Monday, April 30, 2012

Waking up to Soto Zen Hierarchy

It’s as if I woke up from a dream, or some self-imposed amnesia. It’s not that I didn’t know that Soto Zen is a hierarchy, and patriarchal until just recently. [My friend and teacher Norman Fischer has been instrumental in introducing the women's lineage papers.  A noteworthy achievement.]

Clearly the ordained and lay entrusted have the only real status.  It is not a status based on actually living the dharma – although many do - but on an ordination that may have happened years ago, or upon acting as shuso for two months.  When I first came to Zen, it was clear there was a kind of elite club: the priests. A kind of caste system. At Zen Center, I am told this enactment of hierarchy is very precise – down to where the zafu is placed for certain services.

What triggered my awakening to this after all these years of my being willing to ignore this every entrenched tradition within Soto Zen?

I was given a list of how people should line up to receive the new women’s lineage documents.  And there it was: a literal expression of rank.  Priests and lay entrusted first and everyone else. One priest – a dear friend – told me that the ordained hold responsibility for our practice.  Although this responsibility is taken seriously in most cases, there are many who through questionable ethical behavior, or simple lack of involvement with a sangha, do not hold the practice for me. 

Another dear friend told me that it is simply a tradition of honoring the elders and their longevity of practice.  I would agree that it is valuable to do so, but the problem is that there are many people who have practiced just as long, or longer.  And there are people who are not ordained and who have devoted themselves to service in our sangha for years and years.  These people will never receive this kind of honor and attendant privilege.

It’s as if I woke up, and I was shocked.  How could I have given so much time, have given so much of myself?  I am very egalitarian, and I do not believe there should be a special class of people.  Everyone has his or her own role, based on the causes and conditions of her life.  There are mothers; there are those doing socially engaged Buddhism; those sitting at the bedside of the dying.   

So how do I hold this with integrity?  By being so active in my Zen community am I being complicit with a value system that is not my own? Is this an actual moral question, or can I continue giving and receiving love?  And ignoring.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Prodigal Son: Christian and Buddhist versions

I am reading the Lotus Sutra in preparation for Chris Fortin’s discussion of this text in the Everyday Zen dharma seminars.  I just finished the chapter, “Belief and Understanding,” which is really the parable of the prodigal son…called the “impoverished son” in this text. 

In the Buddhist version, like the Christian, the son leaves home for many years and falls into a destitute state – a state in which he finds himself despicable and the lowest of the low.  In the Buddhist version, the father is also wealthy, although in this version, the father is king-like, sitting on a throne of pearls.

According to the Buddhist story, the father knows he is going to die eventually and sends for his son, so that he will have someone to inherit his vast wealth.  But he knows his son would not believe he is the son of a wealthy king, so he asks the messengers to say, “This wealthy man would like you to work for him.”  And also knowing that the son would feel unworthy, says to the messengers, “You can tell him that he can shovel excrement.”

The son in the Buddhist parable does return, but he refuses to see the king, because he considers himself to be filthy.  So the king – wishing to approach his son - puts on dirty clothes, puts excrement on his body, and goes to his son saying, “Let us work together shoveling excrement.”  After many years, the man gains the trust and love of his son.  The father then reveals his identity, but he still knows that the son cannot accept that he is the son of a king, so he puts his son in charge of the treasury, dispursing  great sums of money.  Only after several years of doing this work, can the son really believe that he is the son of a king.

In the Christian version, the son wants to return home, but fears the wrath of his father.  When he is returning home, his father sees him far down the road.  The father runs down the road, throws his arms around him, and forgives him.  He is overjoyed to have him home at last.

So here is what is so interesting to me:  In the Christian version, the father – God – is the antecedent to forgiveness and wholeness.  In Buddhism, buddha-nature is the antecedent.  That is, according to Buddhism, we are already pure and great.   We are buddha-nature.   Only because of our fear and suffering and low sense of ourselves do we feel unworthy to step up to our greatness.  In the Christian version, especially the evangelical version (as explained to me to my once evangelical husband), we are sinners and will always be sinners, but it is through God’s love and his incarnation into a suffering Jesus, do we find redemption.

I would guess that the Buddhist parable was heard on the “silk road” in the time of Jesus.  The story was then changed and told both through a Jewish perspective and through Christ’s message.

The parables seem very different, but somehow the same.  In one story the greatness is outside of ourselves in the form of God.  In the other story, our own true nature is already great.  But in both stories, we find peace and love and belonging.