Zen Buddhism--Religion, or Not?
6:51PM Jul 13, 2022
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is July 10 2022, and I'm going to talk more in this teisho about Buddhism as a religion. That was my last teisho as well, this is kind of a going further into it. I see that I gave something similar, my records show I gave a similar teisho 18 years ago. I hope that those of you who heard it and remember it can put up with hearing something similar today. I'm drawing from a an excellent book called just simply Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. And this is by Huston Smith and Philip Novak. This for anyone who wants to learn more about just Buddhism in general, not specifically Zen, but Buddhism in general. This is one of the two or three that I would most strongly, most highly recommend Buddhism by Smith and Novak, who since Smith is an old pal of Roshi was an old pal of Roshi Kapleau. Very brief, personal story. When I was in my early years on staff, I was in Boston during a staff break, and I got it in my head that I wanted to go visit Houston Smith at MIT, and where he was a professor of religion, and I got to far as his door, the door of his office and they had in gold, you know, Huston Smith, and I retreated. I told him, I told him that once we I had some contact with him many years later, he told me, he said, "Oh, I wish you had come in!" Really wonderful, friendly, unpretentious guy. So what I'm going to talk about is here somewhat distinguished between Zen as such, and Buddhism, again, remember Zen are emerged out of the soil of Buddhism and for most of the history of Zen, it was almost it was it was a sect, it was a school of Buddhism, you became a Zen Buddhist. But in now, in this century, and in the West, you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice Zen. I think the linkage historically was largely a monastic one, that to practice and you became a Buddhist monk. And now you can distinguish between the two. I think you could put a slash mark between Zen and Buddhism. You can practice them and not be a Buddhist. But if you practice them long enough, you see that it confirms, especially through awakening, it confirms Buddhist doctrine. So here is a chapter in the book Buddhism. Chapter is called the rebel saint. And the author's here speak of their six six features. He's says Here, eat six features that contribute importantly to religion, but equally each can clog its works. In the Hinduism of the Buddha's day, memories from India 2500 years ago and Buddhism even scholars will say that Buddhism sort of emerged from Hinduism. In the Buddhism of the Buddha's day, the six features of religion had done so the authors say here, all six of them, and the six of them, just briefly now, our authority, that is the six aspects to say every religion in general authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace, and mystery.
It begins with the first one authority that and saying that authority have become hereditary and Buddha's and a hand authority had become hereditary in Hinduism and exploitative as the Brahmins as the or the ruling class of priests, they took to hoarding their religious secrets and charging exorbitant ly for their ministrations.
You know, I have to confess, I have to admit that, in modern Japan, Zen has largely become hereditary. Zen authority has largely become hereditary as well. from many sources, I've read that now, to become a Zen teacher, you just have to spend six months of training in in some kind of a temple. And that gives you license to inherit the temple from your father. It's really no wonder. Zen temples and monasteries are closing their doors at an alarming rate. And in Japan, it's not based on it's not based on insight, or even even putting in some seniority or some years of practice. It's, it's become largely hereditary, father to son. The second aspect of religion he identifies his ritual and in Hinduism, Hinduism, the Buddhist time, rituals have become mechanical means for obtaining miraculous results. The third feature speculation the author's say devolved into meaningless hairsplitting. Tradition, the fourth aspect of religion had turned into a dead weight. In one specific by insisting that Sanskrit no longer understood by the masses remain the language of religious discourse.
Reminds me a little bit have to say of the when Roshi Kapleau and his teacher Yasutani Roshi butted heads over the chanting of the project of paramita. This was right at the onset of Zen centers formation, where Roshi Kapleau insisted that we be able to chat the pressure paramita in English, just as the Koreans chanted in Korean the Chinese channeling Chinese Japanese chanted in Japanese, this Vietnamese channel in Vietnamese. The Fifth Aspect is grace. He says here that God's grace was being misread in ways that undercut human responsibility if indeed responsibility any longer had any meaning where karma likewise misread was confused with fatalism. And the sixth feature of religion is mystery, which he said is confused with mystery mongering and mystification, perverse obsession with miracles, the occult, and the fantastic. Now, having mentioned those six things, I'm going to go back over them in a little more detail and, and also include the Zen perspective. So the first aspect of religion authority the the Buddha taught a faith devoid of authority and his his attack had two prongs. On the one hand, he wanted to break the monopolistic grip and authority the Brahmins had exerted. This reminds me just recently, I learned that many maybe others of you already knew this. Then Martin Luther was really split open the gave birth to the Reformation, in large part was his translating the New Testament into German. It had been accessible until then, only through through Latin and the The the educated people at the time, were the only ones who could read it. And then he translated into German. And this just raised hell with the whole church.
Then the the second aspect of the of the Buddha's questioning authority was toward individuals. This is a time when, when people generally in India, were passively relying on Brahmins to tell them what to do. And that's when the Buddha challenged each individual to do their own religious seeking and rational investigation. And then, another part that I last week I quoted this, these famous words of the Buddha, here's a little bit more to it. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture. Nor upon the consideration, the monk is our teacher. And that's what he said, when he said, that each one of us needs to do to poor Zen interpretation, each one of us needs to put our primary faith into direct experience. We find out through our Zen through our, our, our Zen practice sitting and moving, Zen practice. This can be tricky, because there are those who who go too far. I would say in that direction. Who, who said, Well, this is here, here's this is my experience. And so that's what is true. There's this phrase out there when two people come to misunderstanding about facts. So someone might be arguing that the Democrats are involved in as a whole as a party are involved in child abuse and Pizza, pizza parlors, and, and no, you can't make this stuff up. It's so bizarre. Or just look at q&a. So those who believe that and those who deny that and then the first person who believes in the pizza parlors will say, well, that's your truth. This is my truth. Is there any hope for us? So that's the danger is we put it we just insist that our own particular take on something is the truth. So recognizing that, though, that that danger we can we Zen insists that it's not it's beyond words is beyond the sutras beyond doctrine. Certainly beyond dogma, we have to confirm through our experience in sitting and moving meditation confirm everything. It's really really what the Buddha was saying.
In Zen, it starts with koan number one in the Mumonkan, where A monk asked the great Joe Joe Josue does even a dog have Buddha nature. And Joe Joe replied, Moodle, which is often translated as no or not, which flies in the face of what the sutras say that all what is common to all sentient life is this perfect luminous, true mind.
you don't have to believe what the Buddha said. But if you sit long enough, good enough sessions you will see that there is largely true. And here's another qualification is the translations the first 200 years after the Buddha during his lifetime, and for 200 years after it, there was no written record of what he said, which would be enough to give anyone pause. And I used to tell myself well, why should I believe anything the Buddha said, given that fact, how it can how much it can be distorted over time his teaching, but remarkably enough, I've only only become more and more convinced of the, the veracity of the translations of his of his teaching, it's just stunning the profundity of, of his teaching. I have less and less doubt about as time goes on.
The second after authority, the second aspect that the authors identify to religion is ritual.
From what we've the text, we have the Buddha taught a religion devoid of ritual. He ridiculed all the rigamarole and Brahman rights as superstitious petitions to ineffectual gods. This is what he's supposed to have said the Buddha, to seek to win peace through others, such as priests and sacrifices, is the same as if a stone were thrown into deep water. And now people praying and imploring and folding their hands came and knelt down all around saying rise, oh, dear stone, come to the surface, oh, dear stone, but the stone remains at the bottom.
But here too, we can, we can acknowledge that we do have rituals in them. In fact, what religion doesn't have rituals, really, if it's a religion, it has rituals, otherwise, it's more likely of philosophy.
But the, the rituals in Zen such as they are, such as let's say, let's just pick out something randomly, offering to hungry ghosts and thirsty spirits. That whole concept may be foreign to some of you who haven't been around very long. But it's a, a traditional ritual, in monasteries. And in here at the Zen Center, and other Zen centers, where before eating, you take a little, tiny corner of crust or something a little bit, and you you circle it above your plate, three times, raise it up, palm up, and then you place it in what is the hungry ghosts. First, the hungry ghosts in this thirsty spirit, dish, little bit of liquid to put in that. Okay, it's a ritual. But But let's look more closely. It's a way of embodying more what it's a way of, of, first of all, of reminding ourselves, that there are 10s of millions of people who are going hungry, and even without water. When we, when we physically do something, it's entirely different than just thinking about it. So it's a reminder that we are fortunate indeed to have food to drink and water. But it's also a way of, of reminding ourselves of our own cravings and how we have to be mindful of our tendencies toward gluttony, for example, it's a kind of a way of embodying a sharing, a sharing and an awareness of, of our privilege really
And so you know, knowing that the great great Chinese and Japanese and Korean masters all did this meet is meaningful is is meaningful to me and I don't need to quibble with it and I feel feel responsible for passing this on as a ritual. Same you could say with prostrations. prostrations are a way to physically embody an attitude of reverence, an attitude of humility, getting the head down. It's very different from just words
and buying the standing bow, get that head down. It has, it has, it matters. That's what we're doing, we're materializing these real, this spiritual qualities of humility respect.
Buddhism has always been not in conflict with the scientific in that it may be the quality of lived experience, the final test is or just saying. And it directed its attention to natural cause and effect relationships that affected that experience.
The third aspect of religion is speculation. And most of you know that we have no use for this Zen and the Zen School of Buddhism. Nor did the Buddha really the Buddha, as the authors say, the Buddha skirted the thicket of theorizing with his analogy about the the arrow Someone asked, Oh, I can't remember which which fundamental question was, I'd say, Well, how is it this is one that comes up at workshops. Where did this sense of self come from? Where Where? Where did the the ego idea come from? And, and something similar was asked to the Buddha and he said, Well, this would be like a, a man who was shot by an arrow in battle. And he were to stop in his tracks and said, I wonder if this arrow was made of ash, or maple, or oak. I wonder if the feathers were from a quail or pheasant, or an eagle? I wonder if the tip was made from Flint or iron or quartz. Then of course, the point being, the point important thing is to get the damn arrow out of you to take care to to practically solve the problem of egoistic craving and delusion. But doesn't matter where it came from? We have this this fundamental delusion of self and other and awesome them. How can we see through that
and there I think more koans than ever about this matter of speculation where Zen has is no truck with speculation. The one that springs to mind is where two monks were arguing about a flag that was flapping in the wind, the monastery flag flapping in the wind. And one, employing his own philosophy, philosophical perspective said, it's not really the wind that's moving. The BC it's the flag that's moving. And then someone wanted to take issue with that. He said, No, I would say it's the, it's the wind that's moving, the flag wouldn't be moving without the wind. And they went back and forth, and back and forth. And and then the Sixth Patriarch emerged from the woods, according to one account, came upon the scene and said, it's not the wind that moves, it's not the flag that moves. It's your mind the move.
For feature tradition, now, this is, this is one, we have to be careful about. You can see Zen in at least two ways. One is the method of Zen, which is sitting starts with sitting, and then other things related to posture, the method of concentrating on the breath, or koan, whatever, whatever, whatever this is all part of the tradition. The tricky part comes when we have to sort of discern what of the Eastern Asian tradition, out of which Zen arose. What of that tradition is salient what is what is what is helpful to us, as in this case, as as, as Westerners the Buddha, the the author's point out the Buddha taught in the vernacular of the people, he didn't stick to Sanskrit. He Akia made an accommodation to the many people who didn't speak to no Sanskrit but the language of the Brahmins.
And this is, you could say, in a way is, is one of the very, two or three primary functions of a teacher in Zen is to make this the judgment of what to hold on to from East Asia, and what to let go of.
It's an ongoing process. It's the it's the same, it's the central topic. It's been the central topic of every meeting of the American Zen teachers association that I've been to. So really, what it comes down to is, how do we adapt to the West? This this tradition that originated in the Confucian agrarian time of East Asia? My tendency, I think, is to be a little bit conservative with it. Out of concern of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, is Roshi used to say over and over that, I guess I fall back on the belief that, that in time, what is not suitable for us as Westerners will be sloughed off. We don't have to decide using our conscious minds are imperfect, discriminate discriminating minds, what should go and what should stay there that haven't been said we have made changes now. That would be a surprise, probably not a disappointment to those and in the East Asians and the big one, one of the big ones is giving women their rightful place in this tradition. This was a real a real major flaw in in Asian, the Asian in Asian Zen Chan is really having no place for women. relatively speaking almost entirely. It has a tradition of male teachers.
We've always struggled a bit with the Japanese words for instruments that we use here. And other other things regarding the ceremonies, the devotional part of Zen. Even as recently as a year or two ago, we finally agreed that we can start calling the wooden block that's hangs here suspended outside of the Zendo. To call that the wooden block. The problem is that it's so much easier to say just Han, that's the Japanese Han behind one syllable, instead of the wooden block. But we're trying, we're trying to do that, and other other things, without getting tangled up in something that is cumbersome. It's hard, this is hard, what to keep and what to let go.
I love the words of TS Eliot who said, tradition cannot be inherited. And if you want it, you must obtain it by great labor.
The, the fifth aspect of religion the author's identify as Grace. In, in Hinduism, devolved in over time. So say the academics into fatalism. What Why make any effort when we can just rely on the grace of God or one of their 100,000 gods. The Buddha had want to know part of this. He taught effort, self effort, and the possibility of enlightenment in this life.
There's a charming story in his collection called stories, the spirit stories of the heart. And the newer the newer title is soul food. It's just an anthology of stories. And here's the one that I would say, involves grace or, or even prayer. Where Zen master was invited to a great Catholic monastery. He exhorted the monks there to to exert themselves in their meditation, and resolve their koans question with great energy. And if they could practice with this long enough with enough perseverance, true understanding would come to them. And then one of these old Catholic monks raised his hand and said, Master, our way of prayer is different than this. We've been meditating and praying in the simplest fashion without effort, waiting instead to be illuminated by the grace of God. In Zen, is there anything like this illuminating grace that comes to one uninvited at that the Zen master looked back and laughed in Zen, he said, We believe that God has already done his share
but then, we got to be careful here too, because so much of this as a matter of semantics.
Awakening cannot occur so long as we imagine that we can do it. There's no one here to do anything. This is the teaching of no self. This is the experience of no self. You You could say that No, no person has ever done it. It comes to us. It is a kind of grace. But it's a grace that we earn through effort.
Recently, I was advising someone who's pretty new to practice is in Duck son. He asked this question that many, many have asked the same question. How much of this is is is effort and how much of it is relaxing. And what I said comes from my whole career, which is that we want to find the, the equipoise between effort on the one hand and surrender on the other.
But we don't have to find it exactly. It's again, it's not something we can, we can construct. It's not a project. It happens through long term practice, we find more and more of a balance. In the beginning, we tend to be what is taught in terms of efforts one or the other, where we're either straining with some grasping state of mind to get somewhere, or we're just being lazy. We're just waiting for something to happen. And then as time goes on, we see the neither of those two extremes is effective. And so, willy nilly, if we persist, if we keep this practice going, day in and day out, month after month, year after year, we we do find our way to that, maybe a kind of a fusion between effort and surrender. To the degree that we're absorbed in the breath, we are opening and releasing, and in that sense, surrendering, to the degree that we're questioning the koan. We will find our way into more of a surrendering to it to this not knowing and that's when everything can change.
The final six of the aspects of religion they identify as mystery are as we change Zen not knowing.
They say that the Buddha condemned divination, soothsaying, forecasting, even psychic and other paranormal powers.
In in some types of Buddhism, a lot is made of rebirth, sometimes called reincarnation but more correctly rebirth because there's no soul to be reincarnated. In Tibetan Buddhism, I from what I gather is the hot topic, reincarnation, in Zen out so much. In Zen, the emphasis is on being present. And this this was also true with the Buddha. Someone once asked about. He was asked once by someone about their past life and he said, If you want to know what you were in the past, look at yourself now. If you want to know what you'll be in the future look at yourself now. Look at this there's no point in speculating.
Zen has often been called textbooks is often called the mystical School of Buddhism. And sometimes it's compared to Sufism, the mystical School of Islam and other mystical schools but what that means, as I understand it really is, it rests on direct experience of want.
Vidkun Stein said that the world is, is the mystical
women, a single flee is miracle enough to stagger 60 Millions of infidels
this the mystery of this
is who is it a Voltaire, French philosopher, it is no more surprising to think of being born twice as it is to be born once birth, Perth a being a form being emerging from another being, what can be more freaky than that?
This is really the heart of the Zen School of Buddhism. You know, there are plenty there plenty other schools of Buddhism that involve memorizing and learning and, and, and speculate probably some speculation and, and arguing. In Zen It really all comes down to this, this mystery of things as they are. In any every particular practice method, the breath practice, the koan practice and shikantaza, shikantaza is just good, solid, this just basic awareness. They all are can be seen as delivery systems into the unknown. We're trying to not avoid the unknown. Not to, not to a void, non void we're trying to, to go into the void that in the sense of the not knowing that which is beyond our thoughts, our ideas, what we've learned, concepts, notions, systems. All those things are useful to the to a degree but but sitting at the center of it all is this realm of not knowing. And that's what Zen offers at its its most essential is how to let go of the known and get on better terms with the unknown and explore the unknown investigate this realm of no thought.
Time is up, we'll stop and recite the four of us