Friday, November 23, 2012

The stink of zen

Today's letter is raw and scratchy and might get us in some hot water.  My apologies.

The main reason I don't go in for the "self-help" style of zen teaching and practice is that it isn't effective "self help." My mind is still kinda messy. At most, maybe I make fewer messes for other people because of practice. But that isn't really what it's about. And boy, you read zen and Buddhist forums online and you see they've got the same foibles as everybody else: how they love to argue and twist other people's words and promote themselves and minimize and destroy other people just like those hardcore political nuts on your friends list or the endless flamers on whatever list serve you like to read.

Zen isn't self help. It isn't there to help you make a nicer persona for yourself. It's a technique for examining truth at a dimension deeper than personalities and social status and all the games that go with that. The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism points in that direction.

I've always felt you can tell a lot about a martial arts studio by watching the students more than the teacher. Some of zen's best-known teachers have been failing in big ways for a long time. But what are the rest of us doing? I'm not against some tar and feathering where it is warranted, taking to the streets and organizing people and mounting a campaign for change -- yet I also remember the Rev. Jim Lawson (the guy who taught MLK about nonviolent social activism, still teaching it in the 21st century to the few who wanted it) telling me that the process matters.  Externally, the world will always have crap in it that needs cleaning up -- but what's happening to you? What are you doing right now? Watch your step.

Lately, as readers of this blog know, I've gotten some full-time work teaching acting to adults.  It has been wonderful and challenging and humbling all at once.  It has forced me to go back and look again at what I've been trying to put into practice most of my life as an artist, and to articulate to others why I think the work is useful to the world.  In the beginning, acting involves the study of self (this is also true of zen practice).  Those who stick with it have to move past that and learn the tools and methods for the art of acting (it's not just self-expression).  Those who stick with it past that point keep investigating deeper dimensions of truth, deeper than the superficial level of persona and social status and gratification that occupy so much of daily life.  What is this?

Going through notes from my conservatory studies with Brian McEleney and Anne Scurria and the Alexander work, the work with Julia Carey (who made me so angry and taught me so much), and also re-reading Stanislavski, Lewis, Boleslavsky, and Yoshi Oida, has shown me that I had left behind so much of what is vital and illuminating about deeply training as an actor.  

There is a depth available to people who want to train deeply in acting that I think may be missing from a lot of zen sanghas.  (To be fair, it's also missing from much of American theatre!)  We have lots of places doing zen retreats and making pretty zendos and lots of people giving dokusan and teisho and hitting people with sticks and lots of koan practice (something actors really should experience).  We're also founding institutions and thinking of institutions to police those institutions and creating more societies and I'm noticing the same social games and self-interest and violent communication that I would see anywhere else.  Sure, I'm upset about teachers groping students and/or running off with people's money; I'm even more upset that teachers who grope students still have students.  Are there not enough healthy and whole people in the zendo who perceive correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function without flinching, the kind of students who can throw out their teacher when he gropes people, and do it with the same mind as when they bowed to that teacher?   Thank you for your teaching, and now correct function is for us to fire your ass.

What happens when you have an elaborate ecclesiastical structure meant to support and inspire dharma practice, but the dharma practice is shallow or, worse, pretend?  What happens when you have temple full of people who have robes and know a lot about ceremonies and ritual, but they can't function spontaneously and ethically?  Well, what you are left with is a dead religion.  And when you have dead religion, there is nothing left to do except fight over the property and the money and the social position.  This is not unfamiliar in human history, is it?  Indeed, many of the teachers who brought their zen to the United States in the 20th century said they did so because this is what happened to zen in their homelands.  They wanted to work with hippies who could jump into practice with a fresh perspective.  My generation, on the other hand, is a generation of experts.  Generation X and Generation Y zenboos organize big, fancy conferences for people in their thirties and forties who have become "Buddhist leaders."  So much expertise.  And yet.  Hmmm. 

I have a sickening feeling that a lot of zen in my country is a bad play.  A play of the sacred.  The stink of zen.

To be clear: I do bows and sit.  My office at NMSU is actually just about the size of a monk's cell, and I've been doing my personal practice there when I'm not at the zen center.  I chant and do sangha practice at Deming Zen Center.  I work with a teacher who takes the piss out of me.    These are indispensable.  Deming has a wonderful sangha consisting of a handful of people who are rather new to practicing.  They are great.  But for this aging student, lately it's been the practice of theatre that's been the vehicle for going -- and I hate this misleading clich√© -- "deeper." If time permits, you may be seeing more pieces about that, and even less about "zen" although acting and zen still intersect deeply in my body and in this thing called "practice." 


Bill said...

Right on. I followed a link here. Your blog is now in my feed reader.

Practitioner, Dharma Drum Mountain lineage, white, male, 43, California.

Keep up the good work!

Algernon said...

Pleasure to meet you, Bill.