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When the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography

This paper takes a critical look at recently published biographies of two modern day Chan/ Zen teachers in America. The popular American magazine “Tricycle: A Buddhist Review” printed both biographies, making them widely available to the diverse American Buddhist communities and the interested general reader. Both biographies were presented as straightforward reporting of enlightened Chan/Zen2 figures. Biography is a literary genre that implies a level of accuracy with the implications that what is presented is an actual life, not concocted fiction. Religious biographies, however, are rarely simple, straightforward, or disinterested. As with any other text, these texts are interactive; that is, they are written and published for chosen audiences with specific intentions. This article looks at the constructed nature of these two contemporary biographies, and the role they play in generating and maintaining the view of the selfless, wise, often iconoclastic, and legitimate Chan masters. The paper also examines the elements of these constructions and shows that the literary genre used, hagiography, 3 bears strong resemblances to that used in Zen’s formative period, the Tang and early Song dynasties in China.

Stuart Lachs

pdfWhen the Saints Go Marching In: Modern Day Zen Hagiography368.83 KB26/01/2012, 12:43

Copyright@ 2011 Stuart Lachs.  Reprinted here with permission of the author.

This paper takes a critical look at recently published biographies of two modern day Chan/ Zen teachers in America. The popular American magazine “Tricycle: A Buddhist Review” printed both biographies, making them widely available to the diverse American Buddhist communities and the interested general reader. Both biographies were presented as straightforward reporting of enlightened Chan/Zen2 figures. Biography is a literary genre that implies a level of accuracy with the implications that what is presented is an actual life, not concocted fiction. Religious biographies, however, are rarely simple, straightforward, or disinterested. As with any other text, these texts are interactive; that is, they are written and published for chosen audiences with specific intentions. This article looks at the constructed nature of these two contemporary biographies, and the role they play in generating and maintaining the view of the selfless, wise, often iconoclastic, and legitimate Chan masters. The paper also examines the elements of these constructions and shows that the literary genre used, hagiography, 3 bears strong resemblances to that used in Zen’s formative period, the Tang and early Song dynasties in China. Read more...

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  • Dana Sawyer  - overly analysed

    Hi Stuart,

    I read with interest your analysis of my article on Walter Nowick for Tricycle. Subsequent to the article's release, several people from your old community in Surry contacted me to offer clarifications, seeing the article, as you do, as misrepresenting Walter and what happened to his group. Their comments were interesting, as are yours, but I must say that the accusation of "haigiography" is a bit loud, overwrought and ungracious. Following Huston's lead, I simply tracked down Walter and got his story. My job wasn't to write a critical history of Walter's part in the Morgan Bay Zendo, and that's why other interviews were left out - not because I was trying to pump up Walter's stock. I assure you, I have no interest in Walter's stock and never really knew the man. The article makes clear that I am simply reporting the contents of my interview with Walter; it doesn't say, "and after checking the details of everything Walter said, I can assure you that there's no other way to see what happened. Every word out of his mouth is the absolute truth." It would certainly have to be a naive reader who confused a brief magazine article, containing one interview, for a definitive history or biography, and the article certainly wasn't presented as such. (I have written definitive biographies of Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith, so I have some idea of what I'm talking about.) A magazine article resides somewhere along the continuum between an entry in a profession journal and the contents of a fortune cookie, and to suggest that one interview - which was presented as such - is somehow being presented as true history seems absurd. As a last point, my comment at the end of the article, referencing a gut-level level assessment of Nowick's integrity, was presented as a gut-level reaction, with all its subjectivity. Again, no reader who hasn't been sold bogus shares in the Brooklyn Bridge is going to accept that as conclusive evidence, and nobody is asking them to. (Though I'll stand by my reaction, and perhaps there was more Zen in Walter than you will allow. When was the last time you spent a few hours with him?) In short, your "analysis" was an unfair portrayal of what the article flatly stated itself to be, a interview. If you would like to add info about Walter to the world of popular ideas, why not write an article about him for Tricycle? I would be happy to help you get it published.

    cheers,

    Dana

  • Stuart Lachs  - Reply

    Hi Dana,

    It was interesting reading your reply to my article on hagiography in modern day Zen, though it is two years after my article was written.

    But surely you aware that articles are written with an audience in mind and are presented hopefully in a venue that targets that audience. So your choice of Tricycle: A Buddhist Review, perhaps the most popular magazine on Buddhism, at least in America, was well chosen. The title of your article, "Downeast Roshi" is however, hardly a neutral title as the term roshi in America is synonymous with Zen master. Both terms roshi and Zen master are well known in America by now and carry with them a sense of Eastern wisdom and mystery, iconoclasm, selflessness, etc. and the belief that the person with either of these titles has attained enlightenment beyond the understanding of ordinary people. But then you mention in your article that what directed you to writing an article on Walter Nowick were the words of Huston Smith, a well respected though aged religious studies scholar who said, "He's [Walter] the quietest Zen master in America." And, "he was the first American to go to Japan and receive full Dharma transmission in the Rinzai lineage."

    So your article is hardly a simple interview set in a neutral context, but religious interviews are hardly just simple. The title for starters informs the reader that you believed you were talking with an enlightened being surrounded with all the mystery and idealism connected to the term roshi. Then to sweeten the pie, we hear the words of Huston Smith raising the authority, legitimacy, and stature of Nowick. That Smith is wrong with both his assertions is beside the point and just one problem with the paper, as it is hard to find one section of the paper that can be taken as written without much qualification. Finally, that the article was published in Tricycle, a magazine that at least implicitly claims to know what is going on with Buddhism in America leads the reader to believe that this article passed muster for the accuracy of its content. So the framing of the article is hardly a neutral interview. In fact, your article about Nowick reflects the eight distinct features of Zen hagiography that I outlined in my paper.

    The least you could have done is to check some thing about Nowick and his actions, purported attainment, imputed title, and source of his authority rather than blindly trusting the words of Smith who had some short connection with Nowick roughly fifty years ago in Japan, or the words of the aging Nowick describing himself. One would think that hearing of a group that was very active for roughly ten years with dozens of members that fell apart rather quickly would raise some curiosity in you to interview other people who were directly involved. But you did interview one other person, Allen Wittenberg, who arrived in Maine after the group was already falling apart, who had a long and confusing close relationship with Nowick and became his devoted and hard working primary care giver as Nowick weakened with age and recently passed away.

    You are familiar with Zen and its image of roshi as perfected people since you mention looking for yourself for a Zen teacher. It seems whether intentionally or not, you digested Zen hagiography and then took in Nowick's description of himself and the Zen group that fell apart around him without question. So it is not surprising to me that you would finish your article in the same frame that you started it, that Nowick is "believable as a roshi," "has an easygoing presence that bespeaks the real deal," and a "lotus is in bloom in Maine." This is exactly what hagiography does; it directs the reader to see perfected people.

    It seems unfortunate to me that you ended your reply with a snide remark,

    "why not write an article about him [Nowick] for Tricycle? I would be happy to help you get it published." At the least, I do no...

  • Stuart Lachs  - Continued ...

    "why not write an article about him [Nowick] for Tricycle? I would be happy to help you get it published." At the least, I do not think you carry much weight with Tricycle these days. James Shaheen, Tricycle's editor on March 24, 2011 publicly wrote on their blog about your article,

    "As I've written on our site before, I have regrets about the Nowick piece. It's true that there was much to report that wasn't. This had nothing to do with any intention to idealize Nowick; rather, the lapse had only to do with our own partial knowledge of Nowick and an uncharacteristic lack of due diligence."

    All the best,

    Stuart

    PS I was glad to engage you but I do not intend to continue this (anyway late) discussion.