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Stuart Lach's Reply to my essay: Tending the Bodhi Tree: A Critique of Stuart Lachs' Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Cha'n/Zen Buddhism in America
Hakuin's Daruma

Stuart Lach

Reply to Vladimir K.

Vladimir K. has written a long and learned reply to my paper, "Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Chan/Zen Buddhism in America." He also has a very broad and informative website where he has posted links to two of my papers, where he kindly says, “You may not agree with everything Lachs says, but he does make some valid points. All his articles are worth reading and discussing.” I feel that Vladimir and I have much more in common than he believes. I think this because in his critique of my paper, he imputes to me a number of assumptions, assertions and views that I do not hold.

Before continuing further, I would like to inform Vladimir that I am a Zen practitioner with over thirty years experience. I became interested in viewing Zen from a scholarly angle after more than twenty years of witnessing a great disparity between what the Zen institution claimed for its leaders and what I saw first hand. I was driven to understand what was happening and why not by some cold academic interest, but rather by the trouble and suffering real people were experiencing.

Throughout his critique, Vladimir conflates my looking at and analyzing Chan/Zen from a historical and sociological view with his mistaken assumption that I think Chan/Zen should be practiced from a rational, historical and sociological point of view.  I don’t believe this and have not said anything like that. I think it is healthy to view the Zen institution from these points of view so that we can have some idea of how and why the Zen institution developed as it has, how Zen functions as an institution and some of the affects of these institutional self definitions and arrangements. For some reason, Zen followers in the West have consistently found doing this a threat. In some way I feel Vladimir feels this way too. I also think that Vladimir has an idealized view of a pure Zen that exists “some where out there” not muddied by people and institutions.

This is why I am concerned  “that an idealistic presentation of sectarian histories, a special language, ritual performance, koans, mondos, and especially Dharma transmission and Zen lineage, which present the Zen Master/roshi as a person with ‘superhuman qualities’” is examined. It is also why I consider the above-mentioned terms along with Zen master/roshi and especially Dharma transmission and unbroken Zen lineage to be defining terms, defining terms of the Zen Institution. Vladimir asks why not use terms such as ‘no self’, ‘emptiness’, or ‘dependent origination’. These are philosophical terms that are part of virtually all Mahayana Buddhism. Zen in fact has no philosophy that is unique to itself or even a unique understanding of these terms. Zen borrows Mahayana Buddhist ideas from a range of Mahayana traditions. What makes Zen unique is its practice style, literature, presentation, organization and so on- not its philosophy. The one claim that Zen makes more explicit than other sects is that no words hold the final truth, not even the sutras.

My view is actually quite simple. Zen was formed in China and more or less formalized its institutional self-definition by around the eleventh century. There existed in China a world of competition for patronage, to gain institutional support from the elite elements of society.  Zen had to differentiate itself from other forms of Buddhism (T’ien-tai, Hua-yen…), as well as Confucianism and Taoism. It also had to show why it was superior to its competitors and how it would serve the needs of the empire. It based its self-definition on a mythical unbroken lineage going back to the historical Buddha based on mind-to-mind transmission (also known as Dharma transmission). It claimed to be superior to other sects of Buddhism because these other sects were based on texts and textual exegesis. In addition, these texts were further removed from China by being of foreign origin and hence needing translation. Zen, by claiming its legitimacy directly on transmitting the mind of the Buddha in an unbroken lineage of enlightened Zen masters, claimed to speak with the mind of the Buddha. It went so far as to create a Chinese sutra (sutra usually referred to the words of the Buddha), “The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch,” with the protagonist, the Sixth Patriarch,  Hui-neng being a home-grown Chinese Buddha.

While this form of legitimizing was going on, a separate methodology and supporting literature grew to enhance and enrich the basic construction. Out of this grew the rich literature of mondo, koans, the collected saying of the masters, rituals and a special language that all upheld and added to the legitimacy and authority of the Chan/Zen institution, and importantly, its embodied and most prestigious representative, the Zen master/roshi.

This is indeed a strong and appealing picture and mythology. Does it mean there is no value in Zen, that the mythology can not serve a purpose for the practitioner, that the master/roshi is worthless, or that Zen rituals have no place? I say NO to all of these questions. However, it does mean that that much authority, power, and attainment has been imputed to an institutional role, a role that must be filled with a living person-the Zen master/roshi. It also means that all the supporting literature (koans, mondo, flame literature…) plus the rituals add even more legitimacy and impute even more power and authority to this role. This whole complex presentation of Zen makes it seem natural to impute outstanding qualities to the Zen master. 

So today we have a person, the Zen master/roshi filling a role, given unquestioned power and authority, presented so that it is made to seem natural, based on attainment that is largely imputed but also greatly enhanced by rich supporting literature and ritual enactments, all imported from very different foreign cultures.

Does this seem like a situation asking for trouble? Does this seem like a situation that calls for closer examination? Does this call for trying to see how this system and its representatives (master/roshi) have actually worked in the “real” world as opposed to the world of Zen rhetoric and institutional polemics? Have we not had over the last forty years or so scandal after scandal at one (often leading) Zen Center after another, to this very day? Has Japanese Zen institutions where most of Zen in America originated, been severely critiqued, as were the leading representatives of Japanese Zen, its prominent roshi for their position in relation to war, militarism, emperor worship and imperialism during the first half of the twentieth century?  The answer to all of these questions, in my view is YES!  In fact, I believe Vladimir would agree with me and say yes too.

I would now like to address some of Vladimir’s particular points.

1.You take issue with my saying that Zen is presented idealistically. Of course it is. That is why I started the paper with four different idealistic quotes. Each quote was from a master/roshi from a different country: Japan, Korea, China/Taiwan and America. I was showing just how wide spread this presentation is and that most Western Zen students have accepted this presentation unquestionably. No, Vladimir, it is not universal but damn close. This presentation is widely accepted, even by Americans. John Loori (Daido roshi) said on New York City radio that he, as roshi, sits in for the Buddha. I guess he takes it seriously as do most of his students. 

It is not that people will say that Aitkin or any roshi for that matter is superhuman, please do not be so literal, but rather that his actions will be understood as enlightened activity and he will be accorded an authority based on imputed attainment that goes along with the title roshi. For a touch of reality, read Aitkin’s “weak” reply to Brian Victoria’s article on Aitkin’s teacher, Yasutani’s anti-semiticism in Tricycle magazine, Fall 1999, Issue 33, p.67

2.  You seem to have a view that there is a Zen aside from people and their presentation of it. I don’t claim that Zen, whatever that may be aside from people, is the cause of the problems; I claim Zen institutional definitions, supporting literature, rhetoric, rituals and organization are the cause or lend it to causing the problems. It is really simple. If we grant a level of power and authority to someone based on false imputed attainment, it is not surprising if the person (the roshi) then will not handle well that level of power and authority, which he does not really deserve or earned. Again, I think we agree with this.

3.  You have trouble with my critiquing Zen’s claim not to be tied to words. Actually this is a late claim only incorporated into Zen’s four-part self-definition attributed to Bodhidharma as, “A special transmission outside the scriptures” in 1108 CE. But my point is that when it comes to the Zen roshi, we are not to actually view her/his behavior as we would any other human. We are told to take it on faith, the faith in the title Zen master/roshi, that her behavior is enlightened, meant to help the students, compassionate, desireless and so on. It is the title itself that defines how people understand the roshi’s behavior. Vladimir may claim no one takes this seriously, but unfortunately most abuses at Zen Centers have persisted for long times before people did anything about them and often then it was precious little. Were people just blind or did they, as I claim, see what they were instructed to see as they became socialized into a Zen Center and accepted the Zen rhetoric of an enlightened roshi acting wisely, compassionately and without self-interest? This is an example of the power of Berger’s social construction of reality.

I do not use the quote “look, look” to show as you say “the stupidity of the student,” but rather that Zen instructs students to see reality/ their own Buddha nature whatever you call it, but when it comes to looking at the prime representative of the Zen institution, the Zen master/ roshi, the title (the word) takes precedence. Institutional rhetoric says don’t look, don’t judge, trust the title and the lineage and so on. In fact Zen rhetoric claims the student cannot understand the actions of the roshi at all, because the master/roshi comes from the absolute and the student does not understand that position. We have recently seen the results of this type of instruction with the Catholic Church as well as to a lesser degree with Zen.

4.  I did not disparage the fine roshi who have worked hard for their students. I claim,  because of the imputation of greater attainment than is earned or deserved, that often the roshi buys into this rhetoric and then is internally split. On one hand there is all the adoring, obedient, respectful, bowing students, while on the other hand, inside roshi wants to grab the pretty young thing coming into sanzen/dokusan or wishes the adoring crowd would just stay a little longer or was a little larger and so on. Not a comfortable position. If this roshi then becomes fixed on his role as roshi, becomes reified in the role and doesn’t see himself in fluid and constant dialogue with the world around himself, he then becomes alienated. His admiring students see him in a way that deep down he knows is false. It is then that he views his students as dupes, rubes and often treats them with disdain. It is not necessary to mention names here; the list is long.

5.  Vladimir falsely assumes that I am against all hierarchy; that I ascribe to some idealistic western sense of individualism. I am not against all hierarchy; that is pretty much impossible. Every group needs some hierarchy. The question is what is the hierarchy based on, how flexible is the hierarchy, how well does it work in the given situation and can it be improved upon?

My view is that the Zen hierarchy is too strong, arose from historical and social situations unrelated to our own, based for all practical purposes on institutional needs for legitimization, imputed qualities that are not deserved or earned and hence, causes more trouble than is necessary.

Yes, I believe that the extreme hierarchy that Zen institutions foster, is the source of much of the problems that have consistently affected American Zen. Of course this hierarchy is part and parcel of the idealistic presentation of Zen and the Far Eastern social modes common to Confucian cultures that it arose in. This has been brought here and presented as necessary and inherent to Zen. But is this necessarily part of Zen or is it part of Far Eastern Culture? I think it is related more to Far Eastern culture and that we will have to work out some new Zen hierarchy and modes of organization more consistent with Western culture.

The same goes for titles. The problem is how the title is defined or what is imputed to the title. If it was just, as Vladimir claims, “respect” like “ rabbi,” “inman,” “minister” and so on, then fine. But Zen makes much stronger claims for the Zen master. As in the case of Loori (Daido roshi) mentioned above, sitting in for the Buddha is hardly about respect. This is Zen’s rhetorical claim, that at least Loori believes. I believe a rabbi who claimed to sit in for Moses or God or a minister, who claimed to sit in for Jesus, would be viewed as odd, to say the least. In a slightly more subtle fashion, Master Sheng-yen would talk endlessly about the greatness of the enlightened Chan master, then after an hour of this talk would add, that he was only an ordinary monk; well, an ordinary monk who happens to be named Master Sheng-yen. And so it goes, in one form or another as I pointed out with the four examples at the beginning of my paper; the master/roshi is presented as a super human.

6.  I also did not mean to discuss all the theories of power in the paper; that is not its provenance. I was just pointing out there is an inherent power relationship in koan study. The roshi so to speak holds all the cards, decides who shall advance and at what speed and finally who shall be a successor. Of course I understand that there will always be power relationships when people join in groups. The question is the nature of the power relationship, how absolute is it, how open to questioning and challenge and so on.

Vladimir also mentioned Dharma transmission. A cardinal point of all Mahayana Buddhism is emptiness. Clearly, there is nothing passed on in Dharma transmission. Dharma transmission is an approval to teach, a form of recognition or approval by the teacher of his student. It is however given for many reasons besides deep insight into the nature of reality.

Vladimir mentions Foucault and his linking of power and knowledge. This is exactly my point. By imputing more knowledge/attainment than what is really earned to an institutional role, an institutional role that must be embodied with a real living person, we necessarily add power to this person (roshi). It is this undeserved extra power and authority that often breeds problems. 

Vladimir mentions the power of the group and mentions the power displayed by  "sanghas" dismissing the teacher. As far as I know, this has happened only once. The San Francisco Zen Center dismissed Richard Baker after roughly 12 years of really poor behavior. Vladimir holds this up as the power of the sangha. Well, I view it differently. Baker was only forced to leave after publicly parading around Tassajara, the Center’s monastery, with his best friend’s wife in tow while the friend looked on in shock and disbelief. This was only the last of a string of affairs that were widely known at the Center on top of Baker using knowledge of his students gained in private interview to bully or control them, his extravagant life style including lavish meals for friends prepared and served by SFZC “help”, a new white BMW, purchases of expensive art and an extensive library for himself along with a number of well appointed residences while the students lived on minimum wage. Even then, they did not want to dismiss him; it was only when he was so “difficult” at a meeting with the board of trustees that he was forced to leave.

I view the whole affair as showing how much the older students, practicing in some cases for over twenty years, bought into the Zen rhetoric of “real” transmission instead of seeing what was going on in front them. It was these older students who assured younger students, less socialized into Zen rhetoric, so naturally more questioning of Baker’s questionable activity, that Baker was the real thing, that he had “real transmission” from the “holy” Suzuki. Another factor to consider was that the older students were dependent on Baker for choice positions in the organization as well as advancing in their careers and possibly getting Dharma transmission themselves.  It did not “pay” to cross him. 

7.  Koans are a tricky subject. What “pass” means may be different from one teacher  to another and from one time to another. I think often “one-mind” and “no-mind” experiences are mixed up or treated as the same. One teacher may pass a one-mind experience while another may not. Once some one is working thru a “koan curriculum”, how easily or not a teacher passes students is totally up to the teacher and most often is not related to having any kind non-rational direct experience.

To give an example- at the Kanzeon Zendo in Bar Harbor Maine, a student complained to her roshi, Dennis Merzel, that people were upset, there was an uneasiness, something seemed to be wrong with the group. Merzel replied that students were upset because he was being more difficult in passing them with their koans. The student accepted this as the answer. The point was understood by  both Merzel and the student, that this was Merzel’s prerogative as roshi. It had nothing to do with direct insight or any other kind of insight. Just as an aside, it turned out the source of the “uneasiness” with the  group had nothing at all to do with the speed or slowness of “passing” koans. Rather, it was Merzel’s having a “secret” affair with a student or two.  Interestingly, one of the women went on to become a dharma heir of his.

Koans have been a part of Zen for a long time. In both the Rinzai and Sanbo Kyodan sects Zen koans are the basic meditation practice. Successfully going through the given koan curriculum of a lineage is primarily how one becomes a Dharma heir. Yet we have seen that many people who have completed  these courses and received transmission, have behaved in a rather poor fashion. I think this raises some questions: how do “passing” koans relate to ordinary life, what is missing if the supposed exemplars of the tradition act so poorly, are koans handled especially poorly in modern times, are people “passed” too easily and any number of other questions.

8.  Vladimir claims I “attack” Zen terms such as harmony, non-resistance, no self debt, mutual interdependence of all things, just as it is and so on. These terms as Brian Victoria, quoting the Rinzai scholar monk, Ichikawa Hakugen has pointed out, though seeming to be innocent, have been used “to make Buddhism susceptible to militaristic manipulation.”  Vladimir, even one of your teacher’s, Tangen roshi was taken by this rhetoric and joined the army during WWII “propelled by the spirit of helping others.” Today he flat out says, “It is wrong to kill.” 

For instance, the term “harmony” was used to harmonize Buddhism and Zen to State Shintoism, militarism, and wars of aggression. The seemingly simple terms “debt” or “gratitude” heard around Zen Centers were used to emphasize debt or gratitude to the Emperor as head of the entire Japanese family and weakened any sense of universal indebtedness to all sentient beings. This may seem strange in America in 2003, but it was not strange in Japan in 1941.

We should not forget how these terms were used and manipulated to serve the special purposes of those defining them, not with the highest ideals, at least as viewed today.

Closer to home, the term “loyalty” is emphasized in Japanese culture and comes embedded in Japanese Zen. From the Japanese perspective, this makes going to another teacher being viewed as poor Zen practice, perhaps being disloyal to your teacher and lineage. Yet in Korean Zen, going to study with whomever the student wants is standard procedure and is done by virtually all Korean Zen monks. In a similar vein, how to work with koans is vastly different in Korea and Japan. I repeat what I wrote in the paper, we should always be aware of who said what, under what circumstances. It is to me as Zen as any practice!

 9.  Myths and legends can definitely serve a purpose in Zen practice. But we must be careful how we use them and for what purpose. They can serve the wonderful  functions of inspiring us and our religious imagination, giving us ideals to aim for and enriching the mysterious teaching. However, if they are used to impute special powers and attainment to people who do not really deserve these attributes, then we are asking for trouble. Yes Lin-chi is one of my favorite examples of the attained Zen person, but if we think every roshi has his attainment, or believe Zen rhetoric, then as history has shown, we are asking for trouble

The history of Zen in the West has had too much trouble---too much scandal---too many people hurt. Yes, it has also been a great benefit to many, myself included. If we look at Zen rhetoric and the claims it makes for its representative, the Zen roshi, and then measure this against the known record of behavior, all too often we see a great disparity. This seems to call for some examination and reappraisal of our understanding of Zen’s defining terms and institutional structures and of what we are doing with this wonderful gift of Zen. What is the fear? Let the dance begin.

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