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 Humanizing the Image of the Zen Master - by Dale S. Wright

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PostSubject: Humanizing the Image of the Zen Master - by Dale S. Wright   Sat Apr 07, 2012 12:00 pm

I wanted to say a few words about a chapter in the book Zen Masters edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. I finally got around to reading the chapter, "Humanizing the Image of the Zen Master: Taizan Maezumi Roshi" I highly recommend this book - many insightful essays.

This essay in particular struck me because of the very even handed, middle way approach of the author, Dale Wright. He goes into great depth about Maezumi's background, Zen study, teachings, building his center - and also covers the scandals that rocked this organization in the mid-80s, the alcoholism, sexual issues, and so on. Wright also asks lots of questions about what it means to be a "zen master", how the idealized image has to change in the modern west, how we can't keep holding on to the old Asian tradition of glamorizing the Zen teachers as super human, creating myths and fantasies. That won't work here.

All the Zen biographies that have come down to us from Chinese and Japanese sources are mostly fictions, perfected and edited hagiography, created to conform to a specific grand narrative, devoid of shadows or humanity. These "transmission of the lamp" accounts are sometimes entirely fiction, written decades and sometimes hundreds of years after the particular master lived, and reflect the then current Chan/Zen trend of thinking at the time they were written - and then they were rewritten and re-edited by committees of literati. This was storytelling that had to conform to a very particular patterns. The first and most prominent example is of course the Platform Sutra.

This won't work now, not in the west and not in the internet age. People will talk. Silence is not golden. Human nature will not be denied, nor should it. Of course, beyond the issues of myth making, this essay does bring up the hard questions about what does it mean to be a zen master. Can you master zen and still be very human, even deeply flawed? And if so, is there a way to redefine or reconceptualize the whole sense of the concept of "master" and the teacher-student relationship? Beyond myths and wishful thinking, how does this work - in real life - in the light of day?

Last year, when the Genpo scandal broke and Maezumi's daughter wrote that painful letter that was posted on the SweepingZen website -- where she talks about what a terrible father Maezumi was and addressed his abuse of alcohol and his sexual escapades, his daughter still proclaimed that he was a "great zen master." It is perfectly reasonable to act the questions about what it means to be a master in the glaring light of this kind of behavior. If someone is saying they are a "Zen Master" -- if their lineage, previous masters, the Soto head office has anointed / certified them as being a master, as being "enlightened", we need to know what that means. It might seem obvious, but clearly it's not. In the past, in Japan and China, they accepted the big story of what it meant to be a master, to be a "living Buddha" without question. The tradition has a great deal to say about the meaning of this certification -- but most of the writing and stories about these masters we now know to be highly fictionalized. Clearly, there were some greatly awakened and inspiring teachers, but it seems very likely that they were rare, not common.

So I would say that these questions are not coming from some moralistic western judgmental stance. If we go back to basic Buddhism, you can see how the Buddha defined what it meant to be an enlightened arahat. This is clearly spelled out, over and over again - free from all desires, attachments, cravings, mental formations, emotions, and so on. Being severely addicted to alochol and a sexual predator would clearly disqualify you from being an arahat. (of course, in the original vinaya monk rules, any consumption of intoxicants was totally unacceptable - as was any sexual conduct).

But if we come to the realization that many "masters" are not as fully enlightened as they think they are - or as the tradition says they are -- that they are far more human -- well, that would be a start to facing reality as it is. We can stop pretending or imagining and glorifying and be more basic, more straightforward. A person could still be very accomplished at koan practice, some forms of meditation, zen rituals and ceremonies, the zen arts, but he or she doesn't have to pretend to be more enlightened than they are. When they give dharma talks, they can share their humanity and not have to super zen man. They wouldn't have to hide their fears or doubts or humanity. They can stop inhabiting some role, stop playing any parts. Kennett was stuck in this role and when her long suppressed doubts and fears started to surface, she had no clue what to do and how to reconcile them with this role of being the "master."

One thing also about this chapter on Maezumi, the author is very respectful of him, how he ended up handling the scandals, his remorse and humility and his zen teaching. He does not vilify Maezumi but tries to understand what happened and how to hold both sides of the story at the same time.

This is worth reading.
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