In the current bureaucratization of American Buddhism, rules seem to be multiplying with alarming speed. Representatives of sanghas convene in panels (overt and covert) to legislate behavior for members, for teachers, and for relationships between teachers and members. Codes of ethics are popping up like mushrooms after rain.
My observation of life in monasteries and in other highly prescribed situations is that rules present as much temptation as boundary. Human minds house a big dose of mischief and sooner or later—especially if no one is looking—or no one will find out. People end up doing things that might otherwise never occur to them, simply because there’s a rule against it.
The trend is natural: teachers and students both have gotten in trouble, hurt people. Lord Buddha himself only made rules in response to specific problems, and the early texts abound with stories like: “‘Lord Buddha, the Ven. So-and-So is out doing such-and-such.’ And Lord Buddha replies: ‘A disciple of the Buddha should not be out doing such-and-such.’”
The general public will probably approve of the ethical codes of American Buddhism, and will subsequently come to practice, and make donations. American Buddhism may become quite safe, and predictable. But I went to both Saturday School and Sunday School growing up (product of a mixed marriage), and I’ve been there, done that. I came to the Dharma looking for something else.
I found what I was looking for with teachers who emphasized meditation and authentic presence—not prayer, or being “good.” This meant that a lot of warts and rough edges got included. In fact, the warts and rough edges themselves were often what made Buddhism attractive.
For example, a Zen priest named Issan Dorsey opened the MAITRI AIDS Hospice in the building next door to his temple, in the Castro district of San Francisco. Eventually he became well-known for this work, but all the while he practiced and taught Zen very formally in his Hartford Street center. Word leaked out to the gay community that one of their own was leading a meditation group in the neighborhood. Interested parties filtered in. Issan, correspondingly, filtered out, patronizing the local shops, restaurants, laundromats . . . bars.
Issan had a beautiful set of sandalwood beads he’d been given at his ordination as a priest. At first the beads were blond and unpolished, and very fragrant with the resins of the wood. As they were handled over time, they yielded up their fragrance, trading it for luster as they absorbed the oils from skin. Issan loved his beads and their golden-brown color. All the other monks at San Francisco Zen Center had been given beads at their ordinations too, but Issan’s beads glowed in a particularly arresting way. These Zen monks didn’t count anything on the beads, but together with a shaved head, the “mala” or “juzu” indicated the wearer might have a spiritual practice. Issan wore his often, especially when he dressed up.
One Saturday night in a bar on Castro Street Issan sat having drinks with friends. He usually fiddled with his beads over the course of an evening, but this night he became very animated, and he passed them back and forth across the back of his neck—a very good spot for oil, as the laundry commercials have shown for years. Also a very unusual mala practice; probably unique to Issan. In any case, he held an end of the loop in each hand and pulled back and forth, as though he were toweling dry the back of his head. Suddenly the cord snapped and the beads scattered across the floor.
A Castro Street gay bar on a Saturday night is usually a very dark place, crowded, loud with disco music, raucous, boozy and dedicated to fun and heat. But within minutes, twenty or so men were crawling around on hands and knees, helping Issan collect his beads. They got every one of them. They also saw for themselves that there really was a Zen monk in the neighborhood, and that he was a gracious, kind, fun-loving person. An opening occurred. Some of the men came round eventually to see the temple. Some told friends about the incident. Issan’s reputation grew, as did his following. As did Buddhism.
I don’t mean to promote the practice of going to bars, or drinking, or of giving in to self-destructive tendencies. It takes a very skillful bodhisattva (as I believe Issan was) to handle a situation like that. Nor do I think such encounters can be strategized. I think Issan just worked with his karmic patterns, as we all do. The point is that it’s a tricky business to decide for others what is and isn’t Buddhism; but since the new authorities seem hell-bent on doing just that, I’d like to praise those who will have the sense to ignore them.