Dogma: a dead tradition

What’s the deal with rigid fundamentalism in “spiritual” lineages? You know, hard-line dogma sort of stuff; keeping people’s nose to the grindstone without ever letting up or letting their opinions of the doctrine sway. I think there are two ways of interpreting it. One is literal, in which the professeur actually believes the words of their own agenda or party line. The other is that it is strictly an educational policy, albeit a hard-line one (almost propagandistic), where the person projecting the agenda is doing so merely to keep the students’ minds in line or on task.

For instance, in the Yi Quan lineage and with some newer Chinese martial art teachers they might say not to pay attention to qi. I think it is because that’ll distract you from the practices that actually develop qi. But they would not hear of such an explanation and probably would say it doesn’t exist at all. Not that I know these people personally, I’m just speculating. And getting rid of qi in this martial context is probably more of a progressive thing given the mystical Chinese religious implications of the subject.

In much Zen Buddhism they might say not to pay attention to rebirth, or that it doesn’t exist. I figure that’s because it’ll just distract your zen practice, and it really isn’t that important when it comes to practicing. But guys like Brad Warner and his teacher don’t believe in rebirth at all. I realize that’s a tiny faction of just Soto Zen, but my point is they don’t believe in it, they don’t teach it or talk about it. Not that it literally exists like reincarnation, but they could point that out. But they don’t.

In Tibetan Buddhism (and occasionally in Theravada during talks to laypeople) we see examples of teachers warning students of how they had better pay attention to their practice, because if they don’t they’ll be reborn in one of the lower realms or the hells. This sounds especially dogmatic and reeks of Catholicism or some such western practice. So are the fundamentalist guys, like Namdrol over at E-Sangha, just dishing this stuff out to push us to practice until we can be self-sufficient, or do they really believe it?

The conclusion I always am afraid is a two-fold one. (A) these guys really believe their fundamentalism or at the very least will never let it go in public and (B) the masses are not entitled or “healthy enough” to understand or comprehend the totality of being because it would leave them nihilistic. In the beginning I thought that a lot of religious folks just emphasized the fundamentalism to keep the student’s minds on track. Now I don’t think it matters what the teacher believes considering what they teach people.

I suppose, if the teacher reveals everything at the beginning, a lot of people might not stick it out. That’s like a basic business strategy, isn’t it? The tempting existence of mystery and “secrets” in a lineage of martial arts or religious teachings is what probably attracts a lot of people in the first place. Today we expect way too much right up front, way too much information. But even if you desire information, having it all too early can be overwhelming. If you see through everything without the acquired determinism to keep going, or the renewable energy to have continuous faith in yourself, everything becomes empty and without purpose.

This is why I’ve never been much of an academic. I only want experience, I don’t care about facts and information. Academia is only worthwhile to me if I’m going to implement it into some kind of active practice. A lot of academia, like dogma, is dead. Being static and unchanging, it has no place among the living. It belongs in a museum. Sometimes I feel that way about fundamentalism. Don’t you have to change your methods to fit with the times? But how do you avoid changing your tradition to suit modern needs? And if a tradition is no longer applicable in modern times, doesn’t that belong in a museum?

5 Responses to “Dogma: a dead tradition”

  1. parallelsidewalk Says:

    (sorry, latching onto the Brad Warner mention) Warner is one of the most dogmatic teachers around, in my view. He gleefully carries water for Nishijima, to the extent that he will readily admit he knows nothing about a certain Buddhist practice/concept, but that he is still sure it is worthless because it’s not one very specific form of zazen. A lot of guys from the same basic side of the zen family tree that I respect, like Steve Hagen, say there’s no reincarnation, so I don’t want to paint his refusal of it as absolutely being him parroting his teacher, but he mentions specifically that he believed in it until Nishijimi told him otherwise. Similarly, he had what he described as the realest experience of his life, but when Nishijima told him it was a nothing fantasy, he just agreed that this is what it must have been.

    The dogma of reincarnation of course can be used as a way of justifying the unjustifiable, as it was among Hindus in Buddha’s time and and Buddhists and Hindus today. Sharon Stone’s dumbass comment about China accurately reflects the way most Buddhists understand the concept. The lamas used it to justify the serfdom of huge swathes of the population, and some Thai monks will tell you that the child sex slaves in their society are being punished for evil in a past life. Some new age teacher in the early 90s, I forget who, justified the holocaust with it. But any doctrine can be an excuse for horrific things; the “emptiness” of the heart sutra was used to train soldiers to shoot and bayonet innocent victims when Japan invaded China. I think, as reactionary and simplistic as it may sound, the biggest thing for most of us is just keeping our bullshit detectors running.

  2. Funny, I just made a post about Stone’s idiocy. And while keeping our bullshit detectors running sounds really easy, a quick look at the world around us reveals that it’s very difficult for most poeple to do…

    As far as academia goes, WS, I agree that academia can be static, dead, and dogmatic. But it also cuts both ways. Academic study can also provide the mind with the rigor to see through dogma and new age malarky. I often think that people who are taken in by both might be done some good by a little more academic exposure!

    In that paragraph at the end you really showcase the challenge of every tradition: how to adapt without losing the “core”?

  3. A ha! PS, you took the Brad Warner bait — hook, line and sinker!

    Nah, just kidding. Brad Warner was just the only modern Zen guy off the top of my head that I could think of who does away with the rebirth thing. What’s interesting is that, if he is indeed dogmatic, then it’s a different brand of dogmatism (perhaps making it not dogma after all?). I see his Buddhist thing as being more of a reformed Zen approach catering to a younger audience than other guys like Genpo roshi or the Kwan Um heirs and so forth. I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in Brad Warner as a personal savior. But he also points out that such a concept (being saved) is bunk anyway.

    On the other hand, I do mostly agree with your criticisms. It is always kinda funny to me that people who practice one tradition don’t want to learn about other ones from the same family. But I meet a lot of martial arts teachers like this too. It’s almost as if they’re either threatened by the idea of outside possibilities, or genuinely don’t care and they acknowledge that their tradition is arbitrarily the one they chose to follow.

    I’m not sure if I agree that the rigid adherence to his teacher is so negatively dogmatic. Lots of people do this. I also don’t know what is so bad about Nishijima. He just seems like a pretty straight-up old-school Japanese dude who has a prestigious position. There are a ton of worse conservative Japanese dudes in religion and martial arts who would never even make it to the US (nor would they want to) for their rigid dogmatism.

    What scares a lot of people (not you or anyone who reads this blog) is that Brad Warner and a lot of modern teachers come out and say that they’re just people. They’re like us, they just like and publicly practice (za)zen very dependably and consistently. Usually I think of dogmatism as being rigid laws or decrees laid out by a lineage or tradition. You know, “don’t kill no matter what” type stuff. To that extent, almost every Buddhist teacher is overly dogmatic. A lot of Buddhist lineages, just like the Catholic church, have been able to protect sadistic clergy members under pretexts of holiness or divine transmission. But if they commit heinous crimes or do other nasty things, they’re equally accountable as anyone else (duh).

    But frankly, I think everyone who is a religious teacher has their own eccentric views at some time or another. Brad Warner just doesn’t keep it all PC and friendly when he’s talking to the camera or internet or printing press. I don’t think it’s revolutionary nor do I think it needs to be overly criticized. We seem to have these images of spiritual teachers being all PC and polite whenever they’re on camera, but if we gave them enough press time or got to know them personally, they’d probably all be jerks as much as Brad Warner is. Or they’d be boring. Rebuttals welcome :-)

    E-Hermit, I guess what I was thinking with the whole academia angle is that sometimes it gets lumped in or mixed with dogma. Listening to sutra or talmudic or koran scholars debate religious issues and beliefs is like sitting in a courtroom. Of interest is that the issue of academia has been a subject of debate over on e-sangha’s Zen forum before, what with modern Zen people being so fond of disregarding sutras and texts because their tradition is so “radical” or whatever. But every tradition of Buddhism credits itself as being some kind of radical new movement that throws off the dogmatic shackles of the old ones. And thus dogma is reborn!

    I guess in some sense, dogma is a lot like our sense of self. Because we don’t see it as fluid or in it’s “true” context, we adhere too rigidly and miss the point or the big picture. Which makes me think, religions or traditions, much like individuals or anything else in existence, have no “core” in the ultimate sense. I think some people would argue getting rid of the notion of rebirth is destroying Buddhism, a more “progressive” agenda would argue Buddhism is in constant change itself and cannot be defined on such concrete terms.

  4. parallelsidewalk Says:

    Oh snap, I got served ;-)

    I probably wouldn’t give Nishijima a 2nd thought if ti weren’t for Warner actually. His conservative, closed minded attitude is, as you say, par for the course among Japanese Zen teachers. It’s just that it’s laughable to me that Warner tries to sell Nishijima and himself as some kind of anti-authoritarian iconoclasts, which is bullshit. Brad says he’s just a person, but then is so unbelievably arrogant as to defy belief. A teacher who said what Warner says AND really seemed to believe/practice it AND didn’t use it an excuse to be ignorant asshole, would be great. This is the root of pretty much all my antipathy for the guy. If anything, the insights he obviously does have just make it worse. He’s kind of the Jim Goad of Zen; someone who has a few things to say and can say them well, but ultimately would rather just run their yaps and try and get a rise out of people. And while I think too large an amount of abstract scholarship is not necessary to being a teacher, frankly I think that a teacher who brags about not knowing key points of Buddhism (Upaya, the eightfold path) probably should set off some alarm bells.

    In a more general sense, dogma is useful to a small extent. While most good teachers will tell you that unexamined clinging to notions is best, in truth we all have to start with some methodology with a certain amount of faith that it will work out for us without direct knowledge that it is so.

  5. parallelsidewalk Says:

    I misworded like three different parts of that comment. I need to edit more.

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