Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Stink of Zen

Recently I encountered a rock-musician, songwriter, and gender dysphoric who goes by the soubriquet of Gloria. Now Gloria is clearly so disturbed by his general psychological condition that he continually makes remarkable claims about his talents, knowledge, qualifications, the 'famous people' he has met and, in particular, his deep and special knowledge of Zen. As evidence of his superior knowledge and experientiality of Zen, Gloria claims that he 'is an ordained Zen priest' and that he has 'passed the first 200 koans'. Furthermore, he claims that his advancement in Zen had been endorsed by words from the mouths of half-a-dozen of the foremost modern Zen masters whose names he was happy to recite as having personally witnessed his enlightenment. Strangely enough, none of those Zen masters had had the foresight to complete the customary paperwork which always accompanies the rituals evidencing one's affirmation, ordination, and enlightenment.

Frankly, anyone who claims to have attained enlightenment because they have allegedly 'passed the first 200 koans' is a complete phoney who demonstrably understands absolutely nothing about Zen. In fact, that type exemplifies what Lin-Chi (died 866CE, one of the leading lights in the eponymous school which is still extant in Japan), called 'spiritual dilettantes', since they are people who cannot tell truth from falsehood, grasping from non-grasping, obsession from enlightenment, and he concluded that they are just people who have simply left one social group and entered another, but that they have no real understanding of Zen whatsoever.

Strange, too, that Gloria appears completely unaware of the other main, yet ancient, school of Zen extant today in Japan, namely Soto, which lays no importance on the study or 'passing' of koans. Now, if the accomplishments of practitioners of Soto Zen are to be admitted - and Rinzai masters do see Soto masters as equally accomplished as themselves - then it should be obvious even to complete phoneys like Gloria that claiming to have 'passed' a large number of koans is completely meaningless and quite contrary to the spirit of Zen, whatever school one follows.

What's even more amusing about Gloria's ignorance about Zen is that he is completely unaware of the fact that when the Rinzai temples were set up in Kamakura in the 13th century to train the samurai in Zen, the samurai were generally so completely ignorant of Indian and Chinese Buddhist history, culture, writings etc., that the Zen masters had to invent shikin, or 'on the instant' Zen, and even ki-en Zen (Zen adapted to the pupil), so that the samurai could experience what Zen was about. Neither shikin nor ki-en Zen involved the elaborate study of koans - if koans were brought up at all - yet there is no doubt that many of the samurai became enlightened, despite not studying or 'passing' koans . Thus, even the Rinzai school of Kamakura demonstrated that the study and 'passing' of koans are not necessary prerequisites for attaining enlightenment. Consequently, anyone who boasts about the number of koans they have studied and allegedly 'passed' is as far away from an understanding of Zen as the Earth is from the furthest reaches of the Universe. Or, as the ancient Zen verse has it:"One ten-thousand of an inch and Heaven and Earth are set apart!"

For Gloria the stink of Zen is clearly a heady perfume, but for those of us who are just a little more knowledgeable, it is a putrescence.


papalazarou said...

One has to wonder whether people like Gloria have Zen within them - if it isn't in there no amount of koans will bring it forth

The Merchant of Menace said...

But 'Gloria' has an answer to that. He claims that the responses given by him to the 'first 200' koans were approved by various modern Zen masters he has studied under, therefore he claims that he has demonstrated his enlightenment and had it officially validated.

All the more strange, therefore, that 'Gloria' fails to recognise the sources of many of the koans he claims to have 'passed', wrongly ascribing their literary references and authors, yet these very aspects of koans are an integral part of any 'test', as is the historical commentaries or teisho thereon by the original or subsequent masters.

Furthermore, these other aspects surrounding classical koans - background, sources, author, commentary - are so well-known to any current master - or knowledgeable acolyte, for that matter - these people would neither have been as ignorant about these facts as Gloria is, nor made as many errors of ascription about them as he has.

Nevertheless, whether some soi-disant master has approved Gloria's answers is irrelevant, for 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating', as they say. And anyone who thinks that reciting a series of names of masters they claim to have studied under, or even that they have had their enlightenment validated because they have 'passed' a specified number of koans, whether that be 1 or 3,000 of them - especially whilst remaining ignorant about all the surrounding issues that are part of arriving at a true understanding of any koan - has demonstrated quite irrefutably that they know sweet fanny adams about the real nature of Zen.

What's more, no reputable Zen master would accord such a person with having demonstrated any real experiential understanding.

Which is perhaps why Zen literature is replete with fulsome attacks by the masters on such people as 'Gloria' and their phoney, pretend Zen.