June 8, 2017

Regarding Buddhist online forums

Online Buddhist forums are interesting things. I personally have found that participating at places like Zen Forum International and Dharma Wheel has been useful for my own practice: it has allowed me to absorb the perspectives of a few other senior practitioners in several traditions that I might otherwise never have encountered. These perspectives have in some cases been instrumental in shaping my own.

Forums do have their downsides, however. I wrote the following to address one of these: the proliferation of self-taught or self-certified "teachers," whose chief activity on forums is to hold forth - usually anonymously - regarding Zen practice, mainly according to their own half-baked understanding. Since this seems to me an important point in general, with usefulness beyond the world of the online forums, I'll share it here as well:

There exists an oddly common idea that one can read a few books (or forum postings) about a tradition or practice - or practice some particular method for a few months or years - and more or less "get" what it's all about. 

The truth, however, is that even the seemingly simplest practices are extremely profound. The courses of practice mapped out in different lineages arose only from the truly (at times inconceivably) severe training those lineage forebears did, and therefore contain vast reservoirs of human experience plumbing the depths, so to speak. 

For these reasons, no one should talk about practice with any authority or certainty without having brought it to fruition for oneself (meaning first of all that one is clear what such fruition entails for the methods one is using, then that one has no doubt the fruition has manifested, and finally that one's teacher agrees). Even in such cases, it is still best to preface talk of practice with "In my experience," recognizing that different practitioners reveal different facets of Zen training more strongly or weakly according to their unique conditions and characters. 

As an example: koan practice as it exists in Rinzai Zen. The manner in which this method functions means that one really doesn't see the whole course of the practice - its full logic and ramifications - until one has completed the formal practice completely. In other words, one could only really speak about it accurately from a "top-down" place, seeing the entire "system" after having passed through it. Before that point, much is hidden. After that point, also, a great deal of ripening still has to occur. In fact, we could say that the real meat of Rinzai practice takes place after one has completed koan training...even, after one has received inka from the teacher. 

And yet, everywhere you go online, you'll find folks confidently telling you what koan practice is, how it's done, what it means. The same also for other methods and traditions. It's really a very odd thing, isn't it! 

It's fine for someone who has done many years of practice, whether they be lay or ordained, to speak about their experience in some manner. But even such people should be very careful not to talk much about practice in an authoritative way. Within the course of practice there are many instances where one realizes how myopic and shallow one's attainment has been. Even someone of very deep and sharp ability like Torei says that at the end of his practice under Hakuin, when he finally was able to grasp the master's functioning, he laughed when he considered his previous efforts and understanding. How much more likely is this to be so for practitioners of fair-to-middling ability, such as we mostly are?

I hope that all of us in our community, starting with teachers and senior students including myself, will repeatedly come to feel the surprise that Torei did, as we clearly see how shallow our own understanding truly is. With that humility and great care, we should then be able to support, guide, and counsel one another effectively.

1 comment:

Haeja Sunim said...

Well said! Thank you for laying this important issue out so clearly.