December 10, 2013

Zen’s Strange Problem.


The story says, that the Buddha held up a flower.

No one understood except for one man named Mahakasyapa.

He became Enlightened and is the founder of Zen. (I know, Ch’an, Dhyana, etc. I’m going to say Zen because that’s what people are familiar with.)

That’s it. It started simply enough. As Bodhidharma described it, “A special transmission, outside the scriptures.”

The Buddha declared Mahakasyapa Enlightened. And from then on, when a transmitted teacher thought their student was Enlightened, they would transmit to them too.

So, that sounds great.

What’s the problem?

The institution. If the goal of a teacher is to bring others to Enlightenment, that’s great.

But some teachers have secondary goals. When the lineage becomes too political and institutionalized, and there are several Zen lineages like this, the teacher may have the goal of perpetuating the lineage as well.

Dharma Transmission today is given for many reasons, some of them aren’t bad. Hard work, attendance, dedication, etc.

And sometimes it’s given for political reasons. If a certain student is really good at bringing other people to the Zen center, they might be rewarded with Dharma Transmission…

read that again…

Dharma Transmission, not because they are Enlightened, but because they are good at strengthening the institution.

Not good.

I’ve heard of lineages in which teachers are expected to give Dharma Transmission three times in their first five years. What the heck is that about?

What if they don’t find three people that attain Enlightenment? They can be reprimanded.

So, there’s an incentive to lie, to give Dharma Transmission to someone that hasn’t attained Enlightenment.

So, people care about the institution more than they care about the Dharma sometimes.

So, what can we do? Does Zen need these institutions?

The Buddha didn’t create the institution of Zen. Mahakasyapa didn’t either. It came much later.

Can Zen move forward without it? Does the institution do more help than harm?

I don’t necessarily think the institutions are bad, I’m sure they are helpful in plenty of ways. But when the institution becomes as important as spreading the Dharma, or even more important than spreading the Dharma, that is a problem.

I don’t like the idea of people having Dharma Transmission without really attaining Enlightenment.

What’s the point if that’s not what it’s about?

And when I hear about Zen teachers giving transmission a dozen times in half a decade, I just have a hard time believing they’ve brought that many (or even half that many) students to Enlightenment in that span of time.

What’s the big hurry?

I wonder if we can bring Zen back to basics?

Mind to mind transmission.

Get the politics out of the religion.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant library

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