Sunday, February 13, 2005

postal scrotum: Zen reassurances

Regarding an email I wrote to Sperwer saying that I hoped to do better on the next kong-an from Lorianne, Sperwer responds (email slightly edited):


I wouldn't worry about doing better; I think there's a lot of infra-dig "zen" gamesmanship in the whole koan/kong-an business the way it's done in US zen circles. People seem to operate on the assumption that Tang and Song dynasty monks went around acting like the delphic oracle all the time, when in fact these relatively slender collections of koans that exist represent the record of hundreds of years of singular encounters. So who's zooming who? Here's a koan for you: what were all those chinese doing with all the time they had on their hands because they didn't have big collections of koans to work through like the multiplication tables because most of them hadn't been performed and collected yet? For that matter, when did Shaky* and all the patriarchs up to and including Mr. zen himself, Bad Boy Bodhidharma, EVER use a koan?

One of the more interesting questions in Zen history is that of the "institutionalization" of enlightenment. Ray Grigg hits this hard in his critique of Zen Buddhism, which he views as quietistic Taoism stifled by a religious Mahayana cortex. As far as Grigg is concerned, the Buddhists ruined a perfectly decent philosophical Taoism. I don't really agree with Grigg, because I see no reason to believe that Taoism and Buddhism are immiscible. To me, they can grow into each other and form an organic whole.

But questions still remain about whether an ossified technique can be passed down as a tradition and remain an effective means of determining the state of someone's enlightenment. Can enlightenment be "certified" through a traditional procedure? Tradition makes for stability, but it also leads to stagnation and stultification. One can often tell the adherents of a lineage by the mannerisms they've adopted from their spiritual parents (e.g., Lorianne's "quick! quick!", an exhortation straight from Seung Sahn himself). I sometimes wonder whether such mannerisms represent a sincere internalization of the spirit of that lineage, or the mere aping of externals.

However: I've been fortunate to meet Zennists who face the kong-an legitimacy question squarely, and many of them earnestly apply their nondualism to it.** The kong-an technique is, an sich, not-good, not-bad. How it plays itself out in reality is very much a function of the state of the practitioner's mind, as well as the nature of the relationship between the practitioner and her teacher. The kong-an, like brushing one's teeth or taking a shit, can be an opportunity for mindfulness or for mindlessness.

As for whether the Buddha ever used or uttered a kong-an: Zennists are quick to point out the Buddha's so-called "flower sermon," in which he held a flower to his lips and said nothing, and only Mahakasyapa fully understood. Mahakasyapa's knowing smile was, Zennists argue, fully in the spirit of mind-to-mind, nonverbal transmission of enlightenment-- the Buddha's acknowledgement of that smile being the first Zen-style inka, if you will. Whether my readers accept this argument is a different matter. Some contend that the reappropriation of the flower sermon as a kong-an is simply a retroactive move by Zennists to lend legitimacy to their lineage. Your thoughts, Dear Reader?

And Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Ch'an and the putative inventor of kung fu? Well, who knows? Maybe his "18 lo-han" techniques were physical kong-ans for the Chinese monks he encountered! I haven't a clue.

In the meantime, thank you, Sperwer, for the reassurances. You're right to say, "I wouldn't worry"-- that's surely a good attitude to have. Ego has no place in the context of the kong-an, and I suspect the Buddhists would argue it has no place anywhere else, either.

As for the "fat" stuff, I'm reminded of another of Suzuki's aphorisms to the effect that "wherever you are, there is enlightenment". We've all got attachments; realizing we do is much more than half the way to losing them. As for actually losing them, it's more a matter of them losing us, i.e., falling away, which is just a function of practice, focused but undirected practice.

About ten years ago I was on a flight from Seoul to Daegu or Jeju with my wife when this really huge monk came down the aisle. He was really BIG for a Korean - looked like a defensive lineman for Minnesota: about 6'4", 250+ easily, but otherwise looked normal, i.e., he didn't have that prognothic look that some of the really big sireum guys have got. I'm 6'3" and since living in Asia am not usually physically impressed let alone intimidated by anyone, but between his size and his zen mojo I was struck enough to wise-crack to my wife that he was about the best fed monk I'd ever seen. He overheard me and smiled.



Great anecdote. I'm about 6'1" and 260 pounds, which makes me just as well-fed as the huge monk. True: we've all got attachments, but like you say, for those attachments to "lose us," it's a function of practice. Simply being content with my fattitiude isn't the way to go. That way lies continued and deliberate laziness-- not exactly a virtue found in any of the major religions.

The Christian analogue to what Sperwer is talking about is the classic one: "We are not a church of the perfect." If we were, there'd be no need for Christian practice, Christian worship, etc.

The practical upshot is that I'll have to stop the foodblogging soon and replace it with some ass-reduction blogging.

*Sperwer's nickname for Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, the Buddha.

**I'm certain Lorianne does this, too. And if her blog's any indication, she's not pretending to be a Delphic oracle. Like any good Zennist, her concern is centered here and now. I'd say Lorianne's the real deal. I don't think she gives a rat's ass what I think about her "real deal" status, but there we are.


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