05 August 2013

Vol. I No 1. Vassa 2013

This inaugural edition of Zen Staff points directly to the reason for its existence: the men and women who constitute the sangha of the Chicago Zen Center are a thoughtful and dedicated lot, and they have been able to bring their practice to bear on their experience of the world.  It is only fitting to provide a platform where the fruits of that practice and that engagement can be shared.
          As befits the nature of our practice, the tone in all of this issue's contributions is one of openness and questioning.  Here, the teacher and the student find themselves on equal footing, exploring the Dharma in the many directions it leads.  For some, this means renewed encounter with the givens of our day-to-day life and times; for others, this means probing received assumptions and conceptual frameworks. 
          Like Mumon's staff, may these and all further contributions to Zen Staff provide support and comfort for our individual and collective peregrinations on the Way.


Us, Too 

Yusan Graham

I saw in today's news that a series of nine "low-intensity" explosions hit the temple complex at Bodh Gaya, the heavily visited Buddhist pilgrimage site commemorating the Buddha's great awakening.  Thankfully, no one was injured, and the only reported damages were to some windows and a door.
          At the time I'm writing this, no one has publicly offered an explanation, though there's little doubt that it was an act of terrorism.  Was Bodh Gaya just a target of opportunity, a high profile, culturally significant soft spot chosen for maximum emotional effect?  There would be some comfort in thinking that Bodh Gaya's connection to Buddhism was irrelevant here, and that this jewel of Buddhist cultural heritage was merely collateral damage in the regional political struggles.
          Maybe.  But I'm sure that I'm not alone in fearing that this is related to the armed clashes in Myanmar/Burma between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority, in which the Buddhists have often been the instigators of the violence.  Whether or not this turns out to be the case, the fact that my conjectures can so easily go there bears looking at.
          Not infrequently in my Zen training, I've heard that in mankind's long bloody history, there has never been any such thing as a "Buddhist war".  We've indulged in a quiet pride in this pacifism, exemplified in the witty observation that the only casualties in the course of Zen's history were an arm, a finger, and a cat.
          But this pride is unjustified.  Not only is it historical revisionism, ignoring the complicity of the Zen establishment in the persecution, torture and murder of Christians in 17th and 18th century Japan and in the Japanese WWII war machine; it also plays into the very same "us vs. them" mentality that underlies all conflict.  "We're better than they are" is the unspoken subtext of such thinking.  Not much to be proud of there.
          I am horrified at what I see happening in Burma, but I also recognize that a part of that horror is really more shame – shame at our loss of "bragging rights".  Burma is bad PR, damaging our brand.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing.  There's great danger in the complacency of moral superiority.  Better to recognize the darkness of which we're all capable.



Gregg Cooke

Feeling time flow like
Towering clouds lumbering
Ding! Fresh new moment


Tofu Sensei

Hugh Thomas

A while ago Yusan gave a teisho in which he explained how chocolate had been a great teacher for him.  His teisho reminded me of the following beautiful passage from the introduction to The Book of Tofu, in which the authors, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, explain how tofu was their teacher:

As our work neared its completion, both Akiko and I realized that perhaps our finest teacher had been tofu itself.  Like water that flows through the world, serving as it moves along, tofu joyfully surrenders itself to the endless play of transformation.  Pierced with a skewer, it sizzles and broils above a bed of live coals; placed in a bubbling, earthenware pot over an open fire, it snuggles down next to the mushrooms and makes friends; deep-fried in crackling oil, it emerges crisp and handsome in robes of golden brown; frozen all night in the snow under vast mountain skies, it emerges glistening with frost and utterly unchanged.  All as if it knew there was no death to die, no fixed or separate self to cling to, no other home than here.
     A true democrat in spirit, tofu presents the same face to rich and poor alike.  Placed before nobility in East Asia's finest haute cuisine, it is humble and unpretentious.  Served up as peasant fare in rustic farmhouses, it is equally at home.  Though unassertive, it is indispensible in the diet of more than one billion people.  Holding to simplicity, it remains in harmony with all things, and people never tire of its presence.  Through understatement and nuance, it reveals its finest qualities.


This Morning

Ben Smith

Warm light breaks through
Heavy eyes,
Curled up cozy lazy and dull,
But called to awaken
By the sound of a bird.
Songs brighten the heavy dawn
Through stripes of light
Singing the day to life.
The sun in the room suddenly
With a tug of a string. 

Air dives deep into limbs
Stiff like old branches.
Enlivened arms reach up,
Breath breathing through fingers
Making legs like stone pillars tumble,
Earthquakes shaking
The caverns of a dark cave.

An eager finger
Jolts the room to light.
Dry lips reach with a thirsty hand
Turning into a waterfall
Rushing from a rusty spring.
Prickles of mint shock
The morning with a fresh sigh.
The thunder of warm rain
Welcomes the scent of blooming flowers
Riding on a clear river
Spiraling and disappearing underground
Without a care.


Siding With Science: A review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Neil Snider 

During his high school days Philip Kapleau was the founder and first president of an atheist’s club.  It was not long before the school dean ordered young Kapleau to dissolve the club or face expulsion.(1)  Forty years later, Philip Kapleau was one of the best known Zen teachers in the United States.  Eighty years later, books promoting atheism are widely read and, in some circles, admired.  Not the least of these is the one reviewed here.
          Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and an Oxford professor.  He has written several books on biology for readers with no special scientific training.  Like nearly all scientists he is opposed to requiring that science teachers present religious doctrines concerning the origin of life as alternatives to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Clearly, such a requirement would undermine science teaching, and those who advocate it might well be perceived to be mounting an assault on science.  Professor Dawkins claims that the purpose of his book is consciousness-raising, but one is likely to have difficulty perceiving it as other than a counterattack.
          In Chapter 1 he goes about setting the record straight with regard to the apparently religious pronouncements of various eminent scientists, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein in particular.  Both were/are nonbelievers, but they have used the word God freely in their writings. If one reads carefully, one sees that they use it as a metaphor.  One of Einstein’s best known quotes, “God does not play dice with the world.” is just a flowery way of saying, “I do not accept the assumption that chance is a fundamental law of physics.”  God is here reduced to a figure of speech, as Professor Dawkins tells us in no uncertain terms.  He goes on to express the wish that scientists would refrain from using the God metaphor - and well he might.  Very rarely is a figure of speech used effectively in scientific discourse.(2)
          The epigraph to Chapter 1 is one of Einstein’s more memorable quotes: "I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe of the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it."  Any scientist worthy of the name knows the feeling there expressed.  It is a deeply moving experience to apprehend the universe in all of its rich diversity and at the same time to perceive its marvelous underlying symmetry.
          In Chapters 2 and 3 Professor Dawkins clears the way for his argument against the existence of God.  He rejects agnosticism, which is often just mental laziness: as a Dylan Thomas character put it, “I don’t know who’s up there, and I don’t care.”(3)  Professor Dawkins argues that science has made it nearly certain that “there is no one up there”.  He proposes a scale of probabilities with seven levels.  Level 1 is for those who believe absolutely in God’s existence; Level 7 is for absolute believers in God’s nonexistence.  Intermediate levels are for those who ascribe some probability to God’s existence, said probability decreasing from Level 2 to Level 6.  Professor Dawkins places himself in Level 6.
          He also takes exception to NOMA, an acronym coined by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould as a label for the claim that science and religion do not conflict because they pertain to separate and distinct aspects of existence: science to natural phenomena, religion to issues of morality and ultimate meaning.(4)   Professor Dawkins questions the qualifications of theologians to address moral issues, or any other issues for that matter.  He does not mention ultimate meaning explicitly, but at one point he comments that some questions are “not entitled to our serious attention.”  (What would he say about koans?)  One gets the feeling that for him “What is the meaning of life?” is one of those questions.
          Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly is no God” is the centerpiece of the book.  Here Professor Dawkins argues on the basis of scientific findings that God’s existence is highly unlikely.  He notes that the first life forms were very simple and that species of progressively greater complexity emerged with the passage of time.  An intelligent creator would have to be exceedingly complex and would have had to exist long before any other complex organisms came into being.  The likelihood of such an occurrence is exceedingly small.
          There is a section in Chapter 4 in which Professor Dawkins discusses certain physical quantities (there are at least six of them) that have values within the narrow limits necessary to bring about a universe that might support life.  He calls these values “Goldilocks numbers”: they are neither too large nor too small; instead, they are “just right” for the emergence of life.  A believer would claim that those numbers could not have fallen within the required limits by chance.  A creator must have intended it to be so.
          To a scientist that is too easy an answer.  The most plausible scientific explanation to date is based on the hypothesis that ours in just one of a great many universes.  There is no need to regard the special features of our universe as part of a supernatural creator’s blueprint if there are a great many other universes in which conditions are such that life as we know it cannot emerge.  As yet, evidence in support of the multiple universe hypothesis is scanty.  The search for evidence that will either confirm it or refute it is ongoing.
          Scientific research is ongoing by its very nature.  New discoveries give rise to new questions.  The search for answers to those questions leads to further discoveries, which give rise to further questions, and so on.
          Believers, on the other hand, abandon questioning, surrender to the supposed unanswerability of hard questions and accept the Holy Word.  Professor Dawkins makes this point and links it to much of the world’s woe: "Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.  Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them - given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by - to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades."That assertion is well substantiated by events, both current and historical.
          Such is the case with the religious traditions of the West.  By contrast, can anyone who sincerely recites the Four Bodhisattvic Vows ever stop questioning?  One is thereby committing oneself to passing through immeasurably many “Dharma Gates”.  We are told part of the Buddha’s coming to enlightenment was his constant questioning.  Master Keizan reminds us: “In the awakening of the Bodhi-mind there is neither beginning nor end...”(5) For a Buddhist the word “faith” has a meaning rather different from what it has for a follower of one of the Western religious traditions.(6)
          Later chapters of The God Delusion treat the relation between religion and morality.  I found Professor Dawkins to be less convincing in his treatment of this issue.  He comes down hard on the Bible as a guide to right behavior, and there is ample support for his doing so.  At various places in “The Good Book” we read that the Lord is a party to deceit,(7) to human sacrifice,(8) and to enslavement and genocide.(9)  Even the Ten Commandments, the first two anyway, do not escape “The God Delusion.”  Much of the Old Testament tells of how greatly the Lord was angered by His people’s worship of other gods and graven images thereof. Professor Dawkins likens said wrath to “sexual jealousy of the worst kind”, and several passages of the Old Testament may be cited in support of that assertion.(10)
          At one point he quotes the renowned theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg: "Religion is an insult to human dignity.  With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."  Sad though it may be, that statement is well supported by the long, and ever lengthening, list of lamentable atrocities that have been committed by believers in the certainty that they were doing the Lord’s will.
          Said support is undeniable, but it does not remove the flaw from Professor Weinberg’s statement: one cannot handily separate humanity into the good and the evil.  In varying degrees there is good and there is evil in every one of us.
          A great many people think that we sorely need moral leadership, and a large fraction of those look to the churches for that leadership.  One does not have to be an avowed atheist to feel that the churches are failing in that regard.  However, if the churches do not provide it, where is one to look for such leadership?  Professor Dawkins answers this question in a way that might be paraphrased figuratively by, “It’s all coming out in the wash.”  I do not think that I am alone in regarding an argument of that sort as unsatisfactory.
          It hardly seems possible for a thoughtful person not to feel caught in the middle when exposed to the foregoing controversy.
          Is Richard Dawkins a true atheist?  He qualifies his fourth chapter with the words “Almost Certainly”.  On his scale of probability he places himself in Level 6.  Level 7 is for those for whom atheism is a creed.  Professor Dawkins is a scientist.  There is no place for creed in science.
          Come to think of it, the Dharma has nothing to do with creed either.
          Many years ago I attended a Zen workshop conducted by Roshi Philip Kapleau.  During one of the question and answer periods a participant asked him if it is true that there is no god in Buddhism.  He answered that it is not correct to say that there is no god in Buddhism; rather, there is no god concept.  The questioner did not ask the obvious follow up question, one that has haunted me ever since: if there is no god concept, what is there?

     (1) Kapleau, Zen Dawn in the West
     (2) One can find in the author's own writings a noteworthy example of this failing.  His metaphor, "the selfish gene," has likely misled many people who have attempted to understand the science of genetics.
     (3) Thomas, Under Milk Wood
     (4) Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
     (5) in Stryk/Ikemoto, Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anectotes, Interviews
     (6) Rahula, What the Buddha Taught
     (7) 2 Chronicles 18
     (8) Judges 11
     (9) Joshua 6-11, 1 Samuel 15
     (10) For example, Ezechiel 23


Zen and Science Redux

Bruce E. Lee


One may observe that certain fundamental statements of science and religions are identical.
          In Exodus, God said to Moses, "I am that I am."  Most observe that gravity is that it is.
          If a physicist chases the "creation" of the universe back to the Big Bang, the classical question immediately arises as to what preceded the bang.  Perhaps a "field of infinite gravity where time did not exist" makes sense to the physicist, but not to the layperson; and, at that point, should one "believe in" the science or the physicist?  Is one to pretend he understands the scientific statement, or on the other hand, absolutely fantasize about what might be in the mind of another?  Ah...  is he to have faith in the scientist?
          Sooner or later every scientist will either say, "It is that it is," or will put the question to infinity.
          Zen and science are not opposed to each other but, in fact, embrace.  Every scientist worth his salt will tell you that the cutting edge of science is, or is driven by, uncertainty.  Zen embraces uncertainty as fundamental.  A scientist continually tests and retests his hypotheses.  A Zen practitioner continually tests and retests his perceptions.  Both seek to eradicate that which is false.  Both delight in suchness and being.