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

Vladimir K.
October 2003
(see also Lachs' reply to this essay)


Professors Matsumoto Shirou and Hakamaya Noriaka, formerly of Tokyo's Komazawa University, coined the term, and have written extensively on, a ‘movement’ called hihan bukkyou, in English, "Critical Buddhism". The focus of this movement has been the reform of the Soto doctrine and the social practices carried out by the sect. (Bielefeldt, 1998) Critical Buddhism encompasses sociological, philological, historical and philosophical issues which have, until recently, been largely the domain of academic Buddhologists. (Muller, 1998) Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism brought together many of the issues of critical Buddhism for the first time to a wider English-speaking audience. Stuart Lachs' article, Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Cha'n/Zen Buddhism in America, while not falling strictly into the academic milieu of ‘critical Buddhism' can loosely be classed in that stream of scholarly writing which questions some basic understandings of Zen practice and theology and highlights social abuses based on some fundamental points of Zen's ideology. Lachs attributes abuses in Western Zen centres to Zen's rhetoric and mythologizing as well as some of the primary tenets of the religion.

Critical Buddhism has provided a valuable avenue for discussing some fundamentals about Zen practice and theology. It began as an inquiry into how Buddhist intellectuals and Zen institutes could condone socially discriminating Japanese government policies culminating in apparent Zen support for militarianism and authoritarianism evident during the Second World War. (see Victoria, 1997) Lachs' concern is that an idealistic presentation of sectarian histories, language, ritual, koans, mondos, and especially Dharma transmission and Zen lineage, which present the Zen Master/roshi as a person with "superhuman qualities", has been the source of considerable problems in Western Zen. As such, his essay provides a service to all Western Zen students, warning of accepting Zen rhetoric unquestioningly and of the potentialities for abuses within Western Zen institutions. Abuses, whatever their source, need to be addressed in all sanghas.

In this essay I wish to look a little more closely at Lachs' contentions as to the causes of the undoubted abuses that have been occurring in some Western Zen centres and to ‘unpack' his argument somewhat to see what assumptions and assertions are embedded in his thinking upon these issues. While generally supporting Lachs' position that some Western Zen students are ignorant of not only Zen's history but misappropriate Zen terminology and theology, I wish to point out that in some cases Lachs falls into the same misunderstanding or misappropriation to support his arguments and I believe he paints an unnecessarily pessimistic picture of Zen in the West.

The Master

Lachs believes that the defining terms of Zen: Master/roshi, Dharma transmission and Zen lineage as well as koans and ritual behaviour "confer undeserved authority for the Master/roshi and legitimise hierarchical structures in Zen." Why these terms can be called ‘defining' is left unexplained. Other terms, such as ‘no self', ‘emptiness', or ‘dependent origination' say much more about Zen than roshi or Master, terms which can hardly be classed as "defining". He begins by quoting some ‘idealized' descriptions of Zen masters, from Richard Baker's introduction to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to the Chinese Ch'an master, Sheng-yen, descriptions which create a picture of the Master/roshi as being almost superhuman, glorified as "a person who has actualised that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings… [existing] freely in the fullness of his whole being". Certainly many Zen students have an idealised picture of their teacher and Lachs goes on to claim that in the Zen world, the Master is identified with "absolute reality" which "serves as a sacred and universal reference…the means by which their authority and by extension, the authority of the institution, is legitimated." This may be true in some Western (and, I'm sure, Japanese) sanghas, but it is far from universal. In my own personal experiences with some teachers from the Diamond Sangha, I have never heard anyone describe Robert Aitken as "superhuman". Indeed, if anything, teachers are often seen as all too human, with many of the flaws we all have. It is necessary to separate due respect for a teacher and the rituals of Zen with an overly broad application of rhetoric to all, or even most, Western sanghas.

While Lachs is quite right to point out how Zen rhetoric has been improperly cited to legitimate abuses ranging from sexual escapades to militarianism, he ascribes these to Zen itself rather than misappropriation of Zen theology. It would be difficult to assert that Zen (and Buddhist) theology is responsible for evils done it their names. Zen is a religion of salvation, as is the Buddhism from which it developed its own unique culture, tradition and teaching methodology. It is in the very human interpretation of the teachings that allows them to be misused and Lachs tends to misuse this interpretation to sustain his own arguments against Zen. From a sociological viewpoint, it would be possible to argue that the Zen Master is legitimated through Dharma transmission doctrine, but to assert that the Master "stands in for or represents the absolute reality represented by the Buddha" is an unfounded assertion and a misunderstanding of Dharma transmission. In Zen, who is there to ‘stand in' for anything? Lachs points out quite correctly that Dharma transmission in China and Japan was often based on institutional, political or personal needs rather than enlightenment. However to say that "According to the traditional Zen viewpoint, Dharma transmission justifies giving the teacher the authority that one would accord to the Buddha himself" is overstating the case and could only be accepted by those students unable to separate soteriological teaching devices from statements of so-called ‘fact'. Of course, this is Lachs' point but he seems to blame Zen for this rather than human interpretation. While drawing on Zen's rhetoric to show its idealization, Lachs continues his analysis by misapplying the rhetoric itself. For example, in discussing "mind-to-mind transmission", Lachs states that "what is being transmitted is the teacher's enlightened mind" (that is, if the teacher is enlightened). One has to question exactly what Lachs means here. Zen places great emphasis on not being tied by words and to say that ‘something' is being transmitted between student and teacher is being bound by words. When Huang-po was asked, "If there is nothing and no mind, then how can it be transmitted?", he answered, in part, "You have heard the expression of ‘transmission of the mind' and so you think there must be something transmitted. You are wrong." (Chung-yuan, 1969:85) The misunderstanding of what mind-to-mind transmission (or Dharma transmission) is, is just that—misunderstanding. By this I mean that it is something that can be understood, but not necessarily through our logical Western application of the term ‘transmission'.

Arguing that Zen defines itself as "not depending on words or letters", Lachs claims that there is "an unstated imperative to do precisely that," citing the title of roshi or Master as depending on words. However, to offer a respectful title to a religious leader or teacher is hardly the exclusive domain of Zen. Hence, we have inman in Islam, Father in Catholicism, guru in Hinduism, rabbi in Judaism or priest in Anglicanism. Master or Roshi can be viewed likewise, as titles of respect rather than ‘depending' on words or legitimating authority. In the same section Lachs contends that Zen rhetoric calls upon its followers to see what is in front of their eyes, citing Lin-chi's "look, look" as an example of "what the Master does, is by definition, enlightened activity" and that the student is somehow blind to the obvious when it comes to the Master. This is taken quite out of context as the mondo goes:

From the High Seat, the master said: "Upon the lump of red flesh there is a True Man of no Status who ceaselessly goes out and in through the gates of your face. Those who have not yet recognized him, look out, look out!" (Schloegl,1975:2)

This has nothing to do with ‘seeing' the teacher nor does it imply, as Lachs contends, that students are "incapable of seeing what is going on in front of them, when seeing is directed towards the Master/roshi". The mondo refers to ‘seeing' one's own true nature, not the Master's enlightenment, and is a teaching device to drive the student inwards, not outwards. To somehow use this as an illustration of the stupidity of the student is just plain incorrect.

Still on the topic of student/teacher relations, Lachs contends that the alienation of the teacher causes a tendency to see students as "dupes, ‘rubes', or people easy to fool… [the] Master views his students with little respect…there is an inclination to treat them with disdain and contempt." This disparages the fine work many Western Zen teachers have made in providing support and teaching to students, sometimes at great personal sacrifice in relation to their working life and family. While it may be true of some Zen teachers, it is not the norm nor is such an attitude based on Zen. Western Zen students are quite capable (although some may not exercise their capacity) of dismissing or leaving teachers who are disrespectful. Scandals, such as the one at the San Francisco Zen Centre, are used by Lachs to illustrate not only how Zen rhetoric and idealization can lead to unethical behaviour but the "strength of the authority attributed to those in teaching roles in Zen, at least in America". Combined with his assertion that Zen teachers are disrespectful towards their students, there is an implication that Zen students are indeed dupes, rubes and easy to fool. But is that what the experience of the SFZC shows? It can also be seen as the strength of the sangha to stand up to the teacher, to dismiss a teacher whom the sangha believes is no longer suitable for the job—an assuredly painful process, but one that nevertheless occurs. This does not illustrate the inability of Zen students to see what is happening in front of their eyes. Lachs' story of ‘Carol' is quite extraordinary, so much so that I question not so much Zen's authority but the sangha itself. Carol's behaviour and the sangha's reaction, while it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to Lachs' thesis, should not be seen as in any way being other than an exception to the general behaviour of sanghas in the West. But it does serve as a warning to all sanghas of the depths of illusion that are possible in any religious environment, including Zen.

A Question of Power

Lachs' essay title, ‘Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America', implies an assumption that there is something inherently wrong with hierarchies, a particularly American viewpoint that springs from that country's own mythology of egalitarianism and individualism. The myths of the Old West, the Frontier, and "a utopian community based on levelling hierarchies, dispersing power, and bringing peace and prosperity to the world" permeate American history and are still evident in its political, social and intellectual culture. (Agre, 1998) While it cannot be denied that America created a uniquely successful political and economic system, the rhetoric of American individualism is as idealised as the rhetoric of Zen. Drawing on Barry Shain's ‘The Myth of American Individualism', Philip Agre points out the inherent tension between Protestant communitarianism that created an almost "totalitarian order of invasive social control" and an idealised national individualism. (ibid)

Hierarchies need not necessarily be inappropriate or damaging. They are inherent in any community or group, whether it be a political party, an educational institute or a Zen sangha. Some people, whether it be through their social skills, greater knowledge or force of personality, will assume leadership roles while others will hold back and settle into less dynamic positions. As Lachs points out, the processes of externalisation, objectification and internalisation are products of collective human activity. Roles are created within individuals as they enter social groupings and these roles are often of a hierarchical structure. There is always someone higher or lower on the social scale. The point is not whether hierarchical structures exist in social groupings— they do; the point is whether these structures meet our expectations of justice, rights, freedom and respect, keeping in mind that many of these expectations are equally a construct of our social conditioning.

It should be recognized that ‘individualism' is not historical in the West but an outgrowth of capitalism and liberal democratic political structures. Citing Berger, Lachs warns: "Reality is socially defined. But the definitions are always embodied, that is, concrete individuals and groups of individuals serve as definers of reality." The reverence we currently hold for ‘individualism' is likewise socially created, a product of human activity that became important in the fight against despotism and for a liberal democratic capitalist society. There is no inherent ‘right' in individualism. It is a choice made by societies based on their beliefs and aspirations. Many Asian cultures feel that the family group or the ethnic group (which may or may not be a national group) are more important than the individual. This, too, is not inherently ‘right'; likewise, it is not inherently ‘wrong' either. It is a social construct that serves the purposes of the group. Tim Fitzgerald of Aichigakuin University has pointed out how in Japan, "a hierarchical network of relationships…provides each person with a meaningful identity, and…is celebrated in a multitude of ritual contexts." (Fitzgerald, 1997) Similarly, America, Europe and indeed all cultures have their hierarchical structures which are celebrated through a plethora of rituals. Lachs' attacks on Zen rituals appear to be based more on the ‘foreignness' of the practices than on an understanding of the purpose of those rituals as a religious or social practice. For Lachs, to show respect to a teacher with bows or "even prostrations" may appear foreign or inimicable to an American schooled in a particular version of individualism, but equally others may find holding one's hand over the heart while a national anthem is played before a sporting event quite bizarre. To say one is right and the other wrong is cultural arrogance.

In his summary, Lachs asks,

How do we look at Zen in a way that is more in tune with our modern culture, a culture open to critical enquiry, with a view of the individual and his/her leaders grounded in our own cultural setting with its sense of individualism, freedom, and openness, as well as its dilemmas and fears, rather than attempting to function within rigid institutional idealizations and old myths suited to Far Eastern cultures?
Of course, this is the perennial question and, as mentioned earlier, Lachs' article has exposed some of the difficulties inherent in this transmigration of Zen from one culture to another. However, while questioning Zen's fundamental structures, it may be worthwhile to also question some of our own assumptions and beliefs.

Zen's structures, developed over thousands of years, are not inherently democratic, egalitarian or open—at least not as we apply these terms in our culture. These concepts were never part of its development. Nor were they part of the Christian Church in its development. To assume that religious institutions should be based on the same structures as secular ones appears to me as naïve as any idealisation of religion. Lachs seems to believe that Zen should be open to "critical enquiry", although it is unclear what he means by this term or what it is that should be open to this rationality. Also it is unclear just what kind of "freedom" is referred to in the above extract. Is this the freedom of rationality, of Western idealism, of modernist thought based on the ironically named Enlightenment period of Western (European) history grounded in a capitalist culture of scienticism, consumerism and self-interested individualism? We must be careful in our appropriation of secular ideals to religious practice.

Lachs is critical of koan study not only because ‘passing' koans in Zen study is often based less on the student's understanding than on other imperatives (unfortunately, he does not offer what ‘passing a koan' actually means in his view) but also that "insight and understanding of koans and Buddha Dharma can function as the basis of a power relationship between student and the Zen Master", revealing an assumption that "a power relationship" is somehow inherently wrong. Although he cites sociologist David Bell to uphold this position, Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt may provide a better model.

Power is a contentious issue in sociology and Bell's position, that power is a zero-sum game in relatively short supply, is but one viewpoint. Hannah Arendt, for example, sees power not as the property of any individual but as belonging to a group and this power remains in existence only so long as the group remains together. Arendt sees power as something created by and within groups: "the only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people." (Arndt, 1958:201) Arendt's contention is that power is created by the group, not the individual. Sanghas that have dismissed their teacher have manifested the power of the group. In Arendt's conception of power, the sangha ‘empowers' the Master and the Master has this power only as long as the group exists and actualises itself as a group. However, as Arendt warns, "Perhaps nothing in our history has been so short-lived as trust in power". (ibid: 204)

The French philosopher Michel Foucault disagrees with some aspects of Arendt's view. Unlike Arendt, Foucault does not see power exclusively as a function of consent:

In itself it is not a renunciation of freedom, a transference of rights, the power of each and all delegated to a few (which does not prevent the possibility that consent may be a condition for the existence or the maintenance of power); the relationship of power can be the result of a prior or permanent consent, but it is not by nature the manifestation of a consensus. (Foucault, 1982:220)

More pertinent, perhaps, to this discussion is Foucault's pouvoir-savoir, the linking of knowledge and power. As he says in Discipline and Punish, "power and knowledge directly imply one another; …there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations." (1991:27) I point this out only to illustrate that the power of the teacher in knowledge of koans and the Buddha Dharma reflects power relationships in society in general. Foucault also differentiates between secular power and what he calls "pastoral power", a special form of power that concerns itself not with secularism but with "a form of power whose ultimate aim is to assure individual salvation", which must also "be prepared to sacrifice itself for the life and salvation of the flock" and which cannot be exercised without "knowing the inside of people's minds". (Foucault, 1982:214) Although Foucault is here discussing primarily the Christian Church, I think the description is applicable to the role of a Zen Master or any religious guide.

Therefore, in Foucault's view, the power that a teacher would have over a student would be quite natural. What is relevant is not that the teacher has some power that the student doesn't; it is what is done with that power. If it is used to further the understanding of the student, then well and good; it is power well used. Power in and of itself is not necessarily harmful. Lachs seems to imply that in the context of Zen practice, there should be no power relationships at all. This is unrealistic and does not reflect either secular or religious life but rather a stereotypical version of egalitarianism embedded in Western values of individualism and liberal capitalist democratic structures.

Finally, Lachs attacks Zen terms such as

harmony, non-resistance, tolerance, Dogen's term "body-and-mind-falling-away," karma, no self, the concept of debt or gratitude, mutual interdependence of all things, the doctrine of the Middle Way, emphasis on inner peace rather than justice, and finally the characteristic of "just as it is" which can lead to a static, aesthetic perspective, a detached, subjective harmony with things…naively viewed seem pure and straightforward, the essence of Zen…

as having "no meaning whatsoever outside the culture in which they are embedded, or more precisely, who in that culture is using them and at what time." Further more, citing Berger, Lachs believes "it is essential to keep pushing questions about historically available conceptualisations of reality from the abstract ‘What?' to the sociologically ‘Says who?'" While this may be true for an academic or a sociological approach to Zen, it's a dubious path to take for a Zen practitioner. It is a questionable assumption to say that knowing about thirteenth century Japan (Dogen's era) will assist one in penetrating what Dogen meant by saying "body and mind falling away". Concepts such as tolerance, harmony, gratitude or non-resistance do not appear to me to require a knowledge of where they came from, or who said them. We bring to these terms our own complex of moral values, values which we hope are appropriate not only in thirteenth century Japan, but today, here and now. Mutual interdependence and the Middle Way are core concepts in Buddhism and Zen and, likewise, need no knowledge of ‘who?' but rather ‘what?'. One can view the Buddha's teaching as an historical artefact with no meaning in today's life or as a teaching that contains universal truths not dependent on time or place. Understanding, or, in Zen parlance, ‘penetrating', these teachings is the practice of Zen.

We should not be so critical to discover myths and legends in our teaching. The mythic powers of the Patriarchs, the historical legends of Masters, the impenetrability of koans, the rituals, odd clothing, the scent of incense, can all inspire us in our practice. Myths flesh out the bare bones of Zen. If we cannot look to the mondos, to the Patriarchs, to Lin-chi, to the thousands, the millions, who have come before us, to whom do we turn in our search? Surely not academics and sociologists. I would have to agree with Carl Bielefeldt when, referring to critical Buddhism, he states, "I am not drawn to such work, what we might call the "Protestantization" of the dharma that weeds out the rich overgrowth of art and literature, myth and ritual, and in the process cuts off most possibilities for being Buddhist". (Bielefeldt, 1998) Are we who base our practice on a foundation of religious faith and turn to these old Masters for guidance, to be dismissed as fools, dupes or rubes who are so blind that we need to dismiss all non-Western rationality to find the Way?

Religious practice of any kind comes with its own vocabulary, ritual and norms. Zen is no different. All religions attempt to "reshape and colour the person's way of thinking about and views of the world", otherwise what would be the point of practice? Zen practice is all about changing the perception of the world in which one lives and suffers. As such, it comes complete with its own images, historicity, values, beauty, humour and, yes, sometimes abuses which need to be eliminated wherever they are found. Zen Buddhism has a long and, I believe, honourable tradition in providing meaning to people's lives. I find it has in my own life. This is a matter of faith, not Western rationality, and I accept that. Hence, I call myself a Zen Buddhist—not uncritically, but as a faith. Without this faith I could not sit and face the wall for hours on end. Zen brings, like all religions, a message of salvation, of inspiration, of high ideals. To think otherwise is, in my opinion, misunderstanding the message of the Buddha. I see more meaning in the Buddha's message than the culture his message was embedded in. I see more meaning in Zen than in China or Japan or America. But that is only my view; each must make up his/her own mind whether Zen Buddhism is an irrelevant cultural artefact or an endless practice bringing meaning to one's life.


Stuart Lachs has brought to the fore some undoubted misapplications of Zen Buddhist understanding in Western Zen practice. As such, he has provided a valuable opening for discussion of what Zen means in this new century, this new place. Although I disagree with much of what he has said, I do not disagree with some of his core ideas, namely that Zen is open to abuse and that we need to be careful about where we lay our faith and trust. Abuse, wherever we find it, needs to be eradicated. However, I also feel that by dismissing much of what Zen is, by calling for a demythologising of Zen, Lachs appears to plea for a Zen that is barren and philosophical rather than religious, a Zen much too reliant on historicity and Western concepts of empirical rationality and freedom and individualism. Zen's idea of freedom is quite different from a Western sociological or political view that stems from Greek culture. Western freedom is based on a ‘self', on individualism and the rights of the individual juxtaposed, generally, against the state and power. To base Zen practice on a foundation of ‘self' would, in my view, no longer be a Buddhist practice. Theologian Harvey Cox defines religion as "that which binds life together", noting that even that great atheist, Karl Marx, felt that religion is "the heart of a heartless world". (Cox, 2000) Professor of Religion Thomas Idinopulous points out that a religious life is "a whole life that cannot be reduced to functions… so filled with ‘nonobservables' as to defeat any application of the so-called ‘empirical method'" in its study or understanding. (Idinopulos, 1998) Let us not substitute the head for the heart in Zen but make them both one.

Lachs concludes his essay with an appeal to acceptance by the American Zen community of scholarly critical examination of Zen as "an invaluable asset" to the community that goes beyond translations of texts and in this I would support him. A scholarly, academic understanding has its place in the rich texture of Zen and is not to be feared by practitioners. Personally speaking, I have been most grateful to much that has come from the scholarly community which has assisted me in my own practice of Zen, much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of some of my teachers. One of my earliest teachers, Robert Aitken, encouraged reading among his students. Another teacher, Harada Tangen, positively discouraged any kind of reading at all. Each had a point, each had a way of teaching. But there need not be a vast gulf between academics and the lay Zen community. Each has much to contribute. The dance of Zen is vast and wide, able to accommodate all who join in. As Bielefeldt said, referring to critical Buddhist scholars, maybe the academic community will find "more friends than they think, even among those who take refuge in the buddha nature or sing at night to the Mountain Spirit." (Bielefeldt, 1998 ) Let us sing and dance together.


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