Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Meditations on Meditation - A Personal Story


Anyone who writes a paper, such as the ones presented at this conference on Buddhist meditation, must answer an important question, which is, “Why did you write it?  What is the point of your paper?”  When writing my paper for this journal, I confess that I did not ask the question until after the paper was almost finished.  I think I should share with you my answer, up front, so to speak.  I wrote the paper to clear up something in my own mind:  I am conflicted about a dispute that has arisen recently in Buddhist ranks, largely in America and Europe.  People in Asia, for thousands of years, have accepted Buddhism in whatever form they learned it, without much dispute.  In Japan the various denominations go their own ways, for example, without arguing with each other.  But Westerners, it seems, cannot.

We Westerners only began to pay attention to Buddhist teachings about a hundred years ago.  We are babies in the faith.  The number of non-Asian Buddhist scholars and priests presently active today cannot be large.  Some of us have even been taken seriously in Asia for what we have written about Buddhism.  I am honored to be among them.  Almost all of us began practicing the religion and took Buddhist priest vows after studying Buddhism in books.  But a rift has arisen in my own Buddhist community that is gathering momentum and threatens to destroy the advances that have been made outside of Asia. 

At issue is the question of whether it is permissible to call yourself a Buddhist without accepting on faith all the tenets of the religion.  One side says yes; the other says no.  Put directly, the question is this:  “If you do not believe in reincarnation and other Buddhist teachings about what happens after death, can you still practice meditation as recommended in most forms of Buddhism and call yourself a Buddhist?”  On the liberal side, you can.  On the conservative side, you cannot.

Every Anglo-European Buddhist priest I know was raised in a Christian or Jewish family.  Even those who were non-religious before accepting Buddhism share the tendency we all have of choosing sides.  We are Westerners, after all.  We tend to fight wars over religion.  Our egos are very big.  It is our legacy.  The dispute that inspired this paper is between an ordained American student of Tibetan Buddhism and a fellow scholar-priest with credentials in both Tibetan and Zen traditions, and who was born in Scotland.  The former has charged the latter with misrepresenting Buddhist teachings.  I use quite a bit of space in this paper defending the accused simply because of my own background in Japanese Zen Buddhism.  My criticism of the accuser should be seen in that light.  I am as guilty as he is of taking sides. I am defending myself, basically. 

Meditation in the religions of Asia puts emphasis on reflection and transformation.  The goal is insight, not obedience.  It offers everyone, especially me, liberation from my own small mind right now rather than my salvation from hell after I die.  Reflection and transformation are expressed in various ways within Hinduism, and the Buddhism that emerged from it.  My time spent studying both religions is about equal, but my experiential knowledge is anchored in Buddhism, mostly in Kyoto’s Zen Buddhist temples where I have trained for nearly fifty years.  My reflection on Asian meditation here, then, is focused on Zen meditation.  In doing so I will give special homage to Daisetsu Teitaro (D. T.) Suzuki, and consider the criticism of Zen by a popular proponent of another Buddhist denomination. 

Nowadays lots of people practice Asian meditation of some sort.  In the hippie days of the 1960’s, of course, it was commonplace, and now meditation is at least known if not practiced in all areas of society.  Meditation and yoga classes are taught everywhere.  But when I was a little boy growing up in Oklahoma only Indians engaged in meditation.  My parents, both with advanced university degrees, were paid by the U.S. government to teach in the Ft. Sill Indian School and keep records detailing the welfare of Indian families living in Comanche County.  The seasonal gatherings of local Indians involved meditation and prayer -- usually accompanied by communal dancing.  Our family Bible has an inscription dated one week after my birth in 1935, documenting my presentation to tribal elders and “The Great Father.”   

Ironically, my parents’ job was to discourage such traditional ways and bring the Indians into civilized American society by teaching classes in English, history, math, mechanics and the Bible.  My father R. O. Webb also was a Church of Christ minister and U. S. Army chaplain.  But he secretly tried to keep Indian customs and languages alive.  He made sure the children sent to the school shared with him all the folk tales and family ways they knew about before being brought to Ft. Sill from reservations elsewhere in the country.  For his efforts, local Indian leaders honored my father shortly before he died, in 1970, with a big powwow celebration, attended by Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Black Foot, Caddo and other Plains Indian tribes.

It was in this setting, oddly enough, that I first heard of Zen meditation.  I’ve told the story many times of how I grew up fearing and hating the Japanese during WWII.  They were the bad guys that my playmates and I pretended to capture and torture to death.  We did that for years in the schoolyard.  And then the war was over.  I was ten in 1945.  America had won the war with Japan!  I listened to the radio reports and saw movie newsreels of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I needed answers.  Every week I borrowed books from the public library. That week I asked for a book on Japan.

The librarian gave me a book called Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, by D. T. Suzuki.  According to the preface, the author was working on the book about the time I was born, and it was published in 1938, well before the U.S. joined the war against Japan.  Somehow that book was on the shelf in a library near my home.  Ironically, some twenty years after the war, in 1964, Dr. Suzuki was one of my doctoral dissertation advisors when a Fulbright scholarship took me to Kyoto University for graduate studies.  Looking back, I can see that what he wrote about Zen in his book so long ago, and that I read when I was so young, has stayed with me and is the foundation for everything I subsequently have learned about meditation. (fn 1)

So what did Daisetsu Sensei say about Zen meditation?  I now know that what he wrote was highly personal, and much of it must have sounded heretical to Buddhist scholars and priests of various traditions.  But I appreciate that he cut to the chase, sailing across two thousand years of Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Judeo-Christian history, in order to tell his readers in a convincing voice exactly how Zen came to be and how it works in the modern world.  Even as a child I was enthralled.

In the preface to a volume in a set of seminal books on Zen by R. H. Blyth, Suzuki would write:  “The aim of Zen is to open the eye to the ‘supreme wisdom’ (aryajnyana), that is, to awaken the inmost sense which has remained altogether dormant since the beginning of the human consciousness.  When this is accomplished one sees directly into the truth of Reality and confronts a world which is new and yet not at all new.” [fn 2]

In 1945 I knew by heart every answer offered to life-and-death questions by the particular Protestant Christianity that shaped my childish view of the world.  That was my Reality.  But I had no clue about the things Daisetsu Sensei wrote about.  I hung on every word in the ideas he presented, captivated by their breadth, logic and compassion.  And I vowed I would go to Japan some day.  

At the beginning of the book that inspired me so, Suzuki asks,  “What is Zen?” And he answers with a nod to Buddhist history (and the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese languages that informed it) and with the doctrine that lists meditation as the last of six spiritual exercises -- known as paramita -- which the historical Buddha taught his followers to practice in order for them to reach the goal of self-fulfillment, i.e., enlightenment.  Buddhist texts dealing with the sixth paramita describe it and give names to the various levels of its achievement, which some Buddhist denominations (including all of those in the Tibetan lineage) claim to be able to validate in each practitioner. 

But Suzuki’s approach is to explain Zen not as a difficult, multi-level form of meditation, but more broadly as a way of life in which meditation plays a part.  In so doing he removes almost all orthodox narratives of all the religions on earth.  He boldly argues that you could be Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or anything else and still practice Zen.  (That alone probably gave me the courage some 67 years ago to keep reading his book.) 

When recounting how Buddhism came into China as a foreign religion, which was contrary in many ways to the teachings of centuries-old Taoism and Confucianism, Suzuki suggests that the “Taoist mind” of China’s antiquity was probably attracted to the practical side of Zen Buddhism, or what he calls “its complete democracy.”   Its “penetrating analyses and speculations” may also have seemed compatible with Taoist ones, and better than Confucianism’s society of the educated and land-owning class over peasants.

Instead of striving for oneness with nature and immortality after death, as Taoists did, or being reborn countless times in hopes of bringing enlightenment closer and closer, as both Hindus and Buddhists believed they would, Suzuki suggests that a Zen master often is skeptical about either possibility.  He cites a case in which a believer in reincarnation asked a Chinese Zen master what he expected to be reborn as in his next life.  The master said he hoped to “work for the villagers” as an animal.  He in effect believed in doing what needed to be done instead of speculating over the unknown.

When I read this story for the first time I found nothing enigmatic about it, perhaps because this seemed to corroborate Christian teachings about the first being last and the meek inheriting the earth.  Indeed, the abbot of a Zen temple in Kyoto where I first did some training criticized Christians (and indirectly, me) for having a martyr-complex, because they seemed to make self-sacrifice the main goal in life. He warned me that that was not the goal of Zen, even if Suzuki claimed it was.

In his book on Zen and Japan (and in many other books and articles)  Suzuki cited many of these conversations between Chinese Zen masters and their disciples.  These cases are called koans, which Suzuki refers to as “barriers” to full realization (satori, the Japanese word for enlightenment.) Koan “practice” began in China as formal exercises in which a teacher and student “looked at the words” in temple records of conversations between the first Chinese Zen teachers and their students.  The word koan literally means “princely plan” – implying that in ancient China the plans of a land-owning scholar contained wisdom that was beyond the grasp of an ordinary peasant.  The word might be translated less literally as “spiritually advanced views.”  The point of the training is for the student to grasp the true meaning of the master’s words for themselves.

Only the Rinzai and Obaku branches of Zen in Japan use koans in formal training of novice priests. Now, after experiencing koan training myself (and providing it in the Zen centers I established), I am convinced that koans all have practical moral lessons.  But the majority view of them seems to be that they are puzzles without answers, to be used as nonsense mantras that help us break through linear thought. They do that, too.  But they are loaded with practical advice about how to live a useful life.

Let me give one example of what I mean.  Zen masters in Japan assign koans to their students one at a time, taking them from well-known koan anthologies.  They often begin with “Joshu’s Mu” koan from the Mumonkan anthology [fn3], which involves a famous master, his disciple and a dog.  A 9th-century Chinese master, the “Admonisher from the State of Zhao” (Joshu in Japanese), was asked by one of his disciples if a dog had the Buddha Nature or not, to which the master Joshu answered, “No!’  This account does not tell us what the disciple thought, but he probably was puzzled, as any student of Buddhism would be, knowing that a basic premise of Buddhism is that all beings are born with Buddha Nature (S. buddhatva, J. busshou), the potential for Buddhahood.

In another account of the conversation, given in the same anthology, the disciple did question Joshu’s “No” on scriptural grounds, which got him in trouble with Joshu for being too attached to ideas.  So when the disciple asked the question again, Joshu replied “Yes!” The disciple then asked “But how can Buddha Nature get into a lowly creature like a dog?”  Joshu’s response seemed a non-answer:   “The dog was ignorant.”  Such admonitions from the famous Admonisher from Zhao seem to relate somehow to Zen teachings about false opposites. 

 Suzuki Sensei explained it this way, in a later article, where he wrote:  “… to speak logically of things that cannot be put into logic …” or “to bring into the ‘arena of logic’ things that go beyond logic is a necessary teaching ploy, a method of instructing students of Zen.  It is one way of understanding ‘holy truth’ and is usually described as ‘the non-duality of the highest truth and everyday truth.’” [fn 4]  After all, the 6th-century Indian patriarch of Zen himself, Bodhidharma, also responded to such discussions of yes-no duality by equating emptiness with fullness and the holy with the profane.  But for those of us raised to believe in dualities, the idea of the non-dual is a hard teaching.  We seem to get caught up in logic. God’s ways and man’s ways are different and can never be the same, we think.  

One of my Japanese Zen teachers came to my rescue by dramatizing the Joshu story in a way I’ll never forget.  He said maybe a real dog was right outside Joshu’s room that day, a starving dog that gave birth to several puppies and then died right in front of Joshu and his disciple.  Then, what if only one puppy survived, blind and on the verge of death.  What if that dog was the one the disciple was asking about?  And instead of worrying about what Buddhism taught about Buddha Nature, maybe Joshu was trying to admonish his disciple to wake up.  Just feed the dog!

At that moment I think everything fell into place for me.  Joshu’s words became like the “Argh-h-h!” in a Peanuts cartoon.  He was telling his student in the best way he could that all of his concerns were worthy enough, but that time was wasting!  Those concerns were not enough.  Somebody had to do something!  It was then that I saw why none of my Zen teachers, the abbots of the Japanese temples I trained in, wanted to discuss anything about the Buddhist teachings behind this koan with me.  They were tired of answering my questions and knew I had given everything enough thought. 

At this point I quit being critical of how this koan is always used in Japanese Zen temples.  The training is very formal.  At certain times during the day, usually during a group meditation, the novice priests get up and line up in front of the teacher’s room.  Upon entering they prostrate themselves in front of his seated form.  He asks them what their koan is and what it means to them.  In this case specifically, “What is the meaning of Joshu’s MU?”  They have been told to “place his answer on your breath” and they do so – with moans like cows mooing.  I always found it funny and felt even funnier the first time I tried to do it. [fn 5]

But here’s the thing:  each of us has breath that animates our bodies while we are alive.  We breathe in and we breathe out.  In seated Zen meditation we gradually get used to turning down the volume in our heads of the noises our brains make.  We listen.  We feel.  And we become more aware of everything.  Koans provide answers that only each of us can discover for ourselves.  However, with this koan of Joshu’s MU, there is a special teaser that may leave us trapped in our thoughts.  

The Japanese word “mu” ()-- pronounced “wu” in Mandarin Chinese -- means “No”.  At the same time it is used in Buddhist texts to refer to the totality of reality, the Not-One-Thing, the “I Am That” of the so-called Void, a gateway to enlightenment  (S. nirvana, J. satori).  You have it at the end of every out-breath, which may be your last!  Mu can indeed stand for enlightenment itself.  But it also means No.  Words can get in the way.  Here, you think maybe No is a trick.  And that can lead you nowhere.  (Oh, no! Nowhere? Everywhere?)  You’d better just shut up and listen to the universe, your home, and allow it to show you its rewards and its needs.

OK.  So you think you got it.  Duality is a trap.  But the question is, even after understanding a koan intellectually, how the hell does a trainee express TO THE UNIVERSE exactly how he (or she) plans to FEED THE DOG?  Do you do it with words?  By your actions?  How?  This approach to meditation is very much a part of the history of Buddhism.  It is found in the lineage that encourages you to trust your own Buddha Nature.  It is the very opposite of the dominant Tibetan approach of reaching the same levels of Buddhist meditation with a systematic method that is carefully described, level by level, and buttressed at every turn by scriptural explanations (in Tibetan, of course) of exactly how each level should feel.

Before I touch on Tibetan Buddhism, and its very different views on meditation, I feel obliged to say a word about the Japanese tradition of the priesthood and the physical pain involved in training.  First, unlike Buddhism in other countries, Japanese Buddhism does not require priests to be celibate.  Most novice priests are eldest sons of priests, so they have to be there to train and carry on the tradition.  They have no choice.  It is quite unusual for an ordinary Japanese person (or foreigner like me), whose family is not from a long line of priest families, to choose to be a priest. 

Secondly, there is the physical side of sitting in meditation in a Japanese Zen temple.  It is strict and very painful at first.  Even young Japanese novice priests in their teens have trouble today.  They are bigger than their fathers and grandfathers, and less accustomed to sitting in the proper positions:  full lotus (kekka fuza) for meditation, and legs folded under the body (seiza) for everyday sitting positions.  They may spend months just dealing with the pain signals their bodies send their brains because of sitting in one position up to eight hours each day, in intervals of 30-60 minutes. 

Only after novices learn to sit almost indefinitely “on top” of their pain will they have to deal with the other thoughts and “barriers” (including koans) that will fill their heads. In my experience, zazen is a tried-and-true method of entering a world that all of us can visit, a world of dhyana, the deepest levels of reality, which make us a bit kinder and understanding in a world filled with pain and suffering, but leaves us otherwise unchanged.  Some of us will be inclined to probe texts for meaning and write down our thoughts about them.  But that doesn’t necessarily make us wiser.

Speaking of words, brains, and pain, Tibetan Buddhism adores words, takes brains as seriously as neurosurgeons, and abhors pain, especially in training.  It is this vast difference between the Tibetan and the Sino/Japanese approach to Buddhist meditation that is at the heart of the rift between two groups of Western Buddhist converts.  It is a dispute over both methodology and philosophy.  It brings into question which method is faithful to the historical Buddha’s teachings.  Which of the traditions is more authentic?  Western converts to Buddhism want to know.  Dyed-in-the-wool Asian Buddhists don’t seem to care so much. 

I know few other teachers of Buddhist doctrine and practice in the Tibetan tradition as impressive as B. Alan Wallace, whose writings are prolific and to be treasured not just by people interested in Buddhism, but by anyone interested in the history of religion and science.  His five volumes in the Columbia Series in Science and Religion will be the lighthouse for those of us paddling our little boats of understanding to the other shore.  I have read his Mind in the Balance: Meditations in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity (2009), and am well into his latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (2012). 

His arguments with Buddhists in other traditions remind me of the public debates that my father and other Biblical scholars used to have.  What are the essential New Testament texts and what did they mean in the early church?  Does it matter what they may mean today?  Can you trust any scholar who does not have a working knowledge of New Testament Greek as well as Latin and Aramaic Hebrew? Wallace’s most recent public spat with Stephen Batchelor over “distorted views” of Buddhism is my case in point.  (fn. 6)  

I met Alan in 1980, when he accompanied H. H. the Dalai Lama to Seattle, and I was on the committee arranging his appearances at the University of Washington, Seattle University, and the Seattle Zen Center.  Alan was still a robed monk, after studying in Dharmsala, India and serving as one of the Dalai Lama’s interpreters for fourteen years.  After that Alan distinguished himself as a scholar at Amherst and Stanford in physics, science and religion.  He is the founder/president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. (fn. 7)

It is no surprise, considering what he has said and written about at length, that Wallace disapproves of half-baked Buddhists.  In his words, he is “skeptical” of Buddhist groups that put practice over study.  From the Tibetan point of view, that could be an apt description of Japanese Buddhist priests (excluding those who are scholars, of course!)  But, at the same time, Wallace criticizes any tradition that reverses that process, putting study over practice.  Alan demands of himself more intense study than any Tibetan teacher I have encountered.  His own approach is rigorous study and practice, and his books convey the results in compelling ways.  

No one should get the wrong idea when Wallace calls himself a Buddhist Skeptic, meaning a doubter, because he is in fact a devoted Buddhist scholar and practitioner who carries the flag for a rich Buddhist tradition.  I take comfort in the opening sentence of his Meditations, where he defines his Buddhist skepticism in the Greek sense of “seeker” – in which case perhaps we all (including him) are seekers following the historical Buddha’s admonition to “learn through our own experience which theories and practices are wholesome and which are unwholesome.”

That English version of Shakyamuni Buddha’s exhortation some 2500 years ago contains two essential characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism as it is known in the West.  Reading, analyzing, and testing Buddhist scriptures -- against one’s own experience and comparing that against the theories, interpretations, and experiences of others, very much as scientists do – that strikes me as the quintessence of Tibetan Buddhism.  Also, the use of the English terms wholesome and unwholesome (instead of true and false, right and wrong, wise and ignorant, etc.) comes right out of the translation lexicon of B. Alan Wallace, whose elegant English fairly flows over the page, amazing readers with its confidence.

It often seems that Wallace wants to prove Buddhist teachings to be true by explaining them with physics and neuroscience.  But he demurs on that point by quoting philosopher William James, to underscore the fact that faith trumps science where ultimate truth is sought.  James says our “faith-ladder” can offer visions that deserve to be true, and that can make us behave as if they were true.  Wallace concurs:  “Without such vision, Buddhism dies,” he says.  (fn 8) 

That being said, the Tibetan vision is complex, and the achievement of its goals is demanding.  Unlike a Japanese Zendo -- where newly arrived novices are plopped down on cushions, their bodies and legs pulled into position, long lists of temple rules and regulations given out verbally (and expected to be memorized and followed immediately), with the meditation leader’s horrifically loud “Die on your pillows!” ringing in their ears -- something more humane and gentle is offered to the new students of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. 

General accounts of Buddhism blandly point out that three types of Buddhism exist in the world today:  Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  Theravada (Teachings of the Elders) is practiced in south Asia, most notably in Sri Lanka and Thailand.  It is a monkish version of Buddhism in which monks aspire to achieve (as closely as they can) what the historical Buddha achieved, whereas the majority of the population lives separated from monks but reveres them as though they were already Buddhas. There are substantial national differences in Theravada as it is practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma (Myanmar).  

But the various forms of Theravada practice are few in number compared to all the forms of the so-called Great Vehicle Leading to Enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhism.  For Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in the world, covering all the rest of Asia, including Japan.  It is common to place Vajrayana Buddhism, too, under the wide umbrella of Mahayana.  But Tibetan Buddhists and others in the Himalayas prefer to be placed in a separate category, as I do here.
(A Japanese version of Vajrayana is at the core of Tendai and Shingon denominations, but I find its focus to be more on iconography and ritual than on doctrine.)

Within all forms of Mahayana Buddhism there is the promise that the essences of enlightened beings, whether historical or supernatural, are standing ready to assist human beings escape from the cycle of rebirth and attain full realization of what really is going on.  Zen basically says we can get there on our own (self-power, known in Japanese as jiriki.) Pure Land says we should admit how difficult that is to accomplish by ourselves and humbly depend on a higher power (tariki), namely, the Buddha (Amitabha), or in specific texts such as the Lotus Scripture.  Vajrayana offers us spiritually evolved teachers, many of whom are reincarnations of past Buddhas, who show us how to personally experience an awareness of the truth of all things leading to spiritual liberation. 

Before going to Japan in 1964 I had read everything I could about Buddhism in English and Japanese books (and a few things in Sanskrit and Chinese) at the University of Chicago.  After taking the post at the University of Washington I met some Tibetan monks in Seattle, which had become one of the largest Tibetan immigrant communities in the world after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959.  They were quick to further my interest in Buddhism with instruction that would lead me step by step to my goal.  I expected something like that from my Japanese mentors, but what I received was very different.

My doctoral research centered on how the paintings of Chinese and Japanese Zen priests became identified with the ruling military class (buke or samurai) in Japan.  I wanted to understand how that connection came about, and in terms of religion, I needed to know how Zen and other forms of Buddhism functioned at that time. I needed to examine Chinese and Japanese documents and paintings kept in Japanese temples, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.  My focus was on ink paintings executed by Toyo Sesshu (1420-1506), his Chinese predecessors, and his followers, including the painters of the Kano school, who were the official artists of the ruling military class. 

Once in Japan, my research advisors were professors at Kyoto University and abbots of over three hundred Zen temples in the area that were built during my period of interest.  My questions to priests were answered with polite suggestions that I sit in meditation before asking any more questions.  How long?  Oh, two or three years!  Academic advisers were willing to help me find resources to explore the answers to my questions, but they agreed with the priests that sitting (J. zazen) was a good idea.  My true motivation, therefore, for what turned into a lifetime of zazen and Buddhist studies was not religion, but to make connections between the art and the religion that inspired artists and their donors during a relatively short period of Japanese history.

If I had met a Tibetan teacher before I met Suzuki Sensei I might have taken the path that Alan Wallace did.  (The timing was off:  in 1945 few Americans knew about Tibet and Alan had not been born.)  But I find Wallace’s descriptions of how our minds work and the correlations he makes to mental states described in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist literature immensely useful.  A metaphor that often appears when Wallace describes what Buddhist practice is like, is that of setting out to climb a tall mountain like Everest, which takes days of preparation, skill, and determination just to make it to the base camp, and then more of the same for the higher levels leading to the summit, representing full self-liberation.

A basic starting point of Buddhist training for Wallace is approximately what Japanese Zen priests regard as the time when you finally settle down on your sitting pillow and get to work.  That is the state of shamata, which Wallace calls “meditative quiescence,” consisting of three features:  ethical discipline, meditation, and wisdom.  He compares it to building a night-sky observatory in a place without obstructions (ethics), then setting up a high-power telescope (meditation), and then using it to see the sky (wisdom). (fn. 9)

He puts emphasis on the telescope, which corresponds to the meditative state known as samadhi, or meditative concentration.  In the practice of samadhi the mind is “calmly, continuously focused inward and both body and mind are imbued with exceptional degrees of pliancy and well-being.” For Wallace, samadhi is superior to vipashyana (insight) meditation because it is partnered with the two other features, viz., ethical understanding and wisdom. (fn. 10) And he reminds us if we reach the first dhyana (meditative stabilization) level we can sustain samadhi for a night and day! 

To quote Wallace at length, “A great advantage of resting in this state of meditative equipoise is that the five hindrances, or obscurations, temporarily become dormant:  sensual craving, malice, laxity and dullness, excitation and guilt, and uncertainty.  These hindrances obscure the essential nature of the mind – the subtle, luminous continuum of mental consciousness from which all ordinary states of waking and dream consciousness emerge… “ Only correct practice, shamata practice, establishes the mind “in meditative equipoise” leading to “renunciation and compassion …” allowing us “to see reality as it is.” (fn. 11)

Going further, simply “engaging in insight meditation alone, such as zazen and vipashyana” … even Vajrayana insight practices “such as Mahamudra and Dzogchen” are misguided, says Wallace.  Meditators who stop there are not as far along towards the summit as they could be.  They may think, “I’m already as ethical as I need to be for advanced meditation practice,” but that is “like a surgeon who thinks, I took a shower this morning, so there’s no need for me to scrub before entering the operating room.”

Wallace takes his criticism of inadequate Buddhist denominations right to their doors. “In Zen practice, it is clear that even without having fully achieved shamatha, one may experience a transitory realization (Jap. kensho) of one’s Buddha nature” but such “breakthroughs … rapidly fade away.” “… Mindfulness of breathing is commonly practiced in the Zen tradition to stabilize the mind.”  But, insight acquired that way will “vanish as suddenly as it arose… The Japanese term “Zen” translates from the Chinese Ch’an, which in turn derives from the Sanskrit dhyana, so it would be odd for such meditative attainment to be overlooked in these schools.” (fn. 12)

Odd, indeed.  What’s wrong with those guys anyway?  How can they be so stupid as to miss the boat?  Is it because Chinese priests misread the texts – for two thousand years?  And deceived countless Japanese converts to boot!  Did only Tibetan Buddhists get it right?  Here is where I lose patience with Wallace.  He is a genius, no question about it.  But he can sound like some fundamentalist preacher on a rampage. (Or quite frankly, like a reincarnation of old Joshu’s disciple!) His confidence in his own reading of Buddhist texts seems unlimited.  I remember asking in Sunday school if all the people who were born before Jesus of Nazareth was born were going to hell, as Christian texts suggest. My logic at the time was a small-fry’s version of Alan’s:  tight as a drum.

Buddhism, like most religions, admits we live in a dualistic universe and shows us how we should live and die in it.  The desert religions that dominate the Western world tell us the duality is real, that we must take the path of goodness, which is God’s path, and that there will be a judgment at the end as to how close we came.  Hinduism and Buddhism tell us to look instead into our own minds, find the true nature of the duality there, and go through its tunnel leading to a non-dual perfection.  The tunnel is reincarnation, which is much longer for Hindus than for Buddhists, and it stops in the realm of the Not Two, commonly called enlightenment or liberation. 

The dispute between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism that conflicts me now has echoes in the past.  It always has been about how we should navigate the tunnel to liberation.  Can we do it once we intuitively reach the core of consciousness, in a dream fashioned in China?  Or must we distrust the core’s own reality and trust the navigation manual (the vinaya) that Indo-Tibetan travelers have preferred?  The dispute has its earliest origin in the second century, then bubbles to the surface in the late eighth, and comes to a head in the 17th. 

Ashvaghosa, the famous Brahmin-born Sanskrit orator and musician is said to have beguiled and converted huge crowds of Indians of all castes to Buddhism, including kings and princes.  His name implies that even horses who brought riders to hear him wept for joy as he described the core of consciousness, the alayavijnyana (阿梨耶識), which gives birth to each rebirth containing all seven of our sense consciousnesses (somewhat like the Higgs boson “God Gene” of modern physics, which gives mass to particles that inhabit our universe, including the ones that make up the structure of humans.) By claiming that this alaya was something to be trusted as inherently real (instead of unreal like our dualistic and thus unreal senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, ideas, and instincts), Ashvaghosa did come close to heresy.

This hero at the beginning of Buddhist history in the Christian era even converted the Westerners, the Kushans, who controlled much of India at the time.  We used to think of Ashvaghosa as having originated the Great Vehicle of Mahayana Buddhism, largely due to the text known as The Awakening of Faith.  But we now suspect that he was not the author of that work.  Instead, it shows the hand of an anonymous Chinese writer, whose view of the alaya is shared by early Chinese Zen (Ch’an) teachers.

Some 700 years after Ashvaghosa, a northern Chinese Zen monk by the name of Moheyan (摩訶衍) was invited by the Tibetan King to come face the wrath of Tibetan monks for his “gazing-at-mind-with-no-examination” message.  Some of the monks, who later developed Dzogchen meditation in Tibet, were influenced.  But Moheyan was run out of town.  Then, in the 17th century the Fifth Dalai Lama outlawed this teaching (called zhentong in Tibetan) and punished its proponents. [fn13]

I have to say, Ashvaghosa is my man, as he is for most Zen students (and was for Dr. Suzuki.)  My own self-satisfaction with my understanding of Buddhism recognizes Wallace’s at a glance, but mine is in religion and the arts; his is in religion and science.  Music and science often produce different kinds of brains.  I cannot prove that, of course.    I only know my artistic temperament grows uncomfortable around certain brains.  Even so, satisfaction is where you find it, so I am not surprised that Wallace’s descriptions of samadhi (and beyond) match my experience as closely as words allow.  It fascinates me, because the Zen tradition discourages me from writing about it.

Any attempt I might make to describe deep meditation, and try to match my experience with ancient Buddhist texts in any language is seen in Zen as self-serving and at cross purposes with a quest for insight with some usefulness to the world.   As a child I found myself in music.  Not as a composer but as a performer.  My career as a child piano prodigy (another story) did not allow me to write about the music I performed or how I felt when I performed.  Performance held no attraction, but I lived to bring to life great music through my mind, heart and fingers.

 And I did.  The little Bach C-major Prelude that every beginner learns triggers my alayavijnyana every time I play it.  As does the Scriabin Prelude in G-flat, which I expect will accompany my final liberation.  When I played well (which I no longer do) I assure you I had no sense of me at all. Eight hours a day at the piano seemed normal.  Countless composers, compositions, and recitals:  were they played in dhyana?  samadhi?  kensho?  What and who was realized?  With thanks to Shakespeare’s Juliet, or Gertrude Stein, a rose by any name is a rose.   

What many mystics, Buddhist or otherwise, call the True Self, lying  “dormant since the beginning of the human consciousness,” as Suzuki Sensei so beautifully put it, was awakened even in my last public piano performance, in 1953, of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto.  I remember sitting at the piano for a very long time after it was finished, then thanking the orchestra, and walking backstage.  I played no encores.  The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital bed, and was told I had suffered a nervous breakdown.  And art, religion, love and Asian studies – not necessarily in that order – appeared on my horizon that day. 

My own mellowing (another word for meditational bliss) came first through music and art.  Bringing great piano compositions to life with my fingers was like conjuring up the souls of great musicians.  They lived.  I disappeared.  My fingers were having a field day.  But I was infinitely dead, and deeply alive.  Where I went nobody knew.  Not even I.  The same thing happened when I saw great paintings, or lost myself in the art of painting.  I never talked about that.  But when the ten-year-old me read Daisetsu Sensei’s words on Zen meditation, I knew instantly what he was talking about.  Samadhi?  Authentic?  Inauthentic?  Whatever.  I only knew that words were almost useless.  And I had found someone who knew that better than anyone. [fn14]

If almost all words are useless, some are not.  I’ve come to believe that to describe Buddhist enlightenment in so many words is dangerous.  Maybe our attempts to describe meditation and enlightenment, like salvation, heaven, hell, and even God, should be prefaced with the warning that they are in the category of things that are simply indescribable.   Religious sages have tried to put such things into words anyway.  Mystics in Western religions have offered God-centered definitions for centuries.  Let me try one for Buddhism:  We are connected to each other and to every thing that is alive or ever has lived in ways we cannot know until we examine ourselves the way the Buddha examined himself; but we perceive ourselves as separate from others, and that blinds us to the truth of things and makes us do and say things that miss the mark. 

Better yet, let me share with you something that the Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago, the Rev. Bonnie Perry, said in a sermon recently.  When telling her listeners about the intricacies of Christian doctrine, she said, “But you know, actually, the Gospel isn’t worth a rat’s ass if it doesn’t change people’s lives.”  As a Buddhist I feel sorry that rats rank so low on her value scale.  But I think she may be onto something where the Buddha-dharma is concerned:  its teachings, too, don’t mean much if our lives are not changed by it.

We have to be very careful not to confuse our own intellectual understanding of Buddhism with the gifts it offers us.  Regardless of the denomination that follows the Buddha-dharma and its prescriptions for practice, and whether the practice is based on surrender to a higher power or the personal responsibility to do it basically by ourselves, we should keep our eyes on the goal: letting go of our misperceptions and actions that benefit no one but ourselves.  Meditation as taught by Zen Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists provide us with two ways to change our lives.  But there are many more.  For example, the great Japanese teacher of Pure Land Buddhist teachings, Honen Shonin 1133-1212), provided us with another, equally authentic way.  

I have always loved studying other languages, and I believe I learn things about other people through that study that I cannot learn any other way.  But I find the time spent arguing that one Buddhist tradition is authentic and the others are false – or insisting on specific English translations of Pali and Sanskrit terms over their Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese translations -- to be a great waste of time.  Deciding that someone has reached a certain level of meditation, even when that decision comes from a highly evolved teacher, also makes me cringe.  Such decisions are by nature misleading if they are based on conceptualizations expressed in words, in any language.


[fn 1]
Dr. Suzuki was born in 1870 to a samurai family in Kanazawa.  The name given to him at birth, as the fourth son, was Teitaro (貞太郎), or “Obedient Good Boy”.  The democratization of Japan in 1868 took away the status that samurai families had enjoyed for centuries.  When his physician father died, leaving his family destitute, the Pure Land Shin Buddhist denomination of his mother’s family supported her and educated the children.  D. T. Suzuki is regarded as the premier spokesman for Zen Buddhism in the world today because of his many books on Zen in English and other languages.  But he is disregarded by most Japanese Zen priests, who regard him to an outsider because of his affiliation with Shin Buddhism. However, Soen Shaku, a Japanese Zen priest who encouraged his disciples to study English and to share Zen teachings with Westerners, took Suzuki on as a student in 1894 and gave him the enigmatic priest name Daisetsu (大拙), which in effect means “such a klutz.”  As an author writing in English, Dr. Suzuki adopted the name D. T. Suzuki, taking the first letters of his birth and priest names to distinguish himself from all other Suzukis.
In his twenties Suzuki became acquainted with many Westerners, discussing religion and philosophy with them and living for extended periods in their homes in Illinois and New York.  He and his American wife, Beatrice Erskine Lane, maintained homes in both Japan and America, and their journal The Eastern Buddhist was read world-wide.  As a professor in Kyoto at Otani University, the school affiliated with Shin Buddhism, Dr. Suzuki linked up with other Zen Buddhist priests and scholars (such as Hisamatsu Shinichi) who shared similar views on the value of Zen in the world.  The study of world religions and their relationships to each other were explored through such organizations as the Theosophical Society.  Suzuki’s lectures in New York and London were wildly popular during the 1950’s.  At the same time, his efforts in maintaining orthodox training in Zen meditation, even for Westerners, and in the careful study of the writings of Shinran, the 12th-century founder of Shin Buddhism, occupied Daisetsu Sensei right up until the end of his long life in 1966.

fn. 2
Zen and Zen Classics, Vol. IV (“Mumonkan”) by R. H. Blyth (Hokuseido Press: 1966).  The Chinese Zen priest Wu-men (J. Mumon) wrote this book in 1228, based on several centuries of student-master encounters.  The Japanese priest Shinchi Kakushin (1205-1298) trained under Wu-men in 1253-54 and brought a copy of the book back to Japan. It is one of a few well-known classics of the genre available in Japanese and other languages. The bulk of those written in China and Korea since the 13th century (including the four mentioned by Suzuki in this preface) have still not been translated.  In Japan the classic koan cases are normally given to trainees orally, and in an abbreviated form. Reading the texts is in fact discouraged.

fn. 3
Ibid., p.18-38.  Reginald Horace Blyth (1893-1964) dedicated this volume to “Suzuki Daisetz, the Greatest Japanese of This Century.”  The two men were lifelong friends. Blyth was an Englishman who went to India in 1924, and then took a university post in Korea in 1925.  While there he studied Zen under a Japanese Rinzai master for ten years before moving to Japan, teaching at the peer’s school (ShiGakko) in Kanazawa, where he first met D. T. Suzuki.  During the war he was imprisoned, but after the war he served on Gen. MacArthur’s staff.  As a professor at Gakushu-in he tutored the Crown Prince (Emperor Akihito).  Blyth is buried next to Suzuki in Kamakura.

fn. 4
The Eastern Buddhist, October 1977, p. 81-82.  In order to further emphasize the relationship of the holy and non-holy, Hisamatsu Shin’ichi (1889-1980), one of Suzuki’s closest friends, put it this way:  there is something in Zen that “strives for the highest reach of the religious in the ‘non-holy’” (The Eastern Buddhist, May 1977, p. 4.)

fn. 5
In my experience, Japanese novices know going into the abbot’s room that Joshu’s response should be their response, literally, even if they know their meditation has not reached maturity.  Putting some sound to a lengthy out-breath is thus a kind of holding pattern.  In temples outside of Japan students sometimes try to give a conceptual, scholarly or nonsensical response, which usually gets them dismissed at once.  Manifesting for your self the awareness of things is not easy.

fn. 6
Stephen Batchelor may be our generation’s D. T. Suzuki.  The number of his books does not match the master’s, but could someday come in second. He was born in 1953 in Scotland, raised near London, and at 18 went to Dharamsala, India, where he studied Tibetan Buddhism with Geshe Dhargyeye for ten years, then with Geshe Rabten in Switzerland for five years, and after a couple more years as translator for Geshe Thubten in Germany. During that time (in 1979) Batchelor was ordained as a monk.  In 1981 he went to South Korea to train in Zen Buddhism under Kusan Sunim. There he met Martine Fages, who had been ordained as a nun in Korea in 1975, and in 1985 the couple disrobed and married, settling in Sharpham in Devon, England, where they lived throughout the 1990’s, establishing a college for Buddhist studies and a meditation center.  In 2000 the couple moved to Bordeaux, France, and they hold teachings all over the world (see their busy schedule on his website: stephenbatchelor.org).  Wallace’s review of Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is in the October 2010 issue of Mandala Magazine.  Batchelor’s response, “An Open Letter to B. Alan Wallace,” is in the January 2011 issue.

fn. 7

fn. 8
Page 148 of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.

fn. 9
In Sino/Japanese Buddhist dictionaries, shyamata is 正受 (in Japanese, shouju) and literally means “proper reception.” But other Chinese characters are listed as synonyms:    (S. J. jou) meaning “stable or fixed”;  禅定 (J. zenjou) meaning “confident meditation,”  and even 三昧 (S. samadhi, J. sanmai) meaning “three foolish concerns,” i.e., of birth, life, and death.  Their differences are noted, but not described in detail.  They all refer to reaching a point of quiet awareness and being able to see into the nature of things and avoid what Wallace calls unwholesome obstructions. The Sino-Japanese word for “mind” is always used in the definitions of what is being quieted and made aware.  That word is what in Japan is called kokoro, which all Japanese take to mean the heart of humanity we all share.

fn. 10
J. shikan (止観) – lit., stop and see; and other “seeing” meditations such as sangan      (三観) and kensho (見性) are supposedly more shallow, according to Wallace.  He follows Indo-Tibetan tradition in the rankings of these levels as well as the terms in the previous footnote.  Suzuki Sensei always favored the Chinese character (J. myou, C. miao) above all others because it is not a translation of an Indian term, and has the sense of  “mystery” or “wonder” in English.  But he insisted it was a mystery that could be experienced in the here and now and at any time.  I think it was his private word for the most profound dhyana (i.e., Zen) of all.

fn. 11
Meditations, p. 151

fn. 12
Ibid., p. 153

fn. 13
The Jonang School of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Sakya teachers in the 12th century, espouses the zhentong philosophy of emptiness, the religion’s core belief. Jonang says that only the non-dual nature of the mind (the God gene) is inherently real; everything else is marked by duality, and thus is not real. Zhentong views have been criticized as unorthodox by all the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but particularly by the Gelug School, the predominant school for over 500 years.  The orthodox teaching on the subject is called rantong, which says ALL phenomena are empty of inherent existence, and that nothing (including alaya, the mind’s core that is the source of all consciousness) is inherently real … OR (wait for it) unreal.  In short, rantong trumps, because both assertions are seen to be groundless in the face of Buddhist teachings about reality.  Today zhentong does not cause very many Tibetan Buddhists (except Alan Wallace) much of a problem. 

fn. 14
My admiration for Daisetsu Sensei is limitless, obviously.  In fairness to B. Allan Wallace, his criticism of Zen and Suzuki in particular is gentle compared to attacks by other young Western scholars of Buddhism who have made it fashionable to ridicule Suzuki because he “lacked formal transmission in a Zen lineage” and created an “intellectualized, free-floating Zen.”  Robert H. Sharf has made that charge with a straight face in several books and articles, pointing also to the late Abe Masao and other Kyoto intellectuals as creators of a “Zen of Japanese nationalism.”  In as much as Suzuki was a life-long teacher for me, and Dr. Abe was my landlord when I was a doctoral student at Kyoto University, I can perhaps be excused from that discussion.

Glenn T. Webb
December 2012