The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Zen ...

For all of you regular readers of my blog (all one or two of you — thank you for your support!), it comes as no surprise to know that I have my problems with Zen. Well, actually any honest person has their problems with Zen; it seems to be designed to be a burr in your spiritual saddle! I’ve been a regular practitioner in a Zen sangha for over 3 years now, and I’ve absorbed a lot of Zen teaching and Zen people over this time. Obviously I’m talking about American Zen. Americanized Zen. But then again, most of the American Zenmasters and populist writers put lots of energy and emphasis on trying to be true to the Eastern traditions, especially the (historically late-stage) Japanese / Buddhist version of the Zen tradition.

(Even though they clearly are guilty of picking out those aspects of J-B Zen that suit their fancy, while ignoring other parts that don’t fit — especially the “educated modernists” who want Zen and Buddhism to support and affirm their secularist, anti-God world views; and yet, most of these people still worship a divine power, one requiring a radical leap of faith . . . doctrinally they call it “psychology“, and the religious manifestation of that doctrine is known as “therapy” . . . the priests and acolytes of that religion are commonly known as “psychologists” and “therapists”, “analysts” in some sects).

I’ve heard a bit about the training that is required for a Zen practitioner to become a recognized Zen “teacher” (a “sensei” or “roshi”, in our lineage). It involves a lot of koan study under the tutelage of an established teacher. The whole point of this training (which can take many years) is to avoid being academic; you can’t study for it. It’s all about impressing your master with your emotional responses to the koans, to reflect a growing “Zen consciousness” within. It’s something you practice, like a musical instrument. If you don’t have the talent for it, you can only go so far by mastering the technique (although the technique masters still do go pretty far).

Well that sounds great. But I’m not up for it myself. Nonetheless, I still wonder . . . could the process of Zen-master training benefit from a certain amount of formal reading and learning? Again, the teachers vigorously deny that Zen has anything to do with formal academic learning. That’s what their Japanese mentors drilled into their heads. But here’s the problem with that, as far as I can tell . . . the Japanese (and other Asian) masters grew up in Asia, Asia was their life, their culture, their language. The koans, the various practices, the wisdom literature, could all be viewed by them in the context of “Asian thought”.

Most American Zen people cannot really do that. Thus I wonder, do we American Zennies really know what the Asian masters were talking about? We seem to think its all obvious, but is it? I have studied the Bible a bit, and I know that over the past 20 or 30 years, academia has put an increased importance on appreciating the world and culture in which the Old Testament was written. In doing this, the professors found out that a lot of interesting and important things that a First Century Palestinian Jew would see immediately in the Torah or the Psalms or the Prophets goes right over our heads. And yes, same for the Gospels and letters of the New Testament. It’s going to take awhile for this new-found humility to reach the street-corner churches where the Bible is read and studied and interpreted as directly relating to our lives and to the concerns of the modern-day religion practiced in those churches.

I can’t help but suspect that we American Zennies would have a lot of surprises in store for us too if we could somehow view our Zen customs and practices and writings through the eyes of the land where it came from. Many of the “shockingly profound” and “challenging” things that we imagine Zen to be saying to us and to our way of life may suddenly seem quite different in intent if we could put ourselves into Asiatic shoes. And the only way I know to get any sort of feel for what those shoes must be like is through study (unless you have the $$ and time to go live in Japan or China for five years).

Unfortunately, I myself don’t have the time right now even for a long course of study in Asian thought, culture, history, geography, language, literature, government, etc. But it doesn’t encourage me that most of the official Zen “teachers” that I know of also haven’t gone through such study (or lengthy residence in Asia). (The one guy who might be an exception is the well-respected Zen teacher and writer, Robert Aiken). About all I can do right now is to search . . . for a book. From an author interested in Zen who appreciates what I say here and has invested much of her or his life drinking in Asia, soaking it into her or his mind and soul.

Till then . . . it’s just more blah, blah, blah from the Americanized psychological Zen writers and teachers. Just more Jungian Buddha mavens savoring their profundity as they instruct us to follow the breath, let go of our critical facilities, live solely in the moment, get past the duality of “seer” and “seen”, ignore our atavistic / paternalistic God-respecting spiritual instincts, and stop being so hung-up . . . get some therapy, get “healthy”, and you will live happily ever after with your “still and clear mind”.

I have nothing against Zen “sitting” and gaining a “still and clear mind”. But good luck with the “happily ever after” part (they call it “kensho” or “satori” or something).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:16 pm      

  1. Jim, I certainly can see your point here. But, again, I have some observations; some perhaps agreeing, some perhaps not so much disagreeing posing a different viewpoint for consideration.

    At the rock bottom of the whole thing, I think perhaps you are expressing the same kind of disillusionment a lot of thinking people have with almost any kind of strict “religious” practice. I tend to think that at some point in attempts at strict practice of what might be termed “religion”, anyone gets to a point where they begin to think, what’s the sense in all of this? Some people (some very famous ones) eventually leave; some people (and there have been here some very famous ones too) stay through what they often term the “dark night of the soul”. I can see goodness in both choices. I think it depends on the individual person, which choice is best.

    Regarding a few observations I’d like to make: First of all, I find myself wondering if one can lump all “Asian” thought into one big “pile”. For instance, while there is much in common with the Japanese, the Chinese, the Korean, and the other Asian peoples, I think it’s much like comparing Americans with people from Mexico, any individual country in South America, to say nothing of Canadians. Even among Americans there are the various “subgroups” that are so different from each other; e.g., Hawaiians, Southerners, people from Appalachia, Northerners, people from the West Coast, the East Coast, etc. (Here I’m not even beginning to include people who have emigrated from other countries.) While these groups could all be considered “Americans”, there is a great deal of difference in how they think and how they regard various aspects of life; even in the culture they live here in America.

    While I certainly am no expert in the Chinese culture, I do have very close Chinese friends. One thing I am very much aware of is the difference in culture, in thinking, in how various things in life are regarded. In addition I’ve done quite a bit of reading on recent and present day China; I find that even among the various groups in China there vast differences – to say nothing of the change the information age has brought to the young people of China in present day. Thus, I find that including the Japanese and Chinese in one group is talking about apples and oranges.

    I acknowledge that I am no expert on this *at all*, but I tend to think that the Japanese have a stronger “religious” tradition than the Chinese. The Chinese tradition has, for the most part, made political figures “god” in recent history; a much different approach to “religious”. Yes, the Japanese in the 1940s considered their Emperor “god”; that concept was left behind at the end of World War II. There may be a few such “practitioners” around yet, but I doubt there is any serious cultural view of the Japanese Emperor as “god” these days.

    You could not be more correct in your comment that the “First Century Palestinian Jew would see immediately” concepts in the various books, letters, etc., of the New Testament that we present day Christians have no clue about. (E.g., Elaine Pagel’s book on Paul as Gnostic, where her thesis, which she seems to have good evidence for, is that hiding in plain sight Paul was writing “Gnostic” thought for those who were aware of such thought. Those “Gnostic” books having been lost for over almost 2 millennia would make us present day Christians clueless about such ideas.) One small example of this idea.

    And I’m sure the same holds for Zen Buddhism as the Japanese interpret it. Present day practitioners likely are very different from “old” ones.

    I am not sure I’d lump together Jungian thought with Buddhist thought. Perhaps some individual Zen practitioners lump these two separate fields of thought together, but I think then it’s a peculiarity of that individual’s particular approach to Zen, not an approach that is a general approach. I’ve had my “day” with Buddhism (not so much the Zen approach to Buddhism, though); I never found any Jungian thinking in any of it. So perhaps this “lumping together” is one particular Master’s approach to Zen Buddhism.

    And one last thought: I can see the need for “technique” in such practice; I can see the need for “formal reading and (academic) learning”; but I find myself, when it comes to anything “religion” looking for something that surpasses simply technique and learning. I find myself wondering if only technique and formal academic learning are involved in Zen Buddhism (and for that matter *any* religion), how does that distinguish the particular religion from any other study, say of physics, psychology, math, English literature, art, etc.?

    Seems to me that religion requires something that goes beyond anything I can get from any other field of study. I can’t say exactly *what* that extra something might be. I find it to be an intangible something; nevertheless, a valid and very real “something” extra that the spiritual (noticed I’ve left the simply “religious” idea here) has, that study no matter how advanced in any field might afford one.

    I say keep looking, keep “studying” for that intangible something that meets the needs you have at this point in life. Seems to me that’s what life is all about, the search. MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 3, 2013 @ 11:23 am

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