There is a common myth that it's necessary to have a teacher/guru to make any kind of progress with Zen. What everyone DOES need is inspiration to do this work, because it's not easy, and there are lots of doubts we have along the way (doubt in the sense of questioning the validity/efficaciousness of our efforts). There are also times we can get pretty scared (from what we uncover in our psyches) and need someone to reassure us. A spiritual "teacher" is someone who directs and inspires and helps us out when we get in trouble. If we can find someone who is adequately experienced in this realm, it’s prudent to seek their council if we need it, but identifying such a person is not easy, for they are few, and they often prefer to live solitary lives.The following is an interview with Chuan Zhi conducted by non duality magazine in July 2011. It is reprinted here with permission.
Chuan Zhi ( 傳智 )
Chuan Zhi was born in Indiana in the United States in 1960, attended elementary school in Southern Illinois, and high school in Eastern Pennsylvania. In 1980 he attended Reed College in Portland Oregon and received an undergraduate degree in Physics in 1983. During his time at Reed he found the works of Robert M. Persig, D.T. Suzuki and Mircea Eliade which “planted the seeds” for his future foray into Zen. Following graduate studies in Nuclear Physics at Purdue University, he worked as an experimental physicist for a decade and later as a computer programmer for a variety of organizations.
Beginning in the late 1980’s, he began attending sesshins (intensive meditation retreats) and studying under a variety of Zen teachers in the Mountain West and East Coast of the United States. In 1997 he met Jy Din Shakya, then Abbot and founder of Hsu Yun temple in Honolulu Hawaii, and one of Hsu Yun’s direct Dharma heirs. He was ordained and given the name Chuan Zhi ( 傳智 ) that year at Hsu Yun temple. He was also named the head of a new Chan order with the objective to disseminate the teachings of Chan Buddhism to the West. The order was named the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, after Jy Din’s master, whom he also had named his own temple after nearly forty years prior. In 1998 Jy Din escorted Chuan Zhi to China where he received full ordination at Hong Fa temple. Following the month-long ceremony he became recognized by the Buddhist Association of China as an official lineage holder in the Linji (Rinzai) tradition and Abbot of the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY).
Since then, Chuan Zhi has continued to work to spread the teachings of Chan to other interested persons. As of the writing of this biography, the Order of Hsu Yun (hsuyun.org) has grown to include local sanghas in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Canada, Great Britain, France, Greece, Sweden, China and, of course, the United States.
NDM: Can you please tell me about when you were ordained and given the name /Chuan Zhi /( 傳智 ) at the Hsu Yun temple? How this decision to be ordained came about and so on?
Chuan Zhi: Let me start by saying that when this all came about I had fallen head-over-heels for Zen. My practice at that time was purely independent. I had chosen years earlier to stop associating with Zen groups. I had been working with a Hua Tou for a couple years, done zazen (sitting meditation) alone in my room, etc. I never had gotten so far in Zen when I was with Zen groups as I did when I worked it in solitude. It was through my solo practice that I was able to turn my life upside down and inside out, which led to my ... do I dare say "awakening"? Let’s just call it a sudden shift in consciousness that occurs from intensive spiritual labor. The phenomenon is described in the literature of all mystical traditions. When this experience happened to me, my credits would, I’m sure, be toward whatever religious practices had guided me to that point, but it was Chan Buddhism that had "delivered" me so I found I could not turn my back on it. Imagine being alone in the ocean and you are drowning and just at the moment that your life is about to leave you, someone appears and rescues you from otherwise certain death. How could you not feel immense gratitude and reverence for your savior? For me, my savior was not a person, but the practice of Chan itself. Buddhism just happens to be the cloak in which it's wrapped. When ordination came I was primed and ready to give myself over to that which had saved me.
I had been introduced to Master Jy Din by another priest who knew him and had communicated with him about me (the details of that piece of the story are too complex to go into here, and many are unknown to me). I had no expectations for anything when we met. I did not consider myself a religious person, had no interest in becoming ordained, or even knew what it meant to be ordained. Now Hsu Yun temple is a very impressive temple and one of the oldest ethnic Chinese Buddhist temples in the US. For a westerner unexposed to Chinese customs and religious traditions as I was, it was well outside of the ordinary. Elaborate statuary, bright colors, ornate architecture, aromatic incense. . . Needless to say, that first visit felt a bit like an odyssey. Master Jy Din, I learned years later, was one of the three highest ranking Chan Buddhists in Chinese Buddhism (the other two being Shou Ye in New York City and Ben Huan in Shen Zhen China). He was a man of few words, partly because he spoke little English, partly because of his health problems, and partly because he just didn’t like to talk a lot. When he had something to say, however, he made it very clear. I don’t know why he wanted to ordain me, but I could not say "no" to him even though I didn’t know what it meant to be ordained. Perhaps I fell under his "spell" … that’s pretty common in Buddhism. In my frame of mind at the time, I felt like I was blowing in the wind and I would let that wind take me where it would. So there I was, getting my head shaved, learning how to chant and bow in the Chinese traditions, getting incense burned on the forehead, and receiving a new Dharma name (Chuan Zhi) … it was quite an experience. What it all meant, or where it would take me, I had no idea.
NDM: By "intensive spiritual labor", do you mean it was more of the Hua Tou practice that brought about this awakening rather than Zen sitting?
Chuan Zhi: For sure. It’s quite easy to do "Zen sitting" while doing no spiritual labor. Not so with the Hua Tou. My experience with Zen practice seems to differ from that of most other people I’ve spoken with from other Zen groups. There are many approaches of course, and different practices work for different people. I had done quite a bit of sitting Zen (zazen) but got nowhere with it ... well, it did help me learn the fundamentals of posture, sitting quietly, and focusing concentration for extended periods of time. It also taught me how to endure pain until the mind turned it off. Things like that. It was an important training period.
The Hua Tou practice is extremely simple, while also being extremely difficult. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give zazen maybe a 6 for new initiates, and Hua Tou practice maybe a 10 (these numbers drop the more one does these practices). Zazen you do for a period of time and then you’re done with it. Hua Tou practice you do 24/7 (sleep excluded). At least that was my approach to it. During this intensive training time I also did zazen, but I didn’t visit Zen groups. I’ve never been too fond of "collective" spiritual labor, although there is certainly a place for it, and it seems to help a lot of people.
NDM: What did this Hua Tou practice entail exactly?
Chuan Zhi: I don’t think I can give a clearer description of Hua Tou practice than the one Stuart Lachs gave in his recent interview with you. It’s an all-encompassing, all-consuming practice. Once you do it long enough though, it’s as if it practices you. In essence, it’s all about looking to the source of everything. That can only happen with the ability to first generate the Great Doubt ... which I think of as a Mind that is free of judgment, ideas, and opinions; one that’s detached from the object of attention at any point in time. Once the Mind enters that domain it can see things quite clearly, beyond their manifestations as purely sensory objects. I use the term "things" rather generally: it includes the reasoning mind as well.
There were times when I was doing this practice that I got so consumed with it that I was literally unable to do complex things like driving a car or mathematics, or even offering a coherent conversation. I had to learn to nudge myself out of the rapture of practice (which was another challenge altogether).
NDM: What kind of requirements would someone need to do this Hua Tou method? Would someone already have to have a relatively quiet mind, experience with Zen, sitting for example?
Chuan Zhi: What's important is that one has experienced suffering. Without suffering there is rarely adequate willpower to devote to the practice to bring the real fruit. Zen is not a passive thing, nor is it "pretty" ... we don't do it to get peace/calm/quiet/tranquil/etc., we do it to escape from samsara. It’s a path of salvation and it’s the energy of fire that drives it. That fire comes from the force of will – that’s what makes the practice work. We do it because we are ready to die to ourselves because continuing on in the way we have is something we refuse to do. When we reach that stage in our personal lives, we are ready to do Zen. And then whether we do the Hua Tou practice or any other Zen (or equivalent mystical/contemplative) practice, it doesn't matter so much: progress is inevitable. When we do Zen practices without this intense drive to escape the torture of samsara, we can still have good experiences and learn things about ourselves, but Zen is a mystical journey, a journey of transformation, and that’s something altogether different.
You ask if someone would already need to have had some previous experience with Zen training to use the Hua Tou method. I would say, tentatively, yes, although any form of contemplative training would do (Zen does not hold any trump cards when it comes to spiritual/mystical practices: they all lead to the same place). Imagine you're out on the desert for some reason, a hundred miles from water, and you're quite thirsty. There's a car sitting there next to you, full of gas, ready to go. You get in and drive away and soon get that water you so desperately needed. What if you didn't know anything about driving a car? Maybe you could figure it out eventually, but how long would it take you? Could you figure it out before you died of dehydration? Maybe, maybe not. It's good to learn things we might need in the future, even if we don't need them at the time. How many of us dreaded our math classes in High School but found the knowledge pretty useful later on? I think Zen is one of those things that can help everyone; but unlike math which can be force-fed to us to some extent, for Zen, the desire to learn about it must be there. And there's the rub. It’s a form of desire that’s generally hard to come by.
NDM: Do they need a teacher/guru to give them a certain Hua Tou and to confirm their insights, or can they do this on their own?
Chuan Zhi: There is a common myth that it's necessary to have a teacher/guru to make any kind of progress with Zen. What everyone DOES need is inspiration to do this work, because it's not easy, and there are lots of doubts we have along the way (doubt in the sense of questioning the validity/efficaciousness of our efforts). There are also times we can get pretty scared (from what we uncover in our psyches) and need someone to reassure us. A spiritual "teacher" is someone who directs and inspires and helps us out when we get in trouble. If we can find someone who is adequately experienced in this realm, it’s prudent to seek their council if we need it, but identifying such a person is not easy, for they are few, and they often prefer to live solitary lives. There are also many who wave their flags about who are charlatans. But a teacher can also come from the writings of those who have taken the journey before us. Remember the story of Hui Neng's sudden enlightenment? He heard someone read the Diamond Sutra and, supposedly, that's all it took to snap him out of his samsaric existence and lead him to follow a life of Zen. He didn't need anyone to validate his experience because the experience was its own validation. (It did, however, lead him to seek out a certain Chan patriarch – but that’s a different story.) The whole thing about "needing a guru/master/etc." has a lot to do with maintaining the status quo of a complex religious institution. In reality, the seeker has everything it takes to ‘fly solo’.
Some people believe that if they spend enough time hanging around "an enlightened master" that they too will become "enlightened". Some will even, apparently, spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for such a weekend opportunity, and believe it or not, there are "Zen teachers" who will take their money. This is all inspired by projection/hero-worship and is antithetical to Zen work. If we want to do Zen, it's a full time preoccupation with inner-discovery and is counter to any desire to extol virtues upon others. When we do the work, experiences happen that validate what we're doing. We don't need someone to tell us that they are real. If you see a tree would you need to seek out a tree expert to tell you that your impression of it as being an actual tree was correct? Reality is not something that doesn't want to be known - once it's known there's just no question about it. The notion of needing someone else to confirm it is absurd.
NDM: What are some of the most common obstacles that arise when one begins this Hua Tou practice?
Chuan Zhi: It all depends on where the person "is" emotionally and spiritually. I don't recommend that people start the Hua Tou practice until they have achieved the ability to concentrate intensely. That's usually best learned through basic introductory Zen training techniques like the breath counting exercise, the pulse exercise, etc. It could also be learned through intellectual disciplines like mathematics, philosophy, etc., or other activities that require extended periods of highly focused concentration. If the mind can’t focus intensely without being distracted by wondering thoughts it won't get very far with Hua Tou practice and the practitioner will get frustrated and give up. I don't believe in "formula Zen" where one gives the same practice to everyone regardless of where they are and what their needs are. The Hua Tou practice is good for some, not for others. If one's mind is adequately focused and concentrated and seeks to look deeply into the nature of Being, then digging fence-post holes or crocheting can be as productive as Hua Tou work, depending on the person. But when someone really wants to focus all their energy into the nature of Being, the Hua Tou method offers a very fast vehicle to get there. Once one is ready for the practice and has the desire to do it, not much will get in the way.
NDM: I would like to go back to what you said previously about these complex religious structures and hero worship.
What would you say to a "Zen newbie", someone who is maybe naive and overly trusting, looking for a teacher or who already has a teacher who may be already experiencing some of these classic symptoms such as projecting and blindly giving their power over to these exploitive teachers?
Chuan Zhi: I see. So, you like to start off your interviews with the easy questions, lure them in and then go for the kill with the tough ones, knowing they can’t run away, eh? Sneaky! Good grief.
NDM: Yes. (Laughs) You are giving away my secret Zen interview methods. (Laughs)
Chuan Zhi: Of course this is one of the most important issues in contemporary Zen Buddhism, probably world-wide. It’s a very complex issue and deserves much more commentary than what can be given through this forum. I recently gave a Dharma Talk to a group of Zen students at a Sesshin in Washington. Somewhere toward the end I told everyone not to believe a word I said, but to keep practicing Zen and find their own answers. That’s what Zen is. It’s a purely independent activity relying on no external sources of any kind. Well, I guess we need to eat and drink and purge the bowels occasionally, but that’s about it. If we don’t pay our taxes we may be put in jail, but we can still do Zen.
But, for the uninitiated, Zen is a big black hole, a large question mark on the distant horizon. If I can model the average person who approaches Zen for the first time on myself a few decades ago, I would say that he has read a lot of different books relating to mysticism, has gone to a few gatherings held by people interested in meditation or yoga, and has watched some cool movies about Lamas in Tibet. He is a seeker, looking for answers and he is dissatisfied with his present life and wants to find something more. Intuitively, he knows that there really IS something more, he just doesn’t know how to get to it. Since Zen people claim to have the answers he’s looking for, that’s where he turns.
Let’s say that a "Zen newbie" is someone who is searching to discover himself or herself and relying on the Zen establishment’s "common PR machine" for guidance. In this sense, the PR machine can be conceived as being driven by the members of local, national, or international Zen sanghas, writings from the heads of various sanghas, groups, and orders (like myself); basically, any information that’s publicly available relating to Zen’s institutions, teachings, and lore. If we look at this literature, how much of it glorifies a Zen "master" or a Lama or a Roshi or Guru, portraying them as perfect, super-human, or divine, beings? How many of these authors glorify themselves, extolling their virtues by encouraging others to behave like them and do the things they do, or compare themselves to great iconic figures like the Buddha? I think it would be an interesting exercise to visit the "spirituality" section in a popular bookstore and inventory the books in it by these criteria. I wonder how many would be flagged as permeated with extollation, self-aggrandizement or hero-worship. Quite a few I expect.
So, by and large, people who first walk into a Zen training facility are already primed to project "sainthood" on the head teacher, and often the head teacher has already projected it upon himself/herself. And once the "newbie" walks through the door, it’s the head teacher’s responsibility to minister to this individual within this set of pre-established relationships. You can see how this can easily be a set up for disaster.
Let’s pause here briefly. The person who walks in does so with few expectations about what to expect, except that she is expecting she can trust fully the guidance she receives because she expects that guidance to come from an exceptional person. She expects this because of all she has read and heard and watched on TV. She is willing to give herself fully to the teaching facility because she is suffering, looking for answers, for escape from her condition, and believes that the Zen teacher is dedicated altuistically to helping her and others find those answers. If she could not put full trust into the teacher, would she have walked through the door in the first place? Maybe, but most assume a very high degree of integrity, worthy of unquestioned trust.
Now the Zen teacher’s job is to help each seeker connect with Being – their Buddha Nature. A Zen teacher, we imagine, serves no other purpose. He or she is ideally self-less, caring for all people, and able to accurately assess the condition of anyone who seeks their council and give exactly the advice they need to hear. He or she is assumed to have no sexual desires, no hobbies or extraneous interests, no spouse or children, no relationships with family members, etc. In essence, we imagine a Zen teacher as an ideal form, in the Jungian sense. Not human at all. This is the myth that the Buddhist establishment likes to perpetuate because it helps maintain the status quo.
But, what happens to these "Zen teachers" when people project upon them? If they are adequately saintly, not much, but how many saints come along every century? Far fewer than there are Zen teachers, guaranteed. A likely response is for them to become inflated, grandiose. They may begin to consider themselves Buddhas or saints or Zen "Masters" because other people project such notions of grandeur upon them. They respond to the projections by considering them valid and in time they begin to feel invulnerable. They may decide they want to be referred to as ‘venerable’ or ‘master’. They may begin to collect fancy cars or have sexual relations with their students. They may talk about themselves as being "representatives of the Buddha" (or as being Buddhas) and may charge thousands of dollars to those who want the honor of a weekend with them. The stories we hear in the news and online about the misconduct of popular, and often famous, Zen teachers are no less abhorrent than those we hear involving scandals of sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, no religious institutions seem to be immune to grossly improper behavior from among their clerical representatives.
So, the problem is two-fold. The first is that people naturally will tend to project an ideal form upon spiritual icons, be they Zen Buddhist priests, Catholic priests, or representatives of any other religions. This phenomenon has been recognized for centuries and in psychological terms it can be explained by the ‘participation mystique’. The process of detaching from our ego-self is an early step on the spiritual path but requires that the psyche has an alternate place to attach to. It chooses a place it considers safe and proceeds to project itself (in the ideal form of the Perfect Master) upon it. The person doing the projection then becomes caught up in a shared identity with the object of projection. In relationship to our discussion, this ‘object’ is almost always the Zen teacher. This creates a nearly inseparable bond between the student and the teacher (one-way): the student will do most anything the teacher asks (or commands).
The second is that when we do this projection we make the assumption unconsciously that the person we are projecting upon has gone beyond the banalities of mundane life and that he or she is no longer interested in sex, money, power, prestige, etc. The reality is that the vast majority of Zen teachers aren’t even close to that level of spiritual attainment. We generally don’t hear about those who are because they often prefer a life of solitude and are among the first to disappear from the public eye. Those who aren’t are those who often give Zen a black eye, causing harm to people who are only seeking their help.
Imagine living in a condition in which you are expected to behave as an ideal being. This would be a horrendous situation to be stuck in wouldn’t it? You would have to pretend all the time, acting in the way that others think you should, based on your perceived ideas of their mythological notions of an ideal form. In such a situation, spiritual growth would be very difficult indeed.
Considering all this, here’s my advice to "newbies":
1) Understand that all people are human. There are no super-heroes – Perfect Masters or ideal forms outside of our psyche’s ability to project them. A Zen teacher is just a person who has some knowledge and experience to share to help guide you on the path. Sometimes an exceptional Zen teacher comes along but they are few and far between. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to find one to make progress with Zen.
2) Avoid Zen teachers who inflate themselves. If they insist on being referred to as Venerable, or Master, or if they want you to bow to them or venerate them in other ways, walk away. This is not to say that there are no teachers/groups/sects in which modes of such veneration works, it’s just that it’s very unlikely to find a teacher who is adequately adept, spiritually, to pull it off.
3) Know ahead of time that YOU are the answer you seek. When you find yourself projecting (which is not an easy observation to make when you’re in the midst of it), pull back and detach. Look deeply into the nature of Consciousness itself. Whatever someone tells you, hold it in your mind as a question, not as fact. Cultivate Great Doubt – an open, questioning Mind.
NDM: How should someone go about finding a spiritual teacher in the first place?
Chuan Zhi: This question presupposes that a 'spiritual teacher' is needed. All of our experiences offer teachings, from the sages we meet at the checkout counters of grocery stores, to the trees that grow along the street. The Zen journey isn't about teachers, it's about our own investigation into Being. How can we do that when we're looking for a teacher? Everywhere we look there is a teaching for us. All we need to do is have the open mind to see it.
NDM: What are your thoughts on Lin chi and his style of iconoclasm?
He said: "Followers of the Way [of Chán], if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you're facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go".
Chuan Zhi: These things sound so simple, but in reality it’s more complex. The nature of the human mind is to attach. Zen is about detaching which is very difficult, considering that it goes against our basic instincts. How do we avoid being misled by others? When we seek guidance, how do we know who to turn to for sage advice? We don’t. Our only option is to maintain a questioning mind, a mind of doubt in all we encounter; to not believe anything anyone says, be they a sage or a charlatan, but to take everything they say as a pointer toward what is Real. I don’t like the expression, "If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha". The intended meaning of course is to not attach to, or identify with, anyone who appears to be a Buddha, but to turn inward. But why kill? Walking away does just fine. We do not kill our parents or anyone else. But we do detach from all these people who have been significant in our lives. It’s essential on the path to individuation. It’s really all about detachment, letting go, and killing just isn’t necessary. Most people know that it’s just a metaphor, but you might be surprised at how many people get confused by this because they take it literally. The ‘kill’ metaphor is apt only in so far as it suggests the degree of severance we need to apply to our detachment.
NDM: What's your take on all these Japanese Zen rituals and fancy costumes? Do you think these are necessary or even work in contemporary American culture, or are they more of a turn off?
Chuan Zhi: No, the fancy garbs aren’t necessary. My background is Chinese Chan Buddhism and we have lots of "fancy costumes" as you put it. It’s all symbolism, but none of it is necessary for Zen. That’s not to say that the robes and malas, etc., are detrimental to practice. On the contrary, they become part of practice. Why and how is beyond my ability to discuss here.
You ask if the rituals and costumes are a "turn off" in contemporary American culture. From my experience with students, I would say it’s 50-50. Some people love them, some are repelled by them. I’ve found that the most serious practitioners are rather indifferent – they can take them or leave them without concern. What is often more objectionable is when people wear Buddhist robes to flaunt some status they perceive themselves as having. There is lots of that going on, both in the West and East. True humility is a hard thing to come by and when one doesn’t have it, it stands out.
NDM: What about creating something brand new like an "American Zen". Something that may be more suitable for the western mindset. Less dogmatic, less rigid, more flexible and so on. Maybe get rid of these rituals, roshis, also the chanting in Japanese, also these confusing riddles and koans?
Chuan Zhi: As you are likely aware, almost all Zen/Chan/Buddhism in the US and other western countries continues to be ethnic to the Asian cultures. Many Buddhist temples will not even admit non-Asians who do not speak their language and know their customs. Things are slowly changing, but it will take time – probably hundreds of years – for distinctly North-American, Australian, European, and South-American "brands" to develop. It’s an exciting time for the history of Zen in the West, but it’s also a bit chaotic if not problematic.
You say "…Something that may be more suitable for the western mindset. Less dogmatic, less rigid, more flexible and so on." I think we need to distinguish Buddhist training from Zen training. The vast majority of Buddhists in the world are not Zen Buddhists. I might guess that Zen constitutes perhaps less than 1% of practicing Buddhists world-wide, if that. Zen training is devoid of dogma, rigidity and inflexibility. Yes, we have some pretty intense practices we undergo to learn to concentrate, but they are not forced upon us dogmatically, and a good teacher will offer different methods to different people flexibly, according to their needs. I suspect that it’s partially because Zen is absent of dogma, rigidity and inflexibility that it’s so unpopular among the general population. People like to have things to cling to – they like rules and regulations and dogma. They like to be told what to do, what to think, and how to behave. I once corresponded with a young man who persistently asked me what we "believe in". I recited to him the four noble truths and explained how we believe we can find all the answers through our own independent effort, etc. He would write back, "but what do you believe?" I would go into more depth with the eightfold path, the idea that we seek to not believe in anything, but to keep our minds open and awake and in a state of not-knowing, or something like that. He would write back, "but what do you believe?" He could not grasp the ideas behind Zen. I have had many such encounters with people over the years.
You ask about getting rid of rituals. I don’t think that will ever happen. People like rituals. We all have rituals that we’re not even aware of. Every time we take a shower we do it the same way each time, pretty much. Same with washing dishes, driving a car, eating a meal… Rituals are comforting and we can relax into them. There are many rituals in Buddhism that help the devotee focus and concentrate, important precursors to Zen. Chanting, bowing, etc., all have a purpose in helping develop a focused mind. There is also a very real beauty, grace, and harmony to them that enriches our lives.
Getting rid of the "riddles and koans" I think also is likely to not happen. People like puzzles. At least some do. They don’t work for everyone, but they do for a few. I prefer the Hua Tou method though because it’s a more pervasive activity and is not fettered with the "game like" aspect of koan study.
There are actually quite a few small meditation groups peppering the country that are devoid of all the ethnic Chinese and Japanese and Korean cultural trimmings. I think this is a great way to go. It avoids the distractions of cultural artifacts and allows people to get down to business and meditate. But there are also groups who embrace the beauty of Japanese, Korean, or Chinese Ethnic forms of practice with tremendous success, as measured by the spiritual achievement of their congregations. As long as we don’t mistake the finger for the moon it points to, it all seems to work out.
NDM: What are your thoughts on some of the recent behavior of Zen teachers like Genpo Roshi?
Chuan Zhi: I assume you are referring to the story explained at Dangerous Harvests ( http://dangerousharvests.blogspot.com/2011/02/genpo-roshi-falls-again.html ) and in the news ( http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/51270057-76/merzel-zen-center-buddhist.html.csp )
This kind of thing has been going on, probably, since the beginning of organized religion. The reality is that even Zen teachers are human beings just like the rest of us and, as we all know, we ARE animals, with the expected animal urges. It's hard wired into our DNA. But we are also social animals which means we exist within a complex social framework. I think part of the problem arises when people who are not spiritually adept take on the role of Roshi or Master or Guru or some equivalent. There are almost always problems then. The spiritual course of Zen is a steep and difficult one and many get stuck along the way, or even fall backwards, including those who are supposed to be guiding others. Those who reach the top are few and far between, and anyone who claims to have reached ‘the top’ most certainly hasn’t. When we get far enough along on the journey, though, the whole idea of sexual relations does not enter the mind (or the body); neither does the desire for wealth or prestige. There is an important transition Zen practitioners make called Samadhi, or ‘divine union’, in which our being becomes consumed with all that is. We merge with the godhead. There is lots written about this, but the experience of it is everything. A Master or Roshi or Guru who has not experienced Samadhi is at a disadvantage when it comes to teaching and coaching others who are wanting to do Zen, for he or she is still subject to the primal forces of worldly desires. He or she will also often mistake unimportant things for important things, unable to differentiate between them. This is not to say that such people can not be effective teachers, but they need to have a high degree of devotion to principals, a firm sense of morality and ethics, and not succumb to the "grandeur of veneration."
NDM: Do you think that Japanese Zen or even Tibetan Buddhism or Chan Buddhism should implement some new kind of rules for teacher/student relationships? For example, Theravada Buddhism, Spirit Rock has developed a code of ethics for teachers in the Insight Meditation tradition that includes the following paragraphs:
"We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or relationships of a sexual manner that are outside of the bounds of the relationship commitments we have made to another or that involve another who has made vows to another. Teachers with vows of celibacy will live according to their vows. Teachers in committed relationships will honor their vows and refrain from adultery. All teachers agree not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.
Because several single teachers in our community have developed partnerships and marriages with former students, we acknowledge that such a healthy relationship can be possible, but that great care and sensitivity are needed. We agree that in this case the following guidelines are crucial:
A) A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and students.
B) During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of future student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship is inappropriate.
C) If interest in a genuine and committed relationship develops over time between a single teacher and a student, the student-teacher relationship must clearly and consciously have ended before any further development toward a romantic relationship. Such a relationship must be approached with restraint and sensitivity – in no case should it occur immediately after retreat. A minimum time period of three months or longer from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding from both parties that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a conscious commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm to either party."
Chuan Zhi: It’s easy to get carried away with rules, but I must admit that we have a lot of them for the clergy in our order dealing with ethical and moral behavior. Our order has a fairly simple rule in our Canons of Conduct for our clerics regarding sexual relationships. It states:
"It is a violation of these canons for a student and teacher, priest or practice leader who has a one-on-one practice relationship to have a sexual relationship with a student/sangha member. A sexual relationship is never appropriate between teachers and their students. During retreats or formal teaching, any intimation of student-teacher romantic or sexual relationship or liaison is inappropriate and in violation of these ethical guidelines and subject to disciplinary action."
We could spell out a hundred, or a thousand rules but at some point we need to let common sense be the guide and deal with individual situations as they arise.
Centuries ago the Vinay rules of conduct were established and they were added to over the years. Today, there are still thousands of monks who vow to uphold them, yet many of them are inconsequential for today's societies and cultures (like rules on building huts, among other things). People have added to them over the centuries, but not taken any away. Every Buddhist sect has its code of ethics that it's members vow to uphold. The Vinaya rules of the Mahayana, as well as the Patimokkha rules of the Theravadin, are strict and a monastic who is caught offending any of them is subject to extreme disciplinary actions including expulsion from the monastery and defrocking. To give you an idea of how specific and sexually oriented these can be (since you reference the situation with Genpo Roshi and others), here are a few:
The following are prohibited, and are listed among the thirteen sanghadisesas of the Patimokkha, the Theravadin code of ethics for monastics:
"Discharge of semen, except while dreaming, or getting someone to discharge your semen."
"Lustful bodily contact with a woman, including kissing or holding hands."
"Making lustful remarks to a woman alluding to her genitals or sexual intercourse."
Clearly, the fact that such rules exist is testimony to the fact that there has been at least one instance of "inappropriate discharge of semen", "lustful bodily contact", and "lustful comments relating to a woman's genitals or sexual intercourse" at some time in the distant past ... hmmm.
We clearly need rules, but it may be best if they are generalized and then specific situations dealt with on an individual basis.
Perhaps another aspect of the problem is that there is really little to no oversight on a Roshi, Master, Guru, etc., in the West. They act as autonomous voices and as such can pretty much do what they please. There is nobody to expel them, reprimand them, or even to guide them on the difficult job they have of ministering to others. I don't know that more rules will actually help out the problems we're seeing in contemporary Westernized Zen. The more people who can be aware of what's going on and make it known to those who are new to the western Zen "culture", the better. I suspect that if we could have Zen without "masters" we might see more people mastering Zen.
NDM: The Dalai Lama of Tibet gave an address in 1994 where he addresses this issue. Do you agree with that part where he encourages students of teacher abuse to speak out on matters like this in public? Specifically, he said,
"Particular concern was expressed about unethical conduct among teachers. In recent years both Asian and Western teachers have been involved in scandals concerning sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds, and misuse of power. This has resulted in widespread damage both to the Buddhist community and the individuals involved. Each student must be encouraged to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct. If the teacher shows no sign of reform, students should not hesitate to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence. This should be done irrespective of other beneficial aspects of his or her work and of one's spiritual commitment to that teacher. It should also be made clear in any publicity that such conduct is not in conformity with Buddhist teachings. No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have, reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddhadharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts. In cases where ethical standards have been infringed, compassion and care should be shown towards both teacher and student."
Chuan Zhi: Yes, I agree with this wholeheartedly and I think the vast majority of Buddhist teachers would as well. If not, Buddhism is doomed!
NDM: Are there times when it would be better to keep matters like this private. For example recently when Lama Choedak Rinpoche was caught red handed he said. "Every single one of us makes mistakes and it is up to each of us to forgive http://topics.treehugger.com/quote/0crr4j9fXAc2Q. He also asked for privacy.
Chuan Zhi: When I read that I had to re-read it a couple times to make sure what I had read was accurate because it seemed so out of place. Yes, there are times to keep things private -- when we are dealing with the spiritual relationship between teacher and student. That is sacred territory. However when there is blatant abuse of "office" going on, secrecy is no longer an issue. If harm is being done it is the moral duty of anyone who is witness to it to speak out. If they don’t, who will?
NDM: Should he be forgiven, allowed to continue teaching or should he disrobe the way Genpo Roshi did?
Chuan Zhi: It’s not really my place to comment on the affairs other spiritual leaders, especially those from other religious traditions. I do not know Choedak Rinpoche and cannot base my remarks on anything but what I have read in the public media. Should he disrobe? I think this all depends on him and his sangha. He is also a human being, just like the rest us. He is also dealing with the same issues we are all dealing with as human beings. I would rather see him grow through this experience, deepen his commitment to his spiritual path, see him changing himself and providing the appropriate support to his congregation that he has committed to than to throw the whole thing down the drain. Whether he goes in this direction, or is able to, is up to him and whatever encouragement/discouragement he receives from his sangha.
We need to remember that there are no saints. If there are, I haven't met one. And I don't think we need saints in order to gain the tremendous benefits from Zen and other mystical religious traditions that are there for us. Spiritual practices don’t make us into perfect people. They make us into more fulfilled people. The problems arise when we put our teachers on pedestals. We glorify them and endow sainthood upon them, metaphorically speaking. Bad idea. It's frequently harmful for the students, and it's especially harmful on those who sit upon those pedestals who lack the spiritual awareness to not be affected by being there. While some are forced to sit upon them, others seek to attain them. I think ultimately the gatekeepers of the Dharma must be the people at large, not those who pose as iconic representations of Buddha, advertising their vast accomplishments in academic training or tutelage under some famous person, or those who flaunt their titles and degrees, attesting to their qualifications for such a lofty post.
When we have ordinations in our order, the title we bestow on our clerics is not Master or Guru or Roshi, it's Kalyanamitra, which means "spiritual friend". It eliminates any hierarchy of relationship on the spiritual journey which we are all on. It also mitigates the isolation that clerics can endure from being seen as "special" or "advanced" in some way.
There are many people like Genpo Roshi and Choedak Rinpoche who have active ministries and who make tremendous errors. None of these teachers would be where they are if they did not also have many fine attributes as teachers. These two prominent teachers have both made some big mistakes as human beings. It’s part and parcel of being human, and it’s also the way we learn and grow. Where each of them goes and what happens next is not a matter for us to decide, but for them and their sanghas to work out together. My personal feeling is that if we all just realize that we're all seekers on the Path, all at different places on it, and that none of us are above another in any fundamental way, then everything will work out. But can we do that?
It gives me solace to reflect that in a mere billion years as the sun begins to enter old age preparing to become a red giant, all life on earth will have vanished. In the overall scheme of things, none of this is so important is it? But while we’re around for this short time to witness this amazing thing called Being, doesn’t it behoove us to uncover all we can about it? Ultimately, that’s the intent of a spiritual life.