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The Ox Herder’s Diary

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From the book cover of The Story of Zen. From sumeru-books.com

It seems that the old ox herder is back in town, and this time he’s trying to sell his diary at the local book shop. It must be quite something to get him out of his thatched hut in the middle of a pandemic. We’d better have a look. . . .

Richard Bryan McDaniel was drawn to Zen as a young man and has been practicing ever since. Now he is silver-haired and uses a cane. That in itself is worthy of bows.

But in Rick’s case, after a distinguished career in international development, he went on to do something a little more unusual. He started trying to organize the stories that filled his head about famous Chan and Zen teachers into some sort of chronological order. That led to two books of biographies: Zen Masters of China (Tuttle Publishing 2016) and Zen Masters of Japan (Tuttle Publishing 2016).

Once he set out on his quest to find the ox, his journey led him onward to explore his own backyard. He leaned in toward his friend the bookseller and rambled on:

In Zen, there is usually a commitment to work with a single teacher but traditionally at some point, when the student has matured a bit, they are supposed to go on pilgrimage and test their understanding with other teachers.

[Writing these books] allowed me to do that in a spectacular way. It also happened that I had a small inheritance which allowed me to start visiting Zen Centers across the US, so the next book I was planning, Zen Masters of America (Sumeru Press 2015) became two books, and with Cypress Trees in the Garden (Sumeru Press 2015) it struck me that the second generation was passing; several teachers have died since I interviewed them. I was conscious that recording their stories would be valuable for future students of Zen history.

As with koan practice, one returns again and again to new understandings drawn from familiar material. In Rick’s case, it meant diving deeper into his roots with a fifth book, Catholicism and Zen (Sumeru Press 2017). Following the format of his earlier books, he offered a glimpse into the experience of Zen through the eyes of Catholic teachers, lay, clergy, and religious people, past and present.

From sumeru-books.com

Could it be that Zen is no longer Buddhist or never even was? Is there a Jewish Zen, a Hindu Zen, a Muslim Zen . . . ? The bookseller quickly scanned the shelves for some affirmation. In the eighth of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, ox and herder are both gone. Nothing remains. He turned nervously to his friend with the question, who snapped back:

I don’t know.

Hmmm. Rather cryptic and not very illuminating. Was he being coy? The bookseller pressed the point: was Zen becoming less or more Buddhist? And received a more fulsome reply:

One of the things that became clear as I was conducting the interviews is that Zen is not monolithic. You can miss that when you’re working with a particular center.

A Roman Catholic attending mass in Venice, Oaxaca, or Ottawa would find the experience essentially the same. For that matter, a Rotarian attending a luncheon meeting in Italy, Mexico, or Canada would expect the format to be similar save for, perhaps, a few cultural differences. A Zen practitioner, however, visiting two centers in his own community might well find them so different that they scarcely appear to have anything in common.

This is a bit of a surprise. Soto Zen is becoming very conservative in that regard. I have interviewed young teachers who see their role as very much like that of a Protestant pastor. Rinzai people can be very formal as well. The Sanbo Zen people are a little more relaxed about such things, but they also have a very strict and centralized process by which only the abbot—in Japan—can authorize transmission.

There are the occasional experiments like the one Toni Packer’s descendants maintain at Springwater, but the most significant exception I found is the Catholic Zen practitioners. This started with Koun Yamada, who feared Zen was dying in Japan and wondered if perhaps it might find a home in Catholicism. It hasn’t, of course. But there remain a significant number of Zen Catholics.

I am aware that there are some practitioners who refer to themselves as BuJus. Some of these remain active within the Jewish community. However, most of the people I interviewed who came from Jewish—or Protestant—upbringings then eschewed those heritages in a way that some of the Catholics I interviewed had not. This could easily be because I wasn’t searching out people who still practice Judaism and Buddhism as I did search out people who retained their Catholicism while practicing Zen—if not Buddhism per se.

Far from becoming tired, the old ox herder seemed to be more animated as he rambled on. It was almost as if he was becoming translucent. The two of them shared a joke about being old, sat with their tea a few moments in silence, and then continued their chat.

The bookseller cracked him up with a story about another Dharma teacher who’d recently been in his shop shouting up and down the aisles that he’d caught the ox and would show others how to do it too. Eventually, he’d been asked unceremoniously to leave. And that led to another couple of questions. What was the ox herder’s prescription for keeping Zen relevant?

Bernie Glassman told me that awakening is to experience the interconnectedness of life. Not to understand it theoretically, but to experience it directly. It is a moment of insight. It is not unique to Buddhism—much less to Zen—but Zen has a series of upayas (skillful means) which appear to be able to evoke this experience. 

Not all awakening experiences are the same—but the ones I would recognize all contain an element of that sense of interconnectedness. As long as Zen helps people encounter that sense of ‘interconnectedness’ and then develop it in such a way that it is manifested in compassionate action, Zen will remain relevant.

So, what happens after satori? What had brought the ox herder to town? Had the ox wandered off? Why was he peddling his diary?

The ox herder slowly drew a volume out of his tattered sack and pointed to a recently scribbled page of what he promised was going to be his next book. It turns out he’s been working on a new volume, Zen Conversations (forthcoming).

After satori—that’s huge theme in the new book. Let’s start with the nay-sayers who dismiss the importance of awakening because—in their opinion—it doesn’t lead to maturity. And as an event in itself, they are right; it doesn’t necessarily. Nor does it necessarily lead people to more generous or ethical lives—we have a sad history of evidence to support that. However, it can do, but it needs to be cultivated. That’s what Torei Enji called the Long Maturation.

The temptation is to think that one has “arrived” somewhere. If people look at the attainment of awakening as an end-in-itself, it really isn’t of much value. If, on the other hand, they realize it is the beginning of a life-long process of on-going maturation, then I would suggest it has the capacity to form people of impressive character.

One of the themes in Zen Conversations is the question of what draws people to the practice. When I first became involved, everyone was seeking awakening—enlightenment. Today, however—as the teachers I talk with point out—that’s no longer,  on the radar so much,” as Taigen Henderson put it. People coming to Zen Centers are now more likely to say that what they’re looking for is less stress or to ease anxiety or to deal with some personal problem. Rinzan Pechovnik suggests that that may be because people are shy about putting on spiritual airs, saying they want to be “enlightened.” They place more emphasis on social engagement and, in particular, environmentalism.

By this time, the slanting rays of the evening sun were shining through the shop windows, making it difficult for us to see each other without squinting. The bookseller began drawing the blinds for the night, but turned back to his old friend with one last question. The village had changed so much since their last rendezvousthe pandemic, an awareness of global warming, social injustices, and civil discord. Did the Zen Masters have something to say about our modern problems for the new generation? The ox herder laughed, a big belly laugh.

Those are the subjects of the last two chapters of the new book! My own experience is that kensho—if properly cultivated—enhances one’s sense of participation in the physical and social environments to such a point that one’s behavior should come into accord with ethical and ecological responsibility. This results, among other things, in a more sincere effort at Right Livelihood. The teachers I talked to didn’t all focus energy on social engagement, but, to a one, they acknowledged that prajna (wisdom/enlightenment) didn’t amount to much if it wasn’t embodied in karuna (compassionate behavior).

But everyone starts where they are. Robert Aitken was disappointed that his students hadn’t been as socially engaged—especially, at the time, in Peace Activities—as he was; but they were young. They needed to mature. My belief—hope—is that the “Long Maturation” of practice—another theme in the book—will naturally lead practitioners to become socially engaged. But you start where you are.

Image courtesy of the author

After his friend had gone off for some dinner and to bed for the night, the bookseller noticed that he’d left a few pages behind. Here’s what was in them.

Excerpts from Zen Conversations (forthcoming) by Richard Bryan McDaniel:

Once – crossing into Maine from New Brunswick, Canada – I was asked the purpose of my visit and replied that I was going to attend a workshop in Portland. The border official asked what kind of workshop. “A Zen workshop,” I told him.

“You know, I keep trying to get my Zen on,” he said, handing back my passport, “but I just can’t do it.”

I knew what he meant, even though we were talking about two very different things.

This kind of lop-sided conversation isn’t unusual for Zen practitioners.

Robert Waldinger is the resident teacher at the Henry David Thoreau Zen Community in Newton, Massachusetts. He also works at the Harvard Medical School, which, he describes as one of the most conservative institutions on the planet. “If I go away on retreat, I tell people partly because as a physician when you’re off the grid you need to be sure you’ve got coverage, and people have to know you’re really off the grid, that you’re not this sort of fake ‘I’m away, but I’ll answer all my e-mails.’ So people have to know that I’m not going to look at my phone for days. So when I get back, people will ask, ‘How was your retreat? Was it really relaxing?’ I say, ‘No, it was intense. Good. But not relaxing.’ I have to explain it’s not about relaxation. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about a radical understanding of the self in the world and what it means to be alive. That’s the elevator speech.”

§

The word “Zen” has entered the English language in a peculiar way. It not only refers to a specific Buddhist tradition; it has also become a descriptor implying tranquility, peace of mind, and – perhaps – spiritual accomplishment. The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as the quality of being relaxed and not worrying about things one can’t change. Relaxation and lack of worry may be side effects of Zen practice, they may even be what draws people to the practice, but they are not in themselves what the practice is about.

“Zen” is a Japanese term derived from the Chinese word channa (禪那) which, in turn, is a transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning “meditation.” As a form of Buddhism, it is distinguished from other schools by the emphasis placed on attaining direct personal insight not through study and the acquisition of information but through the practice of seated meditation. Because it is a practice rather than a theory, it has been possible for non-Buddhist forms of authorized Zen teaching to arise in the west. Although the majority of Zen Centers still identify as Buddhist, they don’t need to. Whether they do or not, all forms of Zen recognize that they are rooted in the enlightenment experience by which the Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, came to be acknowledged as the Buddha – or the “Awakened One.”

The conventional story relates that Siddhartha – after numerous preparatory lifetimes and extensive study – determined that the search for meaning could not be attained from someone or something else. With that understanding, he took a seat beneath a fig tree outside Bodh Gaya, India, and turned inward. He sat with eyes lowered but open, and, when the Morning Star appeared on the horizon, he achieved complete and unsurpassed awakening or enlightenment. At the moment of his enlightenment, he is said to have exclaimed: “O wonder of wonders! All beings just as they are are whole and complete! All beings are endowed with Buddha Nature!” All beings, in other words, have an inherent capacity to realize that their basic nature – their true nature – is no different from that of all existence. 

This was not a unique perception. It was one already recognized in the spiritual traditions of the time. In Sanskrit it was called advaya, which can be translated as “nonduality.” While people generally have a sense of themselves as entities within the world confronting other entities, in advaya there is no sense of a self separate from all else. What distinguished the Buddha’s awakening experience was not so much its uniqueness as its depth.

Awakening is a subjective experience and, therefore, essentially non-transmittable. Nothing the Buddha said could give another person the experience he had, any more than any amount of description can convey how figs taste. Enlightenment has to be encountered directly and personally. Nor were Buddha’s teachings the content of his awakening although they were derived from it. They included guidance about how followers could seek to attain awakening, but much of the teaching presented a description of the world and humanity’s place in it that had become apparent to him as a result of his awakening.

§

A Zen boom occurred both in North America and Europe beginning around the mid-’60s and continuing for nearly 20 years. While Zen was in fact fading in Japan, authorized teachers – both Asian and Western – established centers throughout the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world. There were Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese variants of the Rinzai school as well, although the inquirers who sought them out usually were unaware of the differences between the various lineages.

Those inquirers came from a variety of backgrounds. Several members of the Zen Center of Los Angeles would become significant figures in the transfer of Zen to the west. Bernie Glassman – founder of Zen Peacemakers and the teacher from whom Robert Kennedy received Dharma Transmission – was an aeronautical engineer; Jan Chozen Bays – co-abbot of Great Vow Monastery in Oregon – was a pediatrician; and John Daido Loori – who established the Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills – was a professional photographer and chemist (who invented the artificial flavor for lime Jell-o). But the majority of people showing up at the centers were members of the counter-culture movement.

While in Japan youth were turning away from Zen – which they perceived as one of the archaic institutions responsible for their country’s involvement in a humiliating war – in the West, young people turned to Zen as a way of seeking release from what they perceived as the stifling social conditions in which they lived. Those arriving at Sokoji in San Francisco or at Philip Kapleau’s Rochester Zen Center in New York State were disaffected with Judaeo-Christian teachings and, often inspired by psychedelic drug use, sought alternative spiritual paths. Interest in Zen became part of the zeitgeist of the era.

§

At one time it was traditional for a Zen student, at a certain point in their training, to undertake a pilgrimage – an angya – to visit teachers other than their own in order to deepen their understanding of the Dharma. From March 2013 until the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, a small inheritance allowed me to visit Zen Centers throughout North America. The tour took me from San Francisco, on the west coast, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east; from Montreal in the north to New Mexico in the south. I interviewed 124 teachers and otherwise significant individuals (the doctor operating a Zen-sponsored hospice, the former wife of a well-known teacher now dead), as well as senior and not-so-senior students representing the spectrum of Zen/Chan/Soen/Thien* practice in North America.

It was a lengthy journey, and several of the teachers I met have since died including Albert Low, Bernie Glassman, and all three of the abbots – Steve Stücky, Mel Weitsman, and Blanche Hartman – I interviewed at the San Francisco Zen Center. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to record them while they were still alive.

In almost all locations, I was welcomed warmly and had the good fortune to encounter impressive, friendly, and approachable individuals who responded to my (at times impertinent) questions with frankness and good humor. As I wrote elsewhere, almost all of them turned out to be the kind of people one would enjoy spending an afternoon with drinking beer (or tea) and discussing topics other than Zen. Those interviews became the basis of three books I published with the Sumeru Press in Canada in which I deliberately chose not to argue on behalf of one school or another but simply to chronicle what I observed. The schools do differ though.

I began writing this book during the Covid-19 pandemic, and one of the recurring questions that arose during the time of composition was the degree to which this practice helped practitioners cope with the situation in which we found ourselves. Few events in contemporary history demonstrated so clearly the basic Buddhist principles of cause-and-effect and interdependence.

More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha identified that existence was marked by three characteristics: all things are impermanent; all beings lack a permanent self; all things are ultimately unsatisfying. Zen maintains that this is a not a bleak assessment of life, but it is a realistic one, and if one can face it directly and honestly one can find satisfaction, fulfillment, and even joy. As Robert Waldinger told me, “It’s not about relaxation. It’s not about self-improvement. It’s about a radical understanding of the self in the world and what it means to be alive. That’s the elevator speech.”

* Zen is known as Soen in Korean and as Thien in Vietnamese.

See more

Sumeru Books
Richard Bryan McDaniel – Zen Profiles

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