Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Will Meditation Liberate You? Part 2

The previous post had so many interesting comments, I decided to continue the discussion in today's post. Thanks to everyone who wrote in so far.

First off, part of the reason I posted The Zennist's commentary is because I found myself in agreement with more of it than in disagreement. Like many of you, I keep going back to his blog because there is something to learn, whether it be about specific sutras or teachings, or if it's just a way viewing things that helps shift my own.

In fact, because the guy takes the time to write informed posts, I find that when I disagree, there's usually something to work with just as much as when I agree with him. That's refreshing in this age of pithy sound bytes that get a reaction, but ultimately do nothing to further our inquiry into our lives.

Mumon commented:

1. American/Western Zen students generally could use more cultural and historical familiarity with how Zen actually arose. The students and teachers of old spent most of their time working, and this is where practice was.

2. In the Rinzai tradition, there's Hakuin. Hakuin was big on practice in the midst of everyday life. The Zennist is at least partially Rinzai-flavored (more Chan than Zen, if I recall correctly.) If this practice stays on the cushion you might as well be in Las Vegas.

I've written about history on this blog before as well. Particularly, when it comes to Buddhism moving into North America, and the fact that many convert Buddhists have almost no knowledge about the 100 years of practice that occurred before Suzuki Roshi and others arrived in the 1950s to herd all those hippies and Beat folks. I also have a pretty dense book on my shelf that our sangha studied years ago, which looked at the emergence of Chan historically, focusing on the ways Taoism, Confucianism, and indigenous spiritual paths influenced the Buddhism that arrived "from the west" (i.e. India). Makes me instantly think of the Sandokai, which is a fairly early teaching of the Chan (Zen) school, and clearly is indebted to Taoist sources.

Nella Lou makes an important point about the internet and assumptions about who someone is when she writes the following:

And anonymous makes a whole pile of assumptions based on entries in a very focussed blog. Just because someone doesn't spread out their entire life for worldly consumption doesn't mean that they have no life to spread out. It is not possible to say "Nah" to any of those questions since you don't know the answers. Your theory of what is and isn't important to the guy who writes The Zennist lacks any sort of substantial evidence and sounds like a projection of your own thinking on his life. A few statements on a blog do not encompass the whole by any means.

I have over 100 blogs in my list, and when I consider the nature of them individually, they range from the very academic, "heady" writing of people like The Zennist, to blogs that are very personal, full of intimate details of life and practice. All of these blogs give you a taste of what someone is like, but none of them could possibly encompass an entire person.

The older I get, and the longer I've practiced paying attention to my own life, the more it seems that any narrative I have about anyone, including myself, is partial. Surprise, even with a parent, lover, or longtime friend is readily available if only you turn a little to the left or right.

Marcus, who regularly reminds people online in various ways to return to the teachings, writes:

And the emphasis on the Sutras? Good thing. Again, studying the texts alone will not get you there, but we need signposts and they are the best we have. And their study has always been one of the main activities of Zen throughout the centuries. The Zennist, when he holds up the Sutras as a benchmark, is fully in line with the Zen tradition.

I have to say I prefer the way Marcus says it here. Frequently, I get the sense that the sutras are IT for The Zennist, which maybe isn't his point, but the way he writes (I think) makes it hard to come to a different conclusion. But Marcus' point is important, and I'd like to add to it this: Let's endeavor to be influenced by a variety of teachers and teachings - not just Dogen, or Suzuki, or Pema Chodron. Let's actually dig into some of the Pali Canon, and also those old Chinese guys like Shitou. I'm saying this knowing that some us out there are already doing this, but perhaps not enough.

Or, if it's only about the Pali Canon for you, or Dogen, or whatever - go deep, really deep.

And finally, Algernon brings up some questions I often have when it comes to these kinds of discussions.

Occasionally, when someone mentions a post like this one, I'll go read the Zennist. I do not leave comments simply because I get no indication he is interested in dialogue or other perspectives, and that's fine with me -- it's his blog.

When I have read him, very often I wonder what his sangha experiences were, positive and/or negative.

Why live? What's our job? Is our job just to understand the sutras "correctly" and that's it? What if you understand the sutras but you're such a jerk you can't love anyone or inspire them?

One of the struggles I have had with blog posts like this one from The Zennist is that the specifics of daily life feel so absent. Maybe this isn't the case, but the only really strong touching down on the ground that occurs in the post is when The Zennist speaks about meditating in an abandoned mine. I actually enjoyed that detail, but it doesn't help me make the connection between discussions of the absolute and my daily life. Somehow, in my view, when a person is Zenning (a new verb for you all :) - Somehow, when a person is Zenning they need to figure out how to demonstrate the total dynamic functioning occurring in every moment. It isn't just the absolute, nor is it just the daily, relative events and manifestations. Maybe I'm just too dense to get it in The Zennist's writing, but I often come away thinking he's leaning too heavily towards the absolute, which if you dig into any number of Zen koans, you'll find a myriad of warnings about such leanings.

When it comes to writing about Buddhism online, why do it? What's your intention? Maybe this is ground worth considering for all of us Buddhist bloggers. It might even be interesting if people wrote about their intentions on their blogs, and even offered updates when some shift occurs (because intentions do shift). As I have gone on, this blog has become a part of my practice, and so I have tried treat it as such. That's one intention for me I suppose: to blog as practice. There are others as well.

I honestly don't know what The Zennist's intentions are with his blog. As much as I quibble with some of his conclusions, I'm thankful he's been out there plugging away.


Barry said...

Wonderful posts, Nathan, and also a great set of comments to yesterday's post.

I also read the Zennist regularly and usually find his/her posts instructive (although probably not often in the way intended).

There appears to be broad historical agreement that training in the Chan/Seon/Zen/Thein tradition has never been limited to "just sitting." Sutras, mantras, and other techniques have always played a central role, along with sitting, chanting, and kung-an/kong-an/koan study. Certainly the Chan/Seon/Thein traditions are highly syncretic.

Other bloggers have joined the Zennist to illuminate this point - Ted Biringer at Flatbed Sutra has written extensively about this, often quoted Dogen as a source.

That being said, no Zen teacher, to my knowledge, has ever alleged that sutra study alone can lead to awakening. Coincidentally, just today Karen Maezen Miller made this point on Cheerio Road, writing, "immersing yourself in information is like trying to learn to drive by studying the motor vehicle code."

Miller's post, and her general teaching approach, emphasizes the importance of practice in the context of ordinary life. This is not just a discovery of Western Zen Buddhism - it's present throughout the history of our tradition, even in the monasteries of Tang China.

After all, the very real impact of dukkha emanates throughout daily life - it corrodes all our human relationships whether we're cloistered or married.

For this reason, we can never take a break from practice - at least, not if we're serious about the cessation of dukkha. (Of course, we all take breaks all the time - I'm talking about aspiration.) And this same seriousness will inevitably lead us to incorporate every needed approach to awakening. The spaciousness of Mind will not distinguish between *this* and *that.*

Helmut said...

When you are cold be completely cold, when you are hot be completely hot.
When you study Sutras, study Sutras completely.
When you sit, sit completely.
When you chant, chant completely.
When you bowm bow completely
It doesn't matter what you think.
It's what you do, and most importantly, how you do it.

NellaLou said...

The Zennist has made an interesting rebuttal to all of us.

In the Province of Intuition

Nathan said...

Thanks Nella Lou. I almost wrote about his post this morning, but decided I didn't have enough of substance to say about it.

I'd encourage others to check out the link if you're interested.