Monday, October 21, 2013

Dharma Gate...or Dharma Game

This statement, attributed to Bodhidharma, has set the tone for Zen practice for a millennium and a half:
Zen is..."A special transmission outside the scripture, not founded upon words and letters, by pointing directly to one's mind, it lets one see into one's own True Nature and thus attain Buddhahood."
Sure has been a lot of words, letters, and so on written and spoken about it though. I'm doing it right now. If you're reading this, you may have some interest in words about Zen also. Not good/not bad, just how things are. The words, though provisional, are what we have. They can be the Dharma Gate that ends suffering. They can be part of the Dharma Game to cause more.

Now there are lot of ways to spread the Dharma. My preference (however dualistic that may be) is for face-to-face, mind-to-mind communication. I'm fortunate enough to have a sangha that's nearby, and has a dharma-vibe that fits with me, and I fit with. At this point, I suppose I am part of the dharma-vibe. Again, not good/not bad, just how things are. The priest, Doshim Dharma, gives weekly Dharma Talks, which we record and put on our website (which you can link to from here: and as a free podcast on iTu**s. (No commercial endorsements here, but I'm not going to make it difficult for you to hear the talks either).

The virtual sangha may have to suffice, or blogs, or websites, or books, or a couple magazines, semaphore signals across the ocean; the choices are almost endless. (I'll probably hit the impermanence of digital media elsewhere). Weeding through them can be a bit endless as well. Being inundated by information can be intimidating. Sorting through them as to what's a legitimate teaching versus nonsense may not be readily apparent, so there can sometimes be a lot of misleading words before actual Dharma is encountered. I'm firmly in the "all dharmas are buddha-dharmas" camp, but I also realize that all those buddha-dharmas are not necessarily really the Buddha's Dharma.

To put that in some context, from Section 17 of the Diamond Sutra (Red Pine translation):

"The Tathagata did not realize any such dharma as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. Furthermore, Subhuti, in the dharma realized by the Tathagata, there is nothing true and nothing false. Thus, the Tathagata says, 'all dharmas are buddha-dharmas....All dharmas, Subhuti, are said by the Tathagata to be no dharmas. Thus are all dharmas called 'buddha-dharmas.'"

Admittedly one of the more paradoxical quotes to throw out there, and maybe one that a teacher should actually explain. Really briefly, all dharmas (all things, phenomenal, noumenal, and otherwise), are reality. No picking, no choosing; the most irrational, delusional, hideous stuff is no less a buddha-dharma than the most lovingkind, altruistic act ever performed, even one by Shakyamuni or Avalokiteshvara/Kwanseum-bosal/Quanyin/Kannon. NO PICKING NO CHOOSING!

There's this dharma called "Spiritual Materialism." Chongyam Trungpa referred to is as a way of accumulating spiritual achievements as if they were possessions. That's bad enough, but then to ostentatiously display them like a spiritual McMansion. And then there are also the ones who have decided to use (in the case of this blog's context) "Zen" and Zen as a way to earn a buck. Just because a "teaching" is spouted, regardless of its being as legitimate from an "existence" point of view (purely conditional/provisional/empty & impermanent) as a buddha-dharma, it doesn't mean that it's "words to live by." (As an aside, there's even a "fake Buddha quotes" website out there, which is really quite amusing).

And I'm not a big "What the Buddha said..." guy. I've found a lot of Sutras entirely inscrutable, and would need to have a teacher get the point across to me. I didn't get through the Diamond Sutra on my own, after all. So, in that case, what my teacher said counts as much as what the Buddha said. I've gotten a lot from Ch'an Masters, Huayan Masters (Fazang!), teachers that have come to the US from Asia (deep bows to Seung Sahn & Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi), and American teachers as well. All their Dharmas are Buddha-dharmas. We could be reading the Wonji Sutra someday along side the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch and the Avatamsaka Sutra. If it's legit, it's legit--and that's not picking and choosing. So far as I'm concerned, if it exhibits the Three Dharma Seals (Anicca/Impermanence, Dukkha/Suffering/Dissatisfaction, and Anatta/No-Self), it's legitimately "Buddhist" teaching. And there are plenty of non-Buddhist teachings that work too--we don't have the market cornered on "Truth." I'm not too concerned with them here.

My concern is whether any of the glut of words that call themselves "Zen" are misleading. Do they concern themselves with ending suffering? Do they show the impermanence of all dharmas, and in such a way that doesn't somehow cause more suffering? Do they exhibit a sense that Self-less is also selfless, as in feeling the interconnectedness among all us sentient beings? Or are the books and websites and forums and posts and so on, just a way to show off a kensho merit-badge? Is it an "I've got satori and you don't" ego-massage--as if there were something to be had? And even worse, "I've got Enlightenment, you don't, so you should pay me a high price to be in my presence, sit on a mat facing a wall for twelve hours a day, eat some rice in silence, and don't forget to buy my book and DVD on the way out."

Just because something has "Zen" in the title doesn't make it Zen. Great Doubt, Great Faith, Great Determination (Great Vow is thrown in sometimes too). Great Doubt--not necessarily skepticism of all things, but rather a realization of impermanence, that the firmness of my "self" isn't turning out to be true; Great Faith--in the Dharma, our teachers  (Shakyamuni and beyond), a sangha (physical or virtual) that will support us; Great Determination--that practice, practice, practice is an end in and of itself, no Great Payoff, no Great Merit, but practice, practice, practice anyway. And save all sentient beings while you're at it.

I've found that Zen works for me. But try it all on for size. Maybe Zen isn't for you.  And maybe some of what hasn't felt "right" has been because it isn't "right." You can use the Great Doubt for this also--that maybe the not-right teaching isn't right because it just doesn't stand up, that it's no more permanent than our lifespans. All teaching is provisional, all need to be suitable for the "taught" as well as the teacher. I've just seen a lot of stuff out there that I regard as questionable teaching, either missing a Dharma Seal, or in some cases just plain delusional to the point where it will cause more suffering rather than end it. I try to be more concerned with helping people avoid mistakes that either I've made, or have seen others make.

If it seems that a teacher is more adept at playing a Dharma Game rather than acting as a Dharma Gate, maybe it's because they are. Find another teacher. Don't necessarily write off Zen or Buddhism just because a certain teacher doesn't resonate. But seriously try it on for size before buying the Zen Hoodie.