Last week, I read a zenoir.
Zenoir is my term for zen autobiographies. The most famous, and still one of the best, is Peter Matthiessen's Nine-Headed Dragon River. That may have been the book that established the market for books by zen students rather than zen masters. Matthiessen, incidentally, is now an authorized teacher, but was not when he wrote this book.
Some of these books are better than others. I don't review them anymore. Years ago, I critiqued one and heard about it from the writer's entire sangha or so it felt. In one way, it can even be unfair to review them. Different zen schools present the dharma differently, so unless there is something clearly incorrect, why pick on them?
This book's most prominent feature is its fearless self-disclosure. The writer is wonderfully honest and funny. Yet his book does not look beyond personality and psychology. Is this an autobiography or a book about zen practice? The author frequently mentions offering oneself up completely, which could be the beginning of a teaching about bodhisattva vow in everyday life -- but he doesn't really go there. Offer what? To what? For what?
It reminded me of some acting teachers I studied with who became obsessed with 'break-throughs.' If you weren't reduced to a puddle of weeping jello, you might be chastised for not being 'vulnerable' or 'open.' You may think I am exaggerating for comic effect. One of these teachers, a guy in Providence I worked with as a teenager, was heard to yell, "Come on!!! Nothing's happening!" while leading an emotional memory exercise designed to evoke past trauma.
It felt like emotional porn. Our job was to 'put out.' In acting or in zen, attaching to some kind of big experience is a problem. A fetish for big experiences that release large emotions produces the fantasy of having passed through something without actually passing through it.
The majority of acting teachers I've met were not stuck here, but a few were. It's a very distorted idea about what acting is about. It does, however, do something for the teacher -- giving him a chance to dabble in pseudo-therapy and play high status while their trusting students expose the most vulnerable parts of themselves.
It does something for those in the role of student, too. Look at me! Look how hard I'm working at this! I'm reliving the death of my first pet, I'm vomiting emotion, and all the other students are telling me what a great actor I am. Look at me, marvel at my sins, my quirks and foibles are "crazy wisdom." Look at me.
And, even worse: many of us simply learned to fake it, breaking faith with ourselves and fabricating a 'truth' that would please the teacher. David Mamet wrote about this in his wonderful introduction to A Practical Handbook for the Actor.
As you went from one class to the next and from one teacher to the next, two things happened: being human, your need to believe asserted itself. You were loath to believe your teachers were frauds, so you began to believe that you yourself were a fraud. This contempt for yourself became contempt for all those who did not share the particular bent of your school of training.
He could as well be writing about the experience of many zen students in North America.
There is certainly a useful application of emotional memory and sensory exercises in the art of acting - I teach some of them - but this is not what acting is all about. And if zen is all about satori experiences and dramatic insights, then it, too, is just a spectacle giving way to guilt and shame. Which might have to do with why the great teachers of our time have been loath to put their personal 'opening' experiences on display. In zen, tales of kensho make up the double-sided duct tape ensnaring ten thousand beings who lust for attainment.
Do you see? Do you hear?
A long time ago, the one Soto teacher with whom I sat sesshin smiled at a young me during dokusan with such affection as he said, in his Irish accent, "It's gonna happen the way it happens."
The following applies to acting and to zen: it's not about you. This is a very important point. The process is not easy because most of us behave, at least some of the time, like this is all about a "me" that doesn't exist. When that falls it's a little bit like going crazy for a moment. But this crazy is not crazy at all.
The point is to relax our grip on "me," not to make "me" a celebrity.