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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Full Circle: Zen for the West, Part One

Where to begin? Last evening I had one of those "Ah-hah!" moments which are all too rare, when disparate elements that've been trying to resolve themselves into a coherent whole, click together for me. So, where to begin?

Let me first introduce the new logo of the Nashville Zen Center. This has its own story. For several years now, I've been wanting our little Zen group in Nashville to have its own distinctive, representative design. I won't repeat the NZC's history again here, but readers of this blog knows that we've finally, in the last year, recreated ourselves into an authentic Soto Zen school. Zen Buddhism, by definition, needs a teacher and a lineage, which we accomplished by association with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and its teacher and founder, Taiun Michael Elliston, Sensei. This, with our newly formalized protocols and the lay ordination of Nat and myself as ASZC disciples this summer, puts us into stark contrast with the old NZC, which was loosely organized and self-taught.

If you still want Buddhism 101 in the form of anything-goes ecumenism, Nashville still has groups to fill that roll. My deepening perception that the NZC had moved beyond this came to a head as I was dragged kicking and screaming this past year into a repeat performance of last year's Nashville Buddhist Festival. The NZC never has, to my knowledge nor that of anyone I know, gained one single member from the NBF, which is at best a soft retreat for Buddhist dilettantes, as it was this year, and at its largest, as last year, a street bizarre for New Age looky-lou's.

The bottom line is, this is the End Time for our current culture, a few years past the unacknowledged end of the American Century. I come to Zen as the only means I've found to deal with the impending years of horror. Those who come to Zen, as I did, are all self-motivated, self-driven, spiritual questers of the first order, and they can't be placated with the treacle of a watered practice which purports to be the distilled essence of the East and West. They can't be found by advertising or lured by vague and inoffensive teaching. They want the real thing and in this town, there's nowhere else they can go. Needless to say, we're not the largest group in town to call itself Zen, but we're the most authentic, and we have the most to offer by way of connection to a transmitted teacher who is not himself the product of a diluted practice. So.

The emblems of Nashville's other Zen-like or Zen-affiliated practices are all flowery and feminine, being based upon the excellent art of the founder of at least one of those groups and ex-President of the NZC. I truly do enjoy and appreciate Lisa's painting of lotuses, but the Zen I was looking for and eventually found was a hard thing, a strong and striking thing which stood in stark contrast to the alternatives to be found here. Luckily, the ASZC includes in its emblem the most standard Zen symbol, the enso. Nat had the idea to use the enso as our group's emblem a couple of years ago, but the proposed t-shirts were part of an idea which was (and still is) not executed. Within the last few months the design for the present logo came to me, and was wonderfully executed by Ana King, our resident artist. Hence what I consider to be a strong and striking logo.

Ana appreciated the irony of my coming to one of our few female members for the execution of what I honestly consider a strong, masculine symbol. Because it occurs to me now that we are in fact, the yang to the yin of the alternatives, and it is precisely the "yin" flavor of Nashville's alternatives, and to much of what I consider to be New Age Zen, that had me frustrated. But let me come at this from another angle.

It has long been my opinion that mankind has been the beneficiary of a number of religions which are helpful, supportive of their cultures, and intuitively if not literally true; and that concurrently, it has been the victim of three or so harmful, parasitic and essentially false and deceitful ones, the latter being the Desert Religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is a strong opinion, and it is not likely to find any favor in the New Age mind, which is the mind of much of what passes for Buddhism. Nonetheless, I have intuitively known it to be true since I was no older than ten.

I don't have the space here to argue comparative religions; suffice it to say, that for me and for most of those who seek long and hard enough, Zen comes at the end of the road, as Nat is wont to say. That is, by the time you get to Zen, you've eschewed your way (pun intended) through all the bullshit and come to the essence of "spiritual" practice; direct confrontation with reality. There are no frills needed at this point.

No frills, but there is, I find, the need of a framework. I recently came across a comment somewhere by Jundo Cohen, founder of the Treeleaf Zendo, brother monk of Brad Warner, his fellow disciple of Gudo Nishijima, to the effect that Nishijima's disciples had fallen into disarray because of Nishijima's minimal reliance on the Precepts. The truth (or not) of that is beyond my present scope, but it did ring very true to me that zazen, although the jewel at the center of Zen practice, needs the setting of Zen itself to shine, and not to be obscured. As I said before, the Zen student needs a teacher to keep him from getting caught on the ledge on his way in, or down.

The framework of Soto Zen works very well for me; it involves ritual but minimized teaching. And yet it often occurs to me that Japanese culture is a very strange fit for modern Western man. This perception has certainly not been lost on the numerous Zen (and otherwise Buddhist) teachers who have attempted to purify their homeland's (usually Japan's) corrupted traditions in the fire of the new forge which has been American since the 1960's. It was brought home to me recently by, of all things, an article on how Western social networking sites fail among the Japanese, who are loath to even give out their names online, much less their pictures.

So: if Zen and indeed Buddhism itself is merely a setting which although formative is set aside, to some extent, once the point of direct perception through zazen is reached, might not another setting do? or be better for the products of another culture such as ourselves. It seems so, or at least seems worth a shot. But what would that setting be? Surely not the pervasive Christian and post-Christian culture, the taint of which is the hardest to eschew for anyone wanting to confront the reality of existence -- nor that of its sister religions.

It finally occurred to me that the native culture and spiritual traditions for Americans of northern European descent, is that of the Norse and Germanic gods, which although largely wiped out by the insidious Christianity of the Dark Ages by about the ninth century, formed the basis of the northern half of Western culture in its formative years. In the years before Christianity, Europe was dominated by Greek and Roman cultures in the south, and the religion of the Aesir and Vanir in the north. When the cult of the desert god Yahweh was adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine and established by conquest of Europe by the Romans, the extant Norse religions were all but obliterated.

So why did I find myself, in the last few months, find myself inexplicably and inexorably drawn to the Norse religion, and to its present re-incarnation as Asatru? I have never at any time considered giving up my Zen practice, but I found myself being lured by the Norse mythology. It made no sense to me; what could have less to do with Zen than the worship of Odin?

It finally came to me last night when I discovered a description in an early Pali, Theravada text (in translation, on the internet -- don't think for a second that I read Pali!) to Gautama as a tall man with brown hair and blue eyes! And suddenly I was reminded of my college studies from thirty years ago or more, of the history of world religions and I realized: Buddhism is not a religion of Asian cultures at all, but the culmination of the myths of the Aryans, which are common to the mythology of Scandinavia and to the pre-Hindu Vedas!

The Aryan tribe (and please not let's mistake the real Aryans for Hitler's concept of the race of Supermen!) are first seen in the mists of pre-history somewhere in what is now Eastern Europe. From there they spread into northern Europe, but also through the Middle East and ultimately to India, to the banks of the Indus River, where their fiery conqueror's religions intersected with the ascetic and mysterious (because not documented) practices of the Dravidians, a race? tribe? of dark-skinned people who were there when the Aryans arrived. Thus the myths of the Vedas flowed into the period of the Upanishads, and ultimately formed modern Hinduism.

But along the way, about 600 B.C., a prince named Gautama brought this evolving religion to its culmination as Buddhism. Buddhism is, thus, the culmination of the Norse religion! And zazen is the essence of Buddhism; it is the true and original practice of the Buddha, despite the cultural accoutrement's which it has picked up through its long Asian sojourn. So that perhaps the jewel of zazen, set in the rich culture which is most accessible to us now through the Eddas and Asatru, is the true legacy and flowering of Western spirituality. It could be our recourse from the maddening, yin femininity of the desert religions which engulf us. It could be what we need.

But this is too long, and I need to sit. I'll flesh this out later. This was truly enough to keep me up all night, last night, and too exciting a realization to put down soon. So you'll be hearing more, I promise. This is evolving thought, so if you have contributions, please make them; my head is spinning.


Anonymous said...

And perhaps the Aryans discovered dhyana (zen)
after consuming soma, a psychedelic inebriant
(the same way you children of the sixties did ;)

mama p said...


I've wondered much the same in my own path-- I took bodhisattva precepts at ASZC (hey, congratulations to you for your association!) and full ordination just a few years ago in Colorado. But I also practice a pagan tradition, mostly Celtic-influenced, in order to honor the cycles of seasons and to honor my ancestry...and, my curiousity!

So I've had similar wonderings as you; and what is interesting is that many Celtic scholars and "reconstructionists" actually turn to the Indian mythology you mentioned in order to "fill the gaps" that an incomplete mythology has left behind. There is a connection, and its nature has been my querey for a few years now.

But Buddhism as a culmination of Aryan religion? I'm not sure... first I think to just how different the Irish Celtic relious mindset was: living by Virtues, and by one's reciprocal relation to the Gods, were/are central tennents of this philosophy. And there was a sense of life as one long journey, never really quite ending, between this world and a variety of Other Worlds, and those are not seem as separate from our own, and with an in-tact Ego doing the journeying in a multitude of forms.

But another thing that I wonder about is Buddhas of other kalpas; we chant a good number of them in our Soto devotions before ever mentioning the Buddha of our current Age, and I doubt any of them were specifically Aryan.

In other words-- for me it is an unanswerable question, this connection between the paganism I enjoy and the zen I love; but the linking of them is like the beauty of Celtic knotwork, and such an elegant representation of what amounts to an unkowable and vast whole.

I'd love to join your conversation about this! And I look forward to more posts.

Kozan Bob said...

I appreciate your comments, and yes, please stay in the conversation.

I am tempted to respond -- I have some of the same concerns, of course -- but I think I'll wait til my next post instead of responding here in the comments section.

Always great to hear from ASZC people!

mama p said...

Hey, lookin' forward to the post!