Zen Masters of Japan – a conversation with Rick McDaniel

Books Buddhism Buddhism around the World Japan Zen

Zen Masters of Japan
The Second Step East
Richard Bryan McDaniel
Tuttle Publishing
ISBN: 9784805312728
Hardcover, Published 11/5/2013
5.125 x 8, 288p. 20 b&w illustrations

9784805312728__98623.1365697987.1280.1280From the publisher:

Zen Masters of Japan is the second book in a series that traces Zen’s profoundly historic journey as it spread eastward from China and Japan, toward the United States. Following Zen Masters of China, this book concentrates on Zen’s significant passage through Japan. More specifically, it describes the lineage of the great teachers, the Pioneers who set out to enlighten an island ready for an inner transformation based on compassionate awareness.

While the existing Buddhist establishment in Japan met early Zen pioneers like Dogen and Eisai with fervent resistance, Zen Buddhism ultimately perservered and continued to become further transformed in its passage through Japan. The Japanese culture and Japanese Buddhism practices further deepened and strengthened Zen training by combining it with a variety of esoteric contemplative arts—the arts of poetry, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, and archery. Zen Masters of Japan chronicles this journey, and shows how the new practices soon gained in popularity among all walks of life—from the lowly peasant, offering a hope of reincarnation and a better life; to the Samurai warrior due to its casual approach to death; to the ruling classes, challenging the intelligentsia because of its scholarly roots. A collection of Zen stories, meditation, and their wisdom, Zen Masters of Japan also explores the illusive state of ‘No Mind’ achieved in Japan that is so fundamental to Zen practices today.

Rick McDaniel taught at the University of New Brunswick and Saint Thomas University before working in International Development with the YMCA, where he as instrumental in creating the YMCA Peace Medallion. He is also the creator and driving force behind a five-part documentary series called ’80/20: A Developing World’ and coauthor of the textbook A Two Way Approach to Understanding: Issues in Global Education. Dr. McDaniel describes himself as a Roman Catholic by birth and heritage and a Zen practitioner by nature and temperament. He studies at the Montreal Zen Center with teacher Albert Low.

The Sumeru review: For context, you can read my review of volume one of this trilogy, Zen Masters of China, here.

As McDaniel explains in his introduction to this book, it covers a broader chronological sweep than volume one and is thus more episodic. Although no formal lineage charts are included,  in most cases the protagonists are so well-known that the stories stand on their own merit without requiring much beyond the most basic historical context. However, readers not familiar with Japanese Zen history will find themselves drawn more to McDaniel’s compelling storytelling abilities than to deeper doctrinal issues that many of the stories reflect.

Like Japanese tea, Zen Masters of Japan will best reveal its treasures in small quantities over extended time rather than being consumed all at once.

I’ve asked Rick to add his thoughts to my questions below.

Sumeru: For me, the book revealed many of the tropes and truisms of how Zen has been presented in the West, translated into a Western mind-set that is unprepared for the no-mind approach of Zen practice. I had to struggle with it many times as if it were a koan. Here are a few examples…

“So-and-so heard the sound of … and suddenly experienced awakening.” My guess is that real awakening could not possibly be divorced from a lifelong commitment to Buddhist practice, but ever since Philip Kapleau published Three Pillars of Zen, some Westerners have the absurd notion that they can meditate a bit, get enlightened, and then get on with enjoying life better. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, practitioners accepted receiving grace, having epiphanies, being called to the cloth, etc. and accept it as merely a step in a long journey. The portrayal of awakening as an end-state is specious. Again, I’m no expert, but I think many practitioners may be misled into misinterpreting being a Sound Hearer or Stream Enterer as the Thirteenth Bodhisattva Bhumi, based on this persistent way of telling Zen stories in English. To his credit, and going against the grain of many western Zen storytellers, McDaniel stresses repeatedly that kensho was usually followed by many years of further deepening practice before teaching.

Rick: The stories aren’t exactly misleading, but they do have the quality of peeking at the last chapter before working through the whole book. My favorite in this regard—and I use it in the preface of ZMofC—is a guy comes up to Zhaozhou and says, “I just got here. Will you please accept me as a student.” Zhaozhou says, “Had anything to eat yet?” “I have. Thank you.” “Then you better wash your bowl.” At which point, of course, the guy gets enlightenment, and the story ends. Nobody really thinks it works like that (I hope), but that’s the story. On the other hand, if one has been practicing for a while, sometimes all it takes is a little nudge and there it is.  In of itself—as the Hakuin stories in this book point out—that first awakening isn’t necessarily a big deal. I’ve met people who “did Zen”—got their kensho experience—checked it off  their list, then took up sky-diving or whatever was next. Kensho is definitely not an end state. And for many people who achieve it, it is just another blind alley.

Sumeru: “They then went to so-and-so to have their awakening authenticated.” My guess here is that if you have an understanding, you know you have an understanding. Authentication is more about fitting in to the institutional system of monastic training in a way to which others can relate. Dharma heirs are (or should be) chosen by their teachers on the basis of many years of close contact and kindred spirit, as it comes to be in the Vajrayana Guru-Chela relationship. The authentication seems to me to be more of a ceremony for the edification of others than it is an initiation for the protagonists and in this it is portrayed quite differently than the Vajrayana initiation process. (Perhaps that is why some of the Zen practitioners in the book held their inka certificates in pointedly low regard.) I’d like to know more about how the two traditions differ.

Rick: Someone who was following my blog about my visits to various Zen Centers around North America (http://rickmdaniel.blogspot.ca) sent me a letter just the other day about this issue. My response was that the issue of lineage is only important if you’re looking for accreditation. People frequently have awakening experiences without any involvement in Zen or Buddhism. Sometimes these are more blind alleys—stories they tell about the time “I had this vivid sense of Oneness!”—sometimes they are life-changing (Thomas Aquinas deciding all he had written was “so much straw.”) On the other hand, if one is working within a system, you need to be assured that what they have is real. We all know people who think they’re wiser than anyone else. Formal Zen authentication is a way of weeding out the chaff. Again, the Hakuin story is a good example.

Also keep in mind that Zen Master is a technical term—it refers to one who has mastered a particular practice. The model is of master/apprentice. So there are master swordsmen, master carpenters, master piano tuners, etc. A master carpenter, for example, might train hundreds of perfectly competent carpenters you would be satisfied having work on your house. But he may only train one or two whose skill matches his own and have both the ability and the inclination to train others.

One of the things Hakuin and those who followed him were fighting is the way the koan system had deteriorated to such an extent that people were “passing their koans” without actually achieving insight—and more importantly, not integrating what little insight they had into their lives. Insight in and of itself isn’t a big deal. Insight (prajna) that leads to compassion (karuna) is what the tradition was intended to develop. Actually, Kapleau was at fault in this regard, as some of his heirs now admit. His book and his teaching focused on the former and fell short on the latter.

Sumeru: “So-and-so was unusual in that he became interested in Buddhism at a young age and wanted to become a monk.” It must be remembered that Buddhist temples and monasteries were among the only educational venues in ancient Japan. Showing interest in Buddhism would have been much more common that it is here and now. When I look back on my life as a pre-teen and teenager, I can see affinities to the way my adult talents and interests evolved, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But I certainly had no sense of the future in those years. Why would Japanese young people be different? I suspect we are seeing what we want to see here.

Rick: Again true—but there were degrees of commitment. Today Catholics point out that although there are few people entering seminaries in the western developed nations there are still full seminaries in the developing world. Well, in part because if you want an education that’s where you have to go. On the other hand, every once in a while there is somebody who is actually drawn to the seminary because he feels a vocation. Many of these stories do point out that the kid went to a monastery and still couldn’t find what he was looking for and so set off the find the Master who could help him. To continue my carpentry analogy: I can probably get basic training at any tech school, but if I want to become a finish carpenter of the highest quality, I may need to look a little further than the nearest community college.

Sumeru: “So-and-so rejected monastic life, took up with beggars, liked to drink, hung out with prostitutes, and/or lived like a hermit.” Presenting only these alternatives to monastic life for Buddhist practitioners presents a narrowed field of opportunities that simply does not match up with history or Japanese cultural norms. Many Japanese priests were/are married. And for heaven’s sake, where are the women?! Where are their stories of practice?

Rick: The stories of people like Ikkyu became almost folk tales in part because they contrasted with the usual hagiographies. If you are raised on a steady diet of devotional pabulum, you probably need a good dirty joke every once in a while to keep yourself grounded.

Sumeru: “So-and-so knew that if his request to renounce his samurai status to become a monk was denied, he would be obligated to commit ritual suicide.” This is so far from my everyday modern North American state of consciousness I have great trouble wrapping my head around it. Was life really so cheap and fealty so valued in ancient Japan or is this a Western obsession? And so I wonder how many other aspects of the stories in this book require a greater understanding of the historical and cultural context within which they occur. Granted, that is something beyond the purview of this book, but it brings to mind Holmes Welch’s excellent trilogy of books on the structure of Buddhist institutional practice in China (starting with: The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950). I’m not familiar with any book focusing on Japan with a similar perspective, but it sure would be a useful companion to understand these stories better. McDaniel makes reference to Zen in the context of Japan’s bushido culture and this is, of course, the stuff of many western movies and books. However, to me that is an example of Zen being co-opted or appropriated by others, rather than absorbing those values into itself.

Rick: My wife, on the other hand, kept complaining I had too much detail about cultural differences. Go figure. Yeah, the whole Confucian basis of a rigidly hierarchical society like Japan is completely in contrast with western values and perspectives—something the Japanese themselves were aware of and so deliberately isolated themselves from the corruption of foreign influence. Americans, on the other hand, were so confident that their cultural values were superior that they sent Commodore Perry’s and his warships to Edo Harbor.

Sumeru: “All beings are endowed with Buddha Nature.” To answer Joshu’s koan in modern quasi-scientific terms (I know, I know, I’m risking a whack from Roshi’s fly whisk here), we are all part of one enormous cosmic system that manifests itself in each of its parts. To put it another way, there are no beings to be endowed with anything; there is only self-arising, all-pervading Tathagatagarbha, endowed at times with human-ness. The protagonists in Zen Masters of Japan had a very uneasy relationship with Tendai and Shingon practitioners, according to McDaniel, but I suspect that relations were much more cordial than he implies, since those two traditions have taught extensively on the infinitely interpenetrating multiverse of Buddha Nature. I further wonder if in fact the root of the problem lies in the way that particular English sentence, paraphrased above, is structured; if so, it has led to many misunderstandings in the West.

Rick: That, of course, is less a criticism of my interpretation—I don’t have one except to say that all beings have Buddha nature—than it is a criticism of the teaching. (And you’d get whacked by a stout stick, not a flimsy whisk.) Of course one needs to see through one’s “self”—experience “no self”—before one recognizes one’s own Buddha nature and stated like that it makes as much sense as the Heart Sutra. But I remember a vivid experience in a sesshin when I heard a crash outdoors and suddenly “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, nor what the mind takes hold of” suddenly made perfect sense. Buddha nature.

Sumeru (conclusion): It is a testament to Zen Masters of Japan that it raises so many thorny issues. McDaniel says the pursuit of the Zen Ox requires Great Doubt, Great Perseverance and a willingness to engage in Dharma combat. At first glance, one might make the mistake of thinking this collection of short narratives is another twist on the Chicken Soup for the Soul series – perhaps Miso Soup for the Buddhist Non-Soul. But that is not how Zen stories work. They’re not fluffy, and they bite. Better get back on that meditation cushion…

Meanwhile, we welcome your comments, Western Zen teachers. Share your voice in the conversation. Clarity on the subject will be of even greater importance for us when McDaniel tackles the journey of Zen to North America in volume three…

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