Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Zen, Authority and Truth" or "'Because I said so, you idiot!"

Last night I stumbled upon this great article about Soto Zen in America and the epistemological questions raised by the infamous scandals that occurred at the San Francisco Zen Center. The author, Stuart Lachs, audaciously asks the hard questions about authority and the institutions of Zen lineage that no one vying for the blessings of lineage within its monastic systems dares to ask.

You have to read the article, Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi, or at any number of other sites to follow the discussion below. The article apparently created quiet a controversy when it was first published; although, I think, given the conditions exposed by the various scandals within the nascent American Zen community, the controversy is a necessary one if Zen Buddhism is to be taken seriously as a dependable method of spiritual awakening.

When I read the article, I immediately connected. If you're going to claim authority and exercise it, you darn-well better be an "
authority" and not just another authoritarian poseur dressed up in sheep's clothing. There's a difference and those of us -- especially those of us in the recovering community, those of us from dysfunctional families and/or those who have experienced the corporatist-controlled American justice system -- who have been exposed to the abusive perpetrations of authoritarians can spot the difference in a heartbeat, along with all the rationales used to exploit and then justify the abuse of authority.

After reading his article, and despite that the article specifically dealt with the abuse of authority in the Zen community though sexual abuse, thereby begging questions regarding "attainment," the rituals and the very monastic system of Zen lineage used to establish the teaching authority of the Zen roshi, I related my thoughts regarding the authority of a teacher "in his cups" to the author via the email system he provided for feedback:
I heard that Chogyam Trungpa [picture
d at right] had a drinking problem. Indeed, if he developed alcohol dependence it is incredible that anyone viewed him as an authority in the light of "non-attachment."

I enjoyed your article and I wonder how so many came to discount the "method of experience" replacing it with "authority" in their epestimological heirarchy. Oh well. But then, I'll bet you've heard of the work of Canadian sociologist Bob Altemeyer in the area of the authoritarian follower.


Steward quickly responded in gracious manner:
Hi Cliff,

Indeed, Trungpa had a pretty heavy drinking problem. My area is not Tibetan Buddhism, but I think there is a tradition of crazy wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. My guess is his followers viewed his drinking and drunken escapades as manifestations of his crazy wisdom.

Maezumi roshi of the Los Angeles Zen Center [pictured left] also had a drinking problem. He went to a detox center to dry out, though some time later while visiting his brother's temple in Japan, died while drunk in a hot tub. The L.A. Zen Center kept this fact hidden for years. Zen people often believe in crazy wisdom too, which then allows every activity of the supposed enlightened Zen master/roshi to be viewed as enlightened activity - acts of bodhisattva compassion ... It does not allow the believing devotee to say- hey, this guy has an alcohol problem. I heard of one case where Maezumi would throw up because of the alcohol and his assistant thought, how kind of roshi to throw up so I can get over my aversion to vomit by having to clean it up. Yes, every thing Maezumi did was seen/understood/interpreted by this woman in a way to maintain the idea that her teacher, Maezumi roshi, was a completely enlightened being always doing bodhisattva acts of compassion to help save all sentient beings. The simple fact that he was an alcoholic, a short coming that many ordinary people have, was not an allowable thought. This is in a tradition that defines itself by, "seeing things as they really are!"

I think Trungpa or Maezumi or whoever can be seen as a teacher in spite of their alcohol dependence or other human short coming, but then may be not every word of their's should be viewed as unquestionable and they should not be viewed as perfectly enlightened beings above and beyond question. This makes for problems in religious groups
that hold their teachers to be enlightened beings above the question and understanding of ordinary human beings. Unfortunately, much of Tibetan Budhists believe their rimpoches/teachers... are just such beings and Zen has a rhetoric getting their followers to believe the same for their Zen masters/roshi.

Ideology and belief act as blinders. My guess is some thing like this was working with Trungpa's followers. This gets more complicated because also people do not want to give up being in the group, following the practice, thinking their teacher has some major human problems, belief in the group's or the tradition's ideology, may be losing their place in the hierarchy, and so on.

I have not heard of the Canadian sociologist Bob Altemeyer, but will look him up on the internet. Thank you for the reference.

Which article of mine did you read?

Thank you for the reply,

Since this is an area of interest for me, given my own bad experiences with authoritarian minded perps on the job and in government, I responded without delay:
You honor me with your extensive resp
onse. Thank you very much.

The article I read was, "Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi," [Baker is pictured at right] wherein I noticed the theme of authority seemed to be the central focus -- the very elephant in the living room that Siddhartha is said to have warned against; or paraphrased, "Don't believe me, test what I say; trust your own experience." With lines of lineage determined in ways you have so articulately described, how could the method of authority not become the basis for knowing truth over the very words of the Buddha? What an irony, eh?

The publication by Robert Altemeyer to which I referred is The Authoritarian Specter. John Dean, former White House for Richard Nixon, found Altemeyer's study so penetrating that he made it the centerpiece for his 2006 polemic against the exploitation of its religious conservative base, using an enhanced version of the "Republican Southern Strategy," by operatives of the NeoConservative Movement. Dean's book is entitled, Conservatives Without Conscience.

Altemeyer made his latest work available for free on the internet: The Authoritarians. His concept, the "right-wing authoritarian follower," concisely explains how and why so many political and religious organizations are filled with adherents for whom science, reason and experience are useless in discussions with them. In fact, they seem to be anti-intellectual and anti-science and proud of it. Authority and tenacity are the only means of knowing "truth" that make sense to them -- at least in pragmatic terms that benefit them personally.

In the cases you described, where some of the people closest to Richard Baker [pictured at right above] and Suzuki Roshi [pictured at left] could not or would not detach from personal ambition and/or security long enough to acknowledge the disconnect between the Buddhist ideal and the working reality within the SFZC, such continued obstinacy puts the entire structure of monastic authority at risk in the unrelenting face of the very epistemological methodologies that Buddhism utilizes in order to open the student to enlightenment -- the methods of science, reason and experience. The method of authority has its utility but only when it coexists integrated within the epistemological hierarchy serving to question and support the other methods -- but never in isolation or in opposition, as we see when a social system becomes authoritarian, as seen in our current "democracy," and as seen in the monastic cases you present in your article.

William James, the father of American psychology comes to mind for me. In his book Varieties of Religious Experience, he
devoted the very first lecture to differentiating between religion and spirituality.

The very first promise of the discipline of meditation is the ability to observe in a non-attached manner, followed by the development of insight into that which is observed even to the radical point of non-attachment from the observer status itself -- the absolute ideal of the observing scientist at work in the field. But this idealistic transcendence of object and subject is not the same thing so many Zen students mistake as blind trust for their authoritarian leaders. As we have suffered to learn time and time again, authoritarianism only imitates true authority.

Another point that is crucial here, and as someone apparently having the great fortune and karma associated with long-term recovery, I see ad
diction as something more biologically fundamental than a human "shortcoming" or characterological deficit and therefore more something serious in its consequences all around. More serious as well, are the questions it begs regarding the "enlightened status" of any alcoholic still in his cups. And I don't take up the question in order to denigrate the person in unconsciously Judeo-Christian terms of "righteousness"; but rather, to question his "authority" in the Buddhist context of teaching and its role of presenting personal and collective experience.

Based u
pon my own experience and the experience of so many others, the principle of "letting go" (or even more basically, "non-attachment") is absolutely essential. That is because addiction is not just a character flaw; but also, it is a neurochemical "disorder" of the brain's dopamine centers that presents affectively and cognitively as an obsession with control. Were it not for the component of obsession, quitting drinking would simply be academic, as they say, once the addict is informed that alcoholism/addiction meets all criteria for definition as a physical disease.

In the case of addiction, once an obsession is developed, the use of will-power to control one's drinking (or using) only serves to intensify the obsession. In fact, an over-
amped will-power is exactly how obsessions work. The Second Noble Truth addresses this very reality at its deepest level. It is what we want and/or wish to avoid that is at the root of all our suffering. It is the misapplied use of "will-power" by the ego, a delusion in itself.

As so many people in recovery have attested, by practicing the universal principle of non-attachment, or "surrender" as the 19th century pietists referred to it, one can "let go" the struggle with control over alcohol to the extent that the addiction will dissolve into remission. We're not talking about magic; we're talking about the application of a spiritual principle that is basic to Buddhism -- the practice of non-attachment. The problem is that it is rare that the alcoholic in his cups has the insight to first objectively observe the degenerative course of his condition and then apply the necessary discipline to resolve the problem. By "discipline," I mean the application and practice of spiritual principles necessary for recovery.

As I said, this all begs the question regarding the "authority" of both Maezumi and Trunkpa and it generalizes to a more basic level of inquiry regarding the authority of any "enlightened" teacher. It also fortuitously points at the epistemological advice of the Buddha, himself: "Test my words. Don't take anything I say on a presumption of my authority." [paraphrased of course.]

In your article you shared this piece of information regarding the authority of Robert Aitken [pictured at left]:
"For an outstanding article on Sanbokyodan Zen, a Zen sect important in the West see, Sharf, Robert, "Sanbokyodan, Zen and the Way of New Religions", Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Fall 1995, Vol. 22, no.3-4. Yamada gave Dharma transmission to Robert Aitkin, though Aitkin and his Diamond Sangha later separated from the Sanbokyodan organization after Yamada's death. This was because Aitkin, being a foreigner, was forbidden by the new leader Kubota Roshi, from giving Dharma transmission, while Japanese of equal standing in the organization were permitted this privilege (p.451)."

Not to treat Kubota's decision too dichotomously [after all, he later did grace other non-Japanese with his inka], the irony presents itself nevertheless: How then can Dogen Zenji be trusted? After all, it was Dogen who translated Chan from it's Chinese context into Japanese Zen.

Even deeper questions of authority emerge in Kubota's action: How then can the Sixth Patriarch Bodhidarma [depicted at right] be trusted to have accurately transmitted the Dharma from its Indian context to the Chinese?

What it all comes down to is that Kubota must have the insight and discernment to recognize the light of the Dharma where it resides unobstructed and shining in all its grace. Had he thrown an orange into Aitkin's face and demanded "What is this?!!" it might have helped to explain the application of his "authority." But such a dharma battle apparently never occurred. For that reason alone, Kubota's decisio
n is revealed to be corrupted by an ethnocentric tendentiousness that flies in the face of Dogen Zenji himself. If I were Aitkin, I would have replied to such authoritarianism with the Urgyen-like comment, "I see they do have assholes where Kubota comes from." But then, what would you have but two men bowing over an orange?

Speaking of dharma battles, I was under the impression that much of wh
at "crazy wisdom" is about -- rather than rationalizing one's ignorance -- is intimately related to resources like the Blue Cliff Record and the use of koans in challenging the dualist thinking revealed in the very abuse of "crazy wisdom" to which you refer. Crazy wisdom confronts and reveals all of the limiting dichotomies of Cartesian Dualism from a higher place that reveals the more unified thinking and wisdom of the masters -- a way of thinking that more mindfully "points to the moon" in the moment, if you will. It jumps back and forth in an integrated way between right lobe and left lobe thinking that leads to an "ah-ha experience" greater than the sum of its parts, as Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying. Not just a dog, but "does a cow even have Buddha Nature?" The answer is not "Mooooooooo;" is is "Mu!" -- the kind of nothing and everything that not only claps with one hand, it masturbates! That is, if you remain too long in its grip. ;>)

Robert Altemeyer is onto something that you've known all along, but he states what he has to share with the true authority that proceeds from the integration of authority within the supportive epistemological hierarchy of its higher order sisters -- science, reason and experience. The bedrock of his insight into the psychology of the follower is contained within three factors he discovered in the research:
A. They accept convention without question or regard for the complicated social processes and flux of variables involved in its construction.

B. They render all individual social responsibility into the hands of their authority figures (usually authoritarian personalities themselves), unconsciously assuming the rendered responsibility includes the consequent accountability as well; although, they believe as well questions of accountability will never arise, given the assumed perfection of the authority figure.

C. They will enforce convention, as interpreted to them by their authoritarian leaders, even if enforcement escalates beyond mere peer pressure to the level of violence, such as in the case of hate crimes, one of the hall marks of the authoritarian personality. [cf., The Authoritarians]
Finally, why was Reb Anderson (when he came across a suicide he should have immediately reported but didn't), jogging in a city park in San Francisco notoriously used for cruising and sex? Was the question ever asked? Was homophobia a factor in why he didn't report the suicide immediately? If so, does it not beg the question regarding his "enlightened" status? Just some more fun questions from the peanut gallery where even "authority" seems to come in its very own shell.


It has been said that Shunryu Suzuki understood that for Buddhism to take hold in America, Zen must take on an American face. Therefore, he entrusted his inka to Zentatsu Richard Baker. But who would have thought that the American face of Zen would have included buying a new Mercedes, demanding things be just so, running off or subverting all challengers to his authority and screwing his best friend's wife among a number of other subservient students who worshiped him.

Richard Baker apparently never accomplished (when it mattered the most) the first step in the great journey -- the great departure -- even if he found Zen Buddhism through the peace movement in the 60s: he never completely departed

Thank loving kindness iteself that Zen is bigger than the ill fated illusion presented in the ego known then as Richard Baker. According to the traditions of Soto Zen Buddhism and the Myth of the Zen Roshi, his inka would not chop very much wood or carry much water. Nor should it. But to discount the teachings of accomplished masters in his lineage simply because the "Baker Roshi" link in the chain has been broken fails to understand the power and reality of the triple treasure itself, despite the illusions promoted by religious institutions.

Given the beauty and reality of the dharma itself, there really won't be much need of the creative but ultimately duplicitous attempts at hagiographic revisionism we see throughout history on behalf of religion and the Bakkers of the world. Who knows, perhaps Suzuki Roshi understood the spirit of American individualism and through a trick of fate, with a little help from karma, Richard Baker may have provided just the spark of cynicism and skepticism in the face of "authority" needed to provide Zen with the series of controversies it needed to strip zen of unnecessary mythology and help it to break free of all traditions, finding its place to "just sit" within the Amerikan wasteland where the enlightening grace of Zazen is so needed.

Siddhartha Gautama's Great Departure

I'm waiting breathless for Stewart's response,
but most of all I'm wanting to be a part of the ongoing discussions about authority and its abuse by authoritarians in leading so many not to spiritual growth, but back into the Socratic Cave where the control freaks are back in their element, overseeing the suffering of the multitudes.


Water Pot

Buddha’s teaching is just like water. Water takes the shapes of its container. When one fills a pot with water, it becomes a water pot. If one pours water into a cup, it becomes a water cup. In the same way, we get Sri Lankan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. We need a container to hold water in the same way we need culture to hold a Buddhist way of life.

We can decorate the container with beautiful colors and still it is empty. We do not drink the container, we drink water. We need wisdom to separate the water from the container, but without a solid container we cannot hold water. Culture is flexible; it is always changing with our thoughts. We can shape a culture that supports us to hold dhamma.

Do Not Store Medicine

Buddha said that he is like a doctor who pointed out a medicine for pain and suffering. The foolish store this medicine without using it or even testing it. They prefer to just read the label and marvel at it. Buddha said, “My teaching is not for them. My teaching is for people who test the dhamma.” Also he said, “One who sees me sees the Dhamma. One who sees the Dhamma sees me.”

Drink From Your Cup

Everyone has their own cup, or culture, to drink from. We have to get Dhamma in to that cup. If we borrow a foreign cup to drink the Dhamma, we might be misled. We cannot just follow blindly. We have to be wise enough to get the Dhamma into our own cup and decorate our cup with Dhamma. We should know the purpose of something before we do it. If we follow the traditions without knowing what they are for, we could miss the benefit of that tradition. If we know what we are doing we are not acting blindly. In that way Buddhism is not a tradition, but Buddhist followers can have their own traditions which they may call Buddhist traditions.

Do Not Just Pass the Cup

One does not drink the cup, they drink water. It is our responsibility to fill the container with water.

Buddha’s teaching is here to help us make our lives easier and find inner peace. We have to be smart enough test the Dhamma. Buddha said, “My teaching is a subject for the wise, not the foolish.” (nayam Dhammo pannatassa, nayam duppannassa)

Buddha said, “This Dhamma is like a poisoned snake. If one holds this snake from head he will survive, but if one holds it by the tail it may turn and bite.


No comments: