Sunday, May 26, 2013

Face to face

Recently I went out for a drink with a friend who worries a lot about money.  She worries so much, in fact, that she told me she'll only feel financially secure when she has about $80 000 dollars in savings.  I said, 'Do you know that passage in the Bible?'  (That's not something I say very often.)  'The bit about the lilies in the field?'  I've sat through a lot of church services in my time.

'Look at the birds in the air', the passage runs.  'They do not sow or reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them...Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these...So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself'.

It's not great financial advice.  All the same, there's something true and valuable about the main idea it expresses: we constantly fall into the habit of worrying how we'll survive, and yet somehow usually do.  (Except when we don't, in which case there's really nothing to worry about).  In case you're wondering, the lines are spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, the 1st-century CE religious leader.  (And the lines are at Matthew 6.19-34.) 

That's a strange way of introducing him, of course, because most people know who he is.  All the same, it's often useful to look at things that are familiar to us as if we were considering them for the first time.  That was partly what led me to read through the whole of the Bible over the last three years.  I've already written about the Old Testament, and now I've finished the New Testament too.

I thought the Old Testament was mostly really bad, in both the moral and aesthetic senses.  Since I wrote about it, a few people have told me that I should have read it with a scholarly commentary or companion.  And there's no doubt I would have gained a better knowledge of the text that way.  But I didn't have time to do that.  I also thought it might be interesting just to read the thing and see what struck me about it.

The New Testament is a lot better than the Old Testament, in both the aesthetic and moral senses.  For a start, it's much shorter, taking up around 300 pages of my 1000-page Bible.  It tells a coherent story, running from Jesus' life, through the early history of the movement he founded, to the writings of one of that movement's early leaders, Paul.  It's a bit repetitive, but it's not a bad thing for historians that it includes four different versions of Jesus' life.

Jesus is a pretty nice guy, and his teachings have a lot of good in them.  He thinks the peacemakers are blessed, wants us to love our enemies, and claims religion boils down to loving God and loving your neighbour.  What he says at Luke 6.28-9 neatly encapsulates this side of Jesus: 'Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you.'

Jesus is also something of a revolutionary.  Often this is a good thing: Jesus is impatient with pointless rules, and tells a rich man to sell all he owns and give his money to the poor.  Sometimes, though, he can be a little unsettling.  'You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth', he says, strangely enough, at Matthew 10.34-6.  'I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son's wife against her mother-in-law'.

In other words, he is complex.  Despite all his talk of love and forgiveness, he occasionally loses it and talks about how sinners will be flung by angels into a burning furnace, 'the place of wailing and grinding of teeth' (Matthew 13.47-50).  He also believes that he is the Messiah and the son of God. 

But we are now in the murky territory of things the gospels attribute to Jesus, but which he might never have claimed to be true.  All the gospels say that he was a miracle-worker, for example, and that he rose from the dead. 

One element of his teaching that emerges clearly is his belief that the world will end sooner rather than later.  To be precise, he believes that the world will end in the lifetime of some of his disciples.  As he says to them, 'There are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power' (Mark 9.1).

That was what struck me about Jesus as described by the gospels.  He's a religious leader with his heart in the right place but who also has a vengeful streak and who believes he's the son of God.  His followers for whatever reason were inclined to attribute miracles to him.  Finally, he explicitly predicts on several occasions that the world will end within the next century at the latest.

That looks like an example of a falsifiable claim that was falsified, but that didn't stop the early Christians.  The Acts of the Apostles were for me the most unfamiliar and surprising part of the New Testament. 

On the one hand, they're heartening, the story of the survival and growth of a tiny sect in the teeth of violent repression.  The early Christians are simple folk, and live in a kind of commune: 'Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common' (4.32).

On the other hand, they can seem like a cult that comes under the increasing control of a violent and unscrupulous leadership.  Peter kills two dissidents by miraculous agency (5.5-10), and claims the privilege of passing on God's word through the laying on of hands - a monoply he vigilantly protects (8.18-25).

Once we get to Paul, things have normalized somewhat.  The Paul whose words we read in the letters is clearly the head of an organization, who is giving instructions to subordinates.  At the same time, his advice is often wise, and always well expressed.  The influence of Greek literature on his paradoxical prose style is noticeable; this is an educated man, learned and literate.

A lot of the highlighs I was read as a child were written by Paul, including the famous passage on charity (or love, depending on the translation: Cor. 13.1-14).  He tells us that we brought nothing into the world and can take nothing out of it.  He reminds us that we reap what we sow.  He encourages us to be humble, helpful, and cheerful.  In the best tradition of his master, he assures us that 'He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law' (Rom. 13.8).

In Paul's writings there is no trace of Jesus the revolutionary.  Instead, Christianity emerges partly as a way of being stable and dependable.  As he says, you are free to do anything - but not everything is for your good, including extra-marital sex (Cor. 6-12-20).  Members of the Christian community should be honest and upright and religious teachers should lead especially blameless lives. 

Paul's moralizing often spills over into condemnations.  Women were made from men, and therfore should be subordinate; a woman preaching a sermon is an abomination; in fact, women should just be quiet (Cor. 11.8-9; 14.35; Tim. 2.12).  Homosexuality is unnatural and will be punished (Rom. 1.26-7).  All of these judgments are extremely clear in the text. 

Those were my main impressions of the New Testament.  (Revelations is just batshit.)  What conclusions do I draw from my reading of it?  That Jesus meant well and was a charismatic leader but was probably delusional; that his followers very quickly clouded his life with stories about miracles; and that Christianity had both good and bad in it from the very beginning.  I won't try to substantiate those judgments further; they're simply what I concluded after reading the Bible.

I was raised as a Christian, both at home and at school.  Am I still a Christian?  Culturally, yes: I still celebrate Christmas, have an understanding for Christian mythology, and am often moved by Christian art.  I can't imagine being married or buried without some sort of Christian ceremony. 

I also think that there is a lot in the New Testament that makes sense and is ethically valuable.  It's just that I don't see why you need to believe the miraculous portions of the text to value kindness and humility.  I also don't think that we should cling to every word of a book that advises us to punish homosexuals and prevent women from having a voice. 

This is part of the reason I practice Buddhist meditation.  It's true that the more Buddhist scriptures I read, the more offended I am by their nonsensicality and superstition.  But none of the Buddhist scriptures has quite the status or authority of the Bible; there are scriptures, but not one Holy Bible.

It's an interesting historical question how this came to pass.  And an important one, too.  It might explain why nobody (at least in the West) has ever told me that I have to believe anything at all about the Buddha's life, while most Christians would still say that believing in the resurrection defines them.  It might explain how I can (at least in California) be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist.  And why, until Christians stop being Christians, I can't be one too. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Giving freely

A couple of months ago our teacher at Wind in Grass, David Weinstein, sent an email out informing us that he'd no longer be working with students who weren't members of Pacific Zen Institute.  Since there's a charge for membership, this effectively meant that he wouldn't be working with people who weren't paid up.

David did point out that there's no minimum membership fee, so you could be paying as little as $5 a month.  Also, we already give David the money in the donation bowl on the nights that he comes inFinally, the change will really only affect one night a month, when David's there.  So is this really much of a change?

I think it is, and I also think that it's a step in the wrong direction.  (And I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way.)  But before telling you why I should say that I have valued having a teacher in over the last few years.  I also think David is a very good teacher (and I've been to quite a few Buddhist events since I moved to California).

That said, I think this move is wrong for three reasons.  The most important one is that it brings us very close to paying for the dharma.  But if Buddhist teaching is centered on doing without material wealth, giving generously to others, and so on, that seems like a strange situation to be in.  Asking for payment undermines a central part of the message that we're trying to convey.

As I admitted above, we do give dana to our teacher anyway.  So what's the difference?  The main difference is that dana is freely given.  In other words, it's a real donation or gift, and symbolizes the very values of generosity and unstinginess that we're promoting.  It also gives us an opportunity to enact those values in giving freely what we can.

But paying for membership also creates a division between members and non-members, insiders and outsiders.  This is the second reason I'm against it.  People need to feel like they can come sit with us whenever they want, and not sit with us whenever they want, too.  As Michael said to me, one of our main strengths is that we don't ask newcomers for any kind of commitment. 

There's a related, practical issue.  It may make sense for someone like me, who turns up every week, to pay a monthly fee for membership.  But we have a lot of people who turn up once every two or three months.  Are we going to have to start presenting them with a choice of either committing to membership or going elsewhere to talk to a teacher?

The final problem I have with this is more personal.  It's that it brings WiG more clearly and firmly within the bounds of PZI.  Of course, WiG has always, strictly speaking, been a branch of PZI, but most nights it doesn't feel like one - it feels like a bunch of friends meeting for informal meditation.  I like WiG a lot, but have doubts about PZI.  But other people may feel differently about that one.

I've deliberately dodged a big issue here, one I might get around to discussing in a future post.  That issue is the whole question of how we should compensate Zen teachers, if at all.  For now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that they should receive regular and generous donations, since they often do work comparable to Christian ministers, who are salaried. 

But I'd still want to insist, at this stage, that they receive donations, and not pay.  I'd also want there to be a way of collecting donations that doesn't divide people into an inside and an outside group.  But these are just some thoughts from someone who's enjoyed having a teacher for the last three years and would like him to be able to work, at least occasionally, for no money at all.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Buddhism without Buddhism

After we decided to break up, my girlfriend and I turned to the question of when.  Her preference was 'right away', whereas I favoured waiting until I was actually leaving, in June.  In the end, we compromised.  We would break up over spring break, at the end of a short road-trip up the California coast.

Part of the reason we could agree on the timing was because I'd signed up for a week-long sesshin at SF Zen Center that same week.  I thought it would help me deal with the break-up.  I had to write to the Ino to ask if I could only come for three days, and I did so with trepidation, because the practice at SFZC is strict. 

I got an answer almost immediately: 'We will be happy for you to join us whenever you can'.  It wasn't from Shundo but from the new Ino, Valorie.  I also told her that I'd injured my knee and couldn't sit half-lotus.  She said she'd arrange for a chair to be provided in the meditation hall.

We got back from our road trip at about 11pm.  I got up the next day at 4am and walked to City Center.  But I don't live in the Lower Haight anymore; I live on 24th Street in the Mission.  So the walk had expanded since my last retreat at SFZC from five minutes to a bit less than an hour.  But the pre-dawn hour is a fine one to be up in San Francisco.

This was my first retreat with a chair, and it was much more enjoyable because of it.  I felt I could concentrate on my meditation rather than on simply making it through the next period without changing my position too many times because of the pain.  I also joined the invalids no doing full prostrations in the various ceremonies, and that also helped a great deal.

I quickly got back into the rhythm of sittings, services, work, and eating.  I was surprised to discover that I had a certain fondness for the Zen Center, even though I've never really liked the formal style of practice there.  I even enjoyed the formal oryoki breakfasts, once I remembered how to do them.  The night the sesshin ended I went to my first Passover seder at a friend's house, and took to it like a duck to water (or, as the Zen poet says, like a tiger making for the mountains).

There were two teachers, City Center Abess Christina Lehnherr and lay teacher Marsha Angus.  I met with Marsha and talked to her about fear.  She had a background in various types of therapy, and struck me as very Californian.  When I asked her about whether to accept thoughts or try to get beyond them, she said she'd need to have known me for longer to be able to answer that question.

In one of Christina's morning talks she told us her own story.  Until she was 30 she was almost always depressed.  She moved into the Zen Center and liked it, but left it for a year to make sure she wasn't simply trying to avoid life.  She worked at a care home for catatonic patients.

It was hard.  Her job involved feeding, cleaning, and clothing adults who couldn't move or communicate.  One day she was about to undress someone to clean them when she was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of love and awe.  Changing a grown man's diaper had sparked some sort of realization.

In another talk, she told us about someone she knew who married herself.  At first I thought she had mis-spoken (her native language being German), but no - her friend had given herself a ring and taken herself as wife.  Why?  As an experiment in treating herself with as much forbearance and patience as someone she loved. 

When I went to speak to her I talked about whether when I moved I would continue to think of myself as a Buddhist, or go back to just meditating on my own.  She said I didn't need to make declarations one way or the other; I could just follow the path wherever it led me.  'Would you consider yourself a Buddhist?' I asked.  The head of the San Francisco Zen Center, dressed in her ceremonial robes and in a room with at least three statues of the Buddha, thought for a moment and said 'no'. 

I told her I wasn't upset about my break-up, which worried me.  But we quickly found reasons why it might not have been so hurtful: the fact that it was mutual, and a product of circumstances rather than a falling-out.  The main thing I remember was her saying to me that it was okay to be sad sometimes without a reason, but that it was also okay to be happy.

I didn't have any spiritual breakthrough during that retreat.  Nor did I marry myself, although I may have come a little closer to engagement.  I didn't get better at zazen.  But sometimes in the half-hours between sittings, I would get a cup of tea and just sit out in the courtyard with the fountain and the flowers.  I wouldn't try to meditate.  I would just sit there, with the birds chirping and the thoughts tumbling over one another, and the water in the fountain splashing over and over on the stone.

The spirit of the way

About a year ago a friend in England sent me some CDs.  He'd done so before, and usually they contained music by obscure UK bands from the 60s and 70s.  This time, though, they contained lectures by Alan Watts, like Aldous Huxley (and Mr. Propter) a Californian Buddhist who was also a transplanted Englishman.

Watts is often called a philosopher, although he had no formal academic training in that field.  He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, at the heart-centre of Anglican Christianity.  After moving to the US, he qualified as an Episcopalian priest, only to renounce his vocation a few years later.  He moved to California, ending up in a circular house in an artists' colony in Marin County.

He is perhaps best described as a free-lance writer, and he is best remembered for his books about Zen.  Watts' 1957 book The Way of Zen was one of the first widely read books on Buddhism in a Western language.  I meant to read it, but its title is so similar to that of Watts' first book, The Spirit of Zen (1936) that I read the earlier work instead.  (I've since noticed a good, cheap edition of the later book on sale at my local bookstore.)

One of the things that strikes me whenever I read Western books about Buddhism from the pre-war era is how rare they were.  Their writers seem to be working in a vacuum of accurate knowledge about Eastern religions.  In his Foreword, Watts states that before the First World War there was 'only one work on Zen in any European language - Kaiten Nukariya's Religion of the Samurai'.  He also claims that his bibliography - which runs to little more than two pages - is an exhaustive list of the books on Zen that had appeared up to the date his book was published.

Watts is therefore reliant on a few personal channels between Buddhism and the West.  One is Christmas Humphreys, the English barrister who founded the Buddhist Society of London and who is the dedicand of Watts' book.  Another is D.T. Suzuki - not to be confused with SF Zen Center founder Shunryu - whose many books for Western audiences Watts credits for a growing interest in Buddhism among Americans.

Since I read Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism only a year ago, his influence on Watts was quite clear to me.  Like Suzuki, Watts moves from a vague yet appealing characterization of Zen in purely psychological and mystical terms to a concrete description of practice in a Japanese monastery.  Like Suzuki, Watts never faces up to the obvious question: if Zen is a way of thinking free of limitations, why are there all these strict practices? 

A third theme of the book is Zen as a key into the cultures of China and Japan; indeed, the book is subtitled A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East.  This theme is treated mostly in the final chapter, which is the weakest part of the book, or at least the part that feels the most dated.  Watts moves from Zen and samurai through jujitsu and flower-arrangement, all the while avoiding asking how common (let alone representative) such practices are in the China and Japan of his day.

In spite of its limitations, though, the book is a valuable one.  Watts has an intuitive understanding of religious phenomena and writes in a way that is both unpretentious and engaging.  The book is not for scholars, but may be for practitioners.  It is full of passages that perfectly encapsulate the essence of some of the central ideas in Buddhism.  Let's end with Watts' lucid description of karma:

'A man may be free to travel where he likes, but there is no place on earth where he can escape from his own karma, and whether he lives on a mountain or in a city he may still be the victim of an uncontrolled mind.  For man's karma travels with him, like his shadow.  Indeed, it is his shadow, for it has been said, "Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark."'