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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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.

Good Sitting, Bad Sitting

After the evening sitting, we stow the zafus and return the zendo to its pristine state. William regrets not being able to meditate properly tonight. His head is filled with thoughts of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — the family he has not seen for ages, the tasks remaining to be done. Matthew sympathizes with him. His sitting didn’t go so well either. He is consumed by impotent rage about the conflict in Gaza. He wants to knock heads together to bring about peace. I am the grizzled Zen veteran in this conversation. I tell William to lighten up, that getting lost and returning is the very heart of Zen practice. I tell Matthew that his passionate anger is understandable, but can he sit with it and see what it is doing inside of him? Can he breathe and observe without feeding it, without denigrating it? Can it be transmuted into skillful and compassionate action? The world is, at times, a violent and terrible place, and we are only one drop of water in this storm-tossed sea. Can we see what’s possible for us to accomplish as this one drop — committed, firm and resolute — but without grandiose aspirations to omnipotently control the ocean? Show up, pay attention, do what’s needed — and then let go?

William and Matthew are at the start of their Zen journey. They’re beginning to learn that sitting isn’t about perfect concentration and bliss, but about seeing the mind as it is — a mirror that reflects everything — including the energies of holidays and far-off conflicts. Thoughts about these ongoing events rise and stir the emotions. The goal is not the elimination of these thoughts and emotions, but developing our capacity to observe them in a kind and interested way. If all that we can observe is how helplessly caught up we are in them — how our minds have a mind of their own — then that, in and of itself, is the beginning of wisdom. We are not the masters of our own house, and learning to work skillfully with the energies at play is the work of a lifetime.

We tend to label our experience — good sitting, bad sitting. Zen is about dropping labels. Every sitting reveals the mind as it manifests in this moment. If we haven’t slept, the mind is drowsy. If we had an argument, the mind is agitated. Everything is the result of “causes and conditions.”  Our minds too. That’s the way it is.

If we try to stay with being with things as they are, if we try to stay present and aware, sometimes the mind calms down. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the energies that are roiling the mind are too intense to be conquered by our weak intention to be present. That’s how this moment is. The next moment may be different.

Can we see that and let it be — without judgment?

Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game.

We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.

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The Dharma According to Ella

Listening to Ella singing Summertime takes my breath away.


It’s not her voice. Her mature voice is no match for the ethereal sweetness of her younger one.

It’s not her interpretation either, good as it is.

What gets me is the way she pays attention to every note and syllable. Every note is just as important as the one that precedes it and the one that follows. Every note retains its importance from the moment it starts until the moment it ends. You can literally hear her concentration. She’s in no hurry to get anywhere.

Other singers have their “money note” — the note they hit out of the ballpark that sells a million copies — the note you anticipate hearing from the moment the song begins. Not Ella. With Ella, every note is special.

Listening to Ella reminds us to slow down and avoid shortcuts.

Shortcuts are our attempts to cheat life.

We take shortcuts when we’re in a hurry to get somewhere, when getting somewhere is more important than being where we are right now. We want to skip the boring parts and cut to the chase.

Ella teaches us that there are no boring parts. Every step along the way counts.

When there’s a wall to paint, we don’t look forward to the prep work — all that washing, spackling, and taping. We want to get right out there and roll on the paint.

A patient walks into a therapist’s office. Within minutes the therapist diagnoses his problem and understands what’s needed. The therapist thinks, “Just tell him what to do. Why drag therapy out?”

That’s painting before spackling. Before a patient can listen, he needs to feel listened to. Before he’s willing to follow the therapist’s suggestions, he needs to develop trust in the therapist’s intentions and expertise. Building the therapeutic alliance is step one. It’s the prep work before the first coat of paint. A good therapist lets therapy unfold at its own pace. He doesn’t skip any steps.

Can we wash the dishes with the same care we devote to preparing meals for our guests? Sitting on the cushion, can we be equally at home with “boredom” and “bliss?” Can we live our lives fully without hoping to fast-forward to the “good” parts? That’s the challenge of Zen.

Zen reminds us that foreplay, orgasm, and post-coital repose are all bright jewels on the necklace of time.  Departure, journey, and arrival are all one.

In Zen there is no fly-over country.

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The Sky Above, the Mud Below

We all possess behavioral potentials that are consonant with our sense of self — and  potentials that are buried, rejected, submerged, or disowned.  The energy of those submerged or disowned potentials is cut off and unavailable to our personality.  The more potentials we disown, the more narrow our range of adaptation and the more enervated and weakened we become.  The more we attempt to perfect ourselves and live according to some idealized image, the more cut off and depleted we become due to the loss of rejected potentials that fail to fit the image.  Attempting to live up to some sort of Buddhist ideal of perfection —  serene, non-grasping, imperturbable, endlessly compassionate — is one way to choke off our sources of vitality.  We cut ourselves off from a wide range of human potentials — ferocity, passion, lust, and ambition, just to name a few.   An inherent tension exists between Buddhist teachings of perfecting ourselves by striving to live up to a Bodhisattva or Arhat ideal and the contemporary Western Zen notion of being present for all of life.

When we examine the ideal of non-grasping serenity, the first thing we notice is how far we are from it.  Most of our thoughts are centered on ourselves and the things we want or don’t want, and selfish thoughts and impulses vastly outnumber generous ones.  Ambition, greed, desire, jealousy, resentment, irritation, and anger are frequent companions.  The Pali Canon says if we follow the eight-fold path we can reach a state where all of that simply ceases — where desire, aversion, and delusion stop arising — the original meaning of the word “nirvana”.  When we observe the gap between the way we are and this imagined end-state, we’re as far from that end-state as we can possibly be.  We may also wonder just how desirable that imagined end-state actually is.  Do we really want to be that seemingly bloodless, endlessly calm, desire-less being?  Or do we just want to be more human, vulnerable, open, and alive?

Compare the Nirvana ideal to the life Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) recommends in his poem “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for a new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Rumi’s Guest House metaphor offers a Sufi parallel to the contemporary Western Zen ideal of Zen as a continual opening, widening, and acceptance of life as it is.  As we sit we create a space for our full human being —  no cutting off, suppression, or delusion about who or what we are in this moment.

How does the Zen ideal of fullness of being square with the aspirational aspects of Buddhism — the Bodhisattva vows — the widening of compassion, lovingkindness, and equanimity?   Because a part of us would truly like to be more compassionate and kind — to the extent this cruel and capricious life allows us to be.  Buddhism contains a variety of techniques like Theravada lovingkindness meditations and Tibetan tonglen meditations to help us develop our capacity for compassion and lovingkindness.   Can one widen one’s capacity for care for others without choking off the sources of one’s vitality?

We can if we stop pretending to live up to an ideal.

One can water the seeds of compassion without pretending to be more compassionate than one actually is.  One can hope over time that compassion will grow without denying that ambitious, competitive, and aggressive parts of ourselves exist and are an important part of who we are right now.  We can also do more than ruefully accept their continued existence, but develop a friendly ongoing relationship with them.  We are not trying to eliminate them, but to integrate them in with the other parts of ourselves — to, in essence, tame them and harness their energy for higher purposes — much like the fierce Tibetan protective deities were tamed by Padmasambhava and enlisted to serve the Dharma.  We have this idea in the West as well — Freud called it “sublimation,”  Jung called it “individuation,” and Perls called it “being whole.”

On one of my early ten-day meditation retreats, I had the following experience:  The more calm, serene, and peaceful I became during the day, the more violent my dreams became at night.  Not only were the dreams violent, but I was the perpetrator and I was enjoying it.  It was if a part of me was reminding me “I’m still here, don’t forget me.”  On yet another meditation retreat I became paranoid about a fellow yogi — fearful he was a serial killer and I was his next intended victim.  I’ve written elsewhere about how I overcame that fear, but it occurs to me now that this was another message about how I was disowning a part of myself  —  this other yogi was the container for my own projected aggressive capacity.  Two retreats, the same message.

American Buddhist teachers have a name for aspiring to be “spiritual” without really working through and integrating all of oneself to achieve a genuine reorganization of the personality at a higher level.  They call it “spiritual bypassing” — the attempt to take a short cut on the Enlightenment Superhighway.   It’s a good word.  We live in a world with the sky above and the mud below.  While we may reach for the stars, we’re grounded in the earth.  Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, our inner world contains both Ariel and Caliban — the airy sprite and the chthonic mooncalf.  We move forward by integrating opposites, not by embodying one while denying the other.  We must honor not only the Sky God, but the Earth Mother as well.

This is an aspiration to a wholeness in which nothing is left out.  We move forward in the world with all our capacities, all of our energy, all of our engagement, and all of our complexities and contradictions.

As we practice Buddhism, let’s take care.  Let’s not put ourselves on a Procrustean bed.  We don’t need to kill our egos or deny our true being.  We don’t need to magically become the epitome of an imagined perfect Buddhist — calm, selfless, inhuman.  We bring our whole selves to practice. It’s our gift to the Dharma.  It’s the way we transform ourselves by becoming who we more truly are — only a better, deeper, more whole version of that self we imagine ourselves to be.







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The Constant Gardener

Have I mentioned that we have a beautiful garden?  Right now the irises, roses, poppies, clematis, and peonies are in full flower.  The wisteria, lilac, daffodil and tulip  blooms of the spring still linger in loving memory.  Along with these beautiful flowers, our arch enemy, bishop’s weed, aegopodium podagraria (also known as gout weed, ground elder, goat’s foot, and Jack Jumpabout) has made its nefarious return.  Bishop’s weed is a formidable foe.  It defies almost every method of eradication, and the more countless hours my wife and I spend rooting it out, the more vigorously it returns.

Aegopodium Podagraria

The other night, in his teisho, Sensei Paul Seiko Schubert discussed how meditation was like gardening.  It seemed a fitting metaphor.  After all, the Pali word for meditation is bhavana, which literally means “cultivation,” a word with clear horticultural roots.   Professor Glen Wallis has written:

“I imagine that when Gotama, the Buddha, chose this word to talk about meditation, he had in mind the ubiquitous farms and fields of his native India. Unlike our words ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation,’ Gotama’s term is musty, rich, and verdant. It smells of the earth. The commonness of his chosen term suggests naturalness, everydayness, ordinariness. The term also suggests hope: no matter how fallow it has become, or damaged it may be, a field can always be cultivated — endlessly enhanced, enriched, developed — to produce a favorable and nourishing harvest.”

Buddhism also employs another horticultural metaphor — the metaphor of “seeds” (bija) to describe how past thoughts and actions lay down karmic traces in the unconscious which affect our future thoughts and actions.

But Sensei had a different horticultural metaphor in mind.  He was pointing out that in gardening, no matter how hard one works at it, the weeds always return.  Weeding is a constant practice, whether in gardening or meditation.

Of course there are many different kinds of mind-weeds — a practically infinite variety of desires, fears, concerns, and aversions in never-ending succession.  Sensei had one particular sort in mind, however: one that relates specifically to Buddhist practice.  These are the perennial questions of “what next?” and “what else?”

I had brought these very questions to Sensei in dokusan that evening. “I’m wondering if I should be doing anything more with my practice?” I asked.

“What did you have in mind?” Sensei replied.  I confessed I wasn’t sure, and Sensei responded with “Just sit.”   “If there’s something else you need to do,” he added, “it will emerge from your sitting — no one else can tell you what your practice needs.”

Sensei was pointing out that in both beginning and mature practice the same questions  arise, but the answer is always the same: just return to awareness, sit quietly with the question, and allow what’s needed to emerge.  In Zen there is no beginning practice and no advanced practice.  There is just returning to awareness.  Nothing is missing.  Nothing needs to be added.  There is no “next” or “else.”

I heard a charming gardening fable when I was interning at the Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, and Society in 1996.  It’s one that’s made the rounds over the years in various forms.  Marsha Linehan incorporated one version into her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbook for patients.  The fable tells of a gardener who’s tried everything to rid his garden of weeds.  In exasperation, he contacts a famous expert who inquires whether he’s attempted a variety of remedies.  When the gardner replies he’s tried all of them, the expert pauses and reflects, and finally replies “all I can suggest is that you learn to love the weeds.”

We shouldn’t be distressed or disturbed when mind weeds that we thought we uprooted long ago return once again.  We should treat them like old friends.  It’s not that we are doing our practice wrong.  It’s just the nature of things.  The weeds come back.  We must be constant gardeners.  The path of practice is unending.  We return to it again and again.

Be diligent and light of heart.

Apologies to John le Carré for appropriating his title for this post!



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On Hakuin, Hotei, and Mice

Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) took up brush painting in the last decades of his life.  He was a prolific artist producing over 1,000 brushwork scrolls.  His painting and calligraphy were more than a creative pastime, however:  they were an expression of his enlightenment and a new way of teaching the Dharma to the lay community. His art transcended the boundaries between high and low, sacred and profane, serious and playful, and verbal and visual.  They are the very essence of “no separation.”  His rough, simple brushstrokes were also a natural expression of Zen spontaneity and Japanese aesthetics.

Take the following scroll as an example:

The happy fellow on the right is Hotei.  In Chinese folklore he’s an eccentric Zen monk and the epitome of contentment.  His name means “cloth sack,” because he carries all his belongings in a bindle wherever he goes.  He also stuffs the sack with donations of food and clothing from laymen, and candy to give to children — a veritable fat, jolly, Asian Santa Claus.  In this picture, Hotei himself is in his bag — and some have noted  that the bag is a kind of ensō or Zen circle symbolizing Enlightenment, non-duality, and/or emptiness.  Non-Buddhist Westerners often confuse Hotei with the historical Buddha, and the Chinese themselves sometimes refer to him as The Laughing Buddha.  Some believe he is an earthly manifestation of the bodhisattva Maitreya.  Legend has it that when Hotei died, he recited the following verse:

Maitreya, the true Maitreya

Has billions of incarnations.

Often he is shown to people at the time;

Other times they do not recognize him.

Hotei also serves duty as one of the Japanese Seven Gods of Good Fortune — the god of abundance and good health.

That’s a lot of weight for that happy little guy to carry in his bindle!

There’s a Zen story about Hotei.  When asked “What’s the significance of Zen?” he put his sack down on the ground.  When then asked “What’s the actualization of Zen?” he picked his sack back up and walked away.  Clever Hotei!  The very essence of Zen — letting go and dropping off whatever we’re holding.  The very actualization of Zen — drawing water and chopping wood.  Hotei lives life at the crosshairs of the Absolute and the Relative.  A lot like Hakuin himself.

When Hotei was not busy being all these things, he served double duty as Hakuin’s alter-ego and his Everyman.   While Hakuin’s Hotei is a spiritual fellow and sits zazen, he also enjoys the pleasures of secular life.  In painting after painting we see him puffing on a pipe (and what comes out of the pipe is not a smoke ring, but the prostitute Otufuko!), flying up in the air as a kite, playing go, riding a colt, playing kickball, and street juggling.

In the above painting, Hotei is watching mice sumo wrestling.  The colophon on the scroll simply reads “this is where mice do sumo.” [1]  With the rise of the merchant class in 17th century Japan, professional sumo groups were organized to entertain merchants and commoners, and Sumo wrestling moved from the Imperial Court into the public arena.  As a boy growing up in a post station on the well-traveled Tokaido road, Hakuin would have been very familiar with sumo.

The painting shows two mice rikishi (wrestlers) with an officiating mouse gyōgi (referee) holding a traditional gunbai (wooden war fan).

Gunbai from Edo era

Sumo grew out of Shinto ritual and rikishi live very regimented lives.  In Hakuin’s day they were mostly rōnin (itinerant masterless samurai) trying to support themselves.  Today’s rikishi live in communal “stables” called heya where every aspect of their lives is governed by ritual and tradition.  The first rudimentary heya appeared towards the end of Hakuin’s lifetime.  During Hakuin’s era, rikishi took part in ten-day kanjin-zumo tournaments where money was raised for Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

Woodblock of an Edo era heya

Hakuin is having fun here, but to what purpose?   All of his other scrolls have a Zen message, but the message in this scroll seems somewhat obscure.

Could Hakuin have been alluding to parallels between the activities of rikishi and monks?  Is Zen training like rikishi training in some way?  Is sumo a metaphor for zazen?  Could Hakuin have been making fun of sumo by turning the huge wrestlers into small mice?  Is Hakuin showing that enlightened beings live with contentment in the world of the ten thousand things?  Do the black and white mice represent yin and yang — two, but not two?   It all seems so far-fetched, and I have to confess, I have no idea. Maybe, dear reader, you know more about this scroll than I do.  I saw it last month at the Japan Society’s exhibit of Hakuin’s painting and calligraphy called The Sound of One Hand. It’s puzzled me ever since.  I’d love to hear your suggestions as to its significance.  In the meantime I’ll just enjoy it.  It makes me smile.

P.S.  I thought these mice bore a certain family resemblance to another group of anthropomorphic mice — the Ashkenazic mice of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

When I asked Art about any possible family resemblance, he only suggested that Hakuin’s mice must be Israeli mice because of their martial arts prowess — definitely not diaspora mice!

P.P.S.  My brush painting Dharma friend Toinette Lippe sent me some of her own mice just to demonstrate that not all Japanese mice are anthropomorphic.

If you like Toinette’s mice you can see more of her beautiful work here

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  1. [1] Many thanks to Professor Stephen Addiss, co-curator of the recent Japan Society Hakuin exhibition, for translating this colophon for me.