October 30, 2014

Measuring Reality

Consider our first multi-day meditation retreat. After a couple of days of discomfort, both physical and psychological, the rebellious ego begins to question the authority of the "strange Oriental monk" with his odd and inscrutable methods. We begin to search our mental archives and apply some unique application of a "post-modern certainty" to why we're here at all. After all, we reason, we're so much better informed now, can't we afford to be more "self-reliant" in our quest? 

In Chan our task is to discriminate - not between the false and the false, but between the false and the real. Differences in outward appearance do not matter at all. The real world is inside us. It is even inside our mind."
-- Hsu Yun

In "Western Zen: Transition and Turmoil", our Abbot, Rev. Chuan Zhi, highlights some challenges faced by Chan practitioners as it continues to transition from it's native Asian shores to a modern Western world.

For the "dharma wheel" to keep turning, the "face" of Chan must alter its expression in order to be able to communicate effectively to a new audience, one that's accustomed to different ways of thinking, acting and expressing itself. Different histories, different races, different cultures, and different values mean that a wholesale "transplant" of a religious system cannot hope to be effective if clumsily extracted from the soil that created its initial growth and development.

Western Chan is already showing distinctive traits. It's showing that it must accommodate itself to our intellectual penchant for science, philosophy, and psychology. It is also accommodating to a "Christian" oriented view of religion, adopting, and adapting to, terminologies, garments, and even methods of practice. Further, our post-modern culture expects modern political and value systems to be reflected in any "new" philosophy or religion. Feminism, same-sex politics and expression, and political egalitarianism are examples evidenced in the vast majority of contemporary Buddhist literature.

Yet we do well to query much of the relevance of ancient Indian, Chinese or Japanese cultural accretions in their practice. Asking tough questions of our methodologies is valid, and important. But who says we need to sit on the floor cross-legged? Who says that the teacher should expect to be elevated to the status of an ideal being? Who says that we need to chant the Heart Sutra before meditation? Who says celibacy or vegetarianism are essential ingredients of "the Path?"

It's prudent to ask which Chan traditions are relevant or useful.

But let's be wary lest we throw out the baby with the bathwater. If our urge to "break away" from the shackles of the past simply disguises an unwillingness to commit to a difficult practice, we should stop ourselves. We must not be led unawares to the false notion that by discriminating between differences in culture and tradition, we are discriminating between what is real and what is false. More often we end up in a game of discriminating between the false and the false: falling into yet another insidious trap fabricated by the ego. When we begin choosing and selecting only those practices/regimens that "suit us" we undermine the essence of Chan practice itself.

One of the first things we realize as we embark on a serious practice of ruthless self-examination is that our ego leaps around like a "landed fish" using one of Hsu Yun's often referenced similes. The ego looks to anything, to any excuse, to undermine this hard and demanding process.

Consider our first multi-day meditation retreat. After a couple of days of discomfort, both physical and psychological, the rebellious ego begins to question the authority of the "strange Oriental monk" with his odd and inscrutable methods. We begin to search our mental archives and apply some unique application of a "post-modern certainty" to why we're here at all. After all, we reason, we're so much better informed now, can't we afford to be more "self-reliant" in our quest? We don't need to sit here and suffer. We can just be "more mindful" when we go back to our family, friends, work and social life. And anyway, we continue musing, since we are so much more aware of the history of Chan, and we've got all the right writings and dharma talks recorded at home, why not just "up and leave?" We can do our sitting in the comfort of our own homes where we can use a chair ... and a cushion ... with our feet up. And maybe have our favorite relaxation CD on in the background. And maybe take the evening off from our meditation schedule to see a friend. And maybe ... well heck, we may as well pull a beer out of the fridge . . .

By juxtaposing our cultural and social values with those of the Buddha's time, or those of the many historical Chan masters, we simply set the false against the false, and the result is subversion of our own practice - of our own lives.

Another issue that possibly leads us to attempt to discriminate the false from the false is what we might loosely call our cultural arrogance and the setting up of a measure of relative merit between our values and the values of another.

Recently I have been researching the 'net to look for new ways Buddhism is expressing itself and adapting to the West, and a recurring theme keeps coming up. Phrases such as "for Buddhism to be successful in the America, it needs to ...", or "outdated thinking needs to come into the new millennium ...", or "what was appropriate for uneducated Indians is not appropriate for us ...", etc., are plentiful. It strikes me that often we in the West approach the dharma with a critical eye demanding that it justify itself against our more "enlightened" modern Western views. If it's not egalitarian, feminist, "engaged", or psycho-dynamically sound enough, for example, then it obviously doesn't "measure up."

A contemporary Buddhist writer recently argued that Buddhism was fundamentally flawed until it came to America, where more "modern and enlightened" values essentially "brought it to completion." One bemusing claim in the article was that if only there had been more American Buddhist influence in Tibet during the late 1950's, the Chinese government would never have been able to occupy that country! Somehow, to this writer, the idea of not resisting and organizing resistance in a "modern civil rights" manner indicated the need for a more Western approach to "engaged Buddhism." A mild case of cultural arrogance?

Let's face it, we don't bring a whole lot of humility to the table when we try and see how Buddhism "measures up" in a Western context.

Yet not for a moment would I criticize or disregard the value of "engaged Buddhism", where it is considered a social imperative to promote the principles of justice and equality in the world around us. But we need to be attentive to whether our own "engaged Buddhism" is a natural outpouring of spontaneous compassion and loving-kindness, or a Western socio-political prejudice we assume to be axiomatic resulting in actions that seem naturally "the right thing to do." If the latter, then we are approaching the world solely from the perspective of the conditioned ego and its systems of values and beliefs, where we do nothing more than argue and discriminate the false from the false. Our urge to fix the world and save others can often simply reflect the power of the ego and its attachment to opinions and attitudes, and an unquestioning assumption regarding "how the world should work." Our lives become governed by self-righteousness rather than Prajna (Dharma wisdom).

For example, I frequently encounter commentaries on how "monastic" Buddhism is inappropriate for the West, hearing arguments like "It cuts one off from the real world and therefore is simply irresponsible escapism." Such an attitude demonstrates only a conditioned response, one determined by a series of modern political and social assumptions, whose ultimate purpose is solely to discount Buddhism.


We tend to use our capacity to judge, assess and discriminate to such a degree that we forget that the teachings of Buddha, and the principles of Chan, are really very simple. One of the most immediate and obvious drawbacks with our tendency to discriminate and judge is that to do so we must already have assumed a solid position from which to do so. When we assess the relevance and merit of Chan to our modern life, we do so from the position of having already made a series of value judgments, based on a necessarily ego-dominated mode of viewing the world.

Whenever we judge the Buddhadharma, or its expression in various times and places, we do so from a position of conditioned assumptions. It is this conditioning that creates our sense of self, our views and opinions. We owe it to ourselves to make at least a cursory assessment of this conditioning, and to recognize the conditioning's accountability for our perspectives and attitudes.

What are some of the conditioned assumptions with which we approach this tendency to discriminate, in Hsu Yun's words, the "false from the false?" There are, of course, innumerable influences that create our own value systems and opinions, but let's take a look at just a couple: post-modernism and consumerism.

Post-modernism

In the late 19th Century the English mystic and philosopher Aleister Crowley foresaw the rising intellectual uncertainty that later came to characterize the nascent post-modernist view. He wrote:

"Every idea has been attacked by thinkers, and none has withstood attack. Hence civilization crumbles. No settled principles remain. Today all constructive statesmanship is empiricism or opportunism. It has been doubted whether there is any real relation between Mother and Child, any real distinction between Male and Female. The human mind, in despair, seeing insanity imminent in the breaking up of these coherent images, has tried to replace them by ideals which are only saved from destruction, at the very moment of their birth, by their vagueness."

It's worth noting that Chan has always had quite a strong "post-modernist" flavor of its own. The iconoclasm of both is readily apparent, as is the complete lack of trust in any value system based solely on intellectual and moral assumptions. Indeed, Chan was much criticized when it first arrived in the West due to what was perceived as its "laissez-faire" attitude to morality. However, as a more informed expression of Chan reached Western shores, such a criticism proved unfounded. Chan, separated from Buddhist morality, it's Precepts and sila (morality teachings) is not real Chan, and here it differs considerably from the typical post-modern view of morality at the most essential level.

In the West, there is no doubt that as a society we are experiencing on a large scale a reaction to the patriarchal and authoritative institutions that have governed us in the past. To many of us our initial attraction to Chan is its sometimes apparent disregard for rules and regulations. Such an attraction, however, is ill-founded. A strict and committed adherence to moral assumptions is assumed, and no significant advance along the Chan path is possible without due reverence to Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Speech.

The "Beat Zen" leaders of early American Chan significantly failed to recognize that their "post-modern Zen" was based on erroneous views of a system of practice that, in reality, vigorously eschewed the intellectual, social and moral libertinism that characterized much of the post-modern perspective of society. When we bring to our practice some of the indulgent attitudes of this temperament, we are destined to misunderstand our practice, and more than likely to self-righteously dismiss it altogether.

Consumerism

Not only are we a society significantly influenced by post-modernist thought, we are also undeniably influenced by consumerist values. All of us are subject to the codes and assumptions of capitalist and market values. We are well aware of the fact that our economy, both personal and national, is based largely on the premise of personal greed, craving, and material gain. There seems to be no part of the world around us that's not shaped by consumerist assumptions and expressions: billboards, fashion, food, advertising ... it's a long list. Indeed, most consider it completely normal to choose our occupation -- and measure our success -- solely, or at least predominantly, on the basis of earning power and the capacity to buy and consume.

But the consumerist ethic is the diametric opposite of the Buddha's path. Where the First Noble Truth teaches the all-pervading reality of suffering, and the Second Noble Truth teaches that craving and greed are paramount in the arising of this suffering, our consumerist society incessantly shouts at us that if only we own this, if only we buy that, will we find release from suffering. This ethic was the essence of Mara's temptations to Gotama as he sat beneath the bodhi tree; it was only as Gotama saw the lies in these offerings that he could attain enlightenment.

The consumerist ethic also intrudes on our Western practice in more invidious ways. It undermines our entire commitment to detachment with promises of samsaric "gains". Certainly, we don't need to give away everything we own and wander from house to house in our robe with begging bowl in hand. But our society and its values does make it difficult to find time for meditation when we have to work for money so we can make our mortgage payment, fill the car with gas, buy food for the family and help the kids with their college tuition.

Do our unquestioned consumerist values lead us to dismiss the demands required of a consistent and solid Buddhist practice? Specifically, for instance, those related to maintaining a strong sense of detachment from material goods? Do our measurement of Buddhism and its "relevance" to a modern Western practice simply arise from a characteristically Western inability to separate luxury from necessity?

Our consumerist world also encourages us to subscribe to a belief in the economic superiority of the market system where all progress is based on trade and barter, supply and demand, and the rules that apply to such "reciprocal relationships." Inevitably, we find that such a philosophy seeps into our personal and even spiritual lives. We barter and we bargain, not only in our financial dealings, but in our personal relationships. We give, but only as long as we get. We face hardship and pain and we pray to our gods like supplicants who can make trade with the Divine, promising improved behaviour if we're given relief. We are encouraged in all areas of our life to enter into reciprocal relationships, where the same principles that run our economy run all areas of our lives. Like marionettes, we pray that our operator pulls the right strings - for we have abandoned our will to societies' binding forces.