Friday, February 24, 2012

Beating the drum

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that while I'm keen on meditation, I'm also aware that there have been problems in American Buddhist organizations, and especially in Zen groups in which there isn't a sufficient level of oversight or criticism of the head teacher of master.  You'll also know that I've had my doubts about John Tarrant, the head teacher of Pacific Zen Institute, which is the larger organization of which my smaller sitting group, Wind in Grass Sangha, is a chapter.  I found out online that John has been accused of misconduct - 'professional, sexual, and organizational', to use the words of Nelson Foster, a rival and critic - and so have talked to a few senior members of the organization to hear their version of events.  I also talked to my main teacher, David Weinstein, about the same topic.

All these sources admitted that John had made errors of judgment in the past - usually involving dating students - but they all ultimately defended him, saying that none of his mistakes could be considered harmful.  But since I found it hard to find out the truth about what had gone on in the past, and since my real concern was not that John had dated students but that he had refused to be accountable to them or to his own teacher Robert Aitken, I decided to talk to him myself about what had happened.  Of course, I appreciated that it was hardly a gentle act to dredge up someone's sexual past, and I felt myself that it was no easy one, since I'm relatively new to Zen and teachers are treated with some deference.  Yet at the same time my mind was clear: if John answered my questions reasonably, or gave reasons why he could not answer them, I would continue to go on PZI retreats; if he reacted unreasonably, I could be sure that I didn't want to associate with him further.

Besides the occasional one-day event, I only ever see John at retreats in Santa Rosa, and I felt asking him about the issues I had on my mind during dokusan - a kind of one-on-one interview with a teacher somewhat reminiscent of confession - would be the natural thing.  I felt nervous going into the interview room, but reassured myself by reflecting that John had extensive experience both as a meditator and a teacher; I also knew that other, older students had aired similar issues with him before.  When I went in, he asked me how things had been going, in his usual, friendly enough manner.  I told him there was something I wanted to talk to him about, and that I felt very much at home at WiG, had learned a lot from his talks, and had enjoyed my previous retreats.

I then tried to put what I was about to ask in context, by saying that when I'd decided to take refuge I'd felt the need to better inform myself about American Zen, and had found out about the serious abuses committed by teachers such as Richard Baker and Dennis Merzel.  On reflection, this may have been a mistake - whereas I'd meant to make my questions look understandable by putting them in the context of my learning about misdemeanours by other teachers, I think John took me to be accusing him flat out of having been up to the same kind of thing.  Although, come to that, John's first response to what I'd been saying was to say that Dick and Genpo were friends of his, and that 90% of the things people had said about them online weren't true.  I found this surprising, since it was my understanding that Baker and Merzel had both admitted that they had been involved in adulterous affairs.

I also told him that I'd been writing a blog in which I'd raised some of these issues, which seemed to make him angry.  He said that people criticizing each other on the internet was just like two 12-year-olds playing first person shooter games, or like a food-fight in a meal hall, and added that he didn't see a point in responding to it.  This appears to have been his position all along - not to respond to criticisms at all, and to retain a dignified silence.  And if you spend any amount of time looking at the unseemly controversy surrounding Merzel, for example, you can see where he's coming from.  At the same time, I think it's also important to see that many of the people criticizing teachers and passing on information about them are acting with some sort of integrity: they're trying to encourage transparency, or accountability, or hold true to the precept against lying.  But when I put this to John, he again reacted angrily, saying that all critics were motivated by spite or envy. 

This began a new phase of our interview, in which he questioned why I'd decided to take the precepts in the first place.  This seemed to me to be a strange thing for a Buddhist teacher to be doing, on the face of it, although I can understand that someone might be taking the precepts for the wrong reasons.  He asked me whether I even knew why I was taking them.  When I responded, 'I think so', he immediately contradicted me, saying 'No, you don't'.  Now, I can accept that embracing 'not knowing' (as the koan puts it), and not being sure about our own mental stories can sometimes be a healthy thing, allowing us to release our hold on certain obsessions and delusions.  But it did strike me as odd that while I didn't seem to have permission to make even tentative statements about my own mental states, John allowed himself to make very confident pronouncements on my mental states.  It seemed like an element of Zen psychology was being used as a way of shutting me up.

His main gripe about the way I seemed to be approaching the precepts was that I was doing so in a moralizing way.  When I asked him if he thought the precepts weren't about morality, he said that they were to some extent, but that he didn't want to be in a community where people were policing each other.  And I can certainly see the dangers of becoming a religious prig.  At the same time, is there anything wrong with members of a community supporting themselves in sticking to the key elements of a practice they've all freely committed to?  I suppose I do take the precepts to be concerned above all with morality, which isn't to say that you have to be perfect to take them, just that you should make an honest effort to abide by them.  But maybe there is room for reasonable agreement on that point.

By the last ten minutes or so of the interview he had calmed down considerably.  He asked me why I'd begun practising in the first place, and I told him that it was because of chronic pain and anxiety.  (Earlier, he'd said, 'Look at you, you're anxious', as a way of backing up his claim that all my concerns were reducible to paranoia; I'd replied, 'I know - that's partly why I'm here'.)  After this, he became more sympathetic, and we settled back into what I take to be the usual pattern of his interviews with students, where he dispenses advice to the troubled.  At one point he even said that I could ask about whatever I wanted and criticize whatever I wanted, though since he'd spent the first two thirds of the interview trying to convince me my concerns were entirely a result of paranoia and priggishness, I found it hard to take this as sincere.

At the end of the interview I repeated what I'd said at the beginning, just to make sure he heard it - that I thought PZI was wonderful in lots of ways, and that I was grateful for his teaching.  I shook his hand, as warmly as I could (admittedly not Zen practice, but a sincere effort on my part), and he banged his drum, signalling the next person should come in (which seemed brusque, but is the standard way of ending dokusan).  I went back to the meditation hall and sat for one period or two - I'm not sure - with thoughts racing around in my mind.  I realized that I wasn't going to get much meditating done in my emotional state, so I asked an older member of WiG to come take a stroll with me outside.  When I told him I'd approached John and that he'd reacted angrily, his reaction was, 'Shit!  Shit!  Fuck!  Christ!' and that John's reaction was a matter of personal disappointment to him.

He also defended John, saying that it was sesshin, which involved putting fifty people together and limiting the amount of time they slept (to seven hours a night or less).  (I've heard this excuse before for blow-ups on retreat, but if the traditional way of doing things does encourage mindfulness and compassion, why the occasional explosions?  And if it doesn't, why not change it?)  He reminded me that John spent hours at a time working with people in physical pain or psychological anguish, paid only by donation, and suggested that for all his failings, John had probably done more good than harm.  And I agreed with this - but failed to see why we shouldn't encourage him to reduce the harm.  I was also told that someone had once characterized John's leadership style as recalling a maxim of British diplomacy in the imperial period - 'never explain, never apologize'.

My older friend urged me to try to talk to David again before I left.  I was snuck into David's interview room just as the bell went for dinner.  David suggested that John hadn't heard all the positive things I had to say about PZI, but I insisted that I'd made the point doubly clear.  He also said that the issue I'd raised was a sore spot for John, since he'd been criticized for it so much in the past.  And I definitely understood that, while failing to see how accusing me of being delusional constituted a mature way of reacting to my concerns, whatever the soreness.  David said he'd talk to John about our interview, and that he'd look forward to see how things unravelled.  I told him I hadn't wanted the interview to go badly.  He said, 'I know that, but John may not, because he doesn't know you, and so he also doesn't understand how what you did was courageous.'  I left that night, my mind as clear as day.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Killing (in the name of)

'I vow not to kill' is the first of the ten precepts, and it looks like an easy one to fulfil.  I haven't killed anyone, at least not knowingly or deliberately, at this point in my young life, and I can't imagine doing so in the future, although times change.  Since I moved to California I've gradually become a vegetarian: first I stopped cooking meat at home, then I stopped buying it when I was out, and finally I began to tell people I was a vegetarian and to refuse meat when it was offered to me.  Admittedly, I did it only partly for ethical reasons, and partly because doing without meat is cheaper and healthier.  And admittedly, the ethical reasons which did figure in my decision - the grotesqueness of factory farming, the unnecessary suffering caused to intelligent beings like pigs - didn't center on an aversion to killing animals for food.  Still, it's reassuring to realize that I don't regularly incentivize the unnecessary slaughter of animals.

Although I still eat fish, mainly because they're good for you and a fine source of protein, but also because I like to think that I agree with Kurt Cobain: it's okay to eat fish, because they don't have any feelings.  And I eat plants, but they're not sentient, so they don't count, right?  I'm on shakier ground when it comes to pacificism, that other great Californian fad that you might think is part and parcel of the Buddhist way.  The problem is, I still remember reading as a teenager George Orwell's denunciation of the pacificism of the intellectuals of his time, and even though I'm Mr. Propter and Aldous Huxley was among the most prominent of the 1930s peaceniks, it always struck me that Orwell had the better of that particular argument.  In particular, it seemed that the pacifists had a hard time saying what action they would take against fascist aggression, or how inaction would be in any way acceptable in the face of the Axis powers.

Part of this is bred in the bone.  I was born into an army family and raised mostly on army camps across Canada and Europe.  My father spent most of his career training and developing tanks, making sure that they could drive over knife-edges of sand and ultimately that they would be good at killing lots of people quickly.  My brother has spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and though the ostensible end in view was bringing democracy and stability to troubled lands the means employed doubtless sometimes involved killing people.  If there are always going to be Nazis and Taliban in the world, someone will have to stand up to them; and if they refuse to back down, standing up to them may ultimately mean killing them.  My teacher David Weinstein told me his first Tibetan teacher admitted that if there was a terrorist threatening to hijack an airplane he was on, he would consider compassionately hitting him on the head with a hammer.

David came to our Wind in Grass sangha the other night and announced he would give a talk.  He told us about a lady who had mice in her house.  She wanted to kill them but she was a Buddhist so decided not to.  Instead she caught them, except she eventually became convinced there was really only one mouse, a fact she confirmed by painting one of his nails crimson and letting him go - sure enough, the next mouse she caught had had the same manicure.  This was like the old story of the student who saw a spider drop down in front of his face every time he meditated.  He brought a knife to his meditation and the spider only got bigger; eventually his teacher told him to bring a brush instead, and to paint an X on the spider's belly as soon as he saw it.  He did that and the spider went away.  That evening, much relieved, he took his clothes off to have a bath and found a big X painted on his own tummy.

The talk went down well.  The three or four newcomers who had turned up that night were taking the first sips of their tea as he started by declaring that he'd been thinking a lot recently about killing.  Ashley came in just as he'd finished telling us about the mice and the spiders and explaining that we had mice and spiders in our brains.  I asked David whether you could build channels and obstacles for the mice, jumps and wheels they could run in.  Michael said it felt like the mice came from outside of the house and David told him to paint them and look at his belly.  David told us there were no cats and that, as a Zen teacher, he was of course the mental equivalent of a cat.  When Ashley drove me home that night, she expressed some confusion about the discusssion period, the cats and mice and spiders and Michael's belly.  I told her the stories and that cleared things up, or not.

Not killing in the Pacific Zen school seems to mean primarily not killing your thoughts, your temptations, your spontaneity.  The obvious objection to that recommendation is that sometimes we have to kill our spontaneity in order to stay alive or to avoid doing somethig awful.  The rejoinder is that we don't actually have to kill the evil mind-mice or slice up the spiders of temptation with smuggled knives; actually, trying to kill the beasties only makes them stronger.  Instead it's better to mark them with a brush and some ink or nail-polish.  And that helps you see that there's only one mouse that might as well become your pet, and that there's actually no spider at all, there's only your hairy belly that you can live with, since after all you've lived with it all your life.  You see the anger and the lust come and go, and imagining you can kill either doesn't help you become kind or strong.

Hence the story about the master and the official out walking when a rabbit saw them and ran away.  The official asked the Zen master, 'Why would a rabbit run away from you?'  The master replied, 'Because he knows I like to kill'.  Humans eat rabbits and rabbits eat lettuce and bears eat humans though lettuce doesn't: there's no way out of the chain of suffering and enjoying and maybe it's better not to pretend that there is.  You're certainly not going to impress the official if you pretend you're never hungry and end up chasing after the rabbit.  I like to hate and desire and be self-regarding and self-loathing, but it's only when I try to eradicate and annihilate and deracinate those mice, throwing nails at them and bowling balls and napalm, that they grow fangs and shells and develop cloaking devices.  But it's hard to stop doing it - you see, I like to kill.  And I'm sure I'll keep doing it.  I vow not to kill. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mr. Propter's koans

It's been some weeks since I told you about my real self, so I thought it might be about time that I told you about my fake self as well.  It is was when I was (really) living in Italy that I first made the acquaintance of Mr. Propter.  He was in a novel called After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley (pictured - no, not there).  I'd read some of Huxley's earlier novels, mordantly satirical and sharply witty observations of the social life of the English upper classes, and enjoyed them well enough.  If you're careful you can detect in them the seeds of the meditative mysticism that would later reach full bloom in Island, Huxley's final novel, and that would eventually collapse into the championing of psychotropic substances in such works as The Doors of Perception.  But I don't know of a fuller or more coherent expression of Huxley's mature views on meditation, God, and much else besides, than that communicated through the speeches of the character Mr. Propter in the first part of After Many a Summer.

The novel follows the progress of Jeremy, an English historian, on his mission to the lavish mansion (modeled on Hearst Castle) of the oil-baron Jo Stoyte.  Jeremy has been employed to examine the manuscripts in the Stoyte private collection, but soon becames absorbed in the drama playing itself out among the residents of the mansion.  Pete, a young idealist, is hopelessly in love with Virginia, Stoyte's unreasonably young and desirable girlfriend, who is cheating on her wealthy lover with the house physician, the cynical and manipulative Dr. Obispo.  Down in the valley, vigilantly independent of Stoyte's money, the luxuries of his mansion, and the lure of his girls, lives Mr. Propter, a retired professor, who dedicates himself to silent contemplation and living off the land, all the while humouring Jeremy, mentoring Pete, and nudging Stoyte towards a more compassionate treatment of his workers.

We first meet Mr. Propter hitching a ride in the car that takes Jeremy to the mansion.  When we next meet him, he is sitting and watching the sun go down and meditating on koans.  Of course, that's not how Huxley describes it, but that's pretty much what's going on.  Sitting alone, he asks himself 'What is man?' and contemplates the answer given by Pierre de Bérulle, the 17th century cardinal: 'C'est un néant environné de Dieu, indigent de Dieu, capable de Dieu, et rempli de Dieu, s'il veut'.  As if that weren't enough, he then asks himself, 'What is God?' and whispers to himself the definition offered by the 13th century mystic John Tauler: 'God is a being withdrawn from creatures, a free power, a pure working'.  Like those of any koan practitioner, his thoughts then wander from the object of meditation to thinking about other matters, in this case, how to improve the lot of Stoyte's employees.  But he soon brings them back again:

'Little by little these thoughts and wishes and feelings had settled like a muddy sediment in a jar of water, and as they settled, his vigilance was free to transform itself intoa kind of effortless unattached awareness, at one intense and still, alert and passive - an awareness whose object was the words he had spoken and at the same time that which surrounded the words.  But that which surrounded the words was the awareness itself; for this vigilance which was now an effortless awareness - what was it but an aspect, a partial expression, of that impersonal and untroubled consciousness into which the words had been dropped and through which they were slowly sinking?  And as they sank they took a new significance for the awareness that was following them down into the depths of itself...The busy nothingness of his being experienced itself as transcended in the felt capacity for peace and purity, for the withdrawal from revulsions and desires, for the blissful freedom from personality...'

Mr. Propter sets out his philosophy in a series of conversations with Jeremy, Stoyte, and above all Pete, who becomes a kind of apprentice, across three or four of the central chapters of the novel.  Fundamental to Mr. Propter's modus vivendi is a 'skeptical attitude of mind', maintained in the face of  political creeds at both ends of the spectrum, nationalism of any sort, and even organized religion.  Despite his work on behalf of exploited labourers, the only liberation worth seeking, in Mr. Propter's view, is a spiritual liberation: 'Liberation from time...Liberation from craving and revulsion.  Libration from personality'.  The end of liberation is so important that it structures Mr. Propter's ethical system, in which a good act is simply 'any act that contributes towards the liberation of those concerned in it'.  Science and art are good, bad, or simply indifferent depending on whether they aid or hinder people on the way to this over-arching end.

Once we appreciate the importance of liberation in Mr. Propter's system, it becomes easier to see why he rejects attachment or devotion to any other cause.  After all,  'scientists and artists and men devoted to what we vaguely call an ideal.  But what is an ideal?  An ideal is merely the projection, on an enormously enlarged scale, of some aspects of personality...And that's true...of every ideal except the highest, which is the ideal of liberation - liberation from personality, liberation from time and craving, liberation into union with God'.  And even among those who feel the desire to search for God, 'most find, through ignorance, only such reflections of their own self-will as the God of battles, the God of the chosen people, the Prayer-Answerer, the Saviour'.  So where might they find the real God?  Only in contemplation, 'in timelessness, in the state of pure, disinterested consciousness'.

Mr. Propter's determination to achieve spiritual liberation is accompanied by an eccentric desire to free himself from political and economic dependencies of all sorts.  He has solar cells and his own generator so that he can live off the grid; he grows his own vegetables in a greenhouse and builds his own wooden furniture in a workshop.  His explanation for all this is that he is a 'Jeffersonian democrat'.  What does democracy have to do with anything?  He answers simply, 'The more bosses, the less democracy.  But unless people can support themselves, they've got to have a boss who'll undertake to do it for them.  So the less self-support, the less democracy.'  Hence his interest in the generator, which promises to 'help to give independence to any one who desires independence'.

Unsurprisingly, Huxley's Mr. Propter is a pacifist, though his answer to the question of what we should do about Fascists ('something appropriate') is unreassuringly vague considering the year in which the novel was published (1939).  He is also, very surprisingly indeed, committed to violent revolution, although here too concrete details are disturbingly scarce.  He says only that he is willing 'to do active work on the techniques of a better system' and to 'collaborate with the few who understand what the system is and are ready to pay the price demanded for its realization.'  His final comment on the topic - 'incidentally, the price, measured in human terms, is enormously high' - should be chilling to anyone who has lived to the end of the 20th century. 

So Huxley's hero is hardly an unblemished role-model for the would-be contemplative, the ardent democrat, or even for those (and there are a lot of them here in California) looking to go back to the land.  All the same, he possesses what he calls 'the most characteristic features of an enlightened person's experience', that is, 'serenity and disinterestedness'.  In him, Huxley has provided us with a portrait of someone who has worked towards 'the absence of excitement and the absence of craving' without losing any of his humanity.  And how is he going about it?  As he tells Jeremy and Pete, there is really only one way - the path of direct experience, looking at reality head on.  They can go and look at it just as they can go upstairs to look at the priceless paintings on the walls of Stoyte's mansion.  Except that in this case, 'there isn't any elevator.  You have to go up on your own legs.  And make no mistake...There's an awful lot of stairs'.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Half lotus land

There's a story about an old monk with a withered leg who couldn't sit in what's traditionally seen as the ideal position for meditation, with legs crossed and both feet on the top of the opposite thigh (a posture called 'full lotus').  On his one hundredth birthday he came into the meditation hall, sat down on his cushion, looked at his leg and declared, 'All my life I have been at your service.  Now, for once, you will be at mine!'  With that, with a quick and determined heave, he pulled his crippled limb up, breaking it off, reaching enlightenment, and dying all at the same time.  Robert Aitken has a characteristically laconic comment on this, advising the newcomer to Zen not to attempt such an energetic practice, at least not until they are ready to die.

A lot of books on Zen still state that full lotus is the ideal position for meditation, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who could demonstrate it for you.  I saw one of my friends at school doing it once outside of the hall we were about to go in to do some important exams (and afterwards he went to Cambridge to study medicine, so it must have done the trick).  I saw somebody do it next to me at San Francisco Zen Center the other week.  And that's about all the people I've ever seen actually sit full lotus in any of the half-dozen or so meditation groups I've been a part of over the years.  There was one other guy doing it in the group I sat with in Oxford, and the teacher looked at him and said, 'Wow, I've only ever seen one other person who could sit full lotus before'.

But there are many people who say that you can get to full lotus eventually with a little application; okay, a lot of application.  The Dutchman Janwillem van de Wetering, who lived at a Zen monastery in Japan for a year in the early 1970s, tells of being forced to sit in full lotus for as many as fifteen hours a day.  They say that after a few months of that kind of practice, anyone can sit in full lotus pretty comfortably.  There are people who even see the excruciating pain caused by sitting - or trying to sit - in full lotus as a key part of the Zen practice of achieving detachment from your mental states and observing them with something approaching objectivity.  I've seen quotations from medical scientists appealing to the 'training' the posture offers to explain the success experienced meditators have in controlling pain or their reactions to it.

If you come to meditation as a Westerner, especially if you start out practising in either the secular or vipassana styles, it's likely your teacher will encourage you above all to be comfortable, giving you the choice of sitting on a cushion, on a chair, or even lying down.  This is actually in line with Buddhist tradition, in which there are four classical poses for meditation - sitting, standing, lying, and walking.  (I've tried all of these except for standing, though it sounds like a good approach.)  If you don't believe me, just consider any of the millions of depictions of Siddartha Gautama meditating lying on his side, for example the colossal statue at the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.  All the Zen places I've been to, and the Tibetan temple in London I once frequented, alternate longer periods of sitting with shorter bouts of walking, usually in a line, slowly (though the Rinzai sect people like to race around).

One of the things I like most about my main Wind in Grass group is that we're always told, and always tell newcomers, to meditate in whatever position makes us feel most comfortable.  Most people seem to go for seiza, kneeling, either with their bum on a cushion and their legs to each side of it, or with their calves on the floor and their bum on a small bench.  This freedom is also extended on Pacific Zen Institute retreats, where you do see a lot of people sitting in half lotus (an easier version of full lotus, where only one of your feet is up on the opposite leg), but where an equal number of people sit on chairs.  One of them is the teacher David Weinstein, whom I've never seen meditating in any other position than seated on a chair.  Once when I was complaining of back pain David sympathetically told me about another student he'd had who had such serious spinal trouble that he used to meditate stretched out flat on his back or on his stomach.

But though the trend seems to be towards a more generous conception of how your limbs might be arranged when you meditate, there are signs of a holdout in some quarters, or maybe even a backlash.  Brad Warner, the onetime punk rocker who is now a Zen priest, is hardly the type of guy who stands on formalities.  And yet he's repeatedly insisted that 'sitting in chairs is not zazen' (that is, Zen meditation).  His reasoning is that zazen is at least partly a physical practice, like a yoga posture; doing zazen in a chair is like trying to do downward-facing dog standing up.  People who really need to sit in chairs because of spinal issues should be allowed to do so, but most of us don't really need to sit in chairs for that kind of reason.  We should keep pushing ourselves just a little bit, because getting used to discomfort is one of the main things we are doing when we engage in Zen training.

I don't want to add to the comments below Brad's post by people who've been encouraged to sit zazen and who've hurt themselves as a result.  But I do wonder whether physical posture defines zazen in the same way as it defines downward-facing dog; after all the yoga asanas are called postures, while zazen is a word for meditation.  Siddartha Gautama and hundreds of other masters after him seem to have done just fine meditating without their crossed legs reminding them of the first noble truth.  If pain and suffering are a part of life, it seems rather obnoxious to seek them out ourselves, as if we didn't have what's in our heads to keep pushing us towards endurance every second.  And what happens when we greet moments of awakening in everyday life?  Do we have to take up half-lotus in the restaurant?

I myself can't meditate in a chair for more than five minutes without falling asleep, even if there are people stomping about offering to whack me with sticks.  For some reason I can't even discipline myself not to let my back touch the back-rest, which is when the slumber comes.  I like half lotus, and find it most comfortable when my foot isn't all the way at the top of the opposite thigh, but just resting over the opposite foot.  But for some reason I do try to sit full half lotus, and have a vague ambition to one day sit full full lotus.  I could fuck up my back, like my friend Dan, who now sits in a chair with straps to help him stay upright.  I do have pain in my lower right back and near the right groin, but that may have as much to do with working on an archaeological site this summer than with Zen Buddhism.  But I go on sitting that way, and also practising meditation in the running, working, eating, meditating, playing squash, and watching a play positions.  I heartily recommend them all.