Monday, April 04, 2011

America's Zen Masters


There have been numerous moral failures among those instrumental in bringing Zen Buddhism to the United States and among those placed in positions of leadership. Hakuun Yasutani was a racist and an outspoken supporter of Japanese imperialism. Taizan Maezumi was an alcoholic who engaged in adulterous affairs with his female students; he died of drowning in a bath after a drinking binge. Richard Baker, the dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, lived an extravagant lifestyle and engaged in numerous affairs with his students while abbot of the San Franciso Zen Center. More recently, Eido Shimano resigned as head of the Zen Studies Society as a result of an adulterous affair, and Dennis Genpo Merzel was disrobed and resigned from White Plum Asanga as a result of sexual misconduct.

While these moral failings are deeply disturbing, not all of America's Zen masters have fallen so low. Indeed, several American Zen masters are among the most important and unique voices in the recent history of Zen. I have already blogged about Charlotte Joko Beck, who was a student of Taizan Maezumi. Joko's focus on applying the insights of Zen meditation to everyday work and relationships has, to my mind at least, revolutionized the practice of Zen. Indeed, in recent decades Joko has abandoned much of the traditional rituals and other formal aspects associated with Zen, in a sense having transcended the tradition altogether.

Another American Zen master is Toni Packer (pictured above), a former student of Phillip Kapleau. Born in Switzerland, she now teaches at Springwater, a meditation and retreat center in upstate New York. Like Joko, Packer has moved beyond the Zen tradition in which she was trained, and instead fosters a less formal and more open approach to meditation practice (at least in part due to the influence of Jiddu Krishnamurti). Packer's talks are a model of profound clarity and simplicity.

American masters such as Joko and Toni Packer have succeeded in liberating Zen from much of its cultural baggage, focusing instead on the bare, unadorned practice of meditation, the lack of separation between meditation and everyday life, and the attainment of liberating insight outstide of pre-conceived doctrines. They have at once broadened Zen and widdled it down to its essential core. It is no longer Zen that they practice and teach, it is something much more immediate, much less a matter of conceptual and cultural artifice. Theirs is a truly human spirituality, and one that is flexible and can grow, with the changing knowledge base of civilizations, and with the unique insights of individual practitioners.

Do we really know what enlightenment is, or if it is? And if the Buddha found enlightenment outside of Buddhism, why can't someone else? Before there was the Buddha or Confucius or Lao Tzu, the Way was there already, waiting to be discovered. And so it remains.
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