Thursday, June 26, 2008
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.