When I first started studying Zen decades ago I witnessed several encounters between my teachers and students over the idea that the teachers were hiding something, that they weren’t really revealing what they knew. The students basically wanted the teacher to fess, come clean and just ‘tell’ them the truth. When the answer offered wasn't what the student expected they would leave angry and frustrated thinking the teacher was up to not being forthright. Just the other day I had an acquaintance ask me to show him some kung fu hands so he would have the trick to fighting. He figured that if everytime I saw him that if I showed him a little it would make him a fighter. I told him there was no way that just showing him a few hand motions could give him any skill without the years of training and foundation behind it. It’s like asking Michael Jordan how to shoot a ball and thinking you’ll get it from him. It’s a similar thing when trying to teach anything that has a profound root to it.
I was of the mind in my youth that the real masters should just be out there freely teaching Zen or whatever. Toss it to the masses and they will get it. I was very sour on the idea of the monk sitting on the mountain and waiting for the student to arrive. Dr DeMartino, my first and main teacher and long time student of D.T. Suzuki, was one who brought Zen to the marketplace. He said that if Zen wants to be viable in the world it must be able to compete and express itself like other philosophies do and to be able to defend its stance. It was his contention that the antics in Zen teaching were not doing anything to promote it and in fact might be hindering its message There is a real philosphical base for what Zen is trying to explain as the core problem of the human condition. I personally think that he did a magnificent job at this. I have to admit that I, too, accused him at times for not ‘really’ instructing me on what to do. He had, in fact, said the same things to me over and over again and I just didn’t have the ability to hear and understand it. Years of training suddenly had me realizing what he meant and me saying, “Damn, he’s been saying that for fifteen years!” So there is a development of the student that is crucial as to whether or not they can hear the teacher. The Kyoto School of Zen with Masao Abe and others also presented Zen in a intelligent, logical manner. This is not to say that awakening is acheived through logic but that 'right thinking' or 'right understanding' definitely points you in the right direction.
Things have changed greatly since then and now there is a preponderance of Zen teachers in the market and unfortunately many of them not very good and have a weak understanding of the core of Zen teaching. They have the accoutrements of Zen but none of the marrow. This is true in many disciplines now unfortunately including the martial arts. Now that it’s easy to find a ‘teacher’ there is little effort put forth by the student to actually to vet them out or to apply them selves. There is a plethora of ‘aha’ experiences and lot of titles thrown out there but there is little of substance. From the TV gurus to the hundreds of ‘easy’ awakening books in the bookstores we are inundated with the scent of Eastern thought but not the substance. If something bad happens to you its because you did not lead the good lifestyle of these teachers. Think good and good happens might happen in a comfortable society but what about the Sudan, are those people to blame for not living the spiritual laws that are bandied about here? I was once in a Zen monastery with Masao Abe and we had just listened to a lecture by the head priest. The priest was explaining the interpentetration of things, how all things are related. Part of the explanation was centered around a coffee cup and whether or not we had thought about who made it and what their life was like; this was the interpenetration of things. The priest also exclaimed that nothing abstract was real. With that one fellow said, "how about mathematics?" No reply was given. After the lecture the priest approached the man and chided him for asking the question. Right after that we were introduced to that priest and a few others. They explained to us about the different direct transmissions they had received from various masters and their various achievements. They talked about whom they had studied with and how well they were liked by their teachers because of their great insights. They barely took notice of Abe Sensei. It was that year that Masao Abe Sensei was declared a living art treasure by the emperor of Japan and had received various awards for academic excellence for his book “Zen and Western Thought”. He was the preeminent teacher of the Kyoto School of Zen. This was all surprising to me since I had just heard a really weak lecture/dharma talk by the head priest and I was wondering how they had been taught. The priest's reasoning could not stand up against a scrutinizing freshman year philosophy student at a community college. It was poorly constructed and lacked any internal logic or reasoning and showed a true lack of understanding of the depth of Zen and the meaning of the interpenetration of things. It made me wonder what attracted the congregates to this monastery. Many people come to Buddhism when the religion they were raised with can no longer sustain itself to them either logically or philosophically. They become critical of their religion and seek something of greater substance. I felt that if they had applied that type of criticizm to what I was witnessing here that it would not have been a viable alternative to their past practices. After each of the priests had left I turned to Abe and sincerely asked, “Abe Sensei, what does it take to be a priest here”? He grimaced and said, “Ah, many priests here but no Zen”.
As time went on I have met more and more weekend Zen students on their path to awakening. They come for a snippet or two, a platitude here and there from the cafeteria of Eastern wisdom and then they move on. Like the fellow who wanted me to show him a few hands but not really apply himself to the art. There are plenty of teachers more than willing to supply these folks with what they seek. Few are there for great existential relief of their problems; they just want the merit badge and the Zen wink and nod and some respite from daily life. I find that many of these folks have not applied any real thought to what they beleive; they just believe it. They talk about heart and that the heart will lead you. I have to ask ‘just like the heart lead Muhammad Atta to fly into the WorldTrade Center following his heart”? This is not meant to be a snide comment, it is meant to make us really look at our beliefs and how they are generally based on some ambiguous foundation. The Eight Fold Path teachers right thought and right understanding. It is not about faith or acceptance but critical analysis ultimately ending in the question, 'who am I'? In Zen dialogue the teacher takes away all the misconceptions of the student. They don't fill you with big smiles and 'aha' moments; they rock your very foundation. If you’ve had a good teacher you’ve been challenged about everything you hold as real. In turn you challenge your teacher and if he’s real he will meet your challenge and disintegrate it. They will not run from it or admonish you for challenging them, they will welcome it. You won’t get a remark like “you would know if you were aware like me” or “I am the master, it is beyond your comprehension” or some other some such nonsense these teachers hide behind. It is in this challenging and testing that truth blossoms. It is in heat that steel is forged not comfort. It is what the student brings to bear that the teacher rises to and amplifies.
The great Zen master Zenkei Shibayama once said that ‘Zen is for the elite’. He was greatly criticized for saying this and it created quite a stir. When I heard this in my youth I wondered why everyone was so upset; awakening isn’t easy, Bodhidharma himself said 'the way is long and difficult' and he is the first patriarch. It’s like saying the olympics are for the elite; well, they are. If you don’t train hard you don’t get there. It’s the same with Carnegie Hall. There is nothing elitist about that statement; it’s a fact. It reminds me of a funny saying by a 10th dan jujitsu master from Holland, “America is full of masters and no one who practices”. I love that line.
Now decades later I realize why the monk sits on the mountain. It’s because those that come to him need an answer like they need air to survive. They are sincere and ready to do what they must. They have already proven their grit, determination and dedication. The road is long and difficult no matter what chicken soup for the Zen soul says and they have already embarked upon it. They have been weeded out by time and hardship and they are ripening to be able to understand the teacher. They are there because they have to be there, they have no other choice. In a sense it’s Zen natural selection and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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