Friday, April 03, 2009

If you meet the Buddha on the 'net... You've been punked!

Many years ago, I met and became friends with a man who did more to bring Zen Buddhism to the west than any other. He was a prolific writer, lecturer, and teacher, who could create clear images from the most obscure Zen concepts, and turn koans into poetry. His name was Alan Watts.

I met the man while attending a disciples' retreat at Tasajara Zen Center in the early '70s. Emerging from my first semi-successful experience of shikan taza (just sitting) meditation, I opened my eyes to see his loving face, gazing down at me, both of us seemingly oblivious to the gentle rain that wafted down upon that verdant hillside. All he said was, "It's a beautiful place to be, isn't it?," and I knew he wasn't referring to our location in the woods south of Carmel. The man saw me. Clearly. And touched that place in me that understood. We spoke for some time, and I knew that I had a new friend and teacher.

I never saw Alan again after that retreat, and was saddened to learn, barely a year later, that he had died. His legacy, however, lives on, offering a taste of clarity to those who seek to understand the paradox of Zen.

Now that we're well into a new century - a new millenium, for those who find such things important - a new type of teacher has emerged, claiming to bring the Eight-fold Path to bear upon the world of commerce; a self-proclaimed "Buddha of the Internet," who preaches that the Buddha wants us to have everything we desire, and begs his followers to send him money, so that he can purchase everything he desires, such as an ever-expanding collection of expensive cars, a mansion... well, you get the picture.

This would-be guru also teaches that in order for one's spirit to truly evolve, it is necessary to focus one's gaze only upon positive things, and to turn aside from anything painful, disturbing, or otherwise "negative." He claims that by even acknowledging such "negativity," the seeker blinds him or her self to truth.

Any student of Buddhism knows the fallacy of such teachings. Siddhartha himself grew up in a life of privilege, shielded from the "negativity" of the world by his parents. Somewhere inside, he knew that there was much more to existence than what was visible from his pampered life, and ultimately fled the comfort of his parents' home to find out what it was.

What he found was a world of untold suffering, of people in deep despair and pain, and the discovery left him frantic, devastated. One day, sitting before the river, watching how it flowed so effortlessly, he awakened to a fundamental truth: The suffering we experience is a direct result of our efforts to change the course of our own life's flow. The river flows effortlessly across the face of the earth because it does not strive. It merely flows, guided by natural elements, to its destiny of mingling with the sea. And in that release, the river knows no suffering. If we are to find joy, we must flow like the river, observing the banks, the deeps, and the rapids as we pass, yet not striving to change our own course or the nature of the universe through which our life flows. Our place in the sea awaits, oblivious to our desires or efforts. Siddhartha realized that our suffering is an inescapable product of our desire. Let go of the desire, and suffering ends. With that simple yet profound realization, he achieved true Buddha-hood.

Unfortunately, this new "teacher" is many people's only experience of Buddhism, and they follow, blindly hoping for some morsel to fall from the table of abundance and joy that he claims to experience. While I have no doubt that he has acquired wealth as a result of his teachings, I know the man personally, and know that the joy he dangles before his followers eludes him. Faced with a challenge, be it from someone who doesn't agree, or with the fear that arises from his need to sustain an image, he bears little resemblance to the face he presents to the world at large. He becomes again that frightened little boy who lurked at the fringes of his childhood world, taunted, teased, abused, and feeling unloved and unworthy.

For that little boy that lives inside him, I feel only compassion, and would hug the fear out of him if such were within my power. Yet for the man who enriches himself by distracting and misleading others from their quest for truth, for joy, and for awakening, I feel only disdain. The man knows the fallacy of his words; he has studied enough to understand truth. Yet he chooses illusion, because illusion is easier to sell.

And yet, he does teach me lessons I need to learn. My own disdain is borne of my desire to see truth realized, amplified by my own judgment of those whom I liken to the money changers of Biblical stories. It is my own desire that I must conquer, not the behavior of others. I know this, intellectually, yet that knowledge fails to penetrate to that part of my consciousness that needs no words. And it is little comfort to me to realize that even the Christ grew enraged at the money changers of his day. He obviously had his human moments, times when his Christ-hood eluded him. How could I, a deeply flawed human, far removed from anything resembling Buddha / Christ consciousness, expect to rise above the desires that even those awakened beings felt? Truth is, I can't. My teacher once told me that as long as my footfalls were upon the earth, I wasn't finished yet. He was right. Yet I hunger for that awakening to fill every moment of my life, rather than dancing in and out to the tempo of its circumstances.

Perhaps the time will come when I will look upon those who would spread illusion and wish them well. Perhaps one day, I will know, in every fiber of my being, that those being misguided are at the perfect place on their path. Perhaps there will come a time in my life when I do not strive to right the wrongs I see, or even name them wrongs. I have a little secret to tell you, though. If I ever do get to that point, I won't be here to tell anybody about it, and I most certainly won't be trying to sell it to anyone. I will have joined those wise teachers who have brought truth to us, demanding nothing in return. To flow with my brother river, and to sit again with my friend Alan, delighting in the sound of rain...

Drawing courtesy of a talented old friend, with whom I've (sadly) lost touch - Jennifer Zimmerman


mojo said...

A few years ago I used to do graphics/editorial work for an organization founded by a roshi who was touted as one of America's pioneers in trying to combine entrepreneurship with socially engaged Buddhism. He's an interesting guy--aerospace engineer turned Zen Buddhist turned business dude. Instead of only "focusing on the positive" he was organizing "street retreats" (to live among the homeless for a week) as well as yearly retreats to Auschwitz, so that people could bear witness to ALL life has to offer. Because let's face it: on average, the most profound, life-changing personal growth lessons tend to come from REALLY UNPLEASANT crisis-laden problems, and NOT from happy happy joy joy all the time.

As I recall, his big satori experience (in the middle of a carpool with his engineering buddies, which had him crying and laughing and freaking everyone out) involved a vision that--when he described it to me--haunts me to this day: being accosted by "hungry ghosts", miserably greedy, desperate, needle-necked spirits that are never satisfied. (The Episcopal church--MY staid, boring cultural background--doesn't HAVE such things, assuming you're kind enough to ignore the whiny snivelers who can't deal with women priests and/or gay bishops. The closest the Episcopal church comes to acknowledging unpleasantness is a General Disdain For People Who Cause a Scene. Like having a freakout satori in the middle of one's carpool. But I digress.)

His purpose in life, my roshi friend then-and-there decided, was to get-off-the-zafu and delve into ALL aspects of society, "good" AND "bad", and attempt to feed those "hungry ghosts". I think it's a worthy enough goal, but even he admitted it will take several lifetimes to attain. Its realization will be measured in millimeters, not headlines and websites and how many times a self-described Enlightened Being says "But wait, there's MORE! Order TODAY and get a free ice crusher!"

Every time I see or hear of one of these internet "gurus" bragging about their houses and cars and whatnot (it's not that often, 'cuz I really don't seek them out all that much), I am haunted anew by that same vision of hungry ghosts, swirling around, assailing people, forever wanting what they cannot have. There is a profound sadness behind the hype. But then I figure, it's like watching the news. Oooh, not supposed to watch the news, am I? Yeah, the news can be depressing and "negative", but you know what? It's a reminder nonetheless, so for that reason it does good. Something becomes NEWSWORTHY when it is NOT THE NORM. So every time I hear of a violent or unpleasant act on the news, it reminds me of the millions and millions of small kindnesses that did not and never will make the news, because the sheer innumerable volume of such acts render them so very ho-hum unnewsworthy.

So ditto the poor attention-seeking gurus hopping up and down in every corner, shrieking "lookit me, lookit me, gimmee money! I'm so freakin' enlightened!" For every ONE of them making headlines today, there are MILLIONS of people quietly and anonymously doing REAL good in the world.

And with every tiny, unheralded kindness, I suspect my roshi friend's goal creeps that much closer to reality.

Cosmic Connie said...

First off, Ron, that is a beautiful piece (and for me, a respite from my own snarkiness). I think you took the high road by writing here on your blog, especially since engaging NetBuddha on his own blog isn't possible.

Mojo, your roshi friend sounds like the real deal and not just one of those practitioners of conspicuous altruism. The NetBuddha himself is constantly talking about his Operation YES (Your Economic Salvation) to end homelessness, but he's been talking about it for over a year and it still apparently hasn't "launched." He did say in a recent interview with a freebie fitness rag that he knows how to end homelessness and foreclosures in America *in one day*.

You also make a good point, Mojo, about the purpose of negative news. I've long said that the negative stuff makes the news not just because of the news outlets' hunger to engage readers and viewers (thereby increasing their ratings), but also because the bad stuff is considered by most of us to be not the norm. It's true that focusing too much on horrid things that one can do nothing about is counter-productive at best. But I also believe that the practice of tuning out all the bad news -- a practice that Joe V and many other gurus and their followers actively preach -- is absurd at best and dangerous at worst.

Anyway, Mojo, I thank you for your eloquent reminder of the many real people in the world who are doing real work to make things better.

And Ron... again, good job.

RevRon's Rants said...

Besides misguiding honest seekers with twisted representations of belief systems, the hustledorks also provide fodder for those who, lacking any real knowledge about the beliefs, and relying upon what they see the malpractitioners do, condemn entire belief systems. Babies and bathwater...

I've had "encounters" with one particularly rabid individual who constantly spews vitriol about all belief systems - particularly Buddhism - because his ex-wife claimed to be a Buddhist, and allegedly caused harm to come to others because of her "beliefs." After being contacted by some of the individual's friends (and ex-friends), I gained a better perspective as to the true source of his rage. Apparently, the "crime" his ex committed was to refuse to continue to support him (and his drug habit), though to listen to the guy, she was an accomplice to murder. In his logic, if the ex was evil, and called herself a Buddhist to boot, then it would follow that all Buddhists are evil, as well as Buddhism itself.

I'm the first to admit that some horrible things have been done in the name of every religion, but it is ignorance of the principles upon which a belief system is founded that allows such egregious behavior to be labeled as representative of the actual beliefs.

Now this person is an especially exaggerated case, his pathology extending far beyond anything to do with a belief system (or lack of one). However, he does provide a caricature of the way a normal person might respond to the misrepresentation of a belief system. I can't help but wonder what kind of actions some of the hustledorks' followers might take, once they come to realize that they've been deceived ("Swindled" might actually be more accurate). And a way of life that actually holds forth the promise of growth and - yes - happiness becomes instead a justification for rage.

I sure hope the collection of cars - and sycophants - was worth it.

Cosmic Connie said...

Good points, Ron. What is ironic, in the "strange-bedfellows" sense, is that this pathologically angry person you're talking about was a guest recently on a Christian talk show, hosted by a woman who wrote a book about how New-Age stuff is the devil's work. And Mr. Angry is an atheist. Not only is he an atheist, but he claims that he has no beliefs and subscribes to no belief systems. Of course he has to have someone besides ardent atheists and staunch nonbelievers on his side -- and he has also cast his lot with God's Only Party -- so he concedes that as religions go, Christianity is less harmful than Buddhism and all New-Age spirituality.

Anyway, your points are well taken regarding the ways that the hustledorks' misrepresentation of religions and spiritual paths can have unintended consequences. Not only is there the potential for fallout from angry or disappointed ex-followers, but in general, the 'dorks' grasping materialism makes just about anything they touch look like the devil's work. That only gives the fundamentalists (not to mention the rabid regulators) more ammo.

Anonymous said...

Rev Ron's Rants, you might enjoy reading William Bartley's biography of Werner Erhard.

"I really loved Alan. He had a Zen-like capacity for irreverence. I remember a meeting with him after I started est. It was a meeting in San Francisco called 'The Changing Way', or something like that. I had been invited to talk. After my talk I was invited to dinner and went into the dining room. It was full of yoga masters. Practically everybody was dressed in saffron robes.

Just then Alan swept into the room. He was going to have to miss dinner in order to give his own talk, so he came in to say hello first. He knew everybody in the room and was open and warm with them - but in a reverent and correct Buddhist way. He went around and greeted each of them formally.

I was the last person at the table, and he hadn't yet noticed me. When he got to me, the cloak of reverence fell away. He threw up his arms and cried 'You rogue, you!', and embraced me."

Werner Erhard sharing his experience of Alan Watts with Professor William Warren Bartley III, Werner's official biographer, in the account titled "In Search Of Enlightenment" in the the chapter called "Quest" in part II, "Education", of "Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man - The Founding of est".

Rev Ron's Rants, I suspect, that you, Steve Salerno, Rick Ross and others of that group, would be busy mocking, vilifying, nit picking and calling Alan Watts a freud, a charlatan and all kinds of labels and juciey allegations about his private life if Alan Watts were alive today and meeting and sharing what he loved with people. I don't doubt that for a second.

RevRon's Rants said...

Interesting comment, anonymous. Not unexpected, but interesting, nonetheless.

Judging by the assumption you make in your last statements, it is obvious that you've missed the point of my post - as well as what Alan Watts stood for - altogether.

If one could attribute "obsession" to anything Alan Watts ever did, it would be that he was obsessed with providing westerners with a wider understanding of the richness and value of Buddhist concepts, and to spread the joy that is the promise of those teachings. I have no doubt that were he alive today, he would strive to untangle the misconceptions about Buddhist teachings that are so rampant in the offerings of many self-proclaimed gurus. Furthermore, he would no doubt laugh at their motivations for distorting the teachings in order to justify their own insatiable desire for material things and accolades.

If you would but read the offerings you decry from a perspective other than one of defensiveness, you would realize that the objections are not to the teachings, but to the intentional distortion of the teachings. While I make no claim to be in the same league as Alan, I am comfortable that he would be pleased with my efforts to shine some light on the faux-Buddhist ideologies I describe. I'd guess that he would chuckle benevolently at the passion I bring to my efforts, realizing that the emotional attachment I feel is merely another desire with which I must come to grips and, eventually, overcome. I would suggest that the same benevolence was in evidence during the meeting with Erhard, if that meeting actually occurred as described. Whether that benevolence would extend to Erhard's later teachings is debatable. My own belief is that it would not.

Perhaps you might reconsider the assuredness you express in your response, and ask yourself what is its true source. Doubt can be a pathway to truth as well as an impediment. Lack of doubt can blind as well as enlighten.

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