Friday, April 22, 2011

Where is this Dharma?

I've intentionally avoided writing about the latest Zen sex scandal, mainly because I'm not interested in Zen politics. But I just read an article by Barry Magid, a teacher in the Ordinary Mind school in which I practice (my teacher's teacher), and it made me realize how I grasp at Buddhism for a sense of self. It's entitled "There is No Zen, only Zen teachers," and I strongly encourage you to read it.

Whenever a "Zen master" falls from grace, a series of questions naturally arise. (Since all of these scandals involved male teachers, I'll use the masculine pronoun.) "Was he enlightened?" "How could someone abuse his power like that?" "What does it mean to be a Zen master?"

What Barry Magid points out in his article is the human pitfall to think that there's some essence, not only to being a Zen master, but to the Dharma itself. And if there's one thing that Buddhism teaches us, it's that everything is empty of an essence. Why should the Dharma be an exception?

So what makes someone a Zen master?--enlightenment? And if so, how could someone who is "enlightened" act so unethically? All these questions, while important, beg another larger one, namely: doesn't this presuppose that there's some "essence" to enlightenment, Buddhism, the Dharma?

The beauty of the teaching of emptiness is that it's self-reflexive. And so emptiness itself is empty.

To ask the Zen master question is to assume that there's some "thing" that makes someone a Zen master, or enlightened. To extend this idea to Buddhism itself, the Dharma is just as empty as any other social or mental construct, which explains why Tibetan Buddhism appears so much differently than Japanese of Thai Buddhism. Like everything else in the world, Buddhism changes because it's empty. Often times we hear someone say, "But the heart of the Buddha's teaching is the same" in all these schools.

But, again, doesn't that presuppose some essence or core to Buddhism?

And if so, what is that essence--the Four Noble truths, emptiness, dependent arising/interdependence? All of these are ideas designed to reflect the nature of reality; but the more we try to pinpoint the "heart" of Buddhism, the more we are seduced by the idea that there's some "essence" to it.

In his article, Magid challenges the bedrock of these assumptions by asserting that there is no Zen, only Zen teachers. He uses art as an example:

"Art, ultimately, is simply what the artists of a certain time and place
create. Artists, musicians, priests, teachers all occupy their respective
cultural niches and the products of their activity are inseparable from the
lives they lead in the making of it. There is no Platonic essence of
capital A “Art” that one generation of artists transmits to the next. Artists
learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the art of their contemporaries and

"Dharma teachers likewise learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the
teaching of their teachers. The nature, the meaning of, the Dharma in any
generation is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are
teaching and living it at any given time. The Buddhism of America both is and is
not the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and our Chinese and Japanese ancestors. The is
no Zen, only Zen teachers."

After all, where else can the Dharma be found but in the living embodiment of Buddhist practitioners? To idealize the Dharma is to reify it and assume that there's some "essence" to it, which runs contrary to the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.

So when we say that someone is a Zen master, what does that actually mean? Isn't such a title just another form of grasping (and I'm not immune to it; I find myself asking similar questions all the time)?

I think that the questions we ask can help us in our practice. For after all, why do we feel the need to define Zen or the Dharma in the first place? Are we simply grasping at a subtle sense of self by trying to define Buddhism, and by proxy, ourselves?

Emptiness is a tricky thing. The human mind craves something solid to hold onto, to dig its teeth into, and if we're not careful, as Magid reminds us, we'll find ourselves reifying Buddhism itself.


  1. You know, I don't think the definitions (i.e. forms) are an issue. It's the grasping onto that which causes us so much trouble. The thing with Barry's essay and yours is that both express a certain clarity about emptiness I appreciate, and yet at the same time, seem to do that expressing at the expense of form.

    I have written a lot about these scandals because their particular forms are calling for practitioners to take more care. Reb Anderson has said repeatedly that we need to care for the stories, even if they are delusions. So, I think it's important for Zen students and teachers to deliberately grapple head on with the ethical failures that keep hitting American sanghas.

    I totally agree that there isn't an essence to enlightenment, or Buddhism for that matter, and that just because someone has years of experience and the title of Zen master doesn't mean they aren't capable of grossly unethical behavior.

    And - at the same time - it's too easy to go from that kind of statement to "It's all empty, so shut up and do your own practice." You're not doing that here, but I have seen an awful lot of that sentiment floating around the internet.

  2. I totally agree. Teachers, and students as well, need to own and take full responsibility for their ethical misconduct. It's a serious issue that deserves the attention of the entire Buddhist community. However, what form of response that should take remains unclear to me. Thanks for the read and comments, Nathan.

  3. Great points, I totally agree Andre. P.S. I really like the CD!