The King is Dead, Thank God: Reflections on New Training Models for Zen in the Global Culture

The other day I was talking with some of my Zen teacher buddies about the recent demise of the last of the Zen “patriarchs” in America.

“The kings are dead,” I said, “and thank God.”

And what a mixed legacy they leave behind.

It seems to me that the traditional, feudal power models that the Japanese Zen pioneers brought with them served to rapidly establish practice, enlightenment and institutions in the West AND led to serious abuses of power.

Worse than in other areas in life?

Maybe not. That’s hard to assess. It’d be nice, you might think, if Zen was special but that naive wish is certainly a big part of the issue.

As Myoan Grace Schireson observes in How the West Won – Creating Healthier Sanghas, “…We need to examine how through suppression of emotional intelligence, critical thinking and genuine intimacy, we can become active defenders of spiritual abuse in Zen communities. Let us learn how to create and support healthier Zen training models.”

Nonin has a nice piece too on Sweeping Zen, Unethical Practices.

It seems to me that the correction to the tilt in our dharma ship from leaning way over into steeply vertical, feudal power has been under way for decades, going back to the implosion at San Francisco Zen Center in 1983. And what we have accomplished, at least in the Zen narrative, is a big emphasis on community.

For example, when asked in the recent Inklings, “…what are you goals for Dragons Leap in year two?” Dairyu Michael Wenger responded:

“I hope we can both open and deepen our practice. I am clear that this will be collaboration-what do students and community members want? How can Dragons Leap work with them to create a space that meets their needs? I am excited about the voices and ideas we will nurture here in year two.”

A fine expression of a horizontal, shared power and vision. Michael also says, “This is a place where Buddhist practices, creativity, compassion and fun are inter-related and encouraged.”

That sounds good. I’m into fun, lively, and edgy myself.

Yet, given that I’m prone to fretting, my concern is that the dharma ship has leaned too far into doing what community members want, to meeting people’s needs, rather than practicing enlightenment.

Some of us old hands wonder if there is enough intensity in modern Zen for truly open and deep practice. This is the ages old debate between emphasizing samadhi (as team silent illumination did in China a thousand years ago) and insight (emphasized by team koan in the same period and then transmitted to Japan and the West).

Clearly we need both – samadhi and wisdom – like two foci engaged in intimate dialogue.

Real ethical reflection and creative living are not nurtured when traditional power is predominant (the tyranny of the autocrat). Nor are they likely to occur when group think is pervasive. This is “modern power” where the group acts as the authority, prescribing and enforcing norms (which can become the tyranny of the collective). The ideal would be to come together as responsible beings, tolerant of others’ narratives, and reflect open-heartedly about how to apply practical wisdom in whatever situation we are in. This is what I regard as post-modern power and is an on-going way of being, not a place fixed in the horizontal or vertical dimensions of power.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Carol Spooner

    Yes! And your concerns are well-taken, too.

    I keep saying that we need training for sanghas in group dynamics … there is a whole body of knowledge out there about how to do this so that the “tyranny of groups” can be recognized and headed off when it develops — as it inevitably tends to do. In fact, I think the “tyranny of groups” has been operative all along in those sanghas that enforced silence and protected abusive teachers from consequences. Complaining members were silenced and/or driven out. Training in group process would go a long way towards preventing such dynamics. I’d like to see the AZTA find some qualified professionals in group dynamics training (not “Zen insiders” but outside professionals) and make such a program available to sanghas across the country.

  • doshoport

    Hi, Carol,
    Thanks for your comments. Good point about group dynamics and “outsiders!”

  • Jundo Cohen

    A w0nderful post, and I concur on all points. We are all seeking to develop training models which are effective and suited to modern conditions. The emphasis is on effective.

    Except I do not concur with your statement about “samadhi” as “silent illumination” and “insight” as the “koan” path. That is not correct, and ignores history perhaps. Samadhi-Illumination are found in all tradtions, as are Koans. Shikantaza is Silent-Vibrant-Illumination (holding light and dark), all Wisdom and Insight, and we live the classic and present Koans too.

    Gassho, Jundo

    • doshoport

      Hi Jundo,
      See Schlutter’s “How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China” for the history here. I’m using Silent Illumination as it was used originally.

  • Lee Love

    Actually, we don’t see “medieval” Buddhist practice here in the West. In Asia, Buddhism is practiced by laymen more like what we find in churches here. Laymen don’t do zazen (there has been some interest piqued, because of what we are doing in the West.) Actually, few Priest in Japan practice Zazen regularly after their initial schooling to get their certification.
    I remember, on my first morning in Japan in my aunt and uncle’s house in 1993, coming downstairs to the smell of incense and the sound of the bell and my Aunt’s chanting the heart sutra at the family altar. Until that time, I did not know Soto Zen Buddhism was my family’s tradition. This offering making and chanting before the altar is the most likely practice of lay practitioners in Japan, not zazen in groups.

    Our problems with sexual improprieties partially come out of exactly the new “modern” thing we are trying to do: co-ed monastic practice. In Asia, practice situations are segregated by gender. If we realize this, we can take steps to guide our experiment.

    One of the big factors here, is that teachers often live in isolation and not surrounded by their peers like they are in Asia. Teachers don’t have “tea grandmothers” and old cooks who can hit them on the head with a broom when they get out of line. Teachers can too easily believe the adoration heaped on them by their students. As our practice develops, we will have more tea grandmothers and old cooks. In the meantime, teachers need to seek the guidance of their peers. Be reminded, that they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. And stop thinking we as so “special” in the West. We need not devalue tradition to find our own way.
    Speaking of tea grandmothers, my wife Jean was one before her time. One time, when Katagiri Roshi took us upstairs to see his new big bell, just arrived from California, he let us strike it. After hitting the bell, Jean said to him, “Hojosan! You don’t have any good students, but you have a mighty fine bell!”
    Hojosan got introspective and after a moment said, “Yes, you are right….”

  • Stephen Slottow

    Your post reminds me of two things: (1) Aitken Roshi, who held egalitarianism in high regard (at least in theory) did not look kindly on the suggestion that the teacher and the student should be free to switch roles; (2) piggy-backing off of Lee’s comment–I think that a lot of the affairs, sexual scandals, etc. between Zen teachers and students is in part because the teacher may have very little interaction with anyone outside of the immediate sangha. The reason that marriages, affairs, etc. are so extremely common in universities is in part because university teachers spend most of their time with their students and colleagues–but there are more of the former.