Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of Debauchery

Every summer on Salt Spring Island, the Saturday market brings droves of tourists in their cars and campers to the village of Ganges. Much time is spent circling the blocks hoping someone else will leave the market and vacate their spot. Inevitably, someone came up with an apt bumper sticker: Zen and the Art of Motor Vehicle Parking in Ganges.

Ever since Eugene Herrigel's book, Zen in the Art of Archery, and later, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a plethora of  "Zen and the Art of ..." books have sprung up, ranging from Zen and the Art of Knitting to ... Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating.

Much has been said about the "Zen" of activity beyond effort. Two of my favourite bloggers wrote about it this month:

In letting go of “trying”, in letting go of any intellectual idea of how archery should be done, these archers are simply totally, wholeheartedly merged with their activity. The years of practice in a very easy way, in a relaxed way, comes through.  The archer, the arrow ... are all one movement and one whole. Subject and object merged. This is what one might call effortless effort.

... Dogen Zenji propounds the concept of ... gujin ... which means “the full exertion of a single thing.” That may sound like yet another form of striving, but it is actually quite the opposite. Far from adding another burden, the practice offers a path toward total rest.

Gujin has been variously translated as “total realization,” “total penetration,” “total manifestation”—and, most often, “total exertion.” The scholar and translator Francis Dojun Cook, an authority on Dogen, explains the concept in this way:

From the angle of the person who experiences the situation, [gujin] means that one identifies with it utterly. Looked at from the standpoint of the situation itself, the situation is totally manifested or exerted without obstruction.

I suspect we all experience this from time to time. Splitting wood with an axe, no matter how hard I try to hit the centre of a log, I always seem to miss, but often as soon as I stop trying, the axe splits the log exactly in the middle, even cutting the little dot in the centre of the growth rings in half.

Debauchery.  One definition is "seduction from virtue or duty". Also, debauch: "to make disloyal", "to lead away from virtue or excellence" and "to corrupt by intemperance or sensuality".

I realize they are only human, but fresh (to me) news of Zen masters behaving badly always triggers a little letdown.

In the ‘60’s, Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen was the first Zen book that really touched me. Kapleau’s teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, who founded the Sanbo Kyodan school, became one of my Zen heroes. I even wrote him a letter asking for advice (he didn’t reply).

One of the little letdowns was learning that, as most notably published in Brian Daizen Victoria's book Zen at War, both Yasutani Roshi and his teacher, Harada Daiun Sogaku Roshi, held extreme right wing, militaristic, and in the case of Yasutani, anti-Semitic beliefs.

Kubota Ji'un, the 3rd Abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan wrote:

I personally became Haku'un Yasutani Roshi's disciple at the age of 17 and kept receiving his instructions until his death. So I know very well that Yasutani Roshi did foster strongly right-winged and anti-Semitic ideology during as well as after World War II, just as Mr. Victoria points out in his book.

I find the following quote from Harada Roshi particularly disquieting, perhaps because it takes the form of “Zen and the Art of …”:

Forgetting [the difference between] self and others in every situation, you should always become completely one with your work. [When ordered to] march -- tramp, tramp; [when ordered to] fire -- bang, bang; this is the clearest expression of the highest Bodhi-wisdom, the unity of Zen and war.

Victoria’s book has not been without criticism:

It is right to uncover actual corruption, and Victoria has done a great service in shedding light on a dark time in our history, but nearly destroys his argument by his questionable methods and exaggerated conclusions. … Let’s keep up the good fight to uncover wrongs, reflect and atone, make things right. But let us do so in a forthright and honest way. One must not manipulate and straighten twisted vines.

We practice Zen for the benefit of beings. Selflessly seducing a student or skilfully slaughtering another being - on the battlefield, the electric chair or the barnyard is using Zen as a means to an end that doesn’t justify the means. To me, this is Zen and the art of debauchery.

Bodhin Kholhede, dharma heir of Philip Kapleau, has this to say:

Now that we’ve had the book on Yasutani Roshi opened for us, we are presented with a new koan. Like so many koans, it is painfully baffling: How could an enlightened Zen master have spouted such hatred and prejudice? The nub of this koan, I would suggest, is the word enlightened. If we see enlightenment as an all-or-nothing place of arrival that confers a permanent saintliness on us, then we’ll remain stymied by this koan. But in fact there are myriad levels of enlightenment, and all evidence suggests that, short of full enlightenment (and perhaps even with it—who knows?), deeper defilements and habit tendencies remain rooted in the mind.

- Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan Tricycle Magazine, Fall 1999

And finally, thanks to Koun Franz for this kindly reminder:

There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing [this]. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that. …

I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better. ...

The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?

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