Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Two


"My cat passed away."

He was a short, elderly man with thick glasses. Nobody there had met him. He had come to a public dharma talk presented by the Zen Master referenced in the previous post. This was the evening when my girlfriend and I met this teacher in person for the first time. It was a lively, dynamic talk, a delightful recipe of humor, Zen folklore, and personal reflection, served up by a charismatic speaker who seemed to radiate vitality and health. Through it all, the tiny old man had sat quietly in a kneeling position on a zafu.

Now it was question and answer time, and after the experienced students had asked questions about various points in the master's talk, or playfully challenged him with koan-style questions, this old man simply shared what had brought him here. "My cat passed away." What we soon learned is that this man lived alone and had no one in the world, no friends or family. He was a forgotten man, a pensioner, and the only living being he had for company was a cat. Earlier that day, the cat had died.

I'll never know what brought him, of all places, to a Buddhist temple with his grief. He was distraught and at a complete loss. In a dull, stunned voice he gave voice to despair so softly that people across the room leaned close to hear him. "I have nothing and no one to live for. I don't know what to do."

The Zen Master worked professionally with people in crisis, and he shifted modes on the instant, bringing his clinical skill to the situation with genuine compassion. No sutras, no clever "gotcha" Zen. He met the guy right where he was and kept him talking. In a few minutes, he had talked the man away from the abyss. "You say your life is over, but how do you know the alternative would be any better? How do you know?" He reframed the situation, celebrated the years that the man and the cat had been friends ("there are people in this room who have never known friendship like that"), got him laughing. It was a rare event to witness: he presented the dharma to a newcomer while assessing the man's personal crisis and addressing his pain. By the time we left, the man was sitting and eating refreshments, meeting new friends who would check up on him in the following days. He had finally permitted himself to cry, laughing at himself while he did so, the tears bringing relief.

It was the beginning of my girlfriend's innocent attraction to the man. He had made a positive impression on me, as well. I felt I had witnessed peacemaking in action, and along with appreciation, greed rose in my heart. I wanted to do that, too.

What is a Zen Master? I'll try to explain this briefly in terms that my readers who don't practice Zen can understand. Those of you who DO know about Zen realize this is a daunting task and I will likely fail. Here goes.

Zen is a long-term discipline, and very few people stick with it for more than a few years. (My own teacher has been practicing nearly 40 years, as long as I've been alive.) A great value is placed in people who mature in the practice, applying it through different stages of human life, and learning how to mentor others. It is a rare person who is willing and able to make a full-time commitment to learning the techniques of Zen practice, incorporating it practically into the whole of her life, and also exhibits a talent for presenting Zen teaching and practice in a way that inspires and guides others.

If only we could leave it at that.

Zen traditions differ. There are different schools that handle mentorship in various ways. Zen is practiced in different countries that transfer some of their cultural trappings along with their rituals. Generally, whatever title a "Zen Master" is given, there tends to be a formal ceremony -- usually public, but sometimes private -- wherein a recognized Zen teacher bestows that recognition to a long-time student. This personal transmission is considered very important, and people will often look to a teacher's lineage. "Oh, you're an old student of so-and-so. HIS teacher was so-and-so!" This is roughly analogous to the licenses and diplomas you will find on the walls of a doctor's office: sometimes we like to know where somebody trained, and to see some documentation that they are qualified to play this role.

Now we're going to add some complications.

In some places, a Zen Master is considered a kind of priest. The master might in fact be a Buddhist monastic, or have trained in a monastic environment for a period of time. Whether he has hair or not, the Zen Master is often thought to have attained something special, if not supreme enlightenment itself. A wide range of expectations are projected onto the "Zen Master." At its extreme, this can approach guru worship.

On the other hand, transmission has at times been a matter of politics, a simple business transaction. Suzuki-roshi's decision to come to the United States was, by many accounts, partly motivated by the routinization of dharma transmission in Japan.

In spite of that, the "Zen Master" or "roshi" is made into something special.

At Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Rhode Island, I was present at one retreat where a bird in flight struck one of the glass walls of the dharma room and fell onto the porch. It was right around that time that Zen Master Dae Kwang was leading walking meditation, with everyone in a line behind him. Dae Kwang Sunim gave the bird a gentle nudge with his foot to see if it was dead, and the bird -- who had merely been stunned, I suppose -- suddenly flew away. Much later, I heard this story told by someone else, but in his version, the Zen Master had resurrected the bird!

This is how Zen folklore develops. Tales of Zen Masters from ancient times crackle with magic and miracles, clairvoyant insights, and special powers. It is very seductive stuff for those of us still ruled by greed. The Zen Master is transformed into something special. She is expected to move seamlessly between various roles: priest, meditation master, organizational leader, fundraiser for their Center, motivational speaker, grandparent, therapist, theologian, contractor, cook, medicine man. And more.

It is difficult to live as a folk figure when one is, after all, a human being. A Zen Master is sometimes believed to have attained something beyond conventional understanding. In my personal experience, I have met people who seemed almost magical, but when I examine that for what it is, what I find is that they were remarkably perceptive, spontaneous, and resourceful. They expressed a kindness that was profound, and tirelessly creative.

When people desire to believe in a Zen Master's divine impeccability, they suspend critical judgment. An enlightened being's actions are taken, in aggregate, as an expression of enlightenment, even where they contradict our sense of right and wrong. Occasionally, people in the "Zen Master" position have themselves been seduced by this idea.

(For all the book's flaws, Michael Downing's 2001 work, Shoes Outside The Door, did an admirable job of exploring these dynamics as they played out during San Francisco Zen Center's crisis.)

A lot has been said about this by wiser people, and a lot of points are worth including here but I'm skipping them because this post is already a bit long. In the next post, I will air one point that doesn't get made as often, because I think it bears on the question of oversight and supervision of Zen teachers.


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