Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen
by Stuart Lachs
Zen Buddhism became widely known in America through D. T. Suzuki's writings, which promoted a non-traditional, modernist interpretation of Zen. Suzuki was a Japanese writer and intellectual who had experienced Zen training as a layman, and who, writing in the nationalistic intellectual climate of early twentieth-century Japan, emphasized a Zen freed from its Mahayana Buddhist context, centered on a special kind of "pure" experience and without the traditional Buddhist concern for morality 1. This view, represented today by Abe Masao and the "Kyoto School" of religious philosophy, accentuated those aspects of Buddhism that are both most different from Western traditions and most distinctively Japanese. This view has fostered in the West a widespread conception of Zen Buddhism as a tradition of exclusively cognitive import, inordinately preoccupied with the ideas of Sunyata, non-duality, and absolute nothingness but with little talk of karma, Marga (the path), compassion or even the "marvelous qualities" of Buddhahood. Such a view fails to give adequate attention to the positive disciplines, including morality, that comprised the actual lives of Buddhists, and easily leads one to think that Buddhists are unable to treat the ordinary world of human activity seriously.2 This view has also placed extreme emphasis on the suddenness of enlightenment with the accompanying idea that to cultivate "correct views" is considered as self-improvement, i.e. gradualism.
Zen Buddhism was received in the West by a largely university-trained community who accepted, by and large uncritically, the modernist view presented by Suzuki. Perhaps the greatest attraction of Zen for Americans of this period (post-WWII) was to the notion of pure, enlightened experience with its promise of epistemological certainty, attainable through systematic meditation training.3 Unlike psychologically-based movements for personal transformation whose leaders appeared as seekers themselves, Zen Buddhism promised, in the person of the teacher, a master who had actually realized the Buddhist goal of Enlightenment and manifested its qualities continuously in his daily life.
American Zen students have tended to hold these teachers in awe, to the point of regarding their every action as pure and selfless. This tendency to idealize the teacher comes in part from the students' inexperience, but is strongly encouraged by the Zen organization and the teacher himself. Recently I heard an American roshi on the radio promoting his book. He emphasized the uniqueness in zen of the lineage of "mind to mind transmission" from Shakyamuni to the present and how the roshi speaks for or stands in place of the Buddha. Having been attracted to Zen Buddhism by the presence of an "enlightened person," the students came to regard the teacher's behavior as beyond criticism, an unrealistic attitude that had unfortunate consequences.
Beginning in 1975 and continuing to this day, a series of scandals has erupted at one Zen center after another revealing that many Zen teachers have exploited students sexually and financially. This list has included, at various times, the head teachers at The Zen Studies Society in New York City, the San Francisco Zen Center, the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the Cimarron Zen Center in Los Angeles, the now-defunct Kanzeon Zen center in Bar Harbor, Maine, the Morgan Bay Zendo in Surry, Maine, the Providence Zen Center and the Toronto Zen center. These are some of the largest and most influential centers. In most cases the scandals have persisted continually for years, or seemed to end only to arise again. At one center, for example, sex scandals have recurred for approximately twenty-five years with the same teacher involving many women. These scandals have been pervasive as well as persistent, affecting almost all major American Zen Centers.
It should be emphasized that the source of the problem lies not in sexual activity per se, but in the teachers' abuse of authority and the deceptive (and exploitative) nature of these affairs. These affairs were carried on in secret and even publicly denied. The students involved were often lied to by the teachers about the nature of the liaison. In some cases the teacher claimed the sexual experience would advance the student ' s spiritual development. One teacher justified his multiple sexual affairs after their discovery as necessary for strengthening the Zen center. Presumably, this was because the women involved were running satellite centers of his and having a secret affair with the "master" would deepen their understanding and practice.
The abuse of power that these men practiced has had far reaching effects in almost every case. The students involved were often devastated by the knowledge that they had been used by the very person they trusted most. Some required psychotherapy for years afterward. There were mental breakdowns and broken marriages. Zen centers were torn into factions of those who deplored the teacher's behavior and those who denied or excused it. The apologists, when they did not flatly deny what had occurred, would explain it away as the teacher's "crazy wisdom" or more commonly, they would blame the victim or dismiss it by commenting that the teacher isn't perfect. Another explanation was that the student did not yet truly understand the teaching. Disciplining of Zen teachers in America has been rare. Usually, those who objected to the goings-on either left voluntarily or were pushed out of the center by those loyal to the teacher or by the teacher himself. Some of the students who left eventually resumed their practice while others were so disillusioned and embittered that they abandoned Buddhism altogether.
American Zen teachers who have been exposed in their abuse of power have seldom been publicly criticized for their behavior by other Zen teachers, either here or in Japan. In one case, members of the Japanese Zen hierarchy threatened to cut off the training of one student who had wanted an abusive Japanese monk deported. The complaining student did in fact keep quiet, finished his training, and is today a well-known roshi. The monk in question is the roshi already described who has been exploiting his position for twenty-five years.
Reflecting on these problems has led me to investigate Zen history more closely, especially certain key terms that have come to characterize Zen Buddhism. What, for instance, do the terms "dharma transmission" and "roshi" mean which so pepper the conversations of American Zen students and bestow so much authority on the teacher? Is dharma transmission infallible? What does the tradition itself say about regulating the behavior of monastics? Is Zen alone among religions, in having no moral or ethical dimension as many practitioners believe? Are these matters unique to permissive American culture? Do we have an overly idealized view of Ch'an/Zen history? Is there something in our practice that is "lacking" if the supposed exemplars of the training cannot deal responsibly with the people and situations around them? We should keep in mind that from the Zen view truth cannot be expressed in words but rather alluded to only in the spontaneous and natural activities of daily life.4 Is koan training in particular being done in a way that does not carry over to how one lives one's life in the real world? Or, more fundamentally, is koan training mistakenly regarded as fulfilling the Buddha's path in itself? Has it become an end in itself? Is zen training and koan study in particular not about liberation, but more a unique training in spontaneity and learning to perform in certain stylized manners? Are there some aspects of the teacher/student relationship that need to be changed? What weight, if any, should be accorded the subsequent dharma transmissions of a disreputable teacher? What meaning does the term "monk" itself have? How much of Zen, as practiced in the West, is really East Asian but mostly Japanese culture with its special authoritarian and ritualized character?
A full treatment of these questions goes beyond the scope of this paper, but I believe these topics call for examination and thoughtful discussion. The crux of the matter comes to this: how does the institution of Zen Buddhism actually operate in the world as opposed to how we expect it to function based on the mostly idealized view that we have accepted uncritically.
What, then, is the content of this idealized view? First, let us consider the meaning of the term "dharma transmission." According to the widely held view, dharma transmission is the recognition by the teacher that the student has attained the "mind of the Buddha" and that his understanding is equal to that of the teacher. It is the continuity of this chain of enlightened minds supposedly unique to Zen and going back to the historical Buddha that is the conceptual basis for the present teacher's considerable authority. From the point of the Zen tradition it is dharma transmission that justifies regarding the teacher as the Buddha, which is what the Ch'an tradition has done since the Tang dynasty.5 It is this use of a spiritual lineage as the basis for authenticity ("a separate transmission outside of the scriptures" )6 rather than a particular text that distinguishes the Ch'an school from other Chinese Buddhist sects of the period. This interpretation would imply that dharma transmission is given solely on the basis of the spiritual attainment of the student. On investigation, the term "dharma transmission" turns out to be a much more flexible and ambiguous term than we in the West suppose. To be sure, it is given in recognition that the student has attained as deep a realization of mind as the teacher himself. This view, and correctly only this one, is sometimes called "mind-to-mind transmission." Mind-to-mind transmission logically implies the enlightenment of the disciple. However, Dharma transmission has been given for other reasons. According to some scholars, dharma transmission has actually been construed as membership in a teaching lineage, awarded for any of the following, presumed legitimate, reasons: to establish proper political contacts vital to the well-being of the monastery, to cement a personal connection with a student, to enhance the authority of missionaries7 spreading the dharma in foreign countries, or to provide salvation (posthumously, in medieval Japan) by allowing the deceased recipient to join the "blood line" of the Buddha. In the later Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1280), at least, dharma transmission was routinely given to senior monastic officers, presumably so that their way to an abbacy would not be blocked.8 Clearly, enlightenment was not always regarded as essential for dharma transmission. Manzan Dohaku (1636-1714), a Soto reformer, supported this last view citing as authority the towering figure of Japanese Zen, Dogen (1200-1253).9 This became and continues to this day to be the official Soto Zen view.
Philip Kapleau relates the story that Nakagawa Soen Roshi, of the Rinzai sect, had told him that he (Soen Roshi) did not have kensho when Gempo Roshi appointed him his successor.10 According to one scholar's interpretation, formal transmission actually constituted no more than the ritual investiture of a student in an institutionally certified genealogy.11
As a lesson in the significance of institutional history, let us look at the present-day Soto sect in Japan. This sect strives to match the institutional structures of Dogen's time when every Soto temple had to have an abbot and every abbot had to have dharma transmission. In 1984 there were 14,718 Soto Zen temples in Japan and 15,528 Soto priests. Since every abbot has to be a priest, it follows that almost every Soto priest (95%) has dharma transmission. It should be noted that a majority of these priests will spend less than three years in a monastery. Most interestingly, while there is much written in Soto texts on the ritual of dharma transmission, there is almost nothing on the qualifications for it.12
The term "roshi" has also been used in a variety of ways. Once again, a rather idealized interpretation prevails among Zen students who take "roshi" to mean "master," i.e. someone who is fully enlightened to the point that his every gesture manifests the Absolute. Historically in Japan, "roshi" has indeed sometimes been understood to indicate rank based on spiritual development while at other times it is used as a term of address connoting no more than respect. There seem to be occasions in Japanese (especially Soto) usage when it merely denotes an administrative rank. There is no central authority in China or Japan or anywhere else that certifies anyone's official passage into roshihood based on any criteria and certainly not on spiritual attainment. It is not a misstatement to say, as Soko Morinaga Roshi, the former President of [Rinzai] Hanazono College, once remarked, "A roshi is anyone who calls himself by the term and can get other people do the same."
An interesting example can be seen in the person of Philip Kapleau. Mr. Kapleau uses the title " roshi " and his students, as do most Zen students, address him as such. Mr. Kapleau has been extremely influential, both through his personal teaching and his writing of books and articles, in spreading Zen in America and abroad. If nothing else, he has taught for many years and remained free of scandal, something that a number of others with officially sanctioned dharma transmission and titles cannot say. However Mr. Kapleau himself has explicitly stated that he is not a dharma heir of his teacher, Yasutani Roshi, and did not receive the title roshi from him or anyone else.13 Essentially, he took the title himself. This is not to say he is or is not any more or less qualified than anyone else. Interestingly, Mr. Kapleau has " transmitted " to some of his disciples. This is essentially a line beginning with himself, contrary to all other Zen lines, which at least rhetorically maintain the myth of an unbroken lineage dating back to Shakyamuni Buddha.14
"In Korean Zen, the equivalent of roshi/Zen master, the pangjang, is surprisingly an elected position and carries an initial ten-year term... If the master does not perform adequately, a petition by fifty monks would be enough to have a recall vote... A monk's affinities are more with his fellow meditation monks than with a specific master".15 This is extremely different from the Japanese model which is commonly assumed by Americans to be the only authentic form.
The term "monk" is another word that calls for some scrutiny. The Chinese term means "left home person" and is applied exclusively to individuals who have left their families and follow the rules for monks, which include celibacy among other requirements. The Japanese use the same word (obosan) for both "monk" and "priest, " and permit marriage as do some Korean sects.16 In America when used by Zen people who are part of lines originating in Japan, the term "monk" has no well-defined meaning. Celibacy is seldom implied in the American usage of the term. A man who calls himself a monk may be married, may live with someone, or may be dating. A similar situation prevails for nuns. It may even be the case that a "monk" may date a "nun." Some people who refer to themselves as a monk or a nun may in fact be celibate, but they would be a minority in the American Zen world. Nor do American Zen monks appear to follow the other requirements of rules for monks, such as avoiding entertainment, liquor, and socializing with members of the opposite sex. One American Zen group has gone so far as to institute a new ritual, "spiritual union," to recognize and legitimize a sexual relationship between members who otherwise view themselves as a celibate monk and a nun.17
The idealization inherent in the terms "dharma transmission," "roshi" and "monk," has contributed to the problems we have experienced in American Zen. By the very nature of the roles the student ascribes to the titles, he routinely gives trust to the teacher that he would not give to anyone else. This trust is often quite complete and natural, because the wearing of the robes traditionally signifies the turning away from selfish motivations, the vow to save all sentient beings and not to inflict harm. To an observer not familiar with this type of religious practice, the extent to which a student surrenders can appear astonishing. Many people accept this kind of trust in spiritual practice, but it leads to problems when the teacher is not emotionally mature or disciplined enough to assume the responsibility for guiding students. Though the teacher may have some level of attainment, it is too often far from the idealized view of the student or from that promoted by the Zen institutions. "In the Ch'an tradition, the rhetoric maintains that each transmission is perfect, each successor is the spiritual equivalent of his predecessor... the primary feature is its participatory nature; to receive certification of enlightenment from a Ch'an/Zen master is to join the succession of patriarchs and enter into dynamic communion with the sages of ancient times. One either belonged within the lineage of enlightened masters or not; there is no in-between category i.e. 'almost enlightened' or 'rather like a master'".18
In Zen, one can identify a two-fold process, looking-in and looking-out. Looking-in includes the process of meditation; looking-out includes taking the teacher as a model for living and as an inspiration for practice. As is common in Gnostic-type religious practice, the teacher in Zen is the final arbiter of reality. Not only does the teacher judge the student's level of insight/wisdom, but, for closer students at the least, will often comment and judge on every aspect of the disciple's daily life. However, as we have seen, there is often a serious disparity between the student ' s view of the teacher and the teacher's actual life. The students don't hold the teacher to any standard of conduct not merely because they feel they themselves lack the authority to make such judgments about the teacher. They also fear that criticisms which undermine the teacher's authority would cast doubts on the value of their years of practice under that teacher. Some have also come to feel protective of immature Zen institutions in the United States, and hesitate to contribute to the damage that public scandal could cause. Others fear their own rise to a position of teacher would be jeopardized.
As noted earlier, while D. T. Suzuki and others have led people to believe that there was no prescribed Zen morality, a different picture emerges if we look at the historical beginnings of Zen. In China, where Zen began, Zen monasteries became distinct from other Buddhist monasteries with the famous rules of P'ai-chang (749-814) who supposedly prescribed a strict code of behavior for members of the monastic community and severe penalties for improper behavior. All of the classical accounts of Pai-chang's founding of an independent system of Ch'an monastic training, it turns out, may be traced back to a single source, "Regulations of the Ch'an Approach" (Ch'an-men Kuei-shih) written in approximately 960 A.D.19 According to this text, "If the offender had committed a serious offense he was beaten with his own staff. His robe and bowl and other monkish implements were burned in front of the assembled community, and he was [thereby] expelled [from the order of Buddhist monks]. He was then thrown out [of the monastery] through a side gate as a sign of his disgrace. The rules applied to everyone. P'ai-chang further recommended that "a spiritually perceptive and morally praiseworthy person was to be named as abbot." This definitely implies a moral and social aspect to Ch'an life. This is the logic of Zen from its earliest formulation as a distinct Buddhist sect.
If students have offered excessive power to teachers, that does not tell us why so many Zen teachers have taken advantage of the opportunity to abuse their power. Not all of them have, after all. The question arises, which does not often get asked in America Zen circles, what is the connection between attainment and behavior? What are we to make of the evident disparity in someone with institutional sanction, i.e. dharma transmission, supposedly having deep insight but behaving irresponsibly? It is difficult to understand why teachers with exalted titles and long years of meditation practice behave in such selfish, self-serving, dishonest and destructive ways? The Platform Sutra itself states that, "If we do not put it (wisdom) into practice, it amounts to an illusion and a phantom."20 One partial explanation could be that of Chih-i (531-597) the founder of T'ien-t'ai Buddhism and author of the most comprehensive guide to Chinese meditation, who was aware that the very effort of intense concentration may agitate the klesas (afflictions and illusions) generating various feelings and desires that would not occur during normal consciousness, tempting the practitioner away from practice.21 In any case, rarely does one question the teacher's level of attainment.
Could the problem have something to do with the description and view of enlightenment as static, in the sense of seeing only what is, rather than a more dynamic view which also involves that which functions? A view of Buddhist attainment that also focuses on function, rather than objectifying an experience, would also place primary emphasis on context and connections, i.e. relationships with other people and society as a whole.22
The question of the relationship between enlightenment and cultivation has persisted in the Zen tradition from the end of the eighth century onward. Enlightenment in this context refers to the experience of deep insight into the true nature of reality. Cultivation may be taken as living one's day to day life from the enlightened point of view which includes an awareness of other people's full humanity and our connectedness with them.23 Ma-tsu (709-788), a major and influential Ch'an teacher, claimed that the sudden enlightenment experience was inherently so thorough that the whole of the Buddha's path was realized and completed in that experience. This view came to be known as "sudden enlightenment/sudden cultivation." Other major Zen teachers, such as Tsung-mi24 (780-841), Yen-shou (901-975), and the Korean, Chinul (1158-1210) took the view that sudden enlightenment might bring full attainment, but perhaps only for exceptionally endowed individuals such as the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng and Ma-tsu. For the more ordinary run of mankind, who are less spiritually talented, the enlightenment experience indeed offers a true view of one's self-nature, but without exhausting selfishness. Some delusions, such as existential bewilderment, may be overcome by a deep experience. Other more deep-seated delusions such as craving, hatred and conceitedness can only be overcome by making "that which we have seen a living experience and molding our life accordingly."25 The Buddhist injunction to live an ethical life is comprised of not only exercising restraint and self-control, but also of positively manifesting compassion in our dealings with other people. Ch'an master Yen-shou put the matter in this way:
If the manifesting formations are not yet severed and the defilements and habit energies persist, or whatever you see leads to passion and whatever you encounter produces impediments, then although you have understood the meaning of the non-arising state, your power is still insufficient. You should not grasp at that understanding and say, "I have already awakened to the fact that the nature of the defilements is void," for later when you decide to cultivate, your practice will, on the contrary, become inverted. ... Hence it should be clear that if words and actions are contradictory, the correctness or incorrectness of one's practice can be verified. Measure the strength of your faculties; you cannot afford to deceive yourself.26
As a matter of historical fact Ma-tsu's line survived and has dominated the Zen tradition from the Sung dynasty (960-1280) to this day while Tsung-mi's line, for instance, died out. The result is that the view that sudden enlightenment entailed sudden cultivation became the official rhetoric of Zen Buddhism. The opposing, but still orthodox, Zen view that sudden enlightenment had to be followed by gradual cultivation, has largely been de-emphasized. In Tsung-mi's words, "Awakening from delusion is sudden; transforming an ordinary man into a saint is gradual."27 Most teachers are hardly fully enlightened Buddhas, but are people who need to cultivate themselves further. We need to keep this in mind when we interact with them. Though in Zen practice we must focus on our own shortcomings, there remains a place for common sense in viewing the actions of others, even those of our teachers. The Dalai Lama has written concerning the student's view of the teacher, ". . . too much faith and imputed purity of perception can quite easily turn things rotten."28
1. According to Suzuki, Zen is "extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic dogmatism." Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 63. For a fuller discussion of the sources and nationalistic motivations of D.T. Suzuki's presentation of Zen Buddhism see the article by Robert H. Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism, " History of Religions, August, 1993. Bernard Faure also analyzes critically some of Suzuki ' s thought in Ch'an Insights and Oversights, Princeton Press, 1993, pp. 52-74
6. For an interesting discussion of the rather late and even controversial acceptance of this self-defining idea in Ch ' an see " Ch ' an Slogans and the Creation of Ch ' an Ideology: ' A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures, " a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion by Albert Welter, November, 1995.
7. Holmes Welch, Buddhism in China: 1900 to 1950, Harvard University Press, 1967, p. 315. Welch gives the interesting case of one Chinese monk in the twentieth century who gave dharma transmission to another Chinese monk then in Burma, "without ever having met him, and indeed, without even finding out whether he would accept the dharma."
9. Soto Zen in Mediaeval Japan, William M. Bodiford, U. of Hawaii Press, 1993, p. 215. "Zen dharma transmission between master and disciple could occur whether or not the disciple had realized enlightenment, just so long as the ritual of personal initiation had been performed." For a further discussion of the surprising usages of dharma transmission see: Welch previously cited, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, Bernard Faure, Princeton University Press, 1991, and Foulk. See also "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China, " T. Griffith Foulk and Robert H. Sharf, Cahiers d'Extrême Asie, 7, 1993 pp. 149-219
13. Public letter from Yamada Roshi 1/16/86. Koun Yamada Roshi was Yasutani Roshi's heir. He became the leader of the Sanbokyodan school of Zen started by Yasutani Roshi and also gave dharma transmission to Robert Aitken. Also , letter from Mr. Kapleau to Koun Yamada 2/17/86
16. From 1910-1945 Korea was under the military occupation of Japan. Under the pressure and influence of married Japanese Zen priests, some Korean monks took wives and started families. This caused a split with the traditional, celibate monks in the Korean Sangha that became so severe that in 1954 President Syngman Rhee was called in to resolve the dispute. see pp. 30-31, The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim, Weatherhill, 1985.
19. The Ch'an "School" and its Place in the Buddhist Monastic Tradition, Ph.D. dissertation of Theodore Griffith Foulk, University of Michigan, 1987, available from UMI Dissertation Information Service, U.S. telephone number: (800) 521-0600, p. 348
22. In relation to the famous verse of Bodhidharma: A separate transmission outside of scripture Not founded on words or letters, Point directly to one ' s mind See one ' s nature and become Buddha. (Jpn. kensho jobutsu) In the Rinzai koan curriculum, " ...kensho is something that one does [a verb, not a noun], it is not primarily something that one has. " from " Koan and Kensho in the Rinzai Zen Curriculum, " an unpublished paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion by G. Victor Sogen Hori, Nov. 21, 1994. Permission to quote granted by the author.
23. For an interesting discussion of essence/function and " integral practice, " the idea that the degree of integration into one ' s behavior was the criterion for achievement of the teachings of the sages see A. Charles Muller, The Composition of Self-Transformation Thought in Classical East Asian Philosophy and Religion. " Toyo Gakuen Kiyo, March, 1993.
24. Tsung-mi was a patriarch in both a Ch'an line and the Hua-yen sect of Buddhism. He wrote the most complete analysis of Ch'an Buddhist sects in ninth century China. For a full treatment of this important Ch'an personality see Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, Peter N. Gregory, Princeton University Press, 1991.
Holding the Lotus to the Rock: reflections on the future of the Zen sangha in the West by James Ishmael Ford
Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center by Michael Downing: book review by Vladimir K. buy this book
[Copyright © 1994 Stuart Lachs from a work in progress. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.] Reproduced here with permission.