Interview by Jonas from zen-road.org

30/06/2015

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.

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