There has been a fair amount of discussion online in recent weeks about what is, and isn't "extreme" when it comes to Buddhist practice. This is stemming from the debacle in Michael Roach's Diamond Mountain community, which has made it into the mainstream news.
Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien, in one of her posts on the Diamond Mountain situation, writes:
I've been thinking about long meditation retreats. Silent meditation retreats can be intense, and three years is extreme. My understanding is that in the Tibetan traditions, three-year retreats are undertaken only by people who already have been nuns or monks for at least a dozen years. So they are already well acclimated to the discipline of monasticism and have experienced many other silent retreats. The three-year retreat is not going to be a complete shock to their systems.
No matter how you slice it, a three year retreat is extreme for the vast majority of people. It may, however, be the perfect level of challenge for a select few whose practice has moved in a direction where such an experience might be exactly what is called for. Odds are for these people, too, it's still "too much" in certain ways, and yet the way they handle that too much is probably markedly different from the way that most of us do.
Zen teacher Brad Warner had this to add in another post:
The early Buddhists did three month retreats during the Indian rainy season when there wasn’t much else anyone could do. This tradition is carried on in many places in the form of what Japanese Buddhists call an ango, a retreat lasting around 90 days that typically occurs in the Summer (though spring, winter and fall angos are common these days too). Three months is pretty intense and there’s a good reason Buddha never recommended doing retreats any longer than that.
While reading the story I found myself wondering just how Mr. Roach Geshe justified such an excessively long retreat. A clue can be found on their website which says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ sounds vague and mystical, but the Buddha taught that it is quite achievable by deliberately following a series of steps. The three-year retreatants have been studying and practicing the steps very seriously for the last six or more years, and by going into the laboratory of solitary retreat they hope (to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha.”
So they figured that if they went at it really hard for three years they’d get enlightened.
Sometimes, I get the sense that the historical Buddha's story gets fetishized. That even though thousands of others have followed widely divergent paths in the past 2500+ years to some form of awakening or enlightenment, there is this idea amongst some that we have to follow in the exact footsteps of Shakyamuni. Never mind that we couldn't even if we tried. The guy grew up and lived in a different pattern of causes and conditions than any of us live in today. So, while we are inspired by his teachings, and use forms that are in some ways just like what he and the first sangha used to practice with - it's not the same. Nor even similar really. And that's for the best in my opinion.
Over at Mumon's blog is a partial rebuttal of a previous post of mine, which also ties into this discussion. Mumon highlights this quote from my post:
In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud.
And then, later in his post, has this to say:
But the other comment, well, I think that comment is not informed by the experience of which I know.
The fact of the matter is, the historical Buddha himself went to extremes in his practice. Eventually he realized a middle-way course of action, but not before hitting the rails. Typically that's the way practitioners work. Again, you can't say "how much is right" without addressing areas from which motivation comes. Note: the point is not to go anywhere near the rails! The point I'm trying to make is without an ongoing commitment, a resolution to effort no fruits of effort are ever realized.
Yeah, Soto folk: I'm saying even to just sit that requires effort. At the very least the effort required to make the commitment to do so.
But...how much effort?
Well, I'll get to that, but first off, but in the spirit of Bill Maher, I'd like to posit a new rule: Soto folks shouldn't opine about koan ( 公案) practice. Seriously folks, what is your point about writing about it if you don't know what it is, and if you haven't practiced it. And just because a Soto teacher "told you" about 公案 practice doesn't mean that teacher knows anything about 公案 practice.
First off, Mumon's right: I don't really know shit about koan practice. A lot of Soto Zen folks don't know shit about it. We've studied some koans in a cursory manner, maybe even taken up a few with our teachers in a much more direct manner. But I'm guessing it's not a central practice for the majority Soto Zen practitioners.
At the same time, there seems to be some that old Soto/Rinzai ax grinding going on here. And I want to stay on track with the issue of right effort and extreme practice here.
In the post Mumon quotes from, I was essentially equating certain forms of extreme practice with men. And by extension, suggesting that the sexism that pervading Buddhist history also has impacted our very notions of what it means to make right effort, and what is considered "enough" and "not enough." He dismisses this link, something that I will admit pissed me off when I first read it. Because frankly, sexism is pretty pervasive in our world. And little is untouched on the relative level.
However, I then went back to earlier in Mumon's post, where he wrote the following:
I'm trying to say that, for at least the reason of how ideation is verbalized, that someone with a less than titanium composure might commit to more than effort than he is able to commit, because he can't ideate the notion of "too much."
This points to the fact - I believe - that going to some sort of extreme is basically necessary. That each of us "won't know" we've gone too far until we do. And from those experiences, we then get a better sense of who we are and where we are at.
None of which justifies the kind of extreme measures being employed at Diamond Mountain, which already led to one person's death. Nor the kind of macho Zen I wrote of in that previous post which is both present, and problematic.
There's room for questioning the extremes, and also recognizing the value of extremes in our lives.
What do you think about all of this?