Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Is Zen Good For?

Moon Nazi
This is not a real Nazi. He was just going to an Iron Sky themed party.

Whoever said that we are creatures of habit didn't know how right he was.

Over the past few years that I've been muddling my way through beginning Zen practice, I've come across a quite a lot of bad behavior by people who have been at it much longer and with much more dedication than I have. First-hand I've only seen the usual kind of bullshit people get up to when they coalesce into social structures, both within and between them; from elsewhere in time and space there are plenty of examples to be found of the full range of human iniquity.

Zen is demonstrably good at training killers. Japanese Zen—Rinzai Zen in particular—has a close connection to bushidô, the samurai warrior code. Hakuin Ekaku, the founder of Japanese Rinzai Zen, trained samurais, driving some of his students so hard they died from the training. The function of Zen archery was originally to train the medieval equivalent of snipers. One of the founders of the tradition in which I practice, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, wrote angry tirades in support of imperial Japanese nationalism, railing against the international Jewish conspiracy, and providing dharmically correct explanations of how killing a sub-human in battle is the highest form of bodhisattva action.

More recently, Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, claims to have practiced meditation in order to deaden his conscience so he could go through with his plan, and the US military uses Zen-like techniques to train torturers and killers.

A dispassionate look at the evidence should be enough to debunk the notion that Zen will automatically turn you into a kind, compassionate, tranquil, egoless bodhisattva. It demonstrably won't. So what does it do then?

I've now been practicing more or less regularly for about three years. That's not a whole lot, and I certainly can't claim any profound insights or deep understanding. Yet it is enough that I think I've experienced something of its power. Make no mistake, Zen is powerful stuff.

We really are creatures of habit. That's all we are—a cluster of habitual ways of acting, reacting, thinking, feeling. I'm fairly convinced by now that there is no magic in Zen that will automatically change any of these habits, good ones or bad ones.

What I have experienced, though, is a gradual, slow, almost imperceptible loosening of these bonds of habit. I have become more familiar with the crowd of habits clamoring for my attention and action at any given time. I sometimes even give them names. My favorite is Kanzeon, the one that suddenly moves you to act compassionately in an unexpected situation. She's much nicer than the usual crowd, of sloth and comfort and anger and desire and what have you. Getting to know this crowd gives a measure of power over it. So I can—sometimes—choose whether to listen to the one that has my attention at any given time or not. My anger-habit demands that I become angry. Sometimes I can decide not to listen to that one. Or I can decide to try to listen harder for Kanzeon.

It may well be that the Big One, kenshô, is a qualitatively different kind of insight than the little ones I've been having, with a different type of transformational power. If so, however, I haven't seen any unambiguous evidence of that. I know some people who have their shit together in a particular kind of way. Some of them have had kenshô verified by a Zen teacher. Some have not. Some people I know have had kenshô verified by a Zen teacher nevertheless do not appear to have their shit together in that particular kind of way.

My working hypothesis at this point is that kenshô represents a sudden and more radical loosening of the bonds, not a sudden transformation into something different and better. I'm also pretty sure the "silent enlightenment" Zen of the Sôtô school can get to the same place, although with a different emphasis—I know a quite a few dedicated sôtô practitioners who have their shit together at least as well as anyone. Also a quite a few assholes who are just as insufferable as the worst "sudden enlightenment" snobs.

It is in this loosening, I believe, that lies the transformational power of Zen. Zen itself is—almost—morally neutral. All it does is produce insight. What you do with that insight is up to you. If you want to grow into a conscienceless killer or ruthless exploiter, you can. If you want to grow into a genuinely kinder person, you can. If you want to look for angels and demons, blissful highs or crazy spiritual trips, you can. If you really want to experience kenshô, I'm pretty sure you can get that, too. It is, in a pretty real sense, the "wish-fulfilling gem" of the sutras.

The trouble with this is that the wishes are invariably produced by an ignorant mind, one that doesn't know what is really good for it. So lots of people do want to become heroic warriors confronting monsters and fighting for purity and goodness, and behold, the practice makes them warriors and provides them with the monsters. Others want to become beloved teachers, selfless helpers of suffering seekers, and the practice will provide them with the charisma, the authority, and the seekers. Yet others might want to make a lot of money, or become iron-willed fighters for the race and the Fatherland, and the practice can give them the tools to become that, too. And so we get our Shoko Asaharas, our Ayatollah Yasutanis, our Breiviks, our mindful torturers, our would-be rebels, our fallen almost-but-not-quite teachers, some of whom go on to find some way of credentialing themselves and become something more dangerous, bad teachers.

I have no idea how to solve this kôan. Perhaps it doesn't even have a solution, at the social level anyway. Teach a lot of morality, and it will turn into moralizing, hypocrisy, and keeping up appearances. Teach a lot of insight, and it will become unmoored and result in a number of people gyrating off into the inner chaos. Be a good teacher, and you'll become successful and attract lots of people who want to bask in your glory, thereby warping the teaching. Be a poor teacher, and few people will benefit.

Yet somewhere in there there is the teaching, the practice, the tradition. Through it all, it muddles along, and lots of people—really, lots—who never bother to blog about it or maybe even mention it to anyone, benefit tremendously.

Perhaps the best we could do is put a warning label on the package. "Contains self-discovery. Use at your own risk. Manufacturer is not responsible for damages, direct or indirect, should you discover that you're an irredeemable asshole."


  1. If Zen appears good for anything in particular, it also then appears bad for other things. These are just stories of Zen.

    Within your disclaimer...

    "Contains self-discovery. Use at your own risk. Manufacturer is not responsible for damages, direct or indirect, should you discover that you're an irredeemable asshole."

    ... is the obvious realization that Buddha shit and ordinary shit come from the same asshole, and so smell the same. Only mind can find one preferable.

    Regarding Kensho as "loosening" - this may appear to be so (and I have seen far stickier descriptions), yet what is loosening it's grip on what? I'd express this as "ungraspable", as a way of expressing this is infinitely slippery! Nothing grasping nothing, realizing everything. All descriptions, naturally fail. This is not a problem.

    1. It wasn't an attempt at description as much as an attempt at observing how it's affected people I know. The event itself appears to be pretty thoroughly beyond description; sort of a singularity only inferrable from its effects.

  2. To me, this is where the ethical teachings - the precepts and the rest - are vitally important. Those who cut off most of that seem most able to turn into killers, ego-driven teachers, and asshole practitioners.

    However, as you say, "Teach a lot of morality, and it will turn into moralizing..." Which points to balance, and not grasping as well.

    In the end, though, there's no fool proof ways. Brilliant, awakened teachers sometimes have rottenly deluded students, despite their efforts. And rottenly deluded teachers sometimes provide the spark needed for students to awaken.

    A curious world this all is.

  3. How is this any different from some Christians who get entranced in a ceremony and fall on the floor ?

    Your mind is capable of making you feel things because you've trained it to. It has little to do whether is is Zen or a ritual for the Sun God Ra or simply anything else you focus your mind on.

    People get entranced to do good and bad in any of those cases. Some would use it to steal money from their followers, while others would start massive charity enterprises. That's just human nature.

  4. Less nazis and more X-Pro 1, please!

    Have you tried the new Lightroom/Camera raw which supports X-Pro 1 raw files?


    1. Briefly. Not enough yet to be able to comment about it. It's good to have it, that's for sure!