54 – You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way
56 - Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion

This episode answers four listener questions: 1) What is enlightened behavior – can someone be “awakened” and still do immoral or harmful things? 2) I had a profound experience in meditation – what now? 3) Is there a way for me to participate at my local Buddhist center if I don’t want to engage in bowing or chanting? And 4) Do you have any recommendations for contemporary books on Buddhism or Zen?

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Can Someone Be “Awakened” and Still Engage in Immoral Behavior?
I Had a Profound Experience in Meditation – What Now?
What If I Don’t Want to Engage in Bowing or Chanting?
Contemporary Buddhist/Zen Book Recommendations

 

People regularly send me questions by email through the podcast website, and sometimes in the comment section on each episode. I’ve picked today’s questions to answer because I’ve heard them asked many times.

 

Can Someone Be “Awakened” and Still Engage in Immoral Behavior?

Jim writes: “Can one be Awakened and still engage in immoral behavior? Given the number of well-documented cases (please correct me if I’m wrong about this) of Zen masters who have sexually abused their students, the answer appears to be yes! Hence, there is some muddy water in the relationship between how Buddhists should behave and Awakening; or, some people who claim to be Awakened aren’t.”

Sadly, Jim, you’re not wrong about Zen (and many other Buddhist and non-Buddhist spiritual) teachers behaving in harmful, immoral, even abusive ways. There have been too many scandals to count where supposedly enlightened people took advantage of the power that comes with such status in order to meet their own unenlightened needs, or at the very least disregarded appropriate and respectful boundaries in ways that hurt others. Chogyam Trungpa, Joshu Sasaki, Eido Shimano, Sogyal Rinpoche, Genpo Merzel, Taizan Maezumi… the list goes on and on. Although it tends to be men who engage in harmful sexual behaviors, women have their own ways of causing irreparable damage within spiritual communities – they just don’t end up in the headlines because the ways women tend to misuse power are usually more difficult to identify and address, but the resulting harm can be just as traumatic.

It’s important to realize that many of the teachers and leaders who have ended up embroiled in scandal were – and still are – beloved by (at least some of) their students. Despite their actions, they were, at least in some sense, effective teachers, and in many cases really did help some of their students to develop and authentically awaken. Even as they behaved in deluded and selfish ways in one area of their lives, in other areas they were often brilliant, compassionate, full of equanimity, etc.

I won’t go into detail here about why sexual misconduct and misuse of power seems to be so prevalent in Buddhist and other spiritual communities. That’s a huge topic in and of itself, so I’ll just briefly say it has a lot to do with the fact that people assume if someone has “Awakened” – or is highly respected by others for the level of their spiritual attainment or understanding – they would never do anything wrong. Or that anything they do must somehow be wise, skillful, and compassionate, even if it doesn’t look that way at first. A student will sometimes ignore their own misgivings or suspicions by telling themselves, “But so-and-so is enlightened!” (Or a Zen master, or an awakened spiritual healer, etc.)

It doesn’t seem like it should be so, but apparently, it’s perfectly possible for someone to have a strong spiritual practice and considerable insight, and still succumb to the three poisons of greed, aversion, and delusion. Does this mean they aren’t enlightened? It depends on what you mean by enlightened (or awakened). If you think of that as an ideal of utter perfection and a permanent state, then people who act selfishly clearly aren’t fully enlightened. However, there’s a big question in my mind about whether any human being has ever attained that ideal of utter, irrevocable perfection! Sure, there’s been some remarkable people who look pretty perfect and who keep to the straight and narrow in terms of moral behavior, but I really wouldn’t want to bet that they’d never, ever slip up no matter their circumstances.

I think it’s better to honor the ideal of awakening or enlightenment as a direction toward which we guide our lives, and as something we have to manifest moment by moment instead of some permanent state we attain once and for all. We know in our gut that if someone transcends self-concern and sees clearly their interconnection with all beings, they would never do something like pressuring a student to get sexually involved with them. We know in our hearts that true enlightenment is incompatible with selfish, deluded actions.

And if no one has ever actually achieved complete, perfect, and permanent enlightenment? There’s still obviously a huge difference between the self-absorbed, deluded person before practice and the relatively gracious, compassionate, mindful person after many years of practice. In short, our practice isn’t based on trying to attain an ideal, but on the direct, verifiable experience of improvement.

Part of what Zen and Buddhist practice does is increase our tolerance for ambiguity – for being able to hold apparent paradox, or two true things that seem to contradict each other. We aim just to hold them. The effort to explain them away or forcibly resolve them doesn’t actually reflect the truth of life. For example, I was in college when I first learned the lesson that people can be extremely intelligent and even radically on the side of peace and justice, but still have huge weaknesses, blind spots, and dark sides to their characters. I remember reading the writings, or hearing about the actions, of brilliant, inspiring men – and then finding out they had been terribly misogynistic. Some of these men wouldn’t have even wanted to speak to me as a woman, let alone consider me capable of understanding what they had to teach. Part of me wanted to reject all the good that these men had done because of their outrageous stupidity and bigotry, but I couldn’t. (It would have meant rejecting most of my college coursework.)

It may or may not be wise to let wayward spiritual teachers and leaders continue to teach and lead, but it’s valuable to recognize and accept that in spite of their mistakes they may have indeed have had deep spiritual insight, a sincere wish to help others, and great teaching skills. It challenges our mind and convictions to imagine someone who has legitimately awakened, at some point, to Buddhist truths like the emptiness of self and the interdependence of all beings, nevertheless going on to do things like playing power games or sexualizing their relationships with vulnerable students. However, that’s the way life is. It’s complicated.

I Had a Profound Experience in Meditation – What Now?

Chris writes: “I wanted to share something from my practice and possibly get your input. I’ve been sitting daily, usually twice daily, for almost a year. I recently had an experience that I don’t know what to make of, or if I should make anything of. It was after an evening sit, I was getting ready to stand up and was suddenly hit with an understanding of time and space being seamless. I suddenly knew that to me, in that moment, it was right now but that to someone else, across the world, 50 years ago, it was also right now. It felt like I was struck with a profound understanding that there is only right now. It was like I understood interconnectedness in a much deeper way. It was cool, but honestly a little alarming as well, because of how undeniable the sense was. I haven’t had an experience like this before in my practice so any input or guidance you’d offer would be greatly appreciated.”

Thanks for sharing, Chris. My teachers called experiences like the one you describe as “moments that make us dance.” Or, alternatively, “openings.” They’re a glimpse of what’s true. That’s one of the things I love about Zen – it gives you context for these kinds of insights. If you had no context for an experience of the seamlessness of space and time, you might just think, “Wow, that’s wacky,” and write it off. It’s Zen that says, “Yes! Indeed! Time and space are seamless!” And Zen doesn’t care that these experiences can’t really be put into words – or when they’re put into words, to someone who hasn’t had a similar experience, they often sound kind of strange or unremarkable. But at some level they change us forever, even if the experience is unsettling.

The tricky part of openings is that they can be distracting. They’re cool or maybe unnerving, and subsequently we either hope something like that will happen again, or are a little afraid something like that’s going to happen again (or more likely, a mixture of both feelings). It can be hard to let go into the goalless meditation that let us experience the opening in the first place! This is why openings don’t tend to be emphasized or talked about a whole lot in Soto Zen. They’re very real, and can strengthen our faith in practice, but there’s really nothing to be done with them but let them go, or they just get in the way. We don’t need to deny them, just keep in mind that we’ll never experience anything like that again. (There may or may not be other openings, but they’ll inevitably be different.) At the same time, we can have faith that the opening has already done its work on us. My Dharma grandmother Roshi Kennett used to say, “Once you have seen a ghost, you can never again be someone who has never seen a ghost.”

It’s also important not to feel bad if you haven’t had any of what you might call “special” experiences during, or related to, meditation. Every person is different, and whether you have a body-mind inclined to somewhat dramatic openings or not, there’s little you can do about it. Some of us have spent much time and energy striving and hoping for openings, but generally speaking the harder you try for them, the more they elude you. At the same time, the very possibility of them challenge and broaden the mind: Zen teaches that the truth of things is not how they usually appear. What more haven’t we seen?

Yet the seeing we want and need may occur gradually, parceled out in smaller insights that don’t feel dramatic or remarkable. As long as we keep up the practice, there’s no limit to how profound and transformative our understanding can become, even if we don’t have specific experiences we can point to as openings.

What If I Don’t Want to Engage in Bowing or Chanting?

Another question from Jim: “I’m uncomfortable with the vowing and chanting that accompanies many Zen [and Buddhist] ‘services.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m being rude by not participating, and I certainly don’t want my discomfort to spill over onto others. Hence, my questions: 1) Are there any expectations for visitors (even regular visitors) to participate in vowing and chanting?  2) When is the time right, or wrong, to participate?”

The short answer to this question is that every Zen or Buddhist center or temple is going to be different. Basically, you just have to ask someone at the place you intend to visit. Usually there’s a way you can call ahead of time to ask, in order to avoid any awkwardness like showing up and being required to participate in a way you don’t want to. You might ask when a center’s chanting and ritual services happen – there may be classes or meditation sessions you can attend that don’t involve chanting, reciting vows, or bowing.

If you will be present for some of the ritual, you can ask ahead of time whether it’s okay that you just observe, or don’t bow, etc. If the person you’re asking about this seems uncomfortable or confused about your concerns, maybe that’s a sign you won’t feel comfortable practicing with their group. Some practice centers discourage people from just watching a service without participating, because it can make the regular participants feel a little self-conscious being observed – after all, they’re not putting on a performance, they’re doing their religious practice. Most places, though, won’t be surprised at the question.

Although I’ve learned to embrace the whole Zen practice package, particularly as a priest, I have a lot of sympathy for people who are averse to chanting and ritual. For some people it’s just foreign and weird (especially the bowing to altars with statues on them, and the invitation to chant vows aloud about taking refuge in the Buddha or saving all beings). For others, ritual is negatively associated with religions they have left behind. At my Zen center I’ve arranged the practice schedules so you can easily arrive after the chanting services, just in time for zazen, and then a tea break and a class or talk. If we’re having a big ceremony, that’s clearly announced and people are free to leave before it happens. If someone new decides to stay through a chanting service, I invite them to participate as they like or just observe and I let them know about the option to arrive a little later to miss the service altogether.

That said, I’ve found a fairly large proportion of people new to Buddhism end up liking our chanting services and rituals – or at least don’t mind participating in them. Chanting and ritual is a nice community builder; our meditation practice is something we do on our own even when we’re together, whereas chanting is a communal activity. The chants and rituals have meanings that initially may seem obscure, but eventually can open up for us as our practice progresses. Reciting teachings out loud is a great way to get familiar with them and internalize them, and many people will find a particular phrase coming to mind at an appropriate time. Chanting can also be a meditation in and of itself, when you let go of analyzing meaning and focus on awareness of breath and sound.

Contemporary Buddhist/Zen Book Recommendations

Finally, a question from Dave: “Any modern or contemporary writers on Buddhism and Zen you can recommend?”

I humbly recommend my own book, Zen Living. It’s part of the Idiot’s Guide’s series (the alternative to the “For Dummies” series), which includes books on all kinds of things from doing your own taxes to computer programming to yoga. You can find it online or through bookstores under the title Idiot’s Guides: Zen Living. It’s not that I claim to be such a brilliant Zen teacher or super writer, but the book does contain pretty much everything I think someone should know about Buddhism, Zen, and meditation if they want to practice.

In addition to that, here are a couple of my favorites:

Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change: A Collection of Zen Teachings, edited by Jikyo Cheryl Wolfer. (Olympia, WA: Temple Ground Press, 2014) This is a collection of essays by contemporary Soto Zen women teachers, and what I love about it is that the teachers were allowed to write about anything they wanted to, instead of having to stick with a theme. That means each teacher contributed something close to their heart, the quality of the essays is great, and the book covers a wide variety of topics related to Zen practice.

How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, by Kosho Uchiyama. (Translated by Thomas Wright. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2005) Uchiyama was a Soto Zen teacher in Japan, and I love his down-to-earth style. In this book he uses Zen master Dogen’s essay Tenzokyokun, or Instructions to the Head Cook of the Monastery, as a leaping-off point, but he also devotes much of the book to accessible and sometimes humorous advice for daily practice. I particularly like his explanation of how diligent work for a future result is compatible with Buddhist mindfulness. In talking about the detailed instructions to the cook about staying up late to plan for and prepare the next day’s meals, Uchiyama says:

“In this world of impermanence, we have no idea of what may occur during the night; maybe there will be an earthquake or a disastrous fire, war may break out, or… we ourselves could very well meet death. Nevertheless, we are told to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch. Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work. In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet, our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel… In this routine matter of preparing tomorrow’s gruel as this evening’s work lies the key to the attitude necessary for coping with this absolute contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect.” (Page 64, in the chapter Direction and Goal)

I have more recommendations, but I’ll talk about them in my next Listener’s Questions episode. You can also browse the bibliography on this website, although that includes all of the books I’ve referenced on the podcast, not just those of contemporary Zen and Buddhist writers.

 

54 – You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way
56 - Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion
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