Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.
My new book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate is out now.
I want to talk a little about the book. Not just to promote it (though I won’t deny I’m doing that), but because I wrote it to address a topic I think is really important. And that is, why we can’t seem to accept good spiritual advice unless it comes from Superman. I already ranted in my last column about how Buddhism isn’t spirituality. But here I’m using the word “spiritual” just to refer to that area of life that addresses the deep questions about the nature of things. It’s convenient shorthand. But everything I said last time still stands.
ANYWAY, there’s a long-standing notion that runs through a wide variety of religious traditions that people won’t listen to good spiritual advice unless the source of that advice possesses powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary men (and women, of course, but I’m quoting the intro to the old Superman TV show, which was very sexist). Thus it is not enough that Jesus said to love your enemies and advised that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. In order for anyone to accept that good stuff, the folks who spread his message thought we also needed to believe that Jesus had magic powers. I mean, why should we bother treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves unless the guy who said we should could change water into wine? D’uh.
This line of thinking runs through all the world’s great and not-so-great spiritual traditions. Buddhists are not any more immune to it than anybody else. There are hordes of stories of Buddha’s miracles and even of his virgin birth. The only real difference with Buddhists is that, by and large, they don’t tend to give a whole lot of importance to whether or not you believe those stories. In fact several major Buddhist lineages discount them entirely. But that doesn’t mean a lot of other Buddhists don’t believe them or even that for plenty of Buddhists those stories aren’t crucial.
The notion that for a spiritual teacher to be believed he or she must appear to be superhuman still carries a lot of weight even today. Of course, nowadays we’re less likely to believe our contemporary spiritual teachers can really do magic tricks -- though lots of people still fall for the sleight of hand of Eastern fakirs and Western faith healers. Sophisticated, worldly urban types tend to expect their miracles to be a bit more subtle than walking on water or turning into fire-spitting whirly-gigs as the Buddha is reported to have done. But we still expect miracles.
Sometimes we like our guys to have been great ancient teachers reincarnated or possess psychic abilities and beatific vision. And even when we’re not after those sorts of blatant conjuring acts we still look for people who conform to our image of spiritual purity. Those who are spiritually pure shouldn’t be like ordinary people. They need to be perpetually serene and unaffected, liberated from bodily desires and distress. When we find out that they’re people just like the rest of us we’re liable to rebel and turn upon them viciously. The mechanism by which this happens in Zen is well documented in books like Shoes Outside the Door and The Great Failure Neither Richard Baker, subject of Shoes Outside the Door nor Dainin Karagiri, the subject of The Great Failure, ever claimed to be spiritual Supermen, but that didn’t stop certain of their followers from reacting with anger, distress and even grief when it was revealed they were not.
Of course someone who advocates a meditative practice ought to show signs of that meditative practice having had some good effects on their own lives. That’s perfectly reasonable to expect. What’s not perfectly reasonable to expect is that those good effects should manifest in precisely the manner we imagine they ought to. We can never know what these people would have been like if they hadn’t done their practice. Furthermore it’s not how meditative practice has affected your teacher that’s important. It’s only how meditative practice affects you that matters. And you are the only one who will ever see the full extent of that.
ANYWAY, the reason I wrote Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate was, in part, to try and kill the notion of the spiritual Superman for good and all. The only way I felt I could do that effectively was to assassinate a specific Eastern spiritual teacher. Since I come from a tradition that believes you don’t find the really important truths by looking outward but by looking inward, it wasn’t good enough for me to do what the authors of the books I mentioned above did and pick out someone else as my target. The teacher whose reputation I was to trash had to be me. Admittedly, I’m not a really good example because so few people actually believe that I am any kind of Great Enlightened Being. Those few that do are mostly a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
Still, since I’ve started becoming more popular I’ve seen people react to me in ways that are a little scary. I’ve only been recognized on the street by random strangers a couple of times. But these days when I walk into a meditation center where they know my work, people’s eyes light up in a freaky way and some even seem to cower when I try to speak to them. To these folks I am no ordinary person. I find that kind of reaction difficult to deal with. Some people are starting to make react to me in ways that only make sense if they have begun to project something ethereal upon the image they carry of me in their minds. They expect things of me that they would never expect of each other. And that’s unfair.
I didn’t really want to write this book. It’s hard work exposing your worst side to public scorn and ridicule. This book was physically painful to write. I had at least half dozen other ideas for a third book that would have been a breeze to write and would have been more commercially bankable. But this book screamed at me to get it done until I had no choice but to obey.
There was something very deep that could only be got to by digging around in my own guts. In doing so I discovered that even the tawdriest portions of my life are not all ugliness and horror. In fact, much to my surprise I found very little of that. There’s a kind of beauty to the truth that transcends whether or not you find that truth to be pleasant or objectionable. Plus there’s some jokes in the book too.
I wanted to write a book that told the truth about teachers in Eastern spiritual traditions. Because there are still a lot of illusions out there about those of us in this game. The public has been conditioned by the media to believe that teachers in Eastern traditions aren’t like our garden-variety preachers, priests, imams and rabbis. Yogis, Gurus and Zen Masters, we’re told, have this special something called “Enlightenment” that makes them transcend the world of ordinary humans. You can make very good money exploiting that twaddle. There’s even one so-called “Roshi” (i.e. Zen Master) who sells gullible rich people five days in his godlike presence for $5,000 on the grounds that by being in proximity to him they just might get some of this Enlightenment thing for themselves. It won’t happen, so you might as well give the money to me instead!
But just because no spiritual teacher is Superman doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot through the practice of meditation. I happen to believe zazen is the only way humanity has to get out of the mess it’s in. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t bother shouting about it.
In this media saturated age where every person’s sleeziest action is captured on digital video and put up on YouTube for all to see two hours later, there is nowhere left for spiritual Supermen to hide the pulleys and wires that enable them to do their magic tricks. It has become urgent that we kill the idea of the spiritual Superman and start looking at how we can accept good spiritual advice even from people who burp and fart and -- oh my god! -- fuck just like we do. If we can’t do that there won’t be any way we can accept good spiritual advice from anybody.