Saturday, December 31, 2011

Democrats or donkeys?

My teacher David did a talk near the end of my second retreat with PZI that centered on Jerry Brown, the past and present governor of the state of California.  It turns out that Jerry Brown has a longstanding interest in Zen, and shortly after losing the race to become the Democratic candidate for President, he boarded a plane for Kamakura in Japan to experience a few months in a traditional monastery.  It just so happened that David was studying there in the same period, and the two Americans ended up sharing a flat.  (I'd overheard David talking about the Governor before; one night at WiG he mentioned, in an unpretentious way, that Jerry had called him to ask about state funding for addiction-recovery programs; David advised him not to cut it.)

David told us how there was a tradition in the temple in Kamakrua to celebrate any spiritual breakthroughs made by individual students.  And amazingly enough, Jerry Brown experienced a breakthrough of just this sort during his relatively brief stay at the monastery.  It's my understanding that the teacher recognizes and confirms progress of this sudden kind; but when the Japanese Master announced to the other monks that Jerry had experienced a breakthrough, the celebrations were somewhat muted.  A number of the Japanese students got together and drafted a letter to the Master beginning with the phrase, 'A number of us believe...' and expressing their suspicion that Jerry Brown's breakthrough had less to do with essential understanding than with his status as a politician.

It was clear enough - though I don't think he said so explicitly - that for David, the monks' reaction was motivated mainly by envy.  In any case, the main point of his talk was that we shouldn't consider anything as outside of our practice, including our thoughts and feelings about the progress of other students or about decisions made by a teacher.  As usual, David seemed to have the best intentions, and if we assume that Jerry's breakthrough was genuine (or that the Master took it to be genuine), it's not hard to perceive an embarassing lack of dignity in the actions taken by the other monks.  But what is the Master was really corrupt, and just certified a breakthrough to increase, say, the fame of his temple in America?  When I asked David this on the night, he said he'd talk about the corrupt master when he came across one.  (It doesn't strike me, from my superficial researches, that they're that rare.)

I can remember a talk I heard at school that was given by a visiting expert on Asian politics.  When someone asked him why India was virtually the only stable democracy in Southern Asia, he replied that it was because India was one of the only countries in the region where Buddhism was not a major force, and that Buddhism taught people to be content with whatever government they had, and not to engage in violent revolts.  I'm not overly fond of religious explanations of political structures, and in any case Japan and South Korea are counter-examples to the posited correlation between Buddhism and political repression (and Thailand and Sri Lanka may be turning into further exceptions).  But the claim has always stayed with me, partly because it runs counter to the link that many intellectuals (such as Aldous Huxley) want to forge between meditation and personal freedom and autonomy.

For me, there's nothing more heart-breaking (and no stronger admonition for converts) that the sight of earnest and loving students of the dharma being abused by con-men like Dennis Merzel, and taking it lying down.  On the other hand, it's hardly surprising, since meekness and acceptance is partly what they've been taught to cultivate under all circumstances.  The problem with David's advice to treat your suspicions about a teacher as part of your practice - hosting them with a patient mind the way you would with pain, say, or a distracting noise - is that it assumes that the suspicions are unfounded.  It's just like when overeducated wranglers accuse opponents of employing 'rhetorical devices' instead of arguments: the phrase itself implies that the arguments have no substance, but allows its users to avoid saying why.

These people would be better off simply showing how the argument they're attacking doesn't stand up to scrutiny; and Zen teachers who accuse critical students of base motives would be better off simply demonstrating that the students' criticisms have no basis in reality.  The fact that they often don't choose this route, tending instead to treat complaints as distractions or pathologies, points a finger at a very real problem with authority in spiritual communities: there is always a danger that the very content of the practice becomes part of the structures of authority that were meant to be incidental to it.  Scott Edelstein advises that we give teachers authority only in their specific field of competence, just as we listen to a doctor's recommendations about our physical health, but not about what car to buy.  But this may underestimate and impoverish the scope we desire for our spiritual practices.

The problem, in plainer language, in that we want our spirituality to seep into every aspect of our lives; a path that worked well for money problems but couldn't help you with grief or bitterness would not really be a spiritual path at all.  Because of this, it's hard to tell people to listen to their teacher's expositions of koans while turning a deaf ear to their comments about marriage (even if the two things could be clearly separated in the first place).  It's been my experience with PZI that students (myself included) want to discuss their personal problems with a teacher; that's one of the reasons they turn to the practice.  An attempt to restrict the authority of teachers by restricting the applicability of the dharma is bound to fail, since the whole point of the dharma is that it's universally applicable.

If trying to compartmentalize spirituality and politics as two separate spheres does damage to spirituality, though, we should remember that it does damage to politics, too.  There is no space in any aspect of human interaction in which politics is not operative, and we only hurt ourselves and others by pretending otherwise.  In other words, the standards of logical argumentation and evidence-backed claims that we employ in our professional lives should not be abandoned simply because we're in a group whose raison d'etre is spiritual.  If teachers or students try to wiggle out of this, we should judge them for it, though of course we should also try to judge in a non-judgmental way.  If Jerry Brown deserves to be treated on campaign with as much compassion as the next Zen student and human being, he also deserves to be dealt with in the monastery with as much scrutiny as any other politician.

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