Saturday, January 18, 2014

Please Step out of the Vehicle

I have never understood why some Buddhists feel so strongly about what constitutes authentic lineages, traditions, and teachings. I suppose that I am very liberal when it comes to defining these terms, and lean more towards inclusivity than exclusivity.

Not everyone would agree.

Several days ago I joined a Zen group online, and upon being accepted by the moderator into the group, was immediately accosted by a member who accused me of hailing from a fraudulent Zen lineage. Normally I stay away from direct conflict, especially on the web, but I decided to try to reason with the fellow.

My mistake. Without rehashing all of the unsavory details, the man continued a many-post litany against me and the Zen order of which I am a member.

This was a rude awakening for me, which reinforced a very important lesson: Buddhism and Buddhists are just as prone to attachment, dogma, prejudice, ignorance, and being judgmental, as anyone else in the world. Being a Buddhist doesn't make someone immune to it; just look at Myanmar and the violence that Buddhist monks subject Muslims to daily.

I like to think of Buddhism using the traditional term, "vehicle." A vehicle is a device used to transport people. That's it's job, just like Buddhism's job is to wake people up--to metaphorically transport them from delusion to enlightenment. But somewhere along the line, as Buddhism grew and and became institutionalized, it became an end unto itself.

In other words, in some instances Buddhism got sidetracked and stopped being interested in Awakening and more concerned with maintaining and perpetuating itself. This is a major theme in my book, Brand-Name Zen (ahem, shameless self-promotion), and one that has long lingered in the back of my mind.

The danger in this tendency is that it invites legislative definitions of Buddhism. This is basically where one group thinks that it has the right to determine what is Buddhism and what isn't. Although it might seem like a stretch, but this was part of Japan's motivation for W.W.II.--to convert the world to Japan's superior culture and religion.

This is what I encountered on the online forum--one person who thought that his version of Buddhism was better than someone else's. He used lineage, tradition, and customs as firepower to discredit what he perceived as a spurious and tainted form of Buddhism.

It's in my nature to question authority, power structures, and tradition; this goes back to my adolescence and my "heavy metal days." So I fit right in at the Five Mountain Zen Order, where eclecticism and variety are celebrated and encouraged. With that said, I am very suspicious of tradition-for-tradition's-sake.

In my opinion, properly understood, Buddhism is a vehicle for Enlightenment. This does not preclude us from participating in devotional, or any form of spiritual, practice; in fact, it frees us to do it. However, the human mind is a tricky thing and will quickly objectify anything, including Buddhism.

As I was reminded of this week, Buddhism can very easily become jingoistic, antagonistic, and even violent. At times like these, I find it very helpful to take a step back from our practice and question our motives. Are we chanting, meditating, or prostrating to awaken and help other beings or because that's what we do? We can apply the same litmus test to any practice:

Why do we do what we do? Are we practicing to awaken or just maintaining orthodoxy?

I encourage us all to ask this periodically. In the famous words of the Buddha:
[D]on't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.