Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Zen Apostasy

"If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided [the Sangha]. Choose heresy every time."
- Apologies to Bishop Peter Lee
Buddhism is not well prepared to deal with apostasy. With a central tenant of "Not one, not two" Zen in particular rejects the cartesian dualism which seems to be required to have some one to turn away and some thing to turn away from. If the Buddha-Dharma is endless and all pervading in the ten directions; how can you turn away from literally everything!?  

While Buddhism has enjoyed the backing of the state at various times throughout history, the influence of the Dharma over government is generally seen as positive. Buddhist court record and law is not without instances of excommunication, and there was even an inquisition against Christians in Edo era Japan, apostasy is generally treated with a bit of dismissive contempt, following the Old Man's lead:
The Buddha's attitude to apostasy is epitomized by his encounter with a man named Sunakkhatta. He was a disciple of the Buddha, but after a while became dissatisfied with the Dhamma and decided to renounce the Teacher and the teaching. Sunakkhatta came to the Buddha and said: "Lord, I am leaving you. I am no longer living by your teachings." The Buddha responded to this declaration by asking Sunakkhatta some questions: "Did I ever say to you: 'Come, live by my teachings'?" "No Lord." "Then did you ever say to me that you wished to live by my teachings?" "No Lord." "That being the case, who are you and what are you giving up, you foolish man?" (D.III,2-3).
Buddhism A2Z
Righteous apostasy followed by schism is more of less the overall plot of religious history, creating the ramified tree of traditions practiced across the globe. Name a famous religious figure and you're likely to name an apostate, who successfully created a schism in the tradition they belonged to: Shakyamuni, Jesus, Muhammed, Martin Luther (who's apostasy was so inspiring there are literally hundreds of splinter factions of the protestant church).

In the Christian tradition, formal accusations of heresy are considered "reformative" in that the charges allow the accused to come back into the fold by resolving them by confession at an inquisition. Of course, many inquisitors determined that there was no hope for the accused and the results can hardly be called unexpected. Most apostates and schismatics turn away from their traditions with similarly reformative intent: their church has become corrupt, and they must turn away from it to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause and provide them with a platform to outline their complaints.

Here, then, are some of my reasons for turning away from Zen Center, as a practitioner, volunteer, parent and member:

Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies

The perfect precepts of “Do All Good” has a corollary of “Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies”. The character for “ceremony” in hanzi contains the radicals for “correct” and “action” suggesting the ceremonial behavior is by definition good and should be maintained by those who follow the way.

This is the basis of the ceremonial practice of Zen, one of the most unfamiliar and challenging aspects for new participants, but one of the great strengths of the tradition: the ceremonial forms create a firm foundation and supporting framework for practice. They are the Dharma Gates we pass through most often, and they deserve the greatest care and maintenance as they have been carefully handed down to us from the deepest parts of human history.

I believe that Buddhas birthday is an important holiday and part of the traditional relationship of the temple to the community which supports it. The residents of Green Gulch has abandoned that relationship and the practice forms and ceremonies that support it. In the past three years that the Children’s program volunteer staff has maintained this important tradition (to the extent that we could given the literal bulldozing of the area previously used), I cannot recall a single resident of Green Gulch, or any of their children, to have attended.

I believe that with four priests who currently have young children living at Green Gulch, and one other who previously volunteered for children’s program there is sufficient resident staff to provide a family ministry. However none of them has come forward to help us and the one who was requested to lead a retreat last year did so and then “bowed out”, leaving us with no priests to help lead the program or engage with families.

No Selling the Dharma

The third precept is usually interpreted as prohibiting the selling of intoxicants (teetotalers will extend it to consumption). There is another interpretation relating to the way that the Dharma is dispensed: It is forbidden to sell the teaching of the Buddha as they are considered to have an intoxicating effect on the mind.
Sadly, selling the Dharma for profit has become the order of the day for the administration and priests of Zen Center. From a string of questionable fundraising events to a very intimate relationship with Google, there’s never been a better time to hire a priest to show you how to harness the mindfulness revolution, which has been carefully stripped of religious iconography and language to keep you in your corporate or secular comfort zone.

I think the concept of a "zen-a-thon" is probably a literal heresy and I'm ashamed to have participated in the event this past year, and find the very concept of “sponsored practice” to be frankly disgusting and crass. Asking friends to help support your religious practice and institution is strange and awkward, and the extension from sitting to other activities doesn’t really help.

While no priests can be found to support family practice, many priests at Zen Center are fully engaged with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. They are lining up to sell the intimate secrets of practice and perhaps dispense an indulgence or two to a company who’s track record touches the creepy line over and over again.

All of this would be just disappointing if we had not received a request to “quiet down” the children’s program on buddha’s birthday so that the paying customers from Google would not be disturbed in their inner search. Similarly, I head that there was a conflict between Buddha’s Birthday and zen-a-thon at City Center this past year, and the schedule for next year’s Children’s program (as of November 17, 2016) has the date for zen-a-thon set but not for Buddha’s Birthday.

Not Taking Upon Oneself the Burden of Riches

Part of the daily liturgy in the temple is the dedication of merit, this is intended to wipe out the merit accumulated by the assembly in it’s practice so that it does not become a burden. I like to say that “Karma’s not a Checkbook” but Merit sort of is; it’s the abstract representation of ones spiritual capital, and the dedication in the liturgy is a reminder that we should perform good deeds for their effects, not for our own gain.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this daily emptying of the purse, there is a bit of a merit rush going on, both at the administrative level and the individual priests.
When I last approached the Abbess to ask for help from the community, she said that she really wanted to reach out to the families of Marin City. Marin City is a small enclave of majority African American families, descended from the workers who build the Liberty Ships during Wold War II. Apparently the children who do come aren’t worth the time, but if we could find a way to recruit some of these less fortunate families, the merit payout would be more worthwhile.

The priest who bowed out of the Children’s program after helping with our retreat last year has been very involved with the the San Quentin Sangha project. You have to imagine that bringing the Dharma to these condemned is certainly earning the most merit possible, these are murderers, they can truly confess and repent in ways that the dozens of children and their parents who come very month just could not provide.

Not Lying and Not Despising any Being in any State

Zen Center has a long and complicated relationship with relationships in the Sangha. One clear policy which the sitting abbess of Green Gulch explained to me is that single parents of young children are not suitable candidates for priest training, due to the responsibilities of their karma. Which effectively prohibits single parents and couples with young children from entering residence at any of the Zen Center campuses.

I believe Zen Center’s policy of excluding single parents from priest training and therefore residency is discriminatory even if it has a basis in traditional buddhist practice. It also presents a difficult dilemma to any parents currently residing at Zen Center together: separate and be expelled from the community.

Birth and Death are Serious Business, Arise, Wake!

Finally, we come to the straw which has broken my relationship with the Zen Center: In an effort to help introduce the parents to some of the ceremonial aspects of Zen practice, and the traditional relationship of families to priests, I asked for a demonstration of the Baby Blessing ceremony during our summer Family Program retreat last year. I have been practicing with this community for five years and haven’t seen a baby blessing, or wedding. Just funerals, and the occasional Jukai.

Funerals for abbots, funerals for past abbots, funerals for long term practitioners, funerals for babies and the unborn (offered to all comers, no questions asked, on the public schedule). Death and Dying workshops, Caring for the Dying workshops, Managing with Stress and Anxiety About Dying workshops, a Hospice program, a Retirement Community, and so on into the dark night. Basically the community has one foot in the grave, and the population pyramid shows it: look around the room on a Sunday morning with no Children’s program at Green Gulch and you’ll see for yourself.

I asked for the community to acknowledge a child who was born to two long-term Children’s Program attendees, who met at Green Gulch. The priest I asked to help with the ceremony said, “I’m not sure who those people are” and another accused me of proselytizing, and said that the priests weren’t for sale (maybe they should tell Google that, there seems to be some confusion). In the end we didn’t have the ceremony, and it’s clear to me that whatever the residents of Green Gulch and City Center say about how much they want family practice, when it comes to actually engaging, they are nowhere to be found.

[Edit: a few typos have been corrected in the original, Greed Gulch wasn't intentional even if it is hilarious.]