You Know This Blog is No Good Because I’m Trying to Write It

The other day, as I was finally emerging from under a large-scale translation project that consumed my time over the last few months (and basically shut down this blog), I checked Facebook and saw this quotation making the rounds:

Teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching something are to be avoided. Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice and are willing to share their lives as best they can with others. In this sense the “best” teachers are often the worst teachers; the more brilliant the teacher, the more exciting, the more enlightened, the worse it is for the student. The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher. – Zoketsu Norman Fischer

From the source that I saw, inside of a day, this was shared more than 30 times and “liked” more than 100. So I’m sure it’s all over the place by now. It is not my intention to pick on Zoketsu Fischer, for whom I have a lot of respect. Nor do I know the context in which any of this was said. But this statement — standing alone, which is how it is being embraced — reveals two of the most dangerous ideas we can encounter when we enter into Zen practice.

Of course, there is truth to it, too, so we should acknowledge that first: a lot of Zen teaching (especially in the Soto world) does not always look like “teaching” in a conventional sense. Like any apprenticeship, the first condition is proximity, not words — that proximity allows the student to watch and absorb and question and imitate. It also makes possible a kind of friction between teacher and student — one could argue that this friction is important in any teacher-student relationship, but in Zen, it carries an unusual weight. So yes — a lot of Zen “teaching” rests primarily on the teacher sharing the practice with someone who is invested in receiving it. Also, a teacher with an inflated investment in being a big shot is confused from the start. But that is not at the heart of what the quotation above is saying.

The most obvious problem here is what we might call “Zen exceptionalism,” which reaches back as far as Zen does. Zen exceptionalism, in a nutshell, is the assertion that everything in Zen is a kind of “opposite world” in which the surest way to accomplish a task in a “Zen” way is to do the opposite of what any ordinary person might do. That is to say, Zen has its own rules, its own physics. If I say there’s no truth to that, I’m lying — paradox is at the heart of many Zen teachings. That said, however, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace something that doesn’t make any darned sense.

What if I write that “History teachers who think they are actually teachers teaching history are to be avoided”? Math teachers? Piano teachers? It doesn’t hold up. Not only is it absurd, but it creates a dangerous standard for everyone involved.

Zen teachers might teach in all sorts of covert ways. It might not look like teaching. And Zen teachers — unlike, say, math teachers — may not aspire to that role. They might find themselves there by accident. That’s fine. But for the teacher to actually have no sense of teaching in the moment that teaching is happening is for the teacher to be unaware that there, in front of him, is a student. That is not only dangerously ignorant, but highly implausible. It’s just talk.

Scholars continue to debate the degree to which Taoism influenced Zen after Buddhism reached China, but it seems to me that we can hear a pronounced Taoist voice in these kinds of upside-down Zen assertions. Taoist literature speaks of the sage who always seems to do things by not doing those things: The sage drinks coffee by not drinking coffee. (Or something like that.) But even the sage knows about coffee. The sage, while drinking coffee (however he does that, or does that by not doing that), does not think, “I am not a drinker of coffee. I would never drink coffee.” The sage is not so unaware of the act of drinking coffee that he does not own up to it even as he is doing it.

Yet we are being told not only that the teacher teaches by not teaching, but that the teacher does not recognize her function as a teacher. The teacher who teaches is not a true teacher; the teacher who notices that she is teaching is, by definition, no longer a good teacher. And the more skillful a teacher seems to be, the less skillful that teacher actually is. The more awake, dynamic, or intelligent the teacher, the more dangerous.

If this is true, then how is a student to proceed? How is a teacher to proceed? If I am a new student at a Zen center, armed with this list of criteria for choosing a teacher, I have it easy — the first time the teacher offers me any kind of guidance, I can just write her off. I know she’s a fake, because she’s actually trying to teach me.  Do her Dharma talks leave me inspired and full of questions? Well, she’s no good — I know better, now, than to be seduced by that kind of so-called “skill.” Does she seem awake in her actions — does her presence disarm me a little? That is a definite no. What I need is a teacher who, in addition to having no discernible skill as a teacher — or awareness of the role itself — also makes literally no effort to teach me. That would be the real thing.

I sometimes wince when people talk about robes being “dangerous,” but here, I understand. Robes provide a kind of reverb to even the most absurd (or common-sense) statements, transforming them into something profound and paradoxical. If I sit on the high seat in robes, take a deep breath, lean forward, and say emphatically (maybe with a whisper, maybe with a shout), “You all need to wash your hands,” the audience’s first response is not to look at their hands to see if they are dirty. The first response is to think, “This means something.” If the point I’m trying to make is really as straightforward as it sounds, I may need to change my presentation. If I just put on ordinary clothes, cut out the theatrics, and maybe motion to my hands or others’ hands, and say, “You all need to wash your hands,” there’s a much higher chance of that message getting across the first time. If I say, “A true cook doesn’t cook,” well, we know from that start that something about that is not quite right. But if I make it a Zen thing, if I say, “A true tenzo never cooks,” then that’s food for thought. That just feels true–not in spite of the fact that it makes no sense, but because of it. It’s even more fun if I change it to say something that has no connection to anything: “You cannot eat a sandwich until you forget the sandwich.”  A Zen student hearing that might chew on it for days, convinced not only that it’s meaningful, but that it must be true.

You can eat a sandwich, or you can forget a sandwich, but you can’t do both.

The other, more subtle, issue in this quotation is in the last line: “The student ends up lusting after time with the teacher, hanging on her every word, and forgetting that this is about him or her, the student, not the teacher.” All the various sexual scandals popping up these days should serve as reminders of the dangers of completely losing oneself (and one’s sense of agency) in the face of a manipulative teacher. That’s the truth of it, but again, that’s not really what’s being pointed to here. The message here is this: the practice is about you.

And that’s not true.

We get a hint of this earlier: “Good teachers are people who are themselves simply working on their own practice….” But “my practice” is not Zen practice, not yet. If you are looking for a criterion by which to accept or reject a teacher, this is a good one: Is he practicing for himself? If he is — if the practice in which he is engaged is best described as “his practice” — then he is in no position to be teaching in the first place, whether he knows he’s doing it or not.

There are two basic ways to talk about the why of practice. The first is to say that we practice and offer that practice to all beings; the second is to say that we practice for the sake of practice, or even that we let practice practice. The second is harder than the first, but that doesn’t mean the first is easy.

The relationship between teacher and student is most definitely not about the teacher, but nor is it about the student. That’s a dangerous trap, one in which the student becomes the customer.  The teacher-student dynamic is exactly that: a dynamic. Not a transaction.  And that dynamic is about the practice. It’s about excluding nothing, expanding and challenging and including and transcending and offering — in all directions, including to each other.

It is an intentional dynamic. It may be messy and complicated, but it is not an accident. It is intimate, and it is mutual, and it is not, strictly speaking, personal. It’s bigger than “my” or “mine.”

To me, describing it any other way just doesn’t make any darned sense.

Zen and Cultural Preservation

I am an outsider to the Tibetan Buddhist world. But from where I stand, it appears that Tibetan Buddhism, in its various forms, is doing quite well in the US. I have met a few teachers, and quite a few students, and even visited a few groups, and almost across the board, I would say there is a seriousness about practice and a reverence for the teachings that goes very deep. It’s an impressive world. There are multiple (large and small) centers offering monastic-style practice and intensive retreat opportunities. In many cases, groups chant teachings in Tibetan; in some, they offer language classes so that students might better understand what they’re reading.

Of course, there have been reformers, like Chogyam Trungpa, who worked to find an authentically western expression of the tradition. Also, in many cases, teachers have chosen to downplay traditional preliminary practices for western students, letting them receive empowerments early on that might, in Tibet, have had a lot more prerequisites. I do not doubt that the question of how closely to adhere to the traditional practice and its cultural context is an active and pressing one almost everywhere. I would be surprised to hear otherwise.

But I sense (again, speaking very generally) that American Vajrayana students do not feel that the way Buddhism was practiced in Tibet was a sad, hollow shell of true Buddhism. They do not feel a sense of obligation to throw away all those aspects of the tradition that don’t easily fit into American culture; they don’t see their tradition as being broken; they don’t see themselves as the ones who will fix it. The students I have met hold their teachers — and other teachers of similar backgrounds — in the highest regard. They seem to want to do it the way their teachers did it, and if not that, they want to at least understand what it is that their teachers passed through to be who they are. It seems, from the outside, like a very respectful world.

In contrast, I’ve noticed, especially recently, that one of the defining characteristics of Zen culture is a tendency to speak negatively about Zen. It’s built in. It’s fashionable. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve heard in Japan in which priests lament the state of the tradition, of the priesthood, of the monasteries. Someone I know once asked her teacher (a very high-ranking and respected Japanese monk in his own right, a teacher of teachers), “Are there any Zen masters in Japan?” He thought about it and replied, “No, I guess not. Well, maybe that guy in…. No, well, no. Maybe not right now.” Older monks love to talk about how the young monks just don’t get it, and the young monks can see that a lot of the old monks seem to be all talk and no action*. Everyone knows that the monastic standards have gone lax — again, there are exceptions, but one doesn’t have to look far to find an authorized training monastery that is a monastery in name only, where even zazen practice is maintained at only the most basic, basic level (once a day, maybe).

If you’re new to Zen, this may all sound a bit shocking (or just sad), but it goes way, way back. 800 years ago, Dōgen (the founder of the Soto school in Japan) spent a good amount of ink complaining about how Buddhism has gone down the drain, how the people in authority have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, Dōgen believed that the teachings he had received from his teacher, at least, were authentic; he just felt that he was more or less alone in what he was carrying.

Some of these complaints about Japanese Zen are absolutely real — I am deeply pessimistic about the trends I see here. But some of this way of talking is also cultural — in a country where self-deprecation is as fundamental as gravity, one shouldn’t be surprised that so few people are prepared to say, “This is the real deal.” I suspect that in his time, a lot of Dōgen’s enemies despised him not for what he was teaching, but for the unapologetic confidence with which he taught it.

In the West we see this too, but it’s a little different. In Japan, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in Japan; in the West, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in… Japan.

Many of the teachers who came to the West from Japan were fed up with the state of things in their home country, both within the tradition itself and within the bureaucracy-heavy institutions being built up around it. They personally knew great teachers, but they could see that there were few in line to replace them. So when they made their way across the ocean, they told students that they had the opportunity (in the land of opportunity) to establish something pure, something authentic. There was even talk of how this newly-established, pure practice might turn around and re-inspire Buddhism in Japan. This was big thinking.

And for the record, I love that they held such huge aspirations. As with Dōgen, we can’t separate out that confidence and that sincerity from what they actually accomplished, which is remarkable. But the downside is that many people heard this talk and just took their teachers’ word for it that Buddhism in Japan had gone down the drain, or that it wasn’t relevant anymore. So western practitioners were handed — and embraced — the rather lofty challenge of fixing Zen Buddhism, either because it was fundamentally broken, or because it was too burdened by Asian cultural baggage to be of any use in the West.

I suspect that a major reason that Vajrayana practitioners embrace the Tibetan-ness of Tibetan Buddhism is that there is a sense of protection, a desire to preserve not just the Buddhist tradition of that culture, but also the culture itself; it also helps that Tibetan culture as a whole seems to be closely intertwined with Buddhism, going so far as to establish a role like that of the Dalai Lama that wields not just spiritual, but also political, authority. Preserving Tibetan Buddhism is a way of supporting and preserving a displaced culture, and that’s appealing.

Zen in the West doesn’t tap into that impulse to preserve — after all, Japanese culture is doing just fine on its own. The feeling, for years, has been that true Zen has been buried under Japanese cultural baggage, and we need to free it (“it” usually being zazen). There are dozens of teachers in the US who take it as a badge of honor that they don’t wear robes, or that they don’t do the ceremonies, or that they don’t put on airs, sitting on the high seat. They’re free from all that “Japanese” stuff. And the same attitudes are common among those who frequent Zen centers. I knew one man in Alaska who was genuinely concerned that the ceremonies we performed were designed to make him feel “less than” his Japanese counterparts, as part of an agenda to suggest that Asians are innately more spiritual. I suspect that his concerns, which he was able to describe very clearly, are actually common in Western Zen, even if they are not always so plainly articulated.

I want to propose, however, that American Zen, like American Vajrayana, can take refuge in this culture-preserving mind. It’s available, and in our evolution, I think it’s important. But I also want to clarify that the culture to be preserved is not Japanese culture — it’s Zen culture.

The fact is that even Japanese people, as a whole, know very little about Zen culture. Non-Japanese often feel so overwhelmingly out of place in a Japanese monastery that they cannot see that Japanese people, too, are completely out of their element. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to stand, how to sit, how to behave. It’s a new world for them.

Of course, much of Zen culture in Japan is informed by Japanese norms. For example, I would say that one aspect of what I’m calling Zen culture is a refined formality. In monasteries, people avoid casual speech; Dōgen went so far as to insist that monks only refer to vegetables using honorifics. Some of the shape that formality takes in Japan is, naturally, very Japanese — there is a sense, from samurai movies and centuries-old literature about how one addresses those in power, about how to speak and sit and gesture in a very formal way, and some of that certainly enters the monastery. But monastery formality is its own thing. Likewise, the insistence on very specific physicality (hold your hands like this, stand with your feet like so, and on and on) has some parallels in other aspects of Japanese culture (tea ceremony is an obvious example), but I have never seen a version as complete as what one finds in a temple. Each individual accepts responsibility for participating in, and thereby creating, a very specific atmosphere, one you won’t find anywhere else.

It can be difficult to sort all this out. I’ve known non-Japanese who came here and got it all wrong. They went home insisting, “This is how they do it in Zen temples,” when in fact, that’s just how Japanese people sit. Or the reverse — they say, “Oh, that’s just Japanese culture,” when what they saw was something specific to one temple, one lineage. It takes time and patience and humility to sift through these kinds of questions.

But that is exactly what we — especially those who represent a lineage — have been charged with doing. We can bring that beautiful formality into Zen in America. It need not be Japanese at all. We can explore the full depths of what it is to create a group practice, that sense of synchronicity, of singular movement. It need not be Japanese. Even now, it’s not. There is a language spoken by people who practice in a traditional way, but it’s a language of the body, a language of gesture, a language of delicacy and fierceness and “just so.” It is not the Japanese language.

It’s just Zen.

*For an excellent discussion of the current state of Buddhism in Japan and its potential directions, please take a look at the lecture by Noriyuki Ueda in the most recent edition of Dharma Eye. Click here for the pdf.

Eating for (more than) Two

There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about “all beings”: we are connected to all beings, we strive to liberate all beings, we work for the sake of all beings….

It’s a huge idea, one that we can never fully wrap our heads around. Sometimes we run across the phrase “sentient beings,” but that’s meaningless — life is too short for us to work out what is and is not a being we should save, a being with which we have a connection. My friends are beings, the dog next door is a being, the rock in my shoe is a being, that moment of panic I feel when I think I overslept is a being. Differentiating, on that level, is precisely what this practice is not about.

This talk of all beings has evolved over time. In the earliest Buddhist texts, it seems that we don’t see so much of it. Instead, we see teaching after teaching about the universality of experience, about our shared sameness. From the time of the Buddha, it has been taught that suffering, though it expresses itself differently according to each individual, is essentially the same for everyone. Happiness too, and anger. We may get upset for very different reasons and at different times, but that emotional experience of wanting the current situation to be other than what it is — we share that, intimately. (Much of the pain of adolescence, it would seem, is just an inability to recognize that fact. We feel alone, when the exact opposite is true.)

I suspect (and I would love for a Buddhist scholar to jump in and speak to this more authoritatively than I can) that much of the evolution of Buddhism has just been a thought exercise, a matter of people saying, If X is true, and if we factor in Y, then the logical ramifications of that must be Z. In this case, if our conditions (dissatisfaction, impermanence, the absence of an unchanging self) are universal, then just by that definition alone, we share a profound connection. If we are fundamentally the same, then we are not fundamentally different. If we are not different, then the distinction between you and me is a false one. If that’s true, then we are, in a manner of speaking, “one.”

If there is no line between you and me, then your suffering is mine, and your happiness is mine. And by extension, what’s mine is not mine, and what’s yours is not really yours. It’s out of this kind of math, I suspect, that Buddhism came to take such an interest in interdependent origination, and that it arrived at a figure like the Bodhisattva, someone who accepts responsibility for all beings. It’s a logical — and beautiful — development.

The difficulty with these kinds of wide-scale teachings, I think, is that they are so overwhelming as to seem unreal. It makes for great philosophy, but for many of us, it remains an abstraction, something fun to talk about but not something that is immediate and felt in our daily lives. Maturity and empathy can lead us to see, firsthand, that other people’s experiences are not foreign from our own, and that can make us much more skillful one on one. That is no small thing — working from that place of understanding is the foundation of almost any truly honest encounter. It’s something we all need to explore, and remind ourselves of, daily.

But extending that to this thing we call “all beings” is much more difficult. How do we interact with all beings? How do we take responsibility for all beings? We can start with the person we’re with. Following this math, the person in front of you is the face of all beings, so how you treat him or her is how you are treating the world. (This applies to objects as well, which I want to write about later.) On a practical level, if we can remember just that, maybe it’s enough. But I do think there’s value in exploring this heavy, looming abstraction of “all beings.” It’s there, so it’s there for us to confront.

When we’re alone, where is the confrontation? The person that is always in front of me is me. How do I treat myself? And does it matter? We don’t need to believe that all beings are one, or that we’re all connected on some invisible spiritual level, to find this worthy of our consideration. Even the skeptic can recognize that reality is made up of its parts. I am one of those parts. You are one of those parts, just as our organs and cells are our components. If one of my cells is unhealthy, even if I don’t notice that, even if it doesn’t have measurable repercussions throughout my body, still, that cell is one part of the picture that is me, of my health, of my functioning. However we frame this, it’s not that difficult for us to accept that what happens to me is happening to the universe; what I do is an extension of everything and everyone.

This is the basis of responsibility.

I started thinking about all this differently a few years ago, when my wife Tracy was pregnant with our first child. Tracy has always been careful about what she eats, but as soon as she knew she was pregnant, eating healthy foods became a serious matter. She read all the literature and knew what to eat and what not to. She was eating for two. She accepted responsibility for this other life, and in doing so, accepted that her body is not completely her own. To any mother, I think, this must seem obvious, but it’s not limited to mothers.  I suspect it’s also a well-known realization among people who dedicate themselves to others: firefighters, nurses on call, soldiers, and on and on and on. This body is not just mine — it is also part of a larger function. If I keep it healthy, that is in service of that function. If I let it get weak or sick or injured, then that hinders my ability to be skillful, to fulfill that mission.

Watching Tracy eat for two, I had this idea: What if I were eating for all beings? What would I put in my body? What would I refuse? If we take these teachings of connectedness and singularity to one extreme, then my body is the body of all beings; what I eat is the food of the world. I forget this little idea of mine often — old habits die hard, and I don’t always eat the healthiest thing on the menu. But when I do remember it, for example at the supermarket, it changes the way I shop. I can use all manner of twisted rationalization to let myself eat those chips, or get the big box of cookies. However, if I imagine, even for a moment, that by eating I am feeding others, then so-called “foods” with no nutritional value reveal themselves to be absurd. They are absurd, of course, but this frame helps me to see it. (One could completely misinterpret this whole idea in disastrous ways, I know: “All beings sure would like a beer right now,” “I think I’m going to treat the universe to a big piece of chocolate cheesecake,” and so on. We have to look with the eyes of an adult, or it all falls apart very quickly.)

Take this as a true understanding of the body, or take it as an exercise — in either case, the effect is the same. When we allow ourselves to feel the responsibility of caring for all beings, we intuitively know how to respond. If it’s just an idea, just a philosophy, we can get stuck on the seeming impossibility of it — how to save all beings? We stumble because we’re looking for the heroic act, the grand gesture. But if we take it to its logical end, if we imagine that when I eat, all beings eat, and when I talk, all beings talk, and so on, then we start to simply offer up the best of ourselves, of our best selves. We listen to those little voices in our heads telling us to sit up straight and floss and walk the three blocks to the post office instead of driving. We take care in our actions, and in doing so, we take care of something much, much bigger.

We know so much already. We know what to do. We know how to offer ourselves.

It’s good news, I think.

Bowing at the Scene of the Crime

Our altar at home; our 3-year-old offered the Elmo towel.

How do we orient ourselves to the world?  When we face the center, where are we facing? What do we confront there?

A temple is a space — any space — we create for the sake of practice. It’s where we allow the practice to play itself out, freely, without distraction.

And at the heart of every temple, at its core, we find an altar, what in Japanese is called a shumidan (須弥壇).  The dan itself means an altar; the shumi is a transliteration of Sumeru, the mythological, unimaginably tall mountain at the center of the world.  According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the world that we know (the human world) is to the south of that mountain, but that is not the entire world.  To the north, east, and west, lie other kingdoms, ruled by different kings; specific beings inhabit different terraces on the mountain’s slope; other beings live in the seas surrounding the mountain, and so on (for a fascinating read — and a headache — check out the Wikipedia page).

Obviously, this kind of worldview is like saying that the earth is flat, or that corpses spawn maggots.  We know better, and in the case of Mt. Sumeru, we’ve known better for a very long time.  Yet this image of the mountain at the center of the world has continued as a powerful force in temple life for centuries.  Just as we can make a temple of our current environment, so can we face a Mt. Sumeru as a way of giving direction to our lives.

When we imagine an altar, we imagine a Buddha statue at the center.  In reality, some temples replace Buddha with one of the bodhisattvas:  Avalokiteshvara (the embodiment of compassion) or, especially in rooms where people practice zazen, Manjushri, the actualization of wisdom.  In any of these cases, we are orienting ourselves to an image we find inspirational, to an exemplum of the practice.

I have heard of individuals and Zen centers doing away with such imagery all together, replacing the Buddha image with something like a beautiful rock.  I imagine that such a choice comes out of a concern about idolatry; perhaps such centers feel that a Buddha statue would just be too overtly “Buddhist.”  Or maybe the goal is to align oneself with the natural world.  Or it could be that the rock is intended to show that “everything is Buddha,” a teaching heard again and again.  But I think this is a mistake.  I will try to explain why.

An altar is not just something that stands there.  We engage with it, and the nature of that engagement is offering.  At first we might just offer symbolically.  Awkwardly.  But with time, when we give something, we actually give it.  We truly let it go, and in doing so, we discover that there is nothing to be lost.

In Japanese temples, there are certain ceremonies in which sweetened water, tea, cakes, or even an entire meal are ritually placed on the altar as an offering to the Buddha and all beings.  Really, it’s just “all beings” — the Buddha, dead now 2500 years, is in no position to drink tea.  But that’s the shape of it.  In the monks’ hall, Manjushri even has his own ōryōki set (one common novice mistake is to place the food facing away from Manjushri, when in fact it’s arranged as if he might actually lean down and take a bite).  This is a rich kind of ritual, an opportunity to personalize our relationships with the teachers of the past, both real and mythological. How great to offer wisdom a bowl of soup!  I suspect, though, that this particular kind of giving will never find a strong foothold in the West. It takes a long time for this kind of offering to start feeling authentic, like something other than play-acting.

But this kind of offering is also not the most important kind.  This kind of practice invites us to let go of what we think of as “mine.”  And we can learn to make this a habit, elaborate ceremony or not.

One of the most simple — and universal — practices in the Buddhist world is “giving it away.”  If a friend gives you a sweater, you can hold up that sweater and say, “I offer this sweater to all beings—may all beings be warm.”  And then, assuming that all beings do not descend upon you and take it, you receive it.  But now, instead of receiving it just from your friend, you’re receiving that sweater from all of reality.  Before we eat, we do the same, giving it away and receiving it anew — not as a gift to keep, but as a treasure to hold in trust.  This is an act of generosity, but in equal measure, it is an act of humility.

The altar becomes a physical vehicle of this process.  When you receive a gift, place it on the altar, for an hour or a day or a week.  When you receive your paycheck, place it on the altar before you put it in the bank.  Feel the letting go intrinsic to that act; feel the responsibility that comes with it.

In theory, we can do this practice anywhere, altar or not — and I think we should, as much as possible.  But actually placing that sweater or that paycheck before the image of the Buddha and leaving it there — that is a powerful act.  It is the enactment of giving, receiving, and gift, what we call the Three Wheels.  It is this practice of enactment — physical enactment — that lays the foundation for being able to do such a practice instinctively and formlessly, altar or no altar, wherever you may be.

To carry out just this universal practice of offering objects, perhaps an altar doesn’t need any image at all — no Buddha, no bodhisattva.  But there’s more than this.

We all have an idea of who the Buddha was, or what a buddha is.  It’s usually at least a little superhuman; the fact that the Buddha has long been portrayed with exaggerated features (long ears, for example) doesn’t help us to see him as a person, though that’s all he was.  We can hear over and over that the Buddha was just a human being, that he was just like us, but few really believe it.   We might imagine him glowing a little, or assume he always knew exactly what to do, or believe that what he saw is beyond what we’re capable of seeing.

However, the gap between our projections about Buddha and his actual humanity mirrors perfectly the gap we ourselves feel between who I am and the immeasurable scope of who I might be.  It is no exaggeration to say that reconciling this perceived gap is the singular aim of Buddhist practice.  It is a koan — a question we confront and which confronts us — and rather than avoid it, we are charged with facing it head on.

If the image on the altar is a beautiful stone, that presents no challenge.  It may feel a little silly at first to bow to a rock, but we can get over it, because by choosing an abstraction, we can make that rock whatever we want it to be.  We can each individually create our own story about that rock, one that is non-threatening and safe and personal.  But spiritual practice—Zen or otherwise—should never be so comfortable.

There’s the famous saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” I think this is commonly misunderstood. Erasing Buddha and images of Buddha from Buddhism (or in another popular scenario, removing Buddhism from Zen) is not killing Buddha. It’s more like putting out a hit. Or getting a restraining order. In order to kill Buddha, there must be an encounter on the road. We have to meet.

In your home, set up an altar with a Buddha image and space for offerings. Let yourself be confronted by the image every day.  Let it be a part of the air you breathe.  Let yourself enjoy it and be bothered by it.

Let it be the mountain at the center of the world, the landmark by which we know which way is forward.

And bow to it.  Bow, and in doing so, offer yourself up at that same altar.  You will construct a story about this — that’s natural (and inevitable).  You will tell yourself, “I’m bowing to the idea of the Buddha, not Buddha himself.”  Or perhaps, “I bow to the Buddha as a student bows to a teacher.”  That’s fine. It will change with time.  If you keep bowing, then through that action, you’ll either figure out why you bow, or you’ll forget the question all together.  But the story you make for yourself will never do that action justice.

There are stories in Zen literature about teachers who, in order to show that the Buddha was not special, burned Buddha statues, or threw them away.  I even read once of a monastery in Sri Lanka where the Buddha’s image was printed inside urinals, to the same end.  In cultures where Buddhism is long established, and where the Buddha is sometimes accorded god-like status, such transgressive actions become profound and powerful teachings.

But in the West, we like those kinds of stories too much for them to be very meaningful.  These stories appear again and again in Western Zen literature. We smile knowingly when we read them. We love what those teachers did, but we have to remember that those teachers did those things in front of students who were horrified, not thrilled. That was the point.

I think most of us need the opposite, to be confronted directly by the image of Buddha and be forced to ask — again and again — What is this?  Different patients require different prescriptions, and in the West, we need to look the Buddha in the eye, have that stare-down, maybe wrestle with him a little.

Then we can kill him.

The Guy in the Woods

I suspect that hundreds of years from now, as people look back at the transmission of Buddhism to the West, they’ll see that this passage from the Kalama Sutta had more influence on the shape of that transmission than did any other text:

“Any teaching [said the Buddha] should not be accepted as true for the following ten reasons: hearsay, tradition, rumor, accepted scriptures, surmise, axiom, logical reasoning, a feeling of affinity for the matter being pondered, the ability or attractiveness of the person offering the teaching, the fact that the teaching is offered by “my” teacher. Rather, the teaching should be accepted as true when one knows by direct experience that such is the case.” – Buddha

I see this on coffee cups, on t-shirts, on posters…. About once a month, one of my friends on Facebook discovers it for the first time and shares it. I remember seeing it (or some version of it) for the first time on a coaster about 15 years ago. My first response was to doubt that it was authentic–it was too perfect, too much what I wanted to hear, what I wanted Buddhism to be.

There are abbreviated versions that I see more often than the original, along these lines: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” This is a very different idea. The original says we need to verify through direct experience; the popular version says that we can stand back from the practice, at a distance, and use reason to determine its authenticity. One of the things I have always loved about Buddhism is that it stands up very, very well to rational analysis. And there are some beautiful, ancient texts that are as clear and reasoned in their approach as any scientific paper today. It’s not at all non-rational–if it were, it wouldn’t present itself in such mathematical terms. But at its core, even though it works on that level, it’s not really rational, either. It’s trans-rational. That reasoned framework is scaffolding for a kind of seeing that doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis. That’s the realm of experience.

In the last post, I mentioned the idea of sticking to fundamental principles. How do we determine what those are? How do we not lose track of what is at the center? I think much of it comes down to this idea of experiential verification. For years, when I’ve come across a teaching that is particularly difficult–either difficult to understand, or difficult to swallow–I’ve run it through my “guy in the woods” test. It’s a silly game, and so hypothetical, perhaps, as to be contrary to everything the Buddha was trying to say in the quotation above. But here it is:

There’s a guy who lives in the woods, and has always lived in the woods. (This could be a gal in the woods, of course. But in order to run the test, I kind of have to play the character myself in my mind, so for me, it’s a guy.) He has no exposure to Buddhist teachings or teachers, or to religious/philosophical instruction of any kind. He has only his experiences and observations. Of all the myriad teachings that fall under the wide umbrella of “Buddhism,” which ones might this guy have a reasonable chance of discovering on his own? We can acknowledge from the start that regardless of circumstance, he probably wouldn’t find much–most people don’t, or else the Buddha would have had a lot more peers. We can also grant that the Buddha himself had teachers and access to religious instruction; the Buddha never was the guy in the woods. But for me, if the truth is the truth, it’s critical that it be discoverable. The truth of this life is always, ever-present–otherwise, by definition, it’s something else. So this sensitive, observant, inquisitive guy in the woods always has a chance. What might he find?

Let’s look at the basic basics, the Four Seals:

  1. All things are impermanent. This one is easy. It’s one of the hardest teachings to drive home, but rarely because we don’t believe it’s true–it’s just a truth that’s hard to keep in mind in all of its ramifications. The guy in the woods could definitely find this one.
  2. All experience is characterized by dissatisfaction. Again, yes. This can be hard to see in oneself–it helps to be able to spend time with others and see that even when things are at their best, we use that moment as a new standard by which to devalue other times that don’t quite measure up. We find a way to be dissatisfied. This is definitely possible.
  3. All phenomena lack inherent existence. This one is, to a great extent, a different way of expressing #1, so I think he might discover it. We can see that a tree comes from something, that it goes to something else, that it has no permanent, unchanging tree-ness. Out in the woods, there are a million examples in every direction.
  4. Enlightenment is beyond concepts. This one might be tougher. A sensitive person will recognize, probably early in life, that there are experiences, aspects of each moment, that are beyond conceptualization, that escape language or even our mental ability to put them into a clean framework. A moment of awe could point to this. So could love. But the only real road to this one is enlightenment itself–definitely not out of reach for our guy, but a little harder to stumble onto than the above.

So by this test, the Four Seals are, unsurprisingly, central. They are self-revealing, self-authenticating. (Sometimes this list is just the first three, and in running this test, maybe we can start to understand why.) It’s similar for the Four Noble Truths: the first two (1. all experience is characterized by dissatisfaction; 2. dissatisfaction is caused by desire) are readily available to someone who observes his/her own reactions and processes; and the third (the way out of dissatisfaction is to go beyond desire) is just simple math, a kind of filler. But the fourth, the idea that the way to go beyond desire is by following the Noble Eightfold Path, is tricky. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s a little too thought out, a little too religious in its framing to be at all obvious. Personally, I would like to see what the alternate-reality Buddha comes up with as a fourth truth, if not that one. It might be great.

How about karma? Well, if we’re talking about it as the law of cause and effect, the principle that all phenomena are born of multiple factors (and then become factors themselves), then I think that’s very accessible to the guy in the woods. It’s common sense. But if we take it another step further, say, to reincarnation, then we hit a wall. How would the guy in the woods come to the idea of reincarnation? If we mean it metaphorically, as a rebirth that comes moment by moment, a poetic expression of the third seal, sure, that works, maybe. But if we imagine that it goes from body to body, based on physical death and birth, then I don’t think the guy in the woods will find that. How could he?

Reincarnation, in that literal sense, seems to be a teaching that requires a kind of blind faith, and so, based on the quotation above, it’s dangerous ground. In fact, believing in it based on the teachings around it would seem, in this context, to be irresponsible. And I think I’m not alone in that view. Those same people who look back on Buddhist history hundreds of years ago will notice that, at least in Zen circles, teachings about reincarnation somehow just didn’t survive the trip across the ocean. Other Buddhist schools in the West still hold tight to it, but it’s my impression that Zen is letting it go. Good for us.

We can do this forever. The Lotus Sutra? It’s full of great stuff, but in itself, it can’t be central–the guy in the woods would not, could not stumble upon the Lotus Sutra. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, or that some of its contents would not pass this test. But it doesn’t offer the same independent verification as something like impermanence. The middle way? Sure. The teaching of the six realms of existence? Nope, not in my imagining of the woods, anyway. Dependent arising? Yes, I think so, in some form. Nirvana? Probably not.

All of this is just a long way of saying that reality is right in front of our noses all the time. It’s in our skin. We smell reality. We sweat it out of our pores. We absolutely should pay attention to the teachings that are most central, but not because they are important teachings. We should pay attention because we should pay attention. Encountering Buddhism can be a revelation, an inspiration. But in that same encounter, in discovering these big ideas, we can also put them on a high place, a place reserved for “buddhas” who are “enlightened,” then spend our lives just trying to reclaim those truths as our own.

In Buddhism, we find a beautiful, sophisticated, generous system of teachings and practices designed over hundreds of years to help us gain access to what has always been right here, in the woods all around us. Coming to the exact same insights as the Buddha himself is not some lofty goal reserved for the elite–it’s the basic expectation of the practice. We say Buddhism was born 2500 years ago, but if we’re doing it right, it was born just now.

And now.

And now.

Bowing to the Snowman

When I was in fourth grade, my best friend Doug went to Jamaica and brought me back a big cup shaped as a “laughing Buddha,” with a hole in the belly button for the straw. A few years later, in high school, my new best friend David and I found it in the back of the cupboard, took it outside, and built a 5-foot high version in the snow. The way I remember it, it turned out really well. When my mom got home later that afternoon, we asked her to get out the camera and take a picture of us prostrating before our newly-built snow idol. But she refused. My mom just couldn’t endorse that, even as a joke–we were worshipping false idols, and the last thing we needed was a photographic record of the crime. I tried to argue, but since this was long before everyone had a digital camera in their pocket at all times, there was nothing I could do. She had the camera, so she held all the cards. Our beautiful snow buddha was a big lump by the next day.

I could not have known then that I would, as part of my chosen vocation, go on to do a lot of prostrations in front of a lot of Buddhas. In my 3-year-old son’s mind, that’s my whole job–he knows I do priest-related work and translation work, so the question every day is, “Did you do your gasshō job or your ABC job?” It’s an oversimplification, but there are a lot worse ways to describe what I do. He likes to do gasshō, so he knows I have a pretty great job.

I think back to my mom’s reaction, and I see a fear that has since come to feel familiar. She identified strongly as a Catholic, so if you’d asked her way back then if she was actually afraid of the consequences of mockingly bowing before the snowman, I think she would have said, yes, a little. I don’t think she had any illusions about that. But many, many people who don’t identify with any particular religion come to investigate Zen practice and see the bowing and hear the chanting and feel a similar fear, one they probably have a difficult time defining, or even recognizing for what it is.

It’s not uncommon, even in American Zen Centers, to chant Daihishin Darani as part of the morning liturgy (at centers that chant at all, that is). A darani is basically a mantra–the power of it, if there’s any, is not in the meaning but in the vocalization of the sounds. In the case of Daihishin Darani, it’s a transliteration into Japanese from Chinese from Sanskrit, maybe something else too, a lost source. The general belief is that it’s untranslatable (though we know it serves as a kind of cheer for Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion). It has a good, steady rhythm, so it’s easy for anyone to read. You can really put yourself into it. But it gets under a lot of people’s skins. And it seems that when I explain its origins, that discomfort only deepens. People will rarely express it this simply or this clearly, but what comes out of those conversations is something like this: “Just because we don’t know what it means doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean anything, and I’m not comfortable saying something out loud if I don’t know what it is.”

On the surface, this seems fairly reasonable, but is it? What would be the consequences of saying something out loud that we don’t actually agree with or approve of? What if the original message of Daihishin Darani is that it’s fun to do bad things to good people? Here on my desk, I have a book of poems by Pablo Neruda, in Spanish. I don’t understand Spanish, but I get a lot of joy from reading these poems out loud. Even in my comically terrible accent, they’re beautiful to me.

Over the centuries, the basic shape of most Zen ceremonies has become something like this: (1) bow; (2) read a sutra; (3) read a “dedication of merit,” offering the merit of having read that sutra to a particular person, or to a category of people, or even to all beings; (4) bow. Sometimes there are additional steps, but that’s the standard outline. Bowing, for many, is a sticky issue, even more so when there’s a Buddha statue in the room. Especially if you were raised in an Abrahamic religion, bowing can feel problematic. Then there are the sutras–there are lots that we understand linguistically, but even then, does it mean that we understand them, really? I have an understanding, but it changes with time; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I really get any of them. What is enough understanding to make something feel safe to chant? And then, on top of it all, there’s this idea of transferring something called “merit” to another person, like sending flowers (if you like something concrete) or maybe just a good vibe (if you think it’s a completely flaky proposition from the start). In that short ceremony, there’s just no safe ground to stand on.

For the record, if you think the transference of merit sounds like magic, I agree with you. I don’t believe in it at all. In Buddhism, when in doubt, it’s always good to remember fundamental principles, and for me, the idea of transferring merit from me to you flies in the face of a much more basic idea–namely, that there is no distinct, separate “me” and “you” from the start. It’s very strange that this practice has become so central.

But I want to advocate for doing it. All of it. This ceremonial form has been part of our teachers’ teachers’ understanding of Zen and Buddhism for centuries now. I can’t profess to know how people 600 years ago framed the liturgy in their minds; I don’t know how they would try to sell it. But here’s my clumsy pitch:

My argument for chanting sutras is simple: when we read something out loud, those words temporarily become our own. We become the speaker. When we read the Buddha’s words, then just for that moment, we are speaking as Buddha. We are Buddha, teaching the world. Understanding is secondary, or maybe a fiction from the start. By reading these teachings over and over again, they get into our heads, they become part of the language of our own minds. We digest them in ways we cannot see or ever fully appreciate. In my silly way, I pick up a book and become the voice and the body of Pablo Neruda. Zen offers lots of these opportunities for enactment; we should embrace them.

As for something like a darani, it’s a perfect playground for learning to invest ourselves in what we are doing. To read nonsense with full-throated conviction may seem silly, but conviction is conviction; it’s also rare. Most of our lives are spent doing things of no great inherent import, yet this tradition insists that we throw ourselves, body and mind, into each action in each moment. Chanting a darani with everything you’ve got is like committing fully to tying your shoes: on one hand, maybe there’s nothing there, but on the other hand, while you’re doing it, that’s really all there is.

Transferring merit is offering–it’s offering everything we have. There’s a very real level of this practice at which we give away every little thing that we do. I’ve been taught that nothing in Zen is symbolic. Nothing means anything other than what it is. If I vow to save all beings, then I make that vow literally–if I tell myself from the start that it’s impossible, but that it’s a nice symbolic gesture, then (a) I’m a liar, and (b) I’m wasting my time. I have to mean it. If I vow to save all beings, that doesn’t mean I’ll get in trouble if I somehow fail. That outcome is a whole other conversation. Success in making a vow is in doing it totally, with complete conviction. I offer myself up, even if I don’t know what that really means. It’s the same with offering merit. I don’t know if this merit exists, and I don’t know if it’s mine to offer. And in my case, I don’t believe it’s transferable, at least not in any personal, transactional way. But in offering it up, I offer up everything–what is mine, what isn’t mine, and what could never be anyone’s. I offer it on the off chance that I can. Nothing is withheld.

What is there, in any of this, to be afraid of?

When we bow to the snowman, who do we think might be watching?

In our heart of hearts, what do we think we might be at risk?