Wednesday, July 1, 2009

You Never Know

I sent the following e-mail to Mark Dunagan, a church leader at the Beaverton Oregon Church of Christ, in respose to an article he wrote about Zen Buddhism that his congregation uses to study from. Brad Warner had posted a link to the article in his blog yesterday, saying someone had sent it to him. He called it a "funny" article; I laughed a bit too, but also felt it missed the mark so badly that it was worth a shot to write the author with my concerns. Here's the letter.

Dear Mr. Dungan,

I have been a zen practitioner for nearly a decade now. I came across
your article about Zen Buddhism in a post on the blog for zen teacher
Brad Warner.

It is definitely your right to believe what you wish, including to
elevate your spiritual tradition above others. However, you have no
idea what the living tradition of zen looks like, and your article
spreads falsehoods about our beliefs and how we live as zen

Most of your sources are from writers during early days of zen in the
West - people like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts - who placed a great deal
of emphasis on the inherent emptiness (or lack of unchanging qualities)
that accompany our lives. This is only part of the story.

We are not nihilistic, nor do we "lack morals" as you suggest. Buddhism
has throughout it's history had a strong set of moral/ethical
guidelines called the precepts. Again, those early writers rarely
talked about the precepts because they were appealing to Westerners who
didn't like Christianity anymore, and who wanted to step away from the
moral grounding of many Christian institutions. I'm not interested in
defending their reasons for running away from Christianity, nor do I
care to debate whether they were right or wrong.

"Soikie-an stated: "Though all day long you are speaking, raising your
eyebrows, standing, sitting, walking and lying, nevertheless in reality
nothing has happened". If this is true, then there never has been any crime or any
good deeds. We have accomplished absolutely nothing. If nothing has
really happened, then Zen would have to deny all human suffering, every
crime, every war, the holocaust, and so on. What possible comfort does
Zen have to offer to the person who has just lost a loved one or has
been the victim of a terrible crime?"

Do you really believe that I, and my fellow zen Buddhists, deny human
suffering, deny war, deny the Holocaust? How could you possibly say
this and keep a straight face? We cry like everyone else. We grieve
like everyone else. We suffer, and most definitely recognize that there
is suffering, like everyone else. And we find comfort and solace in our
teachings, as you do in yours.

My basic goal in writing this letter is to ask that you actually visit
a zen temple, actually talk with living teachers and students, actually
experience who we are as people. I have no desire to convert you to my
beliefs, nor to say that your faith is wrong or lesser than mine,
because I don't believe that. But spreading lies about other religious
systems to covert people, or to tell people that they are the best,
most righteous people, is wrong. And I frankly can't imagine Jesus
telling his disciples to spread falsehoods in his name, so that people
will drop what they believe, and come to him. In the end, it's just
fine wi
th me if you don't feel the tradition I follow is on par with
the tradition you follow. That's your right. But for the sake of your
church members, and out of respect for being truthful, get a better
sense of zen before writing essays to teach others about it.


Nathan G. Thompson

I had no idea if I would receive a response at all. However, I got the following e-mail fairly early this morning. Even if nothing else comes of it, it's always helpful to suspend your assumptions and keep the possibility of dialogue open.

Dear Nathan:

Thanks so much for taking the time to write me. I have no desire to
misrepresent Zen Buddhism and the article was the result of researching this
faith, including talking to individual believers and reading various Zen
sources. You could help me if you gave me a list of fundamental Zen
teachings. For example:

* What would be considered to be the final authority according to Zen? Is
it objective or subjective?
* Are there any "absolutes"--that is, absolute right or wrong, or is truth
* Is there a Zen publication or book that most would consider to be an
accurate portrayal of this faith? What book, or the works of which teacher
would you recommend?

Again, thank you so much for writing.



Buddha Torrents said...

You see those awful line breaks in the text? Simply copy and paste the whole thing into your google search bar then recopy it into your post, that should fix it.

Sorry I'm a typography nut.

PS: Good post. ;)

MeANderi said...

Hi Nathan...

This may be none of my business, but my comment here is for you to be careful in engaging with this guy. He *wants* to engage you. As a former fundamentalist Christian, and Church of Christ member,(years ago)his questions to me appear to be a trap. He may be testing you to see how you will answer, as their belief is that Jesus Christ is the only "final authority", and that "they" are the only ones with the "Truth", and that there is only the one Truth, the "absolute truth" of belief in Jesus Christ. They are not usually "open" to other's beliefs, but instead will use what you say to try to refute you and prove their point. Everything other than their particular brand of truth is considered to be a falsehood, and others outside "the faith" are considered to be "enemies". I don't mean to sound harsh, or judgemental here. Just speaking from my own experience.
Good luck :)

Barry said...

In my experience, the primary challenge in speaking with someone like Mr. Dungan is that Buddhism (and especially Zen) is not a faith tradition. It's a practice tradition.

Mr. Dungan, in his response to you, asks questions about the basis of faith in Buddhism.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused on practice and asked his followers to be very careful with issues of faith, particularly faith based on concepts rather than experience.

Because this distinction is so fundamental, most Western believers simply can't wrap their heads around Buddhism. And Zen is beyond even that...

Nathan said...

Hi All,

Sorry about the line breaks. I'm at work, using an older computer - it's not copying things all that well.

Thanks Christine. I don't intend to have a long, extended conversation, especially if he gets into any kind of preaching territory. I did enough of that in the past, and agree it's probably pointless. But I do think it's worth a shot to say a few things, and let the chips fall where they my. If my comments get him to think or question even a little bit of what he wrote, then it was worth a try. And even if nothing changes, I made an effort, which supports my own practice of staying open and flexible, even if others are not.

Barry, you're so right. I didn't see that before. And my answers back to him were definitely "practice based" answers, although mostly I just suggests a few current sources he might read to get a better understanding of zen.

It's very well possible that someone like this will just use anything to twist the story, but I feel our teachings compell us not to completely shut the door on dialogue, to remain open to the possibility that someone might react differently or think differently in this moment than in the past.

I don't go about having these kinds of conversations every day. But I do see it as another experiment in living, to do my best to see the buddhanature in another, even if that experiment fails.

Bows to all of you.


Marcus said...

Hi Nathan,

As you know, I'm no fan of Brad Warner, and I wonder why he posted this link to his blog.

Warner is certainly no stranger to arguments, angry foul-mouthed ones at that, and I wonder why he feels compelled to open up this can of worms.

The article from the Christian Mark Dunagan seems to me to make some serious points that (if addressed at all) ought to be taken seriously.

His comments about 'no good or bad' in Zen is something I also am uncomfortable with.

Rather than initiating a campaign against this Christian writer, which Brad's post effectively does, it would have been a lot less antagonistic of him to have responded to the article with consideration and care.

Instead we have another Warner-led "we are right and the rest of the world is wrong" anger-fest.

I'm not suggesting that your own letter falls into this category. But take a look at the comments on Brad's site, and you'll see what I mean.

It's a real shame.


Nathan said...

Hi Marcus,

I completely agree with you about many of the comments on Warner's blog. And you're definitely right that Warner himself doesn't bother to address the article in any useful fashion. I felt compelled to comment to the author of the article out of a hope that it might make some difference. I also posted my letter, as well as a comment about the cordial response I received from Mr. Dunagan on Brad's blog. (It's the first time I've ever left a response on Brad's blog precisely because of the tendency towards rant and nonsense that occurs there.)


Algernon said...

Good for you. I like your letter to Mr. Dungan and commend your willingness to make contact with him and inform him of your perspective. It may be, as Christine reports from experience, that he is not interested in a real conversation about Zen practice and will simply look for hooks and talking points to use, but there is no harm in the initial outreach and who knows?

Marcus said...

Hello again Nathan,

Just a thought (perhaps I missed it somewhere) - did you respond to his reply?

I think I might be able to guess something of what you'd say to each of his 3 questions, but your response would, I think, if you do/did reply, make interesting reading for all of us.

So all the very best, and best wishes for your continued dialogue with this person if you choose to pursue it,