Zen 101

Monday, August 24, 2015

On Teachers

With palms together,
Good Evening Everyone,

This evening I would like to address a topic that is quite challenging, to wit: What is a Zen Teacher and what does a Zen Teacher actually teach?  Who is a Zen Teacher anyway? The simple and most direct answer historically is a person who has gained Dharma transmission from his Teacher and/or has been authorized by that teacher to teach. I might add, this person must have a strong drive to teach.   Now this was good enough throughout the world since the Buddha’s time, but has recently been challenged here in the United States.  

Here we have people challenging Dharma transmission itself, and indeed, the whole notion of a clergy and teacher cadre. These folks believe in a horizontal organizational structure or, simply, no structure at all.  They argue shaved heads and robes put people off, separate clergy from the ordinary guy, etc. My response to that argument is equally simple: so?

Then there is the American Zen Teacher’s Association which claims it is not a credentialing body, but by its very name suggests it is. This organization regards a Zen Teacher as one who has received transmission from a recognized lineage master, agrees to follow the AZTA’s ethical code, has had substantial time on the cushion prior to being authorized to teach, and has a position wherein the applicant is currently teaching. 

Sounds easy enough, but understand; for the time on the cushion aspect of these criteria it is suggested the minimum be a year’s worth of retreat time.  Now, let’s take a cold look at that…and understand what that means: prior to being granted transmission, the person must have sat a minimum of 365 days in retreat under the supervision of an authorized teacher.  Lets look a little closer. 

The typical sesshin is 7 days so if we were to use the standard sesshin as a measure, the person must have sat 52 weeks of sesshin. Now, if that person were to sit one sesshin per month (the typical Zen Center offers sesshin only quarterly, by the way), it would take 4.3 years of monthly seven day sessions in order to meet this basic requirement. The people who have achieved this miracle must either not work anywhere or have jobs that allow them a week’s vacation monthly. 
If we were to take the typical annual calendar of a Zen Center, which includes four sesshin per year, it would take 13 years of quarterly sesshin to obtain the minimum amount of retreat time. Right. 

Frankly, this is ridiculous.  We can see this ex post facto cushion requirement is either a pipe dream or those who are members of AZTA have been creative on their applications. in verifying these requirements I had a short conversation with an AZTA dignitary, I learned “many” of the AZTA members trained for “twenty years” before being granted teacher status.  This still doesn’t explain how it is possible to meet this minimal retreat requirement.  Perhaps they were grandfathered in.  Maybe there is still another alternative, such as the organization waives the time requirement for certain people?  I don’t know.

What I believe, however, is that time on the cushion is simply time on the cushion.  Without some sense of what that time has done it is a meaningless number.  To use an analogy:  Let’s suppose someone is studying the koan curriculum with a teacher.  It takes the person, say, ten years to resolve a handful of the 300 koans in the collection.  Another student, same teacher, completes the koan collection in a year.  In such a case, using time as the criteria, the person who took ten years to get a handful of koans would be accepted and the one who brilliantly completed the collection in a year would be denied. 

This leads me to the second aspect of this piece:  what actual Zen Teachers teach. Teachers, I acknowledge, teach didactically or experientially.  The latter, it seems to me is the most effective.   As to what teachers teach here’s a short list of categories of what we typically think of as content: 

We are to teach the Dharma; 

We teach the precepts, as we ourselves are precept holders and are responsible for manifesting them in our daily lives; and 

We teach the practices, contemplative, ceremonial and otherwise, to our students.  

We teach our history.

This is an impressive list, but is it what we actually teach?  And how is the list prioritized?  Priorities are usually established in accordance with what we value, a Zen axiology, if you will.  What’s first on our list if we were to prioritize it?  Given the questions on the AZTA’s application and what goes on in a typical Zen Center, my sense is most of us would place zazen at the top of the list. So sitting on our asses, staring at a wall is our highest value?

There is a problem with this and the problem is labeled “our Vows.”

At each level of ordination we are asked to take our vows, these are recited once again monthly, and each day we recite the Four Great Vows.  Now these vows are important.  They are an ethical statement in their own right and they point us to our task as precept holders or priests. 

The third pure precept suggests we are to create conditions within which all beings will be free.  I believe these precepts should be, as the Torah says, as frontlets between our eyes.  Our precepts are our everyday practice, indeed, our precepts are ourselves expressed in action. 

  Our Bodhisattva vows make it clear that we are to put ourselves last and all others are before us.  These vows, then teach us what tradition might say is our starting point and our priority.  Well, darn, looking at what is contained in the latest Buddhist magazines, or looking at the schedules of many, many Zen Centers, I see their focus to be on the practice of zazen. 

What I don’t see are opportunities to enact the precepts and the Bodhisattva vows. So, sitting down, facing a wall, and shutting up, is first on the list and stands as the highest value.  On some level I understand this: it is important, after all, to begin to glimpse our original face, see how all things come and go, and how, when looked at closely, appear deeply interconnected.  Yes, important, but not necessarily the most important, or the highest good.  Zazen is first a practice and in certain ways that practice becomes a complete way of life, but not right away and perhaps never.  The mind, as it arises on the cushion, is important to keep close.  

So instead of asking how many decades we have spent sitting on our ass, we might be asking how we have been of service to others.  We might take that third pure precept and use it to give us authority to stand up against these interminable wars, against discrimination and hate, and for reproductive rights.

It seems to me that just when our nation needs religious and spiritual leadership Zen teachers, with few exceptions, are no where to be found.  Well, not so, we can see them sitting in their Zendo facing a wall.  Meanwhile the terror of warfare continues, the culture of violence we Americans have created goes unchallenged by us, and students are able to clearly see what we most value: sitting on our asses.

When it comes time to do the talk, we talk, but when it comes time to the walk, we sit.

So it goes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Birth and Death

With palms together,

From Shushogi: The most important issue of all for Buddhists is the thorough clarification of the meaning of birth and death. If the buddha is within birth and death, there is no birth and death. Simply understand that birth and death are in themselves nirvana; there is no birth and death to be hated nor nirvana to be desired. Then, for the first time, we will be freed from birth and death. To master this problem is of supreme importance. (As translated and published in Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice.)

These are the precious words of Dogen Zenji.  They can be comforting or terrifying or both.  They are about as spiritual a koan as is possible; they are also a derivative from the Great Heart of Wisdom sutra.

To apply a teaching from another of Master Dogen's works, the Genjokoan, birth has its own Dharma reality and death has its own Dharma reality.  In birth there is just birth; in death there is just death.  We typically don't like thinking about death, whereas, birth is something we tend to celebrate.  Think about it or not, with what feels like the blink of an eye, there it is before us.

I know as a young wounded soldier I never thought I would live this long, but now that I'm here, I'd rather stay, thank you very much! Dogen says, "if the buddha is within birth and death, there is no birth and death.  One wonders just what this could possibly mean.  Much like the Heart sutra is spoken from deep samadhi, and therefore with "Big Mind," nothing is separate.

Grasping unification is key.  If we are separate from each other, all things, and our own nature, then we can die. If, on the other hand, we have unified, which is to say, discarded our separateness, and experience oneness, then there can be no birth or death as these require duality to exist. In one there is no two, indeed, in one, there is no one. There is just thusness.

Coming from this mind, birth ceases; death ceases, as both time and space collapse as separate experiences. We are a wave discovering it is water. The duality of the relative truth is what the Heart sutra suggests is what hinders the mind and thus allows us to fear.

The sutra says, "no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear."  What a wonderful mantra to hold close.

Be well.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Walking the Walk

With respect,

"There are lazy, self-important and -indulgent priests who do possess the "right" credentials, not because they have penetrated to the core of life-and-death, but because they are clever in a worldly sense." (Matsuoka-roshi, Moku-Rai, p.12.)  Here is the poison threatening Zen today. Reliance on credentials, robes, shaved heads, sutras, chants, deadly stares, or organizational imprimaturs will bring us nothing but the risk of inauthentic teaching. To find your way listen to that 'still, small voice" whispering in your ear as you sit zazen or witness your teacher. Listen, then let it go. 

For me, I often say I learned more about living Zen from noticing my own response to my teacher than anything he ever taught me directly. So, if we don't like to put our palms together and bow? We might ask ourselves, 'what is the resistance and where does it come from?  Don't like chanting, or reciting the Maka Hanya Haramita Shin Gyo?  We ask ourselves, 'what's up with that? 

Zen is a disciplines spiritual practice and one thing I know is we Americans are always willing and able to find ways to be or remain undisciplined. We love to talk the talk, but walk the walk?