Monday, August 16, 2010

On Authoritarianism, Democracy, and Zen

World Peace, Or Else
World Peace, Or Else, Helsinki, 2007

We humans like to organize ourselves into communities. Most of those communities are relatively short-lived; they last perhaps a few years, or at most a generation or so. A few are self-renewing. Institutions emerge and persist even as the people making up the community come and go. Traditions crystallize and perpetuate themselves. The community acquires a set of characteristics with some illusion of permanence and solidity, and a sense of continuity appears, sometimes spanning generations, centuries, even millennia.

These self-perpetuating communities are rare, and the characteristics that allow them to perpetuate themselves are, I believe, pretty poorly understood – even by social scientists making a living at trying to understand those characteristics. They're also resistant to attempts at modification. These attempts either come to nothing, have a very limited impact, or end up destroying something critical to the community that allowed it to renew itself, and thereby the community itself.

This is why large-scale, high-speed social engineering attempts have so often had such tragic and unforeseen results, whether the intent is to create a workers' paradise or a liberal democracy. Liquidating the bourgeoisie and the large landholders had all kinds of unforeseen and unwanted consequences; removing the dictator let out all kinds of demons that his power had kept caged.

The trouble is that whenever communities arise, power relations also arise. Some people in the community end up with more power than others, and our instincts as social primates lead us to compete for that power. Anarchy is never stable. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, it devolves into strongmen and mobs. The only thing that can keep an anarchy going for a time is access to unlimited resources – Iceland managed something like it as long as there was the option to go a-viking, and the United States managed something like it as long as there was a Frontier – i.e., land a-plenty to be had by the power of guns, germs, and steel.

Smaller-scale communities face similar problems.

What we call "Western" culture is defined by the Enlightenment. Diderot's and Voltaire's, not Gautama's. The core Enlightenment ideals are expressed rather beautifully in the American declaration of independence and the French declaration of human rights.

The core Enlightenment ideal is the idea of the inherent equality and inalienable value of all humans, coupled with an optimistic view that we can use reason to improve our societies and, ultimately, ourselves.1 From this ideal we derive other rights such as the right to life, liberty, and property. It is the cornerstone of democratic society, however compromised it is in really-existing democracies.

These ideals inform the way "Westerners" relate to each other, even in deeply stratified societies such as Germany, Britain, or the United States of America. They are so deeply embedded in Western culture that it can be quite shocking to encounter a culture that openly and matter-of-factly treats people as unequal, and sees nothing wrong with it.

Zen came to Europe and the USA mostly via Japan. Japan is a highly authoritarian culture, with social hierarchy built into the very grammar of the language. Institutions, forms, and traditions of Zen Buddhism in Japan reflect these cultural features. They were never implanted into Western countries wholesale. They could not be; the cultural underpinnings that could support and moderate them simply aren't there. An individual Westerner could go to Japan and eventually learn and adopt these cultural assumptions, but an institution set up in the West for and by people from Western culture simply couldn't. Even if the outward forms of the institutional structures were retained, their meaning would change.

However, I'm not sure that all of the authoritarian forms in Zen reflect mere cultural accretion. They also represent effective methods to teach the unteachable. In Buddhist practice, some are more accomplished than others. If all of us started giving teishos and offering dokusan, we would be play-acting, not studying or practicing. Forms of practice, such as bowing to the ground before the teacher, do reflect features of the society where they first emerged, but they are also a recognition of this fact. At least to start with, the Zen teacher and the Zen student are not equals, qua Zen teacher and Zen student, even if they are – and ought to be – equals qua citizens.2 As long as we keep an eye on the potential dangers, perhaps these forms are useful precisely because they go against the grain of our usual egalitarian assumptions.

Different traditions have dealt with this situation in different ways. The Hardcore Dharma movement aims for a "band of brothers" model, where the stronger and more accomplished help out the weaker and the less experienced, with little to no formal hierarchy. I understand that Theravada monasteries, where the movement has its roots, are run on a "one monk, one vote" basis. However, the Theravada tradition has a very robust (and rigid) structure of institutions, roles, rules, and bylaws to support this democracy; because of the highly demanding nature of this structure, anyone wishing to join such a group has got to fit some pretty particular criteria to start with. At the other end of the scale are traditions that treat the guru as representative of the divine – someone to be followed, obeyed, and emulated absolutely, without question, and with complete loyalty. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's often-made pronouncement of "one lifetime, one teacher" is a pretty good example of this.3

In Zen, there is an additional tension to deal with. The position of the teacher as an enlightened, formally empowered authority contrasts with the idea of practice as ultimately self-directed. Teachers and instructors tend to refuse to give any answers, sometimes to the point of frustration, and toss back any power you attempt to give them as soon as you make the attempt. At the same time, the teacher is the teacher. Inka is something special.

The roles, institutions, and forms of Zen practice have evolved to allow Zen traditions to renew themselves. I don't know how much the specifics of these roles, institutions, and forms matter, but I do think that without any roles, institutions, or forms, a tradition would disintegrate fairly quickly. What's more, we can't know which ones are essential to the practice or to the continued self-renewal of the tradition. When a tradition collides with a new culture, or a change in society, or a new technology, or some internal dialectic matures into a crisis, there will be problems, and it will have to change to adapt to those changes. Some of the changes happen by themselves. Others happen through conscious effort, debate, conflict, even schism. It is a tricky process, since there's no certain way of knowing what to keep and what to toss, or what new practices to adopt.4

Change itself is inevitable, but there are many ways to manage that change. I prefer gradual, evolutionary change, with small, incremental adjustments that can be rolled back if it turns out they didn't work. I would not throw out a form, role, or institution just because it looks foreign or appears at odds with the prevailing culture; I would only consider doing that if it's actually and visibly causing problems.

I don't think there are any ultimate solutions to social problems. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a continuous, sincere effort to understand and address problems as they arise. A community isn't like a machine that's designed and constructed and then remains more or less as it is; it's more like a garden. Trees slowly grow old, and eventually they may rot or strangle other life around them; there are weeds and pests to deal with, sometimes there's too much rain, sometimes not enough, sometimes there's frost, sometimes there's drought; new varieties of flowers arrive, old ones die out. Yet it is possible to keep the garden going, and without a constant effort to do so, it will cease to be a garden.

It's also very important that there are a variety of gardens to rest and work in. Brad Warner's idea of Zen teachers as artists who should be free to express their particular way of teaching the Dharma has some deep truth to it. I would, however, extend this to communities: different groups have different forms and traditions. In Buddhist terms, different people will have different karmic affinities. One will work out well as a Theravadin aryasravaka, where someone else will find unadorned Soto shikantaza most effective. Ultimately each of us must find our own path – and choose our guides and fellow travelers on it.
1Of course, at the time these ideals only included free, adult, property-owning males. Over the years, they have been gradually extended to cover other groups as well.

2I have it on good authority that these relationships tend to evolve over time towards something a good deal more equal – perhaps something that resembles friendship between equals more than the master-apprentice relationship it originally was.

3I find it a bit ironic that the most formally authoritarian forms of Buddhism are found among Mahayana traditions, which are based on the "democratic" idea that all beings are enlightened from the beginning. Then again, self-selected elites like Athenian (free, male) citizens or Theravadin aryasravakas have always found it easier to create an internal democracy, since they're able to exclude the less equal to start with.

4There have been some changes at the Helsinki Zen Center lately, and I'm not sure I like all of them – for example, I didn't like it when I showed up one Thursday and instead of the solemn silence usually preceding zazen I encountered a happy chatter of conversation. Two weeks later, the solemn silence was back, so perhaps it was just a fluke. I hope so. I like silence, especially with people.


  1. Good thoughts. Indeed, one of the open secrets about how Zen came about in Japan is usually glossed over for the worry of appearing not politicaly correct. Japan, as you know, grew about based on many Confucius based theories of law and social norms. It's indigenious religion of Shinto, reflected how the culture grew from a society that placed extremely high values on elders and ancestors, especially those of the high social structre. In my view, it was Zen Buddhism that became influenced by this Japanese machismo and stoic Confucius idealism and some would argue, the Shinto influenced facet of patriarchal lineage in Zen.(Though it was seen in Ch'an to some extent.)

    These custumes and ideals did not so easily transmit to Western culture as you stated. It took men like Suzuki Roshi, Atkien Roshi and Daido Loori to transform Zen into a bit more palpable tradition.

    Theravada definitly has the upper hand when it comes to teh Hardcore movement, and it is now Zen that lags behind. Less than 15 years ago it was the other way around. Of course Vipassana has an advantage that practice is very in-depth. Not much you can do to expand "just sit" in Zen.

    Have more thoughts, but work calls!

  2. I'd really like to know more about Japanese and Chinese cultures, because in some ways they're so similar, and in others, so profoundly different. The Japanese ideal of bushidō is just about the diametrical opposite of the Chinese ideals of wu-wei and Li, yet all of these have been crucial to the development of Zen.

  3. hehe I just made a post arguing that Bushido wasn't influenced by Zen, but the other way around.

  4. Maybe the influences went in both directions. It's often hard to disentangle cause and effect in cultural features that develop in parallel.

    Impressive article, by the way. I like your tl;dr's. ;-)

  5. Very true, both probably impacted each other, though I argued that it was other Japanese cultural influences that played the bigger part. Meh, who really knows? LOL

    I love writing TLDR stuff, just more people like reading posts like that shit picture post I did two days ago. I keep forgetting number of readers doesn't matter. HA!