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.


  1. This all reminds me of the old joke, "What do you call someone who was born Catholic? ...Buddhist." Zen allows one to maintain the sense of contemplative reverence that the Catholic church does so well (and the Protestant churches often struggle with) without what you refer to as "magical thinking" that many recovering Catholics just could never quite swallow.

  2. Chris, thanks for sharing your clarity. Practice squelches magical notions. Finding an antidote to authoritarian structure is noble work. You suggest one such antidote as:

    "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."

    Sweetly said.

    Another would be play. Reduce magical thinking and enjoy ourselves. Don't take ourselves so seriously. Follow the tree's example. Do the tree take themselves seriously?

    Good to see you here Chris. Thanks for all your hard work.

  3. Hi all -

    I have been slow to respond due to Internet troubles at home - hopefully that will be resolved tomorrow.

    The problem is that magical thinking, as in Genpo's Big Mind, or EST, and literalistic takes on Zen or Vajrayana practice, makes more money when slickly packaged. It's not thrilling to present koans as bits of poetic tradition that open onto vistas of quite quotidian beauty. I recall how MU practice was presented at ZenWorld (tm). Once you're "past MU" you live in eternal bliss, free from all neurosis, or mostly anyhow. Much of this spin I think comes from the commodification of the teachings, something that's only starting in America now.

  4. Nice. Or maybe I should say, Mu. Ah, bliss!