Much Ado About Nothing: Problems When First Tasting Zen Teachings For Yourself
The The three pillars of zen is one of those books that mark the establishment of Zen in the West. It was first published in 1965 and has never been out of print. Three pillars is now translated into a dozen languages. And this remains an important part of the Zen canon taking root in the West.
It was edited by Philip Kapleau, later Roshi Kapleau, with major assistance from Koun Yamada and Jiun Kubota (both ultimately succeeding the leaders of the Sanbo Zen community). The book consists of two main parts, the first part was mainly lectures on the practice of Zen by Professor Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, and the second part was personal accounts of kensho experiences.
I remember reading this book just a few years after its release, and especially savoring those latter parts over and over again. Today, I blush when I remember Zen professor Brad Warner’s dry comment about “Zen porn”. There are issues with a single focus on the issue of awakening as an experience. And there was from the beginning and continues to be the critic of the book for its tireless focus on the experiences of kensho.
However, recently I have started to see a new form of criticism, where the focus is not on the mouth-watering stories of people’s personal intimate encounters, but on the fact that they are not that deep. I remember one person saying, “In my Zen school, these accounts would never be accepted as genuine kenshos. Others sniff that they are at best preliminary to a true awakening.
When I think of spiritual traps on the spiritual path, once you’ve had a taste of the big deal, it’s tempting to think anything, that’s it. His path has reached a climax. I am at the top, looking down the slopes towards the plains and the rivers.
We can see it in some of these stories in Three Pillars. We see it in those who deem these stories inadequate.
Me, shortly after my first intimate moment, I was walking down a street in Oakland. To mark my special status, as I felt it, I wore a large mala, a Buddhist rose around my neck. As I walked past a girl, maybe nine, a little younger, a little older, hard to tell. She stopped skipping rope and pointed at the mala and said, “What is this?”
I had a fleeting fantasy of old stories of wandering Zen teachers meeting wise men. Most of the time it happened as I said, “It’s a Buddhist rose garden, a rosary. She snorted, “Sure, that sounds silly.” And took the jump rope again.
For reasons that were not immediately apparent to me, I blushed. And then I continued on my way. The word I couldn’t quite say at the time was that I had fallen into one of those wells that Dosho Port describes as punctuating the spiritual journey. At some point, if we are lucky, we will turn around and notice that there are still mountains, mountain ranges.
Unfortunately, we may not turn around and not realize it. I have met a number of people who have had spiritual ideas big and small, including a few decades ago in my experience, some who found their moment through psychedelics, who thought they had happened. From the inside it can be nice, but seen from the outside it can be quite boring. I have the feeling that some religions have developed from these times.
So we are lucky if we are given a well to fall into early.
But without this well, sooner, or later, or never, we are in danger. In the western maps of the spiritual path, that place we can spend quite a bit of time with is spiritual pride or vain glory. I find vain glory a particularly apt term. it comes from latin vana gloria, the meaning quite obvious to most readers vanity, perhaps even baseless vanity, with a sense of glory, of success.
The technical term in Buddhism for this is “mana“, pronounced the same way I believe in Pali and Sanskrit. Mana is most often translated into English as pride, but often as vanity or, and I find this particularly useful,” arrogance. “It points to inflation. that can accompany success.
Pride is a complicated term these days. Oppressed groups claimed a sense of pride. I remember the first time I heard the expression “black is beautiful”. At first he didn’t calculate. Maybe, I thought. But not necessarily. It took me a little while, given the privileges of my place in our culture, to understand how African Americans in our time and place have come to think of themselves as ugly. Claiming your beauty under such circumstances is important. Very important. Likewise, the Gay Pride Red Carpet has served pretty much the same place for the LGBTQ community.
Owning our place in this world is essential. Being proud of who we are just because we exist is an important thing. At the same time, it is also important to note that we can enter the intimate path from any place in our life.
I’m sure Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is useful for people, at the very least it talks about things people need just to maintain some dignity. But I have also met people who believe that you have to go through all the steps before you can reach the peak of self-realization. To be honest, I don’t know what this term is supposed to mean. What I do know is that self-realization is not a good phrase for awakening.
And there, we are talking about awakening. The good news for us on the spiritual path is that it is available to all of us all the time. It happens at best, it happens at worst. It happens to people who are healthy in body and mind. And it happens to people who have terrible injuries and limitations.
And here we are concerned with that insight, which comes when it wants to whomever it wants. Our vision, in the big index of not one, not two, of our liberation from our certainties. The pride that concerns us here in this project is not to claim our place, it is to think that we have reached the end.
We see that kind of pride in ordinary life, where someone finds out that they are extraordinarily gifted in one way or another, and then assumes that they are expert in all kinds of other ways. I remember one gifted writer who resisted online publishing, which from my perspective, along with his editors, he desperately needed. Or, maybe someone is extremely good at selling and decides she would be a perfect CEO. Maybe true. But the gift alone is no guarantee of success elsewhere.
In the spiritual realms, I have seen spiritual directors who have a deep understanding of the issue of life and death, form and emptiness, give horrible advice on marriage.
In the spiritual realms, it is a kind of pride. And that is why in the Mahayana it is considered one of the five poisons. In the Mahayana interpretation of mana Abhidharma, spiritual pride is one of the six unhealthy mental factors.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield quotes from the advice of the Nikayas the Buddhas: “Seeing the misery in those who cling to opinions, a wise person should not adopt any. A wise person does not become arrogant by his opinions. How could anyone disturb those who are free, who do not understand any point of view. But those who grasp views and opinions roam the world annoying people. When I started to quote this, I thought I would end with “getting arrogant”.
But, the truth is, spiritual pride is really boring. Even to the Buddha. Kornfield joins the quote with another from his teacher, the famous forest monk Ajahn Chah, “You have so many opinions. And you are in so much pain. Why not let them go? The problem with our initial ideas, whether superficial or deep, is that they go from meeting to opinion almost in an instant.
Carrying this opinion around us, we not only annoy others, we hinder our own spiritual progress. So when we’ve had these tastes, these, as Joko Beck says, little intimations, I hope there is a well somewhere around us waiting for us.