Saturday, December 17, 2011

Zen democracy

Once upon a time there was a student who traveled for months to ask a great teacher about the way.  As he was trekking the final stretch towards the once distant monastery door, the master came out to meet him, saying, 'Hello, what is the way?'  The student had a sudden realization and waved his arms around wildly.  The master asked, 'How did you come to this great understanding?'  The student replied, 'What ways are there?'  It's one of those koans that makes the way seem very crooked and then suddenly very straight.  For me it's about how I used to stumble upon myself quite often just being there, especially when I was a child: sitting on a stairwell at school doing nothing but hearing the silence, laying in the backyard at home watching the clouds cross the sky.  The techniques and the drugs and the programs came afterwards, and so did the way: before I was just there.

But there's something else I like tremendously about this koan, and that's the way the student knows more than the master, and in part precisely because he doesn't know what ways there are.  (As ever, I may have mangled the precise form of the traditional koan, but that may not be a bad thing.)  One of the things that struck me most about the philosophy of Zen as it's been taught to me by students and teachers at WiG and PZI is its emphasis that the truth is available to everyone, and that in a deceptively immediate manner.  Everyone is an awakened one: they just need to wake up to being awake.  Those moments of gentle awareness you had as a child are available to you right now, as soon as you stop trying to get to them.  As John Tarrant told us at one point, the thing that seekers go searching for when they go on journeys of discovery - that's here with us right now.  In its essential philosophy, Zen seems an eminently democratic path.

In its historical practice, on the other hand, Zen seems an eminently hierarchical institution.  Since WiG and PZI are so informal, it took me a while to work this out, but Chan and Zen as they have come down to us from our Chinese and Japanese ancestors carries with it an organizational structure that looks something like this.  On the outside are all the billions of people who aren't Zen practitioners, or who haven't realized that they are yet.  Once you start studying with a teacher, you become - unsurprisingly enough - a student.  You can take refuge (jukai) to become an official Zen Buddhist and get discounts on enlightenment; and you can undergo ordination (tokuda) to become an official Zen priest and get to lead various ceremonies.  But the top rank of the hierarchy (I don't see any point in disguising that that's what it is), is the master or teacher (roshi).

A teacher becomes a teacher by being granted dharma transmission (inka shomei) by someone who's a teacher already.  That teacher will have become a teacher in the same way, so that chains of succession called lineages are formed that branch out into the future like family trees.  More importantly, each lineage provides in theory at least a clear and unbroken link to the past, to the beginnings of major branches of Zen (all Rinzai offshoots go back to Linji), to the roots of Mahayana Buddhism (all Chan branches go back to Avalokitesvara), and to the deepest roots of Buddhism in India.  Ultimately, all lineages are supposed to provide a link between your unfriendly local Zen teacher and Siddhartha Gautama himself, the original seed.  (Or, to be cynical for once, all lineages are a legitimizing rhetoric meditation teachers can make use of to present themselves as heirs of the religion's one true founder.)

Since I'm currently committed to formal conversion to Zen Buddhism (and am mindful of the precept against lying, and not really sure what to think about the one against denigrating 'the way'), I should say that I think dharma transmission sounds like the biggest load of horseshit since apostolic succession in Christianity (actually, the first is older than the second, but never mind).  Maybe it's just that the translation 'dharma transmission' brings up images of one robed weirdo transmitting forking blue streams of dharma-power through his fingertips into another one's convulsing body.  (On reflection, that may just be my thing).  More seriously, there's no way you can be sure of a linear succession of teachers stretching back 2500 years; as it happens, I study the fifth century BC, and I can tell you very little that's definitely true about what went on.

Worse, the practice of dharma transmission is patently undemocratic, since rather than being elected by students, teachers are appointed by other teachers.  (Sure, there may be good reasons why you don't want a teacher elected by students; but that doesn't mean that it's democratic, and that's my point here.)  It's my understanding that one of the reasons that Richard Baker was allowed to get away with so much for so long at SFZC was that 'he had transmission', meaning that his commitment and integrity should be beyond doubt.  Since students who want to become teachers depend on their teachers' opinion of them for advancement, it wouldn't be surprising if senior Zen students weren't quick to criticize their teachers or publicize their wrongdoing, since that way they might put in jeopardy something they'd been working years to achieve.

So I'm not studying with David Weinstein because I think he's the caretaker of the true teachings of the Buddha; I'm studying with him because he seems like a solid chap and because he's been practicing meditation several decades longer than I have and so can reasonably be assumed to have a correspondingly greater understanding of it.  As for John Tarrant, he seems to wear the title of roshi a little less lightly than David; not that he's hung up on formalities.  One of the most encouraging anecdotes I've heard about John comes from my friend Michael, who used to study with more traditional Zen teachers on the East Coast.  When he first did work in the room with John, he went immediately into a full prostration, and John was horrified and told him to stop.  I'm with him and the ancient Greeks in having no taste for proskynesis.

At one of the first one-day events I attended with John he told us that even if you make mistakes you can be happy - even if you've slept with your best friend's wife, there's no point in beating yourself up.  That didn't fit in very well with my understanding of the eightfold path, our ten precepts, or the general principles of not being an asshole, so I said something polite expressing my distaste.  Afterwards John shook my hand and thanked me for what I'd said, promising he'd think more about it.  Since then I've expressed my confusion or disagreement to him in public discussions on several occasions, and have been met with a mixture of prickliness and encouragement (once he praised me for sticking to my guns, only to later tease me for the position I'd taken).  Nobody's perfect, and it can be hard to respond gracefully to critical probing, especially in a public setting.  All the same, considerable authority should always come at the cost of continual public scrutiny, so I'm grateful for the moments of graciousness.

At one point during my last retreat I needed to re-charge my laptop, but couldn't find the right kind of power outlet.  While searching for one in the corridor I came across John carrying his laptop, so I asked him where there was an outlet.  These retreats are meant to be silent, and you're also not supposed to look other students in the face, let alone the master; from what I can tell, pulling what I did at some other Zen retreats would have gotten me cast immediately into the outer darkness to hang with the hungry ghosts.  John just told me to look in the kitchen.  I found that reassuring, because if there's a feature of Zen that elicits my inner (and outer) resistance, it's the undeniably hierarchical nature of its institutional structures.  In my professional life, I study ancient democracy, partly because I'm fascinated by the possibility of non-hierarchical collective action.  And there must be a way of restructuring ancient Zen so that its practice is as democratic as its philosophy.  That way, we could take a step towards realizing that our inherent equality is as much spiritual as it is political.

No comments:

Post a Comment