Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Venerable Mujin Nobody Roshi

I often see advertisement for speaking engagements and dharma talks where much of the text is devoted to describing the institutional position and years of practice of the speaker, and assigning an epithetic title like "Roshi".

I think this indicates a misunderstanding of basic Buddhist principles, and it confuses me with one of those "elephant in the room" feelings. That is "can't those people see how wrong that is?"

I don't doubt that some of this is simple jealousy on my part. In some way I might wish I was so important to an organization that a.) they would want to put me forward to the public as knowing something about Zen and b.) people might actually show up to hear what I have to say.

But even if that is the case, I think some criticism of the practice, or at lease critical analysis of the practice, is also 'fair.'

The Zen fact, I believe, of the matter is that no matter what institutional title a person has achieved, or how long they have been practicing, or what transmission they have received, it does not mean they are expounding dharma any more reliably than someone who has not. In fact, it could even be true that someone who is practiced at public speaking is practiced at packaging dharma so that it is seemly successfully conveyed to the audience, when in truth this packaging is more of a distortion, and the dharma is not transmitted.

It would be very refreshing, I think, to seen an announcement to the effect of "There will be a speaker at such and such a time. We really like they way they present. Come join us." And yes, I mean actually not naming the speaker.

And things like "Donation:$30" seems to be a confounding Zen hypocrisy.  If you believe in teaching dharma for the merit of expounding dharma, take your dhana as it comes. If you need money, say that. Don't perversely mix the concepts of dhana freely given (or not) and your need (dear guest speaker, or institution hosting her/him) for funds. If you need the bucks, the tag line should be an honest "To support logistics of the speaker's appearance tonight, we are asking each person to give $30 if they can."

I am clearly struggling with this --> If these Zen/Buddhist principles of equanimity, equality, avoidance of picking and choosing, avoidance of entanglement in the delusion of title and and station, etc.. are actually important. Why are they not practiced on an institutional level?

Advertising "transmission" is almost to provide evidence that "transmission" really did not occur, and it was just a political nicety. Completely empty and void of any meaning to the dharma. 

Group pictures from Zen events, almost invariably put the "special leader" in the center, with everyone else gathered around, balanced on left and right. Socio-political seniors near the front or center and juniors near the back and sides. I can understand this from a the tribal alphs-leader point of view. I understand why the group would want this to happen. But it is this very, empty, sociological instinct that Buddhism is striving to instruct "against". Each person is equally important in the Buddhist view. Why does the visiting "leader" allow such ranking? Teach a lesson while you're there Ms/Mr. leader. Have people group up as randomly as possible. Don't even tell them its for the group picture, so their tribal instincts will be confounded. It would be refreshing to see a group picture where finding the visiting "leader" was more like a game of "where's waldo."

Regarding titles, they should never be used unless they are functional and in the context of identifying responsibility (hows that for strident.... oh well). "Roshi", for example (though not a functional title, so perhaps not such a good example for the preceding point), is a term of affection and respect. Fine. It does not belong in public announcements. Say it to the Roshi. Say it between colleagues that share the respect. But in public announcements, just use a person's name. Titles used socially rather than personally are entanglements worth avoiding unless they are applied equally. Nonetheless I get how it would be difficult not to call a beloved Roshi, "roshi." I was just going to mention my encounters with Nishijima-roshi who always seemed to respond to everyone as "venerable" on this blog. I cannot help but call him "roshi", but perhaps it would better honor his legacy of "true" buddhism if I did not.