Book Review (corrected - I wrongly attributed the quote from Albert Welter to Michel Mohr)
Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice by Steven Heine & Dale Wright
This book is a welcome addition to the growing collection of literature revealing the huge gap between the actual practices of the various Zen schools and the common Western ideals of what Zen Buddhism represents. It presents in-depth analysis on the actual practices (from Zen's early history through the present) of many Zen rituals. These studies focus on Zen rituals as diverse as "Dharma Transmission" and "Zazen", to the rituals to "Glorify the Emperor" and "Protect the Country."
For those readers familiar with Zen only through "romantic" treatments of it by charismatic popularizers, this book may be an eye-opening read. For instance, the actual incorporation of Zen into Japan seems to have had little to do with "spiritual realization." As Albert Welter writes:
"While it is commonly supposed that early Kamakura bakufu leaders were attracted to Zen for spiritual reasons and for its discipline and rough and ready call to action that was part and parcel of samurai life, nothing could be further from the truth. Early Zen patrons looked to Zen ... to honor the dead, ensure victory in warfare, and alleviate sufferings associated with drought and natural disaster."
While many of the truths revealed and outlined in this wonderful and readable collection of essays have already been revealed (or at least implicated) in previous works, this book brings them together in one place offering an overview of the actual activities and functions of Zen institutions. While many westerners have become aware of some discrepancies between romantic accounts of the Zen schools and the actual theories and practices of those schools, some may be astonished at just how wide these discrepancies actually are. Most westerners associate Zen with "koans", "zazen" (meditation), enlightenment, etc. Many would not have guessed that, in the words of T. Griffith Foulk:
"...funerals and memorial services are the mainstay of the Zen tradition in Japan and its most important contribution to Japanese Buddhism at large." In fact, outside of actual "training centers", it is only a very small minority of Zen priests that engage in anything like "koan-introspection" or "zazen." Even in the so-called "training centers," reports Foulk: "Sutra-chanting services (fugin) take up more of the time of monks in Zen monasteries than any other kind of observance. They are regarded as a vital part of the daily (as well as monthly) routine, for it is through them that all the spirits enshrined on altars in various monastery buildings are nourished and propitiated."
One essay, "Zazen as an Enactment Ritual," written by Taigen Dan Leighton, a scholar, Soto priest, and Dharma heir, offers some "unorthodox" information on Dogen's "zazen." For instance, Leighton offers Dogen's own writings as evidence that:
"It is clear in context that Dogen considers zazen the core ritual but still simply one of the many ritual activities in the everyday life of the monks' hall."
This may not sound all that radical, but anyone that has had the "pleasure" of discussing the significance of "zazen" with western Soto "adherents" will find the confession that zazen "is simply one of the many ritual activities in the everyday life of the monks' hall", unusual, to say the least.
Leighton, as a learned scholar, is one of the few Soto "Dharma heirs" that is willing to acknowledge the validity of many things in Dogen's record that contradict much of what is postulated by "orthodox" Soto adherents. Among these are the notions of progressive practice, the validity of "enlightenment" experiences, and the necessity of study and right understanding in authentic Zen practice-realization.
Another interesting essay offers a deep analysis and overview of the ritual to "Glorify the Emperor." This ritual is so important in both the Rinzai and Soto schools in Japan that it is elaborately carried out at least 26 times a year in all the major monasteries. This was one ritual that some may not realize was fully endorsed by Dogen--and indeed, this book reveals that every single one of the rituals that Dogen dismissed in his "Bendowa" was actively encouraged and practiced by him and his followers. This book also offers the first in-depth analysis on the practice of "kinhin" (walking meditation) in the Soto school of Zen. Said to have been passed down from Dogen, David E. Riggs reveals that this practice was actually devised about 500 years after Dogen's death.
The essay on "Dharma Transmission" is perhaps one of the most important revelations for modern western students. While many are aware of the untenability of anything like an "unbroken" line of Transmission from the Buddha to any modern Zen master, the details of the corruption of "Dharma Transmission" offered here force us to question how this ritual could be considered as valid in any context today.
Revealed are a number of "posthumous" and "proxy" Transmissions (Dharma Transmissions "after death" or through "mediators" without ever meeting the "successors"). For instance, the "Transmission" of Dogen's own teacher, Tendo Nyojo, was re-created by means of a posthumous transmission by proxy (a previous "master" took transmission from a "dead" master, then transmitted it to Tendo Nyojo's lineage).
This collection of essays may be a disillusioning experience for those students with romantic notions of modern masters purported to be teaching the "authentic" or "true" Zen transmitted from master to disciple down through the ages. However, dis-illusion opens the door to authentic Zen.
This book, along with others that reveal the truth behind the "orthodox" doctrines and institutional dogmas regarding the authentic message of Zen, allows students with genuine aspiration to see through the bias, narrow, and one-sided teachings inherent in hierarchical systems of all kinds. Rather than becoming the "followers" of those "creative interpretations" by the modern sects, schools, and institutions seeking to win power through authority, students become free to go directly to the sources of the Zen records themselves and discover the timeless wisdom embodied therein.
Master Dogen, for one, seems to have foreseen the appropriation and corruption of his own teachings by future "authorities." In order to preserve the "True Dharma" he did not decide to establish "a sect" or a "school" or a "transmission" from successor to successor, but a written record:
"I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of pro-found instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and main-tained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha's lineage." Shobogenzo, Bendowa (Trans. Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross)
This book, with its revelations of the gap between "authentic Zen" and the "teachings by Zen institutions" highlights the necessity for genuine students to look to the classic Zen records, rather than modern sects and schools, to discover the authentic message of the great Zen masters.
Author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing