Tuesday, February 15, 2011

a little Buddhist nacht musik

In December, 2007, my Zen Buddhist teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, died at the age of 80.

There -- I said something about Zen Buddhism, a fire I seem to be drifting up and away from like wood smoke. Looking back through the trees, I can see it burning brightly and recall my gratitude for its light and warmth. Thank you very much, you who light my distances. Thank you.

Not long ago, I sent an email to a chum in Japan, an American who has been a Zen monk for 35 or more years. Tom has a nice quiet way about him in emails and I try not to pester him with too much Zen chit-chat. But because I was curious, I wrote and asked him what he thought of lineage ... the line of teachers and students and teachers and students sometimes said to stretch "all the way back" to Shakyamuni Buddha. I didn't ask the question with any particular answer in mind, but I was curious to hear from someone whose words I can listen to. Tom hasn't written back, and I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't respond at all. Except in insistent hands, the topic is so viscous and faceted and, finally, probably useless.

I hear people who tout lineage and I hear people who pooh-pooh it: It's authoritative, says the one, while the other scowls and calls it manipulative bullshit. The real and the relative gambol like young male mountain goats, butting heads, building strength, learning skills ... and all so that later, when they find the right girl, the species will be continued and lineage assured.

I'm not against lineage in any knee-jerk sense. Even the kind that only reaches back to Shakyamuni Buddha seems OK to me when balanced against the uncertainties and sorrows that living, breathing human beings can bring to Buddhism's doorstep. Wouldn't you lie a little to ease a child's sobs? Gautama did (holding out a closed fist, pretending there was gold within until the child's tears ebbed), so wouldn't you too?

But one lie can lead to another and yet another, until the raucous cries of "fraud! fraud!" are not far from the mark ... even when they issue from rebellious, but untutored, mouths. "Stop lying! Be transparent! Tell the truth!" The accusations carry merit, but leave out the sorrows and uncertainties that purely beg to be told some succulent lie ... something that will reassure me in my longing to set sorrow and uncertainty aside. If someone answered such cries with a straightforward truth, would the sorrowing and uncertain have ears to hear it? I doubt it. Listening is easy. Hearing is hard.

On the other side of the equation, teachers with lineages that reach all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha, learn to address the needs of the sorrowing and the uncertain. It's just a little fib at first ... one that may be excused, sort of, but one that underpins their elevation and post: The gold that is not in Gautama's fist. Are they strong enough and clear enough to laugh? I don't know, but I do know that there are many palaces in which teachers -- the authentic ones, dontcha know -- hold court. I'm not criticizing. I am curious.

OK ... I said something Buddhist, something I somehow felt I ought to do. I don't know about lineage and, from among the mountain pines, I look back at what warmed me and am grateful. The truth is good. Lies are good. And neither one of them has much to do with lineage, I imagine. Maybe Tom will write and set me straight. Or maybe my stiletto-wielding friend Stuart Lachs will straighten me out.

How do you straighten out wood smoke? I suppose I could  build a palace or a chimney, but I'm too old and weak for that stuff.



  1. Perhaps this is not directly on point (re: lingeage), but for me the belief that Shakyamuni Buddha was perfectly awakened (enlightened, liberated, etc.) has been a counter-balance to any feeling/thought that I am alone/first with any small insight I have. Or to accepting others who claim some special/unique insight.

    For me, whether the lineage is broken or bullshit is not significant, because if you and I and others follow the Buddha’s Dharma, we are part of the ‘unbroken’ lineage.


  2. thinking aloud. in my understandin, lineage is synonymous with practice. the teacher taught, the student received, observes, and practices, and propagates in suitable if not similar fashion, hence there is a lineage.

    recently i met a coworker, experienced than me, a lady, who told me suggestively that in life, or rather, in the business world, there is no such thing as Best Practice. In the absence of no Best Practice, does Best Lineage still serve a purpose then? THe purpose of a teacher, imho, is because there is a practice he teaches, that is supposedly "best", if not "best-est" amongst the various he has seen. You don't just pick a teacher like you pick a can of spam from walmart.

    Still, what the cowoerk said did strike a chord in me. No best practice... yet... that could indeed be the best practice.

    In chinese kungfu, and I presume to some degree Japanese martial arts and zen lineages, there is always a classification of level 1 to level what-naught of skills that are the highest. Yet, what is higher than highest?

    No practice. Sounds like an interesting nugget of thought for me. Make a cup of coffee, the bed warm, laze, and wait for the snow to melt.