For followers of the Way, one of the big differences between the Zen of today and the Zen of the days of the Ch’an Patriarchs is access to the Dharma in all its forms. We may have an in-person, three-dimensional teacher, a two-dimensional on-line video teacher, academic courses, the internet, and writings from the past 2,500 years. That’s quite a bit to sift through, and other than random stumbling onto something, my experience is that one source has led to another. Sometimes they even come in chronological order, though that’s never been Buddhism’s strong suit. The Pali Canon was divided into short, medium, and long discourses, so skipping around is hardly anything that can really be avoided without a lineage scorecard that puts things in some semblance of chronological order, though even any list is not entirely complete. On any given day, anyone can read anything from any source, hear about anything from any time, learn about the Dhammapada one day, Dahui the next, followed by a little Huineng, a First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, a little ZM Seung Sahn, with maybe a little Robert Aitken Roshi on the side.
Back in a mountaintop Chinese temple in the Song Dynasty, the selection was a touch more limited, and not just because 1,000 years of writings hadn’t been written yet. I can’t really say for sure that the Abbott of this temple was as well-versed as a beginning poly-Buddhist is today. How much was translated, by whom, and at what year would be more of an issue for those Ch’an monks than it is for us. When did someone write it? Even if one were capable of reading all the scriptures, I doubt there would be any time left for any actual practice. Even a hermit has to plant, harvest, and eat. In a modern temple, there are other people with whom interaction takes place, chores, meditation, chanting, bowing, interviews with the teacher, and more chores. After all, dishes don’t wash themselves after food doesn’t cook itself. The rest of us in the marketplace have to do our marketplace things.
An undercurrent of today’s Zen practice involves what’s often referred to as “Engaged Buddhism.” If your sangha isn’t as actively involved as Zen Peacemakers or Upaya Zen Center are, it may run a soup kitchen, run a hospice, maybe even meditate and chant for the benefit of all beings in the marketplace. All of them are valuable, none more than the others. Some may have more immediately visible results, but the unseen results matter, possibly more. I say more, because when the result is just out there without my hand firmly controlling the soup spoon and my eyes seeing the gratitude expressed by someone who came in hungry and is leaving sated. It’s just out there. It’s like mudita, the empathetic/sympathetic joy for someone else’s good fortune. I may have had nothing to do with the cause of the joy, the fortunate one may not even know I’m joyous for them. How not-validating! How not-instant gratification can it get? Both types of actions put the benefit of others before our own.
Where the Song Dynasty monk may not have heard much about the Eightfold Path while sitting at Linji’s feet, the monk received teachings nonetheless--teachings that were aimed at providing the opportunity to awaken, equally as much as the aforementioned Path. I daresay that the Zennist of today who didn’t know his Eightfold Path from a Six Pack would run the risk of being laughed out of the meditation room by the less charitable, and given some guidance in Buddhist basics from the more charitable. I wonder sometimes whether all the teachings in all their value and all their length and breadth may just be a distraction from the task at hand for the Zen practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Vows. The lay Precepts are based in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood, for example, mentions livelihoods that should be avoided: Trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, trade in intoxicants, and trade in poisons. A couple Precepts are covered right there, and the other Seven of the Path follow suit in much the same way. Of course, in true Buddhist fashion, it’s a combination of what to do, and it’s what to avoid doing. If there are 84,000 choices of what to do, practicing Right Livelihood still leaves you with 83,995 other things to do. If we are living by the Precepts we’ve received and Vows we’ve taken, the “Rights” of the Path take care of themselves. If simply pondering the Path precludes practice, is it practical?
In today’s society, where do Right and right meet the road, and where they do, is there a head-on collision? One interpretation of Right Speech is not lying, slandering, using harsh words and gossip, and I’d add speaking in a tone of perceived superiority to the list. In the US and elsewhere in the world, there is the right to freely expressing oneself, and this often includes “the right to freedom of speech.” Unfortunately, this right to free speech often doesn’t always equal Right Speech. As a Zen Buddhist in the US, how do we deal with what we perceive as right and wrong, harmful and helpful, lovingkindness in speech and hate speech? From an Engaged perspective, how do we tolerate the hate speech, and as Americans point out the intolerance perceived in this expression of at least perceived malevolence? Third Patriarch said the Great Way was easy for those with no preferences, those who eliminate love and hate. But how do we not prefer Right over “wrong,” how do we not love “love,” and hate “hate?” How do we “man the barricades” without engaging in the same vitriol as our perceived opponent?
As per usual, we make it more difficult for ourselves. A differing view (as opposed to Right View) are simply an element of relative reality. We accept that. We don’t even have to think of the differences as creating the two sides of the coin, it’s all just speech and opinions on no coin.They cover a broad spectrum of greys, even if it looks black and white. We accept it, but don’t have to settle and leave it as is. It’s said that Right View is No View. If we maintain the view that those greys have evolved from previous greys, and will change into the next shades of grey, it’s a more accurate View, maybe even No View. We don’t have to attach to our view/opinion as incontrovertibly the correct one. To this end, Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Courage--three great legs of the Zen tripod--are used, and not just one of them. Great Faith without Great Doubt is falling into the hell of relying on dogma. Great Doubt without Great Courage can lead to nihilism and inertia. Great Courage (or Great Determination it’s sometimes called) without Faith and Doubt can manifest as anger or thoughtless action rather than thoughtful action. Faith, Doubt, and Courage can manifest as correct action through No Thought, or put another way, before thought. Living in accordance with our True Nature can’t help but be right or Right.
Is it unawakened intention or awakened intention our “view” supplies? Sencan’s nondiscrimination is manifested through looking deeply at our motives and intentions, and what leads up to them. Clinging to a Right View is still a view, and therefore negates the awakened nature of it. Not thinking this is Right or right, but just acting, speaking of doing them in accordance with our True Nature. We doubt that our mundane views are necessarily right or Right. We have faith in ourselves--more accurately our True Selves--are innate and don’t need force to emerge. And we have the courage and determination that this manifestation, this unveiling comes to be. It hasn’t gone anywhere, and doesn’t come from anywhere, it just is. No birth or death, just there. But where is it in a protest march? It’s with us all the time, but maybe in the heat of the moment doubt is pushed aside by faith in our virtuous cause. Torching a car or throwing a brick may seem to be a good idea at the time, but will it stay the same after some introspective investigation? Participating in injustice, even through inaction, is complicity with the oppressor. It is no more correct than actively denying food to the hungry or incarcerating someone who is innocent. Fear is most certainly the opposite of courage, and to be in a state of fear is not great. Quite often, fear is what drive the lack of determination.
Not having a preference does not mean not engaging. Somewhere between fighting a “just war” and passive pacifism is awakened action. This could even take the form of having the courage to point out to the “opponent” that their thoughts, words, actions, views, etc. are open to question-- their faith without doubt. Likewise the skepticism they express toward your stand may be their doubt in you and your cause, but no doubt in themselves. Their determination just to plow under the opponent and bulldoze the barricades may not be too courageous, just a manifestation of fear, hatred, or simply unawakened behavior. It shows disinterest in finding out what the awakened version might constitute. We don’t have to point out how unawakened “they” are and how awakened “we” are at the top of our lungs. Sometimes No Speech is Right Speech--silently man the barricades without engaging the other on their terms. If you’re on a football field, play football, even if the other team is cheating. We don’t have to play their game and cheat in return.
One thing Zen Masters have done is to allow their student to go down through their own path. They may see that the direction the student is headed will probably not work out so well, but having learned that heading South is not the shortest direction to North, but it is a way to get there. The teacher may give the student the compass of the Dharma, but if the student still decides heading South is the better course because directly North has an obstacle or two, the teacher will not forcibly turn the student around, just let them go, and “letting go” in more ways than one. The student has the right to be wrong in his or her own way. The teacher has faith that the student will right themselves eventually, and if he really crashes and burns, the teacher will be free to use the fire extinguisher of lovingkindness. We could take this approach with those whom we think of as going down the wrong path politically or socio-economically, but I have my doubts about this being Right anything. If one were to just let others cause suffering to another being, isn’t that being complicit in the harmful act itself. Even when justified by such maxims of freedom of expression or freedom of speech, letting injustice just happen because it might lead to the final goal of enlightenment may not be all that skillful if the reason behind it is fear or misapplied doubt.
In the final analysis, it’s a balancing act, as much of our work as engaged Bodhisattvas is. We must act quickly, decisively, and naturally as an awakened being would. That entails practice until instant where the awakening happens. It may be on the barricade, it may be on the cushion, it may be hearing a rock hit bamboo, or bamboo or truncheon being firmly applied to your shin or head. Awakening can happen if we peel away the firmly head beliefs about it, and everything else. We need to be able to discern whose right is being violated, and who’s right about standing up for the right. As I write this, it comes to mind that this may be the huadu of the barricade: Whose right/who’s right? Don’t know. Act from a stand of True Nature, there’s no knowing that matters.