November 23, 2014

Holier Than Thou

How is it that the "spiritual" person, for whom we might assume humility to be an essential characteristic, so often presents as aloof and arrogant? It is bad enough that the "holier than thou" attitude which often flaws the religious character is common to monastics, priests, gurus, teachers and devotees of all traditions, but, being a devotee of Zen, I consider it even worse when a Zen "authority" displays this tendency. Ultimately, though, none of us are immune from ego-inflation, regardless of how much "spiritual experience" we may have. It's possible to take a wrong turn and leave the Path at any moment. This is why constant vigilance is so crucial on Zen's journey.

Practicing Buddhism, first of all is cultivation, second of all is cultivation, and third of all is cultivation."
~ Master Chuan Zang, June 2008

How is it that the "spiritual" person, for whom we might assume humility to be an essential characteristic, so often presents as aloof and arrogant?

It is bad enough that the "holier than thou" attitude which often flaws the religious character is common to monastics, priests, gurus, teachers and devotees of all traditions, but, being a devotee of Zen, I consider it even worse when a Zen "authority" displays this tendency. Ultimately, though, none of us are immune from ego-inflation, regardless of how much "spiritual experience" we may have. It's possible to take a wrong turn and leave the Path at any moment. This is why constant vigilance is so crucial on Zen's journey.

As practitioners of Zen -- that almost aggressively non-dualist tradition of "mystical Buddhism" -- we must, as a matter of course, question all differentiations between states of relative merit, or holiness.

The Zen path is replete with examples of masters who have gone to sometimes extreme lengths to demonstrate that there is nothing special about enlightenment, or their exalted "enlightened" status. Humility in this regard is seen not as a virtue, but simply as recognition of the truth of their mode of perception.

Zen riddle - who is enlightened? For a Zen mind, the ego which could take pride in the "accomplishment" is consumed and removed in the process of answering. The mind that thinks it observes greater holiness, or "specialness," in any one thing, has already fallen into error, has already declared its inability to make any meaningful judgment, to see clearly.

"What wonder is this? I carry water, I chop wood!" This is the simple expression of the enlightened soul who understands that no one thing is less filled with nirvana than any other. "What wonder is this?" was the Buddha's first realization upon his enlightenment, "all human beings are already perfect!"

When we recognize that nirvana and samsara are one we understanding Zen. Seeing differences between the two is the expression of the ego's need to define and separate itself, in conjunction with the processes of the normally functioning discursive brain. The reality is different and can only be "seen" with the heart - our intuitive function. Nirvana and samsara are one, and so are the sacred and the profane, the "holy" and the "impure," the "me above" and "you below." Identifying differences obscures the truth of the unitary nature of existence.

But of course, we do have egos; we do have brains which function in terms of discursive and dualistic programs. Hsu Yun once said that some could understand the premise of the non-discursive state by immediate and direct experience, whereas others might only be able to do so (at their stage of development) by deducing principles from observed facts of nature. While we may not be able to immediately recognize the undifferentiated state of reality -- that nirvana and samsara are one -- we may be able to deduce it logically; perhaps through an understanding of higher physics, intuitively, through the experience of love, or through trust in the capacities of those we can recognize as having attained levels of consciousness we have not.

Certainly, however, as Buddhists we take it as a matter of faith when we declare that we take refuge in our own Buddha nature, and that we take refuge in the Dharma. So how, then, do we justify our spiritual arrogance, our "holier than thou" attitude toward those who we judge to be not as "wise" as us, or as "far along the path" as us?

We cannot. And it will always be a sure-fire way to test the bona-fides of our own practice or that of any teacher or individual who claims wisdom or enlightenment (and let us not even begin to talk of those of us who claim such traits due to our "transmission!")

So what do we do? Perhaps we simply recognize that when we live and perceive through the "samsaric veil" of sensory-perception, unmitigated by our intuitive function, we invariably fall for deception, mistaking illusion (maya) for reality (nirvana). When we see higher or lower, we are simply not seeing the whole truth. When our teacher says higher or lower, nor is he or she - at least, not from anabsolute or nirvanic perspective.

And certainly, this may leave us in a mental bind. The ego recognizes in these sorts of concepts a veritable Disneyland of excuses to avoid the work of practice, the most obvious being along the lines of "well, if we're all the same, if practice doesn't make you better than the roob next door whose spiritual path goes no further than supporting the local football team, then why bother?"

Keeping an enlightened mind isn't about being better than one who isn't keeping it. It is simply a more skilful (attentive) way of perceiving and living in the world for those of us at that stage of our journey. But it doesn't mean we can enjoy a free-ride from there. Keeping an enlightened mind - free of dualities - requires constant vigilance.

We must always be on guard against ourselves - our ego-selves - and be non-vacillant in cultivating the Chan mind. We practice Zen. That is all. It makes us no better, nor any worse, than those who don't. When we pursue the "spiritual" or "inner" life, that is simply what we do. Nothing special.

Yet very special!

May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from suffering.