Sunday, August 23, 2015

Will the Real Buddhists Please Stand Up

Last month I read an essay in Tricycle Magazine by bell hooks called "Waking Up To Racism." This article was difficult and painful for me to read. bell hooks has been a personal hero of mine since I was in college, living in a primarily African-American dorm dedicated to social justice work on campus. At that time, I read her books obsessively and willingly applied her ideas to my mind like someone might use a pair of pliers, screwing and unscrewing certain nuts and bolts inside of me until the machine was drastically different. Franz Kafka wrote, "We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply... a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," and this is exactly what bell hook's writing has always done to me.

This time around though, it felt particularly personal, like an attack directed at me specifically (good ol' ego! I'm sure bell hooks is sitting in her office, envisioning my face and typing a criticism against me as we speak!). In her essay, hooks takes on the problem of the relationship between white colonialism and spiritual seeking; the two aren't so different, she theorizes. As a white spiritual seeker myself, the way she phrases her idea is pretty devastating. She writes about the problem of spiritual seeking:

We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right. Nor does it surprise me that black people, and other people of color who have grown up in the midst of racial apartheid and racist domination, often feel the need to stay home, to stay in our place. Often we feel we have no right to move into a world that belongs to someone else seeking to discover treasures—not even if they are spiritual gems. It is important to recognize and interrogate these two positions without the judgment of good and bad. 

I appreciate bell hook's ability to let complex issues exist side by side. It's not that spiritual seeking or spiritual seekers are bad people, she argues, but that the impulse to seek out "spiritual nourishment" often goes hand in hand with a colonial impulse, or at least, cannot be separated from this colonial history. I read this entire essay and flinched inwardly. It does not feel good to have the thing I care about the most implicated in a destructive, colonial rampage, especially one I didn't even know I was doing. But this is what bell hooks does; she is an axe to that annoying frozen sea within us we don't want to acknowledge. What do I do with the fact that I am who she is writing about? Does being a white seeker diminish the importance of the connection I've made to Japan and Japanese teachers and friends? bell hooks is suggesting that all of these things can exist simultaneously; there can be racism and exoticism alongside genuinely seeking and spiritual yearning. It's a nuanced position.

Two weeks later, cooking lunch in my teacher's tiny mountain temple in Okayama, my friend and former student Solomon got to talking, as we do, about authenticity, dharma, and transmission. He brought up bell hook's article and I immediately started ranting about it. "Dogen was a seeker!" I tried to argue. "He went all the way to China for God's sake! And the Buddha! He left his whole family! You can't get away from renunciation and seeking in Buddhism."

Eventually, Solomon suggested that what bell hooks is criticizing is not spiritual seeking itself (or white people practicing Buddhism, for that matter) but the attitude which privileges and respects certain kinds of methods and practices over other ones. She writes,

Lately, I often playfully want to ask the “real Buddhists to please stand up.” Studying different traditions, I learned early on that “real” Buddhists have teachers they know and name, have studied specific paths, done translations, can speak with authority. Certainly there is always a need for experience and knowledge rooted in traditions, but it is not a spiritual given that these are the places where peace, union, and spiritual awareness are found.

Recently, as I move in and out of American Buddhist communities I see a strong impulse both in myself and others to want to claim authenticity-- to be walking the "true path." I think this is a pretty basic, human impulse, to want to think your own way is the best and most true. It gets trickier, though, within the Zen Buddhist tradition because many of us want to trace our lineage back to the historical Buddha in an "unbroken lineage." We want The Truth. There is a push to want the true practice, to practice "like Dogen" or in "Dogen's spirit." But what is this spirit? How can we know? Historians point out that much of what exists in Soto Zen today (dharma combats, transmission ceremonies, the accessibility of The Shobogenzo) was purposefully invented in the last 150 years by clerics wanting to codify and spread a certain kind of religion.

In Japan, dharma combats during the hossenshiki (head monk) ceremony are scripted. I was shusso quite young, at age twenty-five, and this is pretty standard timing. Other than having a whole lot of work and being exhausted, I did not have special leadership responsibilities. Before my hossenshiki I questioned Aoyama Roshi about this practice-- wasn't the head monk supposed to be a leader? Isn't the dharma combat supposed to be a spontaneous expression of your understanding?

She explained briefly the realities of head monk ceremonies in Japan, how it is a bureaucratic necessity for training monks before they are qualified to own temples. Being a head monk who takes on leadership within the community would need a monastery with a very large number of students. In a monastery of twenty-five, with people leaving every three years, having a head monk take on teaching responsibilities would be unrealistic. "In Zen Buddhism," she said, "There is the ideal and the real. There is 'in theory' and 'in actuality.' Of course we would like to do things the ideal way, but the reality is different, and at the end of the day we have to live in reality."

Well, hell. It's hard for me to argue with reality. And why should I?

I will always strive for the ideal, because I think this yearning for the ideal is really just the yearning for truth. But it so easily becomes a contest about what is most authentic and correct. As bell hooks points out, this very human impulse to seek what is true can get tangled up in the impulse to want to designate who is the "real Buddhist" and who is the hack-- the devotional Buddhist, the material Buddhist, etc.

I'm not ready to give up seeking for truth, but I hope I don't do it in a way that puts myself above others. I think bell hooks agrees, and I'm pretty sure she's seeking truth too, even if she stays home. As she points out in her article, there can be fruitful truth seeking if it is accompanied with humility. She writes, "It is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their 'control' and 'ownership' of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego's need to be recognized."

I don't think this means we should stop seeking. In fact, I think she is urging us to keep seeking, but to do it better. She wants us to seek truth with humility, patience, and self-awareness. She wants us to be boats but also be our own axes and pliers. She wants the truth just as much as I do. This is the epigraph to her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism, the first book of hers I read in college:

i keep the letters i write to you in a folder with a postcard attached. it is a reproduction of the image of a black man and woman in south africa in 1949 walking down a road side by side-- the caption reads "seek what is true"-- it is that seeking that brings us together again and again, that will lead us home. 


3 comments:

  1. Hi, you've said on this blog that you experienced prejudice as an American woman in a Japanese monastery, does that help you relate to what bell hooks describes in the article, about practicing Buddhism as a Black woman in the white dominated Buddhist culture in America?

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  2. Hello! Yes, I think so. I'm not sure I really understood racism until I lived in Japan, where I was/am sometimes excluded for work or opportunities because of my accent, for example. It's also very, very lonely being the only person who looks different in your community. While my experience as a foreigner in Japan isn't identical to being a Black woman in white dominated Buddhist culture because there is no history of slavery or Jim Crow in Japan (towards Americans at least), I can empathize with a feeling of loneliness and/or exclusion.

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  3. "She explained briefly the realities of head monk ceremonies in Japan, how it is a bureaucratic necessity for training monks before they are qualified to own temples. Being a head monk who takes on leadership within the community would need a monastery with a very large number of students. In a monastery of twenty-five, with people leaving every three years, having a head monk take on teaching responsibilities would be unrealistic."

    Lost you there. Are you saying that you associated hossenshiki with becoming a teacher, when in fact hossenshiki turns out to be more about running a temple?

    "It is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their 'control' and 'ownership' of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego's need to be recognized."

    That's interesting: 'white comrades with "control and ownership" of Buddhist thought and practice' (in America)? Did you feel this passed the gut check with regard to where you were headed, on some level? Do I detect some kind of jealousy in bell hooks' remarks, over who has control and ownership of Buddhism in America, along with an assertion that people of color have more of the authentic Buddhist practice in their lives than most American Buddhists?

    I am trying to understand why her words moved you so strongly.

    For me, Zen was never about wearing a robe and leading a practice. It was only ever about finding that happiness that would lead me to want to sit when I needed to sit, and allow me to sit for as long as I needed to sit. Not just the happiness the senses provide without particular distinction, but the happiness when the experience of sense becomes distinct, as well. Not just to sit when the stretch has ease, but when the stretch no longer has ease, as well. What I found is that there are teachings about this in the tradition, in the Pali Canon, in the teachings of Yuanwu, and in the teachings of Dogen; what matters to me is that it is helpful to me.

    Is my happiness useful to others? Your happiness has been useful to me.



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