Saturday, May 5, 2012

Attent chan

I've been spending more time on Stanford campus again recently, and the other night had the opportunity of attending a talk hosted by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, in their Distinguished Practitioner Series.  The speaker was Simon Child, a medical doctor and Buddhist teacher from England, and the title of his talk was 'Chinese Zen comes West'.  Yes, 'Chinese Zen', because although Chan is the proper term for Zen's Chinese precursor, Child decided to use a number of Japanese terms in his talks, since it is Japanese Buddhism that has so far been more influential in the West and whose terms are therefore more familiar to a Western audience.  Child is softly spoken, in his fifties, and has a gray beard, large glasses, and a passing resemblance to Oliver Sacks.  Before giving the talk he led the audience in an optional half-hour session of meditation, during which he kneeled in seiza position with a bright yellow throw over his legs.

Child studied in England with John Crook, an academic ethologist who - I learn from Wikipedia - went to the same secondary school as the writer of this blog.  Crook was in turn the student and protegĂ© of Sheng Yen, a Chinese master who was born in Shanghai but emigrated to Taiwan after the revolution.  Sheng Yen was a teacher in both the main schools of Chan, Linji and Caodong (or, in Japanese, Rinzai and Soto), and thus held lineages founded by Linji (810-866) and Dongshan (807-869) respectively.  (Both of these strands trace their lineages back to Huineng, 638-713, the Sixth Patriarch, who is supposedly linked by a single line of descent to the First Patriarch Bodhidharma, who is 28 generations removed from Mahakashyapa, the only one of the Buddha's disciples who knew what he was up to when the Buddha's sermon one day consisted entirely of him holding up a single flower.)  That, then, is how Buddhism got from Siddhartha Gautama to Simon Child, more or less.

Since Child's lineage has two separate strands, his practice also used two approaches, both of which I was somewhat familiar with from the Soto practice at SFZC and the more Rinzai style of PZI.  Child's opening meditation encouraged us to become aware of various parts of our bodies in turn, before inviting us to integrate the discrete impressions of the separate parts of our bodies into a single sensation of presence.  This is the method of silent illumination or mozhao, associated with the Song master Hongzhi Zhenje (1091-1157).  When he talked about his group's Western Zen retreats, however, Child described a practice focused on koans, or, in Chinese, gongans, and especially on the 'head' of the gongan, a particularly crucial phrase or question that the student is invited to repeat to himself over and over again.  This is the huatou practice advocated by Dahui Zong Gao (1089-1163).

The main subject of Child's talk was the coming of Chan to the West, some differences between Western and Eastern practitioners, and how to adapt Chan to a Western context while remaining true to the traditions of the practice.  Child said that in his experience of doing retreats in Taiwan, the UK, and the US, Westerners tended to be more questioning of the practice, while Chinese Buddhists were more ready to follow instructions without challenging the teacher to justify them.  He described the new style of Western Zen retreats that he and his colleagues in the Western Chan Fellowship have been doing for two or three decades now, telling us how they combined traditional silent meditation with periods of spoken practice in pairs that are closer to Western psychoanalysis.  According to Child, we should not be too wary of integrating therapy into Buddhism; after all, one of the Buddha's titles was the great physician.

I was very happy to hear what Child had to say about Chan in the West, since many of the issues he was discussing have been knocking around in my own head for quite some time.  Child was very careful to avoid stereotyping Chinese and Western Buddhists while all the same making some generalized comments about his experience of practitioners of different backgrounds.  But while Child seemd content to say that Westerners are skeptical and questioning of both teachers and methods because of their upbringing and leave it at that, I would prefer to go further.  Asking questions, insisting on evidence, and auditing holders of authority do not simply reflect Western values; they are a way of going about things that reflect universal concerns not to be misled, fooled, or abused by others.  In short, I am not sure whether seeking to unite Eastern mysticism and Western politics doesn't miss the point: what we should be seeking to synthesize are instead two systems with universal appeal, both centered around similar conceptions of human dignity.

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