Thursday, May 06, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday: mixed nuts

The following is excerpted from the first chapter of Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein.

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In the early days of my interest in Buddhism and psychology, I was given a particularly vivid demonstration of how difficult it was going to be to forge an integration between the two. Some friend of mine had arranged for an encounter between two prominent visiting Buddhist teachers at the house of a Harvard University psychology professor. These were teachers from two distinctly different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose traditions had in fact had very little contact over the past thousand years. Before the worlds of Buddhism and Western psychology could come together, the various strands of Buddhism would have to encounter one another. We were to witness the first such dialogue.

The teacher, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other's understanding of the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of the onlooking Western students. This was to be a high form of what was being called dharma combat (the clashing of great minds sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved. The two monks entered with swirling robes-- maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere gray and black for the Korean-- and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (mala) with one hand while murmuring, "Om mane padme hum" continuously under his breath. The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, "Keep that don't-know mind!" at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. "What is this?" he demanded of the lama. "What is this?" This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given.

The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.

"What is this?" the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan's nose.

Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk next to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally, the translator addressed the room: "Rinpoche says, 'What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?'"

The dialogue progressed no further.

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It's a mysterious final sentence. Did the dialogue end with hearty laughter, as I imagine it would in Seung Sahn's case? I wish I'd been there. I'm also a bit suspicious about the momentousness of the occasion: while it may be true that various strands of Buddhism haven't been in constant contact with each other, rival schools of thought throughout Buddhism's history have certainly interacted. In Chinese Buddhism's history, you'll find cross-pollination going on between schools like Hua-yen, Ch'an, T'ien-t'ai, and Pure Land. A lot of this interaction filtered down into Korea. Japanese history has also seen quite a bit of internecine rivalry between various schools of Buddhism, many of which were originally Chinese.

Epstein's passage fascinates me the way a traffic accident can transfix a rubbernecker. The above event is delightfully messy (not to imply that traffic accidents are delightful). We're almost literally seeing an apples-and-oranges situation here: two radically different approaches to dharma combat. Tibetan debate, from what little I know of it, is actually very scholarly, but it's exciting for the onlookers because it can also involve a lot of bluster-- theatrical gestures, shouts, and sibilants to intimidate the opponent. There's little analogous to this in Zen-style dharma combat, which to me is more like those fighters in kung fu films who leap nimbly from one bamboo plant to another, or those Japanese movies in which two samurai fight merely by staring, their percipience honed to the point where they take the measure of their opponent in a single glance.

I don't know enough about it, but I'm tempted to say Tibetan debate, in its strategy and psychology, is more analogous to the debating component of Talmudic study (pilpul) than to Zen dharma combat. Talmudic study can be tempestuous; the teacher and student both have to attain and exhibit a high degree of mastery of the relevant scriptures. Not only that, they have to be able to interpret them on the fly in a paroxysm of inspired cross-referencing. It's a sublime fusion of logic and artistry, this style of learning. I think a Tibetan debater would feel right at home watching a rabbi and his student go at each other.

This might be a good subject for a paper: a comparative look at Tibetan debate and Talmudic study.

Switching gears, but remaining with Seung Sahn a bit:

Dr. Vallicella wasn't that impressed with Seung Sahn's argumentation. I quoted Seung Sahn:

Zen does not explain anything. Zen does not analyze anything.

Dr. Vallicella's reply to this idea was:

This is just false. Zen is a form of Buddhism. Buddhism explains things. For example, it explains dukkha, suffering, in terms of desire (Second Noble Truth). Buddhism analyzes all sorts of things. What is the Chariot argument if not a piece of analysis? What is the doctrine of the five aggregates if not a product of analysis? Other examples could easily be given. Your man Sahn seems to be off to a very bad start indeed.

I've dealt somewhat with this question of the degree to which Zen is a form of Buddhism (see my paper here). I actually agree with Dr. Vallicella that it'd be wrong to contend, as Ray Grigg does, that Zen is merely Taoism in institutional Buddhism's clothing: Zen is a form of Buddhism-- or at least, Zen Buddhism is a form of Buddhism. Nevertheless, there are moments in Zen discourse where the Taoism peeks through more strongly than does the Buddhism. Seung Sahn's above remark, I think, falls very much into that category. It's obviously Taoist in tone. It's consistent with the playful, non-analytical style of Chuang-tzu. The above blockquote from Dr. Vallicella applies to some degree to Mahayana in general, but far more so to Theravada thought, which retains more of an Indian flavor than does most Mahayana. The Indians were more recognizably philosophical in their approach, at least when compared to the Chinese. I don't think Dr. Vallicella's comment in any way detracts from Seung Sahn's observation.

More on Dr. Vallicella's response to my posts tomorrow.


A brief article on Tibetan Buddhist monastic debate can be found here.

A short paper, with a sample of a Tibetan monastic debate on page 4, can be found here. The PDF version is here.

[UPDATE, 10/5/04: I've been told the above links are dead. I managed to find the PDF online, and have uploaded it to my FTP space. If you want to access the PDF, hit this link, which will work for as long as I have this blog. In theory, anyway.]

Fantastic resource on Tibetan monastic debate (I'm still reading through it) here. If these debates occur in English, I'd love to sit at one.

Daniel Perdue has apparently written the book on Tibetan Buddhist debate.

On pilpul (debate/dialectic) and its role in Talmudic study:

The Free Dictionary's definition of pilpul.

Another site's definition of pilpul.

A neat quote about pilpul:

Pilpul is a process of dialectical reasoning much practised in yeshivot. Since it can easily degenerate into over-subtle hairsplitting the rabbinical authorities have long tried to curb its more extreme forms. Without much success – if Heine’s quip der Talmud ist eine j├╝dische Fechtschule (fencing academy) is to be believed.

Of course, the Jews didn’t have a monopoly on casuistry; the very term has Jesuit associations. Even so, generation after generation of talmudic disputants must have helped to shape our collective DNA. That this has had a largely positive effect is borne out by the large number of Jewish legal luminaries, from US Supreme Court Judge Frankfurter to Lord Chief Justice Woolf. But it has also produced an embarrassingly large number of Jewish smart alecs who will argue that black is white till they are blue in the face.

I'm still looking for more resources on pilpul's history. Surprisingly hard to find, even after Googling "pilpul."