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?


  1. Dear David,

    I keep losing you and finding you..."when I meet you again it shall be in mountains!"

    1. And nice blog roll!

    2. Hi Kogen, thanks for stopping by! I'm glad we found each other again!

    3. I checked the blogroll to make sure your blog was on it. The link to recent posts from Go Cloud, Run Water was broken, but it's fixed now.

  2. Rather than fostering fantasies about perfect enlightenment, if a practice like Zen can lead one to a sense of total disillusionment with all escape plans, then there is some possibility of wisdom.

    1. Good point. When you have lost absolutely everything, what is left may be worth checking out.

  3. Is perfect enlightenment a fantasy or is our idea of what perfect enlightenment "is" the fantasy?

  4. David I don't know much about Zen - I'm not a student, but I think I attempt the practice on most occasions of my life. What I see here is the same false logic and misconceptions that people try to perpetrate when they advocate for "humane" animal use. It's a disguise. They try very, very hard to find the right way to do the wrong thing. And of course in my view (as simple and naive as it is) - The fundamental harm can never be white-washed to the good.

    I hope I'm learning along the way to avoid the temptations to do the same...

    1. Thanks, Bea. I'm inspired by your tireless work at PROVOKED on behalf of the huge segment of the sentient being population that can't speak up for themselves. I hear you about temptations to do the same. Being human, we have the ability to fool ourselves. Here's to catching ourselves in the act more often!

  5. David, I'm so glad you raised this. I've been meaning to get back here and tell you how much I admire this post since you posted it.

    This is the shadow of spiritual teachings, isn't it; and it too needs to be acknowledged. I think as you suggested the ego's habits die hard, even when we 'know' what is the right path; but I also think there's a difficulty in cultural translation: despite having studied and practised Zen (more, or less, mindfully!) for 40 years, I'm aware that aspects of it don't translate well to the Western mind. I'm not meaning, by the way, that we misunderstand the Eastern intent so much as finding to hard to comprehend how what we see as hypocrisy might not be seen so in the East; but still, of course, we need congruence. In its harsher aspects, where life and death are perhaps seen as equally meaningless, traditional Zen doesn't work for many of us in the West - and there is a strange kind of justification in some Zen circles, as in New Age circles often, too, in seeing suffering/the infliction of suffering as being just an illusion – meaning that maybe suffering doesn't matter, in that view. That stands in contrast to the Bodhisattva Vow, to me.

    Hmmm got myself all tied up in knots there; not sure what I was trying to say except THANK YOU for raising this.

    I liked very much this statement of yours: '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.' YES.

    There's a Jungian book on the shadow, in which, I think, is included an essay on the guru-shadow: 'Embracing the Shadow'. It's shocking when our spiritual teachers appear not to walk their talk; a warning against the dangers of elevating mere humans to the status of gurus. My teachers are now the more-than-human world, and individuals who are by no means just Buddhist.

    And I also really liked Koun Franz's contribution at the end. Great piece, again, David. x

    1. Roselle, thank you so much for leaving such a thoughtful comment! I agree that the traditional eastern mindset can be pretty hard to relate to by us westerners (including me). On justifications based on life and death being seen as equally meaningless or suffering being an illusion, I wrote a little post called Gazing at the Ox - Solipsism: Trapped in Tozan’s First Rank. Jung's concept of the Shadow is totally new to me and looks fascinating. Thanks for the introduction!

  6. David, in my own experience the spiritual teachers who have taught me the most are without exception those who have brought together psychological awareness with spiritual practice. They know then, at least to some extent, of what their own 'stuff' consists, and are less likely to simply project and justify it. It seems to me that this is a crucial step in the bringing of Buddhist teachings into the C21st, and the various engaged Buddhist networks have helped. Maybe this is what makes the 'translation' for the Western mind?


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