Taking responsibility for what we've inherited Barry Magid May 30th 2020

I’d like to begin by reading some instructions from a Zen teacher named Ying’an Tanhua who lived in 12th Century China. He instructed his students: If you wish to understand easily, simply face the rising mind and moving thoughts throughout the twelve hours. Just following these moving thoughts, right there, you suddenly see clearly that there is nothing to gain, like great empty space. Also, empty space has neither shape nor boundary. Inside and outside are one reality. Both wisdom and its objects disappear. Both reality and an understanding of it are eliminated. The three times, past, present and future, are all equal. Those who have reached such a field are called people of the serene way who have nothing to study and are uninvolved in doing.

When I read that, I thought that was a pretty good description of practice, to simply sit and observe our mind moving is to see manifest moment after moment being impermanence and interdependence for our mind and thought. There’s nothing to control, nothing to fix, inside and outside are one. There’s nothing to gain. Now it happens that this quote comes from the Shobogenzo, where Dogen quotes it in order to denounce it, and at great length he goes on for pages and pages denouncing this fellow. He says things like, I suppose Ying’an does not yet know what empty space is. He doesn’t see empty space. He’s not grasped empty space. He mentions a rising mind and moving thoughts, yet isn’t there a principle that the mind does not move? The mind cannot enter the twelve hours. The twelve hours do not come into twelve minds. He goes on and on. He just rakes this guy over the coals.

So I thought I would look up something about Ying’an Tanhua and see who he was. He lived a couple of generations before Dogen, and is generally considered one of the great masters of his era, an era of the compiler of The Blue Cliff Record. He’s described as someone who was a teacher of teachers, where abbots of other monasteries came to see him, and everyone agreed on the depth of his enlightenment. So I tried to find out something he had written, and there he’s denouncing some other teacher, for completely not getting it right. So there seemed to be a trump of denunciation, of definition of your own position always in contrast to something else. In terms of what we were talking about last week, it seems evident that value pluralism was not considered a virtue in those days. In the same section that Dogen denounces this teacher, he also goes to great length to denounce anyone who thinks that Taoism or Confucianism are just equally valid paths to the Truth, or that they in any way contain the same message that the Buddha taught, that this is another terrible error, that people who tried to affirm the equality or the equal validity of these different paths are simply deluded.

Now, one of the things that strikes me about this way of talking is that it is completely unhistorical in the way we usually think about things. Zen has a lineage and transmission but in a sense it has no history. It has no sense of its own development. What you have is a story of the Buddha’s enlightenment and an original realization that is being passed down but it’s being passed down in this very precarious game of telephone where there’s always a danger of the original teaching being lost or distorted as it’s passed from generation to generation. And so at a certain point it becomes very important to specify the proper transmission, the lineage in which the message has been accurately conveyed from then until now. The sense of history that’s contained in this is always one of degeneration, that the teaching was purest in its original form, and it’s always in danger of being lost or watered down from generation to generation. And the notion of dharma transmission tries to contain within itself the idea that through an enlightenment experience we can have a taste of what the Buddha realized, but in social or cultural terms it’s always the age we’re in is a pale version of what has come before.

The generations just prior to Dogen in China saw the compilation of the Transmission of the Lamp and the collections of koans that we now are very familiar with, and this period, the Song Dynasty in China, codified Zen essentially by taking the stories of its predecessors in T’ang China and making them the prototypes for true Zen teachers. The period then saw many innovations in practice, particularly with the codifications of these stories. For the first time, what we think of as koan study emerged, where someone is meant to contemplate or respond to a single phrase from one of the life stories of the teacher or the dharma encounter of the teacher and disciple back in the T’ang dynasty. The contemplation of those old stories replaces in some sense the expectation that they’re going to be enacted out between teacher and student in the present. Rather, there’s a presentation around the story of the encounter that happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago between archetypal teachers and students.

And yet, the internal merit in Zen is not one of -- We’re adapting or innovating. It’s always one of -- Has the original insight been correctly preserved and transmitted? I think that one of the things that we can see taking place in contemporary Buddhism is that for the first time Buddhism is developing an internal history that is separate from this idea of transmission. I’m going to digress just a little bit to talk about this notion of history from a perspective that comes out of Robert Brandom’s commentary on Hegel’s phenomenology, a book called A Spirit of Trust. I’ve been posting on FaceBook little thumbnail summaries of these commentaries on Hegel and anyone who is interested can find them there. I’m not going to inflict too many on you in dharma talks. But those who are interested will find them on FaceBook.

What I’m particularly interested in today in this context is a sequence that he describes as acknowledgement, repair, and recollection, where acknowledgement refers to the recognition of some error or discrepancy in how we previously see things. Repair means a transformation in our own views, to understand where the error came from, and that kind of correction of our picture of things to try to take account of not just the right way to see things but how it is that we came to see them incorrectly, and that process culminates in recollection, creation of a history in which we can see how we came to our original view, how that view was only a partial truth, and contained within it the seeds of certain errors and discrepancies, which once we recognize, we go back and not just correct our error but see how it arose and what the assumptions were that gave rise to it in the first place.

I think that a sequence like that is what’s happened in our generation of Buddhism in the West. I think that what we inherited was a form of practice that was focused on the use of intensive sesshins to give rise to kensho experiences, with the idea that those kensho experiences would in some sense either wipe the slate clean of delusional/neurotic behavior and if it did not wipe the slate clean all at once, there would be a kind of trickle-down effect whereas these experiences of no-self would gradually of their own right kind of dissolve the ingrained self-centeredness that gave rise to deluded or bad behavior.

What Joko famously did in her teaching was to look at the way that that model had failed a generation of teachers and students, and she tried to replace that top-down picture with a bottom-up picture, saying that these kinds of experiences would not reliably transform people the way we had been taught, but we needed to work with emotion and attachment and resistance directly in their own right if we are going to see the character transformations we imagined practice will spawn. And so not only did we try to change the way we were practicing, we were trying to see that the teachings were not a kind of infallible transmission handed down to us, but that they may have arrived in a particularly culturally determined form that came to us in a particular moment in our culture in our own lives, and we had to actively adapt them and change them in order to have them be valid for us here and now and I think that’s a way of thinking about practice that’s really quite unique in the history of Buddhism.

Now you still get people who want to make the changes but go to great pains to say, well, but this really is what Buddha taught two thousand years ago. We made these changes but only in order to rediscover the authentic practice, the authentic teaching. I think that that’s really fudging the issue and evading the responsibility of the sequence of acknowledgement, repair and recollection, which takes responsibility for seeing the deficiencies in what we’ve inherited and finding ways to respond to them and adapt them to what we’re doing. I think it's very hard in general for religious practices to see themselves in this way. I think to the extent that we’re going to make a hallmark of religion that’s based on revelation or based on the enlightenment experience of its founders, it’s very hard to live a narrative in which we say there can be anything wrong with those revelations.

But what we’re engaged in now, I think, is seeing the extent to which these revelations have come down to us as narratives, crafted by somebody at a particular time for particular reasons, that they are not carved in stone. They’re written on paper and told in stories and have been told and retold and have changed in the retelling right down to our time. That’s what we’re doing, retelling the stories today, as we’re doing now. When we chant “Now we are going to hold and maintain the Dharma,” it’s not that we’re going to hold and maintain it in an unchanged way. We’re going to maintain it by constantly examining it, re-examining it, and reinventing it for ourselves, and we should acknowledge that’s what we’re doing and take responsibility for it.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid May 23rd 2020 Standing in the Spaces

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