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.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Television, DVRs, and Getting What We Want

During dokusan this week , this idea came to mind about not always getting what we want. 

Now, I'm a grown up so while I may not live it all the time, I do know that I can't always get what I want.  Yes, it's a seductive fantasy, but realistically it has its drawbacks.

In trying to communicate my comfort with this position on the matter, I equated it as like watching tv with no commercials.

Traditionally, you turn on the tv and flip through the channels looking for something to watch.  If you don't find something that interests you, too bad, deal with it or turn it off.  This is life: you're born, you wander through life and you either deal with it, or (as the comparison implies) you off yourself.

There are programs we don't like and commercials for things we'll never buy.  These are like the hard times in life.

The good times are our favorite programs, we just can't get enough of them.  Sometimes we even tape them so we can watch them again and again.

The widespread use of the DVR has changed all of that.  In our household, we watch our favorite shows off of the DVR so much that we don't even know when they normally come on.  Even though we have dozens upon dozens of channels, after scanning the few we normally watch and finding nothing we go straight to the DVR to catch up on what we've missed.  While we watch, we have the ability to fast forward through commercials, skipping over the obnoxious part of watching television, the part that pays the bills so that our favorite shows can even be made!

We can search to find when our shows will be on so that we can record that new series we've been hearing so much about.  Some shows and movies are even available instantly on demand.

In our constant struggle with handling life as it is now, our entertainment has led to this.  How many of us would like so much for life to be this way: summoning our favorite parts of life and skipping through all of the bad.

This is the fertile field of context where my thought sprouted.

There are two types of commercials, those that sell products and those that promote other shows.  Skipping through the commercials, we lose out on both. 

Yes, we've all seen that one commercial a million times and blow it off each time, thinking "who would want that?" or in the case of car commercials, "who can afford that?!"  So we become cynical about these types of commercials and ignore them.  But every once in a while something does appeal: a sale here, a new product there.  Look what we would have missed out on if we hadn't seen the commercial?

There are commercials of the other type, promoting shows, that just anger me in how mindless the product they are promoting is, reinforcing this feeling, "that show's still on? who the hell enjoys that?"  I'd love to be rid of these.  But what about that commercial for that show I've not heard of?  "Hey, that sounds appealing. I should watch that."  Once again, I would have missed out on what may become my new favorite show.

This is what life is like.  There are things we want to watch and sometimes the things we need to watch are mixed in with what we don't want.  Sometimes life can even go the other way and get unbalanced like suffering through the Super Bowl just to see that commercial everyone will be talking about on Monday.

Some good examples of how this shows up in life... hmm.   Well how many of us are happy and in good relationships (or even happy and single)?  This can't possible be the first relationship you've been in, or at least the first person you've liked.  How many times have you been rejected?  But now look at you, would you have found that perfect someone if you were still stuck in that one sided abusive relationship with that narcissist you dated a few years back? (If they're reading this with you, just smile and nod, exclaiming "of course not!" if you're a little confused at this point.  Trust me, that's the right answer)

Or what about that job that didn't work out?  Nobody wants a crumby job where they perform so poorly out of displeasure that they get fired.  Even getting rejected from several job interviews has it's upside in that you have the opportunity to improve.

I myself, have dealt with these things.  So many unpleasant occurrences that have shaped me into the well rounded and grounded person that I am today.  I have so many interests that I wouldn't have even dreamt of if one thing or another had gone the way I wanted them to.

Now's the point where you expect me to tell you to get rid of the DVR and stop wanting things to go your way, right?

Well that's the funny thing about Buddhism.  The DVR, and desires, are alright if we remain aware of what exactly they are and what we may be missing out on by indulging them.  We have every right to want things, even those that we don't need.  When they cause trouble is when we begin to feel entitled to them, when they get in the way of enjoying what we have now.  If it helps to consider what others have to do without, then go for it.  Maybe give up using the DVR so much and suffer through a few commercials?  It couldn't hurt, might even learn something.  But neither of these things are asked of you.

So many Buddhists talk about extinction of desire or craving, but that's not truly possible.  Even that itself is a desire.  What the truth of the matter is, the way to satisfaction and shaking the grip suffering has on your life is the extinction of the hold desire has on you. 

Take control back.

I find irony in this coming holiday.  Society tells us to give candy to those society tells to be skinny.  With this in mind, is it alright to desire another piece of chocolate? Yes.  Accept it as natural, but don't think the world revolves around you eating or not eating it.  If you eat it, eat it; if you don't move on.

This is Zen, accept the obstacle, make a decision and move on.  This is the key to happiness.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

De-Sire Is Not a River in Egypt

There's a lot of talk about desire, wanting, and detachment in Buddhism that's often misunderstood.  Desire is considered the cause of suffering so a lot of people think we're supposed to get rid of it.

But what makes it so bad?  We're not ascetics so getting rid of it is a little extreme.

I've recently been finding a lot of interesting dualities, the kind that exist as opposite sides of the same coin.  Desire and denial are two that have popped up.  Desire is usually associated with wanting, you give in to it and end up wallowing in excess.  Give in to denial and you go the other way, living with nothing.

In the whole mix of mindfulness and living in the moment, denial and desire are very much related. 

When we desire something, it's usually because we're unhappy with the way things are.  We want something we don't have, or want something to be different in the past, present or future.  In this way, desire is a denial of what really is.  We deny the reality of the moment.

Getting rid of desire is like taking medicine to control the symptoms rather than the disease.  Sometimes a headache is just a headache, just as wanting that flashy phone or juicy cheeseburger is just a want.  But other times a headache is something more.

Families or loved ones are often considered one such "headache" by some.  They find distress in loving their families when being told to give up attachments and desires.

In this situation what is it that desire denies?  Our desire to care and protect those we love is a good thing, giving us reason to be balanced and productive in life.  Any denial involved in doing so is healthy, usually considered compassionate. 

Where desire causes problems is when they're not met.  All desires are are preconceived notions of what we want life to be.  Just like all preconceived ideas, they're usually not founded in reality.  Even if we get what we believe our desires to be fulfilled, they almost never match up with what expected and even if they do, the thrill dissipates over time.

This is the type of desire we're warned against.  It'll still happen, there's no way to get rid of it.  We're hardwired to want more because our bodies can never be permanently satisfied.

This is where attachment comes into play.  If we get hooked on the dissatisfaction with not having out desires met, we continue to deny reality.  This is the root of suffering.  Having desires is okay, it's not letting go of them when they don't measure up.

Taking families as an example, no one's family is perfect.  The one's that are happy with their families are the ones that accept this.  Letting go of that standard prevents dissatisfaction.

Standards are relative and mostly arbitrary so it's not the desires that cause the issues so much as our unwillingness to realize the nature of our standards and holding on to them.

Reality is as it is, our actions have brought us to where we are.  Denying reality puts us at odds with truth, making us unhappy.

Only through being aware of this gives us the perspective to correct our views and behaviors.