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.


  1. Thanks for the post.
    More satire on this:

    I came once to a “Zen” center located in the foothills of a mountain... During that time in my life I wore a beard and seldom cut my hair. Two bald-headed, very clean-looking American monks met me at the gated entrance… Neither made any effort to disguise their disapproval of my appearance. After a bit of wrangling, they allowed me to enter. I was escorted to a room where a pleasant, smiling nun and a wiry, pinch-faced monk met with me. Both were shaved headed, and both wore fine, ornamented robes. Pointing to one of the official looking badges pinned to the monk’s robe, I asked what it meant.
    “That one is for passing all the koans in the Mumonkan,” he said, “I earned that several years ago, of course.”
    “Of course,” I said.
    The nun asked me where I had come from and what it was I wanted.
    I said, “I have walked here from Boise. I stopped to meet the teacher.”
    “Boise!” The monk said, “That’s over a hundred miles.” His face expressed obvious disbelief, pinched or not…
    I said, “It is about three hundred and twenty miles, give or take.”
    He bowed, gave me a sideways pinched look and left. The nun explained that this center was for residents only… If I wanted to meet the teacher here, I would have to send in an application… I could go to one of his “public” three-hour workshops. The fee was only two hundred dollars, and sometimes the roshi permitted a few questions at the end… a bald man wearing a gorgeous blue and cream, elaborately ornamented Asian robe swept into the room. The nun bowed deeply. “M-Master,” she said.
    He ignored her and turned his attention to me. “Hello,” he said. “Norman tells me you walked all the way from Boise just to see me. Is this true?”
    I bowed politely, then said, “Partly true-”
    “Skip the ‘Zen talk’,” he said, “‘Partly true’, bah! Just speak ordinary.”
    “It is true that I walked here,” I said, “but it was not just to see you. I am on my way to Florida and heard about this place yesterday and it seemed appropriate to pay you a visit.”
    “Appropriate?” he said, “Are you a Zen practitioner then? …
    “Yes,” I said, “I am a-”
    Interrupting me, he asked, “What lineage do you follow?”
    “I follow no particular lin-” I began, but was interrupted again.
    “Bah!” He said, then he produced a small, carved stick from somewhere inside his many-layered robe, and tossed it at me.
    I caught it, held it out and said, “You dropped your stick.”
    “Bah! You haven’t a glimmer,” he said and abruptly departed.
    About two years later, I was again in the same area… I purchased an old set of heavy, gold-colored drapes, some fancy sandals, and a gnarly looking cane. I cut and sewed the drapes into an intricate, gorgeous robe. I shaved… hired a limousine and traveled to the center… the roshi himself opened the gate… I got out with a glare in my eye. The roshi made three deep bows. I said, “Can you say a word of Zen?”
    His Adam’s apple bobbed a few times, then he said, “Just this is it.”
    “Good!” I said, and bowed. “Now you test me.”
    He hesitated a moment then said, “What is the sound of a single hand?”
    I immediately removed one of my sandals and slapped him across the face with it, which was of course, a meaningless gesture.
    He bowed again saying, “I have dreamed about you, wise Master.”
    I said, “I am Sajavoni Roshi, of the Wokfumboise lineage. I have heard about you, Master, and your great Zen center and have come to learn your methods.”
    … lavishing me with flattery, I was led to a private cottage… after three weeks I went to the roshi’s suite, where two of his young female attendants escorted me in. As he made bows, I dropped the carved stick he had given me two years earlier, turned my back… and walked out.
    ~The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing, p.58


  2. Hi Ted -

    Thanks for the excerpt from your book. It's odd that we have not met before - I have studied with Jack Duffy since 96 and Nils Larsen and I are old friends too. I read some of your book up at Jack's place and was very impressed with your knowledge of genuine practice, and the irreverent spirit you showed, which I think essential to keeping it real.

    I hope to meet you sometime.

    Bows and thanks again


  3. I too think irreverence is important in this practice if you're going to stay sane. This is why one of my favorite books ever is Thank you and OK! by David Chadwick.

  4. Erin - I agree about Chadwick. Isn't the subtitle of that book "An American Zen Failure in Japan?" As someone who was publicly declared a "zen failure" in NY I am most sympathetic! Of course the mindfulness marketers don't operate like this - after a single retreat, or a few perhaps, they claim great wisdom, and charge prices to match (Ahem, Dan Siegel, ahem!).