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?

1 comment:

ed ed said...

The discussion of scandals within a number of Eastern Spiritual communities points not particularly to the weakness of the Traditions and Teachers but to the immaturity and plain foolishness of the Western seekers. The lack of understanding of Western students has been pointed out in other well researched and written articles. The result is that these insights will be ignored and people will create allow themselves to be hurt physically, mentally and financially. No one needs decades of meditation to take control of their life and pay attention. They DO need to understand what personal responsibility is all about. It would be a dull world if we could simply supplicate some Higher Power to do everything for us from salvation to a "good life".
Does Zen have value? Yes, as much as you think it does.