The Zen Master in America

Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves

by Stuart Lachs

Presented 2006-2008, used by permission


7. Bringing It All Back Home

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"Buddhism is not any special teaching. It's our human way." [106]

This paper has attempted to point out the yawning disparity between the image of the Zen master, as presented by the standard model of Zen, and how Zen masters in the West have actually functioned as living, breathing beings in complicated life situations. To a lesser extent we have also shown some of the conditions at Zen centers that foster this myth of the Zen roshi.

Further, while the Zen institution would like us to believe, and its followers often do believe, that its leaders have a complete lack of self-interest, we have shown that this is not always the case. For example, once Baker received "real" transmission from Suzuki, all his actions, no matter how obviously self-serving, were seen by his well-socialized disciples as enlightened behavior. Yet, Baker claimed that having girlfriends while being married with a child, eating fancy dinners and driving a "nice car" were implementing Suzuki's commitment to lay practice. Though Eido Shimano led one of the more prominent Zen groups in the Northeast, he had a thirty-year history of sexual improprieties. His behavior was so egregious that, in 1995, six leaders of American Zen groups complained to the President of the Board of Directors of the Zen Studies Society, the group that Shimano headed, about thirty years "of the same depressing story": "trust manipulated in the form of his sexual misconduct and abuse." [107]  These are but two examples of egregious self-interest.

Yet, self-interest frequently manifests itself in much more subtle ways. No doubt Suzuki, Soen, et al. wanted to spread the Dharma. But surely, we can investigate how other interests and motivations might combine with and/or follow the original one.  For example, it is assumed by many that Suzuki gave Baker, and only Baker, Dharma transmission because of Baker's attainment. But could it be any number of other reasons that may have been of interest to Suzuki: Baker's commitment to growth, his ability to raise money, his charismatic personality and friendship with famous people, some personal attachment on Suzuki's part, and so on?

Further, according to Suzuki, Soen had no self-interest, no reason to travel around the world aside from eating cookies and drinking green tea, no investment in his performance, no thought or investment in anything he did. 

What's more, Soen's giving Dharma transmission to Eido Shimano, despite knowing that he had "some trouble" with women, was supposedly based only on spiritual attainment through discipleship. But might not Soen, the iconoclastic poet and roshi, also have liked the idea of having adoring, unquestioning [108] western disciples, his lineage spread around the world, centers in Israel and America and hence adding to his prestige in Japan? 

usd 50 note 2004

Might the fact that his heir, Eido Shimano, had raised large sums of money from the rich and famous, including the inventor of Xerox and his wife, had established his Center in an upscale NYC neighborhood, had attracted a large following, and was building a new, large country monastery in America have had some influence on the purity of the Dharma transmission?  Nowick and Kapleau were no doubt committed to building significant Zen Centers in the Northeast, but didn't they also gain a tremendous amount of prestige and authority along with unquestioned power by letting their followers and the larger Zen community believe that they had more authority and legitimacy than they really had? Since I have shown in this paper that all these Zen roshi have flaws like everyone else, one can only maintain the purity of their motivations by spinning their lives and actions in the most idealistic way.

Not only have we shown how these modern Zen roshi are not completely without self-interest, we have also seen how they have internalized their idealized role as described by the standard model. First, we see Baker presenting Suzuki as the idealized Zen master unlike any living human one has ever met. Then, we see Baker, in turn, being presented by Suzuki as his living heir, the epitome of the Zen person possessing "real" transmission.  We see Suzuki presenting Soen Nakagawa roshi as Buddha-like, a living example of the original Buddha, completely at ease and empty of any thoughts, desires, and any self-consciousness, happy beyond "usual" people's understanding. We see Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn assuring members of the SFZC that Richard Baker roshi is "sincere" and "trustworthy," though they had just lived through twelve years or more of his untrustworthiness and insincerity. We see Soen Nakagawa roshi assure his followers in NYC that his Dharma heir Eido Shimano, known for sexual malfeasance, is an authentic living heir in direct connection to the historical Sakyamuni Buddha. In all these examples, there is the "to-ing and fro-ing," mentioned earlier, the shuttling back and forth between Zen's original perfection and its being brought forward in time to the present.

According to Zen, an enlightened being's activity is beyond the judgment, comprehension, and understanding of "usual people." Therefore, it is necessary to have a lineage of enlightened beings, sealed with Dharma transmission, to assure the unenlightened of the Zen roshi's pedigree and his insight and enlightened actions. Yet, in each one of these cases all the prestige, purported wisdom and profound insight of the Dharma transmitted Zen roshi failed to guarantee Zen followers the unquestionable truth and certainty of their judgments. The validating roshi misperceived matters with which they were in intimate contact. More importantly, what they saw and told their followers was what the standard model of Zen, along with the social space they lived in, instructed them to see and say. Any suggestion of improper behavior, imbalanced power relations, limited authority, cultural differences or undue prestige was nowhere to be heard or seen. Rather, the Dharma heir was presented in such a way, so that, in the eyes of the beholder, all his authority and prestige was legitimated, as was the Zen institution. [109]

Is my entire argument based simply on coming up with a few cases of flawed behavior? To the contrary, the problem is embedded in the very definitions of Zen institutions and its legitimating literature and rituals. The terms and ideas that give undeserved power, prestige, and authority to the Zen master/roshi need to be re-examined in order to change the conditions that impute qualities and attainments to people who do not have them. Teachers can be a great help whether to learn the hula-hoop or to practice Zen. When we treat teachers as idealized people who match a mythological role and impute qualities to them that they do not possess, we invite trouble. Students pay by having their critical faculties undermined, by putting their common sense to sleep with the expectation of a greater reward in the future, and by, quite often, being kept in childlike dependency, afraid to question or ask "Why?" Commonly, too many "whys" and the student is viewed as problematic, and will be coerced to keep quiet or to leave. The roshi pays by becoming a role player, where one part of his consciousness is set against the rest. A part of the self becomes objectified, not just to others, but to itself, as a social role. This social role is in conflict with, and imposed upon, the rest of his non-social self-consciousness. The student views the roshi as empty of any selfish intentions, possessor of unmediated truth, and so forth, all the while the roshi's internal desires and thoughts are running their course as with all human beings. A strange dynamic is set in motion, whereby the roshi may become alienated. [110]  We know that power has a corrupting influence and, as we have seen with Zen in America, imputing undeserved and largely unquestioned power to the Zen master/roshi has led to sexual, financial and other scandals which have been harmful to all concerned.

It is time for us in the West to take a good hard look at the reality of Zen mythology. The purpose of religious practice is to bring people into intense relationship with life. [111] This requires looking clearly at that which is in front of us, not by taking unexamined comfort in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultural ideas and forms from earlier ages.  After all, the practice can never be more or less than this. The earliest examples of the Zen master qua Buddha equivalent coming to America have been less than perfect examples of the tradition as portrayed from early times in the Far East. They have also produced less than perfect sons and daughters in America. Will America, with its open society and omnipresent media and communications, be able to maintain a hagiography for their Zen masters, acceptable to the mass of disciples? Or will the modern Zen master in America, finally, lose some of his bells and scarves?

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Notes, part 7

[106] Crooked Cucumber, p.184.

[107] This letter is an unprecedented event in American Zen. The letter mentions having Shimano resign, or the option of entering a program "designed to help overcome his harmful predilections." Copies of the letter are available from the author by emailing Shimano is still the leader of the Zen Studies Society in NYC with a large monastery, Daibosatsu, in upstate NY. [* Update: Shimano finally resigned in 2010. See Boston Globe, Feb. 27, 2018: "Eido Shimano, Buddhist Leader Who Resigned in Scandal, Dies at 85." Obituary ]

[108] In a Japanese Zen monastery, the roshi has to listen to senior monks who have a large say in how things are to be done. In America, an older Japanese roshi like Soen had unquestioned authority in virtually all matters.

[109] Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu, p. 104. See pp. 104–110 for a relevant discussion of Bourdieu's ideas on symbolic violence.

[110] Berger, The Sacred Canopy, pp. 81–101. The section "Religion and Alienation" describes this process well. Berger points out that alienation may become a great source of power as it removes doubts and uncertainties that may cause problems and hesitancy in a non-alienated person.

[111] Brazier, David, The New Buddhism, London: Robinson, 1988. Though I question some of Braziers thoughts, I think the book is important as it examines many key aspects of Buddhism: varieties of enlightenment, lineage, teacher-disciple relationship, relationship to political ideas and so on.

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