Thursday, December 13, 2012

Real Zen Practice


I seriously love this post by long time reader and blogger Jeanne of the Dalai Grandma blog. Among other things, it speaks to American Zen's obsession with form and "real" practice, and to our collective failure to live compassionately.

Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone. It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight. They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness. They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.

I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left. I hope it wasn't to a bar. In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat. The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.

In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers. I've visited there. There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot. This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it.

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with one of our senior teachers, talking about vision for the Zen Center. As board president, I've been doing this kind of stuff for multiple years now, reflecting together with my dharma brothers and sisters upon what our sangha's values are, and how we might go about implementing those values into functions and structures in the future.

What is it that we are doing well, and what is it that we could improve or change completely? I asked those questions to this particular senior teacher yesterday, amongst several others. His responses were interesting. A blend of we're perfect just as we are, and we could use a little improvement, to echo Suzuki Roshi.

One thing I noticed though - and I've long admired this teacher's calm, wise, and reflective presence - is how there was a current of this "real practice" thing that Jeanne mentions in her post above. Namely, that what constitutes real Zen is found in retreats, periods of sutra study, and lots and lots of upright seated zazen. Now, the chair vs. cushion bit isn't an issue here. The teacher in question moved to sitting in a chair several years ago in response to his aging body. He, in fact, has even given time during dharma talks to speak about this move, and others. Like I said, I've long respected how he carries himself, and so it's important that I offer a more complete picture here.

When I read posts like Jeanne's, and consider my own, twisted and evolving practice, what I think we're getting at is the failure to really practice the relational. That Americans especially, steeped in individualism as we are, don't tend to do community well. Struggle sometimes with basic kindness. And sharing. Working together without lots of conflict. Feeling gratitude for each other. Embodying the relational qualities of Buddha's teachings, in other words.

For those of us who aren't living in monasteries, there's a lot of forgetting - or never knowing really - of all the ways in which Buddha's teachings were born of, and enhanced by, being in sangha together over the long haul. In a much different way than we lay folks are "in sangha." And yet, at the same time, Buddha's teachings were not exclusive to monks and nuns, and didn't emphasize one way of practice to awaken. He offered different forms and focuses for different folks. Those who came along later were the ones that decided certain forms and focuses were "the best" or "only true" ways to wake up in this life.

Even though I have rarely done formal retreat practice at zen center in recent years, I continue to have a love for its ability to support people to let go and see deeply. I wouldn't be the person I am today without the hours and hours of zazen and bowing and chanting and fumbling through oryoki I have done at zen center over the past decade. Nor do I think to myself "I'm done with all that." Not at all. It's more that I'm listening to the rhythm of my life and trying to be the reed for the current sound to come through. Which of late, has meant some unright zazen. And things like walking meditation with silent lovingkindness chanting in the skyways downtown during lunchtime. Or yoga nidra practice lying on my back. Or studying Dogen with dharma friends in their homes. Or simply offering a kind word, sense of gratitude, or a bit of humor for whomever I see when I'm at zen center.

What is real practice? How do you know?

11 comments:

Jeanne Desy said...

Thank you, Nathan. I feel that you gave a needed softness to the issue. And I'm glad it mattered to someone.

Robyn said...

A fierce heart for the Dharma is a soft heart.

(wish I could say that this comes from me but it doesn't...)

Mumon K said...

Ah, Soto Zen.

"Special-endurance Zen" is an oft-cited feature (not exactly a bug) of the Rinzai world.

But it doesn't at all encompass Rinzai Zen, at least in the Hakuin tradition.

Not even a scintilla of it.

It's because there's an element of everyday 功夫 ("kung fu" in its origina sense) involved in the practice of Rinzai Zen, at least as Hakuin envisaged it.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Good post, Nathan.

Let it also be said that the "Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone" is NOT unique to or originated in US Zen practice!

Miriam Levering has a wonderful essay in Jose Cabezon's Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender entitled "Lin-chi (Rinzai) Ch'an and Gender: The Rhetoric of Equality and the Rhetoric of Heroism" which shows that despite the talk about equality in Zen, the heroic model was/is very masculinist and a women was considered "equal" only if she could "take it like a man."

In light of your discussion of American individualism, I think it interesting that in Asia, which has a traditionally and more general "collectivist" culture, much of zen training's heroics used the rhetoric of individualism which was the last thing American zen practitioners needed, and it was taking on that rhetoric literally that also fed into the American "endurance-do-it-yourself" mindset.

Up until fairly recently, one would NEVER hear about practicing metta-bhavana in any zen center, but now (thanks to some women teachers) there are at least several I know of offering such practices.

Again, thanks for this post; it needs to be said!

David Ashton said...

Thanks for this one, Nathan, and for sharing Jeanne's post - both timely and needed.

What is real practice? Not knowing and being kind. How do I know? I don't.

Anonymous said...

"real practice" no such thing.
"no Real"
"no unreal"
7 day sesshins
IMHO are pissing contests, oh let me tell you . . .
Their all simply another sitting rat race.

COMPASSION

Farmer monk said...

Real Zen is helping Darlene Cohen put on her robes and kesa, as she could no longer do. I sat next to her once, and her living, aching body was a full lotus.

http://www.darlenecohen.net/welcome.html

Stephen said...

I didn't have quite the same positive reaction to the post. I think the idea that escaping your life to a peaceful zen place to "really practice" is mistake that almost everyone has/makes when they first start practicing. Inasmuch as they want to escape suffering and believe that peace is somewhere other than where they are. Are we not supposed to point that out to people in some helpful way?

Also what does a lexus or a bmw in the parking lot have to do with anything? Is it a symbol of a practice that is not true? How? Is it a symbol of money that should have been spent more wisely according to the Truth? Is it a statement that the person who has one is too attached to worldly things? Isn't a judgment about someone else's lexus more problematic than the fact of someone owning one?

I have no doubt that there is a lot of misplaced effort in zen practice. But also think it's par for the course. Striving to be enlightened won't do. But not striving won't do either. I don't think I know what real practice is. And I think everyone is an expert in what real practice is not.

Nathan said...

"I think it interesting that in Asia, which has a traditionally and more general "collectivist" culture, much of zen training's heroics used the rhetoric of individualism which was the last thing American zen practitioners needed..."

This is a really good point. It's very true that the heroic individualist focus goes back a long way in Zen. All those stories of monks doing dramatic, seemingly impossible practices and then being held up as the greatest of teachers. I love some of those stories, but also think they're trouble for a lot of us.

Stephen - it's interesting. You're comment about escaping to a peaceful place to "really practice." I see this mistake all over the place, not just with beginners. Some of the debate about vision in my sangha is tied to a desire, amongst some members, to have a place that isn't "noisy" and encumbered by the presence of lots of other folks doing everyday activities. We are situated in downtown, in an area undergoing significant change. It may or may not be the case that a move is the right answer, but I have to wonder if what you are talking about is behind some of the frustrations being expressed.

Also, I can understand why you're questioning the comments about the Lexus. At the same time, there is a fair amount of unchecked classism in American Buddhist circles. "Real" practice is often tied in people's mind with activities that only a privileged few can access. Like 3 month retreats. Seeing a parking lot full of fancy cars, and hearing conversations like the one Jeanne heard, sets off bells.

At the end of the day, misplaced effort is part of the way. It's another dharma gate, if you turn yourself ever so slightly. I was quite fond for a short time with a bowing practice that physically exhausted me. Bowing for each of the ancestors, male and female, in our lineage. The pivot came when I saw it was about gratitude, and felt that gratitude running through my veins. That I didn't have to do every last bow every time. Just don't forget all those that brought this practice forth. That every bow, in whatever context, could be that remembering.

Carol said...

Nathan,
Thank you for your frank post (and Jeanne's ) on the question of what is real practice. I have deep respect and gratitude, and feel I have much to learn yet, about the contemplative core that the teachers at the sangha are instructing us in. And I also am concerned that we in the Zen center are not being very clear or purposeful about community.

Yesterday I was talking with 2 friends who used to be sangha members - in fact, they introduced me to the sangha years ago - who left because they were looking for a spiritual community. One of them gave as example that when her mother died, she needed a community who could help her grieve.

I've been thinking and talking with friends about how to have real conversations with people who have differnt values than me, about our society's culture of violence - and the related racism, xenophobia, misogyny, immense fear of "other" etc. It strikes me that we need to engage intimately with the communities around us, and support one another in doing that, as well as sit on our cushions.

Nathan said...

"Yesterday I was talking with 2 friends who used to be sangha members - in fact, they introduced me to the sangha years ago - who left because they were looking for a spiritual community. One of them gave as example that when her mother died, she needed a community who could help her grieve.

I've been thinking and talking with friends about how to have real conversations with people who have differnt values than me, about our society's culture of violence - and the related racism, xenophobia, misogyny, immense fear of "other" etc. It strikes me that we need to engage intimately with the communities around us, and support one another in doing that, as well as sit on our cushions."

This all is very important to me as well. The conversation we had during Sunday service this morning about the school shooting and violence in our nation was a small opening into what could be. It felt a lot more "real" than the sort of canned talk about things like doing the dishes mindfully and dealing with anger while driving. Somehow, applying our teachings to these kinds of challenging issues needs to be more central. Nor does it have to be in competition with zazen and silence. Although I still think some folks in our community would prefer to leave all that stuff at the door (an impossible task), and just sit.

Will be interesting to see what comes forth, and where things go.