Monthly Archives: August 2014

Religion Doesn’t Need Miracles

I recently read an online discussion of the intersection of science and religion. The discussion very quickly turned to talk of miracles and proposed that religion and science would be reconciled when science either acknowledges miracles or somehow verifies the connection between miracles and some divine agent.

In which case, science and religion will never be reconciled. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the things that I’ve realized through Zen is that our conceptual division of  “natural” and “supernatural” is based largely on a failure to appreciate the truth of the “natural.” We take the natural world for granted and call it mundane, and we look for shiny, sparkly whoo-dee-doo out-of-this-mundane-world stuff to confirm our hope that the ordinary, common world isn’t all there is.

But some parts of science are telling us the world we see around us isn’t all there is, and indeed, the world we see around us isn’t even around us. It’s a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. What’s really “around us,” or the stuff from which this temporary confluence of mind-and-matter fabricates the world, is to us a mystery. And the temporary confluence of mind-and-matter we call “I” also is a mystery. We assume we know what it is, but we don’t.

Science, particularly in such areas as theoretical physics and neuroscience, is gradually putting together a picture of reality that tells us everything we think we know about it is wrong. The Buddha said the same thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” People interpret that to mean something like “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” but that’s not what I see. When you begin to appreciate the truth of reality and the truth of our existence, you see he means that literally.

This so-called “mundane” world is a bleeping five-alarm wonder. Looking for miracles “out there” is like sitting at a table at Maxim’s with a plate of gourmet food in front of us, wishing we had something to eat. And appreciating the wondrous nature of our existence does not require the mundane world to behave in ways that are scientifically inexplicable.

Soyen Shaku Roshi, who as far as I know what the first Zen teacher to set foot in North America, carried on a productive correspondence with some Christian critics of Buddhism. This is from a latter he wrote to Dr. John Barrows in 1896:

I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ’s sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.

This is a very Zen perspective. As a Zen student I don’t interpret was the Roshi said to mean that what Jesus said was just philosophy, or just intellectual or conceptual. He’s saying that the truth of reality — the amazing, brain-bending truth — is not proved or disproved or otherwise revealed by what we call miracles. Miracles are, literally, irrelevant, whether they happen or not.

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It’s certainly true that early Buddhists enshrined the Buddha’s memory in stories of his supernatural exploits, but that was a common thing to do in the ancient world. No powerful person did anything important without tales of the event being embroidered with miraculous signs and wonders. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, in ancient times “truth” was about meaning, not facts. Accounts of important people and events often were dressed up with fantastical details that expressed how people felt about, or understood the significance of, this important thing. Equating truth with what is factual is something that happened gradually, beginning about the 15th century or so in western culture.

And now much of religion is stuck in conceptual cul-de-sac that mixes up mythos and logos and demands literal signs and wonders that science can measure. This is ass-backward, people. I sincerely believe that even the monotheistic religions don’t need miracles to be valid.

This is not to say that Buddhism and science don’t butt heads over some things, especially in the area of materialism. But I don’t necessarily think science and religion have to see things the same way, especially since the two disciplines are operating within different parameters. There are places Buddhism goes that science does not, and vice versa. In all these years as a Zen student, however, I’ve never been asked to believe anything I knew contradicted science, and I honestly don’t see why that would ever happen. It just isn’t necessary.

Notes on the Other Shore

A little more on the raft parable — I occasionally bump into someone saying the raft parable tells us we can ignore dharma teachings as we like, because we’re supposed to ditch them, anyway. This is an un-serious interpretation, seems to me.

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However, in his comments on this parable, Thanissaro Bhikkhu said something that I don’t believe is true —

“Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text — the Diamond Sutra — interprets the raft simile as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river.”

Let’s look at this —

Mention of the raft parable is in the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra. This is from Red Pine’s translation:

“…if these fearless bodhisattvas created a perception of a dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma,  they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.

“And why not? Because, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas do not cling to a dharma, much less to no dharma.  This is the meaning behind the Tathagata’s saying, ‘A dharma teaching is like a raft. If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.'”

From this, I can see how the Bikkhu came to his interpretation. But one must always be careful with the Diamond. It’s a subtle text, and its deeper meaning isn’t found in a literal reading, I don’t think. My stab at this is that reaching the other shore requires dropping away ideas about dharma. But that’s not the same thing as dropping dharma.

In his book on the Diamond Sutra, Red Pine quotes a number of distinguished Mahayana sages who interpret this passage in the conventional way — that the “raft” of the Buddha’s teaching can abandoned on the other shore. I think it’ s safe to say that the author of the Diamond expected his readers to be familiar with the original raft simile and how it is traditionally interpreted.

Something else to remember about the Diamond is that the translations of it are all over the map. The oldest versions we have are in an antique form of Chinese that, I am told, is just about untranslatable. And the early Chinese translators, who may or may  not have been working from a now-lost Sanskrit original, don’t agree with each other.

For example, one of the early translators was an Indian monk named Paramartha (499-569 CE). Red Pine says that in Paramartha’s version, the raft becomes a metaphor for the sutras, not the dharma. That puts a sightly different spin on the text.

As usual, Thich Nhat Hanh finds a clear way to explain things.

“The Buddha is saying that the truth he has realized is not what we generally think it is. It lies in the middle way, which is beyond the idea of graspable and the idea of deceptive. We should understand this in light of the teaching of the raft given earlier. The raft is to help us cross over to the other shore. It is a wonderful, even necessary instrument. But we should use the raft in an intelligent way. We should not cling to it or carry it on our back when we are done with it. The teaching is to help us, not to be possessed by us. It is not meant to deceive us, but we may be deceived by it because of our own way of clinging to it.” [from The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion]

[This post originally was posted on Buddhism on November 27, 2013]

The Raft Parable

Most of you probably know the Buddha’s raft simile — that the dharma is like a raft that you can abandon once you are on the other shore. Recently I decided to check out exactly where the raft story originated.

The search led me to the Alagaddupama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 22),  also called the Water Snake Simile Sutta. There’s a water snake parable that comes right before the raft parable, and apparently the organizers of the Sutta-pitaka found the water snake story more compelling and named the sutta after the snake and not the raft. Go figure.

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It turns out there is some disagreement as to exactly what the raft parable is trying to tell us, and the water snake story ties into that. In the snake story, a man picks up a water snake by the tail instead of by the proper way, by the  head, the way the wildlife experts on the Discovery Channel always do.  Of course, the snake gives the man a venomous bite, and he was very sorry and probably died. The moral of this story is that if we “grasp” the dharma improperly, we could fall into all kinds of spiritual dangers.

The raft story immediately follows the snake story.  As you probably know, in the raft story a man needs to cross a large body of water to reach the other shore, which is much nicer than the shore he is standing on.  There were no bridges or ferries, so he ties together twigs and grass and whatever else he could find to make a raft, which he then uses as a floatation device as he paddles with hands and feet across the water.

At the end of this story, the Buddha asked his monks what the man should do with the raft. And the sensible answer, of course, is that, since a raft serves no purpose on dry land, he would leave the raft on the shore and continue his journey without it. Then the Buddha said,

“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma [dharma] compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.” [Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]

Most of the time, this story is interpreted to mean that once one is enlightened, there is no more need for dharma teachings. But some scholars argue that when one connects the two stories, it appears the raft parable is more about how to “grasp” or understand the teachings. In the second interpretation, the other shore represents correct understanding, and the abandoned raft represents provisional or imperfect understanding.

Which interpretation works for you? I could go either way, frankly.

[This blog post originally was published on Buddhism November 26, 2013.]

Silence, Noble and Ignoble

A couple of days ago I published a post called “How Evil Happens,” cross-posted from The Mahablog.  The post commented on the violence in Gaza and the episodes of Israeli bombs hitting UN schools in which Palestinian civilians were taking shelter.

The bare facts of the situation indicate that while the schools probably were not being targeted, neither had Israel shown much concern about not bombing the schools. And Israel had been informed the schools were being used as refuges. Israel was unable to provide a verifiable reason for the bombing; Israeli forces seem to think that whatever they do is justified, period.

I quoted Rethinking Religion:

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will.

And I said the same admonishment no doubt applies to Palestinian terrorists as well.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

The United States has fallen into the same error, many times.

A comment was left on my other site, which said —

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I am wondering whether you can quote these sources with the certainty that they are true?

We can’t always know for certain what goes on out of our sight. For that matter, we’re often confused about what’s going on within our sight. But in the case of the bombed UN schools, even Israel is not denying that the bombings occurred as news sources reported. What’s in dispute is whether other circumstances justified the bombings. Since I wrote the original post, no new information has come to light that makes Israel’s arguments any stronger.

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Buddhist “right speech” teachings are sometimes interpreted to mean that one cannot criticize anyone else, ever, for any reason, and I don’t see it that way. Certainly one does not spread lies or gossip, and one does not use speech in an ego-centered way, tearing others down to build ourselves up.

However, if we don’t at least offer what insight or wisdom we may have to the suffering world, what good are we?

Most of the mass atrocities of human history were carried out by people who believed their actions were completely justified. This has been true of followers of all the world’s great religions and no doubt any nation that’s been in existence for at least a few years. Things are done that the descendents of the perpetrators try to erase from history or eventually acknowledge in sorrow when enough time has passed. Yet generation after generation, we never seem to learn from this.

I don’t see any group of people, including nations, as intrinsically good or evil. This is just what humans do, and have always done.

Did the Buddha actually intend for us to keep silence in the face of atrocity? Or to wait to speak until the verdict of history has been issued, which usually takes a generation or two? I don’t think so. The Buddha himself could be unsparing in his words when somebody did something completely out of bounds.

In the Patimokkha, a section of the Vinaya-pitaka, or rules for monks and nuns, the Buddha discussed the correct way for one monk or nun to admonish another. If the criticism is timely, factual, not unnecessarily harsh, and offered with a kind heart, this is skillful admonishment. And while I don’t always live up to that, in this situation I believe I did.

Taking the Path of Woo: Jesus in Tibet?

Recently an intelligent and thoughtful person of my acquaintance posted on Facebook about some new and exciting connection between science and spirituality. I followed the link to this wondrous new thing, and it took me to a page about … Edgar Cayce?

You young folks may not have heard of him, but many people — usually the same people who took chain letters seriously —  still believed in Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) when I was a young ‘un. Cayce was, basically, an upscale circus sideshow act. His shtick was to go into trances where he issued predictions for the future . Be advised that someday the earth’s poles will shift to somewhere along the equator. And 1933 will be a great year for the economy! Oh, wait …

I take it Cayce is making something of a comeback in New Age circles. Or perhaps he never really left. So much of what he went on about, such as the healing properties of crystals, out-of-body experiences, channeling knowledge from the dead and legends about the Lost Continent of Atlantis was the stuff 1960s and 1970s-era New Age was made of.

It can be argued that maybe crystals do have healing properties, and maybe someday we’ll find the remains of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. OK. But what would that have to do with spirituality? A grab bag of random beliefs is not a path, or a process, no matter how much those beliefs tickle our imagination.

Beliefs about mysterious happenings, ancient and recent, are shiny, sparkly things that are hard to ignore. I don’t know why that’s true. In Rethinking Religion I wrote a chapter called “True Believers and Mass Movements” that discusses why people cling so tightly to beliefs, including ridiculous ones, and can’t be talked out of them.

Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

But why some fantastical stories are more shiny and sparkly than others, I can’t say.

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One of the most persistent shiny, sparkly stories that people take seriously is that Jesus studied Buddhism in Tibet, or maybe China, or maybe India, during the years of his youth that were not recorded in the Bible. Possible?

James Ford discusses the origins of the Jesus-in-Tibet story on his blog, Monkey Mind. In the late 19th century a book titled The Life of Saint Issa was claimed to have been found in a monastery in Tibet. The book was about the life of Jesus — Saint Issa — and claimed that from the ages of 13 to 29 Jesus had gone off to India to study religions. He studied with the Jains and with the Hindus, but apparently he wasn’t satisfied until he found the Buddhists, and he spent his last six years before returning home learning the Pali Canon. And for many reasons that James Ford presents on his blog, the book clearly is a work of fiction.

Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who fervently believe that Jesus studied Buddhism. The standard arguments for this claim are (a) Jesus taught things he could only have learned from Buddhism; and (b) some variation of the Life of Saint Issa story — somebody found a book or a scroll or an engraving in some temple or monastery, usually in Tibet or India, that proved Jesus had been there. A third argument that pops up occasionally is that some of Jesus’ parables were taken from older Buddhist sutras.

None of these claims holds water. In order:

First, if we assume Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels accurately reflect what he taught — and if they don’t, I don’t know what else might — there’s nothing in there that he only could have gotten from Buddhism. As James Ford (Unitarian Universalist minister, Zen priest and lineage holder, MA in religion) says,

While it would be an absolute delight for me to learn that Jesus studied Buddhism, the fact remains there was nothing in his teachings, as best a cool read of the normative texts give us, that wasn’t already contained within the Judaism of his day. Well, okay, that very late text John does offer a non-traditionally Jewish Jesus, but even that Jesus is easily contained with a rather more boring and obviously already there gnostic influence or reaction.

Indeed, the one incontrovertible thing you can say about Jesus is that he was a monotheist, through and through. Even a little Buddhist influence would have muted that, I think.

Second, the rumored archeological evidence of Jesus’ travels in the Much Further East can never be traced back to anything real. And as far as Tibet is concerned, Buddhism didn’t reach Tibet until the 7th century CE. Jesus would have had to wait.

One of the most inventive variations on the Jesus-in-Tibet story I ever heard was that the Three Wise Men were Tibetan monks who declared that Jesus was a reborn high lama. Not only were there no Tibetan Buddhists in Jesus’ day; the tradition of identifying the rebirths of high lamas didn’t begin until the 12th century.

Third, there are a few places in Buddhist scripture and commentary that seem to resemble something in the Gospels (such as the prodigal son story from the Lotus Sutra), but in every example I know of the Buddhist text was written at least a century or two after the life of Christ (including the Lotus Sutra).

There may have been some scriptural cross-pollination going on, but remember, the Silk Road was wide open. Merchants were traveling from the Far East to the Roman Empire all the time, and some of those routes went through places where early Christians lived.

For that matter, if Jesus had been so all-fired eager to study Buddhism, he only had to go as far as present-day Afghanistan. That was a Buddhist kingdom in his day.  But I see no reason to think he did.

Postscript: Someone once asked Edgar Cayce, who was in a trance, if a reincarnation of Jesus was influential in the development of Buddhism and other religions. The answer, which you can read yourself, was word salad.

Deluded About Enlightenment

This is a follow up to the post before last, about the death of Joshu Sasaki. The New York Times published an article about it, and apparently not all of the Roshi’s former students acknowledge that what he did was wrong.

“The idea that he was a predator is mistaken,” said Harold D. Roth, a professor of religious studies at Brown University and a former student of Mr. Sasaki’s. “Everything he did was in the devoted service of awakening enlightenment in his students.”

Oh, please. He was hitting on women students in freakin’ sanzen.

They said he would tell them that sexual contact with a Zen master, or roshi, like him, would help them attain new levels of “non-attachment,” one of Zen’s central objectives. If they resisted, they said, he used intimidation and threats of expulsion.

The Roshi was particularly devoted to the service of enlightening women, apparently, since by all accounts male students didn’t get the same opportunity to attain new levels of non-attachment.

An independent panel of Buddhist leaders concluded in 2013 that the allegations were essentially indisputable. The panel report said that students had complained to Mr. Sasaki’s staff about his behavior since the early 1970s, and that those “who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.”

Some of the senior students who make excuses for the Roshi note that no rape charge was ever filed. That’s not unusual, however. Women probably figured it was futile to file charges, considering the Roshi’s seniors students obviously were going to shield him from accountability.

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I would say to Professor Roth that nobody is absolutely bad or absolutely good. Nobody is absolutely anything. I don’t doubt a lot of people who studied with the Roshi and learned Zen practice from him feel the experience was worthwhile. But just as it is delusion to assume a person who has done something wrong is evil, it’s also a delusion to assume a person whose life has otherwise been beneficial is good. This proposes a permanent essence of Sasaki Roshi upon which attributes may be hung — good, bad, enlightened, deluded.

That’s not how it works.

Zennies must affirm that there is no excuse for sexual predation, and that the Roshi’s acts were harmful and wrong. This is not about punishing him, but about giving affirmation to the women he abused while also saying loudly and clearly that this is not what Zen does.

How Evil Happens

William Saletan at Slate (yeah, I know, it’s William Saletan, but it’s a good article) and Ben Hubbard/Jodi Rudoren at the New York Times write that Israel simply isn’t concerning itself with whether their shells are hitting UN schools where Palestinian civilians are taking refuge. Israel is saying it’s not targeting “safe zones,” and maybe it isn’t. But it appears Israel is taking no precaution to not bomb safe zones, either.

Saletan is accusing Israel of war crimes, saying that the Israelis have succumbed to a mentality that everything they do is justified because Hamas is ruthless. For example:

Israel’s prime minister and other officials have argued that Hamas’ use of human shields makes it completely responsible for any civilian casualties in Gaza.

This mentality makes it that much easier to pull the trigger. The Times says Israeli officials have offered no evidence that enemy fighters were near the Jabaliya school, and interviews with people on the neighboring streets found nobody who had seen fighters in the vicinity. Nor were there any bullet casings or holes. Does the enemy’s frequent use of human shields justify killing civilians in an instance where there’s no evidence of that behavior? Did this rationale play a role in the IDF’s decision to shoot?

This is a classic example of how good people get sucked into doing bad things, and I suspect Palestinian terrorists would offer us another example of the same thing. I wrote in Rethinking Religion,

If we were paying attention, history should have taught us that people who create evil hardly ever see themselves or their intentions as evil. Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 terrorists believed their attack was righteous and justified, as did Timothy McVeigh when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will. And the seduction begins with the thought that “I’m a good person,” and “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” As soon as we identify ourselves as “good” and the Other, whoever they are, as “evil,” we’ve well on the way to giving ourselves a cosmic permission slip to do whatever we want to be rid of them.

I say this seductive impulse is at the root of most of the mass atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through the ages. That’s why the ways we conceptualize good and evil have real-world consequences.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

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Same old, same old.

[Cross-posted at The Mahablog]

Flaws and Zen Teachers

The death of Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the age of 107 was noted in several major U.S. newspapers, but I haven’t heard much about it in the U.S. Zen community, possibly because many would like to forget him entirely.

James Ford, a Soto Zen lineage holder, did post on his blog Monkey Mind about the Roshi, and wrote,

By all accounts a great teacher.

By all accounts a sexual predator.

A great sadness for the Dharma come west.

There is no question flawed people can still be great teachers. Were it not so, there would be no great teachers. But there are flaws, and then there are other flaws. wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

Decades later, allegations from dozens of former students that he had sexually abused them surfaced. The allegations included molestation and rape, and some had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which never took effective action, according to an investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders.

The council’s report suggested he may have abused hundreds. “We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote. “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished.”

A council of senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi later responded with an apology, acknowledging that it failed to address the teacher’s alleged sexual misconduct.

The community was drawn into an open secret … those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed, or otherwise punished. To me, this is the most critical issue. There is no group of people immune to herd mentality, including scientists, self-described skeptics — and Zen students. And I feel compelled to point out that “great teachers” don’t haul their students into co-dependency and complicity.

His senior students, quoted in the news stories, still speak of him with gushing reverence.  Apparently he had great presence, even charisma. But in Zen, genuinely great teachers are praised for their ordinariness. Genuinely great teachers don’t encourage emotional dependency.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), who founded the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) in the late 1960s, once compared working with one’s own delusions to climbing a stepladder. Then he added,

Sometimes I may be a delusion. You may overestimate me: “He is a good teacher!” That is already a kind of delusion. I am your friend. I am just practicing with you as your friend who has many stepladders.”

Shunryu Suzuki was a great teacher. I’ve never heard even a hint of a scandalous thing about him. However, as he was dying he rushed transmission of his senior student Richard Baker, who apparently was not ready, and Baker became embroiled in scandals that nearly destroyed SFZC. But SFZC survived, partly through the guidance of Shunryu Suzuki’s son Hoitsu Suzuki. My second Zen teacher, Jion Susan Postal (1940-2014)  received transmission from a teacher in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage through Hoitsu Suzuki. Susan was a great teacher.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Zen lineage tradition, see the explanation beneath the asterisks below.)

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American Zen has done a lot of soul-searching, so to speak, in recent years. A relative handful of Japanese and Korean teachers came to the U.S. in the 1950s through 1970s to teach Zen, and out of that small group several were accused of sexual impropriety eventually. The first generation of American-born teachers, almost all men, also included some teachers who arguably allowed their sexual choices to compromise their roles as teachers, which doesn’t mean they were all predators. Japanese Buddhism is not celibate, and I know of at least a couple of teachers who engaged in publicly acknowledged, serially monogamous relationships with students who were old enough to know what they were getting into. Whether this was detrimental to either the students or the community is a matter of opinion, I suppose.

However, I sense a consensus is growing that teachers shouldn’t be messing with their own students, period. Also, more and more American lineage holders are women, so western Zen is not nearly as much of a boy’s club as it was in the 1970s. More importantly, as western Zen matures students are less likely to think of Zen masters as people with magic powers. They provide essential guidance in the process that is Zen, but ultimately they are just people with flaws and stepladders.

*   *   *

Joshu Sasaki Roshi established a network of Zen centers called Rinzai-ji but left no dharma heirs, in spite of being a teacher for more than 60 years, which throws the future of those centers into doubt.

The news stories and articles about the Roshi persistently confuse terms like “priest” and “teacher,” so let me explain. Rinzai and Soto Zen (the two primary schools in Japan) operate a bit differently, but generally priest ordination roughly is equivalent to novice nun or monk ordination, and “dharma transmission” is equivalent to full ordination. Usually the term “Zen teacher” is limited to the transmitted and is not used to describe priests without transmission, even if the priest is filling the function of a teacher. However, I don’t know if that’s a hard-and-fast rule everywhere.

Someone who has received transmission is also called a “lineage holder,” “dharma heir” or even “Zen master,” although within American Zen it’s unusual to hear the title “Zen master.” The lineage tradition is the primary container that has maintained the integrity of Zen lo these 15 centuries, since Bodhidharma sat in the cave at Shaolin. Zen defines itself as the “face to face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras,” and “dharma” in this case is understood to be the Buddha’s own enlightenment, kept alive by students and teachers working together, person-to-person, mind-to-mind, through the generations. It’s not a matter of learning stuff from books, in other words. Obviously the system doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s the only system Zen has. Without it, no Zen.

There are many functions only a lineage holder is supposed to be able to do, such as give formal private spiritual interviews (called dokusan or sanzen) and confer ordinations at any level. Zen centers that have no affiliation with a transmitted teacher have limited functionality and, I would argue, are not really “Zen centers.” The Rinzai-ji centers will have to recruit teachers from outside Rinzai-ji to remain “Zen.” But if they can do that, they should be able to survive.

My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

I’m also an old lady who has been around the block a few times. And I have seen many things. I agree that affiliation with an established “church” is no guarantee of quality or even decency. But neither is non affiliation. Religious history is full of charismatic freelance “gurus” who turned out to be sexual predators and scam artists.

I’m thinking of people like James Arthur Ray, who charged up to $10,000 to attend his “spiritual warrior” retreats, and who was convicted of negligent homicide after three attendees died in one of his sweat lodges. Native Americans criticized Ray because he’d had no training or experience whatsoever in sweat lodge traditions and didn’t know what he was doing. Did I mention he charged up to $10,000 per person?

So there are no guarantees. Religion, organized or not,  is a wide-open field for many kinds of predators and scam artists, because unlike with other kinds of scams there is rarely objective proof that the product doesn’t work; that the medicine in the bottle is snake oil.  With charm and the right sales pitch you can string your marks along indefinitely, assuming you don’t get them killed.

That said, I partly agree with “retreat leader” Bruce Davis, who says,

It is the human need for meaning, intimacy, joy that is driving many to leave institutions with too much theology and too little care and devotion. When religion is more about correct thinking and less about love and understanding, people feel something missing. When religion is more about judging others and less about humility and the path of looking inward, it loses the spirit of what church is suppose to be about.

Yes. However, then Davis gushes on about the bliss of “spirituality,” and please forgive me if I’m not sold on that, either. I’ve been closely observing unaffiliated countercultural “spirituality” since the 1960s. Whether you call it New Age or Body-Mind-Spirit or something else, it seems to always devolve into one of three things.

One, what I call “spiritual tourism,” or the practice of treating religion as a tasting bar. Spiritual tourists dabble in many traditions and enjoy a variety of spiritual adventures, but they never stick to one tradition long enough to get more than a superficial impression or experience anything genuinely transformative. But at least spiritual tourism usually is harmless, if you can afford it.

Second is the DIY Mystic, who doesn’t need a teacher and doesn’t need a congregation; he can find the Great Ineffable Whatever all by himself, thank you. “Enlightenment” then becomes just a projection of his own ego, or his own craziness, or probably both.

And finally you’ve got the sort of person who would actually spend as much as $10,000 to spend time with a freelance guru whose only discernible talent is self-promotion. The delusion that there must be someone out there who could sell you the magic bean that will give you whatever you imagine you are missing is very common, and it’s also the reason why “religion” and “scam” so often travel in the same circles. But in that regard “spirituality” really isn’t any better.

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I argue in Rethinking Religion that religion and spirituality need each other.  Religion stripped of all mysticism and spiritus is empty. It becomes a stupid, supernatural ideology perpetuated more out of tribal loyalty than devotion, and religious institution become exercises in maintaining authority for authority’s sake. But DIY spirituality/mysticism seems to nearly always devolve, at best, into an ego-driven but directionless quest to feel better about oneself. Too often it’s more palliative than curative. 

Spirituality and religion need each other. It’s the spiritual element that liberates us from the conventional and makes possible some sense of union with the Great Ineffable Whatever. Religious tradition challenges the supremacy of the ego, gives the quest some direction and puts traffic cones around the potholes.

However,  I do think it’s mostly up to religious institutions to make themselves alive and relevant and return to their mystical roots. Otherwise people will continue to float away in pursuit of something else.