Two Shores of Zen and The Broken Buddha: comments on two books

Buddhism as practiced in America has been subject to criticism. So has Buddhism in various parts of Asia. Here are the works of two more experienced voices on that subject.

Two Shores of Zen

A short time ago I got an email from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler, who is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and teacher, resident at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center which is part of the San Francisco Zen Center.

He has a new book out on the issues of Buddhism East and West which chronicles his time practicing Zen in California and in Japan. He seemed to think I might have interest in the subject matter of his book. He was quite right.

I’ve read the excerpts he sent from his book and found them to be really interesting. It isn’t often that those involved in the Buddhist Establishment write so openly about their disillusioning experiences in trying to find a way to practice that feels true and deep.

He writes in the beginning of his enthusiasm and zeal for practice in Japan. Ignoring physical discomfort and even injury he pushes ahead, and perhaps pushes himself too far in the quest. And it seems like a quest to an earnest young guy hell-bent on fully immersing himself in the Dharma.

His quest took him to Japan after some years studying in America. He describes this transition in this way:

But I’m frustrated, and I’m tired, and it’s dawning on me, like a slow, unstoppable train, that if I’m really serious about this Buddhism thing, I may well need to abandon this California imitation of it. I don’t mean to disparage the Sangha, my peers and my teachers, but I have vowed to end all suffering, my own and others’. And I’ve glimpsed the possibility of that kind of salvation, but the lifestyle here is not pushing me to take the plunge, to realize the one final truth that will shatter all delusions and liberate all beings.

It is not that I’m averse to problems; I understand that they are the stones that lay the path. I am tired, though, of these corporate problems, “Are we making enough?” and these hippie commune problems, “Who’s fucking who?” I want to live more humble problems: cold wind through threadbare robes, the faint, holy fragility of a diet of watery rice. I want monks’ problems. The problems implied in the ancient admonitions like Dogen’s Zuimonki, and the original Buddhist monastic code, the
Vinaya.

The romanticization of life in the East and life in the past has taken over many who follow the Buddhist path. Idealization of both place and time when encountering the products of other cultures and their histories can be a real diversion from one’s decided direction. It can become a great disappointment when the obvious appears. We can’t go “there” or “then”.  This can also be one of the most valuable lessons to learn.

Some resort to bitterness when disillusionment sets in. In several descriptions of a fellow American monk in Japan who became thoroughly disgusted with what he perceived to be American Zen this character states:

“I mean if you want to just live a good life, go back to American Zen. Move up the Zen corporate ladder, make your little Zen career like the rest of those guys out there.”

“Those American Zen ‘teachers’ think they’re saving beings but they’re just stopping some children from crying. They aren’t themselves awake, so how could they really save anyone?”

To which the author responds:

Here, finally, is a monk who understands the pain of being at a comfortable, pop-psychy American Zen place, while really wanting to realize the Way. I can talk to him, and say the things that seem too hard, or too unkind, to say at home.

Yet the author seems to have some doubts about the boisterous monk’s criticisms.  A few days later at the end of a conversation with another fellow monk he has some realizations that give a different perspective.

“You’re going back home!” I say, watching the water. I am sad and excited: sad for myself, and for our parting, but excited at the emerging possibility that there might be such a thing as “going home.” That even kalpas trickle away. I bite off a piece of my espresso ice cream bar, and remember once in the States looking at the ocean with a Japanese monk friend, watching the waves roll in and slide back. He taught me the word natsukashii, like nostalgic, homesick, longing backwards. It had seemed right then that he could swim home if he wanted—I had seen him see that he could swim home.

Going away in order to come home is a familiar theme in Buddhism. Home leaving in one form or another,  the finding of what has always been there, that home is not a place. There are a lot of lessons that come from the journey however it manifests and for whatever reasons it is undertaken.

There is an amusing episode involving a foreign family from Australia that comes to visit the temple but I’ll leave that for you to read in the excerpts available.

On the other hand there is disillusionment to be found in Japan as well.

A former priest I met in the U.S. once told me about practicing at the Japanese Soto Zen head temple Eiheiji—not just the parties and porn, but at the gate, when he’d announced, upon ritual questioning, that his reason for coming to the monastery was ahimsa, “non-harming.” At that he had received a look of total incomprehension that really set him back, an early blow that never went away, that never turned around, and he’d only made it for nine months or so before getting out of his priest robes and out of Japan. If it isn’t ahimsa, he said, what is the point?

It seems the greater the delusion one is under the greater the effect when that delusion shows it self by way of reality. The burning out of delusion sometimes leaves people themselves burnt out. This is likely the reason so many turn away from the Buddhist path and into nihilism or worse.  Effort in that circumstance, when there is no more goal, is one of the most difficult things to muster.

Fortunately for Jiryu he managed to work out a way to continue.

One of the most important sections is in trying to define a Middle Way. I will take this topic up again in a larger context in the next section of this post with another author’s work. But on this subject Jiryu writes at some length:

But on what graph do we chart this Middle Way? Dogen would perhaps at one extreme draw the ancient Indian mountain ascetics, naked, long-haired, eating grasses if they ate at all; and, at the other extreme, he might put the pampered nobility of his own day. Given those poles, his model of the Middle was Shakyamuni, the renunciate monk who ate one meal a day and lived simply in the woods.

Shaykamuni, as recorded in the Vinaya, is clear how monks should live out the Middle Way: don’t light a fire just because you’re cold, don’t hand a woman anything, or ever be alone with a woman. Don’t ride on a carriage, don’t handle so much as a penny, and if you must lie down, sleep on your right side, in your robes, mindful. This was by no means Shaykamuni Buddha’s view of asceticism—this was precisely his teaching of the Middle Way.

But we American Buddhists, calling ourselves disciples of Buddha, find Shakyamuni’s own Middle Way too extreme. To find our Middle Way we seem to set Shakyamuni himself at one extreme, and the likes of Donald Trump at the other, so naturally we find our middle in soft beds and lazy practice schedules, in romances and The Times. But how can we call this following Shakyamuni? How did we manage to make the original Middle Way into an extreme to be avoided?

The texts like Zuimonki and the Vinaya scriptures thus recede into spiritualized metaphor—they aren’t about how we should actually live, but just about an inner attitude we should have. In their place, books like “Zen and Business” and “Zen Sex” spring up and dot the bookstores, excerpted in glossy, pop-Buddhist magazines. I hate those magazines, though it’s true I have liked some of the articles. There was that one about Zen and sex that I nervously skimmed, leaning against the shelves in a big city bookstore, but that’s just my own weakness…. Hate, too, is improper, but I quite nearly hate the celebrity Buddhists who, I’m told, dash their People interviews with Buddhist terms. My negativity is my weakness, I know. I should not disparage the Sangha. I apply myself to my studies and practice. I meet with my teacher again and again, hoping he can free me from my bias.

There are a lot of big issues in this book which is narrated in an engaging way. This work was reminiscent of the work of Janwillem Van de Wetering,  who wrote The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery in 1971  followed by A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community in 1975 and Lawrence Shainberg’s book Ambivalent Zen from 1995.  More recently Noah Levine and Brad Warner have written in a similar vein. I have to admit a fondness for the “Zen-fessional” genre.

Everyone struggles to sort out what is true and what is not. To be able to read of this struggle is both comforting and disturbing. We learn that others struggle and we also learn that it takes a lot of time and sincere effort to resolve that struggle if indeed it is ever completely resolved. The words “soul searching” come to mind but they would be misplaced and too literally taken by some.

The search for authentic practice of the middle way is at the crux of criticisms many have of Buddhist establishments anywhere.   Authentic practice is an expression of one’s authentic being .

Related Links

The author,  Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler,  maintains a blog No Zen in the West. More information about the book is on www.shoresofzen.com. There is a downloadable selection of excerpts available there as well as ordering information for the entire book both in print and electronic format.

Dosho Port has a couple of interesting posts on this book  Two Shores of Zen: Are Western Sanghas All of That? and What is Great Practice? and there is vigorous discussion in the comments as well.

The Broken Buddha

Ven. Shravasti Dhammika has been a Theravada monk for over 30 years. He has trained in Sri Lanka, Burma, India, Laos and Thailand and is a great storehouse of knowledge of the Dhamma both in study and in practice.

Some time ago he produced a short book that addressed concerns he had about the stagnation and rigidity to be found in the institutions of Buddhism in Asia and increasingly in the west. This book is called The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism. The purpose of the book is  summarized as:

…these reflections will also attempt to show what Theravada really is, how it got like that and suggests ways of bringing it closer to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings so that it can become revenant to a non-traditional environment.

The author begins the text with a quotation:

There is no law in history which guarantees that Buddhism will grow roots in the West or advance beyond its present infantile stage. But one would expect that it will grow more conscious of its own difficulties and Buddhists will awaken to the problems which Buddhism itself thrusts upon man as an essential part of its treasure. One would also hope that doubt should appear as the sign of a deeper conviction. Luis O. Gomez

This is an interesting quote because it points to the apparent gap between Buddhism as historically practiced and the sometimes wildly new expressions found in convert groups. The choice seems to have become so polarized that what we are left with is either stultifying rigidity or hedonistic abandon. It is as if no middle ground exists. Yet the middle ground is what most of us occupy.

Just as the previous author mentioned here too is a dichotomy that has appeared not only between East and West but also between past and present. The latter duo is what is emphasized in this particular work.

We are given a thorough history of Theravadin schools and developments, with points illustrated with stories from the Pali Canon as well as Mahayana texts  such as the Vimalakirtinidesa Sutra. The breadth of background material is somewhat daunting but very informative. He also relies on historians, philosophers and social scientists, particularly in the field of anthropology in the analysis.

There are particulars about monastic life in South and South-east Asia that are given scrutiny. Institutional problems such as hypocrisy, boredom, lack of materials, exaggerated veneration and other excesses as well as selfishness, misogyny, sectarianism, wealth collection and hollow rituals are outlined. It is a fairly comprehensive catalogue of issues. But issues cannot be addressed until they are first acknowledged.

A New Buddhism is proposed. The author writes:

It might appear from all that has been said that I would advocate throwing the old Buddha image with all its cracks, missing pieces and dents on to the scrap heap and leaving it at that. However, there might be another alternative. The metal the image is made from may be corroded and rusty but it is still of inestimable value. The image’s style might be at odds with modern tastes but a skilled sculptor could fashion a more contemporary and beautiful form. The old Buddha image needs to be melted down and cast again in a new mold.

Many of the issues discussed on this blog and elsewhere including issues of ethnic Buddhists and converts, levels of involvement in the Dharma from hobbyist to monastic, representation of women are presented. This new Buddhism which  would encompass elements from most of the current representations of Buddhism is tentatively titled Buddhayana. I’ve just looked up a reference to this and here is a section of text from:

Saddharmapundarika Sutra

The stupid and those of little wit,
Those tied to externals,
And the proud cannot believe this Truth.
But now I gladly and with boldness
In the midst of (you) Bodhisattvas,
Straightway put aside expediency
And only proclaim the Supreme Way.
It was as expedient means
That I expounded a Three-Vehicle Law.
Let all be free of doubt and perplexity.
World-Honoured Ones, without exception,
Teach this Way: the One Buddha-yana.
(For) all Buddhas take the one vow:
‘The Buddha-way which I walk,
I will universally cause all the living
To attain this same Way with me.’
Though Buddhas in future ages
Proclaim hundreds, thousands, kotis,
Of countless ways into the doctrine,
In reality there is but the One-Vehicle.

from the complete text here.[pdf]

It is not a description of one way that throws out everything including texts and commentaries but one that understands them more fully. Not one that seeks a destructive approach of sowing to salt the ground on which tradition stands, but one which clears the weeds and finds the seeds which were planted there and attends and nourishes them appropriately.

This book brings to the fore, in an honest fashion, the author’s observations over decades of monastic practice. In some ways it parallels the author’s own spiritual path. He amply illustrates his points with personal stories as well as scholarly references. Some people will not like what he has to say. Others will conclude he has not gone far enough. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it but it certainly provides a great deal of food for thought.

Related links

The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism by Shravasti Dhammika  – the complete pdf document downloadable from the link.

The author maintains a blog Dhamma Musings full in interesting and insightful writing.  There are links there to other books he has written.

Conclusion

Overcoming this deep ocean that seems to separate East from West and Past from Present is going to require the building of a raft with materials from both shores.