About Dharma Transmission: Just this or A long line of playful monks? Barry Magid November 20th 2009

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Many of you were present last weekend for our retreat up at Garrison where we held the dharma transmission ceremony. I’d like to speak more about that, both to continue thinking through some of what transmission means and also to share with those of you weren’t there some of what I think was important about what we did and how we went about doing it.

We hung two scrolls side by side in the zendo where the first part of the ceremony was going to be held, where we sat. The two scrolls, one was by the teacher Nantembo and the other by his student Deiryu. Nantembo’s calligraphy is of enormous force and immediacy, a calligraphy of a staff that embodied “just this.” Deiryu’s calligraphy was a playful drawing of monks in a long line stretching out into the distance, a line of monks on their begging rounds, one which equally represents the lineage, one generation after another. And transmission in our practice itself always exists as an interplay or tension between these two aspects of immediacy and continuity.

In the verse we just chanted, we say, “Now we can see it, hear it, hold and maintain it.” We both immediately recognize it and experience it and what we do is hold and maintain it, be part of what continues it. The ceremonies contain words that we took from the Mumonkan’s account of the first transmission from Buddha to Kasyapa, words of Dogen’s, that he says his teacher spoke to him on transmission, words of my own that I added to a ceremony that we adapted to the present day. And we noted that the commentary on the Mumonkan case, the whole image, the whole story we have of that very first transmission of the Buddha is something that was created by Chinese teachers 14 to 15 hundred years after the fact, that does not exist in any of the original Indian sutras or Pali canons. What we call our lineage and tradition is something that we are now and always have been in the process of recreating as we maintain and continue it.

We are never simply in the business of being antiquarians, of maintaining an exact form that has been handed to us and doing it exactly the way it was done a generation before. We’re always making it new. Forty years ago when I was an undergraduate in college I encountered the phrase, “Make it new,” in Ezra Pound, who was a poet who was preoccupied with transmission. I’ve been thinking about him today as I reflected on our transmission ceremonies, because what he wrote about, what he thought about, was how culture is transmitted over time, how one culture interacts with and influences another, how translation is so often a vehicle for innovation in a new culture, as it encounters how the forms and ways of writing in another somehow bring about a revolution in a new one.

A classic example is the way the Renaissance was at the intersection of the texts from classical Greece and Rome with Christianity in the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries. In some ways we’re experiencing something analogous as the Buddhist literature of Asia comes in contact with Western psychology.

So Pound says, “Make it new,” and unfortunately so many people take that to mean, Start from scratch. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means, really, absorb, digest, study, learn everything that went before you, and then make it yours. And that’s really our challenge in our practice, to both be inheritors and preservers of a tradition that someone, as well, who makes it new and alive as we continue it. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent but I can’t resist reading you a little bit from Pound’s “Canto Number One.” This is a long poem that he added to throughout the course of his whole life, and it’s a poem about history and our relationship to history and our ancestors. And the first words of this long poem are “And then. . . .” It starts right in the middle. That’s where we always find ourselves. Right in the middle. There’s no beginning. We’re in the middle to start with.

And the story he opens with is taken from Homer’s “Odyssey.” It tells how Odysseus, after escaping from the witch, Circe, traveled to the underworld in order to ask or consult the dead about what would happen to him and his men, and in the poem, the Greeks dig trenches and offer sacrifices and pour blood into the churches for the dead to come and drink and become reanimated so the dead would speak to us again. This is Pound’s image out of Homer of what we do as poets: We get the dead to speak to us. We do that as instance: Of course it’s our own blood that we offer.

So I’ll read a little bit of this just for the sound and feel of it. It’s also very interesting to notice that in this translation that he does, rewriting a section of the “Odyssey,” he does it in Anglo-Saxon, in English. He does it in a way that in the choice of words and sounds, creates yet another intersection with this kind of Norse saga, an Old English sound, these very short, crisp words. Even as he brings a story forward from the Greek he’s intersecting it with an old English diction. As I said, he begins right in the middle, which is where we all find ourselves.

And then went down to the ship . . .

And Pound continues this with Tiresias finally giving notice he is the prophecy. . . .

Pound simply then interjects his own voice, saying, What I’m doing is translating not from the Greek but from a Latin translation of the “Odyssey” done in 1538, so this is part of what transmission is. We pay attention to each step along the way. It starts with the Greeks, it comes into Italy, it’s translated into Latin, I’m translating it again for you, putting it in my own diction. His ceremonies for summoning the dead and hearing their prophecies, are perhaps only slightly more exotic than the ones we did for transmission at Garrison. Both involve blood. It was very interesting to see all these old rites being reanimated.

I’ll post this on the bulletin board downstairs if you’d like to read it over for yourselves. And I can’t help also adding that coming right back from Garrison, I went to a rock concert of Bob Dylan and the opening act was a now somewhat forgotten old rocker named Dion. Dion was famous for a hit, “The Wanderer,” and he also did a rather sappy civil rights song, “Abraham, Martin and John” which made him very rich. And then Dylan. Again, this is sort of like watching these two people who had become very famous in their own way, 40, even 50 years they’ve been doing this, and the way they performed couldn’t have been a greater contrast. Dion played as if he was still back in the 60s, as though he said, This is my high school band set. He was just playing his old hits and Buddy Holly and all this stuff from the 50s and 60s and everybody just loved it, it was all these familiar tunes that everybody knew, that we listened to originally back in that time when I was in high school. And you could just see the crowd come alive, refreshed by all these old songs.

And then Dylan comes on, and Dylan now was backed by this band that played this constant hard-driving rock rhythm, and all his songs were reduced to the same beat, and his voice was reduced to this growl, so you couldn’t recognize any of the melodies and you couldn’t understand any of the words, but it was Dylan, right? And I think one song was, “Highway 61,” but it may have been the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese for all I know, there was just this growl going on. So there were these two very different relationships to the past, right? One person is playing it the way he’s played it for 40 years and making everybody happy, right? It’s an exercise in nostalgia, but a really wonderful one. And the other guy is sick of being trapped in the persona of Dylan and is really making it new and is doing something that is new and authentic and that nobody liked.

So in a way this is how our relationship to Japanese Buddhism is. We have to decide to what extent we are recreating this, what we’re preserving, what we’re making new. We’re never sure who’s going to like it, who the audience is. So that’s what I wonder, you know? Are we like Dion? Are we like Pound? What do we hold and maintain? What do we create that’s new? The scroll we have hanging in the garden in the other room is by the great Soto Master Kodo Sawaki, and it gives his admonition, inconspicuously, quietly, carefully, following the Buddha way. That’s what we do, and yet we must be aware that with each step we recreate the Buddha way. We make it new. Step after step.

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