Much Ado About Nothing: Troubles When First Tasting Zen’s Teachings for Oneself

Much Ado About Nothing: Troubles When First Tasting Zen’s Teachings for Oneself September 22, 2021




The Three Pillars of Zen is one of those books that mark the establishment of Zen in the West. It was first published in 1965 and has never gone out of print. Three Pillars has now been translated into a dozen languages. And it remains an important part of the canon of Zen taking Western root.

It was edited by Philip Kapleau, later Roshi Kapleau, with major assists from Koun Yamada, and Jiun Kubota (both eventually succeeding heads of the Sanbo Zen community). The book is rich and touches several areas central to Zen practice. Most noted, however, is a collection of personal accounts of contemporary kensho experiences.

I remember reading this book just a couple of years after it was released, and particularly savoring those kensho experiences over and over again. Today, I blush as I recall Zen teacher Brad Warner’s dry comment about “Zen porn.” There are problems with a single-minded focus on the matter of awakening as an experience. And there was from near the beginning and continues to be criticism of the book for its relentless focus on kensho experiences.

However, recently I’ve begun seeing a new form of criticism, where the focus isn’t on the tantalizing tales of people’s personal intimate encounters, but that they aren’t actually all that profound. I recall one person saying, “In my Zen school these accounts would never be accepted as authentic kenshos.” Some others sniffing about how they’re at best preliminary to genuine awakening.

When I think of the spiritual traps on the spiritual path, once one has had a preliminary taste of the great matter, it is tempting to think whatever it was, this is it. One’s path has met a culmination. I am at the peak, gazing down the slopes to the plains and rivers.

We can see this in some of those stories in Three Pillars. We can see it among those who judge those stories as inadequate.

Me, not long after my first intimate moment, I was walking down a street in Oakland. To mark my special status, as I felt, I wore a large mala, a Buddhist rosery around my neck. As I was passing a girl, maybe nine, a bit younger, a tad older, hard to say. She paused from skipping rope and pointed at the mala and said, “what’s that?”

I had a passing fantasy from the old stories of wandering Zen teachers meeting sages. Mostly it passed as I said, “It’s a Buddhist rosery, prayer beads.” She sniffed, “Sure looks stupid.” And resumed skipping rope.

For reasons that were not immediately apparent to me, I blushed. And then continued on my way. The word I couldn’t quite put to the matter at the time, was I’d fallen into one of those wells Dosho Port describes as punctuating the spiritual journey. At some point, if we’re a little lucky, we will turn around and notice, there are mountains yet, ranges of them.

Sadly, we are in danger of not turning and noticing. I’ve met any number of people who’ve had small or large spiritual insights, including a couple of decades past in my experience some who found their moment by way of psychedelics, who’ve thought they’d arrived. From the inside it might feel good, but observed outside they can be quite annoying. I have a feeling some religions have grown from these moments.

So, we’re past lucky, if we are given a well to fall into early on.

But without that well, sooner, or later, or never, we are in danger. In Western maps of the spiritual path this place we can spend quite some time with, is spiritual pride or vainglory. I find vainglory a particularly apt term. It comes from the Latin vana gloria, the meaning pretty obviously to most any reader vanity, perhaps even groundless vanity, together with a sense of glory, success.

The technical term within Buddhism for this is “mana,” pronounced the same way I believe in both Pali and Sanskrit. Mana is most commonly translated into English as pride, but often as conceit, or, and I find this especially helpful, “arrogance.” It points to inflation that can accompany achievement.

Pride is a complicated term in our times. Oppressed groups have claimed a sense of pride. I recall the first time I heard the phrase “black is beautiful.” At first it didn’t compute. Maybe, I thought. But not necessarily. It took a bit of time from the privileges of my place in our culture to understand at all how much African Americans in our time and place were taught to think they were ugly. Claiming one’s beauty in such circumstances is important. Very important. Similarly the rise of Gay Pride marches served much the same place for the LGBTQ community.

Owning our place in this world is critical. Taking a certain pride in who we are just because we exist is an important thing. At the same time it’s also important to note that we can enter the intimate way from any place in our lives.

I’m sure Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is useful for people, at the very least it speaks to things people need just to maintain some dignity. But, I’ve also met people who think one has to meet all the steps before they can approach the apex of self-actualization. To be honest, I’m not sure what that term is supposed to mean. What I do know is that self-actualization is not a good phrase to point to awakening.

And here we’re talking about awakening. The good news for us on the spiritual path is that it is available to all of us all the time. It happens in the best of circumstances, it happens in the worst. It happens to people healthy in body and mind. And it happens to people who carry terrible wounds and limitations.

And here we’re concerned with that insight, which comes when it will to whom it will. Our seeing, in the great hint of not one, not two, of our liberation from our certainties. The pride we’re concerned with here in this project is not about claiming our place, it’s about thinking we’ve come to the end.

We see this kind of pridefulness in ordinary life, where someone finds they’re extraordinarily gifted in some way, and then assume they’re expert in all sorts of other ways. I recall a gifted writer resisting line editing, which from my perspective, as well as his editors, he desperately needed. Or, perhaps someone is extremely good at sales, and decides she would be a perfect CEO. Might be true. But the one gift is not a guarantor of success elsewhere.

In the spiritual realms I’ve seen spiritual directors who have deep insight into the matter of life and death, of form and emptiness, give horrible marriage advice.

In the spiritual realms this is a kind of hubris. And its why in the Mahayana it is considered one of the five poisons. In the Mahayana interpretation of the Abhidharma mana, spiritual pride is one of the six unwholesome mental factors.

The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield cites from the Nikayas the Buddhas’s council, “Seeing misery in those who cling to views, a wise person should not adopt any of them. Aa wise person does not by opinions become arrogant. How could anyone bother those who are free, who do not grasp at any views. But those who grasp after views and opinions wander about the world annoying people.” When I first started to quote this, I thought I would stop with “become arrogant.”

But, the truth is spiritual pride really is annoying. Even to the Buddha. Kornfield joins the citation with another from his teacher the renowned Forest monk Ajahn Chah, “You have so many opinions. And you suffer so much from them. Why not let them go?” The problem with our initial insights, whether shallow or deep, is that they almost in the breadth of a moment move from an encounter and become an opinion.

Carrying this opinion around, we not only annoy other people, we hamper our own spiritual progress. So, when we’ve had these tastes, these, as Joko Beck says, small intimations, hopefully there’s a well somewhere around waiting for us.

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