"There is No Zen, Only Zen Teachers"
It is an interesting and thought provoking piece, obviously heart felt. But I am not enamoured with it and find it to be lacking in depth. I'm sure I'm not the intended audience so these critical comments should be taken with large doses of salt. We're all Buddhists here so my criticism is not intended to disenfranchise Magid's views but to put them in another perspective.
Essentially, Magid's essay is about evaluating Zen in America, but the task of actually doing the evaluating becomes sort of lost. Magid seems to be saying that evaluating the depth of Buddha Dharma is too difficult a task, so he is satisfied with a simple Buddha Dharma. All the great Zen masters from Baizhang to Torei Enji have said that we need to be able to discern the deep from the shallow, the live from the dead, whether one is facing forward or backward, etc. This is not the evaluation or judgment of "good and bad" but the discrimination of vertical and horizontal.
I suppose my main objection to Magid's essay is that his vision of the Dharma is too prosaic and simplistic. Since Layman Pang described the Dharma in verse saying, "Miraculous and wondrous, Hauling water and carrying firewood.", people all over have grasped onto the water and firewood while ignoring the miraculous and wondrous. If I have any point at all, it is to see the Dharma not only in the water and firewood but also in the miraculous and wondrous, and in the activity that merges them: the hauling and carrying.
Magid's article is in the blockquotes with my comments interspersed in brackets.
In response to the scandals enveloping certain Zen teachers, most notably these days, Eido Shimano and Genpo Merzel, I sometimes hear it said that, flawed as these individuals are, they nonetheless have played an important part in the transmission of Zen in America, and we must not “throw the baby out with the bath water.” This attitude is also being retrospectively applied to the case of Maezumi Roshi, who, while it is admitted he was an alcoholic and womanizer, is nonetheless honored as the founder of the now flourishing White Plum Asangha. Along with the baby and the bathwater there are many metaphors that are deployed to try to separate out the pure untainted teaching from the flawed personality.[GW: What is the “pure untainted teaching”? In zen, there is no such thing. Do I need to recite the examples? Isn’t the pure and untainted teaching that in his 45 years of teaching Buddha did not say a word? In zen, “purity” is both a medicine and a disease and only in the appropriate application is the difference made.]
One student of Eido Shimano suggested to me that he was like a brilliant conductor who is able to create unique orchestral music; why should we be preoccupied with his personal life?[GW: No question that such misguided students can benefit form guidance.]
Maezumi Roshi’s daughter has recently published in Sweeping Zen a defense of her father’s and of Genpo’s Dharma, a teaching we are admonished not to discard despite their personal transgressions – a defense that is, to my mind, tragically ironic, given that she herself was the baby almost literally thrown out by her father, while his Dharmic bathwater has been so devoutly conserved.[GW comment: Which the baby, which the bathwater?]
In Dharma centers, as in families where incest has occurred, there is on the part of the abused person the terrible conflict between the experience of the parent as loving caretaker and the parent as an abuser. Our minds can rarely tolerate holding onto both images at once. An almost inevitable response is to either deny the abuse and so preserve the good parent or to totally demonize the abuser and erase the good that they did.[GW: Yes. indeed, we need to acknowledge both sides whenever there is sidedness. But is character really the issue? That seems to be the crux of the problem. There are some who maintain that Buddha Dharma is all about character. Others who say that the Dharma can not be ascertained by characteristics. Certainly our Zen family goes along with the Diamond Cutter Sutra when it says that the Tathagata is not perceived by the possession of attributes or characteristics. Is the Dharma then to be perceived by such characteristics as "good character"? This is one of the deep questions of Buddha Dharma that those in the shallow waters have not yet plunged into.]
Our challenge is to acknowledge both sides without splitting the person in two and at the same time, not try to split off the good from the bad and imagine we can have one without having to come to terms with the other. A person’s character is not so divisible that one aspect is not implicated in the others. Very often, it is our virtues, or our most basic human needs, that taken to an extreme become our vices. Charisma, real talents and insights that make us attractive and valuable to others, a need for love and to give love, an ability to lead and a capacity to manipulate, a role that encourages idealization and the tantalizing promise of having what everyone is seeking — it is in just such human packages that the Dharma is manifested and transmitted.
Just what is this precious Dharma, so separable from the character and conduct of the teacher, supposed to consist of?[GW comment: Isn’t this the question, “What is the essence of Buddhism?”, that is asked in so many koans? Zhao Zhou’s “Cypress tree in the courtyard”, Dongshan’s “Three pounds of flax.” Linji’s “Ka!” are all answers to this question about what this precious Dharma consists of.]
Is the Dharma some pure gem-like flame that is transmitted from generation to generation irrespective of the nature or quality of the human candle that carries it?[GW: Yes.... and not exactly.]
Does it have some unchanging essential nature that exists apart from and is unsullied by its transitory human manifestation?[GW: Yes.... and not exactly..]
Is it not the very meaning of the Buddha Dharma that no thing has such an essential nature?[GW: It is the very nature of the Buddha Dharma that no thing has an essential meaning, and even the Dharma does not have an essential meaning as the term is usually objectified.]
That emptiness and interconnectedness are inescapable aspects of our nature is the message that has come down to us from Shakyamuni.[GW: When seen as “aspects,” concepts like emptiness and interconnectedness can be both leading and misleading.]
The self (or the soul), in most cultures before and after the Buddha, has been imagined to be a non-material essence contingently connected to and potentially separable from its material vehicle, the body. Shakyamuni’s realization was that the self and all existence was empty of an unchanging essential nature. We are irreducibly the product and manifestation of the flux of cause and effect which extend infinitely and incalculably in all directions.[GW: Okay, that’s a fun way to say it. Any verbal formulation has its limitations, and we can enjoy such formulations for what they are worth.]
What then is this Dharma we, as teachers hold, maintain and transmit?[GW: Good question. This Dharma is not a formulation. ]
In all cultures there is art, music and religion. All cultures have a conception of the good, the true and the beautiful. Yet there is no essential element common to art, music and religion across all cultures. There is no single definition of the good, the true or the beautiful that has applied throughout history. Poetry, for instance, comes down to us in the West from the time of Homer and Sappho. We can recognize what they have written as poetry even though the poetry of many modern poets would not be recognizable as poetry to them. The same is true of Western art and music. Abstract art would have been considered an contradiction in terms in cultures where art was synonymous with the mimetic.[GW: To equate Buddha Dharma with art, music, poetry and religion is the narrow-minded (i.e., small-vehicle) view of Buddha Dharma.]
Art, music, poetry – and I suggest religion, including the Buddha Dharma – are “transmitted” generation to generation, the way all culturally defined activities are, embodied in the practices of the makers and the participants.
Art, ultimately, is simply what the artists of a certain time and place create.[GW: This is exactly why Buddha Dharma is not like art. Buddha Dharma is not what Buddhists of a certain time and place create.]
Artists, musicians, priests, teachers all occupy their respective cultural niches and the products of their activity are inseparable from the lives they lead in the making of it.[GW: Buddha Dharma is not something that occupies a cultural niche. Buddha Dharma is not the possession of Buddhist artists, musicians, teachers, or priests.]
There is no Platonic essence of capital A “Art” that one generation of artists transmits to the next. Artists learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the art of their contemporaries and predecessors. Dharma teachers likewise learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the teaching of their teachers. The nature, the meaning of, the Dharma in any generation is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are teaching and living it at any given time.[GW: I suppose there are Dharma teachers who view teaching the Dharma like teaching art, but I see that view as “nothing but” a narrow-minded (i.e., shallow) view of the Dharma as “teaching, behavior, and lives.” Shallow Buddhism is still Buddhism, but it is still shallow Buddhism. The nature of the Dharma should not be confused with meaning. The nature of Dharma is not limited to being “nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are teaching and living it at any given time.” That’s like saying the nature of the entire Cosmos is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are teaching and living it at any given time. A teacher expresses the nature of the Dharma in the way that a blade of grass expresses the nature of the Dharma. But I wouldn’t say that there is no Dharma without a teacher any more than saying there is no Dharma without a blade of grass.]
The Buddhism of America both is and is not the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and our Chinese and Japanese ancestors. There is no Zen, only Zen teachers.
[GW: Of course the attempt here is to be cutely ironic by turning Huangbo’s statement on its head. Huangbo said, “In all of the Great Tang, there are no zen teachers.” When someone asked what about all the teaching in the monasteries and temples, Huangbo said, “I did not say there was no zen, only no zen teachers.”]
The Dharma transmits a teaching about what are presented as foundational, inescapable facts about existence, namely that no “thing” (including the thing we imagine is our “self”) has a separate existence, and that no “thing” is unchanging or stands outside the web of cause and effect.[GW comment: A “teaching about inescapable facts about existence” is not the whole of the Dharma, not the Dharma itself, only a teaching about the Dharma.]
But the Dharma is not presented as a treatise in physics, it is passed down to us as having a religious, ethical and moral implication.[GW comment: The moral and ethical teachings of the Dharma are not mere implications, yet neither are they to be mistaken for the complete Dharma. The oil (sila, morality) in the lamp is needed for the wick (samadhi) to hold the flame (prajna), but if there is no wick and no flame, the lamp is not a functioning lamp no matter how full of oil it is.]
It posits that our personal suffering, and all the greedy, grasping, violent behavior in which we indulge in order to escape our suffering, can be fundamentally altered by a deep realization of the emptiness and impermanence of the self along with all other “things.” So the Dharma really puts forth two propositions: one about the nature of reality at a very fundamental and abstract level; and second a claim about the potential for relieving suffering and ending misconduct when the first is fully realized.[GW comment: The notion of the Dharma as propositions is the view of the Dharma at the beginning stage when one has no practical understanding of the Dharma. The abstractness put forth as the Dharma is only abstract for those who find it difficult to understand. Once one sees one’s nature the Dharma no longer appears to be abstract at all. The question of relieving suffering and ending misconduct have to do with karma and there is a profound mystery to be looked into about the relationship of seeing one’s nature and karma. The koan of Baizhang’s (Hyakujo) Fox is one of the karma koans which is a door to this.]
The Buddha Dharma is transmitted by and within the form of life of those who realize and practice it.[GW comment: Yet the Dharma should never be confused for such forms of life.
From the Diamond Cutter Sutra:
If using form to see me,
Or using sound to seek me,
Indeed the person travels the wrong way,
And is not suitable to see me
The body of the Dharma (Dharmakaya) is not to be found within cognition.]
Traditionally, this was a monastic lifestyle, a model that essentially claimed this is how life would and should look if we all realized the truth of the Dharma.[GW comment: Originally there was no monasticism, only drop-outs from society taking up the homeless life who were wandering mendicants like the Buddha and known as sramanas. Over time, after the death of Buddha and due to various social and political conditions, monasticism developed as the Buddhist sramanas became institutionalized bhiksus and their seasonal rainy season retreats became year-round living establishments. But all the while, evenn though monastics were the specialists, there was never a time without Buddhist lay practitioners of various degrees of involvement, practice, and realization.]
That form of life, which one might imagine manifesting fully and spontaneously as the expression of realization, became, through the precepts and the rules of monastic order, a vehicle for manifesting and bringing about that realization. As such, it could fulfill those dual functions well or badly. That is, the monastic community could, or could not, succeed in modeling a non-self-centered life ( short hand for a life based on the realization of the emptiness of self-nature) and secondly, the monastic life could, or could not, succeed in promoting the actual experience of realization among its members.[GW comment: The idealization of monastic life must be brought back to earth with the emphasis that the “could or could not” means the “form of life” really is not the important factor at all.]
When we look at how the Dharma has been transmitted in America, we see that the forms of life involved have changed in many important ways, including the attempt to integrate Zen practice with lay life. So how’s that going?[GW comment: Its going as good as it ever has.]
What does the misconduct of teachers say about how that’s going?
[GW comment: We had better remember when embarking down this line of reasoning that a correlation is not proof of causation. Also that there was no such golden age of monasticism where all teachers were entirely free of misconduct.]
What we have to evaluate is a whole package, a whole historical moment, which only abstractly and artificially can be separated into parts.[GW comment: The whole package can not be evaluated by standing on one side or the other, but only by standing on the zero point of the scales of evaluation.]
When we look back, for instance, at the history of the American Civil War, we see on one hand horrific carnage and loss of life, and on the other, a series of events that, in the name of preserving the Union, also resulted in the ending of slavery. What does it mean to ask “Was it worth it?” Was the Civil War a “good or just war?” In some sense, the question asks us to perform a thought experiment in which we are to imagine whether or not the good outcome, the ending of slavery, could have been accomplished without the terrible loss of life the actual war entailed. If we think we can easily imagine there was a non-violent, political means to end slavery that was ignored or not considered, we may say the war was a terrible mistake. But if we think, no, slavery wouldn’t have ended in the United States for another generation or two or three, how can we weigh the cost in life against that goal? If we are pacifists, no cause can justify such bloody means. But perhaps we long for is a utilitarian calculus that will give us an answer, what price is fair?, reasonable?, sane? to pay for the end of slavery?[GW comment: Unfortunately “the end of slavery” is a bit of an illusion as white supremacy has not been ended and the civil war is now a civil cold war that remains alive and smoldering. ]
In the Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” we are asked to consider whether the whole order and existence of the universe is “worth” the painful death of a single innocent child.[GW comment: Yes, this is a great koan. Yunmen said that from the perspective of after awakening, “Every day is a good day.” But how can it be a good day with innocent children are killed? The answer to this can not be found by evaluation! Not even if the evaluation is an evaluation of the whole package!]
In fact, we cannot choose, we cannot have one without the another and we must accept life, including the death of innocent children, as a whole.[GW comment: So if we must accept life as a whole, where then is the room for the evaluation as a whole? Isn’t evaluation the art of accepting and rejecting?]
When I think of the state of the Dharma in America, I find I must say yes to it whole, which is to say I admit that its history, like all history, is a tragic whole.[GW comment: The first Noble Truth: Life is suffering.]
There is no Zen apart from Zen teachers.[GW comment: This seems like a non sequitur having no connection to what preceded it. In fact, though there are no Zen teachers without zen, it does not follow that there is no Zen apart from Zen teachers, in the sense that Zen is not dependent on the presence or absence of Zen teachers.]
There is no pure part to split off and honor while distancing ourselves from its failures. There is no way to say that the transmission of Zen to the West is “worth” the abuse of a single student. Isaiah Berlin adopted as a title for one of his books a quotation from Kant which he translates, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing has ever been made.” The Dharma, here and elsewhere, can be no exception. The lives of our teachers are crooked, sometimes in an endearing way, the way Suzuki Roshi could call himself a crooked cucumber, but also sometimes crooked in a way that is actually criminal. The realization of emptiness and interconnectedness by human beings does not, it seems, reliably transform them into something more than human.[GW: Hw could it? There is an old Zen saying, “Pure gold refined a hundred times doesn’t change its color.”]
(It doesn’t, I’m sorry to say, even reliably turn them into good human beings). The fantasy that it always does, or even could, is one of the most effective curtains behind which our modern day Wizards of OZ can hide.[GW: If you meet the Wizard on the yellow brick road, kill him.]
Anyone who tells you that Zen or any other practice will once and for all totally transform character is lying to you, and maybe to themselves as well. And it’s no good to claim transgressors aren’t “really” enlightened. Enlightenment just isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. (I’ve met too many Zen teachers to think otherwise.)
[GW: Well what is enlightenment cracked up to be? Zen teachers with shallow enlightenment abound. Deep enlightenment can crack up a person too, when there is no good teacher around.] .
If somewhere out there, in some temple in Japan or on a mountaintop in Tibet, there is a teacher who is “really” thoroughly and totally enlightened, it almost doesn’t matter. That would make practicing Buddhism like buying a lottery ticket. One in ten million get the big jackpot.[GW: Well, that is the story of Buddhism, and to deny it makes it questionable whether one understands the Buddha Dharma.]
No thanks.[GW: “No thanks” to the Buddha Dharma? Wow! Okay, then, but perhaps one with this attitude should be careful about claiming to teach the Buddha Dharma. Addendum on 3-5-11: I just came across this line from Zen Master Huangbo: "Of the 1000 people or 10,000 people within this gate, only three or five get it." ]
I want to know and work with the students I have, with their occasional garden variety “kenshos,” (like my own…) and find out what this practice does and doesn’t do for people like me.[GW: Yes that is great. There is no denying that everyone finds out for themselves what their practice does and doesn’t do for them.]
The practice of Zen is a beautiful, transformative, profound, imperfect, unreliable, corruptible, abuse-able, culturally conditioned tradition and way of life of which I am part and which I am responsible for maintaining and passing on.[GW: The forms of practice can be “passed on” but the practice of Zen is not in any particular form more than another and so in that sense can not be passed on.]
The medium is the message:[GW: Who says? An assertion like this calls for the counter assertion that the medium is not the message which is why they are distinguished. In Zen, the medium is horizontal like the eyes and the message is vertical like the nose and they intersect at the zero point of solitary brightness going in and out of the face.]
there is no Zen apart from Zen teachers and Zen students, doing what they do.[GW: Even if all the Zen teachers and Zen students were to perish, there would still be Zen.