In the electronic sangha of America
Online the voice of Zenmar is distinctive and his knowledge is honored.
It is unusual for him to visit a Buddhist chatroom, but when he
does attention turns to him as an arbiter of theory and practice.
On the BBS, he frequently posts to the more-serious folders where
his erudite comments clear the air, or spark high-level discussion.
Only a rarified few can stay toe-to-toe in discourse of high scholarship
with Zenmar, though. A part of his genius, too, is exhibited in
a pithy, sometimes-disarming humor that leaves the reader chuckling
as well as challenged.
Zenmar agreed to an interview using a format of
exchanged E-mail, thus allowing him to give full vent to his thoughts, and allowing me to
find the right follow-up question where appropriate.
SnarkyMan: Talk to me a little about your
development as a Zen Buddhist. Those of us who subscribe to your newsletter or have
conversed with you in an E-mail discussion group have heard a little about your days as a
zen monk--I believe in Japan. Are those the "good old days," that you look back
on reverently, when you had Masters who you loved and were near-perfect beings?
Zenmar: I think my development as a Zen Buddhist
began when my philosophy professor, Dr. Lauren, introduced me to Zen Buddhism in 1964. He
knew D.T. Suzuki quite well and studied with him as a scholar at the University of Hawaii.
Incidentally, my teacher had also been a student of Martin Heidegger's who once remarked
that Suzuki's essays said what he was trying to say all along! Talk about a circle.
Anyway, I thank my philosophy teacher for starting me on the path. About a year latter I
found a Zen teacher who lived by the College of the Pacific and had taught Alan Watts a
little Zen when Mr. Watts lectured at the American Academy of Asian Studies at COP around
1955 (I can't remember the exact date). At that time I felt I was in good hands and had no
need to book passage on a cattle boat to Japan! I felt that studying Zen in Japan, then
trying to learn Japanese at the same time, would make me a lousy Zennist and a poor
Japanese speaker. After I met my teacher, who was named Daino Doki, he convinced me that
he was up to the task of training me. I had no reason to doubt him at the time. Daino Doki
was a caucasian who had studied with Hodo Tobase in San Francisco and then a number of
years later was elevated to the rank of Roshi by the Primate of Soto Zen, Rosen Takashina.
As for the "good old days," I must confess some
of it was fun. At least I can say that my tenure with Daino Doki wasn't boring. He was
quite a creative character. In his temple, the word "dullness" never came up. I
found the whole Zen environment to be quite exciting. I must tell you that life there was
unpredictable. Several times I got kicked out, and just as many times I came back, which
was part of the testing process. To enumerate some things I did, I sat in zazen, chanted
the _Heart Sutra_, cleaned the garden, walked the dog, made coffee for my teacher, mowed
the lawn, and made my own robes. Looking back, I think I was more of a holy houseboy.
Supposedly, doing chores is a vehicle through which to practice "awareness,"
which for Soto Zen seems to be its main secret. There wasn't a day that went by when my
teacher didn't say "Be aware!" I must admit that practicing awareness sobered me
up. By paying attention to the little things, soon I saw that the big things take care of
As for the last part of your question, like most beginners
new to Buddhism, I was a hopeless romantic and believed in my teacher--even when he told
me he was the Tathagata! However, I soon came to learn that Buddhist teachers are not
"near-perfect beings"--including my teacher. Many teachers, I found out later,
are very pedestrian. And some I have seen will do almost anything for money and fame. In
hindsight, I learned that it is very important to stop focusing on the personality of your
teacher and pay attention to the content of the teaching. Many students I have noticed
today, still must learn the hard way as I did, that the worship of a teacher corrupts the
Dharma. It doesn't matter if the teacher is a Tibetan Lama or a Zen Buddhist Roshi--all
teachers are all-to-human, to use Nietzsche's expression, and shouldn't be worshiped. The
essential aim of a good teacher is to get his or her students on a path of philosophical
intuition which will eventually lead to a reality that surpasses this finite world. Now I
should point out that philosophical intuition is not to be confused with interpretive
intuition, nor should it be confused with having so-called "religious peak
experiences" which are often quite meaningless. In Buddhism, philosophical intuition
is synonymous with remembrance; of trying to wake up and recall our Buddha-nature which
has never left us. All the rest is humbug. I know this will no doubt offend many
Buddhists. But seriously, anyone who is familiar with the Buddhist canon as a whole has to
see the Buddha as a wise old philosopher who just happened to recall the secret of the
universe which is wholly detached from the cycles of samsaric regeneration.
SnarkyMan: Does training to be a monk have many
similarities to being in the Army? The reputation that is "put out there" is one
of precise organization and that it is very formal. So what was it like for you?
Zenmar: Rather than being like the Army, in my case
life in a Zen temple with a Zen master was a combination of being in a Trappist monastery,
a college, and a mild prison boot camp. Such an environment is heavy on formality and weak
on content. I remember when Bishop Sumi came from Japan to inspect our temple he made sure
that we had the right kind of bell and that our shrine was the correct height. He couldn't
have cared less about our library and whether or not we had the Buddhist canon in it.
As far as my expectations of learning the content of Zen
went, my whole stay in the Zen temple was a big let down. I was expecting Zen to be like
T'ang Zen in China, and my teacher to be like Rinzai or Joshu. That was not the case.
SnarkyMan: Are you saying that you didn't have any
kind of "satori" or some other kind of earthshaking experience while you trained
with your teacher?
Zenmar: First, let me say something shocking about
the Zen world. If your teacher likes you, you seem to answer all the koans and receive the
seal of approval. If not, you figure it out. That I wasn't really liked by my teacher had
something to do with not having satori, as funny as that sounds. My teacher's favorite
disciple, for some strange reason, answered all the koans, while I couldn't get to first
base. I began to have doubts when my teacher give me a book to read entitled _The Temple
of the Golden Pavilion_ by Yukio Mishima. I think my teacher saw me as a kind of
stuttering Mizoguchi who tried to destroy the Golden Temple in Mishima's book. After the
big hint, I took another course. I decided to read every book in the library and become
smarter than my teacher. I can remember when my teacher and his favorite disciple went on
vacation and left me alone to take care of the temple. For a week I had an orgy reading
the Pali Suttas and the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra! I should mention that my teacher would
only let me read certain books, ones that I thought were rather inane.
To make a long story short, many years later I had a
profound satori. When I visited my teacher afterwards, I could see that his depth of
penetration into the Dharma was quite shallow. By that time I saw that authentic Zen was
not the same as modern Zen.
SnarkyMan: What is the meaning of the name
Zenmar: I just combined the Greek god Zeus, which
can be written as "Zen", with the Roman god Mars and dropped the "s."
I wanted six letters for my AOL name, and something quite odd that I could remember. On
the whole it is rather barbaric and unbuddhist--but it has a nice ring to it. Actually,
the name Zenmar is better suited to a comic book character flying around with a huge cape!
On a more serious note, I wanted Zenmar to be a cybernetic creation. I have given him a
personality and a set of manners with which to deal with Buddhists in the cybersangha.
This way I don't have to become personal with anyone inasmuch as Zenmar is fictional.
Speaking for myself, I do enjoy the character "Zenmar."
I should add this: I believe it is more important to
understand a person's ideas rather than knowing someone's personal history, or what color
his hair is. American Buddhists are far too concerned about the "person," which
eventually turns into a cult of personality. I think it is time that we pay more attention
to the teaching and less to who teaches it.
SnarkyMan: A dumb question, no doubt: But once the
dust-free mirror reflects back to us that most-original of all Original Faces and we've
taken The Great Swandive into the timeless, spaceless ocean, will we know what the hell
this crazy passion-play called "life" was all about? Or will we
"merely" transcend the question?
Zenmar: In a way the question becomes transcended.
It is like a dream in which everything seems important at that moment, until you awaken
and look back. Speaking about the "this crazy passion-play called 'life'," we
eventually come to learn the cause of the passions. We understand that Mind, in the past,
attached itself to its productions setting the stage for its own tragic downfall into
embodied existence. Said another way, the human passion-play has it genesis in Mind's
sympathy with its phenomenal side.
SnarkyMan: Should we feel an "urgency" in
our quest for Enlightenment?
Zenmar: To answer your question I would say
emphatically, yes! We need to feel a sense of urgency towards the quest. The reason, I
think, why we don't feel an "urgency" is because of the hormonal high that we
are on as land mammals that happens to becloud our reason. Hormones exert a very powerful
influence over us and give us a false sense of well-being. Hence, whatever acts to
transcend the hormone high seems less important. Maybe that is why most pedestrian
Buddhists feel no urgency to seek enlightenment.
SnarkyMan: Most of us American gum-chewing Buddhists
who tune in to cyberspace will never be devoting the time and effort that you have.
Perhaps we are simply not doing "our best." What is the role of the ordinary
man? Can it be that a person is born into a lifetime where the necessary
"ripeness" for finding his Buddha-nature is never going to come?
Zenmar: Let me put your question this way. Would a
gum-chewing ordinary American Buddhists study the Dharma if it was interesting and they
saw its necessity? I think the answer is yes. So far, Buddhist teachers have not clearly
articulated what Buddhism is actually about. They have a lot of half-baked theories about
Buddhism that are frankly quite dull and just plain humbug. I can't blame people for not
doing their level best, given some of the Buddhism I have seen over the years. The reason
why Buddhism engaged the Orient in the past and caused great cultures to honor it with
splendid works of art and literature was that Buddhism was seen as a path that ennobled
mankind and taught him how to break the bonds of death and samsaric regeneration in a very
concrete way. The Buddha has actually laid out a path that teaches us the process of
disembodiment; of how to cast off this mortal body while still being able to generate
it--a kind of divine "having your cake and eating it too" solution. It is
interesting to see how much the word "Nirvana" still remains a riddle for most
Westerners, when in fact it is just the state of disembodiment.
Now to answer the last part of your question, there is no
cause for doom. If you would like to not worry about old age, suffering, and death ever
again, just bear in mind that you are disembodied right now but can't remember how you are
free of these conditions. Nothing is stopping you from realizing what the Buddha realized
except your attachment to the corporeal body. You are quite ripe now, by the way.
SnarkyMan: I don't think I have ever heard it
mentioned that Nirvana is like disembodiment--that is strange. Isn't Nirvana just the
extinction of the ego? Is there any mention of disembodiment in Zen?
Zenmar: I think the idea of
"ego-extinction" is a modern invention. Frankly, I don't see our modern concept
of egoity in Buddhism. The Buddha wasn't Freud. Nirvana really has nothing to do with the
extinction of the ego. Above all we should not understand Nirvana to be synonymous with
extinction, as if to blow a flame out. Even though it is mentioned in this context once or
twice, it is only an analogy used by the Buddha to describe Nirvana's indeterminate
character. Supposedly, an adept when released from the corporeal body is beyond all
measure just as the whereabouts of a flame blown out by a gust of wind cannot be
determined. At least that is the way I read it in the Pali Suttas. I know this is going to
sound weird, but the Greek word "utopia" is a perfect cognate for Nirvana. What
does "utopia" mean? It means literally "no place," the term
"place" in Greek being more at position or locus. Remember that in the scripture
the Buddha spoke of Nirvana as being a place where there is no earth or water, nor wind or
space. I can't remember most of the passage, but the Buddha goes on and says that Nirvana
is even beyond consciousness and any kind of dependence. Nirvana you could say is kind of
a placeless place that is free of suffering.
As to your last question--yes disembodiment is mentioned in
Zen. Rinzai does a good job using the metaphor of the "unfixed true man" for the
state of disembodiment. This "man" he says is not made of the elements and is
constantly going out and coming in through our foreheads! Anyway, if you read his sermon,
you can't fail to get the meaning.
SnarkyMan: Are Lao Tzu's writings of value? Is not
the Tao the same as the One Mind, that ocean beneath our waves? Can we move forward on our
path to locate our Buddha-nature by being Taoist?
Zenmar: I think his writings are of great value. I
might add that there is a lot of wiggle room to interpret Taoism in a Buddhist way and
vice a versa. When Buddhism came to China it had to be interpreted in the context of
Taoism. It would be like Westerners interpreting Buddhism in a Neoplatonic context when it
first arrived on our shores. In fact, Buddhism would be a lot better off if Platonists had
translated Buddhists Sutras. Now we are stuck with translations that reflect a postmodern
agenda. Taoism, I must say, didn't stop any Chinese Buddhists from realizing their
SnarkyMan: Is being in love with Buddhism an aid to
locating our Buddha-nature?
Zenmar: Yes--very much. You have to really love
Buddhism in order to understand the Buddha-nature. You can't practice out of fear, or just
use Buddhism to make a name for yourself. You have to be in love with it. Every day you
should delight in your study of the Dharma. I find that when I am really interested in
something I learn quicker. It is amazing how fast students can progress in Buddhism when
they are really in love with it. Instead of many lifetimes trying to find the
Buddha-nature, if you are enthusiastic, you can realize it in thirty or forty years,
SnarkyMan: Thirty or forty years! I have heard that
in Zen it only takes a very short time--maybe a few years or even a few days to realize
your Buddha-nature. Is that not true?
Zenmar: Mostly that is hogwash. Take the example of
Zen master Hakuin: Sure he had a lot of insights that he imagined were enlightenment, but
in the end he had to acknowledge that they were misleading. In my reading of his
biography, he reached profound enlightenment only in his forty-second year. That is a long
tenure. I am willing to bet that his last enlightenment almost came as a let down! He
simply realized that the Buddha-nature that he was searching for was the very same one
that was conducting the search for enlightenment all those years Maybe this is why it
takes so long with the truth, because we are dealing with any amazing subtlety. As an old
Zen expression goes: It is like riding an ass in search of an ass.
SnarkyMan: When you post to the Boards is there
always a "purpose" at play to enlighten the other person with what you write?
Zenmar: I think the main purpose why I post is to
exchange ideas and to have dialogues with other Buddhists that are enriching to everyone
concerned. Of course reaching that goal is not easy. Many people don't want to exchange
ideas or have a dialogue. The vast majority of those that post are just snipers. If you
write more that a sentence--you are too intellectual. If you speak metaphysically rather
than dogmatically, someone tells you that you talk too much and that you need to do more
zazen! All this is a waste of time to my way of thinking. Generally the sniping reflects
the postmodern view which most Buddhists subscribe to, mainly that Buddhism should be
unintelligible. D.T. Suzuki, I feel, was responsible for casting Zen into a postmodern
mold. I think his understanding of Zen was dead wrong on a few points--but he was a man of
his times, so what could he do?
SnarkyMan: I have read a little Suzuki like most
people. I have always found him interesting. He seems to know what he is talking about.
Since you mentioned that he was dead wrong on some points, could you give an example?
Zenmar: The one that sticks in my mind is his idea
of *emptiness*. Suzuki thinks that is it some kind of Buddhist absolute that we are to
experience in some mystical way when we get rid of all of our concepts and logic. As a
result of this purging--viola--emptiness is experienced! But is that emptiness or just an
abstraction? I think the answer is clear. This kind of emptiness is only an empty artifact
from what I can see. It is just as illusory as that which is negated. To be honest with
you, I don't find an iota of evidence in the Buddhist canon which supports Suzuki's
understanding of emptiness. For the Buddha, emptiness is the unreal, rather than the real.
For Nagarjuna, called the second Buddha, emptiness is like an echo, which can deceive. In
fact Nagarjuna equated emptiness with dependent origination. What he is saying is that
things derived by causation are empty and impotent!
SnarkyMan: What are some of you insights about the
Cyber Sangha that is developing?
Zenmar: An evolving Cyber Sangha is good for
Buddhism. But not because it is providing practitioners with a lot of texts. It is good
for Buddhism because, as Buddhists, we can exchange our ideas with other Buddhists, seeing
which ideas make more sense and which ideas are mature or contradictory. I have found that
what comes across best are solid ideas. A post well conceived and well written has a
strong impact. On the other hand, blather gets nowhere. Nor does the typical flippant
zenic "one word" response, as when some yokel writes "Kwatz." In the
end, these people have to leave because their ideas are inadequate. I have to admit that a
lot of garbage is posted. But every once in a while good stuff appears. Those who take a
little time to say something of interest; who have something valuable to share with others
and work at it, help the Cyber Sangha overall. One more thing. Recently, I have noticed an
important development in the Cyber Sangha and in particular Buddhism AOL. It is a sense of
community. Other media, like television, just focus on one person with a narrow-minded
core of opinions. Contrary to this, on the BBS, there is a living community with no one
single individual dominating the dialogue. It is open and free. Ideas, I must say, thrive
in such an environment.
SnarkyMan: Do you think Buddhism will change as a
result of the BBS? Will practice be as necessary as it has been?
Zenmar: The BBS cannot change Buddhism's content.
The BBS can only increase the velocity of information transfer. That is, it can do away
with information lag that is inherent in a slower medium such as a book or a journal. Most
of us, for instance, learned of Taizan Maeizumi Roshi's death very quickly. However, I
should emphasize that the swiftness of the so-called information highway does not generate
wisdom. And if nothing is utilizing this highway except high-speed kitsch then we can
expect nothing great from such a highway. Overall, we can expect the BBS to be of great
benefit giving our ideas both access and speed by which to engage other ideas. Scholars
can exchange information and ideas and banter on at a higher velocity. The beginner can
ascertain at a faster rate which teachers and traditions are logically clearer to
understand, thereby gaining trust in a particular teacher or teaching.
Practice will always be essential to Buddhism. It will
still be necessary to contemplate the teaching of the Buddha and go on a noetic mountain
climb. For those who practice seated meditation, it will still be necessary to sit for
long periods of time. And for those who study Sutras and koans it will still be necessary
to have certain key intuitions and generate the great doubt.
SnarkyMan: Thank you, Zenmar.