March 18, 2012

The Show Called Zen

This is a translation of my Czech article about the pretentious aspects of  Zen in the West.

Today I opened a book by my former teacher Roshi Kwong and in the introduction to the book  one of his students, Peter Levitt writes: "Zen masters live completely. We see it in the way they pour tea, put slippers neatly in front of the zen hall, walk down the street."  I think that this idealistic understanding of Zen masters have affected nearly all of us who have read at least three books on Zen. And it seems that there are Zen masters who really pursue something like that in their life - trying to walk very mindfully, eat mindfully, speak mindfully... how beautiful! (There is nothing wrong with mindful actions, but there is something wrong with a mental guard, mental police that checks all the time how mindfully you eat, walk, speak etc. which means you are two persons, not one, and being two people is not the goal of Buddhist efforts). But what is the real situation? I'll use the method of conversation with myself to try to answer this problem.

It is true that a Zen master lives Zen all the time and that they express something that ordinary people cannot express?

It's utter nonsense. This is our own mind's fallacy. The whole thing is very simple, much simpler than it looks based on poorly understood or poorly written books about Zen. I've thought about it and I noticed how such a delusion, such a trick works. 

It all starts with delusions about something called "enlightenment". The satori or enlightenment is mentioned a lot in Zen literature. It's not that satori would be fiction, or something nobody ever experienced,  but most readers suppose that satori is something that will radically change the quality of their life. If we read quality Zen literature, or if we are lucky enough to meet an authentic teacher, we notice that this radical change is just a return to one's everyday life.

So how can a Zen master impress so much the people around just by acting in his or her everyday life?

We can see how the trick, the magic works and how this magic is absent with some kind of teachers. For example, when you meet with Brad Warner, he is not like  a typical Zen Master.  Absolutely not. At least not the way the popular Zen literature describes such teachers. Even my teacher, Mike Luetchford  doesn't act like a fairy tale Zen master. Rather likes an experienced, confident guy.  So the trick begins when we imagine that someone enlightened experiences or goes through something special. That's nonsense. We have met or read about such typical Zen masters. What is the image of such a person and what is real about him? Let's see. I'll try to describe such a generic Zen master but don't forget it is a mixture of reality and our image. Most people will let the image obstruct the raw reality about that person and that's the problem. This person is most probably a man from  Asia. He has shaved his head, and wears a kesa, a special Buddhist garment, which is not special after all, but anyway. He spends most of the time at  a zen temple, where he plays the role of a master using a stick, speaking little, and has a few assistants who look after his stuff. So far, so good. He is perfectly wise (is he?) and can answer any kind of questions about Zen (really?). When such a person comes to Europe or the U.S., without saying a word, people feel the wisdom and enlightenment of such a person even if he hasn't arrived yet. (Some people talk about such experience, really). People go oooh, aaaah, the master is here, we can feel his presence! Or when you touch him, it deeply affects your own life and your fate is different...(I doubt that). People buy this as we are dealing with someone obviously strikingly different from all of us in the room. When the intellectuals in the room ask him naive questions about Zen he reacts with a joke or laughter or just hits the floor with his stick... his broken English is great for expressing his Zen ideas (is that so?), and he says things briefly (good for him).  All indications are that he is enlightened (more than you?) and completely different than the rest of us wannabe Zen Buddhists. He is definitely not American or British, definitely speaks strangely, is not wearing jeans and a pullover and seems quite upbeat and in a way, stupid. None of us in the room is like that, so there. That's why we call him a Zen master, right? I don't think so. When we spend some time with this person, we notice he really does most things very carefully, completely... which is impressive and that is something really valuable, it is something we could learn from him, but on the other hand Buddhism is not a competition in mindfulness or whose bowls and towels are the cleanest...   

So what is the fake part of this?  

I do not deny that such a Japanese Zen teacher could be an honest man, who for years sincerely studied and practiced Buddhism,  is doing his best to teach Europeans or Americans about true Zen. I am not even criticizing the fact that he may wear a kesa or that he has shaved his head. There is no problem with that. And I have nothing against the Japanese or Koreans, I'm not a racist. But it is necessary to distinguish between what we can see as different or exotic and what is a true Buddhist action and wisdom. 

So how do you know if someone is authentically familiar with the Buddhist experience?

This is the right question! So forget all the show, kesa, bows, incense, Japanese chanting, broken English, hitting stuff with a stick, making strange noises to answer your questions and what is left, look what is left? It isn't so easy to see what is left so let's experiment a bit. Let's strip this exotic Zen guru of his exotic props and we will see what's left. First, we'll change our master's sex. It will be a woman, then we will let her hair grow. Now we have an elderly Japanese woman with long hair. Still looks like a satori, right? Okay, so she will be an American from Nebraska. Her age still seems like wisdom, so she has to be about  30 years old. And the kesa must go. Instead she is wearing a pair of old blue Levi's and sunglasses.  So here we have a thirty-year-old, white American woman wearing jeans, shirt, someone who has a BA or MA and grew up in Nebraska. How much Zen do we have here? Not much, huh? And yet we haven't changed absolutely nothing important about this person! Even working in the office does not prevent someone from having real Zen experience. Now say this woman is sitting in Starbucks sipping her coffee, chatting with a friend. To contrast this situation, let's say an elderly Chinese man, a shaved head, wearing a brownish kesa comes into the room, sits down and has some tea. He is quite silent, looks calm and satisfied and just looks around the room.  Which of these two people will look like a Zen master?

What makes one a true Zen master then?  

What is a dentist's job? Check and drill teeth, right? When you become a professional dentist, how many people will doubt that you're a dentist? Probably no one. When you become a professional Zen Master, someone doing the Buddhist stuff in a temple, wearing kesa and shaving your head, how many people will say that you cheat? Even if you are a mid-aged white American woman, yet wearing a kesa and no hair and doing the Buddhist chores in a temple or a Zen center, bowing. burning incense, waving a stick, giving a dharma talk, etc. people will say, ok, she is a Zen teacher, at least, or a Zen priest. Only if you play a bass guitar in a punk band, wear a tattoo and talk about your broken heart and the pleasures of sex, you will be disqualified by a lot of Zen nerds or Zen fake teachers who think that Buddhism is about what you wear and how beautifully you speak about peace of mind and how quietly you drink tea. This is not my imagination, it is something I experienced many times. Of course, not as a Zen master, but as a student.

And what about Mike Luetchford, your teacher?

He plays absolutely no theater. No show for him. Absolutely none. Therefore, I fully trust him that he is someone qualified to tell people honestly what the truth of Buddhism is. To him, Buddhism (he hardly ever uses the term Zen) is not a show, rather the experience of reality here and now, the experience of our ordinary life without props, masks, games, special clothes. Mike does not have a Japanese accent, he doesn't wear kesa anywhere but the zendo, he has grown a bit of hair and beard, and he just acts normally and makes decisions according to his real experience and age. So there is nothing "zen"about him. Thanks to him I  discovered the trick, which most people take for real Zen. I somehow believed this trick, until I met Mike and also Brad. I only met Brad once at a retreat in Germany, but it was clear the two guys, Mike and Brad have something important in common - they do not play any Zen games.  We must realize that it is very easy and kind of natural to act and look like a Zen master, when we are an old bald Chinese man in patched clothes holding a stick in our hand. Who would fail to act like that once you look like that and sound like that? Actually, such old bald Chinese men who teach Zen with a stick are very, very useful and indeed in the history of Buddhism they are irreplaceable. Thanks to people like Nansen, Baso, Joshu and others, we can understand even these days, in the 21st century, that Zen is not a fairy tale, not a book, but something real, something we can express here and now with a mere stick. That's one thing, a very important aspect. But what is also important is that the image of an old Chinese master is not what makes Buddhism the real stuff it is. The real stuff is when a person, no matter how old or how dressed or how European or Asian, does something wholeheartedly here and now, expressing the Buddhist state and teaching this Buddhist state other people who want to learn about the value of such a state. We are dealing with something real, not literature or images.       Zen is not folklore or tea ceremony or discipline in the monastery, but everyday life, office, road, concert ticket, fines, anything that those old Chinese masters could not live as they just didn't live in the 21st century having credit cards and cars and air tickets. Nansen, Baso, they still experienced essentially the same everyday life we can also experience. We can experience reality completely, no matter what century it is, no matter if we are Chinese, no matter if we wear jeans or drive a family sedan.

Well, perhaps it is the difference between someone who lives in reality, and someone  who dreams about the state of enlightenment?

Well, that's the answer! Exactly that is the only difference between a Zen student and a Zen teacher. The student typically dreams about something, while the teacher has returned to reality and acts accordingly. On the other hand, not everyone who does not understand Zen is a dreamer and not every Zen master, as I have suggested above, lives a real Buddhist life, just an ordinary life without idealistic dreams.  Therefore, the Zen student has two important tasks: First, do not think the truth is somewhere else than here. Second, do not think that the Zen master lives in a different reality than what you live, just do not dream about enlightenment. Therefore, someone who lives normally, more  or less balanced life, practicing zazen every day, lives just like a Zen master. But who can appreciate such a life? Who can find the enlightenment in everyday experience? We cannot find the value of simple actions when we read books, it is necessary to meet a teacher who does not play the show. 

 I am not a Zen master, but I practice zazen in the morning and when I drive to work, I think I drive just like a Zen master, just driving, paying attention and feeling totally satisfied and happy. I can tell if I slept well, if I've had a small breakfast and coffee, and how balanced I am. I don't have to worry about my balance when the balance is there. So when we practice zazen every day we can support this energetic, balanced lifestyle and that's all there is to Zen, nothing else. Even if we fail one day, one week, we can always come back to our balanced state and fine lifestyle that has nothing to do with Zen literature but everything to do with true Buddhism, which is invisible to most people. It must be somehow invisible, otherwise it is only a show.   


Jeff F. said...

Thank you for this writeup. I especially liked the last paragraph - it really captures what Zen means to me.

I do think there is some value to understanding/experiencing the traditional Zen forms (e.g. the temple, facing the wall, incense, the monks' robes, chanting), as ritual can have a powerful effect on our minds. However, as the koan says, we must not confuse the pointing finger with the moon. The people looking for Zen in the form of a stereotypical Zen master, are making that mistake.

Daniel said...

Hi there,

I like most of your article. You're right that most "zen" out there isn't "zen".

But I'm sorry there still is a lot more to Zen/Buddhism than "So when we practice zazen every day we can support this energetic, balanced lifestyle and that's all there is to Zen, nothing else.". If that would be all, Dogen wouldn't have written the Shobogenzo and all the other zen-guys wouldn't have written what they wrote. Also if you talk to experienced zen-meditators (or other experienced meditators from other traditions) many of them have some sort of "enlightenment"-experiences. And those do change your view on the world significantly. Even Brad talks about his experience in hardcore-zen and in some of his talks.

So I'm with you, "Satori" shouldn't be the only factor to judge a zen-master, and if you're wearing robes or come from japan is of no importance and says nothing about if you experienced some stuff or not. But to just take Zen down to be more balanced in daily life would also be a big mistake...there's a lot more to it otherwise you could just do some sports or whatever to get balanced...but of course if you look for it you won't find it. You have to get out of it's way. That's why I guess many zen-teachers don't talk too much about it or even say there is no such thing. But they know better (I hope) ;)

roman said...

Daniel, all of Shobogenzo is the Buddhist philosophy, complete Buddhist philosophy, I wrte about Buddhism a lot, too. So that philosophy helps us lead a balanced life, practice zazen and experience the truth in our daily life.

But, and Dogen says that in Shobogenzo over and over again, beyond words, beyond understanding, there is something ineffable, that's the reality itself. We experience just reality in the balanced state of body and mind, balanced state of inner and outer, and zazen is not the only activity when we can experience such a balanced state. But zazen is the standard Buddhist practice and the truth of Buddhism in one simple action of zazen.

roman said...

Jeff, rituals in Zen are good, just we shouldn't think they are something special, something zen, brushing teeth or drinking tea is also a ritual... Zen rituals are primarily simpole actions and we have a chance to carry them out wholeheartedly, beyond self and others, beyond right and wrong, good and bad, just acting, bowing, chanting, burning incense. making a kesa etc.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this piece.