When Zen Master Buried
His Head in the Sand
A month ago I read a testimony by someone online (anonymous) where he related his own as well as his friend's experiences with a few Zen buddhist teachers. He narrated, as you can read below, specifically the problem of not having kensho in the case of his friend. I had a private conversation with him and got to know some additional details of the matter, including the lineage and the names of the teachers involved. To my surprise I found out that these teachers come from a lineage whose head teacher had recently written an article about the problem of ”minimizing of kensho” and bringing it back in Zen buddhism. After this I had a brief email discussion with the head teacher over email.
Anon wrote: > I attended a retreat a few weeks ago lead by a couple of Zen masters, attended by one other and a rotation of Dharma holders. During a discussion after teisho, one student mentioned that after 4 years of dedicated practice, attending retreats and so on, he still had not had kensho, did not have any insight into the dharma. The fundamental question for him is, "Who am I?" The teachers laughed 'knowingly' but offered literally no help to him, no insight, no instruction. It made me angry... This incident, that someone like that could train with them for 4 years and not even have initial realization, makes me question their competence and whether I should continue to participate in this organization. It seems to me that it is largely a matter of students not receiving appropriate instruction.
The universal formula at this temple is to start everyone interested in awakening through the koan Mu. This has always seemed to me like a strange and inefficient method. Apparently it works for some people, but it is not uncommon to find students who have been working on Mu-koan for years. At what point do you offer a different approach? The only other practices offered are just sitting (jap. shikantaza) and following of breathing.
Kim's comment: From this blog you can find many other examples of people who sought to answer their existential problems through traditional buddhist or hindu practice, with authorised teachers but for one reason or the other could not get the first irreversible insight, or awakening here called by it's Japanese name kensho.
Again, here we have a practitioner who has devoted a notable amount of his time, energy and money to Zen buddhist practice instructed by Zen masters but the practice doesn't work for him. The core of the problem here is that koans are indirect tools of generating awakening (sudden enlightenment) or further purifying the mind (gradual enlightenment). They also require one on one guidance from a teacher and in many cases a lot of time to create ”doubt” about the koan. Doubt could be rendered as interest or yearning to pierce through the koan such as Mu. Due to several reasons, including cultural, it doesn't get much more indirect than this. Find my proper analysis, A Look at Awakening and The Two-Part Formula, from my free Awake! -ebook downloadable from the Open Heart-website.
I am sure the knowing laughter of the teachers was sincere, not meant to cheapen the student. I have heard the same laughter in dharma communities all over the world many times, when someone in similar frustrating situation bursts out to the teacher that they aren't experiencing any shifts despite of sound effort. It's the laughter of common ignorance of teachers and their senior students who do not exactly know how awakening is generated. This is a very widespread problem. By the time one becomes a teacher or a senior student, possibly after more than a decade conditioning into the tradition, they think asking such questions is silly talk of a beginner that can be chuckled at. They get amused because the common and mistaken thought is that one can do something to approach awakening but that it is a folly to think that one could somehow make it happen purposefully. They do not know that practices like this exist. They think that it's such a silly and childish idea, that you can only be amused about it. What is even more concerning is how large crowds of unawakened people who have become habituated to this kind of thinking are equally amused by such questions. However, I think that asking question shows common sense that beginners still have. They have not yet identified with the ways and forms of the tradition and think for themselves.
Anon: > I have done koan training for a couple of years and remain unconvinced that I should continue this practice. I have met teachers who have completed that training who still appear to lack clarity. I talked to one teacher and my heart sank when it occurred to me that, although she had completed the 1000 or so koans of the curriculum and was on her way toward receiving formal transmission, still she had not had realization of emptiness. A few days after having this intuition, she admitted the fact in the course of a dharma talk, but did it in such a way as to suggest that this kind of realization is unimportant. I wonder.
Kim's comment: What was said first, I have heard numerous times before. I have also heard of the poor quality of koan training within American Zen buddhism but I had never heard of someone who had passed most of the koan curriculum without insight. This indicates that something is very wrong with the way koans are taught in this lineage. It is obvious that their way of training has deviated from proper koan training where the student does not pass or graduate a koan without an irreversible shift or kensho. Internet search reveals how John Tarrant Roshi describes his way of teaching: ”I studied and taught Zen in a classical, pretty much Japanese, manner for about 15 years before developing new ways of introducing koans that even people with no experience of meditation can find useful. source” To think that a senior student, about to become a teacher has spent many years doing 1000 or more koans, without having an insight, while downplaying ”this kind of realization as unimportant” is a really corrupted state of affairs.
When I studied with Shodo Harada Roshi, who has the custom of putting all the Western Zen teachers and masters practice deep abdominal breathing (jap. susokkan) regardless if they have finished koan training, I heard that the koan training had deteriorated greatly in American Zen but I could never have imagined that it had gone this bad.
As I learned the names of the teachers involved, I realised that I had read a good article by the head teacher of this lineage just a few months earlier. He wrote:
”In the Western Zen scene today words like enlightenment, kensho, and satori have been pushed to the background. Any emphasis on the experience of awakening has been minimized... However, that acknowledged, the great project of Zen is nothing less than awakening... Zen without awakening is a hobbled eagle. I suggest if we want Zen to be more than a mindfulness practice that will get us an edge in whatever project we want an edge in, we need to reclaim awakening as the central purpose of the project.”
Revisiting his article, I felt puzzled. It is stated that there is a mission to ”reclaim awakening” in their school but then even extensive training is not getting it done. I wondered, if the head teacher knew about this or possibly other similar situations within his own lineage.
I emailed the ”Roshi” (I shall adress him with this title. This is not John Tarrant Roshi who was mentioned earlier in the text.) where I introduced myself, pasted the quote and asked for his comment in the light of his article. I mentioned I had studied Zen with notable teachers and had been asked to teach myself.
Roshi replied: ”Kensho is a natural part of the human condition. But, koan introspection is a practice, discipline concerned with encouraging the insight, and once encountered to deepen and broaden what it can mean. And that I am part of a project, all heirs in the lineages of Daiun Sogaku Harada, within Soto to reclaim the discipline.”
Receiving his reply, I wondered if he had read and/or understood the issue or whether he already ducked the question, either because he didn't want to discuss the matters of his lineage with a stranger or because he had nothing to say about it. I replied to him stating the facts again that clearly showed that the noble effort of reclaiming kensho in Soto zen didn't seem to be working, not in these cases at least. In the spirit of sharing the dharma, I also let him know that in dzogchen, including Open Heart teachings, there are practices that mechanically produce kensho and included half page instructions of the Two-Part Formula. I was worried he would feel my post to be pushy but at the same time I expected a dharma veteran of 50 years to be able to listen and filter any beneficial information.
Techniques that generate awakening are not known outside traditional dzogchen (doing my best to change that) which is the reason why kensho is viewed mistakenly and even strangely in many traditions. I have presented these faults in the quotes of Zen teachers in this article.
Roshi replied: ”I don't believe there is any universal practice, something applicable to every heart. I personally am content with my disciplines, but thank you for your offer. Please forgive my being blunt. I am not interested in pursuing this conversation any further. Thank you for sharing your concerns.”
I can appreciate how a Zen veteran after a life long training is happy and content in his lineage and it's ways. But like most other Zen buddhist authorities he made a grave misjudgement in making this a matter of belief, instead of a matter of study and exercise. He stated that he does not believe that there would be a practice that would function mechanically and generate kensho for anyone because of his identification with the Zen buddhist method. It's the amused laughter again. Like this he unknowingly chose his own mistaken belief. This is unacceptable for a yogi in any situation.
Having received many strange messages online, it can be that he took my message as another crazy email written by someone who doesn't know what he is talking about, presenting what to him are sheer absurdities. I have gotten many weird emails but I have always read them, especially if they are well written and struck the key points, like my emails to him did.
Perhaps the Roshi read and understood my posts but trusted or hoped that if there were any problems in his Zen school, the system would take care of them, even if his reaction was in direct disharmony with what he was informed. But to be honest, I think he put his head in the sand.
On behalf of all seekers out there, it concerns me greatly that he wasn't listening or if he was, he ducked the issue. In his position as a head of the lineage, he could help a lot of people, while accomplishing the very mission of reclaiming awakening in his Zen school had he better tools. But no is a no and there is nothing anyone can do about it. OK, then. At least I tried.
After this I wrote a note to Open Heart-teachers:
If you meet a practice method or a single technique that is told to work better than some aspect of Open Heart-teachings, you are obliged to look into those teachings. I do not approve that you become negligent because the students have to pay for your attachments. If something better is available, always choose that. The moment you stop being interested and open to learn something new, and hopefully better, is the moment you stop being an Open Heart-teacher.
Obstacles are many.
Mind made, man made.
No other option than to pray
for the lighting to strike.
- Kim, 8th of March 2018