November 23, 2014

Dubious Transactions

Most people don't know it, but Zen guys love Zen knick-knacks. It's not enough to have a simple altar with a Buddha statue, some flowers, incense burner, altar cloth and a nice cushion to sit on. Eventually, we just have to have that geniune brass gong (made in Mexico) which real practitioners ring on every possible occasion to collect their minds and annoy their neighbors. The mysteries wouldn't be complete without a loud wooden fish we can bang on to scare the cats off the zafu. A couple of shoji screens soon become indespensable, along with a scroll with Chinese characters that assures us say something very profound. Maybe "Clinton-Gore '96." And if we have friends for whom Buddhism = Tibet, we usually end up with a collection of scary Vajrayana worshipping-irons that threaten to make our simple altar look like a dentist's instrument tray. Let's face it: Religion would be really dull without the cool toys.

A while back, I decided my mini-museum of Asian culture was looking kind of bare. I needed to add something unique - not just another lojong poster or polystyrene Guanyin with a Christmas light on top. So I did some hunting on the Net and came across a Chinese priest selling lotus pedestals. I had no idea what a lotus pedestal was, but I was pretty certain none of the guys down at the temple had one yet. And the price was right. For just NT$100,000 ($49.95 US), Master Miao Tien would set me up with a geniune piece of Zen hardware that would, in his words, "Allow one to pass quickly through the Dead Spirit Stage and eliminate many karmic obstacles. Pay one's debt to one's ancestors, thus allowing one to cultivate Zen without interference and enter the Ideal Realm more quickly."

I usually save my NT$'s for a rainy day, but I had to try this pedestal thing for myself. It just so happened that I was having some trouble with the Dead Spirit Stage - the peskiest of Stages for most practitioners. The karmic obstacles were playing up a bit, and I'm pretty sure my ancestors were gossiping about me when they bumped into each other on the Streets of Glory. ("Dang that boy - I lent him fifty cents fer a Yoo Hoo back in 1963, and he still ain't give me back mah change! Just wait'll he's dead...") So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only acquire a one-of-a-kind piece of Zen hardware, but to rack up some Nirvanic brownie points as well. I quickly e-mailed Master Miao Tien my PayPal number, adding that I couldn't wait to enter the Ideal Realm courtesy of his wonderful product.

In due course, a package arrived from Taipeh. I ripped into it with glee. (Zen guys don't get Christmas presents, so we always go a bit frisky when stuff comes in the mail.) Inside was a wooden stool, roughly the shape of a training potty, with...yes, there were lotus petals carved around the circumference. This was my lotus pedestal! It appeared to be made of teak or monkeypod. Or maybe plywood. On top was a frowzy cushion with what looked like an iron-on picture of a dragon. OK, so it wasn't French Provincial. I was the first guy on my block to have one.

I unfolded the mimeographed instruction sheet. As I read, I could almost hear Master Miao Tien's voice - he sounds sort of like Keye Luke:

While placing Lotus on Temple's Floor's or for the Zen practice sit down on it."

The moment had arrived. With bated breath, I aimed my keester at the frowzy dragon picture and sat. There was a sharp "crack," and a dozen or so hardwood lotus petals impaled me in the Seat of Consciousness. The results were immediate and dramatic. I arose like Lazarus and began speaking in tongues. I leapt up from my floral throne and gyrated around the room like a Snake Handler who's just tasted strychnine of particularly excellent vintage. I took the name of the Lord seriously in vain, immediately took it back, and promised to vote Republican and buy lotus pedestals only from authorized Christian dealers. In short, I became an Evangelical with a butt full of splinters. Fortunately, the effect was temporary.

A while later, I read the following report in's essay "Lotus, the Flower of Paradise:"

There was a stretch last year when there were several high-profile fraud cases involving religion. Among these was the case of the Zen Master Miao Tien...who was accused of selling thousands of lotus pedestals for NT$100,000 to NT$200,000. Students in college Zen societies believed that the lotus pedestals supplied by temples would allow one to pass quickly through the dead spirit stage and eliminate many karmic obstacles. Some naive students went so far as to take out loans from banks and place orders for several pedestals, believing that they would "pay one's debt to one's ancestors, thus allowing one to cultivate Zen without interference and enter the ideal realm more quickly." '