Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Zen, Dada, Indifference
Practice at Deming Zen Center continues quietly and with little fanfare. The biggest problem in our tiny community is how to keep up with the rent and the utilities. After a dry and lonely summer in the dharma room (I was away for ten weeks and attendance dropped off generally), the bank account is pretty sad and sometimes we chat about meeting in Howard's shop instead, and renting space for retreats only.
On this blog, I haven't blathered much about the dharma lately. No one seems to have missed it. If there is anything new to say about the sutras or zazen, it's not coming from me. Practicing together does not lend itself to much in the way of anecdotes. We have a dharma talk coming up on October 7 and maybe there'll be a good question or something helpful enough that we'll post it here. But I'm really just an old student, not a teacher, so we just practice. Put on the robes, light the candles, chant, put 'em out, sit. Sometimes we clear brush in silence. Sometimes we drink tea -- with a side order of chat, or not.
Is this authentic transmission of zen to the west? Sweep sweep sweep.
Zen is not special. It is so not-special that it opens doors and helps you taste what is truly special in this moment. It is like the rare, really good dada art that actually transcends mere provocation and laughter and actually awakens you. But "it" didn't do anything.
The traditional forms help create an atmosphere where one can put ones attention on this practice. Sometimes we put our restless minds on the formal aspects or the wording of certain teachings, to a degree far beyond what is useful. You can look at the debates on Dharma Wheel or even the comments on Sweeping Zen's Facebook page or any of the good Buddhist blogs and note the range of opinions about zen and American Buddhism. The extent to which it is commodified. The influence of Buddhist writers and publishers who are, in the majority, white and bourgeois. Approaches to race and sex in our sanghas. The issue of "authenticity" and standards of training between the east and the west. The signs of increasing institutionalization and corporate branding.
Some of these are topics well worth considering deeply, as a way of opening the door into our own set beliefs and assumptions -- towards a deeper awakening, undertaken among sangha friends.
And yet the opinions and disputes! Are robes and incense too "Catholic?" Is it inauthentic to chant in a language not our own? Is it inauthentic to translate chants into English? Is there enough emphasis on "enlightenment?" Do we expect too much by putting teachers on a pedestal and expecting them to embody an ideal of enlightened behavior? Some people have impossible standards, and seem to deny that anyone over here "gets it" or is truly practicing at all.
Some of these arguments outlive their usefulness by a kalpa, serving to empower opinions and conflict rather than give us an independent perspective on our opinions. (This is coming from a zen student who has opinions on many things; but I can also put my toys away.) That includes the people who have become very skilled at pretending they know the secret, and everyone else is missing the point. "Zennier than thou."
Formal zen is theatre. It's play. It's pointing at freedom through the artifice of ritual, costume, and formal interactions. It's that old cliche of arguing about the finger that points to the moon, instead of grokking the moon. (Yes, I just used the verb "to grok." Feel free to lob a tomato.) It's pointing at a truth that is impossible to transmit through words. It is like art.
(Yes, this is a point that Brad Warner has also been developing. No surprise, as we're both artists.)
Seeing our opinions with an independent perspective reminds me of something Marcel Duchamp once said in an interview about dada: that it was working towards a healthy kind of indifference. (I saw it long ago, but would not be able to locate it today.) Not apathy or inaction, not denial or anti-intellectualism. But a loose, maybe even a playful, perspective. The cliche term I am resisting here is "non-attachment."
I've struggled with whether to address recent scandals involving Zen Buddhist leaders in this space. This post actually began as a response to one in particular only because it includes an additional level of oppression. (Now I think I'll have to start over with a new post, sorry.) But really, these scandals are well-covered in other blogs, and this blog has already offered a series of posts that pretty much exhausted what I might say on the subject of asshole teachers who think they are enlightened and clearly are not, as well as North American zen institutions and our adulation of the "zen master." It's a topic I feel has wider significance than the repetitive sex scandals, but that's not to diminish the harm caused in these incidents.
Lately, institutional zen AND its discontents collectively make me want to don the red nose. Much the way dada mocked, and shook, the walls of self-important institutions and traditions. (Maybe you find it hard to believe that a poem consisting of nonsense words and whines and shouts could cause riots -- but under certain social conditions, it did.) Even Bernie Glassman, the man who walks around starting zen-related institutions every time he has an idea (which then commence vigorous fundraising), sometimes wearing the Zen Master thing and sometimes throwing it off, even he felt the urge to put on a clown nose and focus on making children laugh for a while.
Making children laugh? Is that how an authentic zen person behaves?
Ha ha ha ha ha.
[Image: Duchamp's fountain. A wicked awesome work of aaaahhhhht.]