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.

38 comments:

  1. Bill Swann4:19 pm

    I would agree that it appears that sensei Brad Warner has trouble keeping the precept to not criticize others. No one can keep them all purely . . . so maybe this is what we have to accept if we are to benefit from his other, positive teaching qualities. I am also not making excuses for him. Maybe he needs a break . . . his blog sounds tired and apathetic of late.

    I agree completely that the precepts are a integral part of Zen practice. A compliment to the central practice of zazen.

    Bill

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  2. Yes maybe we do have to accept this, I've been indecisive about whether to say anything at all about it. But I'm not sure that silence is the best policy either. In the end, I felt it was helpful to say something. But its important to move on.

    I suppose it's easier to accept when there's a bit more insight there.

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  3. Quite a few of this have said much of this before (and on his blog). I appreciate you saying it here.

    I doubt that he is going to change, especially in response to criticism. He has his niche and his loyal cadre of followers that love the fact that he'll call someone an "asswipe." As long as he has people cheering him on and (probably) buying his books, he'll continue in this vein.

    Personally, I get a lot more out of Noah Levine if I want to read people of my own generation.

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  4. I suppose the most important thing for me is that I feel that someone I want to learn from has to have something valuable to teach me. They don't have to be a genius, but they do have to have some sort of wisdom or experience of value. Brad comes across as an aging adolescent. Wisdom for me, means knowing yourself emotionally and being able to empathise with others no matter what background they have. Brad is an arrogant egomaniac who encourages sectarianism and prejudice. I don't think he can teach me anything - not in a direct way.

    I heard a little from Noah Levine and he seemed a lot more genuine and humble - willing to challenge himself. I'm intrigued.

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  5. I'm not convinced that the precept to not critisize others is always a good thing. There is so much nonsense going on in the world, as there was in Dogen's time, that holding your tongue would be akin to apathy. It's valuable to show others faults. It doesn't have to be done in a nasty way, but critisizing others has value.
    Having said that, Brad's writing tone is silly and immature these days, and that sort of critisism I don't think has any value at all. Just entertainment.

    But there is value in critisizing others, no?

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  6. Hello again PA,

    I agree, which is why I made an exception by criticising Brad. In the tradition I'm practicing they make a point of not being absolutist about things. On the last day of a sesshin they serve alcohol and meat. I think we need to keep the principles sincerely without becoming inflexible.

    If we want to protect tolerance we can't tolerate intolerance. Occasionally to protect life its necessary to kill. It comes down to good motivation and good judgement.

    I don't know for certain whether I did the best thing or not by criticising Brad, but it was my feeling that something should be said.

    I believe that criticising sometimes has value, but that if we get caught in it it can lead to egotistical delusions and conflict.

    Brad's writing increasingly seems to be a rant against everything and everybody he doesn't like in the world - an excuse to feel superior. This isn't Zen, whoever is doing it - it's dogmatism.

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  7. No, I think you're right to critisise Brad. For sure!
    It might make a little difference in the big mess that is the comments section ;-)

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  8. You seem to imply that since Dogen promoted "Do not criticize others"
    you can use that concept to denounce Brad Warner's incessant bitching about others.

    But upon reading Dogen's masterpiece he is basically criticizing others throughout the book.

    That is a integral part of Soto Zen, calling others on their bullshit.

    If you want a tradition that doesn't do this, there are many others to pick from.

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  9. How about we keep the tradition and get rid of unrealized teachers? Brad isn't Dogen, as much as he uses the same argument to excuse his behavior. Heck, he isn't even trained in anything other than sitting.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. Go read Brad's blog. He's responded to criticisms more than a few times by saying that Dogen was critical so he can be so as well. It isn't hard to find.

    As to who gets to decide, sure, I guess I can. I mean, Brad can call people "frauds," or "assholes," or "bumbuddies" so why can't we do the same.

    Do you really think Brad exemplifies how a teacher should behave and follow his vows? Unlike Brad, I haven't taken a vow to not criticize another teacher of the Dharma. If Brad can't follow his vows, uses aggressive and foul language in discussing other teachers, and freely admits to knowing very little about the Zen tradition, why exactly should we consider him to be a real teacher of the same?

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  12. Who is going to decide which teachers are "realized", and which are "unrealized." Will it be you?

    It's pointless to compare a teacher of the 21st century to one of the 12th - and when has Brad Warner ever said he was like Dogen to
    "excuse his behavior"?

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  13. Since you deleted the comment to which I replied, I will quote it for everyone here:

    "Who is going to decide which teachers are "realized", and which are "unrealized." Will it be you?

    It's pointless to compare a teacher of the 21st century to one of the 12th - and when has Brad Warner ever said he was like Dogen to
    "excuse his behavior"? "

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  14. To me Buddhism is about reducing my own suffering, and honestly it's not caused by whether Brad Warner is a realized teacher or not, or if he calls someone a buttbuddy.

    It doesn't matter if you, I, or anyone else "considers someone a teacher" or not.

    Brad is what he is, just like anyone else.

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  15. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way when someone claims to be a teacher. While you may not care, the tradition, as a whole, does and demands certain behaviors on the part of both practitioners and teachers. Otherwise, it does not get passed on to the next generation of people. Worrying about yourself only is not terribly Buddhist, is it?

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  16. So the Soto Zen organization is concerned about Brad Warner being a "realized" teacher. I hadn't spoken with "the tradition, as a whole" lately so wasn't aware of that. Does Soto Zen really care?

    The point of ending personal suffering by realizing ones own true nature is to be of benefit to everyone else, it's not a selfish endeavour (although it may start out that way)

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  17. All Zen Buddhists vow to sincerely follow the precepts - and cultivate a spirit of benevolence - to save all beings. And that doesn't just mean helping others by helping ourselves. This is the teaching of Sotoshu - the central Soto Zen temple in Japan, and has not changed much since Dogen.

    Zen isn't whatever you want it to be. Not if you want to be part of a recognised lineage at least.

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  18. Brad is just being honest, which I find refreshing. All Buddhist teachers get angry from time to time. No one bats 1000.

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  19. Other Buddhist teachers don't call fellow teachers, in the same tradition, "fraud" or "asshole," do they?

    If that's honesty, I'll take decorum instead. Divisive speech is an issue for a reason. It damages all of us. Why do you think Tibetan teachers, for example, refuse to criticize other teachers in public? It just damages the Dharma when teachers behave this way.

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  20. Even though Zen Buddhists publicly vow to save all other beings and to follow the precepts on a regular basis including not to criticise others, they are vowing to understand and express the spirit of these things not to follow them rigidly.

    Occasionally it might be necessary to make a well-considered criticism. Brad doesn't have the wisdom to do this, instead, he ignores and even has contempt for the precepts and Bodhisattva vows. Anyone who's teaching doesn't fit with his narrow preconception of practice is an 'asswipe' or a 'butt buddy'. This isn't Zen, it's adolescent, petulant contempt for other people, other views and basic priciples of reasonable behaviour. Brad behaves badly by any standard and there are no 'zen' rationalisations for why that behaviour is OK. There is nothing 'enlughtened' about this behaviour, it is simple egotism and arrogance.

    The result is plain for everyone to see.

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  21. Because he makes his remarks over the Internet he doesn't have to face the people he ridicules. In other words he doesn't have to face the consequences of his own actions. However, if he sticks around at Tassajara I think his behavior will be quite different towards the sangha there.

    He is very attached to his own opinions. I think what Brad needs is an insightful and firm teacher to kerb his egotistical excesses.

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  22. I like Brad's approach. I like the fact that Brad encourages people to be who they really are, and to say whatever they really think. You guys are free to criticize him as much as you want, it's no problem.

    It's a personal preference for me. I would rather hang out with people who might be rude up front because they say what they really think. They don't feel the need to pretend that they never ever have crude thoughts. They can relax and are free to be themselves.

    I don't care for environments where people are all smiles and sweetness and fluffy bunnies in public, and would never criticize anyone openly, but are really precept-obsessed control freaks who take passive-aggressiveness to a new degree. Yes, they exist, and I've noticed a high concentration of them in some Zen centers.

    Sure, there's some middle ground there. I rather doubt Brad is constantly swearing and cursing all the people around him.

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  23. Jules,

    You are missing an important point: Brad is a TEACHER of Zen. He's a priest who has taken vows. His behavior is *supposed* to be of a higher standard than any schmoe off the street.

    If being a priest and teacher, taking vows, etc. means I can be as much of an asshole and have no one call me on it, why would anyone bother to study the Dharma? Clearly it doesn't develop the mind or improve one's ability to interface with the world in a compassionate manner if Brad is the epitomy of a Zen teacher.

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  24. His behavior is *supposed* to be of a higher standard than any schmoe off the street.

    I think it is, for the most part. I don't think Brad's actions have been out of line. What's wrong about calling a fraud a fraud? Why not use expressive language to do so?

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  25. Clearly it doesn't develop the mind or improve one's ability to interface with the world in a compassionate manner if Brad is the epitomy of a Zen teacher.

    What about the people who believe Genpo can really show them enlightenment in a weekend or whatever? Is remaining silent really the compassionate path?

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  26. Do you know Genpo? Have you ever spoken to him or seen him teach? How do you know, outside of Brad saying so, that he's full of shit?

    A Buddhist teacher calling another teacher foul names damages the Dharma in the eyes of others and its adherents. That's one of the reasons they aren't supposed to do it (regardless of the truth of it). If Brad was only politely saying he thought Genpo's approach was wrong, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all.

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  27. Do you know Genpo? Have you ever spoken to him or seen him teach? How do you know, outside of Brad saying so, that he's full of shit?

    I spent about an hour reading all the ridiculous claims on his web site when he first "invented" the "Big Mind" "technique." That was good enough for me.

    A Buddhist teacher calling another teacher foul names damages the Dharma in the eyes of others and its adherents.

    Your Dharma seems awfully frail to me. I don't think it's so easily damaged.

    That's one of the reasons they aren't supposed to do it (regardless of the truth of it). If Brad was only politely saying he thought Genpo's approach was wrong, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all.

    Some people have different opinions about what's really important.

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  28. So, you don't think that someone might be interested in Zen or Buddhism and when they see Brad, a well known Buddhist author and teacher, making homophobic and other vulgar remarks, might just head the other way because clearly those Buddhists don't know the first thing about even civility, let alone enlightenment.

    I find it mind boggling that I have to explain why the exemplars and teachers of a spiritual tradition, when speaking or acting in public, need to be held to a high standard. Heck, even in private. Do you approve of Sensei Baker's behavior at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s and early 1980s too?

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  29. Also, before casting too much of a jaundiced eye on Genpo, you may want to, I dunno, actually read one of the books he wrote or even watch a video of him teaching, since they are available. I mean, judge someone by what they do or say...

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  30. Looks like Genpo's still working with Bill Harris and his Amazing Holosync Audio Technology which not only can send you into Deep Meditation States (tm) but Enhances Longevity and has Anti-Aging Properties (tm)

    Frankly I think if you're worried about "damaging the Dharma" you should be a lot more worried about these guys than about Brad.

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  31. But I don't see Genpo trashing people in public in front of hundreds or thousands of people.

    I have no real opinion about his "Big Mind" technique because I, gasp, actually investigate things before I form an opinion.

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  32. So, you don't think that someone might be interested in Zen or Buddhism and when they see Brad, a well known Buddhist author and teacher, making homophobic and other vulgar remarks, might just head the other way because clearly those Buddhists don't know the first thing about even civility, let alone enlightenment.

    I would hope that they could tell the difference between an actual homophobic remark and a joke, which is what it was, crude as it may have been.

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  33. Ah, so homophobic humor is acceptable because they don't really mean it when they say it?

    Sorry, I come from one of those places where we don't make racial or homophobic jokes because it is actually an example of, respectively, racism and homophobia when you make jokes about people.

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  34. Also, before casting too much of a jaundiced eye on Genpo, you may want to, I dunno, actually read one of the books he wrote or even watch a video of him teaching, since they are available. I mean, judge someone by what they do or say...

    I don't need to spend another second to tell that Genpo's a big fraud. Why the heck would I read one of his books?

    I have no real opinion about his "Big Mind" technique because I, gasp, actually investigate things before I form an opinion.

    And you have a thing or two to learn yourself about civil discourse.

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  35. And you have a thing or two to learn yourself about civil discourse.

    I guess it is a good thing that I'm not a Buddhist teacher representing the tradition as an example...

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  36. Oh wait, it would be ok if I was being rude and representing the tradition, as long as I spiced it up with a "fuck" or two and was insulting another teacher. I got it now.

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  37. Anonymous1:16 am

    As a gay Zen student, to me the language that Brad Warner has used - referring to Daido Loori Roshi and Genpo Roshi as "butt buddies" - is not funny, it is, let's be frank, completely homophobic. If Brad Warner defends his right to speak his mind, that he just says what he thinks, then fine, let's call a spade a spade and say he is a homophobe. It's not funny, it's juvenile, and Brad Warner's problem is that he needs someone to tell him to grow up and stop thinking that juvenile behavior is acceptable, particularly for someone who styles himself a teacher.

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