Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Can't We Accept Good Spiritual Advice Unless It Comes From Superman?


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.

31 comments:

Super Bad Brad said...

Hey brad,
The Lone Ranger turned me onto you! I turning you onto me.
First!

Super Bad Brad said...

http://youtu.be/_ejKxYBgGbY

Check me out next time you're in the NYC!

What you See is what you get!

Anonymous said...

ONE!

THE SELF IS A MISTAKE!

kristien said...

"There has been so much popular communication and ‘hype’ about ‘true religion’, ‘secret’ esoteric Spiritual practices, and ‘Great Masters’ that such things have become part of the conventional ‘self’-imagery and ‘personal’ mind of countless ordinary people. Very few people demonstrate the kind of responsibility, real intelligence, and creative power necessary even to begin practice of a rightly ‘religious’ and Spiritual kind. But great numbers of childish and adolescent individuals embrace forms of exclusive cultism and ‘self’-glorifying belief. Likewise, many people of that kind, unable to live as a true and consistent sacrifice, imagine themselves to be great, or worthy to dominate others. Many even imagine themselves to be Spiritual Masters. Spiritual Masters are developed in the human plane only very occasionally, and the function of such a One is to regenerate the Teaching and the Way of devotion to the Spiritual Master. Any number of practitioners at various higher stages of human structural development may live at any point in time, and such individuals are not Spiritual Masters. They are only people on the Way. What is significant is the Way itself, not who is possessed of what signs of this and that ‘experiential’ attainment. The true Spiritual Master has a unique service to perform for the sake of others. He or she shows the Way and clarifies the Teaching. All others must simply yield to the Spiritual Master in God in the Way that has been Revealed, and they must practice on the basis of a full understanding of the Revealed Teaching. Once the Spiritual Master has done his or her Work, no individual has unique significance in relation to practitioners of the Way. Rather, all must turn to the Spiritual Master in God and serve one another on that basis. Therefore, apart from the Original Creative Work of the Spiritual Master, what is significant is the practice and process in the gathering and culture of devotees."-Adi Da Samraj

Anonymous said...

The a href tag isn't closed!

Khru said...

This is probably the worst comment thread I've ever seen on Bradley's blog...

Anonymous said...

you always struck me as being exceedingly human, Brad, sometimes excruciatingly so, sometimes extraordinarily so

Anonymous said...

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.
You should do a post where you talk more about how you deal with this phenomenon as a teacher. There are plenty of teachers these days frustrated about how students project warped ideals onto them. But not a lot of teachers talking about their own responsibility to not play into this dynamic, and what they do, practically, to push the responsibility back on the student. Because there are PLENTY of teachers who get excited and turned-on by student worship. When things inevitably fall apart, both student AND teacher are to blame. But are teachers really talking openly about how to navigate this territory on their end???

Anonymous said...

just an everyday normal guy

lookin forward to sunday afternoon

listenin to the radio

why be famous

when you can be high

and have nice genitals

Leah McClellan said...

This is good stuff and glad to read it. It made me think, though, of how people tend to think in terms of some of us being below others and others being above, such as spiritual leaders as well as movie stars, models, celebrities and all that. I think we could refer to duality. Good vs bad or made it somewhere vs. ordinary and so on.

Then I got to thinking how students--as a college English instructor--have had eyes that light up in a freaky way in response to me. And I think back to how I reacted to professors I admired--I tried to not be googly-eyed but I was intimidated and, due to youth and inexperience I guess, I just didn't know how to act around people who are doing cool stuff that I wanted to do or who were in positions of authority (I learned quickly that I was inflating them way beyond what they deserved but that's where I was at).

I'm not much for the googly/freaky eye thing, but I still get intimidated sometimes, though I usually use an old trick for getting over nerves when called into the boss's office: picture him or her in underwear or on the toilet with the runs. We're all human. Nobody better or worse. And if someone thinks he or she is better, that's not my issue to deal with.

These days, sometimes I have clients who get googly-eyed with me, and I figure it is what it is. I act my regular self and goof off with them while still maintaining my editorial authority, such as it is--because it is--and it all works out. I'm a regular person with a particular skill. My job, as I see it, is to put people at ease just by being my usual self (often very silly!) and remember how I used to feel/act around someone who was more established than I am.

But of course I don't burp and fart! lol

But you were talking about meditation. Yes, does't matter where the teacher is at. Still, for me, I still have stuff to teach, and who cares if I burp or fart! Or not. Whether to use a comma with a coordinating conjunction and two independent clauses is far more important, when all is said and done :)

Seagal Rinpoche said...

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.

Anonymous said...

Super bad brad you rock!

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem, at least to me, seems to be the formal rituals governing interactions with teachers, which are followed at Zen centers. At least at the center I used to attend, the teacher wears special robes. The teacher rings a bell to summon you into a special room for an interview, which people eagerly wait in line for. When you go into the special room, there's a specific protocol you have to follow that involves bowing to the teacher. All of these rituals make the teacher seem special and other-worldly. While I know rationally that the teacher is just a human being, the rituals surrounding my encounters with the teacher reinforce the view, somewhere in the less rational part of my brain, that the teacher special and is not an ordinary human being at all. When I attended a Christian church, there was no such aura surrounding the pastor. Your interactions with the pastor with the are mostly informal -- no rituals, no bowing, no formal rules other than common etiquette -- reinforcing the view that the pastor is just an ordinary person, like you.

rossignol said...

Tassajara zen. Money = satori.

proulx michel said...

An Ony Mouse wrote:
-- no rituals, no bowing, no formal rules other than common etiquette -

I rather agree: I loathed it when I saw it, and I'd loathe it if I had to do the same, now.

Stinks of Zen said...

If I were to start a cult, I'd pattern myself after Dogbert.

coglapse said...

Need to start reading your blog more often. I talked to you on the radio once.

Excalibur said...

Khru always says the same thing.

chernobyl said...

Recently I read the "Jefferson Bible" (which retells the gospels but cuts out all the miracles and supernatural stuff) and it made me feel much closer to Jesus than before. To each his own, I guess. Some people like bells and whistles to come along with spiritual teachings; I prefer the unadulterated core stuff, which Mr. Warner seems to pass along quite successfully :)

Anonymous said...

Excalibur,

Words and letters will get you nowhere.

Anonymous said...

"

Part of the problem, at least to me, seems to be the formal rituals governing interactions with teachers, which are followed at Zen centers. At least at the center I used to attend, the teacher wears special robes. The teacher rings a bell to summon you into a special room for an interview, which people eagerly wait in line for. When you go into the special room, there's a specific protocol you have to follow that involves bowing to the teacher. All of these rituals make the teacher seem special and other-worldly. While I know rationally that the teacher is just a human being, the rituals surrounding my encounters with the teacher reinforce the view, somewhere in the less rational part of my brain, that the teacher special and is not an ordinary human being at all. When I attended a Christian church, there was no such aura surrounding the pastor. Your interactions with the pastor with the are mostly informal -- no rituals, no bowing, no formal rules other than common etiquette -- reinforcing the view that the pastor is just an ordinary person, like you."

You were bowing to who or what, exactly? Who says so?

Sai Kumar Reddy said...

Chogyam Trungpa said it best, its another form of spiritual materialism, we hope Zen, Zazen etc will make us special, attractive, rich, powerful, give us pleasure and when it doesn't deliver this we are disappointed. We usually go to teacher who we hope has some of these qualities that we ourselves want. Isn't that why we worship Movie Stars, Sports stars, famous artists. Don't we all want to be them? We only want advise from the best, and those that are considered best are those who have achieved something spectacular. What can be more spectacular than a spiritual superman?

Mark Foote said...

Brad studied with Tim, who spent time with Kobun, who studied with Sawaki in high school. Sawaki's emphasis was on zazen only (hope I'm getting this right), no chants, no rituals, no lectures. I guess that makes sense, except that I don't think I could take 14 periods of 50 minute zazen a day like they do at Antaiji in sesshin.

So we could maybe dispense with teacher-student roles and dokusan too, and just sit zazen? Don't think that's a sale, here.

Or my approach, I have to say, is to try to get it directly. Brad relies on his lineage for his authority. I'm grateful we have a punk rocker with lineage, but I have to wonder, can we teach people how to sit the lotus without pain and leave it at that?

Stinks of Zen said...

I've learned a lot. When I see the "shadow of a whip" I take my own advice.

In fact, although I think Dogen explains "This very mind is Buddha" pretty well, I find that I would rather avoid the phrase altogether.


I'm not a solipsist I just accept that I am profoundly stuck with myself just like we all are. I just try to accept my inheritance these days and keep it simple.

For me, the end of the chapter Shoaku Makusa echoes the preceding:

"What Dorin has told us is that what the child has been capable of saying has been entrusted to us, though it is not a task for a child, and what the old men were not able to practice has been entrusted to us, though it was not the task for old men such as these."

Anyway, I'm gonna go look at porn now. Brad says it's ok after all. I really am.

Anonymous said...

Just like the children's book title, Everybody Poops. There are no gods, just real people with real lives. Guy

Anonymous said...

Good Spiritual advice?
Good being advice Brad agrees with, bad advice being what he disagrees with. Isn't the subtext;
"Please don't hold me to those silly buddhist standards of conduct."?
Nah. Brad needs lots more insight under his robe to be a teacher.

Excalibur said...

Not me, 8:13 am, not me.

proulx michel said...

proulx michel said...

An Ony Mouse wrote:
-- no rituals, no bowing, no formal rules other than common etiquette -

I rather agree: I loathed it when I saw it, and I'd loathe it if I had to do the same, now.


re-reading myself, I get the impression that I might have induced others to misunderstand me: I meant that I loathed the traditional etiquette, and prefer to display as little ritual as possible, particularly in question-answer sessions, where I feel that the traditional etiquette just stifles any spontaneity that might be.

Anonymous said...

Unjustly censored;
time to quit this
blog and move on.

Nothing gold can stay.
And eventually the
Shit Hits The Fan.

Be prepared; it ain't
gonna be pretty.

Manny Richardson said...

Dhamma Brother,

Would love to exchange links with you. Check out my blog http://knowbuddhism.info

James

muebles en majadahonda said...

This won't actually have success, I think so.