history and how to do Zen wrong

Zen practice has its pitfalls, and people have been worried about the same ones for a very long time. How Zen Became Zen is about sectarian conflict over one of them, which ultimately resulted in Rinzai koan practice. The history of Buddhism in China goes back hundreds of years before the 900s-1100s, but that’s the period in which a major conflict centered around “just sitting vs. koans.” Koan-like stories long predate the Song period, but it was Dahui in particular who introduced the idea of obsessing over a koan and cultivating a ball of great doubt, which then explodes into awesomeness and you’re enlightened all of a sudden. Dahui also had an axe to grind about the Caodong school, which is the roots of modern-day Soto. I’m mixing up Japanese and Chinese terminology in a way that I’m sure would be painful for experts to read.

How Zen Became Zen reconstructs how the monastery system worked in practice, and all the politics surrounding it. It turns out that imperial and local governments had more say over monastery abbot appointments than the senior monks. Government people were part of an educated “literati” class, and the distinction between government people and interested laypersons could be fuzzy. There was a standard career progression from novice monk that potentially all the way up to Zen master. There were tens of thousands of temples, and the qualifications to run one included “dharma transmission,” which amounts to an enlightenment certificate. Zen/Chan makes a special claim to a transmission of enlightenment “outside the scriptures“. This explains why Zen literature focused so much on genealogy.

Succeeding politically was based on writing things that appealed to the educated elite, explaining the curious fact that so MUCH is written about an intrinsically wordless thing. At one point, the Caodong tradition almost went extinct. A particularly charismastic person brought it back to prominence all of a sudden, and some retroactive fudging of lineages was performed. This is apparently the period in which (elite, educated) laypeople began meditating on a widespread basis. Western interest in Zen certainly seems more common among wealthier, more educated people, in keeping with ancient trends. A strong emphasis on meditation is particularly appealing to laypeople, though:

…it is even possible that monks in the new Caodong tradition were the first Chan masters to teach meditation to laypeople on a broader scale and thus were leading the trend. Although meditation had always been a part of Chan monastic practice, through much of the Northern Song, Chan had implicitly stressed gongan study and the attainment of dramatic enlightenment. This emphasis might have made it appear that it was only really monks who could fully study Chan. It also carried with it the depressing message that as long as one was not enlightened, nothing was right: this lifetime was basically a failure for those who never achieved enlightenment. The Caodong teachings of silent illumination must have seemed an inviting alternative to many literati…By emphasizing the inherent Buddha-nature present in all sentient beings while de-emphasizing the need to strive for a moment of enlightenment, and by teaching that in meditation one could somehow experience the realm of awakening, the Caodong masters especially appealed to the needs of the literati.

This style of practice gets criticized as “do-nothing Zen,” and Dahui made a career of those kind of criticisms. The Caodong tradition was a threatening upstart.

A cool modern-day book about Zen pitfalls is Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, by Barry Magid, who’s an analyst and a Zen teacher. Chasing after enlightenment bliss is a pitfall. Trying to feel peaceful and avoid things is a pitfall. The way Magid explains things in general is very accessible:

We may pursue spiritual disciplines as a way to expunge these frightening and dangerous aspects of ourselves. Sadly, we may turn to meditation as a form of psychological neutering. We may unconsciously strive to cut off our sexuality as a way to distance ourselves from early shame or abuse. We may try to purge self-assertiveness in order to negate the dangers posed by our own anger or the anger we were subjected to as children. All this may take place under the disguise of ever deepening calmness and a devotion to compassionate service. The blissful afterglow of samadhi is another favorite place to hide. I am always suspicious of students whose joyfulness or compassion looks too good to be true. A few rough edges are a sign of emotional honesty, while a totally calm and unruffled exterior often hides inner turmoil.

This is one of the best explanations of how meditation and therapy are alike that I’ve ever seen:

Like analysis, meditation practice creates a long-term relationship with a figure who serves a positive selfobject function, as well as becoming the object of transference longings and expectations. Like analysis, meditation practice creates a setting for the eliciting and working through of intense fantasies and affects. Like analysis, meditation trains us to stay with, tolerate, and explore thoughts and feelings normally felt to be too painful or frightening to endure. I call this the structure-building aspect of practice. By “structure,” I simply mean the capacity to tolerate and meaningfully organize our emotional experience. The absence of this capacity is reflected in the subjective sense of being overwhelmed by experience or of an intolerable anxiety in the face of certain feelings, all of which may lead either to the unconscious repression of the dreaded thought or feeling or to conscious avoidant behaviors. Another manifestation of this insufficiency is the subjective experience of inner emotional emptiness or deadness, which can lead either to an immobilizing depression or to compulsive, addictive attempts at self-stimulation.

Meditation teaches us to literally sit with and through all of these states in a way that progressively builds our capacity to tolerate, regulate, and organize our affective experiences. There is nothing mystical about this aspect of practice. The first rule of a sitting practice is to sit still.

On the one hand, there’s too much seeking after an exciting experience removed from everyday life. On the other hand, there’s too much seeking after a quiet experience removed from everyday life.

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