Robert Aitken is a hero of Zen. I don’t mean to pick on him. From what I’ve read, it seems like he was an alright guy. And, it seems he is well respected in Zen circles.
But, this is actually why he makes a good subject, to illustrate my point.
What is Zen?
The way I see it, there are only two directions – toward the heart, or away from it. Every important decision we make falls along this single dimension. Making the right choice is all Buddha was ever really talking about.
To illustrate, I am going to list a bunch of Zen words and phrases that everyone has heard:
Compassion, acceptance, Letting go, Dropping off, Nothing sacred, True man without rank, Emptiness, Selflessness
You hear these phrases all the time. Everybody has. Every Zen teacher I know speaks about them.
What do they mean?
Some decades ago, as a practicing monk in Hawaii, Robert Aitken’s group was introduced to Eido Shimano, who had just shown up, from Japan. Mr. Shimano immediately started causing trouble. In short time, 2 women were hospitalized. That’s how Mr. Shimano’s American Zen story began – a decades-long career marked by near continuous deceit, coercive sex, and financial irregularities.
Mr. Aitken was given a choice, back then. He had contacted the Japanese institutional headquarters, regarding Mr. Shimano’s behavior, and had been told to keep quiet.
But there were more incidents. And, as they piled up, Mr. Aitken pressed the subject, requesting that Mr. Shimano perhaps be sent back to Japan.
This time, the Japanese Zen authorities responded that he either remain silent, or give up his training within the tradition.
So here are the choices that Mr. Aitken was faced with:
- Speak up about Mr. Shimano’s compulsive attacks, and be forced out of his tradition.
- Remain silent, and continue studying toward becoming a recognized “master”, within the tradition.
Mr. Aitken kept quiet, and went on to teach "Zen" to a generation of western students.
So, about those words… Here they are again:
Compassion, Acceptance, Letting go, Dropping off, Nothing sacred, True man without rank, Emptiness, Selflessness
Just go through them, one by one.
And, if you had to choose, for each of these overly-used Zen phrases, which direction are they pointing, in this life choice?
Which way is “Nothing sacred”? The first choice, or the second?
Which way leads to “True man, without rank”?
Which way demonstrates “Emptiness” or "dropping off"?
It is just a question. But why not take the question seriously, and give it some thought? What was Buddha, or (Lin Chi, or Bodhidharma) actually talking about?
Were they talking about Zen traditional form?
No! It didn’t exist!
What were they talking about?
Which direction are we to take?
What is “Zen?”