Questions:

About Zen in general

How do you practice Zen?

I do not “practice”. I am Zen.

Let me explain. The word “practice” is widely used in certain Buddhist circles and normally understood first as seated meditation and second as following moral rules or the eight-fold path. In the early history of Zen this was different. Zen was not zazen, but “chan”, a state of meditative mind, and zen practice was rather instinctive than formal. That is why the second Chinese Patriarch could cut of a part of his body and Hui-neng could show his enlightened state of mind as an illiterate cook even before sitting. Being Zen therefore means to me being rooted so deeply in Zen that a certain attitude of mind is active or can be activated at any given time. At least until you have advanced Alzheimer’s or similar diseases, as what we consider a clear mind is dependent on the function of one’s brain.

What is your vision of an adapted form of practicing the Way today?

“Practicing the Way” is a formula that I ran into during my own last decade of translation work. Nowadays I am rather careful to adapt such words. There is not one way for all of us. On the contrary, each of us will practice his or her own way. So I do not have an answer for everyone. My suggestion simply derives from the examples that are given by so called zen masters of the past and by my own insight. One may let go of his prejudices and his attachments. Therefore it is necessary to see things from different perspectives without initially judging them. One’s own deep convictions and individual knowledge and experience can nevertheless lead to a clear attitude to certain topics.

Considering ethics I do not believe that they can be kept in rules, they are rather inborn. One finds out about the inner truth of events and relationships by letting go of his religious, cultural and legal codes. The basis of the Buddhist way is the opening of one’s mind, to expect the unexpected, to allow things to become possible that education and the rational mind have taught to be unearthly. That comes close to what I consider a free human being, and the zen mind is one of such freedom, as relative as it may be. It follows that it is unlikely for someone practicing such a way to be or stay rich in material terms. This is one of the simplest criteria to judge a teacher in the Buddhist tradition, although sometimes one who appears poor can be the owner of quite a fortune and some research maybe needed to find that out. If you have anything to spare, you share it with those in need (but do not simply trust any NGO). You will probably appear to others as more unattached – which does not mean less committed – than common people. In conflict situations you may be more courageous because you are less addicted to your life. So the only “practice” of Zen that counts is not seated meditation but the adaptation of the unattached mind in your daily dealings, especially with others. It is the difference between masturbation and giving someone else an orgasm.

This is the meaning of the Bodhisattva mind.

You may always return to seated meditation but by adapting the unattached mind in your daily routine detect a more useful way for yourself, others and your surroundings.

Sutras and Zen-masters

You translated and published many Mahayana-sutras, some of them quite unknown just as the Shrimala-Sutra or verses by Nâgârjunas disciple Âryadeva. Also Zen-masters of the ancient China and Japan, just as Musô Soseki (1275-1351), Zibo Zhenke (1543-1603) and Tôsui Unkei (1612?-1683). ….

Would you describe how you use these old buddhist writings? What is their relevance today? And what has to be done / do you do, to make them readable, to put them into modern language, without losing its sense? Can you tell us about the mentioned zen-monks?

To begin with Aryadeva who is better known as Kanadeva in the lineage of zen masters – I had to deal with that shithead for two reasons. One was commercial, the Dalai Lama taught about Aryadeva’s verses and I had the idea to provide them as a book (which really sold well at the event). Then I wanted to know how a guy who thought that all female pussies smell like fish could become a lineage holder. It is one hint that lineages don’t mean a thing to me. Of course anyone can go wrong in certain aspects, and zen teachers should generally be taken with a grain of salt when talking about sex. Anyway, it was worth dealing with one of the old teachers. With respect to the mind, he has of course something to say. I nevertheless appreciate that Zen has developed in the course of time.

The Shrimala Sutra is one with different Bodhisattva vows, they are more pregnant and practicable and less rigorous than those of the Brahmanet Sutra. It is also important – like the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra – to understand the idea of the Tathagathagarbha or Buddha-Nature. According to those sutras Buddhist academics derived s.th. in contrast to the anatman, the no-self, s.th. that is eternal and bliss, with the words of the sutra. It is interesting to know that there is a non-personal eternity in Buddhist thought, and it helps to counterbalance the nihilistic danger of nirvana.

Muso Soseki was a great poet and is an example of those zen monks who became politically involved, as advisers for emperors or, as in the case of the Shaolin monks, even as warriors. When you read Zibo Zhenke you might get the impression that he was one of the first brain scientists. He logically explained the way we think – and fool ourselves. With Menzan’s illustrated booklet about the monk Tosui you find an example of a monk adapting to the life of the homeless and beggars, not just as an experiment as some American zen monks like to do it today. You will understand the difference of the original and the copy if you read about Tosui’s life. So from each of them you can get inspiration, why not for example get involved in politics, as Muso was? Being unattached does not mean being uninvolved, it is rather a helpful prerequisite of real action that does not exhaust.

Most of those texts were already in a legible and simple language. My way of translating some of those masters is by reading what I can get and extract the best of it. I would of course appreciate if anyone finds the time to translate the whole of Muso’s work, for example, or if someone wants to sponsor a translator with knowledge of the old Asian languages to do so. My means are very limited. In the case of Dogen and others I decided to translate whole works.

Advise against several Buddhist-masters

On your blog, you advise against several Buddhist-teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Genpo Merzel, Bernard Glassmann. The reasons you give are lack of authorization, dilution, ownership, conduct, dependence to power, superstition, squandering and confusion[i].

A general question before I ask you about these specific points:

Where do you draw a line in between phonies and monks who commit an error?

In Soto Zen, it is not so hard to get an official authorization – i.e. Shiho (Dharma-transmission). But the whole system is rather disputable, as it is not based on a master-disciple relation but on following the rules of the system. For example doing a 90 day ango in a temple. So how do you define lack of authorization?

Ownership is another criteria you bring up, it goes along with conduct and dependence to power – I guess you rather focused on excesses like collecting sport-cars, but the 3 mentioned criteria take also place in every « good » religion, owning a temple, clerical structures…

You reproach dilution mainly to those masters, who often go into societal matters. What is your criticism on theengaged Buddhism of people like Glassmann and Thich Nhat Hanh ? And why doesn’t Genpo Merzel does not figure on the “dilusion” list? With his “Big Mind®”-process, he promises that he can produce for his customers a Buddhist enlightenment experience in just a few short hours.

Monks committing an “error” – that is s.th. to be judged by the Vinaya, if the monks are ordained in a respective tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) for example is, but no one is trying to get the twenty older monks together for a “Vinaya Kamma” – as demanded by the Palicanon – to reprimand him for the co-ownership of his institute in Waldbroel which is a violation of the monastic law. I just point that out because those monks insist on Buddhist rules, formulated thousands of years ago in the Palicanon or moderately renewed (but still rigorous) as in the case of TNH. They get beaten at their own game there, as well as when they present fake written authorizations. I do not believe that those are important, but they do and so do many of their followers. These are all ridiculous traps in which those teachers catch themselves.

As “phonies” I mainly criticize those who put on a show (of zazen in concentration camps, for example) and cannot let go of possessions (money, cars, houses, women etc.). Of course a guy like Genpo Merzel could also be included in the “dilution”-category. Those are just words to make someone think twice who is looking for a Buddhist tradition to meditate there, suck in their “practice” and frame of mind. Someone googling for orientation and running into my blog should get a free warning.

“Lack of authorization” is the lack of being an author. It was once said that a disciple has to top his master to become his follower. The question is what we would consider to be that “topping”. The first master – and it doesn’t matter if he’d only existed as a metaphor and never as a historical figure – is the Buddha. What he stands for in the Zen tradition is an enlightened mind that is able to let go of everything. The phonies do not let go, they accumulate, hoard, expand, they mainly follow the law of business as marketing people, managers and entrepreneurs do. This is not wrong in itself, but if you put them to the test and see if at the same time they could let go of everything, what will you find out? Of course, in that respect a lot of the old masters might have been phonies, too, we just do not know so much about them. But if you’d extract the best of Glassman or a Thich in a hundred years, you would still not get anything worth of Takuan’s or Ikkyu’s insights. The zen of those teachers I attack is diluted by their greed. In some cases, it is just greed for followers and worship. In the case of TNH his megalomania is obvious when he tries to advice US presidents by naive letters.

Vegetarianism

In one of your recent blog-inputs, you talk about vegetarianism. It seems to me that the wave of vegetarianism is taking over buddhism. I just read a book by Roland Rech[ii], today one of the most influential zen masters in Europe. Quiet contrary to his own master’s (Deshimaru) teaching and vision of life, he ends his book saying: « Becoming vegetarian is nothing else but the consequence of an enlarged vision of life ».

How do you see the question of nourishment in a Buddhist context?

Now I am glad that I have once refused to publish a text by Roland Rech. It is okay to have a strong opinion like “becoming a vegetarian … is the consequence of an enlarged vision of life”. How about a “modest” vision of life that views as as the tiny beings in the universe that we are? Our colon is made for the digestion of meat as well as vegetables and fruits. I recently got sick in Cambodia and was told that the village healers there recommend dog’s meat to get back on one’s feet. It was quite delicious and I was indeed strong again the following day. When I later returned to my regular room in Thailand the dog that lives by the hotel there started to accompany me while I was going to the beach with the baby of a friend. He was always walking besides the baby, as if to protect it from the traffic (there are often no sideways and you have to walk on the streets). When the baby stopped to play, the dog stopped, too. Thus he became my friend and was rewarded with treat. I guess that Rech’s definitions of a larger vision of life are narrower than mine.

Considering the Buddhist context of nutrition we can refer to the interpretation of Buddha’s last meal as consisting of pork meat. By excluding ten kinds of meat (snake and horse, e.g.) in the Palicanon it is also implied that others (like chicken, lamb, beef, pork) were part of a common meal of Buddhists, even monks, as they lived on the food donations of others. Theravada monks today are regularly seen eating meat. I do not say that one should stick to the old texts but it is not possible to insist on vegetarianism out of the Buddhist tradition. It is just a personal conviction. There are of course a lot of good reasons to reduce the intake of meat to a minimum. On the other hand, if one is not able to kill an animal without attachment one has never experienced the freedom of mind. Such a person is having “second thoughts”, differentiating and polarizing. If you are unattached, you can do what’s necessary. That is what Takuan called the life-giving sword or the non-killing in killing. Even Roland Rech would take antibiotics when seriously ill and thus kill life forms within his body to save his own life. If you want to practice vegetarianism, go on. Animals don’t care at all, only you do. They do not have your judgemental mind of discernment.

Publishing houses

Can you tell us about what is published in zen nowadays?

I have the impression, that big and medium-sized editors concentrate on some few bestsellers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama, and in addition to that they try hard to block the small ones who propose other authors and subjects. In France, for example, big publishing houses oblige bookstores that want to order one of their bestsellers, to buy also five or six of their other books.

On the other hand, it has never been so easy to put out a book, thanks to print-on-demand and E-books, that you do yourself. But their distribution seems to be rather difficult? How did you manage with Angkor?

Angkor Verlag, my publishing house which is rather a small room, is just keeping me alive, providing a basic income. I am not interested to print anything that does not help people on the long run. I thus have rejected texts that were otherwise good when they insisted on reincarnation. Hypocrits who own millions and secretly work with either the CIA or the Communists while at the same time denying it, like the Dalai Lama or TNH, are of no interest to me. But the masses follow them because their words are soothing and lulling like those of our German chancellor Merkel, as well as they follow certain rules of manipulation and marketing. On the other hand I cannot see that rather unknown teachers who have sent me manuscripts are much better off. I once got new koan by a teacher and they were weaker than the old koan. Besides, who needs more of them? With contemporary teachers there is one big problem. Almost all publishers of Buddhist literature have some phonies in their backlist, and you can predict who will be the next one to run into a sex scandal. Anyway, a writer who doesn’t get published can arrange that by himself very easily nowadays, like through Amazon, and promote his book in forums and through buzz marketing. The need for publishers is diminishing.

Zen books today

Besides the usially dry and conservative books by contemporary Japanese Zen monks, editors focus on writings that combine Zen with other matters, such as psychology or business-leadership.

Why do contemporary western Zen monks and masters have such a hard time to get published?

Publishers normally try to make profit, I want to do the same of course but would give up my publishing efforts if there were too many compromises. Naturally, as a lot of the classics are published now, there is not so much to do for me in the Buddhist area as ten years before. If a zen master has to say something important today, it has to be on the level of the old masters at least. Normally a modern teacher would have to go much further than Secular Buddhism to adapt Zen to a modern world. The future of the world to me is a-religious, so every effort in Zen has to be stripped of Buddhism somehow. Therefore it was said that once you have understood there is no Buddha anymore. Almost no one exemplifies this. Any clerical, monastical and institutional Buddhism is doomed to fail.

Literature

You have a section of Japanese literature of the 20th and 21st century.

Would you like to talk a little about these books (or one of these books)?

Isn’t it strange that Zen was expressed in so many artistic ways, painting, theater, poetry but never really in prose? And why is zen-fiction books refused by the publishers today?

The section with Japanese literature started when I was running out of interesting zen texts. I read quite a lot of Japanese authors myself at that time with pleasure, like Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata. “Edition Nippon” is a program sponsored from Japan, I have to say that not all of the novels offered are to my taste. And they sell lousily in spite of good reviews. Nevertheless I cannot loose money with them and by editing the texts with others learn more about writing myself. There are indeed some titles that we could call zen fiction, published elsewhere, before I joined that program: Tsutomu Mizukami’s “Im Tempel der Wildgaense” (“The Temple of the Wild Geese”) and “Das Fest des Abraxas” by the Soto-monk Sokyu Genyu. Both are published in French, too. Sokyu is very top-heavy for a zen adept and not an easy read but prominent on Japanese TV. Let us not forget the crime novels of the late Janwillem van de Wetering who was heavily influenced by Zen.

It is mainly a question of quality.  I cannot raise hope in other authors to come to me with their Buddhist fiction. Still, recently Ruth Ozeki’s new novel “A Tale for the Time Being” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Ozeki was ordained as a zen nun in 2010. A partly fictive novel based on real events that I like to recommend to your readers is “Dharma Brothers Kodo and Tokujo” by Arthur Braverman who once sat in Antaiji. It deals with the friendship of Kodo Sawaki and a Rinzai master whom I like to quote, with a dig at Roland Rech: “Animals are enlightened!” That is why a tiger can eat us without any remorse.

Please click on the subtitle icon to initiate English subs.

An (abbreviated) reply to “Brian Victoria” that I wrote on September 23rd 2014 which might not appear here: http://sweepingzen.com/brian-victorias-war-on-zen/

Brian: “In truth, I had no doubt that you would embrace the violence-affirming wartime teachings of such Zen-related leaders as D.T. Suzuki, Omori Sogen, and Sawaki Kodo.”

I know that you became a persona non grata in Japan once, but I am now asking myself – considering your distorting logic (please read again: I embrace persons, not ideologies) – if you have ever studied with Saloth Sar.

“has ended up by finding excuses for killing . . . .” It’s hard to imagine that s.o. who does not kill needs excuses. What happened in the Mahayana is some input of common sense, thus it is indeed possible to say: “I abstain from killing if not in self-defense and defence of another person” – which is also the basis of common Western law. Of course nobody has to rephrase that, as in Zen – and therefore I quoted Pai-chang – we will be detached of dogma anyway and find a “truth” in ourselves, not in scriptures.

A funny thing about the Theravada school: Most soldiers in the Myanmar army have been novices for a couple of months in their life, as it is their tradition, but it obviously is no problem to turn them into soldiers. The army of Myanmar thus consists mainly of former robed Buddhists!

Finally, TNH is not a good example to me, the CIA has seen him active for Thich Tri Quang in Vietnam during the war, it was a militant clique, with the latter ocassionally “receiving afflux from the ARVN” (Army of the Repulic Vietnam, translation mine from the German Wiki). If I’d trust him, I’d suggest to rather compare him to Omori and Kodo, who had learned from their mistakes during the war, but I don’t (…)

(Surprising photo of TNH: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/5455501349/)

***

A reply to “Caodemarte” that I wrote on September 15th 2014, has not appeared here: http://sweepingzen.com/the-non-self-as-a-killer/

Caodemarte: What you say is TNH’s official “hagiography”. If you want to know how information about him – that contradicts this hagiography – is suppressed, just watch the “history”-link in his German and English Wikipedia-entries. It starts with Prof. Prebish’s question how s.o. who was not a zen-master in Vietnam can give “transmission” and ends with TNH’s co-ownership of “EIAB” in Waldbröl/Germany. You may know that according to the Vinaya (in which TNH has traditionally ordained) neither suicide (self-immolation) nor the possession of money or investment in real estate is permitted. [If s.o. argues for suicide citing Channa of the Majjhima- and Samyutta-Nikaya, he will probably end in sophistic rhetorics very similar to those that Brian attributes to Buddhist warmongers]. I believe the difference to a guy like Sawaki is that he openly talked about his past and his failures (though perhaps not taking responsibility enough) whereas certain other teachers advise their sangha to better not watch TV and read too much (except their own books, of course). I have found that the Vietnamese in exile are on the average not as fond of TNH as his “official” reputation might suggest and that there are not just a few who subscribe to the view that some Buddhist monks have “played into the hands of the Vietcong” in a tragic way.

I found a piece in my German “Asso-Blog” that I want to share with you. After a brief introduction you will read – in English language – my answers to questions that were originally posted by different people in the “Ask a Teacher”-section of Zenforum International. Of course my answers enraged some teacher(s) and were only online for about 8 hours, before I got banned from the forum. Although the original questions are not always clear anymore, I hope you enjoy my thoughts.

[In light of the recent accusations against Joshu Sasaki, I will give my thoughts.]

Isn’t there a sila, a moral rule against indecent behaviour like fumbling and groping in the Buddhist teaching?

No, this rule is, according to its choice of words, written against adultery.

But isn’t Buddhism aimed at avoiding the suffering of others?

Buddhism is primarily focused on the ending of one’s own suffering. Some of the things named as suffering (birth, death, sickness, ageing) can usually not be avoided, it provides a means to end mental suffering under those conditions. The conditions themselves cannot be changed by following the dharma. Thus Buddhism knows that it is impossible to eradicate suffering from the world per se, but that each individual might change his and her frame of mind when facing events that usually cause suffering.

Therefore exercising the sila cannot end suffering because it does not provide the necessary calming of  differentiating thoughts. It is of course meant to help getting a better society, and thus most of the basic moral rules have long been put into law. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Eightfold Path there is Right View which is based on an undefiled mind. This mind is an enlightened mind. Without awakening there is no Right Action.

Right action in zen amounts to the realization of the bodhi spirit that avoids bringing suffering to others, but be aware, the ethics of a Bodhisattva are much more complex than that of the Palicanon (obeying a rule of non-violent behavior could result in more harm to a girl who is raped in a public bus than defending her physically).

Would Right Action as being in accord with the sila still not confirm Right and Awakened Mind?

No it won’t. The awakened mind in Zen is one that is not attached, not even to any dogma or words. It knows that there is not only an exercise in non-killing (like in the sila) but also a necessary one in killing (e.g. for soldiers who protect us). It knows that some adultery may just end the suffering of a stagnant marriage and so forth. The one who just practices sila will not find this insight that transcends good and bad and even the categories of a law.

In the case of abuse the abused one will also not eliminate his or her suffering by following the sila but by realizing what I would call a transcendent state of mind in which the dualistic view behind the sila is indeed overcome. All stands and falls with the mindshattering experience that changes one’s course of life, thinking and behaviour. That is at least what Zen is about.

Can a guy like Joshu Sasaki be called awakened, given that the accusations against him are true?

An awakened man is still a fallible man. It is not the advances of a one hundred years old guy that speak against his awakening, it is the ignoring, downplaying or denying of his own needs that are behind them. An old man may still want sex. In most cases, nobody will share it with him. This is a sad fate, and one must not be ashamed to speak of it. A denial goes against Bodhidharma’s legendary saying “Open vastness, nothing sacred”.

It can be debated if it is possible to “fall out” of awakening, getting deluded again. I guess it is. At least dementia is showing us that the state of our brain decides how clearly we can view things. I cannot say if Sasaki has gone through significant brain changes but his behavior makes him an unfit teacher. You may still find insights in him when it comes to Zen, some wisdom that you may also acquire through his speeches and writing.

What we learn here is that the enlightened one is to be found within oneself, not outside. Today it is much easier not to meet teachers personally. Meditation is quickly learned. Of course in the Rinzai tradition there is a koan curriculum which usually cannot be done alone. When you see the problems you are facing as the real koan or barrier (and Sasaki has one to go through himself right now), you get to the point where it all relies on yourself.

The various scandals surrounding Buddhist teachers (and there are more in the Theravada tradition which are not as prominent because Theravada countries lack press freedom, and those involved are mostly male on both sides) have shown us that a zen master might just be a good or experienced teacher of koan study, meditation, rituals and the like. Do not look for an example of a lifestyle in him, you have to find your own way. If a teacher makes you uncomfortable, stand up and leave, trust your instincts. If his or her behavior is putting others at risk, take stronger means like involving the court.

……………………………

That said, I remembered the story of a disciple who wanted to follow a homeless zen master. The master told him he couldn’t, it would be too tough. But the disciple insisted. Soon they became hungry and the master took leftovers of others out of a bin and munched on them. The disciple was on the verge of vomiting, when the teacher told him: “See, you can’t follow me.”

From such a story we derive our ideal of the master living an imitable life. But where are those masters nowadays? Another nub of this story is still valid. Why can’t a zen-adept do something that appears just too disgusting to common people? I sadly ask myself if there is really not one person in Joshu Sasaki’s community that can regularly give him a hand- or blowjob or whatever he needs (though I fear that a man of 105 years is probably impotent since decades and that his groping is a rather helpless cry for some other kind of erotic attention)? I imagine me sitting in front of an aged old female zen teacher, her grabbing my cock through my robe and making advances. Would the right thing to do not be to rub her to orgasm or putting my cock into her? It’s easier said than done, still I guess that s.th. else than a sex scandal is possible.

In another blog entry I recently called those who feel abused but do nothing than blame  in letters and over the internet are at fault, too. Their fault lies not only in not using appropriate means to stop someone (esp. jurisdiction) but also in not being able to imagine how to comfort the needs of an old teacher. Eating leftovers may be considered different from s.th. so personal as sex, but how far can someone who really freed his mind actually go? Remember that the student in zen should become better than his teacher.

I believe there are just too few who have broken through the wall …

Unafraid or not – leaving with a stinking fart – into no-cushion.

Death poems of zen masters have been a surprise to many in the past. It seemed that the prediction of a certain day or moment of dying had s.th. to do with the enlightened mind of a teacher. In the West it became common to understand a Buddhist path as a good preparation for dying. Some teachers even have initiated hospices.

Looking closer at phrases like “dying on a cushion” or “view your life from the grave” I wondered if anyone can really prepare for a one time event, the final moment where there is no coming back. I don’t think so. Anything that is happening before is still living, even when it is without hope, under a “terminal illness”. The chansonnier Jacques Dutronc once said: “Life is a fatal disease which is sexually transmittable.” That sums it up. Even the cancer patient will not know if he won’t be overrun by a car or die of a stroke instead of the predicted renal failure and ileus. Dogen pointed out that each state has its own truth and that they do not really mix.  So as long as we live, we live, and if we are dying, we indeed did so from the beginning.

The preparation for death that was highlighted in the samurai culture which went hand in hand especially with the Rinzai zen tradition had one goal: to prepare for those precious moments in life where one could fearlessly face any barrier or opponent. If anyone claims that he is free of the fear of death, I ask him: “How can you be sure?” Instead, our focus should be on the moments where one is needed to speak up and stand up, even if it means risking one’s life. It is nothing more than a constant awareness of the fate that awaits anyone and cannot be changed, whatever preparation one might have taken. What can be changed are the outcomes of such moments.

Therefore I recommend not to waste much time with commercial offers that want you to prepare for the unknown. Rather fit yourself for those situations where the common person ducks and covers, hides, silences and runs away. In a current discussion about the “sexual abuse” by the old monk Joshu Sasaki in the US I was reminded of the strange conformity with which all the recent similar cases in Germany were handled. There was a lot of anger voiced through the internet, but none of the abused had the guts to go to court and do s.th. efficiently against their crooked teachers, i.e. to take legal action. In some instances prominent Buddhist associations have done their part to advise against it. Being a pussy is the opposite of having “died on a cushion” or “viewing one’s life from a grave”. I will dug deeper into that special case.

There are many opportunities in your life to write death poems, at the real end of it you might have filled a whole book with them.

Ethnic Buddhism

07/12/2012

Much trouble that Buddhism stirs in the West stems from what I call “Ethnic Buddhism”. Those who adept to it (not always consciously) attach to the special characteristics of a Tibetan, Japanese or whatever country’s Buddhism. They are then easily convinced that initiation into ceremonies like “Kalachakra” (done by the Dalai Lama e.g. in Switzerland for a mass of people at the same time) or “Phowa” (where you might get into contact with the dead) is necessary and, of course, has to be paid for. The zen fraction, traveling from one sesshin to the next, is not much better, and to have a say there you better bring up some enlightenment or certification (also at the same time some do not hesitate to quote that “zazen is good for nothing” or you do not meditate to reach any goal). Another ethnic element is the recitation, often in languages that the adepts do not speak (but beware, it gets more ridiculous if you translate them, as Shasta Abbey has, and publish a whole liturgy that comes in books like the hymnbooks in church). You may think twice before you follow a guy who opposed the CIA (Thich Nhat Hanh) and lets his nuns wear Vietnamese shawls, or one who worked hand in hand with the CIA (Dalai Lama) and who travels with bodyguards and in armored cars  although claiming to know that he will die “at about 90” . So what is Buddhist practice about, someone asked in a forum?

It is about dropping addictions and overcoming barriers. Developing helping hands and brains. Accepting sorrow and pain (and thus, for example, abbreviating the “steps of remorse”). Cutting unhealthy relationships. Sharing possession. Realizing responsible (though maybe uncommon) sexuality. Searching for constructive work. It is active, not passive.

Shenhui (670-762), dharma-heir of Huineng an an apologet of sudden enlightenment, once answered to the question what sitting in meditation is: “To teach people to sit … is to obstruct bodhi (i.e. enlightenment). When I say ‘sit’ now, [I mean that] ‘sitting’ is for thoughts not to be activated. When I say ‘meditation’ now, [I mean that] ‘meditation’ is to see the fundamental nature. Therefore, I do not teach people to have their bodies sit and their minds abide in entrance into concentration. If it were correct to declare such a teaching, then Vimalkirti would not have scolded Shariputra for sitting in meditation.”*

Don’t be surprised that Shenhui’s lineage did not survive long, it was just too original. (But the old masters didn’t care, Fayun (d. 766) answered to the question if the Buddha’s teaching had been transmitted to him: “I have a sandalwood image of the Buddha to which I pay reverence.”)  In old zen we find the reason why it is possible to be ‘enlightened’ without any study of the Palicanon or any formal meditation, why so many non-Buddhists come to similar conclusions as zen masters. What then was ‘wisdom’ for the old zen masters? “When the mind does not activate on the basis of the eye’s perception of form, this is fundamental wisdom. … If realization [of the transcendence of body and mind] were not first, then knowing and perception would be completely defiled. Know clearly that the autonomous [spontaneity of] knowing and perception is attained after that realization and is called successive wisdom.”** So to be wise one has to realize s.th. transcendent first, than he/she will spontaneously know and perceive. Look for yourself if the agents of Ethnic Buddhism have done so.

*(in “Seeing through Zen” by John McRae, Berkeley 2003, p. 54, a book which has some flaws in overlooking the findings of what McRae calls ‘Proto-Chan’ and I see as the real early chan, described by Jeffrey Broughton, and in overlooking the martial arts tradition in Chinese Chan temples like the Shaolin where monks could actually be armored, see the studies of Meir Shahar)

** (dito, p. 89)

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