What about Zen? The Dark Zen website offers a new/old version of the teaching that bears a striking similarity to the classic via negativa of the West. Rather than maintaining that a sudden enlightenment experience is the final goal, writers on this site claim that it is only the first stage. Descriptions of subsequent stages of mystical experience are reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing or St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night.
In this, they claim to have returned to the roots of Chan (Chinese Zen), and they may be right. Linji (Rinzai) admonished his disciples that “Mind is without form and pervades the ten directions. In the eye it is called seeing, in the ear hearing, in the nose it smells odors, in the mouth it holds converse, in the hands it grasps and seizes, and in the feet it moves and runs. Fundamentally it is a single subtle radiance, divided into six sensory perceptions. Yet since this mind is nothing, it is free, wherever one is!” (Ruth Fuller Sasaki, tr., The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture. Institute for Zen Studies, 1975, p. 9.)
What I particularly like about the site, however, is the number of good, critical articles. This seems to be one school that is able to take an unflinching look at Zen’s authoritarian tendencies, as well as what our anti-intellectual, consumer culture has made of it.
“Taking a quick sample of popular Buddhist literature, including slick magazines like Shambhala Sun or Tricycle, from what I can surmise, the profane product they’re all trying hard to sell is how to feel good or the same, how do I restore and keep myself in a state of feeling good about myself?”
Zenmar, “Modern Buddhism: Sacred or Profane?”
“It is fashionable among practitioners in the West to consider critical thought as “un-Zen.” With this view in place, the entire spectrum of permissible thought is now caught and limited within Zen’s mythological presentation, which was a completed creation by the eleventh century in China. Analysis or active use of “the discriminating mind” is frowned upon, or worse, it is viewed as a sign of having too large an ego. Any genuine interpretation or questioning of the meaning of Dharma transmission, lineage, the Zen roshi, their place in the institution, their accountability, and so on is made to seem absurd. The idea and ritual of Dharma transmission rather than the meaning or content of that transmission, becomes the prominent and meaningful fact. Zen elevates its leaders to super-human status, then emphasizes that we should be obedient and subservient to a powerful and supremely accomplished authority figure, precisely because he is powerful and supremely accomplished. Is it any wonder that the inevitable abuses that we have seen for the last thirty years should follow?”
Stuart Lachs, “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi”
“The idea that Zen’s emphasis on wisdom while only giving lip service to compassion in reality is then about power is an idea that I have just begun to examine.” (Ibid.) This is a very interesting point. I am reminded of a quote, which I just came across, by the psychologist Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig (The Emptied Soul): “Those who cannot love want power.”
When I lived in Japan, I found myself drawn much more to the Pure Land sects, especially Jodo Shinshu. They dispensed with monasteries entirely and, along with the followers of Nichiren, were the first to pay any attention to the common people. They put much more of an emphasis on compassion and on something called Other-power (tariki), analogous to the Christian concept of grace.
Many of the Zennists themselves have historically acknowledged the fairness of the Pure Land sects’ critiques of their practices: that they are available only to an elite few, and that they place too strong an emphasis on individual power (jiriki). In China, Chan was eventually supplanted almost entirely by Pure Land sects. In Korea, Zen or Seon evolved into something more moderate and humane than what it became in Japan under the patronage of the samurai.
“In Korean Zen, the equivalent of roshi/Zen master, the pangjang, is surprisingly an elected position and carries an initial ten-year term… If the master does not perform adequately, a petition by fifty monks would be enough to have a recall vote… A monk’s affinities are more with his fellow meditation monks than with a specific master”. – The Zen Monastic Experience, Robert E. Buswell, Princeton University Press, 1992, cited in Stuart Lachs, “Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen”
Yay for the Koreans!