Buddhism, Selflessness, Non-clinging, Power and Enabling

I cannot say I am typing this from the perspective of a papered, academic scholar or a person with some sort of lineage scroll to roll out. This may put me at a disadvantage for those who require it. Rather I speak from a meandering of experience wherein there are crossroads or events, like origami that fold over one another to reveal something else.

There is a gift to the concept of selflessness and non-clinging; the gift of relinquishing of pain. I came by it through training as an uchideshi (a live-in apprentice) at a traditionally run Aikido dojo. There I wanted so much to learn from the sensei that even though I was normally adamantly protective of self and ego, I knew relinquishing that was part of the training and as much as it went against my grain, I did my best to comply.

It was chaotic, unjust, illogical and unpredictable. I struggled and was imperfect in knowing when up meant up and when I was supposed to interpret it as down…or sideways…or banana. One day an older, visiting uchideshi took pity on me and told me a story of two ways to become a Zen master.

The first way is that a student studies under a master and is given book after book after book, studying for endless hours, year after year after year. They are tested on their knowledge of the text, the root meaning, etymology and historical context and required to meditate on it for years to come. One day, they might reach mastery.

The second way is a student who is taken in by a teacher and that teacher brings chaos and turmoil to the student, exacting pain and confusion, day after day, until the student finally lets go. Clinging neither to right nor wrong, letting go of being the nail that gets hammered into place and pulled and hammered and pulled makes the student reach the necessary ‘zen’ place; to reach the non-clinging, non-self.

The idea is that in the martial moment, not being caught up in the psychological trauma of violence as it relates to the self is a very effective tool for survival. I saw the logic and utility of it at the time, and in some arenas I still do. A few years ago I heard an interview of an Iraq War officer who tried to impart the depth of change in a soldier who must fight in a place like Fallujah; that he must become like a ghost, already dead. I presume this is an example of the purpose of relinquishing the self in the martial context. The utility in one context however is also manipulated in another.

In the context of Buddhism, never questioning your senior, always deferring, relinquishing self, it is not the Middle Path in my view. I have seen some subtly shun or denigrate those who resist that relinquishing to authority as people who don’t understand The Way.

I was exposed to quite a few Shihans (essentially ‘master-teacher’) and those on track to be Shihans and what I saw were students who were selflessly providing people who had evolved from a controlled habitat of never being questioned, never being checked, save on a very very rare occasions. I wanted to be a team player in order to be accepted into the fold but part of the core of me was uncomfortable with it.

Still the experience was one of growth of understanding the self and the not-self; the me and the not-me. I’d never trade that experience for anything, I’ve found some very good friends and it caused me to eventually come to Buddhism from another path.

A very dear friend had given me a paperback titled Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor and it was not a dogmatic demand of submission to authority in order to find peace but rather the pragmatic tool set imparted by Siddhārtha Gautama centering primarily on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Of course it helped that Stephen explained the root meanings of words and put them in historical context, especially since I am a logophile. Later I had gone to one of his retreats and found him to have some level of humility and was approachable.  He even later wrote of power dynamics in Buddhist religious institutions.

“The root of the power disparity between teacher and student lies in the belief that the former is ‘enlightened’ in some sense, while the latter is not.   This reflects the difference between the ariya (noble being) and the puthujjana (ordinary being) that goes back to the earliest texts.  This distinction was subsequently given a doctrinal basis when Buddhists adopted the theory of the ‘Two Truths’ as a key tool in their exegetical thinking.  While the Buddha never differentiated between ‘conventional’ (samvrti) and ‘ultimate’ (paramartha) truths in the Pali canon, the theory was embraced by all schools, including the Theravada.  As well as having a certain didactic value, the Two Truth doctrine reinforces a two-tier model of authority:  those who have direct knowledge of the ultimate truth are ariya, while those who do not are mere puthujjana.  The teacher’s authority thus acquires a mystical-ontological rather than a merely institutional legitimacy.”

“It is no coincidence that the majority of cases of abuse reported by students come from the Tibetan and Japanese Zen traditions, i.e. those that place greatest emphasis on submission and obedience.  This is not to say that such abuse is absent in the Theravada schools – it occurs there too; nor does it imply that there are no teachers in the Tibetan and Zen traditions who behave with ethical integrity – for there are many.  While abusive behavior is always an unethical act performed by a particular human being, who needs to be held responsible and accountable for it, we also need to acknowledge that certain doctrinal and institutional contexts facilitate and legitimate this kind of behavior more than others.  As long as systemic inequalities of institutional power remain unchallenged, no amount of soul-searching and drafting of ever more detailed moral ‘guidelines’ will succeed in comprehensively tackling the core issue of the abuse of power.”

Having witnessed several different forms of power dynamics that have mutated into abuse, this reached the core of me and why I open to an egalitarian dynamic in many parts of my life.  Recent news outlets have also reported incident after incident of military rapes and even those who are charged with investigating them have been brought up on charges or removed from their post. I have read journal articles that examine the trend of coaches, physical education teachers and martial arts instructors having a larger than average number of sexual inappropriateness and abuse trends.  The articles discussed the draw of those who seek power and control to occupations where they are given a position of authority, particularly over children, requiring obedience.

I appreciate that there are people who potentially damn their own access to elites and opportunity by calling to the proverbial carpet, those who rely on the power dynamic to prey on the vulnerable. This can be a person who speaks from a position of authority or a person who speaks from atop a virtual soap box.  Within the Buddhist theater there is some bravery from Adam Tebbe at Sweeping Zen for reporting some of these happenings and not shrinking back when he was criticized for it. Especially since he is also a self-outed non-authority on Zen. Roshi Joan Halifax also stepped outside the standard procedure, to be the nail that sticks out by writing an open letter to Daibosatzu Board and Practitioners as well as another on violations of trust. And of course Stephen Batchelor too made clear his perspective, though he seems to have made his reputation by turning the koan “What is this?” back on Buddhism in the great way that he does, which is probably why I felt comfortable enough to engage in Buddhism and be a seeker of discernment rather than faith.

Each of these people of varying places in Buddhism have been admonished by apologists who also use the ‘you just don’t understand The Way’, which I see as just another brand of clothing for proverbial emperors. From my perspective, I have seen this in people who cling to power and lineage and do not want to see that structure change, even if it is destructive.  To me, these very people are in the direst need of the practice of killing that Buddha they just met on the road. (Though, please reconsider Linji Yixuan’s legacy of hitting, he is not beyond his own practice of questioning)

Sometimes I consider as well that the nations which have the highest percentage of Buddhists have also had in their history, some very significant human rights violations and I wonder if it happens in part because the non-clinging, the seeking of not-self causes some individuals to be more invested in dulling the pain while others seek power and wield it by manipulating some of the messages that were originally meant to alleviate suffering. Of course I cannot think of a single religious institution that does not evolve into a cadre of power fetishists, seeking to garner their power through the manipulation of dogma.

So for those who are closest to a Beginner’s Mind, being beginners, I feel it is up to us to question the dogma set before us, though respectfully and with civility. If we are to listen to the words of Shakyamuni then we are to “… not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another’s seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’” But rather examine if “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,”

I am glad to know that I am not alone in trying to stand outside the power dynamic, seeking egalitarianism while still paying respect to other ‘Friends in the Dharma.’


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