Saturday, April 11, 2015

How (Not) to Win Friends and Influence People: Thoughts on American Zen Priesthood

A Cold Stiletto in the Hand of a Madman
Today I got sucked into penning a response to the already somewhat tiresome question regarding the relevance of the distinction between the "priesthood" and laity in contemporary Zen. This is a question that American priests are fond of raising publicly in a show of humility that sometimes rings false, and it begs the questions--shouldn't you have figured that out before you ordained? And shouldn't your preceptor have figured it out before they ordained you?
My answer to the question--for the nature of Zen
ordination is by no means inherently slippery, paradoxical, or mysterious--will strike almost everyone softened by the California Zen scene as ill-mannered, distasteful, arrogant, and so forth. But since when has Zen prioritized politeness over realization of the truth? Every school of Buddhism has its thing, and Zen's thing is not learning, or promises of paradise, or esotericism, but the sharp sword of prajna, transcendental wisdom (which you must promise me you will never again confuse with conventional wisdom). Zen has its origins in the crazy unsleeping, unblinking eyes of Bodhidharma. Zen is the school of withered boughs and rocky crags, nestless, bare and ascetic. And so on.
So what is a Zen priest?
This question has acquired relevance only recently. For most of the history of Buddhism, people have known what was expected of Buddhists. Of course they very rarely lived up to these high expectations, but the expectations were relatively clear. In Japan the story changed shortly after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration restored the imperial line to power, and the imperial house derived its authority from Shinto. That being the case, Buddhism was seen as a political-spiritual rival. The Meiji state passed a series of laws, among them the nikujiki saitai measures, aimed at destroying Buddhism by undermining its monastic and ecclesiastical foundations--And they succeeded. Zen monastics were laicized, at first by force but later with great gusto by their own choice. Over the next century the vast majority of Soto Zen clerics chose to abandon their spiritual commitments, marry, have children, and so on. These days over 90% of Soto clerics marry, and few spend more than a couple years in a training monastery.
The wrong question
Sidestepping for the moment the linguistic stuff  (I understand that "priest" and "monk" are the same word/s in Japanese), the question we should be asking ourselves is "What is a Zen monk?" And that question is much easier to answer. You know what a Zen monk is.
The relevant distinction in Zen or any other Buddhism is not about priest/lay but monk/lay. A monk's job is to realize enlightenment. Having realized it, their role in society is to express it. It's that simple. A few options that come to mind are teaching other monks, teaching laypeople, or "entering the marketplace" and "functioning secretly." In the first case the monk remains a monk, while in the second and third they might retire to a temple-ish setting and take up a role we would associate with the word "priest." As for unenlightened priests, I share the opinion of Hakuin Zenji and his teacher:
 "Another time, he [Shoju Rojin Zenji, Hakuin Zenji's teacher] said: 'You're imposters, the whole lot of you. You look like Zen monks, but you don't understand Zen. You remind me of the monks in the teaching schools - but you haven't mastered the teachings. Some of you resemble precepts monks, yet their precepts are beyond you. There is a resemblance to the Confucians - but you haven't grasped Confucianism either. What, then, are you really like? I'll tell you. Large rice-bags, fitted all out in black robes.'

"Here is a story he told us:

"'There is a Barrier of crucial importance. In front of it sit a row of stern officials, each of whom is there to test the ability of those who wish to negotiate the Barrier. Unless you pass their muster, you don't get through.
"Along comes a man, announcing that he is a wheelright. He sits down, fashions a wheel, shows it to the officials, and they let him pass. Another person walks up, an artist. He produces a brush and paints them a picture. They usher him through the gates. A singing girl is allowed to pass after she sings them a refrain from one of the current songs. She is followed by a priest of one of the Pure Land sects. He intones loud invocations of the Nembutsu - 'Namu-amida-butsu,' 'Namu-amida-butsu.' The gates swing open and he proceeds on his way.
'At this point, another man clothed in black robes appears. He says that he is a Zen monk. One of the guardians of the Barrier remarks that 'Zen is the crowning pinnacle of all the Buddhas." He then asks: "What is Zen?"
'All the monk can do is stand there, in a blank daze, looking like a pile of brushwood. The officials take one look at the nervous sweat pouring from under his arms and write him off as a rank imposter. A highly suspicious and totally undesirable character. So he winds up as a poor devil of an outcast, condemned to a wretched existence outside the Barrier. What a pitiful turn of events.'"

These stories illustrate an important Zen principle: A jet that doesn't gain enough speed to take off is just a shitty bus. Or as Hakuin says elsewhere, it's like making fire by friction: if you stop when you see smoke, you'll never get fire. Zen's specialty is enlightenment. Until a Zen trainee attains it, they are deadweight. As long as their intention is true and their practice wholehearted, this is tolerable. For an unenlightened person to teach is another matter. I'm told that in at least some Southeast Asian traditions, one can't begin to teach until one attains the second stage of enlightenment. Why? Here is Hakuin Zenji again:
 "When a person who has not had kensho reads the Buddhist scriptures, questions his teachers and fellow monks about Buddhism, or practices religious disciplines, he is merely creating the causes of his own illusion. . . . But if this same person experiences kensho, everything changes. Although he is constantly thinking and acting, it is totally free and unattached. Although he is engaged in activity around the clock, that activity is, as such, non-activity."
Only the enlightened can teach enlightenment.
Our current problem is not that unenlightened teachers are teaching enlightenment. It's far worse than that: Unenlightened teachers are teaching unenlightenment. (I'll save my critique of the complete misunderstanding of Dōgen Zenji that passes for Dharma for another time.)
Another thread I'd like to tie in is this: American Buddhism is still very young, and in our haste to prove our independence we've severed the lifeline to Asia too quickly. If more of us trained in Asian monasteries supported by Asian Buddhists, we'd be much less in the dark. But instead, how often we wave our ignorance proudly like a flag! "We don't know what we're doing!" "We're making it up as we go along!" My, how Socratic! I suggest that not-knowing is a stance best taken vis a vis the ultimate--whereas there's plenty to learn about how to be a Buddhist in the conventional world. Perhaps we can suspend our American exceptionalism for just a little while and go learn from the experts. (Japanese monasticism is not dead. Almost dead, but not dead.)
Diversification and Self-fulfilling Prophecy
If in a fit of self-flagellation you have read this far, please indulge me in one final pointy point. Priests these days seem to be caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking that if they specialize exclusively in realizing the Dharma they will have nothing of value to share, they branch out into other areas. Priests don mainstream guises and seek personal security in wholesome, consolation-prize careers--academics, acupuncture, yoga, psychotherapy, life coaching, you name it (as long as it sells). Far from the still center, life becomes a matter of spinning plates. Now having sacrificed their unique opportunity to practice Dharma for the sake of Dharma, they hedge their bets and seek personal security at the expense of Dharma. Now they truly have nothing transcendental to offer. A wider perspective, less reactivity, and so on are fine, but these are the province of psychology, not a radical uprooting of the illusory self. Having chosen the conventional over the ultimate, they now, indeed, have nothing ultimate to offer.
Hakuin Zenji tells it like this:
"I know a wealthy family in the province of Shinano. They have a large inherited fortune, and the influence they wield rivals that of the provincial daimyo himself. The family is so large that they must ring a dinner bell to call them all together. The great and powerful are frequent visitors. Although they have no family business as such, they have been able to maintain a quiet and comfortable existence.
"But recently they started brewing sake. They added male and female servants to the staff. The water mill now grinds away day and night hulling rice. A continuous procession of grain carts thunders heavily in through the gates. Their prosperity has increased tenfold over what it was before. Ten thousand bushels of rice are said to be consumed daily in the brewing of sake.
"An old man living nearby and witnessing these events, said: 'Those folks are finished. Their prosperity cannot continue much longer. What you now see is really a symptom of serious trouble. When the inner workings decay, the outer aspect always swells like that. They will probably try their hand at selling grain. Or open a shop to sell medicinal herbs. But before long they will have to dispose of them too.'
"When my teacher Shoju Rojin heard the old man's prediction, he heaved a heavy sigh.
"'I know just what he means. Since the Sung period, our patriarchal school has been in constant decline. Zen monks have extended their interests into a variety of different fields. It's just like the family in that story.'
"As he finished speaking, his eyes were swimming in tears."
 My cheeks are wet too.
Leaving Home is Leaving Home
Finally, the first rule of leaving home is that you must leave home. This means to dispense with the trappings of your former life, to shed your secular ambitions, to offer up your fears and insecurities on the altar of awakening. It is to truly take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Ordination is dying into new life, a pre-enactment of the ego-death that awaits one who trains wholeheartedly. The sight of Zen practitioners attempting to drag their worldly identities through the eye of the needle would be comical were it not so sad. The path is made by walking--walking forward into the unknown, leaving behind everything you ever thought you were or could be. Step into the living, breathing void and see what awaits beyond the confines of identity, careerism and conventional prudence. Dharma friends, I exhort you: Immerse yourself blind and dumb in the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma. Living this way, you will meet your death without regret.

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