they are not in accord with our ideal.  If the teacher's answer is unsatisfactory, we should go to others with our questions, or at worst, concerns.*

This presents a contradiction to the author's statement implying that American Zen is not democratic, contrasting it with the first pioneers seeking religious freedom.  "Their polity was congregational, where the minister served at the pleasure of the congregants."  We're not enslaved by our teachers.  If I didn't like a teacher, I'd leave, even if it means going without.  If enough people "vote with their feet," the powers that be will question the right for that teacher to be teaching unsupervised.

Are there individuals that have the authority to teach who still struggle with their own practice?  I challenge anyone to show me one who honestly believes that he or she doesn't.   Are there individuals who have the authority to teach who shouldn't?  Show me any organization with teacher student/relationships that doesn't.

To dismiss the tradition of Dharma Transmission for this reason is ridiculous.  In every game there are players who try to play by their own rules, sometimes they even win, but if I may reverse a popular saying, "Hate the player, not the game."  What makes individuals, and even organizations, believe that if they set stricter rules, these rule breakers will follow them, they'll just get sneakier about it.  Why do you think lawyers have such bad reputations?  It's because they know all the rules.

The author also seems to believe that Dharma Transmission is also holding American Zen back, preventing it from speaking to people, or becoming "more than an odd, idiosyncratic subculture."  It speaks to me!  It speaks to countless numbers of American, as well as European and even African practitioners!

What keeps it the way the author views it is that it's misunderstood.  How can you blame the phenomena of Dharma Transmission on this when the average American has no idea what that is and when asked what they think about Zen, they're likely reply is "Isn't that some form of Buddhism... like from Japan?"   What does Dharma Transmission have to do with that?

Yes, it's from Japan.  Yes, we do dress weird and chant funny things in Japanese and sometimes Pali.  We bow to statues have other weird rituals.  But these are forms, and what does the Heart Sutra say about forms?

They're all empty!

The average American is not aware of this beautiful and subtle teaching.  They live in a world where people that do those types of things often take offense when they're told how ridiculous that kind of behavior is and has no basis in reality, while our tradition celebrates that fact and still takes it seriously!

One interpretation of the first Pure Precept, usually read a vow against doing evil, is to embrace and sustain all forms and ceremonies.  I find these two related because evil can be equated with chaos.  While we recognize the emptiness of these forms and ceremonies, to act formlessly would be chaotic, and dissrespective of nature which is both chaotic and harmonious.  We practice these specific forms out of tradition, knowing that it's their purpose of practice that matters not their content.

These traditions include Dharma Transmission which is a form as well.

 Does it really matter if Shakyamuni attained a mind of absolute perfection?  Does it really?  Right here in the moment where we're told to live?

And how could Mahakasyapa have "attained this perfect mind" if there's nothing to attain?

The rationale behind celebrating a "an unbroken chain of such 'mind to mind' transmissions has descended, generation after generation, in a known lineage, down to today’s living dharma heirs" isn't to show how important and pure the teachings have been throughout the ages, it's to show us today how importantly we should consider the business of involving ourselves in that legacy ourselves.  Sure, it's a romantic notion that adds depth and meaning to the tradition, but do I need to debate whether or not some person who lived halfway around the planet 1500 years ago with a name I can't even pronounce, living in a world I can never understand not only realized his own Buddha nature under the guidance of a realized teacher, but was successful in pointing a successor to the same realization?  Does it really impact the veracity and effectiveness of the teaching?

Even if the lineage existed historically and somewhere along the line there are a few spots where Dharma Transmission was incorrectly issued, if someone learns enough of the rules to win, they may figure out some of the others on their own.  What really matters is winning against delusion.

One thing I do agree on, is that author was correct in refusing Dharma Transmission, not for the reasons that would immediately come to mind, though.  I respect him, and he probably deserves it.  I still accept his teachings as valid, and as an experienced Zen practitioner in the same general lineage as myself see it as Zen.

Why do I think it  was the right decision, then?  Because to him it's a prize to be won in an ass-kissing contest, a piece of paper to be held up declaring "listen to me, what I say is true and unquestionable!"  If that's how I viewed it, I wouldn't want it either.  Accepting lineage papers in that mindset, they would be good for nothing more than wiping the Truth of the buddhadharma off the ass that is the ego.

*To preserve the good name of our ideal, actions to defend it must take place.  If someone says what they're teaching is Zen or Buddhism, and it's not or they're admitting to trying to make it less esoteric or more accessible, then it's not Zen or Buddhism.  I have no problem with the majority of people doing this, they just shouldn't call it what it's not.


  1. "But we must tie that in with selflessness, if things don't seem right, we should set aside our egocentric opinions and accept our losses, remembering the lessons we've learned and move on. This is where so many get caught up and look the other way, allowing abuse to happen."

    You're really underestimating the power of being in a group situation where power abuse is occurring. I've been through this personally. Several years of problems with the former head teacher of our community. And not even the most senior of students there, people whom I still view as my teachers in the community, were able to figure out what to do. The pressure to maintain harmony, not call out the teacher's misdeeds, and also the view that you "don't know as much" as the teacher are strong individually, and collectively reinforce silence. Those who do try are often marginalized and even pushed out of the sangha.

    I've written a lot about these issues because what I have seen out there is too much either blaming the teachers for everything, or blaming the students for being "too idealist" or whatever. Both views are major fails in my opinion, precisely because of the complex group dynamics involved.

    I'm still not sure what to make of dharma transmission and all the issues entangled in it. I think Storlie's article is too cynical, which could be why you and some others have reacted so strongly against it. However, I for one think we need more fiercely written critiques that perhaps overstep the boundaries, are wrong views in the end, but get us to actually examine how our sanghas are structured and what's happening within them.

    By the way, you mention Reb Anderson. He's written about his time as second in charge of SF Zen Center when Baker Roshi was running amok. His basic reflection was that he was cowardly for not calling out Baker on his great misdeeds, and that we can forgive teachers who massively screw up, but that they also must be held directly accountable as the leaders of the community. Reb was a community leader who had the power to step in much earlier, but didn't. And he said that was a mistake.

  2. I find it very interesting that in a belief system discouraging us from being sheep, so many embrace it out of misunderstanding. This is just an observation, though. I'm not saying it's bad or that I'm never guilty of it, just odd. Some people get more out of life by being sheep than thinking for themselves, so I can't judge.

    I'm not intimately familiar with the situations you bring up, which is why my intent with this was more about the veracity of Dharma Transmission rather than cover ups and abuse.

    What I did write about them, pretty much agrees with your opinion.

    I agree with the need for critique, but don't see why (at the risk of sound like Fox News wanting things fair and balanced) those critiques can't include both sides in the same work.

    I don't feel I've done the research to ask Reb about what you've mentioned casually, but at lunch today he brought up an interesting article about in the New York Times about Scientology and how the story of its founder may or may not have been enhanced and compared it to how our various patriarchs may have received the same treatment.

    This prompted me to mention this article and my response concerning the irrelevancy of the legitimacy of the phenomena of Dharma Transmission due to emptiness. I mentioned the interesting contradiction of those both inside and outside the tradition "sticking" to teachings and traditions as dualistic dogma.

    His response was fairly predictable since it is easier said than done, but he mostly seemed to agree with me (since my comment was pretty much in agreement with his original statement...). Personally I wish I had more trouble grasping this more philosophical aspect rather than some of the more practical aspects of the teachings as some do, but stewing in the Sandokai for a while has made this easier.

    While he's initially a little intimidating, as his status and reputation precede him, he's also very engaging. The eight of us enjoyed feeding our bellies as well as our minds. I've treasured my opportunities for informal meal time interactions I've had with a handful of well respected and influential teachers.

    I'll probably write some stuff when I get back like I did with what I learned from Sojun Mel Weitsman's visit.

    Thanks for the comment, I haven't heard anyone's response to the original article that disagreed so it was good to hear something from one of the many people reading my response.

  3. "I find it very interesting that in a belief system discouraging us from being sheep, so many embrace it out of misunderstanding. This is just an observation, though. I'm not saying it's bad or that I'm never guilty of it, just odd. Some people get more out of life by being sheep than thinking for themselves, so I can't judge." Baahhh!! :)

    Seriously, though, I don't think sheepism - as I'll now call it - is really beneficial for anyone in the long run. And it's quite true that there is a lot of it hanging around in Zen circles, which is kind of curious. A lot of it feels to me like our cultural conditioning to get along, be part of the group, even at the expense of truth and liberation.

    When I think of the conditions Storlie says he experienced in his sangha, I can see why he'd decide to reject Dharma Transmission outright. It makes sense from what he saw and experienced. One of the major weaknesses, though, is that he seems to think that what he experienced is so commonplace in American Zen, that his conclusions are universally applicable. Which is why I felt he was being cynical.

    Reb is an annual guest teacher at our center. He's well liked here, and he also supported our sangha's leaders during the upheaval after our scandal.

    And yeah, it's quite a treat to have informal time with different teachers. I've also been fortunate in that respect.

  4. After soaking in Reb's teachings on non-duality for five days, I'd have to say everything is beneficial in the long run. If you follow mindlessly because that's where life's put you for now, then you should do it wholeheartedly.

    Looking at it in this new light, I may have been not so right and not so wrong in what you quoted.

    I don't have the time yet to distill the lessons of the retreat, but I will in the next couple of days. Things are definitely different for me, it just hasn't gelled yet.