Author Archives: Monksway

The Many Problems of Zen Buddhism

Let me say at the outset that I am not just “picking” on Zen or Buddhism in general, and that I am quite acutely aware and lament all the incredible failings of Christianity and in particular of my own community of Catholicism. But just as we learn and benefit from our encounter with all the profound and beautiful elements of this tradition (and all the others), so we might learn something important by considering their problems and their history. Here I am going to take a brief look at two different categories of problems: intellectual and moral.

Let’s consider the intellectual first. It is also, paradoxically, the easier one to deal with. I already alluded to this problem in my reflection on Merton’s critics. There I mentioned this odd essay by John Keenan that appears in a collection of essays on Merton and Buddhism: “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism.” Keenan is a former professor of religion at Middlebury College, but he has bigger “scholarly guns” standing behind him and to whom he refers: Robert Scharf, Roger Corless, and the looming figure of Bernard Faure, the noted cultural historian of Buddhism at Princeton (who by the way seems to have a real disdain for Merton’s understanding of Zen).  

So, as I mentioned in the earlier posting, Keenan tells us that Merton got his Zen from Suzuki and that kind of Zen was seriously truncated. In many ways he is absolutely right. Suzuki brought over to the West a very narrow form of Rinzai Zen and furthermore he presented it as the only authentic Zen. But Suzuki also was very knowledgeable and deep and very impressive in his presence–in other words someone like Merton felt he was meeting a true representative of the Zen tradition. And he was! But according to Keenan and these other folks there is some kind of fatal flaw in Suzuki’s Zen because it is only a small part of the picture. The criticism is that if you approach Zen through their lens, Suzuki’s and Merton’s, you will not really know Zen. Wrong, absolutely wrong! Let me illustrate with an analogous example. Suppose you knew nothing about Christianity but you went to Mt. Athos and met the great spiritual fathers, Paisios and Silouan. They would illumine you on their kind of Christianity, and it might seem like the only “real thing”; they might even urge you to become Orthodox. You would get no idea of the richness of the Western mystical tradition of Christianity. But I wouldn’t blame them at all; they were truly deep and truly “deeply realized,” to put it in those terms. Through them you could enter the depths of what it means to be a Christian in the deepest sense and the Christian mystical tradition. And that is the most important thing. But it’s the not the whole picture, and that’s ok. And all their disciples would doubtless say that I am deluded for saying that, and that’s ok also!!

So I believe that those who were influenced by Suzuki got a window into the depths of Zen even if that was not the “whole picture” in some superficial way. Yes, there was the Soto school, there were Pure Land Buddhists, and so many other minor schools, all of which played an important role in conveying Zen and Buddhism, and at various times in history it was one school or another that did a better job of that than the others–corruption was a constant problem. In modern times there also arose a school that tried to combine Rinzai and Soto traditions, and so on. Whichever way you go, the important thing is getting to Zen. And now comes the other problematic point. Suzuki and the Rinzai tradition make a big point that what Zen is all about is this “awakening,” which is then a total transformation in one’s self understanding, in one’s being, and in one’s vision of all reality. So the very meaning and definition of what Zen is becomes a bone of contention. Suzuki and his followers believe that without this awakening there is NO Zen. According to these folks this awakening is “wordless,” beyond all concepts and descriptions, and mostly transmitted from one person to another, certainly not “learned” from books. Well, this kind of talk does not appeal to many professional religion scholars that inhabit our various academic departments of religion. They have an inherent bias toward texts and social structures, and anything that claims to go “beyond” that is held suspect. Since their job is precisely to analyze these texts, you can appreciate their position; but that doesn’t mean they have the “real” understanding of Zen as opposed to some monk. In fact, the very meaning of Zen may be quite different between these two positions. To borrow and adapt a quip from Upton Sinclair: you can’t expect a man to see something when his paycheck depends on his not seeing it.

Let’s summarize the complaints of this group of scholars: 1. that the core of Zen is this enlightenment experience, whether gradual or sudden; 2. that this awakening is wordless and beyond all conceptualizations; 3. that even if Zen’s natural home is in “Zen Buddhism,” the Zen experience can be found universally outside all structures; 4. that Zen Buddhism, like all religious traditions, is cluttered with a lot of texts, traditions, rituals, etc. that may or may not help in this “awakening.” They pretty much reject all these.

This last point is especially irksome to this group of scholars because to them it seems that Zen is merely the sum total of various kinds of practices and things: in other words, the flavor of religion known as Zen Buddhism. In fact, this is one of the ways they attack the Merton approach to Zen (and even Taoism) because Merton tends to push all that aside to get at the heart of Zen. Let’s back up a bit: what a number of these scholars practice has been in vogue for the last few decades: deconstruction. This began with a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, spread from philosophy to literary departments (where it pretty much destroyed the enjoyment of literature in the old sense) and then to cultural studies, like with Bernard Faure. The method approaches a text and/or cultural structures and history showing the inconsistencies and contradictions, like claiming that Zen is “wordless” in hundreds of writings, like claiming that Zen is beyond all ritual, yet practicing strict ritualism, etc., etc. What someone like Faure seems to claim is that even some of the ancient Zen Masters are presenting a kind of Zen ideology where they create a Zen history that is partly fiction and partly misleading by leaving out all kinds of stuff. What gets lost in all their clutter of “facts” and “data” is the heart of Zen.  

Merton seems to have anticipated all this brouhaha almost 50 years ago. Here is a long quote from his key essay “The Study of Zen.” In a remarkable way he lays out the issues involved:

“’There is nothing,’ says Levi-Strauss, ‘which can be conceived of or understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ He is talking about primitive kinship systems, and of the key role played in them by maternal uncles. And I must admit from the outset that uncles have nothing to do with Zen; nor am I about to prove that they have. But the statement is universal. ‘There is nothing which can be understood short of the basic demands of its structure.’ This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology? And if so, can it be ‘understood?’ And at once one sees that the question can probably be answered by ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

“In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system–‘yes.’ In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, ‘yes.’ But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen. [my interjection: Faure really hates this kind of statement] The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse. In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific investigation–and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

“When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history. [Merton is practically prophesying the work of Faure and others.] It is seen as a product of the meeting of speculative Indian Buddhism with practical Chinese Taoism and even Confucianism. It is seen in the light of the culture of the Tang dynasty, and the teachings of various ‘houses.’ It is related to other cultural movements. It is studied in its passage into Japan and its integration into Japanese civilization. And then a great deal of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential. The Zendo or meditation hall. The Zazen sitting. The study of the koan. The costume. The lotus seat. The bows. The visits to the Roshi and the Roshi’s technique for determining whether one has attained Kensho or Satori, and helping one to do this.

“Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures–for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy, its mental prayer…its devotions, its laws, its theology, its Bible, its cathedrals and convents; its priesthood and its hierarchical organization; its Councils and Encyclicals.

“One can imagine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common. They share certain cultural and religious features. They are ‘religions.’ One is an Asian religion; the other is a Western, Judeo-Christian religion. One offers man a metaphysical enlightenment, the other a theological salvation. Both can be seen as oddities, pleasant survivals of a past which is no more, but which one can nevertheless appreciate just as one appreciates Noh plays, the sculpture of Chartres or the music of Monteverdi. One can further refine one’s investigations and imagine (quite wrongly) that because Zen is simple and austere, it has a great deal in common with Cistercian monasticism, which is also austere–or once was. They do share a certain taste for simplicity, and it is possible that the builders of twelfth-century Cistercian churches in Burgundy and Provence were illumined by a kind of instinctive Zen vision in their work, which does have the luminous poverty and solitude that Zen calls Wabi.

“Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water. One can assume that from one side and the other, from the Zendo and from the university, monastery or curia, persons might convene for polite and informed discussion. But their differences would remain inviolate…. All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist religion.’

“When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’ For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically: ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’

“To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it–or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either. Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say: ‘There it is!’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in its own category, separated from everything else: ‘It is this and not that.’…. We see from this that Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and that it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them. It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them. Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness. It is therefore in a sense ‘void.’ But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow. If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

“In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and, no doubt, to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever. Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-people) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen–even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism. But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself…points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’ It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers). The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief (even when it accepts many kinds of systematic superstructures–Tibetan, Burmese, Japanese, etc.).”


So much for this long quote. It is important because this view is now under serious attack by a number of scholars. I would also add that what Merton said above connects very well with Abhishiktananda’s contentions late in his life about the “namarupa” of both Christianity and Hinduism, how one had to go deeper than these to get to the heart of that religion. But whatever the scholars argue and debate and propose and write their innumerable papers about, the “true person of no status,” the Zen-person, will walk unseen and unknown, not measured by any metric or any methodology.


Now we turn to the much more difficult subject of moral problems. Zen Buddhism(and the other schools of Buddhism, like the Tibetans), like most religious traditions has had its share of problematic behavior on the part of its top practitioners, the Zen Masters. In the modern era and especially as Zen came to the West and the U.S., it is astonishing how recurring the moral failings have been: sexual predation and exploitation, alcoholism, and financial chicanery…all these and more abound in ALL the various lineages and schools of Zen. It has been a shock to a lot of American students of Zen. Some have left; some took refuge in a Zen kind of state of denial–“Zen is beyond morality, etc.” –forgetting that the Buddha himself laid down some pretty strict rules for his monks and disciples. Many other Zen students sobered up about their religious infatuation with Zen and had to face a much more realistic approach to their pursuit of enlightenment. A number of westerners now question the kind of unexamined master-disciple relationship that a lot of religious traditions hold up. I have discussed some of the problems here in postings long time ago, and do not intend to go over this dreary ground again. However, there is this interesting and puzzling point: why is it that so many who are considered “enlightened” or at least “advanced” students of Zen are so vulnerable to so many moral lapses that not only harmed themselves but caused significant harm to many others?” To push this further: it seems that one has a critical choice here: either their “enlightenment” is a pretend, a play-acting, or at best nowhere near the depth their students think they see in them, perhaps one could say “project” on them; or is it the more intriguing possibility that enlightenment itself and Zen consciousness is “not enough.” I mean you would think that since Zen makes such a big thing about awareness and vision and all that, that a master of Zen, a teacher of Zen would not be exploiting his own students for his own pleasure or succumbing to the chaos of inner drives that lead to self-destruction. You would think that Zen consciousness would keep you from all that…. So which is it? I have no idea. But the dilemma can get even more twisted….

A Zen practitioner and teacher by the name of Brian Victoria has written a scathing book about the collaboration of many Japanese Zen Masters with Japanese militarism leading up to World War II. He implicates almost all of the top Zen Masters (including D. T. Suzuki) who became the lineage bearers for all the current Western Zen teachers. Victoria shows how all the Zen lineages are tainted with this sordid history which the Japanese especially do not want to admit to. The needless wars and the war crimes of the Japanese military were never ever condemned by any of the Zen Masters; nor after the war was there any expression of real regret or sorrow for what they were involved in—how often these Zen Masters were cheer leaders for the Japanese military.

To be fair, Victoria has his critics also: some claim that he quotes these people out of context, and they don’t sound so bad when you recognize the times they lived in. I don’t buy this because all these folks were contemporaries of Gandhi, and it’s obvious that he was able to see through this muck. The problem is, as I think Victoria shows, the wedding of Zen Buddhism with Japanese culture and then one step further, with Japanese national identity. D. T. Suzuki showed a bit of that in his writings. And this is the kind of problem that we see all over the globe….when national identity and religious identity become merged. Radical Hinduism in India, Eastern Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe–consider how Christian Serbs turned to slaughter the Serbian Moslems a few decades ago. Also, there’s Jews and the State of Israel; and we have plenty of problems with Christians here in the U.S. waving the flag, the gun, and the Bible.

But let’s return to the real crux of the thing: the dilemma we face leads to a real questioning of the meaning and scope of “enlightenment.” Unless of course we choose to hold that all these figures were “faking” enlightenment or something like that. Maybe some of them were precisely doing that, but not the majority. More likely we need to face the puzzle of how an “enlightened being” could be seduced by nationalism, could be overcome by lust, could destroy himself with alcoholism, or be enticed by greed. And to expand this puzzle even more, consider the Christian thing about “saintliness” or “holiness.” A dear acquaintance of mine, Donald Nichol, a British historian and student of religion, once wrote this marvelous little book on holiness. Donald valued holiness to the nth degree; the “holy person,” was beyond questioning. As much as I liked that book, I always thought that he overvalued this thing of “holiness.” Sounds like a strange thing to say, especially coming from a monastic perspective, but truly there is something more at stake here, and it is not too far-fetched to say that holiness is not enough. Consider some people who have been declared by the Church to be saints, yet whose lives contain egregious mistakes and distortions of vision. Like St. Bernard, the great Cistercian figure, one of the giants of the medieval Church — he called for the slaughter of Moslems that occupied the Holy Land. He was a cheerleader for the Crusaders. The very opposite of Francis of Assissi. Now I won’t question the “St.” in St. Bernard, but I do question the nature and scope of that which we call “holiness.” Or consider more modern examples: Pope John Paul II who was recently declared a saint. He was instrumental in trying to cover up the priest pedophile scandals that were emerging into the light during his pontificate. Or take the example of Mother Teresa, also recently canonized. She took money from one of the nastiest banksters in America, Charles Keating, and for 10 years or so she had as spiritual director a Jesuit who was convicted in a court of law of having sexually abused a large number of underage boys. It does seem that holiness does not exclude blindness of a serious kind. Unless, again, one wants to doubt the very presence of this “holiness.” Truly a puzzle!  

So returning again to our Zen friends, so whether it be enlightenment or holiness or whatever other lofty goal our religious tradition sets up for us, we also need to attend to that which real and true wherever and whatever that be. As the Upanishad says: “Lead me from the unreal to the Real.” And as that old platitude says, no one has a handle or a monopoly on truth. And that goes for the “holy person” and the “enlightened person” also. Perhaps that saying holds for them even more! A bumper sticker I saw says it all: Question All Authority! Yes! Even the authority of holiness or enlightenment. And a truly holy/enlightened person would say Amen to that!!







Post-Election Blues

What can you say? So many of us are stunned in disbelief. We actually should have seen this coming. All the tell-tale signs were there, unless you were, like me, naively just looking at all those stupid polls that showed Hillary ahead. Actually the national polls were right and she was more popular but not by much and not in some key areas. Also, there was this naïve belief that someone like Trump, someone “this bad,” could not possibly be elected. I had my fears; I did not like Hillary at all; I thought she was really bad, but simply the “lesser bad” of the two choices by a large margin. When I saw the results and went to bed election night, I felt fear, nausea, depression. The next day it was disgust and a real anger that I would have to say “President Trump” for the next four years at least. Deep angry thoughts roamed my mind: Make Earth great again; abolish the human race! After that, simple worry and anxiety that the Republicans control all of Congress and have free rein to do all kinds of bad things. Makes you want to pack for Canada. But sobriety sets in sooner or later, and you realize that this is just one more lousy election among so many others. I agree with those voices that say give Trump a chance to show what he will REALLY do, not just the bluster and rhetoric of the campaign. The first 100 days of his presidency will be very interesting and a sure sign of where he will go. As some have pointed out, the weight of the actual responsibility of being President might sober him up and who knows he might actually do SOME good. Like he’s said, he is not beholden to all the money interest on Wall Street and in Washington, and he is more free to act than the traditional politicians, Democrat or Republican. On the other hand, he has some really nasty people in his camp and it may be just as Chris Hedges says that this is the birth or emergence of American Fascism. We shall see.

Let me throw out a few random reflections:

*Trump did not so much win the election as Hillary actually lost it. She truly waged a very bad campaign with lots of mistakes.

*It looks at this point that Hillary actually won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands or more(votes still being counted). In fact, before it’s all over-they are now counting all the absentee ballots in California, Washington and New York, all states that gave Hillary a large majority but it doesn’t affect the key swing states–her majority may well be several million. Astounding! This is the 6th time in American history that a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election. Some, like Michael Moore, are saying that delegitimizes Trump’s Presidency. Not really. The game is what the game is. You can’t change the rules after the game simply because you lost. Some are calling for an end to the electoral college system (by the way, Trump just said that he favors a change from the electoral college to a popular vote system. He said that he always thought that, and just because he benefitted from the electoral vote system, he won’t change his mind but support the pop vote system.)  Whatever be the merits of that it would require a constitutional amendment, and that ain’t gonna happen. Besides, the popular vote approach has its own “dark side.” Another thing, the people gave control of both the Senate and the House to Republicans, lots of state governorships, and a whole bunch of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. It’s very obvious that the country is divided in a very dysfunctional kind of way and that tinkering with the electoral system won’t solve anything.

*Beware of simple explanations for Hillary’s loss. Don’t buy this thing you’ll hear from Dems that racists and anti-woman people got Trump elected. Yeah, there certainly were those types supporting Trump (the KKK endorsed him and yes his rhetoric has opened the door to a lot of racists acting out their sickness), but guess what, a lot of basic, decent people voted for Trump also and mostly AGAINST Hillary. I am not going to call them names, but I am angry, very angry at their stupidity, blindness, narrowness of mind, etc. Consider the woman thing: amazingly enough over 40% of college-educated women voted for Trump, and among non-college educated women, over 60% voted for Trump. So what happened with all these women? The Clinton campaign was counting on a huge woman support that really didn’t materialize. A lot of women found Hillary disagreeable, untrustworthy and simply the “same old stuff” (my feelings exactly), but it amazed me that they did not see the real danger in Trump.

*Speaking of bad numbers, consider this: about 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Now that includes Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and a few others, so there’s quite a mixture there; but it’s amazing that almost a third of these folks voted for Trump considering how he talked about Latin Americans. Some Latino leaders are contesting these numbers, but we shall see later. One problem was that the Latino turnout, while larger than in past years, was still not really all that large. But the numbers here are all in dispute.

*Voter turnout: miserable. Not many people realize this but we had a 20 year low on total voter turnout. Neither candidate really excited people. Consider this: over 126 million people voted. Sounds good, but that’s only 55% of eligible voters. (In some states the turnout was robust, but not across the country.) So Hillary and Trump each got only a bit more than 27% of eligible voters. So this is who elected Trump, only a bit over 27%. Even with the extra popular vote that is now coming in for Hillary in those 3 states, it still amounts to a miserable turnout considering the crucial nature of this election. A “small” group of people might send us to hell. Is this any way of deciding who runs the country?

*Bernie. Ah, Bernie….. There’s actually a poll out now that demonstrates that Bernie would have handily beaten Trump. Frankly I doubt that; especially after all those polls that showed Hillary leading!! Screw the polls!   But it still makes you wonder….. Certainly the Sanders people are going to have to be a key element in any recovery of the Dem Party. It didn’t help Hillary at all when it came out that some key Dem supporters and bigwigs were conniving to derail Bernie during the primaries.

*Trump breaks big precedent in not revealing his tax returns. Really bad and suspicious.   But Hillary never revealed what she said in those speeches to the Wall Street crowd for those fat paychecks. What was there to hide? This lack of transparency kind of defanged her attacks on Trump.

*We are not alone. When you look around the world, rightwing movements are emerging in a lot of places: Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I mean look at India, the guy these people elected may be just as bad as Trump, with the addition that he supports fanatical radical Hindus.

*Ah, my dear, blind conservative Catholics who voted for Trump in big numbers. What can you say? For the sake of one major issue, abortion, they were willing to really hurt the country and millions of people. But the kicker is that I bet they will not even get much on the abortion issue. These folks have been voting for an end to abortion since Reagan, and what they get is deregulation of banks and Wall Street. This electoral group can be described as: Dumb and Dumber…

*This election was in many ways a repudiation of the Obama era. Obama’s approval rating was reported as being high, but considering the inaccuracy of the polls you really wonder about that. In any case, Hillary tied herself to the Obama legacy, like Obamacare with premiums spiking in October, and almost half the electorate said “No.” Also, if you look at the voting with a microscope you see this fact: in key counties in Wisconsin and Michigan, which Obama had carried, now turned to Trump.

*In a political campaign there are two key elements: the “ground game,” and the message. The ground game consists of having organized troops getting the vote out, having a structured way of getting in touch with the voters. Hillary had a much better ground game than Trump; she had a very experienced organization of electioneering people almost everywhere. However, she really lost it on the message part, which kind of poured sand into the machinery of her organization. And the message part was bad on several counts. For example, Obama had won for promising “change.” I remember this was really big back in 2008 and I believed him. He was implying he was not talking just about some tinkering change but something radical. He was going to Washington to bring “hope” and “change.” Remember that it was the time of economic crisis brought about by the big banks and financial entities, the Dems controlled both houses of Congress, and yet once he was President, Obama did nothing to nail the banksters who had caused this. And this is just one example. Well, Hillary tied herself to this legacy. And she almost made it an election pledge that she was only going to “adjust” certain things, like Obamacare, like bank regulations, etc. Trump sounded like he wanted to throw a brick thru the Washington establishment window, and this resonated with a lot of people.

*Listen to this quote from a Muslim woman, Asra Q Nomani, who voted for Trump–this appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post:

“This is is my confession — and explanation: I — a 51-year-old, a Muslim, an immigrant woman “of color” — am one of those silent voters for Donald Trump. And I’m not a “bigot,” “racist,” “chauvinist” or “white supremacist,” as Trump voters are being called, nor part of some “whitelash.”

In the winter of 2008, as a lifelong liberal and proud daughter of West Virginia, a state born on the correct side of history on slavery, I moved to historically conservative Virginia only because the state had helped elect Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States.

But, then, for much of this past year, I have kept my electoral preference secret: I was leaning toward Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Tuesday evening, just minutes before the polls closed at Forestville Elementary School in mostly Democratic Fairfax County, I slipped between the cardboard partitions in the polling booth, a pen balanced carefully between my fingers, to mark my ballot for president, coloring in the circle beside the names of Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence.

Supporters of President-elect Donald Trump rejoiced across the nation on Election Night as their candidate defied the polls. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

After Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede, making him America’s president-elect, a friend on Twitter wrote a message of apology to the world, saying there are millions of Americans who don’t share Trump’s “hatred/division/ignorance.” She ended: “Ashamed of millions that do.”

That would presumably include me — but it doesn’t, and that is where the dismissal of voter concerns about Clinton led to her defeat. I most certainly reject the trifecta of “hatred/division/ignorance.” I support the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change.

But I am a single mother who can’t afford health insurance under Obamacare. The president’s mortgage-loan modification program, “HOPE NOW,” didn’t help me. Tuesday, I drove into Virginia from my hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., where I see rural America and ordinary Americans, like me, still struggling to make ends meet, after eight years of the Obama administration.

Finally, as a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the “Islam” in Islamic State. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations, but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me as a human being on this earth: extremist Islam of the kind that has spilled blood from the hallways of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai to the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

In mid-June, after the tragic shooting at Pulse, Trump tweeted out a message, delivered in his typical subtle style: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

Around then, on CNN’s “New Day,” Democratic candidate Clinton seemed to do the Obama dance, saying, “From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say. And it mattered we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. I have clearly said we — whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.”

By mid-October, it was one Aug. 17, 2014, email from the WikiLeaks treasure trove of Clinton emails that poisoned the well for me. In it, Clinton told aide John Podesta: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL,” the politically correct name for the Islamic State, “and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

The revelations of multimillion-dollar donations to the Clinton Foundation from Qatar and Saudi Arabia killed my support for Clinton. Yes, I want equal pay. No, I reject Trump’s “locker room” banter, the idea of a “wall” between the United States and Mexico and a plan to “ban” Muslims. But I trust the United States and don’t buy the political hyperbole — agenda-driven identity politics of its own — that demonized Trump and his supporters.

I gently tried to express my thoughts on Twitter but the “Pantsuit revolution” was like a steamroller to any nuanced discourse. If you supported Trump, you had to be a redneck.

Days before the election, a journalist from India emailed me, asking: What are your thoughts being a Muslim in “Trump’s America”?

I wrote that as a child of India, arriving in the United States at the age of 4 in the summer of 1969, I have absolutely no fears about being a Muslim in a “Trump America.” The checks and balances in America and our rich history of social justice and civil rights will never allow the fear-mongering that has been attached to candidate Trump’s rhetoric to come to fruition.

What worried me the most were my concerns about the influence of theocratic Muslim dictatorships, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in a Hillary Clinton America. These dictatorships are no shining examples of progressive society with their failure to offer fundamental human rights and pathways to citizenship to immigrants from India, refugees from Syria and the entire class of de facto slaves that live in those dictatorships.”

End of piece. Ok, she sounds like a decent person, a nice person, a good person, and I think she is right about so many things, and all this shows just a bit how Hillary failed to reach people like her. But I am afraid being “good” and “nice” and even “right” just won’t cut it; you need to see things clearly, and people like her do not see the danger in Trump, the really serious danger. And the same goes for all those Catholics and Christians who voted for Trump. By the way, I am amazed how much damage is done by “good” people all around, from good popes, good presidents, good common people, etc. It simply is not enough to be “good.”

Now for a quote from one of my favorites, Michael Moore. Amazingly enough he wrote this about 2 months before the election. Boy, does he nail it! Perfect bullseye!

Moore: “Friends:

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I gave it to you straight last summer when I told you that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. And now I have even more awful, depressing news for you: Donald J. Trump is going to win in November. This wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full time sociopath is going to be our next president. President Trump. Go ahead and say the words, ‘cause you’ll be saying them for the next four years: “PRESIDENT TRUMP.”

Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now.

I can see what you’re doing right now. You’re shaking your head wildly – “No, Mike, this won’t happen!” Unfortunately, you are living in a bubble that comes with an adjoining echo chamber where you and your friends are convinced the American people are not going to elect an idiot for president. You alternate between being appalled at him and laughing at him because of his latest crazy comment or his embarrassingly narcissistic stance on everything because everything is about him. And then you listen to Hillary and you behold our very first female president, someone the world respects, someone who is whip-smart and cares about kids, who will continue the Obama legacy because that is what the American people clearly want! Yes! Four more years of this!

You need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real. Trying to soothe yourself with the facts – “77% of the electorate are women, people of color, young adults under 35 and Trump cant win a majority of any of them!” – or logic – “people aren’t going to vote for a buffoon or against their own best interests!” – is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from trauma. Like when you hear a loud noise on the street and you think, “oh, a tire just blew out,” or, “wow, who’s playing with firecrackers?” because you don’t want to think you just heard someone being shot with a gun. It’s the same reason why all the initial news and eyewitness reports on 9/11 said “a small plane accidentally flew into the World Trade Center.” We want to – we need to – hope for the best because, frankly, life is already a shit show and it’s hard enough struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. We can’t handle much more bad news. So our mental state goes to default when something scary is actually, truly happening. The first people plowed down by the truck in Nice spent their final moments on earth waving at the driver whom they thought had simply lost control of his truck, trying to tell him that he jumped the curb: “Watch out!,” they shouted. “There are people on the sidewalk!”

Well, folks, this isn’t an accident. It is happening. And if you believe Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump with facts and smarts and logic, then you obviously missed the past year of 56 primaries and caucuses where 16 Republican candidates tried that and every kitchen sink they could throw at Trump and nothing could stop his juggernaut. As of today, as things stand now, I believe this is going to happen – and in order to deal with it, I need you first to acknowledge it, and then maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of the mess we’re in.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great hope for the country I live in. Things are better. The left has won the cultural wars. Gays and lesbians can get married. A majority of Americans now take the liberal position on just about every polling question posed to them: Equal pay for women – check. Abortion should be legal – check. Stronger environmental laws – check. More gun control – check. Legalize marijuana – check. A huge shift has taken place – just ask the socialist who won 22 states this year. And there is no doubt in my mind that if people could vote from their couch at home on their X-box or PlayStation, Hillary would win in a landslide.

But that is not how it works in America. People have to leave the house and get in line to vote. And if they live in poor, Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, they not only have a longer line to wait in, everything is being done to literally stop them from casting a ballot. So in most elections it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. And therein lies the problem for November – who is going to have the most motivated, most inspired voters show up to vote? You know the answer to this question. Who’s the candidate with the most rabid supporters? Whose crazed fans are going to be up at 5 AM on Election Day, kicking ass all day long, all the way until the last polling place has closed, making sure every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Bob and Joe and Billy Bob and Billy Joe and Billy Bob Joe) has cast his ballot?  That’s right. That’s the high level of danger we’re in. And don’t fool yourself — no amount of compelling Hillary TV ads, or outfacting him in the debates or Libertarians siphoning votes away from Trump is going to stop his mojo.

Here are the 5 reasons Trump is going to win:

  1. Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit.  I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states – but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). In the Michigan primary in March, more Michiganders came out to vote for the Republicans (1.32 million) that the Democrats (1.19 million). Trump is ahead of Hillary in the latest polls in Pennsylvania and tied with her in Ohio. Tied? How can the race be this close after everything Trump has said and done? Well maybe it’s because he’s said (correctly) that the Clintons’ support of NAFTA helped to destroy the industrial states of the Upper Midwest. Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. When Trump stood in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, he threatened the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States. It was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan, and when he tossed in his threat to Apple that he would force them to stop making their iPhones in China and build them here in America, well, hearts swooned and Trump walked away with a big victory that should have gone to the governor next-door, John Kasich.

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. Elmer Gantry shows up looking like Boris Johnson and just says whatever shit he can make up to convince the masses that this is their chance! To stick to ALL of them, all who wrecked their American Dream! And now The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you! SEND A MESSAGE! TRUMP IS YOUR MESSENGER!

And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.

  1. The Last Stand of the Angry White Man. Our male-dominated, 240-year run of the USA is coming to an end. A woman is about to take over! How did this happen?! On our watch! There were warning signs, but we ignored them. Nixon, the gender traitor, imposing Title IX on us, the rule that said girls in school should get an equal chance at playing sports. Then they let them fly commercial jets. Before we knew it, Beyoncé stormed on the field at this year’s Super Bowl (our game!) with an army of Black Women, fists raised, declaring that our domination was hereby terminated! Oh, the humanity!

That’s a small peek into the mind of the Endangered White Male. There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the “Feminazi,”the thing that as Trump says, “bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds,” has conquered us — and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we’re supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it’ll be eight years of the gays in the White House! Then the transgenders! You can see where this is going. By then animals will have been granted human rights and a fuckin’ hamster is going to be running the country. This has to stop!

  1. The Hillary Problem. Can we speak honestly, just among ourselves? And before we do, let me state, I actually like Hillary – a lot – and I think she has been given a bad rap she doesn’t deserve. But her vote for the Iraq War made me promise her that I would never vote for her again. To date, I haven’t broken that promise. For the sake of preventing a proto-fascist from becoming our commander-in-chief, I’m breaking that promise. I sadly believe Clinton will find a way to get us in some kind of military action. She’s a hawk, to the right of Obama. But Trump’s psycho finger will be on The Button, and that is that. Done and done.

Let’s face it: Our biggest problem here isn’t Trump – it’s Hillary. She is hugely unpopular — nearly 70% of all voters think she is untrustworthy and dishonest. She represents the old way of politics, not really believing in anything other than what can get you elected. That’s why she fights against gays getting married one moment, and the next she’s officiating a gay marriage. Young women are among her biggest detractors, which has to hurt considering it’s the sacrifices and the battles that Hillary and other women of her generation endured so that this younger generation would never have to be told by the Barbara Bushes of the world that they should just shut up and go bake some cookies. But the kids don’t like her, and not a day goes by that a millennial doesn’t tell me they aren’t voting for her. No Democrat, and certainly no independent, is waking up on November 8th excited to run out and vote for Hillary the way they did the day Obama became president or when Bernie was on the primary ballot. The enthusiasm just isn’t there. And because this election is going to come down to just one thing — who drags the most people out of the house and gets them to the polls — Trump right now is in the catbird seat.

  1. The Depressed Sanders Vote. Stop fretting about Bernie’s supporters not voting for Clinton – we’re voting for Clinton! The polls already show that more Sanders voters will vote for Hillary this year than the number of Hillary primary voters in ’08 who then voted for Obama. This is not the problem. The fire alarm that should be going off is that while the average Bernie backer will drag him/herself to the polls that day to somewhat reluctantly vote for Hillary, it will be what’s called a “depressed vote” – meaning the voter doesn’t bring five people to vote with her. He doesn’t volunteer 10 hours in the month leading up to the election. She never talks in an excited voice when asked why she’s voting for Hillary. A depressed voter. Because, when you’re young, you have zero tolerance for phonies and BS. Returning to the Clinton/Bush era for them is like suddenly having to pay for music, or using MySpace or carrying around one of those big-ass portable phones. They’re not going to vote for Trump; some will vote third party, but many will just stay home. Hillary Clinton is going to have to do something to give them a reason to support her  — and picking a moderate, bland-o, middle of the road old white guy as her running mate is not the kind of edgy move that tells millenials that their vote is important to Hillary. Having two women on the ticket – that was an exciting idea. But then Hillary got scared and has decided to play it safe. This is just one example of how she is killing the youth vote.
  2. The Jesse Ventura Effect. Finally, do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth. It’s one of the few places left in society where there are no security cameras, no listening devices, no spouses, no kids, no boss, no cops, there’s not even a friggin’ time limit. You can take as long as you need in there and no one can make you do anything. You can push the button and vote a straight party line, or you can write in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There are no rules. And because of that, and the anger that so many have toward a broken political system, millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart and make mommy and daddy mad. And in the same way like when you’re standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and your mind wonders for a moment what would that feel like to go over that thing, a lot of people are going to love being in the position of puppetmaster and plunking down for Trump just to see what that might look like. Remember back in the ‘90s when the people of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as their governor? They didn’t do this because they’re stupid or thought that Jesse Ventura was some sort of statesman or political intellectual. They did so just because they could. Minnesota is one of the smartest states in the country. It is also filled with people who have a dark sense of humor — and voting for Ventura was their version of a good practical joke on a sick political system. This is going to happen again with Trump.

Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.”

And now we get this excerpt from Glen Greenwald:

“… Democrats have already begun flailing around trying to blame anyone and everyone they can find — everyone except themselves — for last night’s crushing defeat of their party.

You know the drearily predictable list of their scapegoats: Russia, WikiLeaks, James Comey, Jill Stein, Bernie Bros, The Media, news outlets (including, perhaps especially, The Intercept) that sinned by reporting negatively on Hillary Clinton. Anyone who thinks that what happened last night in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Michigan can be blamed on any of that is drowning in self-protective ignorance so deep that it’s impossible to express in words.

When a political party is demolished, the principal responsibility belongs to one entity: the party that got crushed. It’s the job of the party and the candidate, and nobody else, to persuade the citizenry to support them and find ways to do that. Last night, the Democrats failed, resoundingly, to do that, and any autopsy or liberal think piece or pro-Clinton pundit commentary that does not start and finish with their own behavior is one that is inherently worthless.

Put simply, Democrats knowingly chose to nominate a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who — for very good reason — was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption. It’s astonishing that those of us who tried frantically to warn Democrats that nominating Hillary Clinton was a huge and scary gamble — that all empirical evidence showed that she could lose to anyone and Bernie Sanders would be a much stronger candidate, especially in this climate — are now the ones being blamed: by the very same people who insisted on ignoring all that data and nominating her anyway.

But that’s just basic blame shifting and self-preservation. Far more significant is what this shows about the mentality of the Democratic Party. Just think about who they nominated: someone who — when she wasn’t dining with Saudi monarchs and being feted in Davos by tyrants who gave million-dollar checks — spent the last several years piggishly running around to Wall Street banks and major corporations cashing in with $250,000 fees for 45-minute secret speeches even though she had already become unimaginably rich with book advances while her husband already made tens of millions playing these same games. She did all that without the slightest apparent concern for how that would feed into all the perceptions and resentments of her and the Democratic Party as corrupt, status quo-protecting, aristocratic tools of the rich and powerful: exactly the worst possible behavior for this post-2008-economic-crisis era of globalism and destroyed industries.”


Well, enough for all that. For those of us on some sort of monastic path, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, it is important on the one hand not be blind to what is really going on in our world, but also we need to see things in a bigger picture. A lot of our monastic ancestors, whether it be Chinese hermits, Christian desert monks, etc, etc., lived in and thru some incredibly bad times and under some incredibly bad regimes. Nothing new here. We have to keep our heads low, keep up our life in whatever measure and intensity we can, and carry the pain of the world in our hearts. If we can lend a hand to someone who is fighting the good fight, so be it. The key thing is to not be overwhelmed by the darkness, nor to place our whole hope in some political process or position. I will comment on this at some future point.



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Recently I had occasion to walk through a toy department in one of our largest retailers. Very interesting. Toys sure have changed since my little kid days. Some of the stuff looked interesting and imaginative, but too much of it, way too much, seemed to reflect a warped imagination, a distorted view of reality, a proneness to entice our most superficial energies, a programming of the young mind for total unreality. Things do not bode well for our future! Of course all this prepares them quite well for our unreal techno world.


I ran across this quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, a Zen teacher: “We’re here to get our present model repainted a little bit. If the car of our life is a deep grey, we want to turn it into lavender or pink. But transformation means that the car may disappear altogether. Maybe instead of a car it will be a turtle. We don’t even want to hear of such possibilities. We hope that the teacher will tell us something that will fix our present model. A lot of therapy merely provides techniques for improving the model. They tinker here and there, and we may even feel a lot better. Still, that is not transformation. Transformation arises from a willingness that develops very slowly over time to be what life asks of us. Most of us (myself included at times) are like children: we want something or somebody to give us what a small child wants from its parents. We want to be given peace, attention, comfort, understanding. If our life doesn’t give us this, we think, ‘A few years of Zen practice will do this for me.’ No, they won’t. That’s not what practice is about. Practice is about opening ourselves so that this little ‘I’ that wants and wants and wants and wants and wants–that wants the whole world to be its parents, really–grows up.”

Indeed. Well put! In addition to what she is saying here directly, this also has a certain relevence and application to people entering monastic life. Very often they come to monastic life just to get their “present model repainted a little bit.” When it turns out that the life is pulling them into something much more demanding, a lot of them bail out. Another interesting application of this account is to the public sphere, the social and political reality. This extrapolation I will leave to you.


Speaking of politics, we are approaching a very critical national election. An election that has enormous moral and religious dimensions as well as social and economic ones. More is at stake in this election than at any time since I think the LBJ–Goldwater tussle back in 1964. As much as I dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton as a politician and as much as I think that there are many questions around her, it is absolutely imperative that Trump be defeated for the sake of the common good and the well-being of the nation. And it does seem as I write this that Clinton should have a very sizeable victory. But….and this is a BIG “but”….I won’t be celebrating the day after election day. This is not only because of my view of Clinton, but much more so because I realize that Trump is not “the disease”; he is only one symptom of what ails America now. And this problem is going to be with us after election day big time!


Random Thoughts On Politics:

The Economist, hardly a leftist rag, recently had an article with the title, “The Debasing of American Politics.” Just one sentence tells you what that’s about: “By normalizing attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, Mr. Trump has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.” Indeed. So true, but note the key words–“publicly taboo.” Trump is only bringing to the surface and to the light what was lurking there all along, things that were “not allowed” to appear in the public sphere.


Sometimes I wonder…. I recall a Scripture scholar I had in seminary, an elderly Jesuit who was the essence of gentleness and kindness and deeply knowledgeable in all the ancient languages. I never really enjoyed Scripture classes as a rule–they seemed to me to kill the spiritual element there–but this guy was interesting to listen to. One day, however, he jolted me out of my complacency. He pointed to something in the Gospel of Luke that was right there in front of my nose but which we all usually just take for granted, never really pondering the full implications of these words. The full pericope was the “Temptation in the Desert,” Lk 4: 5-7—“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.’” (Similar words in Matthew.) The old Jesuit was trying to challenge all the young Jesuit students in class (I was the only non-Jesuit in class!) who at that time were totally mesmerized by the call to political action as a religious activity, and you can readily understand that in the context of Liberation theology and other such movements. The old Jesuit was simply cautioning them not to “put all their chips” on politics. This realm is not a “godly realm” no matter how good your intentions; and if you really study history you will begin to see what he means. Well, at that time I thought he was overly pessimistic, and I still do today; but, sometimes, I begin to wonder…..


American history is an eye-opener if you get beyond the mythologized narrative they give you in school. Read Howard Zinn’s account for a change. In any case, just as an example, I used to idolize Thomas Jefferson. I even identified myself as a “Jeffersonian American”—until I discovered the “real” Jefferson, the one who not only was a slave-owner but also participated energetically in hunting down runaway slaves, dead or alive. On top of that, when he became president and got that big piece of land from the French, the Louisiana Purchase, he planned the removal or extermination of all natives from that land. This is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal.” In school we usually get only half the picture. Or take the case of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson who had the support of the KKK and welcomed that support and wanted to keep Blacks “in their place,” and lied to get us into World War I so that many made money off that–like the Republican George Bush in recent years. So the story goes…..

All through American history the political parties and the candidates they put forward are only “beards” for various money interests. The term “beard” comes from the world of sports betting. When a person cannot or does not want to be seen making a big sports bet in a casino, he will send in another person to make that bet for him. The bet’s true owner is thus concealed, and the person making this bet is called a “beard.” The image is self-explanatory! In any case, the phenomenon can be seen in politics quite readily.


One of the really serious problems in American politics is the truncated nature of our choices. Ok, the Republicans are really a far right party; and the Dems are more a center-right party, to use a European metric. To use the word “leftist” for the Dems is to not see what is really going on. Even the much weaker word “liberal” will not do–primarily because it has had so many different changes in meaning over the last century. If another serious choice pops up, like the socialist Bernie Sanders, he has to run as a Dem to have any chance and then the system will find a way to defeat him. I followed the Washington Post’s handling of the Sanders campaign and it was amazingly negative, even making fun and distorting all his proposals and his agenda. What we have really is what Chomsky called “a manufactured consent.” Only these two options will be allowed. And one is getting so looney that pretty soon we might really have only a one-party system.


I saw in the news an evangelical Trump supporter holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in another. No more need be said. Then, again, I am totally perturbed, even aghast, that Trump is doing relatively well among my own Catholic community. Granted, these are conservative Catholics, but don’t they know anything about Catholic social teaching? It will be interesting to see what the demographics of the Trump support will be on Election Day. How many vote for him and exactly who votes for him. I predict that he will get about 38% of the vote, which is truly bad for the country considering there are THAT many people who believe in Trump. They will be there after the election as a real problem. If Trump gets over 40%, we are in BIG trouble; and if he gets around 48%, I am getting in touch with the Canadian embassy!


So what has happened to the Republican Party? Way back when, it used to stand against American involvement in foreign wars and supported civil rights, more or less. The party of Robert Taft, Eisenhower and Rockefeller, you could have an honest debate with. Trump’s supporters today talk of rebellion and assassination if they lose the election. Even Richard Nixon, wow I can’t believe I am saying this, had some remarkable positions but all these went down the toilet of history with Watergate. Few people know that he was responsible for starting the Environmental Protection Agency and for getting the Clean Air and Pure Water Act passed. He was also going to push for a single-payer health plan in the U.S. way back in 1970; and he was also exploring the feasibility of a guaranteed income for all American citizens, whether they worked or not, something that is only now being tried in Finland. Even Bernie didn’t openly propose that! What happened since Reagan is a complex phenomenon but it can be reduced to several elements at least. One is a real deep anger and frustration that a lot of people are feeling that demagogues like Trump and the far right have exploited to the nth-degree. This anger is due both to constant propagandizing and distorting by the far-right and it is due to a perceived betrayal by the elites of the country. And so any “anti-establishment” voice will get a hearing in this climate. Both Sanders and Trump actually connected to some of that, but one totally exploited that anger and anxiety ; the other tried to address it to some extent. Interesting that Bernie Sanders, this very old Jewish figure, gave voice to so much of Catholic Social Teaching (unbeknownst to him!!) and appealed to an overwhelming majority of people under 30…..the future.


About the future of the Republican Party…..recently Mother Jones had an interesting article about a Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. An obviously intelligent man, a Ph.D. in history from Yale, an evangelical, and someone who was critical of Trump from the very beginning and disassociated himself from “Trumpism.” That much he is to be commended for, and perhaps he can be a building block for a new Republican Party of the future. However, Sasse sees the problems of Trump as a “personal behavior” problem ,more or less, and he is objectionable as a person. I think that is only scratching the surface. Sasse himself seems to be part of that very wave that Trump is riding….the Tea Party. And with support from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, he is not in good company. But we shall see….   As Mother Jones implies at the end, we have yet to see the real Sasse and what he stands for. He uses terms like “entitlement reform” and he says he is against “centralized planning,” for example, and these kind of words usually lead to privatizing Social Security, cutting Medicare and the likes. What Sasse really needs is a really different Republican vision, and for that we will have to wait and see. Right now they are starting to spew this “the-election-is-rigged” thing, and they are preparing to be total obstructionists for Clinton just as they were for Obama. Obama’s big mistake was his inclination to try and “work together” with these folks, not really assessing their nasty intentions. LBJ used to pull Republican congressman to the White House and tell them that he would pull all Federal money out of their district if they didn’t vote for such and such a bill. That’s how he got the Civil Rights Act passed and the War on Poverty. It’s not “nice” but when you are faced with that degree of nastiness and so much is at stake, then you better be tough enough to twist some political arms, that is, if you really want to get such legislation passed. That’s a whole other story. In any case, it remains to be seen if Sasse will be with these obstructionists or will he try to lead another kind of Republican “loyal opposition” that will actually dialogue and compromise with Clinton. A lot is at stake in all this for the well-being of the country.


A much deeper survey of our situation is hinted at in this incredibly complex essay by Henry A. Giroux.   As Giroux acutely observes, our problems are a lot more serious than this or that politician. Here is the beginning of this piece verbatim:

“What happens to a society when thinking is eviscerated and is disdained in favor of raw emotion? What happens when political discourse functions as a bunker rather than a bridge? What happens when the spheres of morality and spirituality give way to the naked instrumentalism of a savage market rationality? What happens when time becomes a burden for most people and surviving becomes more crucial than trying to lead a life with dignity? What happens when domestic terrorism, disposability, and social death become the new signposts and defining features of a society? What happens to a social order ruled by an “economics of contempt” that blames the poor for their condition and wallows in a culture of shaming? What happens when loneliness and isolation become the preferred modes of sociality? What happens to a polity when it retreats into private silos and is no longer able to connect personal suffering with larger social issues? What happens to thinking when a society is addicted to speed and over-stimulation? What happens to a country when the presiding principles of a society are violence and ignorance? What happens is that democracy withers not just as an ideal but also as a reality, and individual and social agency become weaponized as part of the larger spectacle and matrix of violence.

The forces normalizing and contributing to such violence are too expansive to cite, but surely they would include: the absurdity of celebrity culture; the blight of rampant consumerism; state-legitimated pedagogies of repression that kill the imagination of students; a culture of immediacy in which accelerated time leaves no room for reflection; the reduction of education to training; the transformation of mainstream media into a mix of advertisements, propaganda, and entertainment; the emergence of an economic system which argues that only the market can provide remedies for the endless problems it produces, extending from massive poverty and unemployment to decaying schools and a war on poor minority youth; the expanding use of state secrecy and the fear-producing surveillance state; and a Hollywood fluff machine that rarely relies on anything but an endless spectacle of mind-numbing violence. Historical memory has been reduced to the likes of a Disney theme park and a culture of instant gratification has a lock on producing new levels of social amnesia.”


Here is the link to this article:


Christ Hedges, my favorite commentator writes about Trump—“Donald Trump: The Dress Rehearsal For Fascism”       Here is the link:

And a more mainstream commentator, Robert Reich, who once served in the Clinton Cabinet and is now a professor at Berkeley, has an alarming prognostication–that a win by Hillary will be welcome by Wall Street and that they will get something important for them from her and the growing income disparity will continue to widen. Here is the link to that piece:


The things these folks predict may not happen, but still we need to face our predicament with open eyes and with thoughtful minds and hearts. The future is going to be a most serious challenge.

Leaving this quagmire of politics, now I would like to turn to a very different kind of person and a very different kind of world: In The Sun Magazine there recently was this article: “Not On Any Map: Jack Turner On Our Lost Intimacy With the Natural World,” by Leath Tonino. It is a marvelous interview with Mr. Turner and here is the introduction to this piece:

Since 1978 he has lived at the foot of the Tetons, one of North America’s most dramatic mountain ranges, usually in cabins without electricity or running water. A retired mountain guide, he believes that to really love a place, one must forge an intimate, bodily relationship with it, and that to do so in this day and age is an “achievement.” One cabin in which he lived, a twelve-by-twenty-foot plywood shack located inside Grand Teton National Park, could be reached during the winter months only by skiing or snowshoeing four miles from the nearest plowed road.  Temperatures sometimes dropped to 40 below. Weeks passed without a visit to town. He says the years he spent there with his wife, Dana, and dog, Rio, were the best of his life.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and Southern California, Turner grew up in a family of outdoorsmen. His grandfather was the co-owner of a hunting-and-fishing camp in northern Pennsylvania, and his father hunted and fished year-round. Turner got an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado and went on to study Chinese and philosophy at Stanford and Cornell. Soon after, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, but he was less comfortable in the halls of academia than he was wandering the backcountry. He’d become obsessed with rock climbing in the early 1960s, and by the middle of that decade he was partnering with some of the best climbers in the U.S. on difficult routes in Yosemite National Park and Colorado. He loved climbing more than philosophy, so he quit being a professor. The mountains were calling, and he trusted their voice.

Now seventy-two years old, Turner has spent more time outdoors in pursuit of wildness and wilderness than anybody else you’re likely to meet. For forty-two years he worked for Exum Mountain Guides, a company based in Wyoming, leading clients up the 13,776-foot Grand Teton and neighboring peaks. He has climbed the Grand Teton roughly four hundred times and participated in more than forty treks and expeditions to Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru. In his free time he’s backpacked, canoed, fished, bird-watched, and camped — often alone and always without a GPS — all across North America.”


Now this guy I really feel in tune with! He makes a very strong case for the human need for real and personal encounter with wilderness for both human and spiritual health. This is a topic that I have touched on a few times in this blog, and I was exhilarated by this interview. He also has a good understanding of the hermit life, which is quite rare. Here is the link to the full online interview:


And let us conclude with an actual contemporary Zen story. This took place at Esalen, the New Age spirituality and therapy center right on the coast of California in Big Sur and just down the road from the Hermitage where I lived at the time. Kobun Chino Roshi, who was a Zen master and a master of Kyudo, the way of the bow, was visiting Esalen with his archery teacher. The teacher fired off some arrows at a practice target and then he handed off the bow and arrow to Kobun and invited him to demonstrate his skill.   Esalen is high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Kobun took an arrow and with complete concentration and attention and care shot the arrow into the ocean. When it hit the water he said, “Bull’s eye!” (The story is told in Essential Zen.)

This is connected to everything I wrote above, but don’t ask for an explanation!!










The Continuing Saga of Zen Masters: Japan

So we continue our little perusal of these fascinating figures in the history of religion: the Zen Masters. This time our attention shifts to Japan. Now to be very clear, we are not under the spell of a romanticized, idealized view of Zen Buddhism. It has had plenty of problems thru its history until this very day, and this could be said of Buddhism in general. About some of this we shall reflect on in the next posting. But here and now I simply want to enjoy the company of some remarkable people–folks who are as endearing as many of my favorite Desert Fathers. When I was visiting with the Chinese masters, I used Red Pine as my guide. Here I will use a lovely little work by Richard Bryan McDaniel, Zen Masters of Japan.

Let us begin by repeating a story that I already once related, a story that I consider one of the most important in all the history of religion. This is the account of the meeting of Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who had arrived in China from India, with the Emperor of China. Recall that Buddhism had long before entered China and this Emperor himself was not only friendly to Buddhism but also a convert to it. But Bodhidharma’s Buddhism was very different to what the Emperor was used to and so he was very curious what this strange monk was about. Whether this account is mythic in nature or an actual historical incident is totally irrelevant for our purposes. The meaning of this story is what matters. So let us listen in to this encounter once more:

“The Emperor was a practicing Buddhist and proud of the many ways he had supported the tradition in his realm. When he learned that there was a visitor in his kingdom from the land where the Buddha had lived, he naturally invited Bodhidharma to come to the court. There, Wu described all he had done to promote Buddhism and asked, ‘What is your opinion? What merit have I accumulated as a result of these deeds?’ Bodhidharma’s reply was blunt and tactless: ‘No merit whatsoever.’ ‘Why not?’ the Emperor demanded. ‘Motives for such actions are always impure,’ Bodhidharma told him. ‘They are undertaken solely for the purpose of attaining future rebirth. They are like shadows cast by bodies, following those bodies but having no reality of their own.’ ‘Then what is true merit?’ the Emperor asked. ‘It is clear seeing, pure knowing, beyond discriminating intelligence. Its essence is emptiness. Such merit cannot be gained by worldly means.’ This was unlike any exposition of the Buddhist faith the Emperor had heard before, and, perhaps a little testily, he asked, ‘According to your understanding, then, what is the first principle of Buddhism?’ ‘Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy,’ Bodhidharma responded at once. Wu spluttered: ‘What is that supposed to mean? And who are you who now stands before me?’ To which Bodhidharma replied: ‘I don’t know.’ Then he left the court.” (as presented by Richard Bryan McDaniel)

What a remarkable story! This story has a universal significance–it holds for all the great religions whether it be Christianity or Hinduism or Islam–you might say that it points to “A Tale of Two Views Within a Religion,” to borrow a phrase. In one story religion is a kind of transaction, you do something in order to gain something. There is this “I” that is constantly seeking “gain,” and so religion energizes this self-centered dynamism disguised by piety, worship, rituals and traditions, spirituality, doctrines, even benevolence–all of which is for the enhancement of this “I”–(Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima pointed this out also in The Brothers Karamazov–in fact he pushed this to the extreme with unspeakable irony when he said that a person would even endure crucifixion as long as he got adulation for it, as long as there were people there to “applaud.”) The Zen Masters (and Desert Fathers) totally deconstruct this inner dynamism. Theirs is the “other” story of religion, one which seeks a piercing vision into the reality of the human condition and deconstructs the ground of all those dualisms that the “I” lives by: I like this; I don’t like that; here is the holy; there is the not-holy, you are you and I am I, two separate realities, etc., etc.


Now the history of Zen Buddhism oscillates between these two stories of religion as it travels through the centuries. Both in China and in Japan Zen Buddhism has its periods where it becomes lost in stagnation, superficiality, decadence and self-seeking; and it has its moments, and I use this word deliberately because these tend to be brief, when the intense light of Zen shines clearly and fully. We will hit a few of these moments in Japan.


Buddhism came to Japan from China. Chinese culture was looked upon as something to learn from and imitate, and so were the religious tendencies. At first there were three schools of Buddhism that came from China and flourished in Japan: the Tendai, the Shingon, and the Pure Land. The Tendai School is often considered the first wholly Chinese School of Buddhism, and it was primarily concerned with the teachings of the historic Buddha. McDaniel: “Although meditation was practiced in the Tendai tradition, the majority of Tendai adherents were satisfied with understanding it as the doctrinal system which was intellectually coherent and which was able to meet the devotional needs of the literate population.” So the focus of the Tendai was on Scripture, while the focus of the Shingon School was on ritual. McDaniel: “It was one of the so-called ‘esoteric’ schools of Buddhism, in which secret teachings, or ‘empowerments,’ were transmitted from teacher to student.” Shingon practice had elaborate rituals and mantra recitation. When this School reached Japan, initially it was very popular with the ruling class. Finally, there was the Pure Land Buddhism which became very popular among common people who found “philosophical Buddhism” too abstruse. Pure Land was utter simplicity–you simply recited this mantra and you would be “reborn” in a heaven-like afterlife. Also, you didn’t need to be a monk. It arrived in Japan in the 12th Century; it was always popular among ordinary people; and today it is the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. (And Zen Buddhism is practically dead or just a cultural artifact!!)


Now in China all these varieties of Buddhism competed for popularity, power and influence. Zen Buddhism somehow emerged among all these others–due to those great Patriarchs of Zen we previously mentioned– and at times even flourished. It seemed to survive the various persecutions that some Emperors engaged in when they determined that Budddhism was a “foreign” religion and the push was for a return to Taoism and Confucianism. Because Zen Buddhist monasteries pretty much stayed in far-off rural areas and the hermits lived in remote mountains, Zen Buddhism was often “off the radar” and left alone. There were some great Zen Masters, but there were also periods of decline and decay when, for one reason or another, the focus on enlightenment, on that “direct seeing” into one’s mind that Hui Neng and Lin Chi emphasized, all that seemed lost and Zen Buddhism became “infected” with the kinds of problems the other varieties of Buddhism exhibited: emphasis on ritual, on doctrine, on wealth and power and prestige, etc., etc. There is a lot of controversy about this history, and about all that I will touch on in the next posting. (Recall that what made Hui Neng’s Zen Buddhism so special and revolutionary was his emphasis on “sudden enlightenment,” the downplaying of intellectual prowess and intellectual efforts, the openness to all no matter their station in society or in life, and most startling of all, Hui Neng’s downplaying the necessity of having a teacher—after all he himself, the greatest Zen figure of all time, didn’t have one until after his awakening.)


Dogen. This is the first great Japanese Zen Master to look at. He is generally known as the “founder” and foundation of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism in Japan–throughout Japanese history there are then these two parallel tracks of Zen Buddhism, Soto and Rinzai. The peculiar thing is that both branches trace their lineage back to the same Chinese Zen Patriarchs, like the great Hui Neng , and the amazing Zen Master Lin Chi. Yet these two branches are very different in their approach to Zen and at times they were fierce rivals—D. T. Suzuki simply ignored Soto in his presentation of Zen and thought it was not “real” Zen. Yet today Soto is the only Zen Buddhism that has any life left in Japan and is the prevalent form of Zen in the Wes(though in some cases Westerners combine Soto and Rinzai traditions). In any case, back to the great Dogen.

Dogen lives about the same time that Romuald, Bruno Francis, and Bernard are doing their thing with monks and hermits in the West. He came from a noble family, received an excellent education as a youngster and was definitely slated for a life in the imperial court. But his parents died while he was still young, and this deeply affected him. By the time he was sixteen he had run away from that scene and became a monk at a Tendai monastery. Here he studied the Buddhist sutras, and since he was well-trained in Chinese he took to the study readily. However, his deepest questions and concerns were not assuaged by this approach. He traveled to other monasteries, and he was exposed to a kind of amalgam of Tendai and Shingon brands of Buddhism with a little bit of Zen that had filtered into Japan. It was here that Dogen sensed that his deepest quest was leading him beyond any study and ritual, and the path he was on was not going to lead to any kind of awakening. He had a sense that Zen had what he needed, and so he traveled to China to learn Zen Buddhism from its source.

So Dogen goes to China, and there he encounters various Zen Masters. Things are not quite as good as in the Tang period, the “golden age of Chinese Zen,” and due to various government persecutions and pressures Zen is in decline.   The lineage of Hui Neng and Lin Chi has split up into several schools and not all the branches are flourishing. Dogen finds himself with what was the Chinese beginnings of the Soto school. Now let’s take a moment and explain what’s going on. For Hui Neng and someone like Lin Chi, Zen Buddhism was all about this “direct pointing at the Mind.” Sometimes called your “original face,” sometimes called “the true person of no-rank,” sometimes called “the Buddha nature,” sometimes called “your original nature,” sometimes called, the Unborn or the Self, etc., etc.   This whole awakening, this wholly revolutionary way of seeing things, this piercing of reality into the true nature of things, was called by different names by different masters but it all amounts to the same thing and for Hui Neng everything was for the purpose of this awakening. Yes, meditation could play a role, but it was not essential in primitive Zen; anything and everything was an instrument in someone like Hui Neng’s hands. All of life, your whole situation, anything was a means to this awakening. Lay or monk didn’t matter. This is the purest Zen, but it is also a very intense way of living, and not many could keep up with the likes of Hui Neng and Lin Chi. So what happens is quite understandable, various Zen masters develop various ways of ameliorating the journey if you will, or at least making it more “well-defined.” Thus, the koan method develops. People are given the koan and this is the total content of their meditation. Their mind is given “something to do,” something to focus on—in a sense it becomes like the wall that Bodhidharma sat in front of for years. It is still a very intense practice, but you see it is a very well-defined path and that takes some of the stress out of it. Later on the koans get systemztized and people go from koan to koan as if solving one puzzle and getting a deeper one. The koan method usually implies a totally monastic life.   When a person has a breakthrough, an awakening, “kensho” as it is called, then he is able to give an answer to the Zen Master that shows he has broken through the wall of his rational, ego-centered, dualistic vision of things.

Another approach was completely different. Here the emphasis is on a kind of empty meditation, the key thing is precisely the meditation and not some content of the meditation. The student is taught a formless meditation, shikantaza, which literally means “just sitting.” So here sitting meditation or zazen is the central practice. Dogen eventually settled in a Chinese Zen (Chan)monastery that was following this path. He stayed there for several years and had his first awakening. When he returned to Japan he brought back this path, enhanced it, intensified it, made it THE practice of his Zen monasteries, and today this school, the Soto School, is the most popular Zen path both in Japan and in the West.


A story related by McDaniel: “Dogen found an elderly monk working in the heat of the day preparing food. The tenzo (monastery cook) was hatless in the sun and walked over tiles which must have burned, but he showed no sign of discomfort. Dogen asked the monk how old he was and the monk replied that he was approaching his seventieth year. ‘Are there no younger monks who could assist you?’ Dogen asked. ‘Others are not me,’ the tenzo answered. ‘These are my duties, how can someone else fulfill them?’ ‘But surely there’s no need to carry them out during the hottest part of the day,’ Dogen persisted. ‘If not now, when?’ the monk asked. ‘I can see that you are a man of the Way (Tao),’ Dogen said. ‘Please tell me, what is the true Way?’ ‘The universe has never concealed it,’ the cook said and turned back to his work. The conversation struck Dogen profoundly, and the memory of it would stay with him long after he returned to Japan.”


When Dogen got back to Japan, he found many Buddhist monasteries were filled with luxury compared to the Chinese Zen monasteries. He set up teaching in a remote, old, run-down temple and there he started attracting students. He was open to teaching lay people and monks. He also wrote extensively in Japanese–previous Buddhist writings were mostly in Chinese and so of limited accessibility. He wrote of philosophical/theological issues, explaining Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, and he also was propagating what he picked up in China which became the Soto School of Zen. Here he wrote very practical things like how to do zazen, what to eat, how to live as monks, etc. Here is an excellent summary of his teaching by Peter Levitt, a poet and Soto Zen teacher from British Columbia:

“The ability to leap beyond dualistic thinking during zazen is fundamental to Dogen Zen. It is due to the wholehearted, all-inclusive nature of the activity, but we should look at this carefully to be sure we discern his meaning. As taught by Dogen, meditation does not lead to enlightenment. [In that he is very much in tune with Hui Neng] In fact there is no distance of any kind between meditation and enlightenment. There is not even a separation between one’s aspiration to realize the self and that very realization.   According to Dogen, from the very first moment of establishing the meditation posture, no bridge is necessary; practice IS full realization, and full realization IS practice. As he says, ‘Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.’ Dogen’s understanding is that at all moments we are whole, lacking nothing, despite how we feel at any given time. Therefore, zazen is not a practice that leads to realization. It is neither a means to an end in our usual goal-oriented manner of thinking nor a method for learning to concentrate; nor is it a technique designed to help us improve ourselves…. Dogen’s teaching is clear: zazen is…an intimate expression of the oneness of all life…. It is realization itself whether we are aware of it or not…. And so we do not sit in order to become enlightened; we sit as an expression of enlightenment. That is what buddhas do.”


Final Dogen quote: “Studying the Buddha way is studying oneself. Studying oneself is forgetting oneself. Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all beings.”


The other great Japanese Zen Master to look at is Hakuin. Even though Hakuin lived centuries after Dogen, he can be considered as Dogen’s great rival. Hakuin is probably the most prominent figure in the Japanese Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism. And this is, like I said, very very different from Soto Zen!

Hakuin was born in 1686; his father was a samurai of limited means; his mother a devout practitioner of Nichirin Buddhism, an offshoot of Tendai. They lived in an impoverished region, and throughout his life Hakuin retained a great compassion for the poor people of Japan. Hakuin entered monastic life at the age of 15. He spent time at various temples, studying this and that. It was not until he met this particular teacher that challenged and pushed him to his own awakening. The odd thing to remember in all this is that for most of its history, Zen Buddhism both in China and in Japan was in a state of decline. This seems surprising, but it was especially true of the Rinzai tradition, the one in which Hakuin lived. Yes, there are the great moments and the great masters, figures who can take your breath away with their insight and awareness; but strangely enough this hardly lasts, and most of the time Zen is in decline. Here’s a few examples from McDaniel:

“Official support of the Rinzai tradition perhaps had more negative consequences than positive ones. Since Rinzai temples had become schools for the sons of the nobility and the warrior class, the government had an interest in how they were organized…. The government approved abbots and controlled the curriculum….schools became training grounds for students intending to enter the civil service, and they became a vehicle for promulgating government policies in remote districts. As they became centers of growing cultural importance, they lost something of their credibility as spiritual centers. Students with no religious interest at all were sent to them in order to acquire basic literacy skills. Other students were drawn by an interest in various arts that were becoming associated with Zen. Meanwhile, koan study deteriorated from being a powerful and challenging spiritual exercise to becoming a popular literary activity.”

“Shosan never bothered to have his awakening formally acknowledged, and he would always claim to be ‘self-enlightened without the aid of a teacher.’ The experience even led him to question the value of kensho. He was contemptuous of what he called kitai-zen, Zen practice undertaken in expectation of attaining some end, such as satori. The Rinzai emphasis on kensho, he argued, resulted in monks with very minor awakening experiences coming to believe they were fully enlightened individuals. Particularly significant to him was the fact that he seldom saw a notable change in the moral behavior of these monks. Their lifestyles, preoccupied as they were with physical comfort and ambitions to advance within the hierarchy, were evidence of how preoccupied they remained with self or ego.”

“Temples could be commercial establishments. Some acted as banks; others were publishing centers, where school texts, along with both Buddhist and Confucian documents from China, were made available in woodcut prints. The temples also carried out ritual activities for the benefit of the national government. In many temples, religious teaching became slack. Monks unable to earn them could purchase documents of enlightenment.”


So Hakuin arrives on this scene with that kind of monastic milieu, with Rinzai Zen in very bad shape. As a young monk he tours many temples trying to learn what he can of Buddhism and the Zen tradition. However, he is not interested in formulating ideas about all this; he has a deep, instinctive and intense desire for awakening, and he knows nothing else will satisfy him. Finally he meets this rare bird, a crusty old Rinzai master who was the real thing and who helps Hakkuin break through in Lin Chi fashion–by giving him one helluva time and knocking the psychological stuffings out of him! Hakuin spends some time with this master after his awakening; then he travels a bit more to deepen his awakening; then he finally returns to his hometown and takes up this abandoned, run-down temple. Here is McDaniel’s description: “It had neither roof nor floor boards. When it rained, Hakuin had to wear a rain hat and high getas (sandals with wooden slats on their soles) even indoors. The land and furnishings were mortgaged to local creditors. Undaunted, Hakuin set about rebuilding it, and subsequently this small rural temple became a center to which students from throughout Japan flocked for the next fifty years. Although Hakuin did not actively seek for disciples, his character was such that genuine aspirants were drawn to him…. Although the primary focus of his life’s work was on renewing the Rinzai School…Hakuin also retained a commitment to lay people, in particular the working classes. He took lay disciples and was sensitive to the challenges they faced…. Hakuin took upon himself the responsibility of affecting a complete reform of the Rinzai School. Central to that reform was ensuring that only individuals who had legitimately received inka be allowed to teach. It was essential that students work with genuinely awakened teachers, although Hakuin realized there were only a few available in Japan during his lifetime. He set high standards for both students and teachers. He had no illusions about the difficulties facing those who came to him…. Awakening was central to Hakuin’s Zen. One was not, in his opinion, a member of the Zen community until one had ‘seen into one’s true nature.’”


Here’s a very well-known story about Hakuin, which I long ago related and which corresponds so closely to a Desert Father story –totally amazing actually:

In the village in which Hakuin was building a Zen monastic life, there was a family who had a daughter who got pregnant. The parents demanded to know who the father was. At first she wouldn’t talk; they pressured her and wore her down, and she finally said, “The father is the monk, Hakuin.” All the villagers were outraged, and word spread all over that Hakuin had impregnated the girl and everyone feelings toward Hakuin changed for the worse. When the child was finally born, the parents and the villagers brought the baby to Hakuin and said, “This is your child. You look after it.” “Is that so?” Hakuin said. He accepted the baby and did not appear distressed at receiving it. His reputation was in tatters, but he looked after the child as best as he could. The baby was kept clean and warm, and Hakuin sang it to sleep at night. He lived like this for almost a year. Then one winter’s day, the girl happened to see Hakuin making his way through the snow, going from house to house, begging for food with the baby tied securely on his back. She felt ashamed at what she had done and confessed to her parents that it was not Hakuin at all who had fathered the child; rather it was a young man who worked at the market whom she had been seeing on the sly. Abashed, her parents rushed to Hakuin and apologized profusely. The child was not his; they would take the child off his hands and the girl would marry the real father. “Is that so?” is the only thing Hakuin said, and turned the child over to them.


So much for these two giants of Japanese Zen. There were of course many other outstanding figures through the centuries right into modern times, and each one made his own contribution to our appreciation of Zen. The figures who appeal to me the most are the ones who are unconventional, who are not “officially approved,” who don’t fit in, who are in fact “Zen fools.” Ryokan would certainly be one of these. Here’s a few others:


Shuho (later known as Daito Kokushi).

Here is a story about him: In the 14th century, Japan had a very young emperor who was so interested in Zen that he abdicated his throne at the age of 22 to give his whole time to Buddhist study and practice. Here is McDaniel’s account of what happened: “The retired Emperor heard a rumor that a Zen master of exceptional ability had come to the city of Kyoto where, instead of establishing himself at one of the city’s temples, he had chosen to live among the derelicts and beggars residing under the Gojo Bridge. The emperor was intrigued by the tale and asked his informant if there were any way that he could identify which of the beggars was the Zen Master. All the informant could tell him was that it was rumored the master was particularly fond of honeydew melons.

The emperor disguised himself as a fruit peddler and pushed a cart laden with melons to the bridge. As the residents gathered around him, he held up a ripe melon and announced, ‘I will give this melon freely to anyone who can come up to me and claim it without using his feet.’ One of the beggars immediately challenged him, ‘Then give it to me without using your hands.’ It was as much the gleam in the eye of the beggar as his reply that told the emperor that he had found the Zen teacher he was seeking.”


One of Shuho students was Kanzan. He was an especially gifted Zen student, but after his awakening Kanzan retreated to a rural village in a distant mountain region where for the next eight years he worked as a farm laborer during the day and spent his evenings in meditation seated on a stone ledge that jutted from the edge of a high cliff. He lived in this manner until the Emperor summoned him to Kyoto to become an abbot. While abbot he lived as frugally and austerely as when he was in the mountains. Not many could withstand the rigors of his training, and there were frequent defections. But those who stayed became the basis of one of the strongest lines in Japanese Rinzai.


Bassui: From McDaniel: “At the age of 20 he entered Jifukuji where he sought instruction from a master named Oko. Under Oko’s instruction, he began a rigorous meditation practice. However, he still questioned the value of the many ritual activities carried out in the temple…. As a consequence, he resisted taking the precepts, choosing instead to practice as a layman. He did this for nine years before finally having his head shaved and becoming a monk. Even then, despite his official change of status, he remained uncomfortable with the trappings of monastic life and remained noncompliant in many regards. He refused to chant sutras or take part in rituals; he even decided not to wear the traditional robes of a monk. Eventually he even ceased to stay at the monastery…choosing to live in a nearby hermitage.”

Again from McDaniel: “Bassui had heard about a hermit named Takukei who lived in a small hut in the wilderness…. Intrigued by what he had been told, Bassui sought the hermit out. At their first meeting, Takukei was confounded by the young man’s appearance and remarked, ‘I can tell by your shaved head that you are a monk. Why then aren’t you wearing the robes of a monk?’ I became a monk to learn the Buddha way, not to wear special clothes,’ Bassui answered.

‘So do you study the koans of the old masters?’

‘Of what use to me are the koans of the old masters when I do not understand my own mind?’

‘What then is your practice?’

‘I seek to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings in order to help them overcoming their sufferings even if by doing so I should fall into the deepest hells.’

Tokukei was so impressed by this answer that he bowed to the youth.”


When Bassui was about 50 he emerged from his “hidden life” and began accepting students. Eventually he had over a thousand disciples!


Then finally there is the incomparable Ikkyu, the “anti-monk,” the no-monk, the ultimate fool, the outrageous one….but also one of the most profound…..

Ikkyu seems to have been an illegitimate son of the emperor, but his mother was kicked out of the court when she became pregnant and was banished. She raised her child in poverty, and this deeply influenced his formation. He acquired a life-long aversion to the upper classes and a sympathy for working people and for the tribulations of women in that culture. When Ikkyu was a child, his mother enrolled him as a student in a Rinzai Zen temple. Ikkyu was a very good student and he also received a good literary education but he was drawn to Buddhism. McDaniel: “Even as a youth, Ikkyu had a naturally reflective temperament. He was drawn to Buddhist practice, but he was also sensitive to the discrepancy he observed between the way monks lived in the temple and the principles of monastic life to which they paid lip service.”

With his thirst for enlightenment growing, Ikkyu sought out some real masters. He found one in Kaso Sodon, who at that time was living in a hermitage near a village. Kaso had a reputation as a very demanding Zen Master, and he gave Ikkyu the “full treatment.” It took several years, but Ikkyu had an especially deep awakening, but when Kaso wanted to give him the formal certificate of Dharma transmission, the credential that allowed him to become a teacher in his own right, Ikkyu threw it into the fire. McDaniel: “Ikkyu was leery of the formal customs associated with the established Zen tradition. He refused to give his own students certificates of inka since such documents could now be purchased from less scrupulous teachers and, to his mind, were no longer credible evidence of a practitioner’s level of attainment.”

After his enlightenment, Ikkyu stayed with Kaso until the latter’s death. He took care of Kaso’s physical needs as Kaso weakened with age and illness, but there was always tension between the two for Kaso was a firm adherent to Zen traditions and the monastic code, while Ikkyu preferred saki, dallied with prostitutes and showed no deference to distinguished visitors. Ikkyu was in his early 30s when Kaso died; he could have become a teacher and would have many disciples. Instead he adopted the life of a wandering monk, visiting wine shops and brothels as often as he did Zen Temples. Ikkyu was critical of the pretentions of monks who affected a sanctimonious lifestyle.

A story that McDaniel relates about Ikkyu begging for food: “He came to the house of a wealthy landowner who, although he professed to be a Buddhist, gave Ikkyu only a single small coin and that grudgingly. Ikkyu returned to his dwelling and put on the formal robes of a transmitted Zen Master; wearing these, he returned to the landowner’s house. The landowner eagerly invited Ikkyu in and ordered an elaborate meal prepared for his guest. When the meal was served, Ikkyu stood, took off his robes and placed them on the seat of honor. ‘This meal has obviously been prepared not for me but for my clothes,’ he remarked. Then he left the house.”


Another tale narrated by McDaniel: “Ikkyu was crossing Osaka Bay on a ferry when a warrior monk of the Yamabushi School approached him. Yamabushi combined Shingon and Tendai teachings with native Shintoism, its adherents were trained in martial arts and magic.

‘You’re a Zen monk, aren’t you?’ the warrior monk asked. Ikkyu admitted he was.

‘I’ve heard that your school produces great meditators, but what else can it do?’

‘I don’t know. What can you do?’

‘We’re trained to be warriors and magicians. We can perform miracles which terrify our enemies and amaze the people and, by doing so, we bring respect to the Buddha way. Can you do anything like that?’

‘Certainly there are miracles in the Zen tradition, but tell me what kind of miracles you can do.’

‘I can call up the Bodhisattva Fudo on this very boat.’ Fudo was a guardian bodhisattva usually portrayed bearing a sword and a rope and surrounded by a fiery halo.

‘That would be very impressive,’ Ikkyu admitted. ‘Please show me.’

The monk began a series of chants and prayers and then, indeed, the Bodhisattva appeared in the boat surrounded by his halo of flames. The other passengers fell to their knees in amazement.

‘Can the Zen monk match my skill?’ the Yamabushi asked.

‘Well, I’m capable of a miracle or two as well,’ Ikkyu said. ‘For example, I can make water with my own body.’ So saying, Ikkyu pulled out his penis and urinated on the flames surrounding the bodhisattva, putting them out.”


In his old age Ikkyu finally took on some students and even got enticed in rebuilding a precious temple; the memorial temple for the beloved Daito Kokushi. But even here he was most unconventional and had his girl friend Mori visit him often. Even when he was 80, the two could be heard in the evenings playing duets. She was a harpist and vocalist, and Ikkyu accompanied her on the flute.

















Merton’s Critics

Thomas Merton always had his share of critics. You would think that after his death all that would subside. However, considering Merton’s importance for Catholic spirituality, for monastic spirituality, for the East-West dialogue, etc., well, you can see why people can still get all worked up about this issue or that issue when it is connected to Merton. Intelligent criticism is always most welcome; it can help clarify one’s understanding; it can resolve ambiguity in what was said; it can enlarge the original vision to encompass new possibilities, and so on. However, a lot of the Merton criticism is not of that sort; it is too often shallow, a misrepresentation of what he was saying, or just plainly missing his point altogether. Recently I ran into some such examples.


Example #1 is among the worst kind of criticism. It is due to the blindness and narrowness of conservative Catholics who feel threatened by Merton’s openness to the religious experience of non-Christians, especially the Buddhists. They have a website called Catholic Answers (among many other such websites, newspapers, magazines, books and radio and TV programs–these folks are quite numerous), and they have no qualms about calling Merton “dangerous,” “misguided,” “lost,” “wayward monk,” etc., etc. Here is an example from “Catholic Answers”:


“Merton wrote in his Zen and the Birds of Appetite that the ‘real way to study Zen is to penetrate the outer shell and taste the inner kernel which cannot be defined. Then one realizes in oneself the reality which is being talked about’ (13). He calls his reader to enter deeply into Zen in order to discover a certain reality. In essence, he calls his reader to do what he did, to turn his gaze eastward to Daoism and its Zen descendant. When asked if he felt that ‘turning away from traditional Christianity toward the East’ would cause ‘an eventual turning back to a different form of Christianity, one that might even be more genuine,’ Merton replied, ‘Yes, I think so’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 53-54). Merton viewed Zen as a necessary step in the Church’s march toward Christ, and so he urged Christians to turn to Zen. Not all of his readers agree with his views. Pope Benedict XVI has expressed serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of approaches such as Merton’s. In fact he predicted that Buddhism, with its “autoerotic” type of spirituality, would replace Marxism as the principle antagonist of the Catholic faith, for the very non-dualist ideas it espouses deny the Christian belief in a Creator who is separate from His creation. The transcendence that Zen Buddhism offers is one of non-distinction, a state free from, as Benedict notes, the imposition of religious obligations. In the end, to turn to the ideas of Zen is to turn away from any need for a personal savior. We save ourselves in Buddhism, but only Christ saves in Christianity.”

And another quote from the same source: “…some of his ideas are dangerous. His later writings (see ‘Read with Caution,’ page 9) are more confusing than helpful, for they conflate and confuse Buddhist and Christian teachings. One example of that confusion is seen in a popular icon sold in many Christian and Buddhist stores that depicts him sitting in the lotus posture in Zen meditation. The night before his death, Merton told John Moffitt that, ‘Zen and Christianity are the future.’ This is precisely what the Holy Father has expressed grave concerns about.  Just before he left for Asia, Merton participated in a ‘dialogue session’ at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, where he opened with the troubling statement: ‘What I want to do today is to give you some kind of account of the mischief I expect to get into in Asia’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 30). He then asserts that there is no danger in conflating Catholicism and Buddhism. Just after making this claim, Merton continues, ‘And it is perfectly possible to . . . [pause], and I think Catholics should. I think if Catholics had a little more Zen they’d be a lot less ridiculous than they are. . . .’ (Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, 33). His writings, like this comment, leave a lot to be discerned within the ellipses.”

I am not going to waste any time trying to answer this muddle of misrepresentation and misunderstanding and misleading. I would wish that this was just one outlandish and eccentric review of Merton, but I am afraid there is a lot of that kind of stuff among conservative Catholics. (And if any of them ever got hold of Abhishiktananda…..!)


One interesting thing that this conservative website brought to my attention is this letter from Merton to his abbot back in 1954. Merton was experiencing a crisis in his vocation that was to last several years. Here is a key passage:

“I am beginning to face some facts about myself. Yes, need for more of a life of prayer, greater fidelity, greater sincerity and simplicity in doing what God wants of me. Easy to say all that. It depends on getting rid of something very deep and very fundamental in myself. . . Continual, uninterrupted resentment. I resent and even hate Gethsemani. I fight against the place constantly. I do not openly allow myself—not consciously—to sin in this regard. But I am in the habit of letting my resentment find every possible outlet and it is such a habit. . . . I am not kidding about how deep it is. It is DEEP.” (Gethsemani Abbey archives)


Now for these conservative Catholics these kind of sentiments mean that Merton was “losing his vocation” and exhibiting “serious flaws.” That Merton did experience a true “vocation crisis” during these years in the mid-fifties is true, but actually such a “vocation crisis” is inevitable when there is a real depth to the person; and in fact it is absolutely necessary if one is truly to mature in one’s vocation. One has to come to terms with everything within one. That façade of pious language and pious images and self-images all has to shatter. Merton did benefit from psychoanalysis to a certain degree, from his “opening to the world,” and from his exposure to Buddhism and Taoism. And he used all these then to reinterpret his monastic life and deepen his monastic identity.


Example #2:

Here is a more subtle, more scholarly critique of Merton. Here we are more in the straightforward realm of ideas and how we read the sources. Merton had a real interest in Daoism (in his day the usual spelling was: Taoism) during the very early ‘60s. This was mainly because of the influence of his friend John C. H. Wu. In fact the collection of essays about this aspect of Merton is subtitled: “Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages.” Wu was convinced that Daoism and Zen were closely related in ancient China, and Merton’s exposure to all this material convinced him that the real inheritors of the spirit and thought and insights of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi were in fact the early Zen masters of China, not the later pop/cultural Daoism which still has a certain popularity today. This is a somewhat debatable point, and there are any number of reputable figures who would disagree. Red Pine (Bill Porter), for example, does not believe that Daoism and Zen have anything in common. Well, we can have a legitimate argument here, and people can have different views of the matter. However, in one of the essays in this collection one of the authors, Bede Bidlack, says that basically Merton misunderstands Daoism and misrepresents it, period. He has his dander up at this kind of statement by Merton (and one can see why!): “One must also see [Chuang Tzu] in relation to what followed him, because it would be a great mistake to confuse the Taoism of Chuang Tzu with the popular, degenerate amalgam of superstition, alchemy, magic, and health-culture which later Taoism became.”

First of all Bidlack accuses Merton of being “infected” with an old reading of Daoism that was promoted by Christian missionaries from way back: all that “odd” paraphernalia of Daoism as “superstition.” He mentions that Merton’s mentors in his study of Chinese thought, John Wu and Paul Sih were both Catholic Christians and “were not motivated to challenge the 17th Century interpretation.” But, alas, today we are beyond all that, at least the scholarly world, so says Bidlack. The thing is that one has to understand what Merton is referring to by that term, “superstition.” Daoism is very, very ancient–much older than any of the other major religions. It goes back to China’s shamanistic past thousands of years ago.   Truly it does have a lot of elements to it, rituals, mythology, mystery, etc. With figures like Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi (Merton’s Chuang Tzu), we find a distilling, as it were, of the essence of Daoism, a penetration to the heart of Daoism, a total vision, a complete awakening, an awareness, a state of being if you will, etc., that Merton was very keen in picking up. He had a knack for doing that with everything he touched, whether it be his own monastic sources, Christian spirituality in general, Buddhism, Islam, even political/social movements like the Black Liberation movement that was afoot in the ‘60s. He had no time for all the “odds and ends” of any religious tradition; he wanted to get a sense of what is at its heart. Now for Bidlack and scholars like him, Daoism is the whole cultural/historical package, and you can’t have Daoism without the whole package. Let me illustrate the nature of the problem here using another religious tradition, my own: Christianity. Imagine now if you were approaching the phenomenon of Christianity without any knowledge of it. What would you do? If you happen to be interested only in Christianity as a cultural phenomenon, yes, there are plenty of things to note: the various religious groups, various rituals, the sacraments, the Bible with its supposed inerrancy, the preaching tradition, the art, the veneration of saints, relics, statues, “miracles,” festivities, novenas, canon law, theologies, pilgrimages, various forms of prayer, etc., etc. But is Christianity the sum of all these things, or is there some core meaning, some central experience, some essential awareness around which all these other things develop–and some of these are just as much a manifestation of superstition as anything in Daoism or in any other religious tradition. Do you really get at this center by studying Christianity’s historical development or its institutional structures or its cultural forms? And if there is such a center, then how do you get a sense of it without getting lost in the clutter? Maybe it would be meeting and experiencing the presence of someone who has a true grasp of that center; maybe it would be penetrating the “husk” of a key foundational text, like the Gospel of John. Merton was especially very good at this and not getting lost in the clutter. You can see that pertaining to Buddhism when you read his account of his “experience” at Polonnaruwa–but more about that later. With Daoism it was primarily his encounter with the writings of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). He was able to penetrate this text even with the handicap of not knowing Chinese–but he had a lot of help from Wu and others. He did something that these scholars have a hard time accepting; their verdict is “nice try but it’s seriously lacking.” However, one of the English-speaking world’s top translators of Chinese poetry and religious texts into English, Burton Watson, commended Merton’s version of Zhuangzi –it captured the real vitality and liveliness of Zhuangzi; and even Bidlack himself admits that astonishingly enough for someone who doesn’t know Chinese Merton does have a grasp of the text. There is a lot more that Bidlack says critically about Merton but we won’t bother here–just an example of that criticism.


Example #3

Merton also gets heavy criticism in his grasp of Zen Buddhism. In a collection of essays about Merton’s engagement with Buddhism there is one essay by John P. Keenan, “The Limits of Thomas Merton’s Understanding of Buddhism.” To me this whole essay is filled with so many misunderstandings of what Merton was doing in his engagement with Buddhism, especially Zen, that I wouldn’t know where to begin.

First of all, Merton’s so-called “erroneous Zen” supposedly came from D. T. Suzuki, who is fingered as the culprit of a lot of erroneous ideas about Zen in the west. The “devaluation” of Suzuki(and not only him but also a number of other Zen figures) has been relentless, and has been fostered by a number of other Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars. Certain things are undeniable: like the fact that Suzuki totally ignores Soto Zen and presents only the Rinzai tradition. And there is also the critique of Suzuki–and also other big Zen figures of the time–in their supposed support of the Japanese war machine. These and other issues I will address in another posting. There are important points in all these issues that call for attention. This critique also hooks up with a larger critique of Zen’s self-presentation and the earlier Chinese Chan by deconstructionist-based scholarship in recent decades. Their arguments also deserve a whole presentation in itself, and I intend to address some of the issues in another posting as I fully and vigorously disagree with their evaluations.

I think Merton had a better sense of Zen than anyone writing about Zen, Buddhist or not, in the U.S. in the past 50 years. Even if he had a “truncated” exposure to Zen through Suzuki (but Keenan I believe ignores the contributions of Wu who spanned all of Chinese Chan), I believe that he had a deep intuitive grasp of what Zen was all about. Maybe not Zen Buddhism, but certainly Zen. And here is where I have my most serious disagreement with Keenan. Keenan (and many other scholars would say the same thing) claimed that Zen is NOT some silent, wordless experience at the core of Zen Buddhism and perhaps of all religions, transcending our dualistic viewpoint and totally beyond all conceptualization. Their particular view is summed up like this–you can see what they think is the case by their negative evaluation of what Suzuki/Merton think:

“Although Zen was indeed a tried and tattered school of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Suzuki and others began to characterize it as transcending sectarian boundaries. Sharf points out that this understanding of Zen is ‘largely a twentieth century construct,’….He identifies four moves that are made in presenting this type of Zen. The first involves positing a ‘distinction between the essence’ of a religious tradition and its ‘cultural manifestations,’ thus enabling one to speak of the essence apart from any cultural embodiment of that essence. In the second place, one identifies that ‘essence as a type of ‘experience.’ The heart of Zen thus lies not in its ethical principles, its communal and ritual practices, or its doctrinal teachings, but rather in a private, veridical, often momentary ‘state of consciousness,’ which allows one to skip the labor of careful thought and proceed directly from bare experience to spiritual affirmation. Thirdly, and importantly, one can then universalize the ‘Zen experience’ by denying that Zen is a school or sect of Buddhism per se, or even a ‘religion.’ Rather, partisans would insist that the term ‘Zen’ properly understood denotes the universal experiential core of all authentic religious traditions, both Eastern and Western…….”


Well this is a good summary of how these scholars read Merton and what they think Zen is and how different Merton’s view of all this was. I don’t know if I am reading them right, but it seems that they believe you can “think” your way to Zen, you can “ritualize” your way to Zen, etc. To put it bluntly, I think these folks don’t know Zen at all; they see its historical paraphernalia and they think that they can “encircle” Zen with their words and concepts. They are very good at what they do; I certainly would not hesitate to consult these folks for historical information about Zen Buddhism and its major figures, but I sincerely believe that they miss the REALITY of Zen by the width of the universe. It should not be surprising that people who depend for their living on examining language should feel threatened to be told that there is a reality beyond language and that can only be understood in silence.


I will conclude with several quotes, and consider them as footnotes to what was said above:

Gabriel Marcel: “There are thresholds which thought alone, left to itself, can never permit us to cross. An experience is required–an experience of poverty and sickness….”


Merton: “Where there is carrion lying, meat-eating birds circle and descend. Life and death are two. The living attack the dead, to their own profit. The dead lose nothing by it. They gain too, by being disposed of. Or they seem to, if you must think in terms of gain and loss. Do you then approach the study of Zen with the idea that there is something to be gained by it? This question is not intended as an implicit accusation. But it is, nevertheless, a serious question. Where there is a lot of fuss about ‘spirituality,’ ‘enlightenment,’…it is often because there are buzzards hovering around a corpse. This hovering, this circling, this descending, this celebration of victory, are not what is meant by the Study of Zen–even though they may be a highly useful exercise in other contexts. And they enrich the birds of appetite. Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’ the ‘no-body’ that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.”


Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”


Dalai Lama: “But more striking than his outward appearance, which was memorable in itself, was the inner life that he manifested. I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity….it was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”


Merton: “I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything–without refutation–without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line…. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…. The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion…. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.” 













A Potpourri

We will have a respite from my historical journey through Zen Buddhism this time—just a few odd pieces that have come to my attention.


There are two “happy” documents to come out from the recent gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (to be distinguished from the more conservative Missouri Synod). There’s probably a lot more good stuff going on there, but it’s these two that caught my attention. First of all there was a “declaration of unity” with the Roman Catholic Church. It admits that there still are some real issues that need addressing but a “basic unity” is there and is more a process that we all are involved in. (By the way, Pope Francis is going to Lund, Sweden in October to participate in a celebration of the Protestant Reformation.) I always thought a lot of the Protestant-Catholic disputes were just so much verbiage due to ill feelings on both sides, gross misunderstandings in all the words we “shouted” at each other, and definitely some decadence and arrogance on the Catholic side. When we calmly look at what we hold and believe in, then the differences do not go away but do seem to shrink.

The other Lutheran document was a simple one declaring the church’s support of the Palestinian people and condemning the Israeli practice of “apartheid” and the grabbing of their land. It is a courageous stand considering the powerful Israeli lobby in this country, but it is also in keeping with the sentiments of quite a few other religious groups. I am happy for all my Lutheran friends, but I do wish their church would get a bit more “mystical”!! (Not that mine is much better!)


Recently I again came across a well-known quote by Merton but one whose full ramifications are hardly explored. Here is the quote: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.” The fact is that we are trying to cross that abyss in all we do, try to do, in all our efforts and actions. This universal condition is explained in Catholic theology in terms of what is called “original sin.” But theology never gets to the nitty-gritty of what this really means in everyday life except in abstract words like “sin,” “greed,” “lust,” etc. And it readily loses the fact that religion itself shares in this problem. In other words religion itself can easily be part of the problem and not just part of the solution.

Now Buddhism, for one, has a more existential word: “suffering”–that which is that deep dissatisfaction in pursuit of this self that we feel is “graspable” in or through some experience out there; something that frees us from that spiritual vertigo of that abyss as deluded we imagine ourselves having crossed it. Modern life is so good at that. Visualize those racing greyhounds chasing a virtual rabbit, round and round they go, and never do they catch it. Such is a good picture of what is going on in all seeking of power and wealth and status and name and adulation and fame and possessions and yes of course the continual play of sex; you see this pursuit in endless shopping of something “ever new,” some gimmick to give a temporary relief from the anxiety of sensing that abyss within ourselves, of sensing that we are not really “ourselves” but some image. Here we can also find religion as this kind of “gimmick”–an infantile religion that keeps us in an infantile place.

Zen is really good at addressing this problem; and here I don’t mean just Zen Buddhism, but the heart of it all which is really Zen and which is at the heart of all true mysticism (this last statement I admit can be argued). All those good old Zen masters in China and Japan, all their words and gestures, everything they did and were, all this simply pointed at the “overcoming” of that abyss, at the full realization of selfhood, at the resolution of what seems like an unbridgeable duality. Now as I said all authentic religious mysticism deals with this also, but it’s not just religion that’s seeking an answer here. In the 1950s it became apparent that psychoanalysis was a secular version of an indepth analysis that dealt with this problem. At least this seemed the case with some great figures like Erich Fromm, who not only was open to religious language but also engaged in dialogue with Zen and religion through figures like D.T. Suzuki and Thomas Merton.


In 1957 Erich Fromm organized a conference around the topic of Zen and psychoanalysis. A number of practitioners came, such as Richard De Martino who was a psychoanalyst and a student of Zen and whom I found very illuminating, and of course D. T. Suzuki. Here is a summary of some things that Fromm had to say:

“At the beginning of the century, people coming to psycho­analysis were mainly those suffering from symptoms (i.e. paralyzed limbs, obsessional thoughts and actions). Now the majority of patients are those suffering from an “inner deadness”; they are generally unhappy with their lives wherein success has lost its satisfaction. This inner deadness manifests in the individual as an alienation from self, others and nature. Life poses the question – “how can we overcome the suffering, the imprisonment, the shame which the experience of separateness creates; how can we find union within ourselves, with our fellow man, with nature?” One is driven to solve this Koan – even in insanity an answer is given by striking out the reality outside of ourselves, living completely within the shell of ourselves and thus overcoming the fright of separateness, or alienation. The answers are only two: to find unity through regression to the pre-awareness state; or to be fully born, to develop one’s awareness, one’s reason, one’s capacity to live, to such a point that one transcends one’s own egocentric involvement, and arrives at a new harmony or oneness with the world. ….   Well-being is possible only to the degree to which one has overcome one’s narcissism, and is open, responsive, sensitive, awake, empty (in the Zen sense), fully related to others and to nature affectively; to become what one potentially is; to have the full capacity for joy and for sadness; to be creative (of seeing the world as it is and experiencing it as my world, the world created and transformed by my creative grasp of it – so that the world ceases to be a strange world ‘over there’ and becomes MY world; to drop one’s Ego, to give up greed, to be and to experience oneself in the act of being, not in having, preserving, coveting, using.   Most of what is in our consciousness is “false consciousness” and it is essentially society that fills us with these fictitious and unreal notions. This ‘social filter’ permits certain experiences to be filtered through to our awareness, while others are stopped and held in the unconscious, e.g. not allowing the awareness of a subtle or complex experience (seeing a rosebud in the early morning, a drop of dew on it, while the air is still chilly, the sun coming up, a bird singing)   because the social filter does not consider such a multi-sense experience as sufficiently ‘important’ or ‘eventful’ to be recognized.

Again, certain cultures do not form words or vocabulary to recognize perspectives of reality not seen as priority distinctions. Different cultures have varied logic processes, and the logic of a reality can only be perceived through one’s cultural social filter. The filter of one’s culture may not allow one to be aware of certain attitudes or inclinations taboo to the group. The reason behind the social filter is that any society, in order to survive, must mold the character of its members in such a way that they want to do what they have to do; their social function must become internalized and transformed into something they feel driven to do, rather than something they are obliged to do. Were the society to lose its coherence and firmness, many individuals would cease to act the way they are expected to, and society itself would be endangered. In all societies there are taboos, the violation of which results in ostracism. The individual, cravenly fearful of ostracism, cannot permit himself to be aware of thoughts or feelings inconsistent with his culture, and learns to repress them.

Consciousness represents ‘social’ man, the accidental limitations set by the historical situation into which an individual is thrown. Unconsciousness represents universal man, the whole man, rooted in the Cosmos; it represents the plant in man, the animal in him, the spirit in him; it represents his past down to the dawn of human existence, and it represents his future to the day when man will have become fully human, and when nature will be humanized as man will be naturized. By repressing reality through the distorting cultural social filter, we “see as through a glass darkly (I Corinthians 13:11). Again, via cerebration we see the experiences as being, if not distorted, unreal – e.g. I believe I see – but I only see words; I believe I feel, but I only think feelings. The cerebrated person is the alienated person, the person in the cave (Plato) who sees only shadows and mistakes them for immediate reality. This cerebrated alienation arises through the ambiguity of language. In using words, people think they are transmitting the full experience. The receiver thinks he sees the transmitted message, inasmuch as he employs his own personal meaning of the words – he thinks he feels it – yet for him, the receiver, there is no personal experience except that of his own memory and thought. When he thinks he grasps reality, it is only his brain-self that grasps it, while he, the whole man (eyes, hands, heart, belly) grasps nothing – in fact, he is not participating in the experience which he believes is his.”

(The extended quote above is from notes on the conference that I found on the internet. I believe these are summaries of Fromm’s talk.)


And here is a direct quote from Fromm during this conference:

““Well-being is the state of having arrived at the full development of reason: reason not in the sense of a merely intellectual judgment, but in that of grasping truth by “letting things be” (to use Heidegger’s term) as they are. Well-being is possible only to the degree to which one has overcome one’s narcissism; to the degree to which one is open, responsive, sensitive, awake, empty (in the Zen sense). Well-being means to be fully related to man and nature affectively, to overcome separateness and alienation, to arrive at the experience of oneness with all that exists—and yet to experience myself at the same time as the separate entity I am, as the individual. Well-being means to be fully born, to become what one potentially is; it means to have the full capacity for joy and for sadness or, to put it still differently, to awake from the half-slumber the average man lives in, and to be fully awake. If it is all that, it means also to be creative; that is, to react and to respond to myself, to others, to everything that exists—to react and to respond as the real, total man I am to the reality of everybody and everything as he or it is. In this act of true response lies the area of creativity, of seeing the world as it is and experiencing it as my world, the world created and transformed by my creative grasp of it, so that the world ceases to be a strange world “over there” and becomes my world. Well-being means, finally, to drop one’s Ego, to give up greed, to cease chasing after the preservation and the aggrandizement of the Ego, to be and to experience one’s self in the act of being, not in having, preserving, coveting, using.”


Now psychotherapy has had a lot of criticism and many key critics and much of this is well-deserved, but in the hands of a specially gifted practitioner like Erich Fromm it becomes an acute tool to diagnose what ails us, not in theological language but in existential terms. Thomas Merton himself benefited from his encounter with Fromm and his kind of psychotherapy. Then there was also Merton’s famous exchange with the Iranian Sufi who was a psychotherapist, Reza Aratesh. Merton wrote a whole essay about his work, and that can be found in the collection Contemplation in a World of Action.


Recently I came upon this Zen story that pertains to one of the lesser-known Zen masters of China, Lung-t’an.

“A nun asked Lung-t’an as to what she should do in order to become a monk in the next life. The master asked, ‘How long have you been a nun?’ The nun said, ‘My question is whether there will be any day when I shall be a monk.’ ‘What are you now?’ asked the master. To this the nun answered, ‘In the present life I am a nun. How can anyone fail to know this?’ Lung-t’an fired back: ‘Who knows you?’”

A truly remarkable encounter! The nun boldly addresses her condition on a social/historical level, and the zen master takes to a wholly different level. You can hear the complaint in her voice about the inherent unfairness of her status as a woman–nuns are rated inferior to monks. She is quite right as far as that goes, and this is the historical predicament of all women in all the religious traditions. But she is a kind of proto-feminist and she raises her voice with this master. No passive “little flower” here! But the Zen master takes her to a completely other level of identity. She brings her problem, her pain, her anxiety, her disenchantment, her impatience, her sense of justice; and Zen simply uses all that for leverage to open up a whole new vista of who she is. Zen does NOT solve our “problems”; it uses them to open us up to an awakening to whom we really are. And from this will spring the needed creativity and resources that will allow us to deal with our problem.

(Recall St. Paul’s: There is no more male or female, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no Jew or Gentile….all these identity markers which were so important in Paul’s world are now radically relativized–slavery is NOT by the way justified as some folk seem to think by this kind of language–and a whole new identity reality is pointed at which Paul equates with “Christ.” That is the primary reality, and once you awake to that, then you can deal with all these other problems and divisions according to your new sense of identity.)


And to conclude I just want to share this image: a drawing by Japanese Zen Master Hakuin, 18th Century. The title of this drawing is “Blind Men Crossing a Bridge.” An apt portrayal of the spiritual journey!!













The Masters, Part II

We continue our reflection. First, a historical note: Buddhism in China in the early centuries was basically divided up into Southern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. The South was mostly populated by Hui-neng’s brand of Zen Buddhism, which upon his death proliferated into 5 schools, led by some of his key disciples. It was mostly rural, self-sustaining to a large extent, and based on a brisk and brusque Zen that bordered on the iconoclastic. The North was very different. The Buddhism there, even when it was termed “Zen,” was very drawn to study, to asceticism, to piety and mythology. It was a Buddhism situated mostly in the large cities and for the elite and wealthy. In fact it depended on wealthy donors for support, carrying Buddhist begging to an absurd degree, becoming wealthy themselves, and so becoming an inviting target for powerful figures.

Now various Chinese Emperors occasionally persecuted Buddhism–on the pretext that it was a “foreign religion” unlike Taoism and Confucianism. After Hui-neng’s death there was one huge persecution that devastated the Buddhist presence in China. Hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life; thousands of temples and monasteries were destroyed. The North was totally wiped out and never recovered. In the South, Hui-neng’s Zen survived because of hearty disciples like Lin Chi and because of its social structure and geographical location: rural, even in remote areas, away from cities, and not depending on wealthy donors at all.


There is a vigor, a resilience, a depth, a toughness in the Zen that survives, and a lot of this is due to the main figure of this period in Chinese Chan (the 9th century): Lin Chi. He was a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Hui-neng. A lot of what is authentic Zen which survives in China today comes from Lin Chi; but most important and most interesting is when his line moves to Japan and becomes what is known as Rinzai Zen(Rinzai being the Japanese for Lin Chi). This becomes the quintessential koan school.

So Lin Chi is another of these truly remarkable figures. On the surface of things he is not an attractive figure: scowling, shouting, hitting people with a stick, not one to care for your feelings!! Here is an ancient and classic depiction of him, at work with a kind of hoe, like all Chinese Zen monks, and you get the picture in more ways than one:


But Burton Watson, the scholar and poet who translated a lot of his teachings, scratches beneath this surface: “Who is this Liin-chi, with his devilish face and fearfully glaring eyes, and what is he shouting about? Anyone who takes a serious interest in Zen Buddhist teachings will probably find himself asking that question at some point, for there is little chance of getting around Lin-chi if one hopes to get at Zen. His portrait, with those penetrating eyes, will confront you everywhere in the Zen world, and when your teachers have tired of haranguing you–‘Straighten your back!’–‘Dig into your koan!’–they are certain to open the book that bears his name and harangue you further with readings from his golden words. Why must we listen to these pronouncements of Lin-chi? Because his is the oldest and most authentic voice that has come down to us from the early tradition of Chinese Ch’an or Zen…. Lin-chi glares at us because he wants us to attend to his words, words that are of life-and-death significance. He shouts because he hopes to wake us to their meaning.”


Consider the following episodes:

One day Constant Attendant Wang called on the Master and together they went to look at the monks’ hall. Constant Attendant Wang said, “This hallful of monks, do they read sutras perhaps? The Master said, “No, they don’t read sutras.” “Do they perhaps learn how to meditate?” asked the Constant Attendant. “No, they don’t learn how to meditate,” said the Master. The Constant Attendant said, “If they don’t read sutras and they don’t learn how to meditate, what in fact do they do?” The Master said, “We’re training all of them to become buddhas and patriarchs.” The Constant Attendant said, “Gold dust may be precious, but if it gets in the eye it can blind. What about it?” The Master said, “And I always thought you were just an ordinary fellow!”

(Burton Watson translation)


The Master ascended the hall and said, “Here in this lump of red flesh there is a True Man with no title. Constantly he goes in and out the gates of your face. If there are any of you who don’t know this for a fact, then look! Look!”

At that time there was a monk who came forward and asked, “What is he like–the True Man with no title?”

The Master got down from his chair, seized hold of the monk and said, “Speak! Speak!”

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master let go of him, shoved him away, and said, “True Man with no title–what a shitty ass-wiper!”

The Master then returned to his quarters.

(Burton Watson translation)

The Master ascended the hall. A monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

The Master held up his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master struck him.

Another monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

Again the Master held his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master also gave a shout.

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master hit him.

(Burton Watson translation)


Unless you have an inkling of what Lin Chi and his fellow Zen masters have in mind, encounters like this will exasperate you with their opaqueness. Perhaps a look at how Lin Chi himself became a “master” might help a bit. Here is an extended account from John C. H. Wu’s book The Golden Age of Zen:

“From the standpoint of natural endowment, Lin-chi was a typical northerner. As a young Buddhist monk he was an earnest and plodding pilgrim in the way of perfection, with pietist inclinations…. He was already a fully ordained monk when he began to feel an attraction for Ch’an. Probably in his twenties he joined the community of the master Huang-po…. At that time Mu-chou Tao-ming was the leader of the community. He was impressed by the purity of Lin-chi’s character and conduct, and kept an eye on him for a long time. When he thought that the time had come, he approached Lin-chi, asking, ‘How long has Your Reverence been here?’ ‘Three years,’ replied Lin-chi. ‘Have you ever presented a question to the Abbot?’ ‘No. I have never done so, because I do not even know what to ask.’ ‘Why don’t you ask the Abbot to explain to you the essential principles of Buddhism?’ Following the suggestion, Lin-chi went to put the question before the Abbot. Hardly had he finished with his question when Huang-po struck him with his staff. When Lin-chi came back, Mu-chou asked him, ‘How did he answer the question?’ Lin-chi told him what had happened, adding that he really could not make heads or tails of the Abbot’s unaccountable action. Mu-chou again egged him on to repeat the question. Lin-chi did as before, and once again he was beaten. Mu-chou pressed him for the third time and, believing that he might have better luck, Lin-chi asked the question for the third time, but he was beaten for the third time. Thereupon Lin-chi made up his mind that he had had enough of this nonsense and that it was time for him to leave the place for good. Even then he did not lose either his temper or his manners. He confided his decision to Mu-chou, saying, ‘I appreciate your instigating and urging me to ask about the Buddha Dharma. Repeatedly the Abbot has deigned to bestow his beatings upon me. I only regret that, due to some obstructive karma of my own making, I have not been able to comprehend the profound doctrine. There’s nothing left for me to do but to leave.’ Mu-chou said, ‘Before you go away, it is proper that you should take leave of the Abbot.’ Lin-chi bowed and retired. In the meantime, Mu-chou lost no time in coming to the Abbot, whispering to him, ‘The monk who asked the questions, although he is still young, is an extraordinary man. When he comes to take leave, please receive him tactfully. In the future he is destined to be a towering tree, which will shed its salutary shadows upon mankind.’ When Lin-chi came to take leave of the Abbot, the latter said, ‘You need not go to other places. Just go to the river bank at Kao-an to consult Ta-yu [interjection: he was a hermit monk], and I am sure he will tell you everything.’

When Lin-chi came to Ta-yu, the latter asked where he had come from, to which he answered that he had come from Huang-po’s place. Ta-yu then asked, ‘What instructions have you received from Huang-po?’ Lin-chi replied, “Three times I inquired about the essentials of the Buddha Dharma and three times I was beaten. I don’t know whether or not I had committed any fault.’ Ta-yu said, ‘The fact is that Huang-po had treated you with the compassionate heart of a grandmother, bent upon releasing you once for all from bondage and distress. And yet you have come here to ask me whether you are not at fault!’ Lin-chi was thoroughly enlightened at these words. Then he said, ‘So, after all, there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma!’ Ta-yu grasped him, saying, ‘You bed-wetting imp! Only a moment ago you were still asking whether you might not be at fault. And now you are so bold as to say that there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma. What truth do you see? Tell me right away! Lin-chi did not speak, but punched Ta-yu below the ribs thrice. Ta-yu pushed him away, saying, ‘After all, your master is Huang-po, not me. Why should I be involved?’”


And so begins the career of one of the giants of Zen Buddhism in China and Japan! What’s important to recognize, first of all, is how time-conditioned and culturally conditioned the words and gestures and iconoclasm of these figures is. It fits them to a tea, but they would be the first ones to point out that copying them is NOT the way. Even later Chinese Chan and later Japanese Zen faltered by simply a kind of ritual copying of these masters and today we have this same problem. Their iconoclasm is especially important to nuance. You have to remember that this was a truly religious society with a totally religious outlook, saturated with religious gestures and symbolism. Thus, their words that pooh-pooh various aspects of Buddhism have to be seen as a kind of liberating mechanism from merely a social religiosity–you see that in some Christian contexts where national identity and Christian identity become one thing. Today we have quite a different context in the modern West where religious symbols and rituals are hardly visible or even comprehensible to most. Perhaps a different kind of “medicine” is needed. In any case, what is most important is to get a handle on what is the point of all this, exactly what is going on, etc. So we have to keep in mind Hui-neng’s “direct pointing at the mind”–the true Self, nondualism that encompasses all reality, and an awakening that is so total and so uncompromising that no words or ideas can contain it.


Here is Wu again: “The focal point of Lin-chi’s philosophic vision is the unconditioned True Man. He never wearied of stressing reliance on one’s self, but this self is not the temporary individual, subject to all the contingencies of life, but the true self who is never born and therefore does not die, who is beyond time and space, who is one with the Tao. So long as a man identifies himself with his temporary self alone, he remains a slave. Once he is awakened to the True Man within him, he arrives at his true selfhood and becomes free.”


In other words Lin Chi is constantly asking, Who am I? Who are you?   And he is not fooled by the maneuvers of the ego self in any manner, religious, intellectual, or whatever….


Here is Lin-chi in his own words: “Followers of the Tao, do not take the Buddha for the Ultimate…. As I look at him, he is still like the hole in the privy. As to the Bodhisattvas and Arhats, they are all cangues and chains to keep you in bondage…. Virtuous Ones! Do not deceive yourselves! I care nothing for your expertise in interpreting the sutras and shastras, or for your high positions in the world, or for your flowing eloquence, or for your intelligence and wisdom; I only care for your true and authentic insight and genuine perception. Followers of Tao! Even if you were able to expound a hundred sutras and shastras, you would still be no match for a simple and humble monk with no concern for anything.”


You see how this is very much in keeping with Hui-neng’s lineage and teaching and approach to Zen. This is a very different kind of Buddhism. The focus is extremely intense on one’s own self and lived life–nothing exotic, no gimmicks, no “acting spiritual,” no reliance on scripture or ritual or even “masters.” Most of the recorded sayings of Lin-chi have to do with “cleaning the slate”–meaning he aims at the things that trip us up in our journey toward awakening. We spend most of our life and most of our energies in “reaching” for something “out there” beyond us, beyond our life. “Just give me that right situation and I will…..etc.” We will conclude with some words from Lin-chi as translated by Burton Watson:


“Followers of the Way, what is important is to approach things with a true and proper understanding. Walk wherever you please in the world but don’t let yourselves be muddled or misled by that bunch of goblin spirits. The man of value is the one who has nothing to do. [Taoism] Don’t try to do something special, just act ordinary. You look outside yourselves, going off on side roads hunting for something, trying to get your hands on something. That’s a mistake. You keep trying to look for the Buddha, but Buddha is just a name, a word.”


“Those who study the Way these days need to have faith in themselves and not go looking for something outside. Otherwise they get caught up in foolish and trifling environments and can’t even tell crooked from straight. There are patriarchs and there are buddhas, but those are all just things found in the scriptural teachings. Someone comes along with a phrase he has picked up, brings it out in a manner that’s half clear, half murky, and at once you start having doubts, looking at the sky, looking at the ground, running off to ask somebody else, getting into a great flurry. If you want to be first-rate fellows, don’t go around talking about the ruler or the rebels, talking about right and wrong, talking about sex and money matters, spending all your days talking idle chatter!   Here at my place we don’t talk about who is a monk and who is a lay believer. When someone comes to me, I can tell exactly what he is like.”


“Followers of the Way, the Dharma of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, then lie down. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”


“You go all over the place, saying, ‘There’s religious practice, there’s enlightenment.’ Make no mistake! If there were such a thing as religious practice, it would all be just karma keeping you in the realm of birth and death. You say, ‘I observe all the six rules, and the ten thousand practices.’ In my view all that sort of thing is just creating karma. Seeking Buddha, seeking the Dharma–that’s just creating karma that leads to hell. Seeking the bodhisattvas–that too is creating karma. Studying sutras, studying doctrine–that too is creating karma…. There are a bunch of blind baldheads [monks] who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence–but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’ … Followers of the Way, you take the words that come out of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way. You think, ‘This is a most wonderful teacher and friend. I have only the mind of a common mortal, I would never dare try to fathom such venerableness.’ Blind idiots! You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an icy road…. Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares speak ill of the Buddha, speak ill of the patriarchs…throws away the Tripitaka…and in the midst of opposition and assent searches out the real person…. Followers of the Way, here and there you hear it said that there is a Way to be practiced, a Dharma to become enlightened to. Will you tell me then just what Dharma there is to become enlightened to, what Way there is to practice? In your present activities, what is it you lack, what is it that practice must mend? But those little greenhorn monks don’t understand this and immediately put faith in that bunch of wild fox spirits, letting them spout their ideas and tie people in knots…. Fellow believers, what are you looking for? This man of the Way who depends on nothing, here before my eyes now listening to the Dharma–his brightness shines clearly, he has never lacked anything.”

To be continued…….














The Masters, Part I

Recently I have been reflecting on Zen (Chan in China). I want to continue in this vein here and next time, and then another posting where I hope to discuss some of the problems and controversies afflicting Zen. Now I would just like to ponder the giants of early Chan in China and Zen in Japan. These folks are among the most interesting and most important figures in human religious history.


Let’s start with the greatest of them all, Hui-neng, a giant among giants, the Master of all masters, and the Sixth and final Patriarch of Chan. His emergence is an incredible story in itself. Coming from a poor family in the south of China(638) and almost illiterate, he enters one of the early Chan monasteries, and there he is only a poor lay brother, as what we would call him today, who did nothing more than pound rice for the monastery kitchen. At a certain point he had heard someone chanting the Diamond Sutra and immediately it clicked with him–he immediately understood its real meaning, what it was pointing to, and his inner illumination broke open on his awareness. I won’t go into the longer story except to say that the Fifth Patriarch of Chan, who was the head of this monastery, eventually discovered the depths of this humble monk and recognized his true potential. He had Hui-neng come to him by night so that no one else would know. As he told Hui-neng, the other monks, the Master’s top students and disciples, would have a hard time accepting Hui-neng as a master considering his lowly status. But the Fifth Patriarch conferred on him the symbols of the transmission and sent him out to cultivate and deepen his already profound grasp of Chan. Hui-neng lived in the wilderness for over a decade, at times with ruffians and hunters, gently trying to persuade them from killing animals. Talk about the “hidden life!” Somehow he also learned to read and write. Eventually, like Jesus, he began his “public life” in South China.

Here is an important story about Hui-neng with a commentary by Merton:

One day Hui-neng was asked a leading question by a disciple: “Who has inherited the spirit of the Fifth Patriarch?” (i.e. who is patriarch now?)

Hui-neng replied: “One who understands Buddhism.”

The monk pressed his point: “Have you then inherited it?”

Hui-neng said: “No.”

“Why not?” asked the monk.

“Because I do not understand Buddhism.”


Merton: “The story is meant precisely to illustrate the fact that Hui-neng had inherited the role of Patriarch, or the charism of teaching the purest Zen. He was qualified to transmit the enlightenment of the Buddha himself to disciples. If he had laid claim to an authoritative teaching that made this enlightenment understandable to those who did not possess it, then he would have been teaching something else, that is to say a doctrine about enlightenment. He would be disseminating the message of his own understanding of Zen, and in that case he would not be awakening others to Zen in themselves, but imposing the imprint of his own understanding and teaching. Zen does not tolerate this kind of thing, since this would be incompatible with the true purpose of Zen: awakening a deep ontological awareness, a wisdom-intuition (Prajna) in the ground of the being of the one awakened.”

Hui-neng’s Chan is very sharply focused, and at some future time became formulated in this famous gatha:

“Special transmission outside the Scriptures.

No setting up of words and letters.

Point directly at man’s mind.

See self-nature and attain Buddahood.”

Commentary on the first line by John C. H. Wu:

“By a ‘special transmission outside the scriptures,’ is meant that the Dharma or Reality and Truth can only be ‘transmitted’ from mind to mind, that the scriptures are only a means of evoking or rousing our true insights, that besides the scriptures there are other means which may serve as an occasion to awake us to Reality, that this waking is a strictly personal experience…. All external things are but a reflection of our ‘Original Face,’ and all external teachings are but an echo of the true music of our self-nature. Let no one identify himself with his mere reflection or echo ; it is only by seeing one’s self-nature that he becomes actually what he is in essence.”

Hui-neng is not “against” scriptures; after all he learned how to read and he quoted from many sutras when he was teaching. What he is against is the notion that “reading, studying, or praying the scriptures” will lead to enlightenment. This kind of thing was prevalent in the Buddhism of his time and in popular Buddhism today. Hui-neng’s Chan moves intensely in another direction, which pooh-poohs the repetition of Scriptural language. All words, all language, are, in Merton’s term, only an “alarm clock”–and whatever words the Zen master uses, scriptural, koans, talks, everyday situations, etc., are only there to wake us up. Hui-neng’s Zen is not about “messages” in words that you then try to understand. (What this does to Christianity is very interesting, but we will tackle that in another posting.) And this now leads us to the second line.


Commentary by John C. H. Wu:

“This phrase has often been rendered as ‘no dependence on words and letters’(pu li wen tze). The word ‘li’ means to set up as a pattern. The idea is that, just as we must not cling to the letter of the Scriptures, so we should not expect others to be enslaved by our own words. A typical instance of this is where after he had spoken of the ‘true void of the self-nature,’ Hui-neng immediately warned his audience against clinging to the word ‘void.’ ‘Learned friends,’ he said, ‘when you hear me speaking of the void, please do not cling to the void. It is of first importance not to cling to the void. If you sit in meditation with a vacant mind, you will fall into a spiritless apathy.’ In fact, the true void is the same as infinite Reality. ‘The self-nature of man is so great that all things and laws are contained in it.’”


So again, the problem is not so much with words and language in itself, but in our relationship to words and what we make of them. The goal of goals is not simply to clarify or “spiritualize” our language–I have seen people who take up Zen take up a whole new language–they start speaking a “spiritual jargon,” dress differently, even trying to “look spiritual,” and people entering Christian monasteries tend to do the same thing–it’s not until much later that we discover what our real goal is and all this other stuff is, most of the time, harmless playing at spirituality. And our real goal, in Hui-neng’s terms and in the Zen that comes from him, is the actualization of our real self-nature in all our activity. And Hui-neng’s Zen accomplishes that by: “Pointing directly at the mind of man.”

Now here it is important to recognize that the word “mind” in this context does not refer to our thoughts, our rational ongoing thinking and willing, etc.–our usual use of this word. No, “mind” here is that deep ground of all this so-called thinking and willing. It is that which we cannot turn into “object” for our thinking because it is the very ground and foundation of our thoughts, feelings, vision, etc. And it is this which is the key to our self-nature and our enlightenment. This “mind” is never and can never be the object of our thinking, our analysis, our willing, etc.; we can never “find it” this way. It is not graspable in language or concept; yet it is always there at our fingertips, so to speak, in everything we do, feel, think, see, say, etc. It is by awakening to this “mind” that we recognize the essential nonduality of Reality and our being.

It is not at all clear how Hui-neng did this “pointing directly at the mind.” Monks did read scriptures and did meditate, and for Hui-neng this was ok but that could easily become a “numbing” instead of an “awakening.” So for him anything at all could serve this essential purpose of awakening: scriptures, meditation, work, everyday encounters, paradoxical language, even outlandish behavior. Mostly and amazingly he believed in “ordinary life” as the best “alarm clock.” All this gets very formalized in later Japanese Zen in the famous koans of the Rinzai school and that’s a whole story in itself. But for Hui-neng anything at all and everything could be an instrument in his hands to help a person “awaken”–primarily because what was important and significant was within the person–or rather THE person standing right there, not some message that Hui-neng was trying to communicate, not some teaching–he was really down on that. The awakening is to one’s own self, the true self that is complete and lacking in nothing. Any system or approach that places one’s goal, one’s “happiness,” one’s “perfection,” somewhere out there is hopelessly wrong–you will never “get there”–this is the essence of dualism. Here is Merton: “In the relation between Zen master and disciple, the most usually encountered ‘fact’ is the disciple’s frustration, his inability to get somewhere by the use of his own will and his own reasoning. Most sayings of the Zen masters deal with this situation, and try to convey to the disciple that he has a fundamentally misleading experience of himself and of his capacities.”


Someone asks Pai-chang: “Who is the Buddha?”

Pai-chang answers: “Who are you?”


Let us conclude Hui-neng’s story with some more comments by John C. H. Wu:

“When Hui-neng learned how Shen-hsiu taught his disciples to ‘keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet, and to keep up the sitting posture without lying down,’ he remarked that ‘to keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet is a disease rather than Zen,’ and that ‘to keep sitting for a long time only shackles the body with no profit to the mind.’ He composed a gatha:

‘When alive, one keeps sitting without lying down:

When dead, one lies down without sitting up.

In both cases, a set of stinking bones!

What has it to do with the great lesson of life?’


Not that he rejected categorically the practice of Zazen any more than he rejected the use of words and letters. But he was careful to remind his disciples of the one thing necessary to realize the ever-abiding mind and to see one’s self-nature to attain Buddahood. All other things must be subordinated to the supreme end of Satori or enlightenment…. Hui-neng was one of the most thoroughgoing teachers of non-attachment. To him it makes no difference whether you are a monk or a layman, but it makes a world of difference whether you are attached or non-attached in spirit to the externals.”


The above is interesting in that today Zen is almost totally associated with meditation, and so is also all of Buddhism to a large extent. In Hui-neng’s circle meditation was a practice but only an auxiliary practice if you will. For him meditation, like study, can become an obstacle like any other obstacles to this “direct pointing to the mind.” Koans, which are the central element of the Rinzai school of Zen today, are also still in the future here. But its “seed” is beginning to be seen here in the give and take of “monkish encounters” and the use of paradoxical language. And speaking of this language, there is to be great caution in how we understand Hui-neng’s use of certain terms–like “emptiness” and “void.” Here he is in complete harmony with the whole Mahayana tradition. Listen to Burton Watson, the great translator of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts:

“This is the concept of shunyata–emptiness, or nondualism. Mahayana Buddhism in its writings manifests a profound distrust of words, insisting that the highest truth or reality can never be formulated or conveyed through verbal teachings, and Ch’an masters will be found repeatedly harping on this theme. When Mahayana texts designate the absolute, or highest truth, as emptiness, they mean that it is empty of any characteristics by which we might describe it. This is because it is a single, undifferentiated whole, and the moment we begin to applying terms to it, we create dualisms that immediately do violence to that unity. Hence even the term ‘emptiness’ itself must in the end be rejected, since it implies that there is something outside of emptiness that is not empty. If reality is a single, all-embracing oneness with nothing whatsoever outside it, then the entire phenomenal world as we know and perceive it, all time and all space, must be included within that unity. In the end, then, the absolute must be synonymous with the relative or phenomenal world; or, as the Heart Sutra puts it: ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’”


And finally Wu: “When Hui-neng speaks in terms of ‘within’ and ‘without,’ he is referring only to the effects of the self-nature’s functioning. In itself, the self-nature is identical with the non-dual Real, which is beyond space and time and above all attributes that human language can offer. Human language is at home dealing with the things of the phenomenal world, the field of relativity where all things seem to go in endless pairs of opposites. For Hui-neng as for Shankara, the Non-dual is that ‘before whom all words recoil.’ Whenever a mystic tries to express himself, his words are like so many thirsty blinded lions running in all directions in search of a hidden spring of water. In this sense alone can we see eye-to-eye with Hui-neng when he asserts that there is no difference between the enlightened and the unenlightened, or between Bodhi and klesha, and that self-nature is neither good nor evil. In his answer to a special envoy of the Emperor, he expounds the non-duality of the real nature in these terms: ‘Light and darkness are two different things in the eyes of the ordinary people. But the wise and understanding ones possess a penetrating insight that there can be no duality in the self-nature. The non-dual nature is the real nature. The real nature does not decrease in the fool nor increase in the sage; it is unperturbed in the midst of trials, nor does it stay still in the depths of meditation and Samadhi, it is neither impermanent nor permanent; it neither comes nor goes; it is neither in the middle, nor in the interior, nor in the exterior; it is not born and does not die; both its essence and its manifestations are in the absolute state of suchness.’”


After Hui-neng’s death a number of his disciples establish various schools of Zen, emphasizing this or that aspect of Hui-neng’s teaching. But all Zen lineages today trace their origins to Hui-neng. To be continued…..


(Caution: there is a lot of hokey stuff about Hui-neng on the Internet. Even the Chinese government is into it–they have named a power plant after him. Also, they have his embalmed body up in some kind of shrine. Also, there is this horrid little movie about him in Chinese with horrid English subtitles on You Tube.) All this, of course, is the very antithesis of what Hui-neng stood for.)








Red Dust

The world of red dust. This is an expression found in ancient Chinese Zen and Taoist poetry (sometimes simply “dust”).  It is a vivid image and a sharp metaphor–have you ever driven down a dusty dirt road? Imagine now villages, towns, and cities with nothing but dirt roads. So it was everywhere at one time. For the Chinese Zen poets (and poets inspired by them) the “world of red dust” was the world of human agitation and deluded activity toward accumulation, possession, a manifestation of greed, a seeking of power, the give and take of commerce, the pretentions of government and officialdom, etc., etc. What an apt metaphor! But it also refers to something much deeper…there are many references to “dust” in the heart and the mind.

A couple of examples:

            “The mountains stand unmoving just the way they are

All day they let the clouds roll out and roll back in

            Even though red dust is countless layers deep

            Not a single speck reaches my thatched hut”

                                    Han-shan Te-ch’ing (translated by Red Pine)


            “I carried books and a hoe in my youth

            When I lived with my older brothers

            Somehow I met their reproach

            I was even disdained by my wife

            So I left the world of red dust behind

            All I do now is wander and read

            Who’ll spare a dipper of water

            To save a poor fish in a rut”

                        Han-shan (the famous Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine)



I am sitting at a campsite about 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada. All alone. The quiet is immense. Even more so than found entering an empty church or a true monastery. Oh yes, there are sounds–the wind blowing in the tall trees, the coyote at night, sometimes a bird…. But these sounds do not disturb the silence; in fact they only accentuate it, so you feel it sinking into you very deeply.

Merton quote: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

The wind in the trees says “Be Nobody.” Do not be afraid to be Nobody. That’s what the wind and the solitude say. Zhuangzi’s and Lin Chi’s (Rinzai’s) “true person of no rank”–no credentials, not even religious ones. Enter that nothingness where the fires go when they go out. The fire of your ego identity will go out too, with all its grasping at this or that identity. A scary invite. So misunderstood. Something in us pushes us to be “somebody,” to have all that stuff and all those people telling you who you are, that you are somebody. The world of red dust.

Las Vegas, Wall Street, the Pentagon, etc.–all these are merely externalizations of what we are inside, of the “dust” of our minds (or “hearts,” the hesychast would say). But there are deeper levels still.


Now I think of Ash Wednesday and our ritual: You are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is another and somewhat different use of “dust,” but it points in the same direction.


The Tibetan Buddhists express all this with different images. Some of them that are borrowed from their own native shamanistic Bon tradition are the demons, so prevalent in many of their festivals and rituals. The demons are all within one’s mind and heart, they are the devouring passions that eat people up with their unending demand for fulfillment. So, the seeking of liberation. The Christian Gospels touch on this in their own way also. Recall the various parables of Jesus and his sayings. Recall that vivid image of the man who is totally wrapped up in expanding his “barn” not realizing that he will soon die. And the Desert Fathers really read the Gospels in such an interpretative scheme.


It’s a very cool evening at 10,000 feet; the city below me is sweltering in heat. Interesting contrast! It’s so cold I am trying to build a fire to warm up. Full moon and wind. I am reminded of a Jack London short story, “To Build a Fire,” a story of a man who freezes to death in the Yukon as he is unable to build a fire. I read this story decades ago, in high school. Never have seen it since. Funny what things you remember at what points in your life. Mostly it is the red dust we carry within.


Why is it that all of us “good people” get so caught up in the red dust of religion? God is then no more than our own ego identity projected large, really large! The call to be Nobody is then totally incomprehensible; religion then becomes a way of enhancing the self, immunizing the self, instead of deconstructing the self. The Upanishads make it a Divine Calling. You are THAT! The Divine Reality does not make a big deal about being God! The Divine Reality is the “Ultimate Person of No Rank,” the Ultimate Nobody, abiding and hiding within all that is, or nothing would be. And the New Testament invites you to recognize yourself as a “child of God.” What if that’s the same call? I am beginning to agree more and more with Abhishiktananda, that without the interpretative schemes we find in Asia, Christianity has only a faint grasp of the “gift of God” and all that implies. Christianity itself partakes of the world of red dust — the delusions and confusions of human beings. Certainly this is not the “orthodox” view!


Merton’s “true self,” Lin Chi’s “the true person of no rank,” the Upanishad’s “You are THAT,” even the New Testament’s “child of God” language, all these point to something that is impossible to point to. That’s why all this language is mostly paradoxical, symbolic, and indirect.  Perhaps they all do not refer to the same thing, but what they do refer to has this common characteristic that it is not something that you can “grasp” and make it a possession or something that your ego can hold before itself. Who you truly are is therefore this Nobody which defies all categorizations–not something you can look at in the mirror and admire and measure and enhance, etc. All this is in the world of red dust. Who you really are is so limpid, so clear, so pure, so lucid, so luminous, that not a speck of dust can find a place to land. True religion is NOT “cleaning up all the dust”—that’s the shallow view of religion whether Buddhist or Christianity or anything else. Rather it is a realization, a waking up, to what is Real….


Consider one of the most significant, most profound and most fascinating encounters in the history of world religions which occurred when Bodhidharma met the Emperor of China. Recall that Bodhidharma was the Indian Buddhist monk who had inherited the mantle of transmission of that which was later called Chan or Zen, and he came to China for some reason to “spread this Gospel.” (Recall that Buddhism had already been in China for several centuries, but not the Chan kind. Let me now relate this story in the words and translation of John C. H. Wu:

“Bodhidharma arrived in south China in 527, and was immediately invited by Emperor Wu of Liang to his capital, Nanking. In his audience with the emperor, a devout Buddhist, the latter is reported to have asked, ‘Since I came to the throne, I have built countless temples, copied countless sutras, and given supplies to countless monks. Is there any merit in all this?’ ‘There is no merit at all,’ was the unexpected reply of the Indian guest. ‘Why is there no merit?’ the emperor asked. ‘All these,’ said Bodhidharma, ‘are only the little deeds of men and gods, a leaking source of rewards, which follow them as the shadow follows the body. Although the shadow may appear to exist, it is not real.’ ‘What then is true merit?’ ‘True merit consists in the subtle comprehension of pure wisdom, whose substance is silent and void. But this kind of merit cannot be pursued according to the ways of the world.’ The emperor further asked, ‘What is the first principle of the sacred doctrine?’ ‘Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it!’ was the answer. Finally the emperor asked, ‘Who is it that stands before me?’ ‘I don’t know!’ said Bodhidharma, and took his leave.”

The Emperor is a devout Buddhist who is caught up in the “red dust” of his own religion. There is this self that accomplishes these pious acts and then waits for its reward; and of course the real reward is that all these acts come back and “congratulate” the doer and confirm the self in its illusory existence. People in monastic life do this all the time, and it is a waste of their monastic life. The trouble, of course, is not with the acts themselves but the mind of the doer. The Emperor, without realizing it, exhibits a typical dualistic vision. Can you see the comparable dynamic in Christianity? Well, the next statement by Bodhidharma will inevitably seem to most Christians as nihilistic and totally incompatible with Christianity: Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it. But this is precisely the language of Chan for nondualism in all its deepest forms.


Much more about this later…..




Zen Baggage

This is the title of a marvelous book by Bill Porter (Red Pine). The subtitle tells you what it’s all about: a pilgrimage to China. Much more than that it is a personal account of a pilgrimage to the places where Chinese Zen got established and grew into the powerful tradition that later influenced Japan so much and through which we in the West have learned about Zen and Buddhism. Buddhism began in India (and that has its own interesting history), but it’s not until Buddhism gets into China and meets Taoism that Zen emerges.

I had commented on an earlier book by Red Pine, the one where he began to search for hermits in China. This was long after the Cultural Revolution which had done so much damage to all the old monasteries, temples and hermitages; and it was after the new government eased up on its anti-religious ideology. In fact now it sees the monastic movement as a valuable cultural and historical artifact, and the monks seem to be getting some government support in rebuilding the temples and monasteries.

So a number of years before this current pilgrimage, Red Pine had gone into China in search of living hermits and the hermit tradition–Road to Heaven. This was a really ground-breaking kind of work because even as many were aware of a great hermit tradition in China, most people, including many Chinese, were thinking that this was a thing of the past. Red Pine’s book was an eye-opener, and apparently it was quite popular when it was translated into Chinese. The Chinese were happy to rediscover this tradition as being alive in their very midst. This book also inspired a documentary film maker to go into China and record some of these hermits and the movie is readily available: “Amongst White Clouds.” Well, on this particiular pilgrimage Red Pine is focused on visiting the key sites associated with the 6 great patriarchs of Chan Buddhism (Zen) and the development of Zen in China. The book is very informative about this period of Zen, but all the Chinese names and place-names can get very confusing if you are not familiar with the terrain. More importantly for a western Christian monk is the pattern of life that these monks engage in–all the similarities and all the differences, and there is much to learn there. Then, finally, there are all the personal vignettes that Red Pine narrates, both from the immediate present of the pilgrimage and from his own past. Sometimes they are funny; sometimes very poignant, moving and illuminating. All in all a superb book.

So, first of all, there are various points that Red Pine makes about the origins of Zen–some of them well-known, some not so well-known. We all have heard the story of the very beginnings of Zen: after the Buddha’s enlightenment and when followers had gathered around him, one day he got the whole group together, and there were hundreds of them, and they were all waiting for instruction from him, a talk, as he was their teacher now. But this time all he did was hold up a flower before them. Most of them just looked puzzled, not knowing what this was all about. All stared dumbly or bewildered–except Kashyapa. He only smiled, but it was a smile that showed total understanding. The Buddha said that Kashyapa had understood the teaching, and he gave him his own robe and bowl as a sign of transmission. It was a wordless transmission, and it is this transmission that later Zen masters look on as the beginning of Zen. Zen was not and could not ever be put into words.

But we have to remember that this was India, and the Indians have a penchant and a talent and a habit of elaborating things! Witness the enormity of the Hindu Vedic literature, and the Indian epics make the western Iliad and Odyssey seem like short stories! So Buddhism in India, over the course of several centuries, developed quite an extensive literature and teaching doctrine and methodologies and various schools. Inevitably Buddhism expanded into other neighboring areas and that included China–this was actually even before Buddhism came into Tibet.   In Tibet, the elaborate Indian Buddhism became even more elaborate as it incorporated a lot of the native, shamanistic Bon religion of the Tibetans. In China something different happened.

The Chinese had their own native religion: Taoism. This had its roots in the archaic shamanistic religion of prehistoric China, and it too had its variant developments. One was a kind of pop Taoism which included a lot of magic and paranormal practices and manifestations; and there seems to be a wholly different Taoism in the masterpieces of such figures as Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi. There the emphasis is in this mysterious Tao, in a harmony that transcends all human calculations and conceptualizations. There was also in China the quasi-religion of Confucianism, which was generally the ideal of the ruling class and for much of the populace. When Buddhism came to China, it was pretty much accepted or seemed to most as a variant of Taoism and allowed to co-exist. This first Buddhism in China was not Zen. In Red Pine’s words: “The Buddhists…were into works: ascetic practices, meditation aimed at suppressing the passions, shamanistic incantations, and magic.” When the Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived in China around 475 CE, his Buddhism was a totally different creature. We have no idea how the line of development traveled from Kashyapa to Bodhidharma, which spanned several centuries, but the fact is that Bodhidharma was something very different from the usual Buddhism–and that included India of course. Now there is a dispute among scholars of Buddhism whether Bodhidharma bought a fully realized Zen to China or that in fact he was influenced by the Taoism he found and so Zen emerged as a result. Red Pine is in the minority when he believes that Taoism had nothing to do with the beginnings of Zen in China, and I find his argument convincing, but who knows!?

Nobody rolled out the red carpet for Bodhidharma in China when he arrived. He moved north to an already established Buddhist monastery, the now-famous Shaolin monastery. Today this place is mostly a tourist trap. It is famous for its Kung Fu adherents, and over a million tourists visit this place every year–imagine thousands coming to a monastery on a daily basis. But there is very little spiritual seeking here, but the government loves this place for the tourist money it brings and supports it. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, the recent abbot of Shaolin was involved in some kind of scandal a few years ago, and I am not sure how that turned out. The only reason Red Pine wanted to visit here was something that the general public does not pay any attention to: a small cave high up a mountain above Shaolin. This is where Bodhidharma meditated for over 9 years facing a wall. That was his only practice. From that small seed emerged that great and beautiful flower of Zen.

So Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen. This was no easy or simple thing. Bodhidharma developed plenty of enemies: other Buddhist monks, some Taoists and Confucians, and plenty of government officials. Here is Red Pine: “Zen was crazy, if not dangerous, for it called into question the understanding of those who considered themselves the purveyors of the means to liberation. It was said that when Bodhidharma died in 536, it was the result of the sixth attempt on his life–all by poison. Assassinations were common, even in religious circles.” Bodhidharma seemed like a threat, at least to some, in that he minimized acts of piety and learning and hierarchies. When the Emperor asked him how much merit the Emperor had accrued in building many Buddhist temples, Bodhidharma told him, “None!” He taught that every person was a buddha; that the only way to liberation was to look into one’s mind; you are only one thought away from Buddhahood, and meditation was “the gate.”

Now we come to the Second Patriarch of Zen, Hui-k’o. Here is Red Pine again: “Hui-k’o…was born in 487…his parents were Taoists, but he studied the Confucian classics in his youth with a view to becoming a government official. And he seemed destined to become one until his parents died and he lost heart in a worldly career and turned to Buddhism. In 519, at the age of thirty-two, he became a monk and studied with Master Pao-ching at Hsiangshan Temple near Loyang. The kind of Buddhism practiced in North China at that time was not Zen but a mixture of Hinayana and early Mahayana practices aimed at eliminating the passions. [my interjection: this kind of thing took place also in Christian monasticism with a wrong-headed application of Desert Fathers and also various Orthodox ascetic writers. That’s why Merton was so intrigued by Zen, because it is so much more liberating to simply see what is really going on in your mind when your passions are roused.] What Hui-k’o first studied was what later Zen masters would call Dead Tree Zen, as opposed to Living Zen…. After eight years with Pao-ching, Hui-k’o decided to look elsewhere for instruction. He didn’t have to look far. The sacred mountain of Sungshan was a two-day walk southeast of Loyang, and at Sungshan’s Shaolin Temple Hui-k’o heard about this Indian monk named Bodhidharma. The most popular version of what happened next has…Hui-k’o hiking up the trail behind the temple to a cave where Bodhidharma was meditating and asking the First Patriarch for instruction. When Bodhidharma paid no attention to his visitor, Hui-k’o continued to stand outside the cave and wait. He stood there for several days. Even when it started snowing, he continued to stand there. Finally, in an act of desperation, Hui-k’o cut off his left forearm and put it before Bodhidharma as an offering. This got Bodhidharma’s attention, and he asked the Chinese monk what he wanted. Hui-k’o said he couldn’t still his mind, and he asked for Bodhidharma’s help. When Bodhidharma asked him to show him this mind he couldn’t still, Hui-k’o said he had tried everything but he couldn’t get hold of it. Bodhidharma said if that was true, then he had already stilled his mind. Hui-k’o suddenly realized the true nature of mind and became Bodhidharma’s disciple. Hui-k’o stayed with Bodhidharma for six years. Finally, in 534, the Indian Zen master gave Hui-k’o his robe and bowl as symbols of authority to teach in his place, and the two monks parted company.”

Now whether this story is literally true or a sort of parable is not important. What it points to is a certain kind of determination and commitment that Zen calls for. This is no New Age meditation workshop/ retreat kind of thing–it calls for “all of you,” not just some aspect of you–in a way this reminds us of the call of the Gospel. In any case, Hui-k’o began teaching this new thing called Zen (Chan) and he attracted many disciples. He “aroused the anger of other monks who found the Zen teaching of Bodhidharma anathema, if not absurd. How could we all be buddhas? And how could Enlightenment be less than a thought away, since everyone knew it took a lifetime to achieve? They were also annoyed to see their students flocking to hear another teacher whose teaching they themselves didn’t understand and couldn’t compete with.” It appears that Hui-k’o was physically attacked on one occasion at least, and then due to civil unrest and a real persecution of all Buddhists in the north, Hui­­­-k’o fled to the south.”

Red Pine again: “When Hui-k’o led his disciples to Ssukungshan to escape the religious persecution in North China, there were no temples on the mountain. But Ssukungchan had a reputation as a good place to hide out, which is why he chose it. In fact that was how it got its name, which was an odd one. Ssu-k’ung meant ‘Minister of Works.’ It was the title of an official who hid there around the time of Confucius, and the mountain had been called Ssukungshan ever since. It was also one of Li Pai’s favorite haunts. In 758, shortly before he reportedly tried to embrace the moon in the Yangtze and drowned, China’s Poetry Immortal wrote a poem entitled ‘Thinking of My Hideout on Ssukungshan.’ There were lots of places to hide, and Hui-k’o and his disciples disappeared into the mountain. It was not until Pen-ching (667-761) settled there that a monastery was built. Pen-ching was a dharma heir of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. When Emperor Hsuan-tsung heard about him, he invited the monk to lecture at court in 743 and was so impressed that he elevated Pen-ching to the status of National Master and bestowed on him enough funds to build the biggest monastic complex in China. That was the origin of Wuhsiang Temple, which nowadays wasn’t even a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of its T’ang-dynasty incarnation, when records say seven thousand monks lived there. No one knows how long Hui-k’o stayed on the mountain before he headed back north. He didn’t leave any records. But just behind the present shrine hall, there was a stone platform where he lectured. And further up the trail, there was a large gourd-shaped boulder where he was said to have transmitted his robe and bowl to Seng-ts’an, making him Zen’s Third Patriarch.”

Red Pine: “As with his teacher and his teacher’s teacher, Seng-ts’an left few traces…. Seng-ts’an followed Hui-k’o in his wanderings across North China, until the religious persecution of 574-580 sent them fleeing south. During the brief period that it lasted, monasteries throughout North China were destroyed, and five million Buddhists and Taoists had to return to lay life–but not in the South.”

That kind of number shows you how religious that culture tended to be and how popular monastic life was. In any case the persecutions and civil unrest came to an end under the Sui Dynasty, and Hui-k’o transmitted the patriarchship to Seng-ts’an and headed back North where he died. Seng-ts’an stayed in the South and it was here , at a monastic center and pilgrimage place called Tienchushan, that he met the future Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin (He Who Trusts the Way), who when they first met was only 12 years old but already inquiring into the nature of his mind. It is with Tao-hsin that Zen makes an important shift in its mode of presence among the people. First of all, Zen changed the practice and meaning of Buddhism in China; then, Chinese culture changed the style of Zen within China. Here is Red Pine: “Until the advent of Zen, the Chinese considered Buddhism a religion for the spiritual elite. Attaining nirvana was hard, really hard. And those magic powers that practitioners acquired along the way didn’t just fall from the sky. Buddhism’s inner sanctum was not for everyone; it was for the few, the proud, the ascetic. Even the first Zen patriarchs were presented in that light: tough as nails, able to look at a rock wall for nine years, or to stand in the snow for days and cut off their own arm. That was what Buddhist masters did; not your average monk…. Then Zen went south. No more rock walls, no more amputations. Beginning with Seng-ts’an, attaining the Way was presented as something within anyone’s reach. Of course, the teaching of not choosing, of nonduality, of nondiscrimination, the teaching that one’s very mind was all a person needed to be a buddha, the teaching that the only difference between a deluded person and a buddha was the delusions of the deluded person, this had been taught by Bodhidharma and Hui-k’o. And someone must have understood their message–both had other disciples. But the teaching of Zen didn’t make much of an impact until it traveled south, until Seng-ts’an passed it on to Tao-hsin.”

Tao-hsin then made a radical change in the lifestyle of Zen monks; in effect he was the St. Benedict of Chinese Zen. Here is Red Pine again: “When people think about Zen, they usually think of it in external terms: nonsensical talk, spontaneous behavior, or minimalist art forms. But that would be to look at it from the outside. If you look at it from the inside, from your mind, Zen is just a way of living. And that way of living is far easier to realize in a communal setting with the support of others than it is alone. Seclusion has its place, especially once a person has practiced in a community, but it was its communal approach to spiritual cultivation that was the strength of Zen. That was why it overwhelmed all other Buddhist sects in China, both in terms of numbers and in terms of influence. Its success was Darwinian. It produced a better-trained monk and more of them…. Zen was life-driven. It’s motto was ‘No work, no food.’ Zen monasteries in China are slowly getting back to this approach….”

This was literally a monastic revolution in the Buddhist world and elsewhere. Nothing like this developed in any extensive way in India or in the other Buddhist countries of Asia. Work was not considered a spiritual practice for monks; renunciants were to live by begging. With Tao­-hsin that radically changed. Red Pine again: “Up until then, Zen masters such as Bodhidharma, Hui-k’o, and Seng-ts’an wandered from place to place and occasionally gave lectures on the Dharma. But whenever they settled in one place for long, they either lived in hermitages with a handful of students or they stayed in monasteries at the pleasure of others. Tao-hsin changed this. He created the first self-supporting monastery where life revolved around meditation and manual work…. By the time he died there were more than 500 monks living at his monastery.”

So at this time, in the great T’ang Dynasty, Zen Buddhism explodes across China, and the other schools of Buddhism recede in numbers and importance. It is mostly communal monasticism and there is this revolutionary element of “working for your livelihood.” The hermit tradition was always strong in China, and it can be found in the Zen tradition quite a lot, but that is not the foundation of Zen. Solitude of this kind is usually seen as something temporary, as appropriate at some points in your spiritual development but not as a lifetime thing except for some very rare birds. Even with the Taoist hermits, and that’s where the hermit tradition was the strongest and most prevalent, in Taoism, there was still an appreciation for a certain fluidity where people could move in and out of solitude easily. Very often the Emperor called some Taoist hermit to civil service, and this was seen as quite normal and honorable to do. Today both kinds of monasticism are being revived–but with all kinds of complications. (By the way, I wish Catholic monasticism showed the same kind of fluidity with regard to hermits and communal monks. We keep insisting that one has to be one thing or another but not both! Lots of reasons for that, but we won’t go into that here.)

Tao-hsin next transmitted the patriarchship to Hung-jen. Here also Tso-hsin was an innovator: he stayed with Hung-jen for a number of years until he died. Usually, before this, the other patriarchs would depart from the master who had transmitted the bowl and robe to them–the new patriarch would strike out on his own. Not here; not this time. Hung-jen became the Fifth Patriarch of Zen, and he established quite a reputation for himself in time. When Hung-jen died there were over a thousand monks at the monastery that he had established. Hung-jen carried on Tao-hsin’s teaching both in spiritual matters and in practical, material matters. They built monasteries up and down China but always selecting sites that were far from cities and good for farming. Red Pine: “It was the selection of such sites that made communal practices possible, and it was communal practice that enabled practitioners to extend their spiritual awareness beyond the meditation hall to their daily lives. This was what Tao-hsin and Hung-jen taught their disciples, teaching them to practice everywhere, regardless of what they were doing. Tao-hsin explained it as ‘guarding the one.’ Hung-jen called it ‘guarding the mind.’ They told their disciples to be mindful in all that they did or said or thought to the point where the distinctions between doing and saying and thinking disappeared.”

Red Pine again: “It is hard to overestimate the impact Hung-jen had on Zen. His disciples founded both its Northern and its Southern schools and lectured before emperors and court officials. They were the first harvest of the Zen grove, and they were responsible for spreading Zen throughout China…. Hung-jen’s stature and the communal practice he fostered attracted people from all over the country. What attracted them wasn’t an ideology or a set of ascetic practices or something magical or mysterious. What attracted people was simply a way of life.”


But it may be that Hung-jen’s greatest contribution to Zen was the finding of the Sixth and last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism: Hui-neng. It is an amazing story how Hui-neng goes from being a peasant monk who worked in a huge monastery pounding rice — what we would call a laybrother in Catholic monasticism–how he went from that to becoming the Sixth and greatest Zen Patriarch is a story that never ceases to amaze. This is a story that does not get extensively treated in this book because it deserves a whole treatment in itself. Suffice it to say that Hui-neng is not only one of the giants of Zen but also the real foundation of Japanese Rinzai Zen, and one of the greatest spiritual figures in world history–and for me he is more interesting than Milarepa in many ways. Merton wrote about him; he was one of his favorites, and if you want to get a handle on what Zen is about you will need to confront Hui-neng yourself. We will deal with Hui-neng in another posting at another time.


Well, we have gone long enough on this topic, but we have only scratched the surface of the riches of this book. I focused on the historical material, but the book is full of personal anecdotes and encounters with Zen masters and nuns and laypeople and hermits. There are some very interesting observations about modern China and also the rebirth of Buddhism and Taoism in the new China. And also some very touching self-revelation by Red Pine about his own past. It was a trip worth taking, and I am glad he took us along.