September 23, 2014

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Richard Baker: The Myth of the Zen Roshi

Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian, simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d'etre is to produce people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything about Zen's presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind. This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen. David Hume said in his Of the First principles of Government (1758) that "Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers." I believe that the reason for this surrender, in the case of Zen, is clear, structural, and self-perpetuating.

 Stuart Lachs

pdfRichard Baker: Myth of the Zen Roshi 101.27 KB26/01/2012, 12:42

 Copyright © 2002 Stuart Lachs, Reprinted here with permission from the author.

Introduction

Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian, simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d'etre is to produce people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything about Zen's presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind. This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen. David Hume said in his Of the First principles of Government (1758) that "Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers." I believe that the reason for this surrender, in the case of Zen, is clear, structural, and self-perpetuating.

What I mean by the "Zen" institution, for the simple purpose of this conversation, is the organized set of structures that support the standard model of Zen. According to this model, mind-to-mind transmission began with an encounter between the historical Buddha Sakyamuni and Mahakasyapa, and continued, in an unbroken lineage, through twenty-eight Indian Patriarchs. The last of these was Bodhidharma, who began the patriarchal line in China that led to Hui-neng, traditionally considered to be the sixth and last Chan patriarch. This scheme was later institutionalized through the ritual of Dharma transmission. Mind-to-mind transmission implies that the student has attained an understanding equal to his Zen master/roshi and so on backwards, hence being equal to the original, unmediated wordless understanding that supposedly passed between Sakyamuni and Mahakasyapa. Supporting tools to make this narrative seem real and unconstructed include the particular methods of meditation and interactions between teacher and student as well as an abundance of validating mythologies most often presented as history in the form of biography, along with accommodating literary and ritual devices. It is this idealized version of Dharma transmission that claims the master is an enlightened being that is the source of the Zen master's extraordinary claim to authority.   Read more ...