Thursday, 22 December 2011

Should Zen be respectable?

I am sometimes left wondering where all the fun in Zen went. What I mean by this is the rogueish, baffling and challenging manner that earned Zen it s reputation as being for rowdies and rough bumpkins. The Zen world of the West is full of very mannered, educated, and quite intellectual sorts. The result of this seems to be that Zen has acquired a kind of bookish, busybody Protestant feel about it, and I can't help but feel that this is in part due to the American culture which so strongly influences contemporary Zen practice. I am going to generalise at this point, and suggest that the American culture is not one that sits easily with anything that declares itself to be useless or pointless. Whilst I am an admirer of those whose practice "engaged Buddhism", and indeed feel that I could myself be more engaged, in this engagement there lies the slight danger of making Zen into a self or other improvement programme. The real beauty, and liberating quality of Zen is that it really is useless, and that it points to the uselessness of our other activities as well. But I get the feeling that, although this is paid lip service amongst some of those who write and teach Zen in the US, that really it gets swept under the carpet: "Zazen/zen is pointless, but of course it makes your life better otherwise why bother?" I have been guilty of this sort of sentiment myself from time-to-time.
I wouldn't want to be "the bad guy", the one who says "Zen is tough, and pointless, and makes no difference" if I was trying to encourage people into Buddhism. But I'm just not sure that the role of Zen is to encourage people in Buddhism. That's not to say that I feel that Zen should be inaccessible: it should be accessible to all those who feel they are up against the spiritual brick wall and have nowhere else to go. But being accessible to this group of people doesn't mean the same as being popular. Where are those teachers now, who, like Katagiri Roshi in front of an audience of potential benefactors said "Someday you will all die"?
The scandals that have rocked the American Zen world from time-to-time will have the effect of making Zen communities tighten up as far as credentials and respectability are concerned, which is both good and bad. Good, in that people will perhaps be more careful of who they put their trust in, but bad because it reduces the role of the Zen teacher to that of spiritual leader and moral exemplar, and I'm just not sure that those things can't be done better by other sorts, other Buddhists even. Once Zen becomes about the furthering and consolidation of Zen, its unique quality is lost. Brad Warner's idea that a Zen teacher is more like  a performance artist than a spiritual teacher really strikes a chord here. A good Zen teacher, as Brad describes, won't let you give authority to them. A "bad" one, or perhaps one that is playing the role of the all-powerful Zen Master on purpose, will accept the authority given to them, and ultimately end up by disappointing and letting down the person who gave up their own power. The lesson either way is that no-one can sort out existence for you. There's a Zen story where a monk says much the same to a neophyte: "I can't piss for you, eat for you, or breathe for you and I can't live your life for you either." The "problems" in Zen seem to arise where a feeling of respectability is cultivated, and expected. I think it would be better if all Zen practitioners were seen as rogues and charlatans, and go from there. What, o blog readers, do you think?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Everyday Mind

Peder Balke  -The Tempest 1862
  The rain crashed down, and the wind raked over the zendo last night. Even the seagulls were largely silent, though a few plaintive calls could be heard above the squall. There were some new people, all trying like hell to get knees to floor and heads to ceiling, and not quite succeeding. I was lost in thought, as ever, about what I "should do" with my life. Left leg went numb but not cripplingly so, and had to niftily side-step a zafu in kinhin, though I should have moved it aside and saved the other sentient beings from its obstruction... Apparently my posture has improved of late. I always have trouble knowing whether my head and neck are in relation to my shoulders (they're on top dummy) so I have a tendency to bob about like a curious cockatoo. I was Number Three, that's to say the one who bangs the wood after Jay says "keisho" and who also hammers away at the mokugyo during the Heart Sutra. Having been out in the Zen wilderness for a while, I had lost my touch and made unimpressive plunk plek sounds with both wood and mokugyo, but found a strong sound for the old makka hannya. One of the new folks "will definitely come back", so we'll not see him again. Packing up always has that Formula One team feel about it: in zendo- takedown time trials normally we are lightning fast, but lacking Eric we were slower than normal. We troop out into the narrow alleyway, lock the door to the  building, and wander out past the bodypart-casting studio and the kinky lingerie boutique, into the windy damp darkness.