Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Heart of Buddhist Practice?

Where does the heart of Buddhist practice live? Is it in zazen, or sitting practice? Is it in the rituals of practice? Is it in our texts? Over at The Zennist blog, I just read the following post. The post is primarily about the hermit monks interviewed in the documentary Amongst White Clouds, a wonderful film I viewed on my summer break in August. The Zennist writes the following commentary on "Western Buddhism," (a term I find very clunky, but will use for now because he is using it):

Not in any showy or pretentious manner, these hermits keep the tradition of Buddhism alive through their practice. From what I could see, their practice seems not to have succumbed to any of the modern tendencies which seem, regrettably, to have made inroads into Western Buddhist practice. One regrettable example is the enthronement of zazen or seated meditation over the text, not to mention the psychologization of Buddhism, in general, changing its focus to self-help.

For anyone who reads The Zennist's blog regularly, you'll know of his love of the Buddhist text. Texts are, for him, the heart of the practice.

Given that, I wonder the following questions. First, how does one work with texts knowing that oral tradition was a driving force of the practice for centuries?

Second, are the only texts worthy of study those of old, or will there continue to be texts added to the "canon"?

Third, are the many, many Buddhist practitioners across the world who either don't read texts, or whose practice is not text-based simply second class practitioners?

Fourth, how does an emphasis on text - on words - change the nature of our experience of, and interaction with, the world?

The way I see it currently, answering the question what is the heart of Buddhist practice? with any of the following answers - zazen, texts, rituals, work practice - it seems to miss the mark. In my opinion, emphasizing texts places too much value on literacy as a means to enlightenment. Think about it. Under this view, if you're illiterate, or lack the literacy skills needed to read these complex tomes, you're out of luck. (Of course, there is the practice of reciting and memorizing texts and dharma poems, which could remedy this problem to some degree. However, I don't think this is what people like The Zennist are getting at.) Overall, the emphasis on texts doesn't necessarily wash with the history of our practice, which is filled with all kinds of folks who, in various ways, came to enlightenment. Texts are one very good path, but there are many others as well. I think it's better to remain open about this kind of question, than to declare an answer strongly as the gospel truth.


spldbch said...

The post you cited mentions the "psychologization" of Buddhism that has turned it into something to be used for "self-help." But isn't Buddhism, at least in some ways, about self-help? (Of course it's also about other-help). The thing I like about Buddhism is that it has something to offer eveyrone, even those who aren't practicing Buddhists.

Anonymous said...

The Zennist has been abit more forgiving as of late concerning us poor diluted "Western" Buddhist. The old bag of rice must be getting soft in is old age (or maybe fermenting).

I think his toolbox is small in that it only contains hammers. Which must be quite handy for a person that only has to pound nails into a roof.

From my experience I've got a few screws loose as well as some nuts that need loosening. Thus my toolbox contains more than just hammers.

I do appreciate the Zennist for his valuable contributions towards my love of hammers, though. I include a few now for those pesky nails.

Ever try to pound a screw in with a hammer? It gets the job done but strips the screw and doesn't hold well.



Anonymous said...

While I was reading your blog I heard a pebble hit a stick of I missed your point...but the pebble was quite interesting...:)


Anonymous said...

I'd say I have to disagree. I've gone back and read almost his entire blog, and though he has a great knowledge of texts, I don't think the texts are the heart of practice... in fact, far from it.

I think his point, and I see this too in the predominant culture in pop Buddhism is the idea that, as Dogen put it, sitting is enlightenment, which it is most certainly not. And practice is much more than fixing yourself psychologically. The Zennist continuously attempts to draw his readers to the Pure Mind, which I think that he would say is the heart of practice.

If he has any emphasis on the texts I think it would be to counter-balance the misinformation and blatant silliness rampant in western "pop" Buddhism. Putting on robes and buying the props, reading all the latest fad books, and learning how to talk "Zen" doesn't connect you with Pure Mind. No, practice is much deeper than that, and I think that is his point.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with one being intimate with the texts, not for the sake of knowledge, but toward the development of practice.

Nathan said...

Hi Jamie,

You make some very valid points. I definitely have not read enough of The Zennist's blog to see a wider view he might be pointing to. What's funny about texts is that I actually love studying them, and find them to be of great value in shifting my muck-filled mind. It just strikes me that it's easy to get too dependent on them, to treat them as unwavering, unquestionable truths in the way fundamentalist Christians treat the Bible, or fundamentalist Muslims treat the Koran. But your points make me want to read more of The Zennist's work, to see what else is there.


I think most of us who find Buddhism as adults gravitate initially out of a desire to "get better" or have a "better life." Nothing wrong with that in my opinion. But at some point, that all has to be let go of, or else you are just trying to help yourself, no matter how nice it sounds. I think The Zennist and Jamie both point to another problem as well, which essentially is that a lot of people are reducing Buddhism to a self-help toolbox, which it isn't.

To me, that's different from seeing that sitting meditation benefits people, for example, and then adding it to your clinical practice(I can imagine you might do this.) There's nothing wrong with that in my opinion; in fact, I encourage it. The problem comes when people say things like "Buddhism is a method to deal with your emotions." That's a gross reduction of a deep and long lasting spiritual tradition.


Nathan said...

Update: from The Zennist today "If one is really practicing Buddhism, they have to spend a lot of time studying the Sutras, otherwise they are not authentic practitioners." Jamie, I think that's a pretty clear stance about texts.

Anonymous said...

Again, I don't see much of a problem here. Don't confuse everyone having their own gate out of the 84,000 to awaken. We all have our own path up the mountain, so to speak.

However, whatever path we may take doesn't necessarily mean it is the Zen path specifically, which is okay if you choose another path... but you can't call it Zen.

How can one say they are a Zen practitioner without becoming aware of at least the basic nomenclature of Zen practice? Again, I don't believe that the Zennist is saying that text study equates enlightenment, but rather how can you call yourself a Zennist if you don't study Zen texts and become familiar with what Zen is? How can you properly discuss Zen practice with others if you aren't willing to become familiar with the tradition and heritage of Zen practice? You can't do this by just sitting... you have to become intimately familiar with the tradition.

Again, I'm not saying you can't get up the mountain, you just can't call it Zen.

I enjoy Dzogchen teaching, but the tradition emphasizes having in-person personal instruction and guidance from an authentic teacher. I can't really call myself a Dzogchen practitioner until I do so. I can call my path something else, but not true Dzogchen practice.

Again, I see no problem with what the Zennist posits.

Nathan said...

"Authentic" is a word that raises huge red flags for me - it's a good way of saying my way is the right way to view Zen, or whatever, and any other way is false.

I say this as a sutra student, a member of Zen sangha who regularly performs the handed down to us rituals and forms.

This whole authentic business has been going on for centuries. Dogen railed on those practicing in Japan nearly 800 years ago as not authentic enough. Before him, there was Bodhidharma's critiques, just to bring up two easy examples. It's always shifting about if you ask me.