Authenticity and Zen


I just finished reading Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s excellent Two Shores of Zen, a searingly honest personal narrative comparing his experiences in American and Japanese Zen practice settings.  Rather than review the book (which I highly recommend) I want to explore its chief theme, the search for Buddhist “authenticity:” What is real Zen?  Above all else, we want our Zen to be “authentic,” and we want to practice “authentically,” whether these two are the same thing or not — the first having to do with whether our Zen is really the Zen of our ancestors, the second with whether we can wholeheartedly practice without some inner division, false consciousness, or “as if” quality.

The first question — “Is this the Buddhism/Zen of our ancestors?” — seems to be a perennial question which some of my earlier posts (Tokugawa Zen; Greek Buddha; Everything Changes, Buddhism too; Buddhism Learns to Stand on Its Head) have touched upon in piecemeal fashion.  Every Buddhist school makes its own claim to authenticity and plays fast and loose with history in service of this goal, but every successful Buddhist movement to restore an idealized past inevitably ends by re-creating a new Buddhism for its own historical era. These Buddhisms can’t help but reflect the consciousness of their time. If, by some miracle, they could somehow resist infection with the Zeitgeist (even while, at the same time, heroically opposing it), they’d be of no real value to their practitioners who, prisoners of their own place and time, would be incapable of genuinely inhabiting the consciousness of a previous era. This relates to the issue of the second type of “authenticity”—one’s ability to fully inhabit and embody a practice.

Dogen’s thirteenth century journey to China to find the “real” Zen is but one example of the process of recreation through “looking backwards,” as is Menzan Zuiho’s eighteenth century rediscovery of Dogen’s Zen.  In addition, innovations in Buddhism have historically tried to justify their “authenticity” by invoking mythological pasts. Zen “lineage charts,” Nagarjuna’s “recovery” of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Tibetan “revelations” of esoterically hidden termas are all examples of this tendency, and Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha suggests a similar process may underly Theravada claims to having “preserved” the Buddha’s “original” teachings. Buddhism has always looked forwards by looking backwards. It’s always decaying, dying, dead and gone and then—presto-chango!— reborn again, the same but different. This, perversely, is one way the doctrine of rebirth turns out to be literally true.

As the narrative of Two Shores of Zen begins, Rutschman-Byler, a resident practitioner at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, finds himself increasingly repelled by certain features of American Zen. He is an exceedingly — one might almost say “painfully” — earnest practitioner who finds himself questioning the authenticity of what he sees as a vitiated American Zen with its diminished promise of genuine awakening.  He is scornful of non-celibate monastics, the democratic weakening of monastic hierarchy, comfortable monasteries with heated rooms and gourmet meals, and Zen teachers who act as spiritual friends and who encourage one to find one’s own answers rather than inspiring wholehearted devotion as enlightened beings.

He goes to Japan searching for a purer, more authentic Zen practice, but what he finds are the twin aspects of a declining Japanese Zen: on the one hand, a nearly moribund family-temple “funeral” Buddhism, and on the other hand, an austere, demanding practice with an “enlightened” master who — while possessing all the hallmarks of “authenticity” — is aging and infirm and has left no Dharma heirs; whatever tradition he represents is dying with him.  His temple is populated by Japanese students who, failing to duplicate the master’s enlightenment, sneak off in the night, and Westerners attempting to devote themselves to an ascetic ideal that’s no longer possible for postmodern Westerners and which is complicated by the fact that they’re practicing within an alien culture that stubbornly resists understanding.

Rutschman-Byler struggles with the austerities and politics that characterize monastic life along with the unruly resistance of his own human nature—cravings for sex, romance, carbohydrates, and protection from the bitter winter cold—trying to sincerely apply himself to a practice that eventually threatens to undermine his sanity and harden his heart. He returns home at the end, as all journeyers must, more or less reconciled to an imperfect American Zen, concluding:

“Whichever path is better, or more traditional, or more conducive to real spiritual understanding and compassion, the basic fact that I’m left with is that simply I am a Western Buddhist, and that try as I might, my… Western Buddhist values underlie my practice.  I have tried, and failed, to force myself to think that [Japanese-style] monastic practice is better than, or finally even necessary at all for meaningful, everyday worldly practice.  Have I lost anything in that?  Yes. Have I gained something?— indeed, my whole life, just as it is, reclaimed and renewed as precisely the territory of unsurpassed enlightenment.”

This search for authenticity — to be authentic, to find something authentic to cling to — is an inevitable aspect of postmodernity: we feel adrift amidst competing traditions which have lost their compelling authority, and competing visions of ourselves that call out for embodiment and enactment.  Which path constitutes a genuine movement of the “true” self in its unfolding and actualization, and which is mere play-acting and posturing — something ill-fitting, ugly, ungainly, and grafted on?  Is there a “true self” to develop and express, or is “emptiness” and “formlessness” our real home? If nothing is genuinely “authentic,” how are we to fashion ourselves? What are the goalposts and guidelines? What do we even mean by “authentic?”

We Western convert Buddhists find ourselves in an awkward position. We’re postmoderns par excellence —doubters, questioners, and searchers — rejecting our birth religion and setting ourselves adrift.  We want to ground ourselves in something authentic, but are incapable of the kind of faith and trust in our new religion that we rejected in our old. 

There are, however, aspects of this new Buddhism that are uniquely suited to our postmodern sensibilities—most specifically the Zen ideal of “not knowing.”  In addition, the doctrine of emptiness fits hand-in-glove with the process-relational aspects of postmodernism, the understanding that at bottom there is no bottom: no unchanging essence that stands behind us or anything else.  It’s process and flux all the way down, and the bits and pieces we borrow to create ourselves are not “ours” but borrowings from the detritus of our culture, memes afloat in our hive mind. The question is, which borrowings and adoptions carry something valuable forward — liberate and actualize potentials in a positive way—and what criteria should we adopt in evaluating our progress?  Western Zen reinforces and develops a number of criteria — presence, awareness, whole-heartedness, integrity, openness, and  interconnectedness — that resonate with Western romanticism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism — and weds them, as (David Chapman rightly points out) to contemporary Western liberal ethics with its emphases on empathy, mutual understanding, compassion, fairness, justice, and liberation.

Is this an “authentic” Buddhism?  Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t seem to think so, as he makes clear in his cogent historical analysis of the genesis of Buddhist romanticism, but he’s an apologist for the Theravada agenda, shoring up arguments in support of his own existential commitments.  Of course he’s right in a sense: It’s not your grandfather’s Buddhism.  It’s not Theravada. It’s not Bodhidharma Zen. It’s not Dogen Zen.  But Western Buddhism is completely authentic in another sense.  It’s authentic in that we can completely get behind it. It’s a platform on which we can authentically practice without pretense, without cutting off or eliding what we, as postmoderns, sense deeply and irrevocably in our bones. 

Will it take us to the other shore? Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Swaha?  Thanisarro Bhikkhu argues that it won’t, but do we really believe in that other shore anymore?  Something wholly transcendent, a final destination, permanent, beyond all suffering?  Does it make any sense? Does it ring true to postmodern ears? Do we really need it? Have we met anyone who’s attained it?  Not someone who said they attained it, but someone we genuinely believed actually did? Do we live in Mappo, the degenerate Third Age of Buddhism, when attainment is no longer possible? What good is an “attainment” no one ever ever actually attains?

What Western Buddhism can do is move us continually beyond our old selves, breaking the chains of habit, prejudice, and character, opening us to deeper levels of interconnectedness and Being, opening our hearts, lessening our clinging and egocentricity, developing our equanimity and acceptance, and enabling the continual questioning that makes our never-ending journey an adventure worth living. That’s not another shore exactly, but it’s a process we can sincerely believe in.

This isn’t the final Buddhism; its just ours. The next historical era will require something new — something drawing different water from the Buddhist well and blending it with the insights specific to its own time and place.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “philosophy can never revert to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher.” Every great philosopher changes the world so that we can never quite see things the same way again.  We can’t live as if Hume, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger never existed — whether we’ve read and understood them or not, our culture has already been changed by them, and we’ve been changed along with it. In the future some new philosopher will no doubt think new thoughts and change the possible ways our descendants can understand and use the Dharma.  As a 2,500 year old conversation on awakening and liberation, the well of Buddhism is deep. It will always have something valuable to contribute.  And once again, it will be reborn, the same but different.

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Book Review: Greek Buddha

IMG_7923Four centuries lie between the time the Buddha lived and the time the earliest known Gandhari and Pali Buddhist texts were committed to writing. Since religions are never static affairs, these texts undoubtedly diverged to some extent from the Buddha’s original teachings, but exactly how far and in which ways is uncertain; our knowledge of the gap between the earliest Buddhist teachings and early canonical Buddhism is basically a vast, empty chasm. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha’s Indian contemporaries lacked both a written language and an understanding of how history differs from mythology and hagiography.

Indulge me in a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I live in a preliterate society. Imagine that nothing Abraham Lincoln ever said or did was written down, either at the time or subsequently. Imagine that there are no photographs or drawings of him. Imagine that there were no documents pertaining to the Civil War – no quartermasters’ inventories, no Mathew Brady photographs, no slave diaries, no rosters of those who served, no records of Lincoln’s speeches. Imagine too that there is no written record of the presidents who served before or after Lincoln.  All that exists is our memory of what our parents and teachers told us face to face, based on their memory of what their parents and teachers told them.

If this was so, how accurate would our knowledge of Lincoln be today? How much of what he said would be accurately remembered and generally agreed upon?

Think of all the apocryphal Lincoln “quotes” that currently float through the Internet in all their glorious inaccuracy.


Now imagine that another three hundred years passes before the orally transmitted “knowledge” of Lincoln is finally set down on paper.  How much more inaccurate would those ideas about Lincoln be?

This is the state we find ourselves in when in comes to the Buddha.

Christopher Beckwith’s new book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (2015, Princeton) is a fascinating attempt to fill this historical void with educated speculation. Beckwith urges us to make his own mental experiment. He suggests that we bracket off almost everything we think we “know” about early Buddhism from canonical sources, and instead invites us to follow him as he attempts to reconstruct early Buddhism from sources closer in time to when the Buddha actually lived, namely the stone edicts and pillars of the Mauryan kings, the records of ancient Greek travelers, recent archeological findings, and the earliest Chinese Taoist texts.

Beckwith pays special attention to one such Greek traveller: Pyrrho of Elis, a young artist who travelled with Alexander the Great to Gandhara in the years 327-325 B.C. where Pyrrho met with and was influenced by a group of early Buddhist practitioners. Pyrrho returned to Greece espousing a radical new philosophy—“Pyrrhonism”—which bore more than a surface resemblance to the Buddhism he encountered in Gandhara (as has been noted previously by scholars like Georgios Halkias). For example, Pyrrho cultivated apatheia (passionlessness) in order to develop ataraxia (inner calm). He made explicit use of the fourfold negation of the tetralemma [five centuries before Nagarjuna!]. He was celibate, lived in simplicity, engaged in meditation, and was regarded by his neighbors as a holy man. He recommended  an attitude of “not-knowing” in regards to pragmata, ordisputed ethical questions.” Pyrrho viewed pragmata as having three primary characteristics: they were inherently adiaphora (undifferentiated by logical differentia—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “anatta”), astathmeta (unbalanced—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “dukkha”) and anepikrita (indeterminate — possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “annica”). The degree to which Pyrrho’s three qualities of pragmata actually map one-to-one onto the Buddha’s three marks of existence is a question I’ll leave to better philologists and philosophers than myself, but I found Beckwith’s argument intriguing. 

Beckwith then takes his argument a step further. He notes that concepts like “karma” and “rebirth” are mentioned by neither Pyrrho nor Megasthenes (another traveling Greek who served as Seleucus Nicatator’s ambassador to Chandragupta from 302 to 298 B.C.). Based on this, Beckwith asserts that these ideas weren’t a part of early Buddhism. This seems like an awfully big assumption to make, especially since Pyrrho himself wrote nothing—we only know of his thoughts through the writings of his contemporaries and students.  In addition, while Pyrrho’s philosophy may have been based on Buddhism, he may not have adopted all of Buddhism’s tenets; he may have picked and chosen those ideas that were most consonant with his Hellenic background.  While Beckwith is correct that we’ve no hard evidence that karma and rebirth were Buddhist beliefs prior to 100 B.C., absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. The most we can say is that he may be right.

Beckwith also speculates on the Buddha’s ethnicity. He argues against the canonical assertion that the Buddha was a native Magadhan born in Lumbini, and argues instead that the name “Śākyamuni” (“Sage of the Śākyas”) suggests that the Buddha was a Śākya, i.e., an ethnic Scythian (a Central Asian people who dominated the steppes). Of course the epithet “Śākyamuni” doesn’t necessarily imply that the Buddha himself was actually “foreign-born.” Alternatively, the Buddha could have been descended from Scythians who migrated to Magadha somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as 850 BC as Jayarava Attwood has speculated. One interesting implication of the Buddha’s possibly Scythian origin is that he may have developed the Dharma, at least in part, in response to Zoroastrianism, the religion of Darius’s Achaemenid Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. If so, Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a rejection of Zoroastrian monotheism and cosmic dualism.

Beckwith suggests, following the controversial chronology suggested by Johannes Bronkhorst, that early Buddhism preceded the Upanishads and, then goes off on his own to suggest that it also preceded Jainism. He believes that these allegedly later religious traditions adopted aspects of Buddhist teachings and then projected their own origin stories into an imaginary pre-Buddhist past to lend them greater authenticity, in much the same way that the Mahayana would later claim greater antiquity for its own sutras. Beckwith can find no support for the early existence of Jainism in the kinds of data he deems acceptable. The Greek travelers, for example, fail to mention it. The earliest datable references to Jainism are found in the post-100 B.C. Pali literature. Beckwith believes that those Pali Suttas that treat the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries are useful fictions designed to address Buddhist-Jain disputes that were current during the era in which they were actually composed.

Even more fascinating is Beckwith’s speculation that Laotzu and the Buddha were one and the same person, and that Taoism grew out of very early Chinese contact with Buddhism. Beckwith does a linguistic analysis of Laotzu’s “actual” name (“Lao Tan”) as recorded around 300 B.C. in Chuangtzu.  He argues that “Lao” is the same as “K’ao,” and that K’ao-Tan could plausibly have been pronounced “Gaw-tam” in certain old Chinese dialects, making it intriguingly close to “Gautama,” with the final /a/ being dropped due to canonical monosyllabicization. This is a linguistic argument far beyond my powers to evaluate.  If true, it makes for a wonderful story of how Buddhism first influenced the formation of Taoism, and then several hundred years later, Taoism returned the favor in coloring how the Chinese translated and understood the Mahayana Sutras. What goes around comes around. In any case, Beckwith believes it to be no accident that similar theories arose nearly simultaneously in Greece, India, and China during the Axial Age, and that there was a greater degree of intercourse between these cultures than has previously been thought. 

There is much more to Beckwith’s book, including discussions of Pyrrho’s influence on David Hume, the provenance of the Mauryan stone edicts and pillars, the linguistic facility of Alexander’s entourage, and Pyrrho’s place in the stream of Greek philosophy.  Beckwith’s discussion of the connection between Pyrrho’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy and David Hume’s examination of the problem of logical induction serendipitously coincides with Alison Gopnick’s recent speculation about how Hume may have become familiarized with Buddhist thought during his stay at the Royal College of La Flèche. Like the parallel emergence of novel philosophies during the Axial Age, the parallels between Hume’s philosophy and Buddhist insights may be due to more than mere coincidence.

There are problems with the Beckwith’s book, to be sure.  As mentioned above, it’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate Beckwith’s claims. While some seem plausible, others seem more of a stretch. I suspect it’s better to think of them as hypotheses which can spur future research than to think of them as strongly supported facts. I should also note that  Beckwith could have benefited from a better editor to help him eliminate some of his repetitiveness—he can, at times, worry a point beyond all endurance.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Beckwith’s theses as being largely irrelevant to Buddhist practice.  They might think, “What does it matter, in the end, whether the Buddha was really a Scythian or one-and-the-same person as Laotzu?  What matters is how one is coming along in one’s practice and realization.”  While I’m sympathetic to that point of view, I think it’s a mistake.  Our hypotheses about who the Buddha actually was and what the Buddhist project is ultimately about deeply inform our approach to practice. Consider, as one example, Stephen Batchelor’s recent historical reimagining of early Buddhism and his proposal that doctrines of karma and rebirth weren’t nearly as central to it as some contend. Beckwith’s arguments buttress Batchelor’s, and together their ideas  have the potential to significantly inform the future dominant direction of Western Buddhist practice.

Even if Beckwith’s arguments turns out to be deficient in many of their particulars, Beckwith successfully points to the limitations of taking the Pali Canon’s account of Buddhist history at face value. Buddhist texts need to be read with a certain degree of suspicion. They need to be read alongside contemporaneous Greek and Chinese sources, checked against emerging archeological findings, and understood within the context of our growing understanding of Central and Southern Asian history. I’m incapable of doing this myself and I have no way of judging the ultimate worth of Beckwith’s arguments.  On the other hand, I look forward with interest to whatever lively discussion ensues.



Tokugawa Zen


Last week Justin Whitaker over at American Buddhist Perspective  issued a challenge:

The story of Buddhism has always been one of adaptation and transformation. This month I am inviting a discussion about how Buddhism has adapted to and transformed America…

I’m declining the invite, but I’ve been stimulated by his reference to Buddhism’s continual adaptation and transformation.  Buddhism’s malleability in the face of changing conditions is a theme I’ve addressed before here and here, but today I want to focus exclusively on the lessons we can learn from Buddhism’s evolution in another time and place. I’ve just finished reading Peter Haskel’s introduction to his translation of Menzan Zuihō’s Tōsui Oshō Densan [1] along with David Rigg’s biography of Menzan. [2] Both of these works explore Japanese Zen’s decline and rebirth during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), a topic I’m just beginning to gain acquaintance with.  Everything in this post is gleaned from my reading of Haskel and Riggs, and I apologize in advance for any errors in recounting or construing their thoughts.


Zen’s Decline (1400-1600)

From 1192 to 1868, Japan was ruled by a series of hereditary military generalissimos called shoguns who, while nominally appointed by the Emperor, were the de facto rulers of the country.  The Tokugawa Shogunate began in 1600 with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s seizure of the reins of power, and lasted until 1868 with Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s abdication to the Emperor Meiji, ushering in the Meiji Restoration.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Tokugawa Yoshinobu


Zen was in steep decline before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate. The flame of its originators had dwindled to a flicker, and the Buddhist clergy had become largely ignorant and corrupt.  Koan study had devolved into just getting the approved written “solutions” to koans on a piece of paper from one’s teacher, a practice called missan, or “secret study.” These “answers” were often drawn from koan capping phrases, sometimes blended with esoteric Shingon mantras and Taoist doctrine.

There were pockets of awareness about the fallen state of Zen.  As early as 1455, Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun criticized a fellow teacher, saying “Whether it’s a man, a dog, a fart, or a turd, he’s ready to cajole them, selling koans and then calling it transmission.”

Master Ikkyū

Ikkyū Sōjan

Shidō Mu’nan (1603-1676) criticized the priests of his own day as being “the worst sort of evil there is, thieves who get by without having to work.”  Mangen Shiban (1703) thought authentic Zen had ceased to exist after the first five or six generations of teachers.  Early Tokugawa practitioners who experienced some degree of genuine realization were in a quandry because they couldn’t find authentic teachers to validate their realization.  Daigu Sōchiku (1584-1669) bemoaned:

“For two hundred years now the Zen of our land has been divorced from the true Dharma so that no more clear eyed teachers remain.  While there are many people in the world of Zen, there is none able to sanction my own present experience of enlightenment.”

Dokuan Genkō (1630-1698) said “those nowadays who claim to be Dharma heirs are merely receiving paper Zen.”  Neo-Confucianist scholar Kumazawa Banzan (1609-1691) thought Zen teachers were prepared to “flatter any daimyo (feudal warlord), millionaire, or rascal” and proclaim him enlightened, and Menzan Zuihō observed over a half-century later (1768):

“In our own corrupt period…. Monks covet rich storehouses of rice and millet, devouring the nation’s wealth, merely scheming to live at ease with servants to carry them in litters and wearing robes of embroidered brocade.  Examine such people and you will find  they neither uphold the precepts, practice meditation, nor cultivate wisdom.  Instead they shorten the summer days by playing chess and keep the winter nights from stretching on endlessly by guzzling wine.  If eight or nine in ten are like this, how can they conduct themselves like followers of the Buddha?”

While Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō was considered a “secret treasure,” no commentaries were written on it for almost four centuries.  Fragmentary Shōbōgenzō texts were handed down from teacher to student to signify transmission, but it was the text’s possession that mattered, not an understanding of its contents.  Dōgen’s writings didn’t resume their central place in Sōtō Zen until Tokugawa scholars revived his works as part of a back-to-basics movement based on “fukko,” or “return to the old.”  As David Riggs points out, however, this was not so much a return to Dōgen Zen —  many of the old ways had in fact been lost forever — but a re-imagination and reconstruction with Dōgen’s texts as their inspiration.


 Militarism and Xenophobia

The shogunate solidified the samurai’s position at the head of the social pyramid, and Zen temples were often dependent on the patronage of daimyos and the military elite.  Is it any wonder that Zen learned to find ways to ease the inherent contradiction between the values of Bushido and Buddhadharma?  Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), for example, was a samurai warrior who became a Zen monk in 1621.  Never receiving inka, he declared himself self-enlightened, and developed a huge following.  He formulated a type of Zen based on martial values:

“It is a good practice doing zazen in the midst of pressing circumstances.  For the samurai, particularly, it is essential to practice the sort of zazen that can be put to use in the midst of battle.  At the moment when the guns are blazing, when lances cross, point to point, and the blows of the enemy rain down, amid the fray of battle — here is where he must practice, putting his meditation immediately to work…. However much a samurai claims to love Buddhism, if it doesn’t do him any good when he finds himself on the battlefield, he’d better give it up.”


Suzuki Shosan

Suzuki Shōsan

In addition to Zen’s accommodation to military values, Tokugawa fears of foreign influence led to distrust against both Christian missionaries and Ming-era Chinese Ōbaku priests who migrated to Japan to meet the religious needs of the Chinese merchant community that had grown up around the port of Nagasaki.  The Shogunate forbid Japanese from adopting Christianity, and to assure conversions did not occur, all Japanese had to register with a Buddhist temple and receive documents from the local Buddhist priests attesting to their status as Buddhists in good standing.  Those who refused to re-convert to Buddhism were ruthlessly exterminated by methods that included public crucifixion and incineration.  In order to fulfill this mission, the Shogunate reorganized Buddhist temples into a root-and-branch parish system.  Buddhist funerals became mandatory, which meant more money flowing into Temple coffers, and temple building accelerated.  While these political and social events strengthened Zen as an institution, they eroded its role as the transmitter of the Dharma.  Priests occupied a social status below the samurai but above the commoners, and the priesthood became a means of upward social mobility.  The priesthood swelled.

The Chinese Ōbaku priests were another story.  Dōgen had gone to China to find his teacher, but during the shogunate, foreign travel was forbidden.  The arrival of new priests from China created quite a stir, and many Rinzai and Sōtō priests visited the Ōbaku temples to see what 17th Century Chinese Ch’an was all about.  Ming-era Chinese Ch’an combined Ch’an and Pure Land elements (e.g., the recitation of the nembutsu) and followed more vinaya precepts than Japanese Zen. The Shogunate initially kept the Chinese priests under surveillance and restricted their movements.  Many of the great Zen masters in the Japanese Zen revival (see below) regarded Ōbaku Zen as inferior to Japanese practice, but the encounter with Ming-era Ch’an may have stimulated reformers to think more critically about some of their own practices including the role of the precepts and certain monastic regulations.  It also might have helped re-popularize the writings of Linji.



Much of what we consider Zen today is due to the reinvention and revival of Zen in the Tokugawa era.  Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) systematized and re-energized koan study in the Rinzai tradition.  Manzen Dōhaku led an effort to restore Dōgen’s conception of face-to-face lineage transmission in the Sōtō tradition.  Authentic Rinzai teachers like Gudō Tōshoku, Ungo Kiyō, Daigu Sōchiku and Isshi Bunshu helped reinvigorate Zen practice. Scholars like Menzan Zuihō — and the introduction of moveable type — helped re-familiarize Sōtō Zen with Dōgen’s writings.  Menzan also turned Sōtō Zen temple meditation halls back into “monks halls” where the monks ate and slept as well as meditated while on sesshin, just as they had back in Dōgen’s day, and attempted to revitalize the meaning of precept transmission.  As Peter Haskel suggests, “the Japanese Zen as we know it today is Tokugawa Zen, a teaching that looks back to its medieval roots but does it through the prism of its own special concerns.”



Whenever we’re tempted to think of Zen, or of Buddhism, as one static unchanging thing; whenever we start to think that revisionism, reinvention, or the remolding of Buddhism by social, political and economic influences is unique to our time and place; whenever we bemoan the fallen or corrupted state of contemporary Buddhism; the history of Tokugawa Zen can help us put things in perspective.  Fall, reinvention, and renewal are common to every era.  It’s also a reminder that whenever we try to restore what we think was the past, we can only do so through the eyes of the present.

The past is always past.

Now is just this.

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  1. [1] Haskel, P. (2001). Letting Go: The Story of Zen Master Tōsui, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
  2. [2] Riggs, D.(2004). The Life of Menzan Zuihō, Founder of Dōgen Zen, Japan Review,16, 67-100.

Buddhism Learns to Stand on its Head

 Zhang Huan’s Three-Legged Buddha, Storm King Art Center (photo courtesy of Capucine Gros)

Zhang Huan’s Three-Legged Buddha, Storm King Art Center (photo courtesy of Capucine Gros)

Lately, I’ve been reading Amod Lele’s blog, Love of All Wisdom.  Lele has a doctorate from Harvard where he studied cross-cultural philosophy–an inevitable choice for him, given that his mother was raised as a Christian and converted to Buddhism, while his father was raised as a Hindu and converted to Marxism.  Lele opted out of the philosophy job market, such as it is, and now works as an educational technologist for Boston University while further developing his philosophical ideas in his blog.

One of the things Lele writes about is the dialectic between “ascent” and “descent,” and the dialectic between “integrity” and “intimacy” as they are expressed in both Eastern and Western philosophy.  It’s helpful to think of these contrasting concepts as poles at the ends of a continuum rather than as dichotomies.  I’ve found these concepts to be useful in sorting out some of my own thoughts about the evolution of Buddhism. What follows is my own understanding of these ideas, and not necessarily Lele’s.  I hereby absolve him of any and all responsibility for my mangling and misappropriation of his work.

Lele borrows the concepts of “ascent” and “descent” from Ken Wilber and, to a lesser extent, philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  Ascent and descent refer to our relationship to the mundane world.  Does “Enlightenment” in Buddhism (or “Salvation” in Christianity) have to do with leaving the mundane world behind and ascending to some pure, sacred realm (Nirvana, Heaven), or is Enlightenment to be found in the here-and-now particulars of our messy, everyday existence?  This distinction partially parallels the distinction in Christian theology between transcendence (God exists beyond the world) and immanence (God is manifest in the world).  I am uninterested in “ascent” and “descent” in reference to issues pertaining to spirituality versus materiality. I am interested in them to the extent that they reflect a stance of either disenchantment with everyday life and the desire to escape it to some better place beyond, or something which we might, for lack of a better word, call a “spiritual life” that can be found by embracing the entirety of existence just as it is.

Lele borrows his ideas on intimacy and integrity from philosopher Thomas Kasulis.  Kasulis’s interest in these terms is primarily philosophical, while mine is mostly psychological.  I’m interested in whether the goal of the holy life is essentially one of purification and making oneself Good (integrity), or one of deepening one’s  interconnection with all Beings and with life itself (intimacy).  Ascent philosophies often emphasize integrity, while descent philosophies often emphasize intimacy, although, as Lele points out, that’s not always the case.

These distinctions are highly relevant to Buddhism’s evolution as it migrated from the Indian subcontinent to East Asia and then on to the West. Indian Buddhism was initially, like other contemporary Indian religions,  a religion of integrity and ascent.  The goal of the holy life was to purify oneself by ridding oneself of desire, aversion, and ignorance in order to leave cyclical existence behind. The method involved leaving one’s family, livelihood, and society behind, and going off into the forest to meditate.  This emphasis on ascent was partially tempered a half-millennium later by Nagarjuna, who identified nirvana with cyclical existence, or samsara. Once Buddhism spread to China, however, it was reinterpreted through a Taoist filter, and moved even more towards the polarities of descent and intimacy.  Thus in Zen, Nirvana is to be found within the mundane world of the ten thousand things (hence Zen master Joshu’s declaration that the meaning of Zen is the “cypress tree in the garden”), and the holy life is not to be found through becoming pure, but by becoming intimate with all of life. The Bodhisattva ideal of saving all beings and not just oneself is a further nod towards interdependence and yet another step towards the polarity of intimacy. The move towards descent and intimacy is not yet complete, however, as the holy life still involves becoming a monk and withdrawing from family and profession.

The drift towards descent and intimacy reaches its apotheosis in contemporary Western Buddhism with its emphasis on lay practice.  Lele points out that while in early Buddhism the interdependence of all things (their emptiness of self-existence, or sunyata) was seen as a reason for disenchantment with the mundane world, helping us to thereby let go of our grasp on things, modern Western Buddhism views interdependence as a positive good in and of itself.  As such, recognizing our unity with all things essentially defines Awakening. Similarly, the modern Mindfulness movement encourages us to seek enchantment in the world, to more fully appreciate sensations, to learn to be in the moment and “smell the roses.”  The Buddha’s original instructions for disenchantment with the world are, in a way, completely stood on their head.

I began Buddhist study and practice within the Theravada tradition, but am now a Zen practitioner. Trying to sort through the continuities and discontinuities between these traditions, founded some 1,000 years and 2,000 miles apart, has not been an easy task.   Is there “one Dharma,” as Joseph Goldstein once proclaimed, with a single genotype underlying its phenotypical variations, or are there, in fact, many Buddhisms?  If there are many Buddhisms, what is the right path of practice?  This question has stirred minds for millennia. Historically there were arguments for the purity of early Buddhism as opposed to its later “degenerate” forms, and arguments for the superiority of later Buddhism over the earlier “lesser vehicle.”  Contemporary writers rue the incorporation of elements of Romanticism into Western Buddhism, urging a return to some earlier form of “real” Buddhism.  There is always some other form that is more real, more authentic.  Others argue for a dialectical synthesis of ascent and descent.

I like to think of the different streams within Buddhist culture as different voices within an ongoing conversation about the nature of the good life, the meaningful life, and the sacred life.  Asking who was right is a little like asking “who was right about musical harmony, Bach or Wagner?”  There are many great voices within this conversation:  the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Dogen, and Hakuin, just to name of few.  I’ll let you name the others. They all have something worthwhile and important to say.  They all see themselves as part of one continuous tradition.

What is it like to just listen?

Are you confused?  Only stay confused.  Nothing dulls the mind so much as certitude.  The true holy life is about living deeply into questions, not about finding answers.

The trick is to find the questions that are alive for you.

The one’s that set your hair on fire.




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