Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cutting a diamond

When I first started practising Zen, I liked it so much and found it so intriguing that the last thing I wanted to do was read books about it.  Most of my life is reading books, and I didn't want a dusty intellectualism to distract me from what I take to be the center of the practice, meditation.  Since I decided to take refuge, it's occurred to me that that approach might be irresponsible: since a confirmation ceremony involves getting into something, it might be a good idea to become better informed about what it is I'm getting into.  So I've now taken a couple of books out of the 'Wine-box of wisdom' which serves as our lending library at WiG.  My first Zen book was John Tarrant's marvelous and perplexing Bring me the Rhinoceros, which confused the hell out of me and made me cheerful.  Over the Christmas break I worked through my second, Robert Aitken's more conventional Taking the Path of Zen.  

Robert Aitken was one of the first native-born Americans to become a Zen master, at least in the traditional sense of being a recognized successor in one of the Japanese lineages.  Captured by the Japanese while working as a civilian construction worker on Guam at the outset of the Second World War, Aitken spent the next few years in an internment camp.  It was in these unideal circumstances that he discovered Zen, the shapeless mould into which the rest of his life would be poured.  After studying English and Japanese literature at the University of Hawaii, Aitken made a series of trips to Japan to study at various monasteries.  He had a miserable time, with his stiff Western knees constantly swollen and painful from being forced into half-lotus; eventually he contracted dysentery and spent a brief period of time in hospital.

By his own account, Aitken was also suffering on the inside; he refers to this time as the 'dark night of his soul'.  Slowly, though, he began to see the point of certain koans and to make progress, even breakthroughs ('a bit of light') in his practice.  By the 1970s he had established a zendo in Hawaii, and in 1985 he received full authorization as a Zen teacher from Yamada Koun.  He was also writing books, the most famous of which was probably The Mind of Clover, on Zen ethics; for Aitken, ethics was ultimately inseparable from politics, and he gained some prominence as an activist, co-founding the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  Aitken's prose is direct, concise, sharp.  It is often drily ironic.  At one point in the book I read he talks about a man who always used sitting periods to try to solve his practical problems; he soon left the zendo.  Aitken comments, 'Perhaps he had solved all his problems'.

There are many senior members of the Pacific Zen Institute who knew Aitken personally.  Some of them carry on key aspects of his teaching, as Chris Wilson does by continuing to do work on behalf of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  I've asked several of my older friends about Aitken, and their accounts are strikingly similar.  They all start off by saying that they respected Aitken, that he had integrity, but that he was also incredibly fussy, or pernickety, moralistic, an old New England schoolmarm.  My teacher David told me that as soon as he started studying with Aitken, he had the sense that the roshi didn't really understand him or see him fully.  When he told Aitken this in a private interview, Aitken simply said, 'That's you', and rang the bell (which means: leave).  Years later, the two men happened to be in Japan at the same time and met up to have dinner.  As the noodles were being brought to the table, Aitken looked across at David and said, 'You know, it was me too'.

The practice community that Aitken founded in Hawaii was called the Diamond Sangha, and it grew to have several offshoots in both the United States and Australia.  Since part of the mission of this blog is to increase transparency, I thought I would note down what I've found out about the lineage of my teachers in California, with the important disclaimer that this information has been gathered haphazardly and at second hand.  PZI's head teacher John Tarrant was the first dharma heir (student who became a teacher) of Robert Aitken.  Like most of Aitken's other dharma heirs, including Nelson Foster, who was Aitkens's successor as head of the Hawaii Diamond Sangha, Tarrant initially taught explicitly in Aitken's lineage, heading a group called the California Diamond Sangha.  Around the turn of the millenium, Tarrant chose to dissociate himself formally from the greater Diamond Sangha and from Aitken's lineage, renaming our group the Pacific Zen Institute.

When I ask people why this happened, I hear various different stories, but there are two main ones.  Both of them seem to be true, and both undoubtedly had a role to play in the development of an independent Western Zen lineage.  The first story is that Tarrant broke away from the Diamond Sangha because he and his group wanted to develop different ways of doing Zen, an experimental approach that offended Aitken's relatively conservative religious sensibilities.  This seems to chime with what I've seen at PZI (compared with the SF Zen Center) in terms of a relaxation of traditional forms, as well as with the impression I have of Aitken from reading his book and talking to people who knew him.  The other story is that Tarrant had a sexual relationship with a Zen student, Aitken tried to discipline him for it, and the result was a falling-out between the two men that led ultimately to John cutting ties with his former teacher's lineage and institution. 

The whole reason I'm writing this blog, of course, is that I don't now much about Zen (see title), but anyone who's read an introductory book can tell you that there are various sects, the two most popular being Rinzai (which uses koans) and Soto (which doesn't so much).  Though Tarrant's teaching centers on koans, his inheritance is ultimately not from Rinzai but from a third and relatively new sect called the Sanbo Kyodan, and more particularly from a lineage called the Harada-Yasutani line.  Named after two twentieth-century masters, this line emphasized lay practice (teachers can marry and don't have to shave their heads!) and inter-religious dialogue (many of Yamada's students were Catholics), as well as less praiseworthy endeavours such as Japanese militarism (a sorry story for another time).  This is the line of John Tarrant and David Weinstein, and explains why they aren't celibate and have hair, if nothing else.  Not that lineages really matter, of course, or that there's really more than one; after all, as a Chan teacher once said, there's really no such thing as Chan, and there are certainly no teachers. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Refuge in the wilderness

A few months ago I decided to take refuge, that is, to take formal vows as a Buddhist; since the particular form of the vows that I'll be swearing have been handed down by Zen lineages, I suppose that will make me a Zen Buddhist.  Since I was raised as an Anglican Christian and am a fundamentalist atheist (that is, non-theist) by conviction, this seemed to be exactly the right thing for me.  I won't pretend that I've reached this decision without some doubts, most of which have to do with subject of my last post.  But I thought I'd write a few words tonight about how I got to this point in my life.  I've described before how I came to meditation through a combination of chronic pain and lapsed Christianity.  I've described how for many years I practised meditation on my own.  So why make a specifically religious commitment?

Like most questions, this one can be answered in several ways.  I can tell you a narrative about how I found myself scheduling conversations with my teacher David Weinstein so that I could prepare for the ceremony known as jukai this coming Spring.  (People in Pacific Zen Institute and elsewhere seem to see this as a kind of confirmation, although I've heard students at San Francisco Zen Center speak of it as 'lay ordination'.)  I can tell you the intellectual reasons for wanting to commit myself to a certain set of practices.  And I can tell you why it seemed right on some visceral level for me, at this stage of my life, to begin defining myself without embrassment as a religious person.  Let's begin with the first, since stories often represent the form of explanation that is most immediately accessible to our understanding.

When I was still in my first or second year at the Anglican secondary school I went to in England, many of my friends went through a process leading to a confirmation ceremony.  Most of them did it almost automatically, and although I don't doubt that there were a few sincere souls, the prospect of confirmation gifts form relatives seemed to figure prominently in their decision-making.  Since I had already started to have doubts about Christianity, and since these doubts were only growing the more I started to find out about theology (and biology), I chose not to take part in the ceremony.  It wasn't a huge thing at the time, but since then there have been moments when I've felt estranged from a tradition that in many senses I feel is unmistakably my own.  Though I've been to a lot of church services of various denominations in my time, I've never once taken communion.

On my third and most recent PZI retreat John Tarrant used several of his evening talks to bring up the refuge ceremony and wonder aloud whether it was a tradition that we still felt had its place in a Westernized, progressive practice.  The reaction in the discussion periods was mixed; I felt myself that while I liked meditation and had no problems with the basic ethical precepts, I wasn't really a Buddhist, at least in the cultural sense.  What made me more open to the entire process was David's talk about the first time he took refuge in Nepal.  It wasn't so much the exotic narrative or the touching analogy with his marriage that drew me in, but the way in which he spent most of the talk admitting that he wasn't sure whether or not he was a Buddhist.  Precisely because he didn't insist on Buddhism as the only path, or advocate it out of some tribal loyalty, I felt more interested in adopting it myself.

The analogy with marriage provides the best way of explaining on a rational level why I feel that taking religious vows is something I want to do.  There is a sense in which there is no reason why two people in love should swear oaths that they will support and care for one another in the future.  You might think that they should care for one another as long as they feel like it, and then go their separate ways.  At the same time, the oaths they swear add some amount of reassurance that one of them won't simply abandon the other when things get too tough.  As the frequency of divorce demonstrates, the added security offered by vows sometimes don't amount to much, but they do amount to something, and that is often enough.  Taking vows to care for youself and others through a religious path that you find inspiring or reliable works in the same way, by giving you an additional motive to keep going when times get tough: to be true to yourself, to be faithful to an oath you swore to yourself alone.

This knowledge that you yourself have committed yourself in the past to a set of practices is reinforced when other people know that you have.  That they know that you've committed yourself to cultivating awareness and kindness towards others will support your practice in various subtle way, just as people knowing you're married will lead them to expect certain types of behaviour from you that might like to pursue for your own reasons.  A friend of mine has told me how comfortable he feels talking to women with his wedding ring on, since it makes it less likely that things he says will be misinterpreted.  I've started wearing beads; I'm not sure that many people make the association with Buddhism, but I guess the ones that do might be less likely to put pressure on me to do various sorts of things I might not like to do for my own reasons.  But there's a less rational reason for wearing them, too.

The less rational reason is that I feel that I want to declare myself as a religious person.  Not in the sense of making an annoucement with a loud-speaker that henceforth I'm going to be calmer or more ethical than other people, but simply in the sense of ceasing to be embarassed about what I am.  After practising various forms of Buddhist meditation for almost a decade now, and after being a member of almost half a dozen different Buddhist communities, I think it's high time that I admitted to others as well as myself that I'm a Buddhist.  I wouldn't know a traditional Buddhist festival if it hit me in the face (assuming they do that), and haven't read many Buddhist sacred texts; I do still celebrate Christmas, ever more lustily, and keep going back to the Western classics.  But I've looked around me and, as I move nearer to my thirtieth birthday, I know where I want to place my bet for a happy life.  It's a confirmation and a gift from someone close to me, all at once. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How not to drink Kool-Aid

A few blocks north-east of me as I write is the old site of the People's Temple, where a charismatic young preacher by the name of Jim Jones was winning converts and admirers to his innovative version of Christian socialism, local hero Harvey Milk among them, by the early 70s.  After a few years in San Francisco Jones decided to bring his flock to a special compound in Guyana, where they would be able to found a community free from the taint of atheistic capitalism.  At the urging of an association of concerned relatives, a member of Congress was sent out to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission.  After several of Jones' community tried to leave the group, Congressman Leo Ryan and four others were gunned down.  Soon afterward, Jones persuaded or coerced all 909 members of his congregation to quaff Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

The Jonestown mass-suicide was the single biggest loss of civilian life in US history not related to a natural disaster until September 11th, 2001.  Leo Ryan remains the only serving member of congress to have been successfully assassinated.  For anyone joining what sociologists term new religious movements - independent, experimental, or innovative religious groups - the tragic history of the People's Temple of San Francisco might well be kept in mind.  It was the dark side of the upsurge of interest in alternative lifestyles and syncretic mysticism of the late 60s, and led to the founding of a the anti-cult movement of the 80s.  But of course, new religious movements are still with us, as are cults.  My mother sometimes reminds me of her friend whose daughter was brainwashed into believing that her mother was a witch.

One of my friends, when she found out I enjoyed meditation, told me, 'You're not going to join a cult like my friend from college, are you?'  (Her friend was a student of Andrew Cohen, whose physical abuse of his followers is documented in William Yenner's memoir American Guru).  And I don't think I am, but it had crossed my mind.  I've talked to several older members of PZI, and thought a lot about cults and new religious movements in general.  The atmosphere at retreats is what gets me worrying, mainly just because it's so unusually loving that I figure something must be up.  (I remember one woman saying to me as I left, 'It's been so good sitting next to you!'  I thought 'What, in silence?', 'How nice', and 'It's a cult' pretty much simultaneously.)  But PZI's experimental nature also has me wondering at times.  All this wondering has led me to try to put together a list of signs to look out for if you don't have a taste for cyanide-flavoured grape juice.

1. Exaggerated claims that the movement or the leader is transforming the universe, bringing together all human knowledge, or healing all ills.  If you join a religious movement that makes the claim that it can get rid of all your problems, it's not a religious movement: it's a roomful of people who are delusional.  If the leader is someone who claims, like Andrew Cohen or Ken Wilber, to have synthesized all human knowledge and to be ushering in a new stage in human evolution, chances are they don't know much about any particular branch of human knowledge, and that they know especially little about evolution by the natural selection of inherited characteristics.  John Tarrant certainly doesn't make any of these claims, or at least he hasn't in my hearing.  At WiG we constantly try not to get rid of our problems, but to become better acquainted with them, which is hurtful and helps.

2. Extreme or bizarre deviation from traditional ethical norms.  Most new religious movements don't actually claim to start from scratch, but are instead parasitic on religious traditions that command varying degrees of authority.  Now, one of the best reasons for religious innovation is that traditional teachings, for example on homosexuality, are felt to be out of tune with the times, or simply to have gotten things badly wrong.  To that extent any modernizing movement will have to deviate from the past, at least the recent past.  But a religious group that didn't have some notion of sexual morality and immorality would seem to be leaving out a rather large segment of our moral lives.  Everyone can see that the Family cult was taking liberties with scripture in encouraging incest as an expression of God's love; but it may help in less obvious cases to remember that a Buddhist group that doesn't present some minimally honest understanding of the four noble truths and the eightfold path isn't really Buddhist.

3. Rigidly hierarchical structures, with a cult of the leader or teacher.  I talked recently with a man who'd been around SFZC during the time of Richard Baker's leadership.  He told me that it was quite clear that your criticisms of the teacher weren't welcome; in fact, he said that Baker would probably have reacted to any criticisms by shouting something along the lines of, 'How dare you question my authority?'  With nobody questioning his authority, and with him being a bloke, it's not too surprising that he used his  unquestioned authority to  have sex with as many women as possible.  I'm told that John Tarrant sometimes gets angry with people, and he seems to prefer to react to criticism with silence rather than with cogent argumentation and appeals to documented facts.  But I've also heard he does meet with people who have issues with him, and doesn't hold grudges against them afterwards. 

4. A veil of secrecy rather than a culture of transparency.  If there's nothing to hide, then nobody should really be going around helping to cover things up.  One disturbing aspect of the recent Tarrant-Foster dust-up was that an editor at Shambala Sun magazine wanted to let the matter drop to avoid 'washing the Buddhist world's dirty laundry in public', important for a newspaper 'with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience'.  The argument seems to be that we should not tell the truth in order to convert more people to Buddhism.  But Buddhists lying to cover up the wrongdoing of other Buddhists is unlikely to be an acitivity that draws a great many converts.  And it also might just be in contradiction with the precept against lying and the undertaking to practice right speech.  If you can't write home on a retreat, that's something to write home about, and not in a good way.

5. Encouraging adepts to create a whole new identity for themselves and cut off ties with their families and friends outside the gorup.  I'm well aware that many Buddhist and neo-Hindus in the West adopt new names to add to or replace their own when they convert, and also that this is routinely done in our own Zen lineage.  (I want my new name to be 'James'.)  In many cases this is a touching and intimate form of symbolism, though I must say it strikes me personally as almost intolerably pretentious.  (I'll post more on this later.)  But if a group wants you to change your identity completely and encourages you to cut off contact with your previous group of friends, I'd suggest running very, very quickly in the other direction.  Not that you'll take my word for it - you've probably cut off contact with me already.  But you don't really need a new identity anyway - you can be quite happy with your ordinary one.

6. The workshops and retreats don't cost $50 or $100 but your savings, your car, and your house.  How much people should be paying (or being asked to pay) for what is another issue I'll have to return to (as much because I may be paying too little for certain events as because others may be paying too much).  Ideally, nobody should pay anything for meditation, and if a run-of-the-mill sitting group or meditation teacher asks you to pay, just find one who won't (it's easy).  Once we're talking about an institution with a website and staff or about events with food and rooms, it gets more complex.  But one thing isn't complex: the guru doesn't need that Mercedes-Benz.  If he can't get through life without one, you may want to look elsewhere for help in developing contentment and generosity in your life. 

I may have strayed off-topic a few times, but I flatter myself that what I've provided isn't a terrible list of things that should make you think twice about getting deeper into your local new religious organization.  It's not an exhaustive list by any means - if your teacher thinks he is Socrates, or Jesus, or both, for example, that may be another reason to step away.  I think PZI does pretty well at avoiding cult-status on all of these counts, which is a reassuring thought as I approach taking refuge; all the same, this blog was started partly as my contribution to keeping the organization as non-hierarchical and transparent as possible.  But there's a problem with my list, and that is that none of its criteria are particularly well-defined.  What constitutes an extreme deviation from traditional ethical practices, for example, as opposed to a moderate one?  The quesion gets to the heart of the problem of cults.

The core problem about cults is similar to the core problem with murderers - it's very difficult to tell what they are for sure before they become something horrible.  Cults aren't all completely new religions, but nor are they all newfangled reworkings of existing faiths.  They're not overwhelmingly drawn from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism.  And they don't even all depend upon charismatic leaders.  Even definite cults can do a lot of good in some ways, and they nearly all present a minimally appealing public face to newcomers - for both points, see Lawrence Wright's long and detailed report on scientology in the New Yorker.  In the end, the best advice is simply to keep your eyes open and trust your instincts - not your deep spiritual 'heart', but your ordinary, everyday instincts about what seems phoney and exploitative.

Because when it comes down to it, the tragedy at Jonestown wasn't that people were drawn into a cult, but that Jim Jones browbeat them into drinking cyanide.  Groups of all sorts - corporations, goverments, armies among others - can commit crimes and do great harm to others and to their own membership.  Talk of cults makes it seem as if spiritual groups are more vulnerable to a certain type of mind-control, but I've seen no evidence that this is the case.  (If the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments are anything to go by, secular forms of authority are quite sufficient for that kind of exploitation.)  It's been a theme of this blog that politics is everywhere, and that means that vigilance is always a necessity.  Whatever a group's purpose, you shouldn't support it if it suppresees dissent, exploits its membership, and makes transparency impossible.

When I first came to California, I was immediately driven to an extensive compound where I would spend the next three years living and working, many hours a week for low pay and with little recognition for my labour.  The entire time my actions were supervised by a team of superiors, and I was given little choice but to comply with their instructions.  That seems like a fair description of my time so far as a grad student at Stanford, but it would be ridiculous to say that I've been drawn into a cult.  My point is not at all that grad school, or Stanford, is excessively isolating or insufficiently transparent; rather, I just want to remind you in closing of what an ordinary thing hierarchy is.  It's there in your workplace, so you can't be too shocked when you find it in your religion.  Of course, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't fight it; but it does mean that it's nothing to be afraid of.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sesshin obsession

Why do I even bother?  If Zen is traditionally so hierarchical, and its teachers wield peculiarly unconfinable types of authority, why am I still getting deeper into PZI and preparing to become a card-carrying Buddhist (without a card)?  Part of the answer is that I think that convert Buddhism in the West is a religious tradition at a revolutionary moment; less dramatically, it's a practice whose forms are undergoing an unusual amount of scrutiny as newcomers imbued with Western scientific and political convictions look for something to put their minds at rest.  I want to be a fully committed part of the Western Zen community - which involves, in my view, exposing it to honest criticism when it looks like there's a need for it - partly because it presents me with an exciting and worthwhile project to be part of. 

But of course, there'd be no point in taking the time to commit to or constructively criticize a project if you didn't see any value in it, and that brings us back once more to the question of why I think a spiritual community is such a valuable thing.  And that brings me back once again to the experience of PZI retreats, and to my third ever sesshin, the autumn session of last year, when I stayed for six days and five nights.  (Meditating all day can be a shock to the system, so I'd decided to work my way up to a full week-long practice session.)  I thought I'd arranged a lift up to Santa Rosa with my friend Sara, but she'd gotten a different impression, and anyway had just come down with the flu.  So I phoned an immaculately composed Zen student from Santa Cruz and asked her at about an hour's notice to come through San Francisco and pick me up.  It was once again a quiet drive up, either because my friend was already in her Zen Zone, or because I'd just made her drive through a city full of traffic (or both).

As it turned out, this time the retreat wasn't in either of the buildings just outside of Santa Rosa that I'd been to before, but at a more remote location somewhere around Occidental, an giant's step or two closer to the Pacific.  As we got closer to our destination, the roads got narrower and windier, and the trees grew taller and started huddling around the car like pedestrians in some crowded metropolis.  The place itself was another Christian retreat-centre, but this time it felt less like a convent or a hostel and more like the base for a Scout-camp or a souped-up tree-house.  Parts of the dorms upstairs had no windows, only screens that let the air breathe in an out of the room, one to ten to one again.  When you looked out the windows of the dining-hall downstairs there were trees so close you could touch them, and hundreds of others farther away that made you remember how depth is a startling thing.

By this time, most of the faces around me were familiar rather than startling.  I worked in the kitchen with Socrates, who turned out to be called William and to be a master soup-chef as well as a peerless trumpet-tooter.  I worked away at my dissertation-reading during break-periods beside the professorial room-mate at my first retreat, who was engaged in seemingly inexhaustible paperwork for his academic department.  I recognized the jolly French professor with clever socks, the serious silver-haired woman who oversees my perennial requests for financial aid, the Santa Rosa Unitarian minister with the square glasses.  I still embraced my WiG friends when I saw them like a castaway clinging to the fragment of a mast.  Ashley was there, a reassuring presence; Sara beat the flu eventually and got there; Michael chatted to everyone with unrestraned loud friendliness as his daughter crawled around the Zendo making the serious faces crease.

I also renewed my affairs with two people I'd fallen in love with on my first retreat, one man, one woman.  At some point when I was making tea I turned and looked down to see the diminutive Chinese artist Alok looking up at me like I was a redwood reminding him how height is a startling thing.  He said, 'Hey, Short Stuff.'  He looked eighty at least, and had apparently brought his new girlfriend with him; since she complained at one point of having done 'one too many prostrations' in Tibet I assumed it was a good match.  One day David Weinstein the teacher told us we didn't have to say grace, apparently just to confuse us, but Alok and his partner went up to the altar with offerings and performed their own little rite, just the two of them, grateful for the food or for eating it together, or just hedging their bets.

The periods of discussion are one of the things I like most about PZI, partly because my resistance to top-down teaching gets to steal a nap (though our head teacher John Tarrant's replies can sometimes, in the Japanese tradition, verge on put-downs), but mainly because you get to meet and learn from all the people who've been silently meditating next to you all day.  At one point in a discussion about refuge vows Alok started talking about how he'd made a vow to his partner; when John asked if that was necessary he said 'Yes and no', and then, 'It wasn't as if the ladies were queuing up', which made me chortle.  (John said, 'Well, I don't know.')  He said that after he stopped being a Christian minister, he'd switched from prayer to meditation, and hadn't prayed in years; but when he met his girlfriend,  'I got down on my knees and prayed to God that if I were meant to be with this woman, he would let that happen; and if we weren't meant to be together, he would let that happen too'.  Logically, it struck me as the most pointless prayer ever; but it was about putting your heart in the right place.  It all is.

He also talked about how he'd originally been reluctant to become part of a religious community, especially a Buddhist one, since 'Why be a Buddhist when you can be a Buddha?'  But he said he'd more recently decided he wanted to become a full member of PZI, but hadn't been able to find a job in Santa Rosa.  I found it quite touching the way he yearned to be closer to the group and its regular meetings.  (Once or twice unconditional statements of dedication to the community of this nature got me thinking frightenedly about whether I was being drawn into a cult, but only once or twice.)  As for the second person I'd fallen in love with, the beautiful old lady, she told us that after many years of practising with others she'd reached a place in which she felt only a great tenderness towards others, and towards herself.  John said that comment would be the right note to end on; I agree.