Thursday, March 22, 2012

Your Robes Precede You

In a way, it was a mondo in the classical style, the kind of repartee that might even be studied as a koan.

On Thich Nhat Hanh's twitter account, a comment that mindfulness and concentration might reveal even more of a sunrise's beauty. A response from Brad Warner, a younger zen teacher from the west, wondered if mindfulness would not then be getting in the way of the sunrise.

He touched a nerve, perhaps intentionally, when he elaborated on his question in a post titled "Thich Nhat Hanh is Wrong." Thich Nhat Hanh (now aged 85) has become a venerated institution that overshadows the man himself. Books transcribed from his talks come out frequently, there may be dozens of them. His retreats and dharma talks are major events. He has a large international organization around him. Among celebrity Buddhist teachers, he looms the largest. His activism for peace and his spiritual teaching, with no whiff of the personal scandals that have befallen some teachers, have put him on such a high dais that he can almost seem a fictional character, a perfected being, a man disappearing in the reverence of his followers, publishers, and publicists. The Great Zen Master.

Warner got some heat for taking issue with Thich Nhat Hanh, and notably the comments (upon cursory examination of more than 140 comments left on that post) dealt less with Brad's point (which is valid) than the fact of disputing the Great Zen Master.

Read the ancient dialogues, though. Despite the rigid hierarchy and veneration for those high up on the totem pole, among serious zen students there was no namby-pamby celebrity worship. A student would bow to the master, but they certainly would ask questions and sometimes even knock the teacher over.

It reminds me of an anecdote about Ikkyu, who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries, and who became abbot of a highly revered temple despite being something of a vagabond monk. One day, he was on begging rounds in his old monk clothes and this well-to-do household treated him a bit gruffly. A day later, he showed up at that house again in his abbot robes and was given "first class" treatment by the same family. So he removed his fancy robes and draped them over a chair, explaining that the food was not for him, it was for the robes.

Warner's follow-up post, "Who Is Thich Nhat Hanh?", is very good, and it's not really dissing Thich Nhat Hanh: it is addressing the excessive reverence we attach to famous zen teachers. This carries the potential for very negative consequences for individual practice, and for the health and ethical strength of the teachers' own institutions.

So what is a zen master? I wrote about this in a series of posts in 2010, but some readers today weren't around back then. Begging your pardon, the following will be an excerpt from the previously-linked post, in which I tried to explain this phenomenon in terms the non-zen student could understand.

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.

And, in closing, I give Brad Warner the last word, quoting from this post.

I think it's really vital to destroy the image that has been built up of what a "spiritual teacher" is supposed to be. I feel like no good can possibly come of the belief in supposedly perfected beings. They simply do not exist.

On the other hand I have no doubt I'd be far more successful in the way that term is usually defined if I just played the role that's expected of someone in my position rather than constantly questioning it. I just don't see that as a way to do anyone any good. And not only that, I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I enjoy acting like an idiot in front of a camera or an audience.

People in this Eastern spirituality business often talk a lot about something they call "authenticity." But usually what they call authenticity seems to me more like fitting into a mold of what someone else imagines authenticity ought to look like. I think it's time someone tried being truly authentic for a change. It's more fun that way anyhow.

[Photo: Cutting up with Zen Master Dae Bong in our formal robes after a ceremony in 2005.]


Ji Hyang said...

I love that you use a picture of Dae Bong Sunim to illustrate this-- the "true man of no rank"...

Nathan said...

Glad to see more on this. Brad's posts had some gem lines in them, and I think that his "nerve striking" was smart this time. I love Thay, and feel that he's an amazing teacher - one that probably encourages the kind of questioning and inquiry Brad was doing in those posts, and you are doing here.

Who knows if he authored that Twitter post about mindfulness or not, but I have found myself wondering about the incessant use of that word in general, and in many of Thay's books in particular. It's gotten mushy, and is easily manipulated these days.