We recently had a half-day sitting, and looking for a reading to share to inspire our practice , I reached for Not Always So, the more recent of the two collections of Shunryu Suzuki’s talks. The other is of course the seminal Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I have come to in some ways prefer Not Always So. ZMBM was collected and published while Suzuki was still alive. If you’ve read Richard Baker’s introduction, maybe you’ve noticed that it tends to really idealize the “zen master,” imputing to such a person a virtual omniscience and ultimate spiritual authority. The flavor of the rest of the book catches hints of this kind of idealization. I think the later book is just a little more down to earth. It sounds maybe a little more like his own voice, that you can even hear now online in this archive.
This kind of idealization poses all kinds of problems for students and teachers of Zen, historically perhaps, and certainly recently; at least it has in this country. I can’t speak for anywhere else. I have been contemplating this issue of “spiritual authority”. One necessarily has to if you enter the gate of Zen study. It’s a central theme of the Zen tradition: both the value of tradition and simple, natural hierarchy, and the utter non-fixity and relativity of such roles in our human lives.
So, I found a passage to inspire our zazen, but I think it also really poetically addresses the authority question, too. Just by way of a little more background for my remarks, I will point out that I am of that generation called “X.” I feel like we have certain kinds of patterned collective “authority issues.” But then, so do the so-called Baby Boomers, Millennials, and the rest. We see the collective and personal effects of these things. We see it in politics, we see it in our workplaces and homes, and we see it in our so-called spiritual organizations and traditions. I think it’s good for us to look at these things directly sometimes, with care and patience. No one has all the answers.
So due to the complex circumstances and habit energies of my life, I have ended up sometimes sitting upfront here in the robes, at the direction of my teacher helping to facilitate zazen for people. This could imply a certain kind of mastery, attainment, or knowledge; for us, in this way, that is really not the point. Maybe the opposite of the point. At times, people can be drawn to abuse this kind of implied authoritative position, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Certain traditions could seem to invite these problems more than others. In any case, it is incumbent on each of us to learn to hold our own Dharma position, our own healthy psychological uprightness; that we practice good boundaries and respectful communication. For myself, I want a safe place to come and face the wall, on my own with others, on their own. Since I want this for me, I also want this for others. I know we all here share this value.
So talking about one of our old teaching stories, Suzuki roshi says, “The Sun-faced Buddha is good; the Moon-faced Buddha is good. Whatever it is, that is good — all things are Buddha. And there is no Buddha, even. When you do not understand Buddha, you will be concerned if I say there is no Buddha: “You are a priest, so how can you say there is no Buddha? Why do you chant? Why do you bow to Buddha?” There is no Buddha so we bow to Buddha. If you bow to Buddha because there is Buddha, that is not a true understanding of Buddha. Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha — no problem…even though I die, it is alright with me, and it is alright with you. And if it is not alright, you are not a Zen student. It is quite alright. That is Buddha.”
In a fundamental way, everything is in this paragraph. Good times and bad, sickness and health, life and death, cultivation and the source, interdependence and independence. I especially like how he just cuts through this issue of “heavenly authority.” We bow to Buddha, we sit like Buddha, because there is no Buddha – which is to say, an external deity or spiritual force in some other time or place that supersedes or remains aloof from our own heart-mind, apprehending things as it is. Or if there is such a thing, that is not what we are attending in our practice.
In another famous story of a Zen exchange, a teacher once said, “I don’t say there is no Zen; just that there are no teachers of Zen.” Depending on where we’re at, this can be challenging to hear; I think it can also come as a great relief. We have to come to our own terms with our own lives, but we don’t do it alone. Co-creative guidance is available. We practice our way in community – whether it is this community or that, seen or unseen. This is quite evident already in zazen. We come together, face the wall and face ourselves. We then turn around, and smile at each other. At one level, it is a perfect metaphor. But we don’t content ourselves with metaphors. We dive in, and literally embody it. We affirm our trust that coming together, attending to our breathing in and breathing out, our inner and outer posture, is in itself inherently a good and healing activity. And, in a deeply basic way, that it’s alright.