Thursday, June 26, 2008

Precept #6 - Do not criticise others

The taking and keeping of precepts in all forms of Buddhism is essential to the practice. They're not optional and they are to be regarded sincerely. Zen Buddhism has never been just about sitting in a particular position. It's not what Buddha taught, nor Dogen and it's not what is taught in the Soto sect now. Similarly, the universal emphasis on compassion and the Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva - someone who practices out of compassion for all beings - are not optional extras.

Of course, no one is forced to accept this if they don't want to. But if they don't it's not what was transmitted from Buddha through the Patriarchs to us today. It isn't true Zen. It's probably what Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (Keiho Shumitsu Zenji) would have classified as Bonpu Zen - non-religious, self-seeking meditation practice. And to claim that these are unneccessary in Zen Buddhism is a distortion.

Perhaps there's nothing objectively right or wrong in Buddhism - it's a method to attain nirvana. But if you tinker with the method in an unskillful way then you create a path that doesn't lead to nirvana but leads somewhere else - possibly to egotism, delusion and suffering. If a teacher does it they will confuse others about Buddhism too.

One of the the Bodhisattva Precepts in Soto Zen Buddhism is generally rendered as 'Do not criticise others'. I can see two sorts of value in this: firstly, criticising others can easily increase egotistical opinionating, intellectual vanity and hostility, all of which are forms of clinging and delusion; secondly, it's a good 'house rule' for maintaining social harmony in the place of practice, which itself helps with the practice.

One problem that has arisen in Western Buddhism, particularly in American Zen I think, is the abuse of power by the master over his (it's nearly always a man) students. I think the problem is twofold. Firstly, in the West many people have accepted a mythical idea of what a Zen Master is - that their actions are above criticism because they are 'enlightened'. This is not true, even of the most insightful master - no one ever stops being human, no one ever loses all of their delusions. If the Buddha managed it, who can say? To be human is to be deluded. To have a brain is to be deluded. To open your mouth is to be deluded. Enlightenment, I think, is insight that we can go deeper and deeper into without reaching the end. Most of the cases of abuse of power by American Zen masters would have been avoided if (ironically) there had not been a prevalent culture that the actions of the master are 'beyond criticism' in a way which did not apply to his students.

The second problem is that people misunderstand Zen as nihilism - that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' and that therefor you can do whatever you want. This is also a mistake. The first taisho that I saw Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure give was about correcting this western nihilistic misunderstanding. 'Authenticity' does not trump the need to strive to follow the precepts release attachment to selfish desires. We need to try our best to follow the precepts - in particular, to understand the spirit of the precepts as giving up the attachments and delusions of the personal, egotistic mind, opening the heart-mind and realising selflessness. As a person realises this more deeply, they no longer have to think about the precepts because they follow them naturally. That's the theory anyway. The tricky part, it seems to me, is to avoid believing you are more enlightened than you really are and falling into an egotistical delusion that precepts are unneccessary.

Open debate and discussion can be healthy. And occasional constructive criticism can too. I think it's only a problem when it becomes a habit or a compulsion. In that spirit I'm beaking the precept. I can't be sure that I'm not foolish by doing this, but I believe that it's the right thing to do in this particular case. I don't want to make it personal, but I do think it's right to make a response to how he is representing Soto Zen and the way he is teaching. Sure - my criticism is a form of egotistical delusion too, but I'm taking this one for the team. The alternative is that nobody challenges the narrow and distorted version of Zen that he is presenting. I might be wrong, as I said.
I've been following the Zen author and blogger Brad Warner for a few years now - from the time of his first online articles, before he published anything or started his Hardcore Zen blog. I always enjoyed him and he was an inspirational influence on my early practice. And I'm grateful to him for that. He can be very entertaining. But he can also be very abrasive. Anyone that's read his work will know what I mean. He criticises and freely insults students and teachers he doesn't like and he does it recklessly and without regard for their feelings. On his public blog, he referred to a student that left a sesshin early as an 'asswipe', referred to Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber whose work he doesn't like as 'butt buddies' - a titles he has also used for people who have challenged his teaching style in the past. No doubt he'll call me something similar if he ever reads this. Buddha and Dogen must be proud.

The justification that he gives for acting like this is that this is how he really feels and that to act differently is 'phoney' and that anyone who does this is a hypocritical 'asshole'. This isn't Buddhism as taught either by Buddha or Dogen. This sort of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything. 'I did a bunch of bad stuff but I don't care cos if I didn't I'd be being 'inauthentic' and my repressed emotions might express themselves as passive-aggressive behaviour later on which is worse'. There's no support for the idea that not acting out anti-social impulses ie. acting as a socialised human being leads to greater harm later on. He is placing 'authenticity' ie. his attachment to 'punk' credibility above any harm he does other people. Unsurpisingly his blog comments section is full of conflict - with people challenging Brad's controversial teaching and others attacking those who dare to challenge him.
The Soto Zen way is neither amoral nihilism nor is it repression. It means at least trying to live according to the precepts and taking the Bodhisattva vows sincerely. Things like selfishness, vanity and arrogance are not rationalised as 'authentic' they are faced as part of our practice. How do these delusions arise? And why do we cling to them? By releasing the tight grip of the personal mind we can naturally understand other people better and treat them with kindness.

Perhaps it doesn't have a lot of punk credibility or attention-grabbing sensationalism, but this is the teaching of Zen passed from Dogen.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Has my dog got Buddha-nature?

At the weekend, we picked up Lily - our new dog, a whippet, aged 10 weeks.

She's affectionate, has long legs, a pointed nose, bluish eyes and soft ears. She likes to eat Weetabix, dog chews, carpets, grass and bonsai trees. She's just been to the vet and she's in great shape. But as a Zen Buddhist the obvious question of course is - does she have Buddha-nature? 'Does a dog have Buddha-nature?' is a question that Joshu was famously asked by a monk. His reply of 'mu' (meaning 'not' or 'nothing') became the first koan studied by most monks in the Rinzai tradition.

In China at that time a dog was considered to be lowly in a way that dogs in the west generally are not - as when Dogen declared that 'those who let their hair grow are lower than dogs!'. So the question had a subtly different meaning. Essentially he was asking whether even the lowliest beast has Buddha-nature. A dog? What about a rat?

What is Buddha-nature? Does it mean that there is a little Buddha inside everyone like a little homunculus? Or does it just mean that we are potential Buddhas? Buddha-nature is a translation of the Sanskrit Tathagata-garbha or 'Buddha-womb' and is described by certain Mahayana sutras as a truly real, but hidden element within the purest aspect of consciousness in all sentient beings. A dog is a sentient being, so why did Joshu not simply reply 'yes'? Joshu was a pretty sharp fellow so he wouldn't get such a basic doctrinal point wrong.

The Tathagata-womb is sometimes described as a pure, unchanging and permanent element like a jewel. And proponents of this doctrine have sometimes been accused of contaminating Buddhism with Hindu ideas. The Hindu concept of the Atman as a permanent, undying essence or Self that dwells in all beings is described in the Upanishads. And the early Buddhist scriptures - the Pali Canon - can quite easily be seen as a reaction to the teachings that came from those texts. The Buddha unambiguously rejected any sort of Atman or separate self in his doctrine of Anatman ('no-atman'). So why was this apparent contradiction introduced by the authors of the Mahayana sutras?

There is a clue in one of the sutras which introduced this concept, the Lankavatara Sutra. In this sutra, the Buddha states that the Tathagata-womb or inherent Buddha-hood is not the same as the atman but is another way of teaching emptiness or no-self.

What I teach is Tathagatahood [or Buddahood] in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unbornness, unqualifiedness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathagatahood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of egolessness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness...

...The doctrine of the Tathagata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as a transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of a "soul" as being something self-existing, may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment.

So the Buddha-nature doctrine is positive way of teaching emptiness, one that side-steps the problems of fear of annihilation and nihilism that sometimes arise as a misunderstanding of Buddhism. Yet it's not that one is the real teaching and the other one is a myth. Nirvana is not something that can be understood as a theory or grasped as an intellectual philosophy. Buddhist philosophy is intended to indicate the Way; it isn't intended as objective or final truth. Sometimes negation is needed and sometimes affirmation.

Some thinkers have tried to avoid the apparent contradiction between the Buddha-nature and Anatman ('no-inherent-nature') doctrines by arguing that Buddha-nature refers only to potential Buddhahood. But the Tathagata-garbha sutras state unambiguously that this isn't the case. It would also degrade it into a purely conventional metaphysical doctrine and miss out on the profundity of Joshu's mu.

To say that all beings already have Buddha-nature is to say that right here and now there is no separation between things - apparent separation is constructed by the mind. This is the same as saying that there is no self. The point is that there is no boundary - it doesn't matter which side of the imaginary boundary you think is real and which is illusionary - it's all an illusion. It's another way of saying that Buddhas and ordinary beings are of one substance; or that ordinary mind is Buddha; or that difference and sameness are in harmony; or that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The message is the same.

It's a true and useful concept when applied internally as a way to realise that emptiness is present everywhere its just that our real nature is obscured by confusions. But when turned outwards as some sort of metaphysical speculative theory it's worse than useless.

Joshu's mu, I think is to negate Buddha-nature and no-Buddha-nature, Buddhas and ordinary beings, self and other, all categories and mistaken questions, leaving only bare reality, just as it is, unadorned. So, does Lily have Buddha-nature? Pass me the dog chew.

This is Mumon's comment on Joshu's Dog koan:

To realize Zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarchs. Enlightenment always comes after the road to thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost.

You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch? This one word, Mu, is it. This is the barrier of Zen. If you pass through it you will see Joshu face to face. Then you can work hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Is this not a pleasant thing to do?

If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore in your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? and carry it day and night. Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing. It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence. If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

Then your previous lesser knowledge disappears. As a fruit ripening in season, you subjectivity and objectivity naturally become one. It is like a dumb man who has had a dream. He knows about it but he cannot tell it. When he enters this condition his ego-shell is crushed and he can shake the heaven and move the earth. He is like a great warrior with a sharp sword. If a Buddha stands in his way, he will cut him down; if a patriarch offers him any obstacle, he will kill him; and he will be free in his way of birth and death. He can enter any world as if it were his own playground.

I will tell you how to do this with this koan: Just concentrate your whole energy into this Mu, and do not allow any discontinuation. When you enter this Mu and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.

The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'

Note: The Shentong and Rangtong schools of Tibetan Buddhism argued about this and the nature of emptiness for years, the former saying that Sunyata is emptiness of other and the latter (more accurately) saying that Sunyata is emptiness of self. But these amount to the same thing: no separation.