Zen in Fantasyland

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A few weeks ago in our Tuesday Evening Dharma Conversation here at the Nebraska Zen Center, we were talking about koan. A guy who was new to the center but who seemed to have been practicing for a while on his own, suddenly interjected, “You mean there are right answers? Isn’t a koan about what I or anybody sees in it as true?”

Good question. I’ll come back to that.

First, I want to tell you about Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. In a word, sobering. If you are looking to be uplifted about American Exceptionalism – not the book for you. From Andersen’s perspective, we are exceptionally deluded. If you are looking to understand where the heck this haywire Trump era came from – this is the book for you.

According to Andersen, the source of our American propensity for fantasy in religion, health care, self-identity, politics, you name it, goes way back to Luther, that old guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time. People were fed up with the Catholic hierarchy’s identity with the aristocracy and the printing press was just coming online in Europe.

Luther, says Andersen, “…insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest (emphasis added).”

Andersen summarizes the Protestant movement like this: “I believe, therefore I am right.”

Fast forward through 500 years and you’ve got a culture of fantasy. And Andersen’s Fantasyland is quite a wild ride through loops of the wild mind – that includes the American right, left and center. Pilgrims, Mormons, healers, log-cabined politicians – you name it. In pursuit of truth and clarity, Andersen is truly an equal opportunity hater.

What’s that got to do with Zen? Here we are on the American fringe flirting with becoming acceptable in Fantasyland. One might hope that the Zen emphasis on direct experience might have somewhat of a corrective influence in Fantasyland. However, the influence probably runs both ways.

An example, a suggestion, and a plea

One of the ways Fantasyland shows up in our practice is in meditation teaching credentials (see, for example, my “Enlightenment in Dispute: Standards for Zen Teachers Now and Then”). There is a burgeoning group of folks in Trumpland that are teaching meditation, including Zen, with the unspoken credential, to paraphrase Andersen about Protestantism, “I believe I’m a meditation teacher, therefore I am.”

Or maybe, “Because there is no self, I might was well spin a compelling story about my credentials.”

One person has claimed out loud that they didn’t have the time or money to get appropriate training, but they feel in their heart like a Zen teacher, and therefore they are. Well, they also found someone who saw “something” in them and authorized them. I wonder if either of these people would go to a heart surgeon or a dentist with a similar credential.

A friend recently emailed, “…Essentially, I think at some point there is going to have be a credentialing mechanism in Zen. The way in which freedom of thought and speech has come to be the right to believe anything you want regardless of evidence to the contrary (e.g., climate change deniers) and the right to promote oneself as whatever one wishes – i.e., my spiritual insight is as good as anybody’s so….”

So one aspect of Zen in Fantasyland is wanton bio inflation. It’s become one of the most prevalent forms of creative expression in Zen.

Suggestion: no need to say you studied Zen in Europe if your whole experience in Europe was a few days at Plum Village in the 80’s.

So here’s the plea

Zen teachers and practitioners: How about instead of running fast and loose with bios that inflate our experience and training (the Fantasyland standard), we apply a right-speech and humility standard and keep our bios as close to the ground of reality as possible?

And that leads back to the koan issue

“That” being “freedom of thought and speech has come to be the right to believe anything you want.”

“You mean there are right answers? Isn’t a koan about what I or anybody sees in it as true?”

Yes and no. Koans as spiritual stories are a wonderfully rich part of our human inheritance. Anybody who wishes can dig in and see what’s there for them.

Koan training, though, is a different process, requiring
  • a qualified teacher (someone who has worked through the koan curriculum with a qualified teacher and received their authorization),
  • a student who is up for the focus, transparency, and follow-through necessary for the koan journey,
  • and a teacher-student relationship.

There is a rich and living tradition of koan work that can only be experienced within the above framework. This kind of koan training is not a “one-man or one-woman show.” And within the context of this work, we entangle our eyebrows with all those who have gone before us, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.

Within the koan training tradition, there are responses to koan that are in alignment with the tradition and responses that are not, also known as right and wrong answers. Sometimes, wrong answers are powerful and important. For the koan student, though, the process is to let go of self clinging and see the koan as the awakened ones in the Zen tradition have seen it.

Across generational relationships is a wonderful treatment for fantasy.

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