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.