Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Three

The wildness that heals the world...

In Zen, using our awareness practice and mindfully applying Buddhist precepts to real-life complexity, we are trusting in the possibility of an intuitive moral compass. This is about shila paramita, the perfection of morality in Buddhist practice. It points to an internal and spontaneous awareness that discerns "correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function" in each moment. It is not just a sense of modifying our behavior to fit an external idea or another person's standards. It is not a process of suppressing "bad" stuff, but of understanding self and its substance, and letting go of the objects of mind and habits that control our actions (karma) and their subsequent results (vipaka). Cause and effect become our teachers -- our true Zen Masters.

It is an idea that western culture still finds unnerving: that when one's spirit is free, compassion and wisdom appear of themselves. The west is afraid of wildness, yet Buddhism suggests that true wildness leads to peace.

While the guidance of a good mentor is invaluable, the purpose is to grow up and stand on one's own feet. We have to "leave" the teacher in a sense, as we had to leave our parents. Zen Master Seung Sahn told his older students they had to kill Buddha, kill their parents, and then kill him. A good teacher helps you to become independent; other teachers prefer their students to remain dependent on them.

Besides the obvious harm done when a teacher abuses his power, there is the harm done to people collectively: reinforcing our fear of our true selves, and injuring our trust in the kind of "morality" that is spontaneous, creative, and innately wise. When someone who has supposedly "gotten it" and been authorized as a true "Zen Master" turns out to be a crook or a predator or both, you can't blame folks for questioning the whole premise.

It also opens up an interesting can of worms. Can you "revoke" dharma transmission? Does that mean the teacher who gave that transmission wasn't clear himself? We are still working with sticky ideas and arguments about "enlightenment," and these come into play when we start acknowledging the foibles of our teachers.

Perhaps all our Zen Buddhist sanghas, as a collective, have some work to do in putting down our attachment to Zen Masters, so that we don't elevate them so high in the first place and put that pressure on them. Perhaps we still have a ways to go in putting down the doctrine of impeccability that is attached to our senior teachers. Perhaps taking the piss out of the Zen Master position would obviate some of the need for new institutions and organizations, as bodies that might unwittingly blunt the creativity of good Zen teachers.

On the night I met the man whose cat had died, I watched a skilled Zen Master use his own resources to set that man back on his feet, like a true bodhisattva. Observing this, I felt greed: I wanted to have that kind of power. Me me me, I want to do that. Greed always sets the snare. And that skilled Zen Master himself proved to be a slave to his own greed, for which he eventually paid a price. I hope it woke him up. As for me, I prefer to remember him when he was at his best, forgetting himself and helping a human being who was in pain.

My own teacher has a conscious practice of taking the piss out of Zen ceremony and her own position as a "Zen Master." She is fearless about presenting the "unenlightened" thoughts and impulses that arise in her, because that is when the alarm goes off and wakes us up, if we are willing to do that. She wears the mantle of the "teacher" in a way that models honesty and integrity, holding herself accountable and returning to whatever the immediate moment requires. She doesn't do this in order to be a good Buddhist, or because she is a Zen Master, but because her heart leads her there again and again, and that's all. Personally, I feel so grateful for her "imperfect" style. It makes her participation in ceremonies that much more moving and memorable; ceremony is inherently theatrical, it is artifice that points at things essential and hard to notice with everyday eyes. Her "imperfect" style has helped and encouraged me, even if it is not a style that excites and inspires everyone. Another teacher might inspire and excite someone else.

So be it. As long as we kill off our teachers in the end and stand on our own feet.


Adam said...

This was a very powerful and well written piece Algernon. As you know, I have no 'real-life' sangha or teacher, and these posts that have been floating the blogosphere as of the past week or so have really helped out a person like me, with regard to setting up expectations as to what that teacher-student relationship is like. so thank you.

Barry said...

Thank you for these remarkable three posts, Algernon.

The hardest work - for me - is to recognize that I, along with all other people, contain the full scope of humanity, in its glorious beauty and ugliness.

When an old man brought his suffering to the Zen master, the master responded with great wisdom and kindness. And yet that same master could seduce and harm. I have all that behavior, and more, within me. You also have that. All of us can manifest wisdom or seduction, kindness or rage, in any moment.

It takes great courage to recognize how we actually are. And, of course, this recognition cannot be abstract, if it is to change our life. We must see how we are - our imperfections - in each moment, if we are not to fall under their sway.

The heart of uncertainty and imperfection can heal many wounds. And, in so doing, it can kill off those darn teachers. Really, there's no other way.

Algernon said...

Adam, I am glad the various discussions on the topic are amounting to some clarity rather than confusion. (And even gladder to hear this blog is not making it worse.)

Barry, yes, yes, and yes.

Nathan said...

You know, I'm so glad this topic has gone around the blogosphere because there have been so many interesting, thought provoking posts.

"My own teacher has a conscious practice of taking the piss out of Zen ceremony and her own position as a "Zen Master." She is fearless about presenting the "unenlightened" thoughts and impulses that arise in her, because that is when the alarm goes off and wakes us up, if we are willing to do that."

Yeah, I'd say the same about my teacher as well. So very different from the charismatic former teacher we had - who's brilliant in so many ways, and who also burned a hell of a lot of bridges on his way out six years ago.

Kyle said...

Very moving piece, thank you.

Rev. Paul Dōch’ŏng Lynch said...

I am not trying to pass judgement here, and you can chose not to answer this question, but do you think that the teacher in question who abused many students felt justisfied because Zen Master Seung Sahn never really was clear about his own impropriety?

Also, there have been other cases, as you know, of other teachers following down a similar path. Thanks again for the post.


sapi3n said...

The Zen center is a necessary filter for breaking in to the practice life, but most often there is a schism at some point - it's revealing how few old students/adepts remain. The centers are usually peopled with new students and teachers, with few elders. If this is a normal cycle, that beyond the up or out mentality there's an outer sangha that continues on regardless, beyond the institution, then this has yet to be included in the curriculum, apart from cryptic old sayings about slaying your teacher. for my part, I have none, so no need of slaying.

Algernon said...

Aha! The first attempt to guess at the identity of the Zen Master in question? Ain't going there!

Forgive me for teasing you, Paul. You do ask an interesting question: to what extent does a student inherit a teacher's judgment? Can we think of a teacher's transmission as "tainted?" You are addressing some of this on your own blog.

I know very little about this other Zen Master's relationship with his teacher and how it ended; thus I feel too uninformed to comment further.

Ji Hyang said...