What I Hate About Zen

Over the course of my life, since my introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1974, I’ve read many books about the various traditions of Buddhism and about Zen in particular. While that statement may open me to criticism from the anti-intellectuals (and they are rampant) amongst the Zen acolytes, I hasten to add that I’ve never fallen into the trap of thinking that reading about Zen is what Zen is about. Reading has always been secondary to my practice.

Yet, over the years, there have been quite a few things about Zen, and particularly how it’s presented by many of its teachers and masters, that I have found distasteful, pig-headed, and quite frankly, morally and philosophically bankrupt. I’m prompted to write this essay after reading Zen In Plain English by Stephen Schumacher. The apparent subtitle is Experience The Essence of Zen, and in fact, the inner cover proclaims: “This book could well be called ‘The Zen of Zen.’ It is not simply a book about Zen Buddhism; it is a direct expression of the Zen spirit itself.” What that means to the reader is that you can expect posturing and obfuscation (all too common in Zen culture). That is exactly what you will indeed find here, along with some very good writing and explication. Zen is, truly, a mixed bag!

Schumacher studied philosophy, psychology and sociology, and then Japanology and Sinology, before heading off to Japan where he eventually “dedicated himself entirely to Zen practice.” From 1970-75 his practice was within the Sambo Kyodan tradition under the guidance of Yasutani Hakuuin Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi. Schumacher is the editor and co-author of the Shambhala Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen.

My qualms with Mr. Schumacher’s book begin with the first paragraph of his “Prelude.” He writes, and thus already begins the all-too-typical Zen blustering against historical scholarship:

This book is a presentation of Chan or Zen from the perspective of Zen. It is not an account of facts and events which occurred in the distant past, a record that is merely meant to correct from the point of view of an academic understanding of history. A historical approach, helpful as it may be for an understanding of the development of the outward form, misses the very essence of Zen—and one should not forget that it is one of the characteristics of Zen to steer as directly as possible, towards the essential.

The first line warns us not to expect much more than the self-aggrandizing tendency of the Zen tradition. It is also an example of what “Speculative Non-Buddhist” writer and teacher Glenn Wallis calls “The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism,” though here it takes the shape of “Sufficient Zen.” This principle entails the rejection of fields such as history, philosophy, psychology, biology and literature along with any value in comparison, dialogue or debate with these fields—that is to say, “Zen is sufficient.”

The second line reminds us that Zen will not let facts or historical events get in the way of a good story! Yes, Schumacher offers a bit of pablum by saying the historical approach can be helpful for understanding the outward form, as if to imply that the outward form can be separated from its significance and meaning! Zen’s ahistorical perspective ignores the fact that its forms took shape because of and along with, certain ideological, cultural and political constructions, and to deny this or to turn a blind eye to this reality is simply willful ignorance.

But finally, the major point of my criticism is this notion of “essence.” At the very least, Schumacher should clearly define what he means when he uses the term, as it is one—and he should know, considering his philosophical studies—laden with connotation for westerners. And Buddhism started out as an un- and even anti-essentialist teaching! What is the “essence” of Zen, and what is the “essential” it allegedly “steers us toward?”

On the very next page, he goes on to argue an essentialist perspective by denying that the historical, social and cultural conditions under which an “enlightened Asian” has said or done something could have anything to tell us about enlightenment! Awakening is to conditions; to be ‘enlightened’ is to be enlightened about something. One of the tendencies of the Zen tradition is to reify enlightenment into something ahistorical and acontextual. Schumacher asks “Can (Zen) help me to find my solution?” and answers: “It can only do so if it is more than history, if is transmits a truth that is independent of historical circumstances. And indeed, what is transmitted by the Zen tradition is a truth of a different order than that of the historical truth of the scholars.”

The first part of that statement is bullshit. Zen doesn’t transmit some “transcendent” Truth. The ground of Buddhism, the four noble truths (or perhaps more accurately, “four realities for the noble”), are not some such Truth, but truths about circumstances that we need to nobly face in order to live wholesome, free, creative lives! This notion that the “Dharma” is unconditioned, not the product of historical factors, is an article of faith shared by many Buddhists. The “Dharma” understood in this way is indistinguishable from other universal absolutes such as Brahman, God, Logos, Dao, or Intelligent Design.

The concept of the “Absolute” refers to “Ultimate Concern.” Its object is numinous and holy, distinct from profane and ordinary realities. Such an “Ultimate” is experienced and thought of as more real and valuable than all other things, which by comparison to the “absolute” appear empty and worthless. This is the very common idea of the self/Self duality we see in contemporary yoga.

The second part of that statement is typical Zen institutional-aggrandizement. I am not saying there’s no difference between the academic, scholarly approach to Zen and the practitioner’s approach. What I am saying is that they are not at odds, and that increasingly so we find practitioner-scholars whose practice does not seem to be threatened or undermined by their scholarship, and indeed who find it nourished and broadened by such scholastic understanding.

One example of this is Schumacher’s treatment of the supposed ‘dharma transmission’ from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa. Anyone who has read anything of Zen knows the story: a large group (some accounts say 80,000) was assembled at Vulture Peak to hear the Buddha give a teaching. (If you’ve been to Vulture Peak, you know this is one hell of an exaggerated number!) As they all awaited he stood there, held up a flower and blinked his eyes. Kashyapa broke out in a smile, and the Buddha said: “I have the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, the ineffable mind of nirvana. I entrust it to Mahakashyapa.”

The Zen mythos states that this was the first of a long line of Dharma transmissions, first in India, then in China. There are many students of Zen who believe this is historically true. There are also many who, after years of believing so, have found out that this is pure legend, with no basis in historical fact, and have felt betrayed. That’s what you get when you pass along myth as “Truth.”

To be clear: I like this story of Mahakashyapa and believe it does indeed teach a subtle, profound existential, phenomenological truth of experience. That I know it not to have actually happened doesn’t lessen this kind of metaphorical truth. But knowing this story is a fabrication of the Chinese Zen school pretty much as a strategy to gain “legitimacy” in the eyes of itself and other Chinese Buddhist schools lessens the sectarian ‘one-upmanship’ that permeates the Zen school.

It’s clear the Buddha did not ‘entrust’ his Dharma to any one individual. There were many enlightened practitioners, and the Buddha exhorted his students to rest in their own authority, as ‘lamps unto themselves.’

Listen to how Schuhmacher addresses this issue:

If we are to believe the academic scholars of Buddhism, the lineage of Zen transmission…is a fake, a defensive lie. It is born out of the attempt by later Zen teachers, to justify their own claim to be authentic descendents of the Buddha through a lineage that was artificially constructed, a posteriori, to demonstrate an uninterrupted chain of ‘transmission of the light,’ from the historic Buddha to themselves. From a historic point of view, this may not even be completely erroneous.

Really! “It may not even be completely erroneous”?! How smarmy can one be? Does historical truth so threaten his faith that it has to be wrong? Or “not completely erroneous?” Of course, this is what we expect from someone (and a tradition) that likes to think of itself as ahistorical to begin with! Here again he seems to think that “a mere historical understanding of the transmission in Zen” misses “by far the essential truth of what the Awakened One taught.” Again he goes to his dearly beloved “essential truth,” but it is Schumacher who is missing a deeper truth. If we close our eyes to the historical truth, we fall, hook, line and sinker for the political ploy of ‘transmission’ and cloud our eyes with mystic dust!

Philip Yampolsky writes: “To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled, tracing the Ch’an sect back to the historical Buddha…” The whole lineage chanted in many Zen centers is more fabrication than literal truth. Indeed, the idea of lineage was Chinese-manufactured, reflecting the more Confucian ideal of ancestor worship and the hierarchal stratification of Chinese society. In the Pali Canon it is explicitly made clear that the Buddha rejected naming anyone as his successor. The almost obsessive emphasis on lineage and authenticity of transmission found in Zen has led to much abuse, and ironically, we see its roots at the very beginning with the story of Mahakashyapa, and then further elaborated in the story of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu.

But this is what the Buddha is reported to have said as he neared death, and was explicitly asked who would lead the sangha:

The Dhamma I have taught has no secret and public versions: there is no ‘teacher’s closed fist’ about good things here. Surely it would be someone who thought this: ‘I shall govern the Sangha’ or ‘The Sangha depends on me’ who might make a pronouncement about the Sangha? A Perfect One does not think like that…each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge.

The concept of “lineage,” in the sense of meaning that every student and practitioner of the Dharma has learned from other students and practitioners, and that this line of succession goes all the way back to the Buddha in India, is both unexceptional and true. It might even be accurate to call it a “truism.” And it works for our understanding and experience of continuity and connection.

However, lineage has come to mean much more than this in the Zen school. It has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, modeled upon the example of Mahakashyapa, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach, which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.

It is obvious that the idea of transmission and lineage is intended to impart the aura of legitimacy, but this begs the question of why would a school or a teacher need such “legitimacy?” Presumably, the answer would be that what they have to offer is non-obvious. What they have to offer is something those of us who are unenlightened would be unable to evaluate. David Brazier, in The New Buddhism, gives the example of using the services of a greengrocer and a doctor. We do not ask to see certification from the greengrocer. We just ask if he has cabbages for sale if that is what we seek. But we do ask to see certification from our doctor because if we wait to see if he knows what he is doing through personal practical experimentation, it may be too late before we realize he is a quack! The lineage system puts Dharma Teachers in the same category as doctors and not in the same one as greengrocers.

Interestingly, Brazier points out that the Buddha put himself in the greengrocer category. “Come and see and try it out for yourself,” he said. If you like what I offer and it helps you to overcome suffering, use it. If not, don’t. The Buddha did not appoint a successor, although the Mahayana created the legend of the flower sermon to legitimize the idea of succession through Mahakashyapa. The Buddha did offer his opinion as to who was enlightened when asked about particular people. However, there is a passage where Ananda, seeming to pester the Buddha with this question, is told by the Buddha that Ananda could simply see for himself whether someone is enlightened or not, telling him that the test of one’s enlightenment and understanding is how well they follow the discipline. So it seems that the Buddha thought that the matter was obvious, not non-obvious. If a person was enlightened, you could tell from what he or she did. You could know them by their deeds.

After the death of the Buddha, differing camps began to arise, each with its own slant on his teachings. Once the Majority Group (The Mahasanghika, the spiritual ancestors of the Mahayana) began to express willingness to change the rules and form, criterion other than orthodoxy was required to establish legitimacy. Lineage was grasped onto as a way of showing that while the way a particular school practices or teaches may not look like the way the Buddha did; it is directly descended from and derived from him. Lineage also implies that as all the changes were made by certified enlightened Masters, they are not only authentic and true, they are perhaps even improvements on what the Buddha taught and how the orthodoxy practices! That is to say again, lineage becomes a means of legitimizing the non-obvious.

This use and understanding of lineage is highly problematic. First of all, lineage is a form of “argument from authority” which Western logic regards as a fallacious argument. Just because someone holds a high position does not, of itself, ensure that he or she is right. The Buddha himself stressed this in his “Discourse to the Kalamas” when he told them not to believe and accept something just because of the position of the person who has told you it—including himself. Things are not true simply because the Buddha says it. They are true if they are true, and regarding things that matter, like birth and death and how to live a “noble” life, while we may need wiser folk to point it out to us, we still need to test what they say for ourselves. Sadly, humans like to shirk this responsibility and simply accept authority all too easily. Those societies based upon legitimization systems, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as seen most recently in their handling of the sexual abuse crisis, tend to work quite badly.

The fact is that in the last sixty years there have indeed been some disturbingly significant examples of “legitimately authorized” Buddhist Masters acting in such ways that one must question the usefulness of lineage. I will only address one, and that is the case of Yasutani Roshi, one of Schuhmacher’s teachers, who received “transmission” and was legitimated by the lineage system of the Soto Zen School two months after publishing a book on Dogen which is full of militarist and anti-Semitic propaganda. The book uses the teachings of Dogen to support the war, deify the emperor, promote the superiority of Japan, foster anti-Semitism and encourage people to exterminate the enemy. Included in his commentary on the First Precept is the following passage: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.” Thankfully, most teachers within the Buddhist world do not hold this non-obvious “special characteristic”.

The merits of a system that rewards someone such as this with its highest seal of approval and spiritual authority when he is confirmed in such warmongering attitudes are also non-obvious! It is clear that if the function and purpose of lineage is to offer a “guarantee” of someone’s enlightenment it has failed to do so—in this case at least. A guarantee that is unreliable is no guarantee at all. It seems to me that lineage, as an authentication system is not a system that was accepted by the Buddha and is not one he would have approved of. I believe that Buddhism is hindered, not served, by unnecessary mystification, and much of “transmission” and lineage reeks of mystification and obscuration. While I agree that people rarely become enlightened without spiritual teachers, it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers. An enlightened being is one who embodies the precepts, and if someone says they are above the precepts, they have not fully understood the Dharma.

What is perhaps even more troubling is the response of those who were given transmission by Yasutani to the uncovering of their teacher’s ideology. All seemed to defend Yasutani through various twists of non-obvious logic, but Jiun Kubota, the Third Patriarch of the Religious Foundation Sanbo-kyodan founded by Yasutani, published an apology for his teacher’s expressions of support for war that still harbors what I feel is a dangerous doctrine. He states in his “apology” that Dharma and political ideology are two separate things and that Yasutani’s disciples were only interested in the dharma and not in the ideology. I reject this unequivocally. The task of the Dharma Teacher is, not to be perfect perhaps, but surely involves imparting values, vision and inspiration that touch all aspects of the disciple’s lives. The doctrine that says Dharma and social attitudes are unrelated is not what I understand to be the teachings of the Buddha. It both, once again, reeks of essentialist obfuscation and—ironically, considering how loudly the Zen school proclaims its nonduality—a fundamentally dualistic worldview: there’s Dharma, and then there’s everything else!

With both an historical consciousness and a valuation of critical thinking, zen naturalism finds no shame in admitting it breaks from orthodoxy, and feels no need to apologize, nor create some form of external ‘legitimacy.’ If it is to have any legitimate function, that will be proved in the arena of practice, and nowhere else. It accepts what works, it is not afraid to critically evaluate tradition, nor does it shirk from creative innovation. It is open-handed, open-hearted and open-minded. There is a rejection of the elitism and ‘specialness’ of much of the Zen tradition that strikes me as a form of institutionalized ‘self-conceit.’ Basically, zen naturalism is free of what I hate about Zen!

Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio is a certified yoga teacher and Zen Buddhist Dharma Teacher ordained by Korean Zen Master, Samu Sunim. His eclectic approach is influenced by his study of a variety of Yoga approaches and his many years of Dharma practice, evidenced by his emphasis on mindfulness and compassionate action.  His book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind is the first to apply the Buddha’s Mindfulness Meditation teachings to yogasana practice. Frank blogs at Mindfulness Yoga and Zen Naturalism. Based in Tucson, where he lives with his wife, Monica, their daughter Giovanna and their two cats and two chickens, he travels worldwide, leading workshops and retreats.

Images: Zen; Liangshan YuanguanMahakashyapa; Central Asian Buddhist Monks; Datong 14; Dogen

4 Responses to “What I Hate About Zen”
  1. Jody Greene says:

    Appreciated this piece very much, and find myself wanting to ask for some elaboration on how you understand the role of the teacher in the kind of experience-based Zen you like. You speak very eloquently about the downfalls of lineage-based traditions, which fetishize the figure of genealogy and reinscribe all the pitfalls of patriarchy (when they handed me my “blood vein,” my genealogical papers, I admit my first thought was, but I came here to get away from bloodlines. Don’t saddle me with another. My second was, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”).
    But the lineage/transmission fetish in zen has (almost) no connection to the larger question of whether we need teachers, and in what ways. When you say that “we may need wiser folk” to “point out” the truth to us, what form does this pointing out take in your zen naturalism?
    Polemic: the transformative potential of zen seems to me to depend almost entirely upon a teacher-student relationship based on revelation, challenge, and exposure. We’re just not capable of seeing into our own blindspots without that. Whatever “experience” I have had in Zen practice has been significantly forged from a combination of just sitting and just revealing in the funhouse hall of ego-play called Dokusan. My experience with zen students (not to mention self-is-the-Guru yoga students) who eschew the need for a teacher has been nothing short of absurd.
    To put this another way, there is no Buddhism with a “teacher’s closed-fist,” but is there any Zen without teachers?

  2. Hi Jody,

    Thanks for your question, both important and timely (given the latest yoga teacher ‘scandal’).

    The student-teacher model of relationship I prefer and which I think more appropriate for contemporary practitioners is a bit of an integrated blend of “friend along the path” and “master/apprentice.” The first is a ‘fellow-traveller’ who is familiar with the terrain, its obstacles and distractions and who can help guide others along the journey. The second is akin to a master-craftsperson who teaches her skill through example and through intimate presence. For instance, my father was a master stone-mason and he had assistants who learned by being in his presence, looking, learning through “osmosis.” It is this way that I learned from my Ayurvedic teacher. Neither of these models imply the shaktipat/mystical “transmission” of the guru-disciple relationship.

    As for “pointing out,” that is relative to the relationship between the teacher and student. Just today, one of my student’s, speaking of her understanding of an experience she had in meditation, made a generalization that superficially could have seemed “profound.” I asked one question that burst her fantasy. I did so my bringing down to a particularity she was eliding. BUT, it was her recognition and not something I ‘gave’ her. AND, it was perhaps not a question I’d have asked someone I did not know as well and as for as long as I know her as it could have seemed “brusque.”

    So, to your closing question, I think most of us need teachers. Apparently some have not.

  3. Jody Greene says:

    Wonderful, thank you.

    Interestingly, I favor the same two models–the kalyanamitra idea sketched so beautifully by Trungpa, among others (isn’t it strange how some of the most profound commentators on teaching are not themselves paragons of integrity when it comes to teacher-student relations?) and the apprenticeship (in yoga, assisting) model, the sitting nearby and watching and learning by embodied repetition of forms. But I also want the borderline-brusque exchanges, too. Some folks seem to believe they are part and parcel of the authoritarian dimensions of zen, and they can be–but they are also a place where those authoritarian dimensions, rather than being repressed in American buddhism, get acted out, played out, and played with.

    I have to say (confess?), something about the notion of lineage is still very powerful for me, but it would be a “Queer” version, a version that precisely honored the gaps and the multiplicities, rather than the linear continuity. I’m interested in those moments when the lineage is broken or diverted, but the teachings somehow leap across anyway. When I look at that Blood Vein or Blood Root document, I think, well, ok, ordinary miracle. But what a miracle that these teachings have survived being ‘lost,” misunderstood, poorly translated, unwisely transmitted, and still somehow something very alive survives. It changes, obviously–I’m not saying some essential nugget magically persists. But I am interested in what gets across, what gets lost for a while, and what gets picked back up at a later date. And within that, how the lineage of each practitioner is multiple, more branching streams than pedigree.

  4. Hey Jody,

    Maybe my understanding of “my” lineage is queer (I hope so!) but my critique is that it amounts to being a truism that all of us have many teachers standing behind us, but that lineage has been taken to signify some sort of ‘certification’ or ‘authorization’ (such as inka) that implies a “guarantee” of the teacher’s integrity and THAT hasn’t worked.

    My “lineage” includes my root teachers and folk I never met but have deeply influenced me and who are not necessarily buddhist (like Richard Feynman) and even some with whom I differ greatly in my understanding of dharma, but nevertheless have influenced me if even only through my critical rejection of their teaching.

    This understanding is most certainly not linear, and has plenty of gaps! :-)

    In fact, I love your image of branching streams rather than pedigree, which is exactly my point.

    And of course, it isn’t whom I studied with or have been influenced that gives me any “authority” that should go unquestioned! Whatever “authority” I have as a teacher has been granted me by my students, and should be based upon my actions and being in the world.

    Thanks again for your comments. I really appreciate them!

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