What is Authentic Zen? Or … You Gotta Lot of Nerve

What is Authentic Zen? Or … You Gotta Lot of Nerve June 11, 2008

When I think about authenticity and Zen, the first thoughts are about old Dogen-zenji. Soto lore tells of one of his disciple’s, Genmyo, accepting a large donation behind Dogen’s back from a military ruler after Dogen had refused the offer. It seems that Dogen wasn’t impressed by samurai Zen. Dogen threw the guy out of Eiheiji and then had the tatami under his sitting place cut out and the earth six feet under the platform removed as well. Dogen didn’t do anything half way.

Not all of us are so pure (probably including Dogen). Katagiri-roshi, for example, was once invited to speak at a dinner for an organization of young people who had inherited incredible wealth. Roshi spent most of his talk reminding them that they were going to die and encouraging them to use only one square of toilet tissue when wiping their wealthy asses so as not to waste. Predictably, he walked away without even a token gift for his trouble.

On the other hand, I saw Roshi favor a potential wealthy donor by giving him one of his own rakusu (small Buddhist robe) and allowing him to participate in jukai (receiving the precepts). This wouldn’t have been unusual in Japan but Roshi had always required students to sew their own rakusu. Even though Roshi compromised his training standards, the donations did not materialize.

I also think about my own life and moments of authenticity and inauthenticity. I remembered a wealthy student who had a history of what looked like generosity. It became clear to me after some years that she was using her money to buy recognition. And it became clear that I was giving her recognition, in part, in order to receive donations. This dynamic had developed gradually, despite our bright intentions (but due to our dark, semi-conscious intentions). I spoke with her, explaining that I would no longer accept her donations and would stop cutting her any slack in training, come what may. In a matter of months, she quit studying with me. She later received dharma transmission from someone else and has gone on to teach a meditation in which she is self-trained.

This led to some rather raw moments of self righteousness. I even played “Positively 4th Street” to hear Bob Dylan sing, “You got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend. When I was down you just sat there grinning….” and more:

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You’re in with

(And with a louder voice:)

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I’d make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don’t know to begin with

It all felt good for a few minutes but then the hormones peaked and dropped. I remembered that I too have had moments when I haven’t been true to my own spirit and will very likely have some more.

If Dogen, Katagiri, me, and the unnamed student/teacher are all bumbling along, what is authentic Zen?

A friend who is a karate teacher tells me that there are three stages of training in his tradition. The first is birth to the tradition, the second is breaking the tradition, the third is mastery.

Katagiri-roshi often repeated a similar metaphor likening Zen training to studying calligraphy. A student of calligraphy, said Roshi, must study with one master and imitate that person’s style. Then the student must go on to at least one other teacher and also perfectly imitate that person’s style. Then the student must completely forget both teachers and freely express their own spirit with brush, ink and paper.

The moments of transition between entering a tradition, breaking the tradition, moving from one teacher to another, or leaving teachers behind altogether may seem like the height of hubris to the teachers involved and to fellow students. However, in my present view, only if we persist will we discover the extent to which it is hubris and the extent to which it is our true spirit breaking out of it’s shell.

That process of training, breaking, leaving and reconfiguring might be authentic Zen. It often ain’t pretty or neat.

Comments welcome.

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