Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Which I Disparage Two Esteemed Patriarchs

For the past couple of weeks, the Monday Night group has been discussing Yasutani Roshi's commentary on the koan Mu that appears in The Three Pillars of Zen, and I've quoted Yasutani several times here in this blog over the same time.  Born in 1885, Yasutani devoted his life to the teaching of laypeople and beginning in 1962, made a number of trips to North America.  He passed away in 1973.

As described by James Ishmael Ford in his book, Zen Master Who?, Yasutani was known as a garrulous person given to disputation and rhetorical excess in support of his positions.  "It was nonetheless shocking," Ford writes, "when in the 1990s excerpts from some of his World War II-era political polemics were translated into English. Most offensive was his use of anti-Semitic shorthand in his attacks on bourgeois democracy. He made full use of the arguments marshaled by Japan's ally, Nazi Germany, to favor the emperor and an authoritarian state." 

It is hard to reconcile his anti-Semitic screed with an awakened mind, although I admit that I have not myself read his remarks.  But Ford makes an interesting point about this case and about a common misunderstanding of what awakening is and isn't.  Awakening is a direct seeing into our original nature, but our actualization will always arise out of our conditioned experience.  "Zen awakening," Ford writes, "is about living in the real world, which very much includes our limitations.  Ideally, those limitations are confronted through the precepts and other Buddhist perspectives, and we engage in an endless process of polishing our character.  The good news for all of us is that whatever our shortcomings, they don't stand in the way of awakening.  And the most important lesson here is perhaps that awakening is not an end; it's a beginning. Used appropriately each of our awakenings, small and large, can become a gate to an ever deeper, more compassionate life."   

The habitual patterns of the unconscious mind, those sanskara that we've accumulated over the course of our lives, can still turn even the awakened mind toward ego-driven ends. This is the point of practice - even after awakening, we still strive to practice kindness and generosity and we must remain ever vigilant about slipping into old conditioned patterns.  The conscious mind cannot directly control the subconscious - thought cannot grasp that which is outside of thought - but vigilant practice over the years can condition the subconscious and turn it toward more beneficial ends. 

I saw the same karmic conditioning and attachments in my former teacher.  To be sure, we did not part ways out of any disagreement over the content of his teaching.  I would gladly have remained his student on the basis of his teachings.  Nor did I become disillusioned when I was reminded that even my teacher was still human, foibles and all.  I had reached that conclusion years ago.  But it was due to those human shortcomings of his, his habitual patterns of clinging and of defense, that eventually turned on me and created an untenable situation in which I could not remain.  If you hang around bears long enough, sooner or later you're going to get clawed, and if you associate with an egocentric narcissist, or someone with those tendencies, eventually they're going to feel threatened and turn against you.  

Thus is karma - causes arising from conditions.  Both our paths, although now separate, continue, and it probably has always been like this.  The specifics may be different, but the pattern remains. 

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