Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hot or Not?

Often after sesshin at Mountain Lamp I crash with my friends Chris (below) and Rebecca in Shoreline, WA. Last year we got to discussing the issue of charismatic teachers in Zen, and the hazards and rewards of practicing with people who have an almost shamanic power in manifesting the Dharma. Rebecca said she once met a teacher like that, and said "I didn't quite trust him. There was something too hypnotic about it, even if he was amazing to be around." I asked Rebecca, who has handed me many a tissue to wipe away sesshin tears, "Do you think that would be an issue for me if I ever became a Zen teacher?"

Without missing a beat, she said "No." So much for my fantasies of becoming a Yoda-like master, with gnomic utterances dripping from my lips while my awestruck students gazed admiringly on.

After I recovered from the blow to my ego (Rebecca said to me, "what is it with men and their egos anyway?"), I wondered if that were a good thing, or, in more zen terms, a useful thing. Was it skillful to not be flashy, to not be particularly sparkling in presentation, but rather to be less theatrical so as not to manifest a barrier that could lead students into further alienation from their own deepest Buddha nature.

This seemed at odds with a lot - though not all, by any means - of what I'd seen in 20 plus years of practice in American Zen groups and the Buddhist Himalaya. The dramatic, and sometimes petulant, Lamas of the Mustang region inspired me less than the villagers in Kagbeni, who toiled away without complaint. In America I was inspired by the oratory of dramatic teachers, and the seeming resemblance of their exhortations to the Masters of the T'ang. But it didn't last, and it seemed that the more luminous the speaker, the deeper their woundedness, at least as shown in what Jung called "shadow" behaviors, deeds at odds with the stated aspirations of the actor. Jung called this propensity to behave in ways contrary to the ego self "Enantiodromia", the superabundance of a force that produces its opposite.

More on how this seems to appear in spiritual communities tomorrow. In the meantime, I would encourage y'all to look at Stuart Lachs' fascinating essay on demystifying a couple of modern teachers. It's here:

Friday, March 18, 2011

A guest post from Chris Nielsen on sado-masochism in American Zen

Chris Nielsen and I have practiced zen together for what feels like kalpas. He's been in the American zen world since the mid 60s and gave me the green light to share this post. He's a professional potter, well read Red, and connoisseur of fine whiskies and wines as well.  Salud!

Scotty-lad – rather than conforming to the blogovian rigamarole, which I don’t understand (profile? What’s a profile?) --

I think it’s important to go beyond the (totally justified and necessary) critique of particular abuses and abusers to examine what it is in (a) ourselves and (b) in Zen that causes the phenomenon. I always think back to Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, his analysis of the psychology of fascism (written in real time, around 1940). His operative analytical phrase was sado-masochism, a tendency of people to subordinate themselves to fuehrers out of ego-weakness and desire to partake in their perceived power – and of those fuehrers to crave followership out of their own ego-weakness. The sadistic abuse is actually welcomed by the masochists as part of the exchange, and of course reinforces the sadists’ sense of power. When I tried out that idea on our mutual “old friend” Chosen (sic) Bays, she was nonplussed. Did not compute. Surprise.

As another old friend of mine often said (quoting WC Fields, perhaps), there’s a seeker born every minute. In the old days of romantic Zen (as opposed to the prevalent therapeutic Zen of today), we were all afflicted with a large amount of magical thinking, and in spite of our oh-so-conscious anti-authoritarianism we were subconsciously seeking fuehrers to lead us out of the dark nights of our various souls. Both facts made us vulnerable to abuse and disillusionment. We need to see through that tendency in ourselves and others and counteract it. We need to see through the dynamics of Zen sanghas, pick out the aspects of them that are sado-masochistic, and counteract them. The pretensions to authority in hierarchical groups needs to be deconstructed, using conventional psychology and ethical thought, and also a wider, non-sectarian investigation of Buddhist philosophy that can demystify the putative authority. An honest investigation of Buddhist literature, history, and scholarship can only demolish any kind of dogmatism and the behavior it justifies, since all Buddhist traditions can be shown to be historical, cultural, and literary constructions. Above all, we have to counteract magical thinking in ourselves and others – stop looking for the “hot line to heaven,” miraculous cures for our psycho-pathologies and existential angst.

Zen is, after all, a religion much like other religions. It’s not a unique Technology of Personal Transformation. Despite centuries of dogma to the contrary, it does not resolve all doubts or require unquestioning obedience to an enlightened master. There are no Enlightened Masters in any absolute sense anyway. I’ve certainly never met one, and I’ve known five fairly well. Teachers can help or hinder depending on their character, ditto for sanghas. We might get some good out of Zen, or we might not. It might save our lives, or it might not. At its best – or at our own practices’ best – it can truly seem magical. But that’s mostly an illusion created by the neurological effects of zazen and our own wishful thinking. Outside of that, Zen tradition contains some worthy philosophical ideas that can illuminate our existential predicament, and maybe help with our more conventional psychological problems. Zazen can help us slow down our mental reactions, back away from them, and contemplate them in a broader philosophical context. But it’s not magic, it’s not absolute truth, and we need to counteract our and others’ tendency to fall into the delusion that it is.

All religions seem to share tendencies toward dogmatism and obscurantist authoritarianism. I think Buddhism is unique in that those features can be stripped away without demolishing the basis for practicing it. Without the magical notions, it includes elements of philosophy and contemplation that are valuable in themselves, and can be seen as faithful to the broad sweep of its own tradition if not all its expressions. It can even be seen as worthy of reverence. But not unquestioning obedience to any putative authority.


Feel free to share this with your audience if you like.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

American Zen becomes a profession

The change seems to have begun, in earnest, with my old teacher Robert Aitken Roshi's decision to make public his vast archive of materials related to the sexual abuses perpetrated by Eido Shimano. Aided by the democritizing power of the Internet, many disclosures and calls for accountability have come forth from the Mahasangha, and there is now an ongoing airing of past traumas and attempts at both healing and enforcement of reasonable codes of ethical behavior.

When I left ZenWorld, some of us wondered why they did not have some sort of ethical code. "It weakens traditional zen training", the Sensei said at the time (ZenWorld now does have a code of ethics). If one reads the T'ang literature this would seem obvious. Pai-Chang did not take insurance payments (as far as we know!), and didn't sue when his leg was broken by his master. But Dharma leaders, whether monks, laity, or what have you, were doubtless held to some standards of behavior in their communities. I lived in the Himalaya for 3 years, and monks who screwed the pooch (not literally, well, ahh, mostly not anyhow, except in VERY remote places) were typically called on it by people in the villages, and within the regional authority.

As my old friend Chozen Bays mentioned in a recent post on Sweeping Zen, being a Zen teacher is a profession. I am glad that here in the USA, at last, the power of the net is inviting people into a relatedness that makes it much more difficult for abuses of power to go unnoticed, and for the victims of them to be silenced. There is much more on this change to address, which I shall soon.

Of course Zen is not just a profession - it has its interiority, the vast wildness of mountain winds, infinite creativity, and at bottom the no-thing-ness (sorry) that shows the denominator as all things. But this post is about the human side and spirit of practice and how to manifest that skillfully.

And since this blog is satirical....

When I v isited Lhasa in 1998, I took time to visit all the main temples in the vicinity - Sera-Je, Ganden, Tsurphu, and Drepung. While wandering around Sera, I rounded a corner of the labyrinthine walkways and surprised an older monk and a, ahh, novice. In flagrante delicto, shall we say. Or exploring the interpenetration of phenomena. I saw a similar incident in Nepal in 1994. At the time, this prompted me to write to a friend (Laith Na'ayem), "Om Mani Padme Hum" should really be said as "Oh Mommy He's Well Hung". 

Well, you must admit that the early Jesuit explorers in Tibet did liken "Lamaism" to Catholicism, identifying the exotic rituals of the Vajrayana with Rome while likening the austerity of Theravada with Protestantism. Ahem.