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Thread: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

  1. #1

    The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    As a relative newcomer, I have been spending a lot of my time eagerly absorbing what I can from zazen, books, this and other forums, and -- yes, I admit it -- the Zen blogosphere. Those first three sources are endlessly rich. The last has presented me with a conundrum.

    In particular, there seem to be quite a number of Zen practitioners and other Buddhists who have analyzed a situation and come to the conclusion that the practice of an individual or a sangha, school, or other collection of humans is somehow wrong, insufficient, or otherwise ill-informed. I admit that I don't understand a lot of the context, but frankly it's hard to square these judgments and accusations with my growing understanding of Zen.

    I struggle with whether this impression is correct. I mean, I can list a few dozen reasons why these accusations seem inconsistent with my understanding fundamental tenets of Zen and Buddhism, starting with, say, the Heart Sutra! I'll add that I recognize the attractions of judging others. For example, I'm new enough that chanting of the Heart Sutra can be slightly off-putting, plopping me into a moment in which I'm faced with a choice: cling to a judgment of all you chanting crazies, or, letting that fish slips through the net, confront my grasping for an awkward self that resists having its emptiness revealed.

    I do understand the need for us humans to distinguish between lineages, to identify violations of trust and ethics, to operate within a world of laws, and to act in an engaged manner when faced with inequity and injustice. But I don't understand what feels like an insistent cycle of judging others' practice, schools, institutions, and communities within the broader Buddhist community. So I turn to you, Treeleaf members -- a pretty non-judgmental bunch, in my opinion -- for some thoughts about what seems to be going on here.

  2. #2

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    This Sit-A-Long post by Jundo captures a lot of what I was trying to communicate:

    We don't need anything other than Zazen, any of those trappings. In fact, they are no big deal, of no importance, when we drop all viewpoints in sitting Zazen. Pursue your own Practice. Ultimately in Zazen, we sit with ourself and ourself alone (literally, with our "self"), and wrappings, bells and whistles are a sideshow. Ultimately, it is a matter of you exploring and sitting with your own "me myself and I" This practice is not limited to any place or time ... we drop all thought of place and time. It certainly is not Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Namibian or American

    On the other hand, we have to do something, to greet each other somehow, read some words, dress some way. Why not do such things? As I often say, for example, we have to do something with our hands when practicing 'walking Zazen' (Kinhin) ... why not hold them in the traditional manner of Shashu (I mean, better than sticking 'em in your pockets)?

    As well, there are parts of our practice which we do BECAUSE we resist (for example, when visiting a temple for Retreat, I usually put my heart fully into ceremonies and arcane rituals BECAUSE I resist and think some of it silly or old fashioned). Ask yourself where that kind of resistance is to be found (here's a clue, and it is right behind your own eyes).

    What is more, there is method to the madness, and many (not all) customs have centuries of time tested benefits ... embody subtle perspectives ... that support and nurture Zazen Practice at the core. Many parts of our Practice, though "exotic", are worth keeping, even if they strike someone as strange at first. Bowing, statues, rigid decorum in the Zen Hall and, yes, weird talks about Koans all fit in that category. They may seem like unnecessary "Japanese" or "Esoteric" elements at first, until you understand the role they serve.
    The humility expressed here -- I do not understand that which I presume to judge; resistance to practice can be found "right behind your own eyes" -- is foundational to my understanding of Buddhism generally and of Zen practice in particular.

    Gassho, Jundo. (Oops. I guess I just used one of those esoteric terms that I resisted for a while.)

  3. #3

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    Quote Originally Posted by ChrisA
    As a relative newcomer, I have been spending a lot of my time eagerly absorbing what I can from zazen, books, this and other forums, and -- yes, I admit it -- the Zen blogosphere. Those first three sources are endlessly rich. The last has presented me with a conundrum.

    In particular, there seem to be quite a number of Zen practitioners and other Buddhists who have analyzed a situation and come to the conclusion that the practice of an individual or a sangha, school, or other collection of humans is somehow wrong, insufficient, or otherwise ill-informed. I admit that I don't understand a lot of the context, but frankly it's hard to square these judgments and accusations with my growing understanding of Zen.
    Gee, I just posted by chance that same essay on tradition on another thread a few minutes ago!

    Anyway, what you describe is "human nature" ... and Buddhists are human. We tend to put "the other guy" down. Same in Buddhism as in any other religious or political groups and discussions.

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with criticizing the beliefs or practices of others, Buddhists or otherwise, if (1) it is done in a positive, soft, "in my humble opinion, and from my limited vantage point", constructive way and, (2) we continue to emphasize that "different strokes for different folks, one size does not fit all". **

    For example, I am sometimes critical of certain interpretations of, for example, Koan Zazen or Tibetan Practice, but only as a "perhaps" criticism from the limited vantage point of my own view of Shikantaza Practice, and also while fully recognizing that Koan Zazen or Tibetan Practices may be right for some people ... and Shikantaza wrong!

    I believe that there is nothing wrong with civil, respectful, constructive "agreeing to disagree" discussions and mutual comment and criticism, an art seemingly lost on the internet and TV these days! :?

    Gassho, J

    ** A few things, however, such as being a member of the KKK or Nazi party, I would criticize with less ambivalence! :shock:

  4. #4

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    One other comment on the Heart Sutra, as you mentioned ...

    The non-view of Emptiness and "the Absolute" allows a vantage point that swallows whole all opinions, differences, "betters and worses", comparisons and the like. All roads up the mountain are the mountain. (Anyway, what mountain?! :shock: )

    Yet, we simultaneously live in a world where some things may be better or worse for certain functions (one does not use a screw driver efficiently to hammer a nail), there are comparisons and differences. All roads up the mountain are the mountain, but some lead into the poison ivy, go round in circles or head off a cliff! :shock: One would be justified in pointing out the better trails to a hiker, and advising them to avoid the dead ends.

    Perhaps in the absolute one could use a screw driver to hammer a nail effectively, and all differences between "nails" and "screws" are forgotten ... but one does not build life's house in that manner.

    Our Way, in my humble opinion, is not about just the way without all opinions. Our way is the way of such two ways, beyond two or one.

    Gassho, J

  5. #5

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    Thanks for those replies, Jundo. You've given me a lot to think about. I'm pondering this section in particular:

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Anyway, what you describe is "human nature" ... and Buddhists are human. We tend to put "the other guy" down. Same in Buddhism as in any other religious or political groups and discussions.

    Personally, I see nothing wrong with criticizing the beliefs or practices of others, Buddhists or otherwise, if (1) it is done in a positive, soft, "in my humble opinion, and from my limited vantage point", constructive way and, (2) we continue to emphasize that "different strokes for different folks, one size does not fit all". **

    For example, I am sometimes critical of certain interpretations of, for example, Koan Zazen or Tibetan Practice, but only as a "perhaps" criticism from the limited vantage point of my own view of Shikantaza Practice, and also while fully recognizing that Koan Zazen or Tibetan Practices may be right for some people ... and Shikantaza wrong!
    I guess I'm trying to distinguish among (a) the human foible of putting down the other (or the Other -- ), (b) the critical yet tolerant consideration of various perspectives, all while recognizing the limitations of your own perspective, and (c) an engaged commitment to, say, the rights of all human (or sentient) beings that demands a rejection of certain perspectives (your KKK example, say) as flat-out wrong.

    (a) seems a pretty obvious form of self-indulgent attachment to me, just the sort of thing I'd want to be aware of while sitting zazen to allow it to slip through the net -- not want to slap onto a blog post! (b) and (c) seem to me more complicated to understand in and through Zen or Buddhism -- or, more specifically, the slippage from (b) into (c), or, perhaps, the ways in which the wolf of (a) slips into the sheep's clothing of (c)....

    Writing this out makes me remember a story in which I was skidding down the path to (a) and caught myself -- or more properly, got caught unawares. I spent a couple of hours at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai a few years ago. This is the temple atop the hill where the white elephant is said to have trumpeted and died -- a hilltop that you reach by climbing 309 stairs in the blistering Chiang Mai heat.

    So I got there, exhausted and drenched in sweat, and it's teeming with activity: incense burning, bowing and praying, tourists snapping away... the sort of place, in fact, that some have criticized as typifying a reified Buddhism that has been calcified, commodified, ornamented, and otherwise gutted of any legitimacy or meaning or whatever. Back then, I hadn't read all of those sorts of critiques, so I just watched as different people approached the temple itself, did or didn't bow, did or didn't light incense, did or didn't sit and pray. And, because I hadn't studied much Buddhism, period, I didn't really know what any of their actions meant.

    Despite (or perhaps because of!) my ignorance, I was pretty sure about one thing: that that big gilded statue of Buddha was, you know, a big, gilded thing. That perception tended to make me think that all of these people were there giving money, bowing, praying, and so on because of whatever awesome spiritual power this big, gilded thing on a hill had for them. I mean, it's summer in Chiang Mai, and those 309 steps are a workout! Why not just pray or meditate at home in the A/C?

    So just as I start looking around in full (a) mode, seeking confirmation of my budding critique, a young Thai man rose from the floor where he had been sitting and approached me. He knew English and had noticed my observing the scene earlier, so he asked where I was from and why I was there. After replying, I asked why he was there, making a joke about climbing the 309 steps.

    And he said, "Well, yes, by the time I get to the top, I feel very tired and very human! And then I look at Buddha and remember that he was human, too. And it helps me to pause and remember Buddha the human. He walked a lot on his path! So that's why I come here."

    I thanked him, and he left. Unfortunately, I was stuck with myself, having learned that he looked at that big, gilded thing and saw a human, and I had looked at a human and saw a thing.

  6. #6
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    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    Hi Chris,

    Your story from the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple was a pleasure to read. What a profound realization you Came to! Thanks for sharing this!

    Gassho,
    John

  7. #7

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    Thanks, John. I think about that conversation often these days, how a stranger I had judged chose not to judge me but instead offered me a opportunity to learn by losing understanding. When I think of metta, I think of that stranger and that moment when words, thoughts, and perceptions just fell away leaving some damned potent nothing....

    And isn't it remarkable that this man (whose first language wasn't English, no less) put such a powerful thought into such affable, caring words! I find it amazing, frankly, particularly given my growing realization that words inevitably falter (and my similarly growing awareness of just how much I love those words!).

  8. #8

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    I think... you think too much!

    I tend to drink to heavily from the firehose that is Buddhist books/blogs/podcasts myself. Lately I've tuned most of it out. Ask yourself, what am I really getting out of this? Is it deepening my practice or just muddling it? Do I really think that I'm going to stumble across that one post, that one gem that will reveal all of life's mysteries to me?

    Exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Everyone has an opinion. Even monks from the same tradition--nay, the same teacher!--will disagree on doctrine, practice, etc. But who cares? Maybe you should just spend a few weeks "off the Zenweb," make sure to sit every day, visit Treeleaf. But tune out everything else. How do you then feel? Perhaps you can better gauge the usefulness of "the firehose."

    Cheers,
    Matt

  9. #9

    Re: The Practice of Judging Others' Practice

    Quote Originally Posted by Matto
    I think... you think too much!
    There's no question about that!

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