Sunday, May 19, 2013
David did point out that there's no minimum membership fee, so you could be paying as little as $5 a month. Also, we already give David the money in the donation bowl on the nights that he comes in. Finally, the change will really only affect one night a month, when David's there. So is this really much of a change?
I think it is, and I also think that it's a step in the wrong direction. (And I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way.) But before telling you why I should say that I have valued having a teacher in over the last few years. I also think David is a very good teacher (and I've been to quite a few Buddhist events since I moved to California).
That said, I think this move is wrong for three reasons. The most important one is that it brings us very close to paying for the dharma. But if Buddhist teaching is centered on doing without material wealth, giving generously to others, and so on, that seems like a strange situation to be in. Asking for payment undermines a central part of the message that we're trying to convey.
As I admitted above, we do give dana to our teacher anyway. So what's the difference? The main difference is that dana is freely given. In other words, it's a real donation or gift, and symbolizes the very values of generosity and unstinginess that we're promoting. It also gives us an opportunity to enact those values in giving freely what we can.
But paying for membership also creates a division between members and non-members, insiders and outsiders. This is the second reason I'm against it. People need to feel like they can come sit with us whenever they want, and not sit with us whenever they want, too. As Michael said to me, one of our main strengths is that we don't ask newcomers for any kind of commitment.
There's a related, practical issue. It may make sense for someone like me, who turns up every week, to pay a monthly fee for membership. But we have a lot of people who turn up once every two or three months. Are we going to have to start presenting them with a choice of either committing to membership or going elsewhere to talk to a teacher?
The final problem I have with this is more personal. It's that it brings WiG more clearly and firmly within the bounds of PZI. Of course, WiG has always, strictly speaking, been a branch of PZI, but most nights it doesn't feel like one - it feels like a bunch of friends meeting for informal meditation. I like WiG a lot, but have doubts about PZI. But other people may feel differently about that one.
I've deliberately dodged a big issue here, one I might get around to discussing in a future post. That issue is the whole question of how we should compensate Zen teachers, if at all. For now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that they should receive regular and generous donations, since they often do work comparable to Christian ministers, who are salaried.
But I'd still want to insist, at this stage, that they receive donations, and not pay. I'd also want there to be a way of collecting donations that doesn't divide people into an inside and an outside group. But these are just some thoughts from someone who's enjoyed having a teacher for the last three years and would like him to be able to work, at least occasionally, for no money at all.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
After we decided to break up, my girlfriend and I turned to the question of when. Her preference was 'right away', whereas I favoured waiting until I was actually leaving, in June. In the end, we compromised. We would break up over spring break, at the end of a short road-trip up the California coast.
Part of the reason we could agree on the timing was because I'd signed up for a week-long sesshin at SF Zen Center that same week. I thought it would help me deal with the break-up. I had to write to the Ino to ask if I could only come for three days, and I did so with trepidation, because the practice at SFZC is strict.
I got an answer almost immediately: 'We will be happy for you to join us whenever you can'. It wasn't from Shundo but from the new Ino, Valorie. I also told her that I'd injured my knee and couldn't sit half-lotus. She said she'd arrange for a chair to be provided in the meditation hall.
We got back from our road trip at about 11pm. I got up the next day at 4am and walked to City Center. But I don't live in the Lower Haight anymore; I live on 24th Street in the Mission. So the walk had expanded since my last retreat at SFZC from five minutes to a bit less than an hour. But the pre-dawn hour is a fine one to be up in San Francisco.
This was my first retreat with a chair, and it was much more enjoyable because of it. I felt I could concentrate on my meditation rather than on simply making it through the next period without changing my position too many times because of the pain. I also joined the invalids no doing full prostrations in the various ceremonies, and that also helped a great deal.
I quickly got back into the rhythm of sittings, services, work, and eating. I was surprised to discover that I had a certain fondness for the Zen Center, even though I've never really liked the formal style of practice there. I even enjoyed the formal oryoki breakfasts, once I remembered how to do them. The night the sesshin ended I went to my first Passover seder at a friend's house, and took to it like a duck to water (or, as the Zen poet says, like a tiger making for the mountains).
There were two teachers, City Center Abess Christina Lehnherr and lay teacher Marsha Angus. I met with Marsha and talked to her about fear. She had a background in various types of therapy, and struck me as very Californian. When I asked her about whether to accept thoughts or try to get beyond them, she said she'd need to have known me for longer to be able to answer that question.
In one of Christina's morning talks she told us her own story. Until she was 30 she was almost always depressed. She moved into the Zen Center and liked it, but left it for a year to make sure she wasn't simply trying to avoid life. She worked at a care home for catatonic patients.
It was hard. Her job involved feeding, cleaning, and clothing adults who couldn't move or communicate. One day she was about to undress someone to clean them when she was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of love and awe. Changing a grown man's diaper had sparked some sort of realization.
In another talk, she told us about someone she knew who married herself. At first I thought she had mis-spoken (her native language being German), but no - her friend had given herself a ring and taken herself as wife. Why? As an experiment in treating herself with as much forbearance and patience as someone she loved.
When I went to speak to her I talked about whether when I moved I would continue to think of myself as a Buddhist, or go back to just meditating on my own. She said I didn't need to make declarations one way or the other; I could just follow the path wherever it led me. 'Would you consider yourself a Buddhist?' I asked. The head of the San Francisco Zen Center, dressed in her ceremonial robes and in a room with at least three statues of the Buddha, thought for a moment and said 'no'.
I told her I wasn't upset about my break-up, which worried me. But we quickly found reasons why it might not have been so hurtful: the fact that it was mutual, and a product of circumstances rather than a falling-out. The main thing I remember was her saying to me that it was okay to be sad sometimes without a reason, but that it was also okay to be happy.
I didn't have any spiritual breakthrough during that retreat. Nor did I marry myself, although I may have come a little closer to engagement. I didn't get better at zazen. But sometimes in the half-hours between sittings, I would get a cup of tea and just sit out in the courtyard with the fountain and the flowers. I wouldn't try to meditate. I would just sit there, with the birds chirping and the thoughts tumbling over one another, and the water in the fountain splashing over and over on the stone.
About a year ago a friend in England sent me some CDs. He'd done so before, and usually they contained music by obscure UK bands from the 60s and 70s. This time, though, they contained lectures by Alan Watts, like Aldous Huxley (and Mr. Propter) a Californian Buddhist who was also a transplanted Englishman.
Watts is often called a philosopher, although he had no formal academic training in that field. He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, at the heart-centre of Anglican Christianity. After moving to the US, he qualified as an Episcopalian priest, only to renounce his vocation a few years later. He moved to California, ending up in a circular house in an artists' colony in Marin County.
He is perhaps best described as a free-lance writer, and he is best remembered for his books about Zen. Watts' 1957 book The Way of Zen was one of the first widely read books on Buddhism in a Western language. I meant to read it, but its title is so similar to that of Watts' first book, The Spirit of Zen (1936) that I read the earlier work instead. (I've since noticed a good, cheap edition of the later book on sale at my local bookstore.)
One of the things that strikes me whenever I read Western books about Buddhism from the pre-war era is how rare they were. Their writers seem to be working in a vacuum of accurate knowledge about Eastern religions. In his Foreword, Watts states that before the First World War there was 'only one work on Zen in any European language - Kaiten Nukariya's Religion of the Samurai'. He also claims that his bibliography - which runs to little more than two pages - is an exhaustive list of the books on Zen that had appeared up to the date his book was published.
Watts is therefore reliant on a few personal channels between Buddhism and the West. One is Christmas Humphreys, the English barrister who founded the Buddhist Society of London and who is the dedicand of Watts' book. Another is D.T. Suzuki - not to be confused with SF Zen Center founder Shunryu - whose many books for Western audiences Watts credits for a growing interest in Buddhism among Americans.
Since I read Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism only a year ago, his influence on Watts was quite clear to me. Like Suzuki, Watts moves from a vague yet appealing characterization of Zen in purely psychological and mystical terms to a concrete description of practice in a Japanese monastery. Like Suzuki, Watts never faces up to the obvious question: if Zen is a way of thinking free of limitations, why are there all these strict practices?
A third theme of the book is Zen as a key into the cultures of China and Japan; indeed, the book is subtitled A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East. This theme is treated mostly in the final chapter, which is the weakest part of the book, or at least the part that feels the most dated. Watts moves from Zen and samurai through jujitsu and flower-arrangement, all the while avoiding asking how common (let alone representative) such practices are in the China and Japan of his day.
In spite of its limitations, though, the book is a valuable one. Watts has an intuitive understanding of religious phenomena and writes in a way that is both unpretentious and engaging. The book is not for scholars, but may be for practitioners. It is full of passages that perfectly encapsulate the essence of some of the central ideas in Buddhism. Let's end with Watts' lucid description of karma:
'A man may be free to travel where he likes, but there is no place on earth where he can escape from his own karma, and whether he lives on a mountain or in a city he may still be the victim of an uncontrolled mind. For man's karma travels with him, like his shadow. Indeed, it is his shadow, for it has been said, "Man Stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark."'
Sunday, March 17, 2013
This weekend, rather than spending my Saturday cycling up an enormous hill, I decided to sit on my ass all day. The Stanford Zen group (loosely affiliated with the Buddhist Community at Stanford) had organized a one-day meditation retreat in the inter-religious center on the top floor of the Old Union. Since I was going to be in the South Bay that weekend anyway, I decided to go along.
I don't really know the people in the Stanford Zen group, since their regular meeting is on Wednesday nights, the same night that Wind in Grass meets. They seem to be run by two or three serious-minded and dedicated undergraduates who organize the regular weekly sittings and the odd one-day event on campus.
I don't know what kind of crowd attends the weekly meetings, but the crowd that turned up yesterday was a mixed bunch. There were naturally a lot of students, both undergrads and grads. There were also a few people who lived in the local area and had come in for the day.
There were more Asian people than I see in the meditation groups I go to in the city. I've read that a feature of Buddhism in America is that so-called 'ethnic' (Asian) and 'convert' (European) Buddhists tend to gather in different groups. But the group that I saw yesterday seemed evenly mixed.
Seated opposite me were a Chinese mother and her son, who looked about 11. Every so often she notice him fidgeting and give him a sharp tap with her hand. I thought of how unused I am to seeing this sort of thing in a Buddhist context, whereas I grew up in a world where parents forcing their children to church was very familiar. There was a way in which the mother encouraging her son to meditate was sweet, but it reminded me how easy it still is in the West to forget about the more customary, religious aspects of Buddhism. I've met very few Buddhists in the US who didn't come to it voluntarily.
We had three periods of meditation with breaks in between. The meditation periods consisted of half an hour of seated meditation plus about five minutes of walking meditation. The breaks were ten minutes long. During the meditation periods people went for one-on-one talks with a visiting teacher, Max Erdstein. At one o'clock Erdstein gave a talk, followed by a Q&A.
In my interview with Erdstein, I talked to him about my experiences over the past few years: the initial experience of falling in love with a new group, my disagreement with John Tarrant, and then my increasing disillusionment with institutional Buddhism more generally. He told me that the inclination to test out a teacher was worth honouring, but reminded me that not all groups were the same. He told me to trust my instincts.
In his talk, he told the story of why he started meditating. When he was an undergrad at Stanford, he contracted a chronic illness that left the doctors perplexed. Out of desperation, he bought a meditation book and CD by Jon Kabat-Zinn. After a while, his health began to improve, and he stopped practicing. A few years later, while working at Google, the stresses of the job brought him back to it.
He said he remembers considering two paths through life. The first was trying to be so successful in business that he'd never be at a loss for anything. The second was trying to moderate his wants. He looked at people he knew who'd embarked on both paths. While he was often impressed by the top people in his company, it seemed to him like they'd acquired more skills than wisdom. Conversely, although his meditation teachers weren't perfect people by any means, they appeared to have a kind of depth, an level of insight about their own lives that seemed valuable.
He passed on a few similes that some of his teachers had used to describe what a meditative practice might bring. It was like when you're in the movie theatre, and you're entirely immersed in the world of the movie. Then, for some reason, the spell is broken, you look around you for a second and see how everybody else in living the ups and downs of the characters on the screen. You remember, just for an instant, that none of it's real. But then you return to the movie anyway, and somehow your pleasure in it is enhanced, not ruined, by your knowledge that it's all an illusion.
Or it was like going up in a plane to do sky-diving for the first time. You jump out of the plane, and for a moment it's exhilarating, you can fly, float, do somersaults. Then you're falling, it's horrible, and you realize that the parachute you'd been depending on is missing. Buddhism, Erdstein said, wasn't like being handed a parachute. It was like realizing that there isn't any ground to hit, that you'd go on falling forever, and that the falling really was like the flying you'd taken it for the moment after you jumped.
I found myself very moved by Erdstein's talk - but not so much by the analogies as by the personal narrative. That was partly because it was so much like mine. But there was something else, something I've noticed about dharma talks. When people offer advice, instruction, or admonitions, I usually find something within me resisting (which is a healthy enough reaction). When people just say plainly why they started meditating, I almost always hear in their experience an echo of mine, an echo that somehow confirms mine or at least keeps company with it.
I had to leave half-way through the Q&A, but it had been a great morning: twenty or so people in a simple room meditating together and talking about it afterwards. There weren't any statues, or robes, or all that much bowing. There was a teacher, but nobody demanding prostrations when I went to talk to him. The event was free: the first meditation retreat, in my three years in SF, at which nobody asked me for money.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
I have a friend in England who occasionally sends me links to articles about meditation. They're usually more or less enthusiastic explorations of meditation or mindfulness. But a couple of weeks ago he sent me the recent New York Times piece about allegations of sexual harassment against Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki.
It's all very sad. A few months ago, the same friend sent me a link to Sasaki's Mt. Baldy training center. I spent a few minutes on the site and distinctly remember thinking, 'How nice, an old-style Zen center without any sign of untoward behaviour or controversy'. I sent an email back saying, 'Looks like a good place to do koan work'.
That judgment will have to be revised now. It seems that the kind of koan work that went on at Mt. Baldy involved women being encouraged to expose their breasts to the teacher as a way of 'showing' the answer. It also seems to have involved a lot of unwelcome groping, and the occasional tea-time at which the Zen master would do his best to seduce his students.
My own view of this is clear: Sasaki should be stripped of his status as a roshi and should never again be allowed to teach. More generally, Buddhist teachers who fail to live up to the few simple rules that govern their conduct - the norms that we apply to teachers of any sort in our society, as well as the basic ethical tenets of their own religion - should no longer act as teachers (at least for a significant period of time).
Western Buddhist communities need to apply these rules strictly for a number of reasons. We need to send a clear signal to those who might be interested in Buddhism that sexual harassment and abuse will never be tolerated. We need to affirm in a public way that everyone in our communities, from the most experienced practitioner to the complete beginner, partakes of a fundamental equality and is bound by the same rules. And we need to make it clear to those in authority that abuse of this sort will not be taken lightly, so that it is less likely to happen again - or, at least, so that it happens less frequently in the future.
This is, of course, not the first case of a Zen teacher abusing his authority for sexual gain. Part of what upsets me about the Sasaki case is that it is the latest in a long line of such cases. And nobody ever seems to learn from the past. Each time this happens we are told that next time, things will be different. More people are going to speak out earlier. Nobody is going to be hoodwinked by a charismatic teacher ever again. From now on, people will go into things with their eyes open.
Then the next scandal breaks, often revealing (as in Sasaki's case) that abuses had been going on for decades. That nobody had been brave enough to speak out against them (or only a few people, who were ignored or condemned by the community at large). That the master's inner coterie had done everything they could to sweep the allegations under the carpet. And that people calling themselves Buddhists had, on the whole, preferred perpetual forgiveness of the master to standing up for the rights of their fellow students.
If everyone agreed on what needed to be done, that would be one thing. If everyone agreed that what we need to do is ensure that our religious institutions are accountable and transparent, then we could start the conversation about how exactly we might go about doing that. Instead, as a glance at any online Zen forum will tell you, a lot of people think that we should avoid being too harsh, or judgmental, or hung-up on sex, or disrespectful of the tradition, or whatever. A lot of these people have the best of intentions, but it's worth pointing out why their arguments won't wash.
The first argument I've seen is that we shouldn't take action against teachers like Sasaki since to do so would be unkind. In other words, it would violate one of the core teaching of Buddhism, that we should be compassionate. Some people even claim that whistle-blowers like Eshu Martin - who broke the story of Sasaki's abuses with a letter to Sweeping Zen - are guilty of triumphalism, or showboating, or of profiting from others' suffering. In any case, stripping an 105-year-old priest of his dignity can hardly be seen as the kind of acts Buddhist should be advocating.
The problem with this argument is that we can all agree to be kind, while disagreeing about what being kind should consist in. It's arguable that if we take into consideration everyone that might be impacted by this - including potential future victims of harassment - the kindest thing to do is to impose strict sanctions on teachers who do wrong. And while it's good to remind ourselves that showboating doesn't help, the actions of whistle-blowers can also easily be interpreted as acts of kindness, since the intention behind them is often to reduce future harm.
The second argument is a more sophisticated, more Zen and less Buddhist, version of the first. It is that we should avoid being judgmental of others, and that we should have a certain detachment from the judgments our minds often make. But it seems impossible to avoid judging altogether. In Sasaki's case, not taking any action would constitute a judgment just as much as taking robust action would. Given that we're all going to judge the situation in various ways, we need some way of arbitrating among judgments. So it's probably better to focus on whether a given judgment is accurate than to try to get rid of judging altogether.
The Zen recommendation to keep your thoughts at a certain distance is often a helpful one, in that it can prevent us from taking our own upset for a disorder in the world. But it's important to realize that never endorsing any of your own thoughts leads to an infinite regress. Radical doubt is simply impossible, because the thought 'I should never believe any thought I have' leads to paradox. People who say 'we should not judge at all' are caught in a bind; if we shouldn't judge anything, why should we judge what they say to be true? The healthy way of applying the original recommendation is to remember to take some time to gain some perspective on each thought as it arises. Eventually, though, you will have to decide one way or the other.
There's another reason that it's perfectly permissible to judge teachers like Sasaki by certain ethical standards. This is that they themselves have chosen to take certain vows and precepts as Buddhists and as Buddhist teachers. It's not like we're imposing some entirely foreign system of values on them that they never signed up to or saw coming. All Zen students who take refuge agree to the ten Boddhisattva precepts, among which is the precept against sexual immorality. Zen teachers are obviously bound by these precepts too - indeed, as teachers, we should expect them to be especially committed to them. And though ideas of what constitutes sexual immorality thankfully change over time, what Sasaki was up to clearly fits the bill.
This helps with a third common argument, that we in the West are too hung up on sex. Really (the argument goes) there's nothing intrinsically wrong about sex; and even if there were, the way we are reacting to the Sasaki scandal is exaggerated. In the normal course of things, teachers will sometimes have sex with students, and there's no reason for us to freak out about it. (This seems to be Brad Warner's view, though he is careful to draw a line between consensual sex between students and teachers and Sasaki's non-consensual groping.)
I don't want to revisit the issue of why consensual student-teacher sex is unacceptable, except to remind everyone that power differentials within Zen groups is often considerable. But I will say two things. The first is that in the case of Sasaki, it's clear that the vast majority of his groping was done without the consent of the women involved. You don't have to be prudish about sex to see why this is wrong. All you have to understand is that sexual choice is an important right, and that this right was violated by Sasaki's actions.
The second thing I'll say is that the idea that we should be careful about sex is not simply a Western idea. It is present in many Eastern belief-systems too. One of these is Buddhism. Both the ten Mahayana precepts and the five Theravada ones warn us to avoid sexual immorality. Of course, we can disagree about what sexual immorality is, and whether a particular person has committed it. But the idea that we are introducing Western concerns about sex into Buddhism is a non-starter: the concerns about sex were already there.
The final argument I want to confront is that stripping Sasaki of his authority as a teacher would be an affront to his ancient lineage. Now, I personally am moving towards the conclusion that we shouldn't have spiritual teachers at all: the potential for abuse is just too great. The claims of lineages seem especially spurious: even if were true that there were chains of teachers reaching all the way back to the Buddha, I still wouldn't see why that would necessarily make people at the end of those chains better teachers.
But I recognize that there are lots of good people who value lineages. I can certainly appreciate the intangible and yet real value of being part of an ancient tradition. And I have met and worked with teachers who had a lot of worthwhile things to say. Even if we grant that lineages should play a role, though, we might still want to take action to make teachers accountable. Indeed, people who value lineages should arguably be the most active in disciplining renegade teachers, since their transgressions visibly dishonour the traditions that those teachers claim to be part of. Besides, if we truly believe that the precepts reduce suffering, helping teachers to abide by them is a gentle act.
The bottom line in all of this is that we need to remain level-headed about meditation and meditation teachers. If a teacher in a high school sleeps with a student, he ceases to be a teacher. If a doctor fails to live up to a code of medical practice, he ceases to be a doctor. But whenever a Zen teacher is caught abusing his position for sex, and (moreover) contravening a clear ethical code he himself has signed up to and continually advocates, there is always a chorus of voices saying that no practical measures should be taken. Why?
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Yesterday we decided to do some cleaning. We at Wind in Grass have been talking about this for some time, and now we've finally gotten around to it.
We meet every week in a space owned by the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. The main building, designed by Julia Morgan, has several different rooms which always seem to be in use and which get a corresponding amount of upkeep.
The space we use is a kind of annex to the main building, except that it's actually entirely separate, and you can't get to one from the other. It also fronts onto a different street, so to get to us from the main building you have to walk around the corner and the down some steps.
That will get you onto Carolina, a street which plunges sharply downwards. From the top you get a marvelous view of the skyscrapers downtown and the Bay Bridge and the flashing Coca-Cola sign. To find us you have to break your downward plunge and take a sharp left into a little entranceway.
I love everything about our location, even though the first couple of times I tried to find the group I walked right by it. During one-days you can take food outside and eat it on the street and look out over the city like you were sitting on the grassy slope of a mountain. A few times I've gotten a lift downhill on Michael's scooter - a moment of pure experience if there ever was one.
I also love the space itself. It is down to earth, unpretentious, simple. It is basically a large rectangular room with four pillars near the center. In one corner there is a bathroom and on the far side there is a small antechamber leading to a slightly larger storage area. We have dokusan in the antechamber. It's good to practice with humility and simplicity, and easy to do so in a place like this.
On the other hand, those wooden floorboards are pretty rough, and it's not uncommon for people to get splinters in their feet while doing walking meditation. I like it to think it keeps us awake, but it's probably not the best introduction to kinhin for newcomers. The place looks generally dilapidated.
So we've finally decided to try to renovate it a little. Yesterday was the first scheduled day of work practice. We spent most of it clearing out the storage area. Apparently nobody had done any kind of sorting of the stuff in there since the 1970s. The result was a sort of archaeology.
The top layer was our stuff: a few large crates containing stuff for the tea, stuff for the altar, and two big piles of mats and cushions. The next layer down contained pictures and magazines and children's art projects from the 90s and 80s. The next two layers, Vietnam War posters and JFK campaign material.
After that things started to get ugly. At the lowest level the stacks of magazines started to dissolve into amorphous lumps of pulp. If you tried to pick a pile up half of it would come away in your hands. By this point you could see the ancient mouse-traps and the scatter of rat-droppings on the floor.
We pulled everything out and placed it into three piles: keep, throw, maybe. Miscellanea in the throw category included: a set of leather-bound volumes of the complete works of classic authors; a series of large plates for stamping pre-computer spreadsheets into being; milk cartons swilling mysterious liquids.
The keep pile included an old notebook in which someone had copied hundreds of passages of poetry and philosophy. I was going to throw it when Marika saved it for our liturgy. The maybe pile is still there: it is how objects that are too awkward to be carted to the dump have so far avoided destruction. There are also some pictures nobody wants but were too nicely framed to throw away.
It was all much worse than I had thought. Every month I've gone into the antechamber to meet with David, who sits right in front of the door to the storage area, blithely unaware of the rat-droppings carpeting the room behind him.
And every week we've sat in the main room practicing mindfulness, completely ignorant of the piles of rotting newsprint festering on the other side of the wall. There was all this trash right there, just beyond a space we felt so sure of. The hidden stuff was going to make itself felt at some point, so it's a good thing we dealt with it sooner rather than later.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
The novel takes the form of a biography, written in the distant future, of one Joseph Knecht (whose life is in the narrator's past but the reader's future). Knecht's life plays itself out in the utopian realm of Castalia, a 'pedagogic province' that has been set up to protect and foster learning and the arts after a period of warfare. The most promising pupils in every school in the land are sent away to Castalia, where they receive an extensive and varied education before joining the order of scholar-monks. Joseph Knecht is among them.
The scholar-monks of Castalia spend their time engaged in the study of literature, history, languages, physics, mathematics, and music (they are especially keen on these last two). They are also devoted to meditation. But the activity they value most highly is one they invented themselves: the glass bead game. This is a sort of game that is also a public performance, in which the artistic and scientific productions of the past are condensed and translated into an array of glass beads that provide unsurpassed material for contemplation.
The narrative follows Knecht's progress from diffident pupil to magister ludi, the Master of the Game and one of the chief officers in the Castalian elite. It also describes the master's eventual decision to leave the order to dedicate himself to teaching in the outside world. Since the hero of the novel ultimately repudiates Castalia, it might seem that we are being led to mistrust, rather than encouraged to realize, the ideal which the province represents. But a number of elements in the novel conspire to ensure that our view of Castalia cannot be entirely negative.
The narratives of two characters in particular make the case for the defense. The first is the Music Master, the high-ranking yet humble official who first discovers Joseph Knecht's promise as a boy. In his old age, the Music Master attains a sort of enlightenment - described in the most orthodox Buddhist terms, yet without dogmatism or pretentiousness. The second character is Plinio Designori, a politician who had some experience of Castalia as a boy, but left it to return to the workaday world. Overwhelmed with anxiety, he exemplifies all the harm the world can do, and thus (by implication) showcases the real value of contemplative repose.
The message of the novel is perhaps that meditation and learning are fine (even indispensable) things, but that they need to be put to the service of others to have any value. This is the point of minor characters such as Elder Brother, a sinologist whose reclusiveness comes ultimately to seem selfish, and Father Jacobus, the Benedictine monk who criticizes the Castalian order for not submitting itself to a guiding deity. This is also the point of Knecht's final renunciation of the Castalian way of life.
If the novel has a weakness, it is in the final part of the narrative of Knecht's life, when he returns to the world to teach but dies soon after. Hesse clearly wanted to make Knecht into a Christlike figure (he dies while trying to engage with a pupil by swimming across a lake with him), but I would have liked to see evidence of a more genuine educational contribution to a larger number of students (his one pupil is the privileged son of Plinio Designori).
If this is a weakness, it is quickly compensated for in the novel's final section, a collection of three stories that were supposedly written by Knecht as school exercises but which Hesse originally wrote as previous incarnations of the novel's hero. The first story imagines Knecht as a rainmaker in a primitive village who eventually sacrifices himself to the weather gods to appease his people. The second reintroduces him as Josephus Famulus, an early Christian ascetic who serves others by hearing their sins and forgiving them. The last and longest of the three stories is set in ancient India.
This last life tells the story of Dasa, a prince who is raised as a shepherd, ignorant of his true pedigree, because of palace intrigues. In this brief narrative, Dasa gains a kingdom and loses it, gains a wife and loses her, fathers a son and loses him. In the background is Dasa's growing relationship with a holy man who sits in silent meditation in the forest. At the end of the story is a Borges-style twist that forces us to reevaluate what is actual and what is illusory.
The interest of the final three tales lies not only in the number of fine passages that they contain, but in the question of their relationship to the main narrative of Knecht, the supremely sophisticated master of a future artform. All of the stories show some appreciation for learning, while making clear that true attainment comes only with service. They also suggest that a form of devotion that combines deep contemplation and useful action can provide a refuge, perhaps even a release, from the turbulent trajectories of our lives.
I was disappointed with the Diamond and Heart sutras partly because in their dry intellectualism they failed to provide an appealing picture of what a good life looks like. This is precisely what The Glass Bead Game is ultimately all about - ironically, the abstruse intellectual exercise of its title is eventually displaced from the center of our attention. In the lives of Knecht, Famulus, and (especially) Dasa, we find as attractive and as vivacious a presentation of the central tenets of classical Buddhism as I have seen anywhere.