One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Showing posts with label Jesuit Roshis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesuit Roshis. Show all posts

Sunday, August 22, 2021

True practice & authentic teachers

There is a lively on-going debate in an online Buddhist group about the nature of practice and enlightenment. Dosho Port published a piece on August 18th called “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” He describes the efforts beginning in 1928 to make Soto Zen more compatible with “modernism,” including Christianity, by reframing its belief system. A dispute ensued. One side organized their material under the slogan, ‘Original Enlightenment, mysterious practice.’ The other side, the monk establishment, wanted actual practice verification.

I am vaguely familiar with this dispute about modernization in Japanese Soto Zen before the Second War, and the attempts to "translate" the doctrine, if I can use the word, to make it more understandable. There was an attempt to take a portion of Buddhist literature in Japanese, but also Chinese, and free it from its Medieval encapsulation. I went to Masao Abe's amazing classes when he was teaching in San Francisco at CIIS. He definitely comes from this school. I’m a former Jesuit so I also delved into Kitarō Nishida and the Kyoto School’s adoption of Western philosophical discourse. 40 years ago, we all immersed ourselves in the extensive writings of D. T. Suzuki, who, I have to say, comes across more like an apologist or evangelist.

This may be a bare minimum to butt into this conversation, but I will. These efforts to strip the vehicle down to its essential parts leave just enough to work with. To begin, let me take the debate one step further, and remove the parochial underpinnings.

My pared down augment runs like this: an experience of liberation is possible for humans. We don’t quite know what it is because of the current condition of our minds: our mental acuity, the quality of our perceptive apparatus, a balanced or afflicted emotional state, plus I think we have to throw a good dose of fancy, magical thinking, cultural mythology, plus translation difficulties and the vagaries of language into the mix. My list is not complete--there’s a lot to sort out, but I think we can establish, or posit, three hypotheses:

  • Such a state or quality of freedom exists and can transform our experience as humans.
  • It is possible, even desirable, to achieve it.
  • We recognize that it will take effort, education, what we commonly call meditation, and possibly recalibration to achieve this experience.

We believe that certain people have had this experience, most notably the Buddha, but others too, for example Eihei Dōgen, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin Ekaku, Je Tsongkhapa, Shinran, but perhaps we could stretch our imaginations to include the current Dalai Lama, and maybe that auntie whom Red Pine encountered sitting in a cave in China who never heard of Mao Tse Tung but, forget about her, she never wrote anything down. We’re stuck with the guys, they’re all guys, who wrote, had secretaries, or disciples who took extensive lecture notes.

What did they write: of course we have the Sutras, plus other stories of the Buddha and his disciples; the enlightened guys also wrote descriptions of their experiences, some of which seem to be in coded language; thankfully there’s lots of poetry, balanced with carefully reasoned philosophy of mind and analysis of perception and experience; we have to include the myths, and what we call practice manuals, “how to” lists; there are some riddles that purport to point to the experience; then extensive records of the mental and yogic disciplines that practitioners used to achieve this state of liberation plus prescriptive injunctions and admonitions that have even been codified. There is also a large body of instruction material that has not been written down that is generally reserved for advanced levels of practice.

But there are huge problems with all this literature. First is the language and translation. We're blessed to have an army of very well trained and literate translators, but cultural and archaic understandings of the texts remain. Then there is the sheer volume and diversity of the materials. Even if we could determine their authenticity, be sure we have an accurate translation, and be able to determine their precise meaning, we‘d still be stuck with the question of how to use it, actually lots of questions.

Our Western Zen practice stems to some degree from these efforts to modernize. Harada Sogaku Roshi, and after him, Hakuun Yasutani, Kuon Yamada and the Jesuit Roshis, Bob Aitken and the rest of my crowd come from another strain of that same impulse to modernize so that's what I was handed.

Schools of thought are schools of thought. What do we do with them? Again, for better or worse, they inform our practice.

First I think that there's a logical fallacy in the way we understand these efforts at modernization. Following (any) time-honored system of training that we’ve been handed, we believe that if we accurately recreate the logic of the thinking, the order of the steps, the lineage of the teachers, then we can access the authentic experience of liberation. If we fail, then we did something wrong. Perhaps it is a road map, but we want it to be Google Maps, with the blue dot moving across the dashboard screen. Good luck with that. I will set up a dharma combat: can algorithms become enlightened?

Another knot appears when we identify the criteria for validating the credentials of a teacher from within this arcane body of knowledge, whether it’s inka or transmission or tulku. The checklist resides in experience outside ourselves and muddies the teaching as well as opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Call the dharma police to testify before the High Court.

Is this even good practice? I remember working on the koan “Mu” for years with Bob Aitken. I kept complaining in my very Jesuit way that it was all just a self-referential exercise in a closed system. He'd say, yes, it appears that way, and then he’d encourage me to continue. I did. In 1996 I was living with Maylie Scott on Ashby in Berkeley and still doing sesshin with Aitken and John Tarrant. One Sunday morning I had to drive a rented truck back to Santa Rosa. As I was returning to where I’d parked it the night before, POW. All that self-referential mind swirling stopped and I got it. It didn't matter if it came via some well-intentioned modernization efforts in a Soto Shu University in the 20's. It hit me. There was no turning back.

Of course that experience faded soon enough which presented its own dilemma, but it was enough to set me on my own path. I remember saying to Phil Whalen once what a shame it was that the library at Nalanda was destroyed--all that knowledge lost. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Enough remains. Just enough.” I feel the same about any attempts to update our practice and make it modern or palatable or whatever. Enough remains, Just enough. And, as thanks to Phil I’ll add: “With any luck if we’re lucky.”

I don't want to take a path based on pious dreams and hopes, magical thinking, myth or wild speculation. When coupled with a few token morsels of experience that we might be able to recognize in ourselves if we’ve spent any time on the cushion, we enter dangerous territory. I was lucky to be able to see something authentic in several teachers, among them Issan Dorsey, Phil Whalen, Maylie Scott, Bob Aitken. I trusted them, and was able to just stick with it until I began to catch a glimpse for myself that something else is possible.

Is life over when it’s over?

Ala n Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) "Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in t...