The Lex Talionis and Desire
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Destruction and Salvation often confuse us by the strangely similar appearance of their opposed purposes.
Mercutio has been stabbed; and Romeo, seeing the mere slit, estimates significance by size. "The hurt cannot be much," he assures his friend; but Mercutio contradicts him. "'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve." And he dies from the injury.
A curative wound, more delicately hewn, perhaps, would have looked much the same. Yet... "Nothing can heal like the touch of cold steel," says the surgeon.
How, when surface appearances so often fail to reveal even gross differences, can we recognize a true Zen regimen, one that can help to correct self-destructive behavior and not exacerbate it? How can we tell the injurious from the curative, the fake from the authentic, the partial from the complete?
It is easy to be misled when sanctuarial environments are everywhere similar: tatami mats; bamboo screens; delicate incense wafting on the hushed air; tonsured priests and nuns gliding by in slippers and robes while speaking in whispers that hint at sacred presences; wall-hangings of bold but incomprehensible oriental calligraphy which achieve in ambiance what they cannot convey in fact. Who can detect differences?
Especially in the initial choice of Zen programs, when the wrong decision can lead to years of wasted effort or, worse, to a place far less pleasant than the start, those of us who need to exorcise a devil need also to be circumspect.
Let's take a moment to consider the nature of groups. A congregation does not function as a carnivorous pack, i.e., a team in which each member has a role and membership size is determined by the ratio of prey-portions to hungry mouths.
A congregation functions as a grazing herd that finds safety and amenity in numbers. Congregations of every kind require members to see themselves as friends or even siblings - associates of some special, privileged sort. Since without organization and leadership a group will incline towards chaos, a hierarchical structure must exist; and the leader of it, if he is to command obedience, must be perceived as heroic. Congregation members usually suspend criticism of the leader, sacrificing it to faith. They need to believe that they have placed their souls in wise and loving hands.
Since Zen is essentially an advanced and solitary mystical path (Zennists function more like independent 'rogue' hunters), Zen sanghas usually convene only for occasional instruction or ceremony. A sangha, then, may be seen as a confederation of sympathetic persons who share their need for individuality with others.
Members of non-mystical, church-style congregations, such as Zen clubs, derive a sense of security from belonging to the group, a sense which is reinforced in regular meetings. To prevent internecine squabbling, the leader must collect each member's "enemy shadow" and then cast these troublesome instincts outside the group upon a convenient target: persons of different cultural values, nationality, religion, sect, race, economic status. It matters little. The leader's purpose is to get the group to coalesce; and any loose assortment of people will achieve solidarity when it has a common enemy.
While there is a numerical limit placed upon a pack (elitist organizations limit their membership to, for example, the number of passengers that can board a spaceship or inhabit a doomsday fortress) and there is an occupancy limit placed upon nuns and monks who reside in monasteries, there are no limits placed upon Zen club memberships. These clubs expand their rolls exactly as health clubs do: they rely upon the attrition factor. People enroll with enthusiastic intentions which briskly lapse into lethargy.
In order to arouse a prospective member's desire to belong to the society - and to get that initial sign-up fee - Zen clubs package their deal appealingly. The person who will "consider" the applicant's qualifications will drop the names of prominent members; praise the master's saintliness; boast of the Order's international significance; and, as a bonus, offer Buddhist fellowship - served with tea and cookies at a meeting's conclusion. Naturally, if anyone has a personal problem, he can discuss it during weekly darshan (dokusan), i.e., interviews with a master, or during other arranged meetings.
We ought to expect that if a group purports to be Buddhist, the basic rules of Buddhist morality will be imposed upon the congregation: no one should suppose that it is permissible to murder, steal, lie, use alcohol or drugs, or engage in illicit sexual activity, or, since such behavior violates the rule against violence, should anyone wantonly indulge in such deleterious habits as smoking, eating animal fat or other injurious foods. Obviously, in addition to these basic Precepts, the group's administrators, especially if they claim priestly ordination, are vowed to even more stringent rules of conduct.
If we think we've erred in joining a Zen club the problem is easily remedied. We cease attending meetings. But when we seek counsel for those self-destructive behaviors which cause illness or inter-personal conflicts and we consult with an unqualified person, we, in such a vulnerable state, may not get off so cheaply.
It would be nice, indeed, if we could judge spiritual teachers as we judge barbers or hairdressers; but we can't. There are readily discernible criteria for judging haircuts, but there is no obvious way for the uninitiated to judge the performance of a Zen priest.
We are fit to judge the competence of a barber because our encounters with him do not require an emotional investment in him. It is devoutly to be wished that he has not become our friend, lover, or hero: prudence and fashion demand that we evaluate his services with an objective, critical eye; and this, of course, is what we need to do with Zen priests or masters. We are not likely to strive to emulate our barber's lifestyle but we may definitely be disposed to copy the gentle goodnesses of a priest or, should he be lacking these, his crimes and misdemeanors.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that our priestly advisor is any more ethical than he is competent. Elsewhere we have written about the lucrative practices of many Zen "masters." A further warning may be in order. While no one will deny that even a great master can fall from grace (though I personally do not know of any who has) the profligacy institutionalized by many Zen club leaders is astonishing. A Sangha's leader is the Buddha's representative; and groups that are headed by chain-smokers, drug users, womanizers, sodomizers, exploiters of the poor, or drunks are many things; but one thing they are not is a Sangha. Not even on his worst day was the Buddha a nicotine addict let alone an adulterer, etc.
Zen has a long and marvelous history of persons who conquered the most abject of behaviors to rise in triumphant glory. But only in Club Zen can a man become a master and then become a drunk.
Particularly when we seek Buddhist solutions to our problems, we have to abide by Buddhist rules. The Precepts are not mere aims, they are mandates and as such are not subject to compromise. If we don't want to follow them, we should find another religion.
And finally, if such reprobate pseudo masters were not enough (and they certainly ought to be) there are groups out there which tell a prospective member that if he pays a hefty membership fee and monthly dues plus ancillary costs - and pays these monies faithfully for two years, he will be eligible to receive a certificate which entitles him to start and head his own group. This is Franchise Zen and what this scheme has to do with real Zen is anybody's guess. Such groups make the enclaves of Club Zen seem as authoritative as the Vatican. We can almost see the puff of white smoke every time they issue a certificate.
Be careful out there.
But there is another side to this coin of responsibility. Especially when we have a problem with introjected or projected devils, there are risks that a priest runs in dealing with us; and if the priest is not sufficiently experienced, all concerned may regret our bad judgment.
As our talks begin, we almost certainly will lapse into denial and try to blame others for our troubles. Accordingly, we will seek to convert an unbiased priest (the kind we say we want) into an ally. If he permits us to make accusations against someone else, we will interpret his consent as approval.
Although we will expect that our least utterance will be held in strict confidence, we'll tend to exaggerate a priest's sympathetic nod into a cry of impassioned advocacy and then to broadcast it all over town. If we squeeze a commiserative remark from him, we will set it in the concrete of quotation which, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, we will then hurl against our enemy. The priest, impossibly compromised, will have no alternative but to discontinue his counseling. Discomfiting a priest does not conduce to the kind of rapport necessary for confessional benefit.
Worse, sooner or later a "transference" will take place and our devil will target the priest or Zen counselor. A psychiatrist might welcome this transference as a step forward in the therapeutic process, but an unprepared priest will likely find himself besieged with our irrational communications and the further complication of inter-group dissension that our remarks create.
Both priests and psychiatrists know that troubled people tend to cause trouble - that is how they call attention to their problems. A psychiatrist routinely deals with these problems and the risks they present. A priest may find his congregation torn apart by a single disturbed individual who, having found no quick redress of his ancient grievances, will move on to another group.
As a therapeutic regimen the Dharma has its time, place, and limitations. It benefits no one to permit a troubled person to add even more victims to his personal conflict or to let him deprive himself of yet another possible source of relief.
The rule is to be vigilant: as observant and as critical of our own conduct as we should be of those whose guidance we seek.
As to self-help through books, these too present the problems of unfamiliarity. When searching a bookstore's offerings which glowing blurb do we believe? What are we to make of books written in English by foreign masters who in the flesh can barely speak the language but who in print are as eloquent as C.S. Lewis? Is the ghost writer, editor, translator... competent? We cannot tell.
And what about those appealing tracts which are penned by the gentle jesters of Zen... the cute little books that inform us that 'Zen Is Our Everyday Mind' and 'Satori Is Our Everyday No-Mind' or some such drivel? May we entrust our salvation to these?
The best rule here is to stick with the conservative experts: Mircea Eliade; Thomas Cleary; D.T. Suzuki; Carl Jung and his exponents; Max Muller; R. H. Blyth; Jaideva Singh; Sir James Woodroffe; Edward Conze; W.Y. Evans-Wentz, - to name a few. There are valuable Chinese texts available, but most of these have been clumsily translated into English.
When choosing to follow any regimen, it is possible to get lucky; but if we don't wish to depend too much upon chance, we can start by applying traditional standards to the selection process. A good regimen must make sense. In Part I of this essay, we referred to the opposition rule: not only must we avoid the cruel deed, we are obliged to perform the kind one. This idea of balance, of Yin and Yang complementarity, needs to be kept in mind whenever we evaluate a program; and if the requisite balancing element is not offered in the one we choose, we must acquire it on our own.
Zen owes more than its name to Indian spiritual theory and practice. The methods of Zen are Indian methods and they rest upon an Indian philosophical foundation. Other Asian countries stylistically alter the system to accommodate cultural differences, but western countries, when importing Zen, often ignore the base and reproduce only an oriental version of the superstructure.
In Indian Yoga, as in most spiritual regimens, an aspirant's first requirement is physical control of the body. Asanas (postures) are prescribed so that the practitioner may acquire the necessary stability in 'seat.' This immobility or disciplined arresting and control of body movements facilitates concentration and meditation.
Everyone readily notes the similarity of a yogi sitting in Lotus and a Zen practitioner sitting in Zazen. Both maintain a rigid posture. What few acknowledge is that before the yogi has achieved that vaunted rigidity, he has attained perfect flexibility. In an oriental Buddhist monastery, a time of sitting motionless is routinely offset by a time of practicing movements requiring grace and agility. (Anyone who has ever witnessed Zen monks and nuns performing Tai Ji Quan in a Chinese morning mist is not likely to overlook the sad absence of exercise in western Buddhist centers.) This "introspective" physical program also facilitates a smooth flow of psychic energy throughout the body by keeping the various meridians or nadis (conduits) unblocked by stiff or knotted muscles. Stillness is opposed, then, by movement, and rigidity by flexibility.
Zen also shares the practice of Pranayama with its Hindu cousins. Chi, Qi or Ki is not in any significant way different from Prana, a necessary psychic force acquired mostly through controlled breathing. Yet, Zen instructions in the west are often limited to observing or counting breaths. A newcomer is flippantly told, "A long breath is a long breath and a short breath is a short breath," as if there were no significance attached to duration of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. But we know that deep breathing techniques provide for the production of serotonin and also for the evacuation of bacteria-filled 'residual' air at the base of the lungs. Particularly in the absence of structured forms of meditation, passive breathing techniques tend to induce only hypnotic trance; and hypnotic trance is a different experience from true meditation. A complete practice will include both trance techniques and meditation.
Additionally, Indian regimens require "Pratyahara" - the control of the senses. Here, again, we find the mistaken idea that this accomplishment is limited to ignoring certain sensory data. Zen practitioners are often trained to attain a trance state in which, for example, pain can be alleviated. But this is only part of Pratyahara. Put a rose under a yogi's nose, and if he does not wish to register its smell, he remains oblivious to it. But he can also, if he wishes, meditate upon an absent rose and perfectly create and savor its fragrance. This ability holds as true for Zen as it does for Yoga. We recall an old mondo in which a novice pesters a master to tell him when he will experience enlightenment. The master asks, "When you arrived at the temple yesterday, on which side of the doorway did you leave your slippers?" The novice cannot recall and is surprised to be asked such a question. Nevertheless the master says pointedly, "When you can tell me on which side of the door you left your slippers yesterday, you will attain enlightenment."
In some Zen circles, this story is said to illustrate "awareness" or "mindfulness" as if the mindful person remembers all the little details of his actions. It does not mean this at all. By entering a trance state, details of experiences that may otherwise be forgotten are recalled. In the same way, a hypnotized person can often recall such details as a license plate's number which he could not consciously bring to mind. The effort then is not to free ourselves from the senses' power over us, but to gain power over the senses by negating stimuli or evoking them.
Pratyahara is not intended to enable us to do something we're better off not doing, i.e., sitting in long and painful meditation sessions. Sitting for hours like a stone is not Zen. It is a way to get hemorrhoids; and in this it often achieves its only success.
Perhaps because monasteries are seen as safe places in which a person may go to escape from 'dangerous' people or to pacify himself if he is included in their number (the usual verbs are "to retreat" or "to repair" to a monastery), these refuges become havens for embattled novitiates. The problems, then, of dealing with devils, whether introjected or projected, are of more than passing interest to monastery administrators who cannot regard the prospects of presiding over an asylum as anything but bleak. In consequence, all monastic activities have therapeutic applications.
Devils may be mean but they're not necessarily smart, and they certainly aren't discriminating. They can be tricked into venting their anger upon any substituted target. But also, as passionate creatures, they want mostly to find expression. Usually they will permit the enormous amount of psychic energy placed at their disposal to be sublimated or converted to artistic pursuits. Buddhist institutions are centers for calligraphy, painting, sculpture, floral and other traditional art forms, ceramic and textile crafts, metalworking, and so on.
Constructive work such as farming or gardening also vents the pressures of emotional conflict and confusion. Vigorous hoeing, cutting, pruning, digging, and weed-pulling release the tensions of an aggrieved psyche even as they provide for the gratifications of beauty and benefits of food. In the orient, flowers and food are placed upon the altar every day as a sacrificial act or devotional offering. Kitchen activities, too, are conducted as spiritual work, and the master in charge of the kitchen holds an exalted position in the monastic hierarchy.
Playing musical instruments such as bell, gong or drum is also therapeutic and esthetically gratifying. Especially in the case of the huge temple drum which calls the faithful to prayer, more than a little hostility can be released in rhythmically striking it: the reward is a galvanizing, mesmerizing, and utterly compelling sound, unmatched in beauty, that resounds throughout the temple complex. (The temple drum in Yun Men monastery is itself worth a trip to China.)
All of these activities require a formalized training period with ritualized instruction, an integrated spiritual component, and much physical, hands-on action.
Perhaps the most direct and salutary method of releasing the pressure of anger is to permit aggression to be combatively acted out - this being, of course, the monastic discipline of the martial arts.
Perhaps because martial arts' training had been prohibited in post-war Japan - and it was Japanese Zen and not Chinese Chan that entered the U.S. after World War II - such worthy activity is omitted in most American Zen programs. Worse, it is often disparaged by effete, Angel-Zen intellectuals who regard the discipline as being beneath their refined notice.
Aside from the obvious benefits of sport and self-defense, a formal martial arts discipline offers a Zen practitioner who is suffering penalties exacted by the lex talionis an excellent adjunct to his program of spiritual recovery.
Martial arts' training allows participants to act out aggression in a controlled manner. In the spiritual atmosphere of the training room ritualized gestures of respect, apology and appreciation insure that the exercise will not merely displace aggression, substituting an acceptable target for an unacceptable one, but that it will permit destructive energy to be dissipated in the give-and-take of engagement and armistice. Punishment is inflicted and punishment is received; and however much the surrogate at either end is vanquished or victorious, aggression is released, the destructive impulse satisfied, forgiveness petitioned, and pardon given. In this dramatic enactment of combat, the need to injure oneself or someone else gains visible fulfillment with indisputable black and blue evidence. It is a win-win situation.
Sedentary activities, such as Chess or cards, despite their strategies and battlefield nomenclatures, will not suffice as vicarious combat. They are competitive without benefit of physical activity or spiritual significance and tend merely to engage the ego. There is no substitute for the ritualized forms of fencing, archery, or contests which involve kicking, punching, wrestling, stabbing, slashing, these being the kind of activity that a healthy devil can 'get into' with gusto.
The most effective way to disable a devil is by atonement through 'active regret,' i.e., by apology to the offended person or by restitution of his property, or, when such direct acts of contrition are not possible, indirectly by sacrificial offerings of prayer or charitable work done in the name of humility and penance.
Contrary to the public perception that monastic life is one of idyllic calm - 'long periods of reflection interrupted by trips to the dining hall,' monks and nuns perform an astonishing variety of jobs: they grow medicinal herbs and provide these and other medicines to the sick; act as arbiters in family disputes; comfort the bereaved; counsel the emotionally disturbed; find food for the hungry; attend the dying; teach a range of educational subjects; host community functions; officiate at ceremonial or other religious services; conduct temple tours for the public; and so on - all in addition to fulfilling their domestic and spiritual duties. A Zen institution in the orient has a very busy staff, and every activity the staff performs is done as an act of atonement. This ongoing quest for humility is Zen's Karma Yoga. (Nothing destroys a devil faster than heartfelt acts of charity towards others.)
It is a curious fact that doctors and nurses, despite their proximity to infected patients, are not particularly susceptible to the contagious diseases they treat. It is as if the act of loving service to others boosts their own immune systems and allows their own introjected devils (if they have any) to identify with the afflicted patient.
As the Buddha himself noted, "Hating can never cancel hatred. Only by its opposite can hatred be canceled. This is an eternal law." The opposite of hate is love. And it is by love, by patience, by constructive conversion of aggression, by remembering all of the times we transgressed and fell short of the marks we now so righteously set for others, and by forgiveness of ourselves and of others - a forgiveness that might seem to require amnesia - that we find our way out of the ignominy of spiritual slavery into peace, joy, truth, and freedom.
In Part III of this essay we will suggest a "30-Day Devil Elimination Program" which, should anyone like to attempt, will require certain preliminary steps. Anyone who smokes will need to see a physician to obtain a prescription to assist him in freeing himself from this addiction; anyone who is fat will also require medical management of his diet and progress; and, above all, anyone whose aggressions are sufficiently great to warrant a course in the martial arts, needs to have his heart and blood pressure professional checked. Being resuscitated on a Dojo floor is nobody's idea of a Zen cure.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts