Some thoughts on "Big Mind", etc.

(This is a response to a conversation about the debate about the Big Mind Process. It started as a comment, but it got really long, so I moved it here instead.)

First off, I think it's interesting to put this particular controversy in some historical context. While we can view this debate as a confrontation between innovation and traditionalism (and certainly that confrontation has played out many times throughout Buddhist history), it's also productive to look more closely at the actual doctrinal substance of the dispute. In part this is a continuation of the centuries-old argument between more instrumentalist and more "realizationist" (I believe the word is originally Hee-Jin Kim's) views of Buddhist practice. While some have attempted to reconcile these views in various ways—by resorting to a Two Truths structure, for instance—there remains a fundamental antagonism that is unlikely to be resolved. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this tension is so basic and insoluble that it becomes a fundamental double-bind (in the "great doubt" sense) and thus itself an engine for practice. This may in fact have been a primary driver for Dogen's own practice.

For a more balanced articulation of a more realizationist view of practice, I really enjoyed the article "Not Using Zazen" by Dosho Port in a recent issue of the Nebraska Zen Center's newsletter (available here). I highly recommend this article. Under this interpretation, it's difficult to see a positive role for "technique", particularly technique explicitly intended to produce a particular experience or state. And incidentally, in this view the problem with stuff like Big Mind isn't that it's too sudden (as opposed to gradual), but rather that it's not sudden enough. This is a pretty important point. Anyway, it seems to me that either view taken to an extreme becomes untenable, but it also seems that no productive mix of the views is possible (as Dogen says in Genjokoan: when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark). So what can we say? What do you say?

The Geeks also seemed to suggest that this sort of debate and criticism is perhaps a little bit unusual in Buddhist history. In fact, as far as I know, nothing could be further from the truth. For famous examples in Chinese Buddhism, consider Zongmi's criticisms of the Hongzhou school or the debate between Dahui and Hongzhi. Even more famous of course is the Northern/Southern School controversy, the organized public debates between Tibetan and Chinese monks, or the series of schisms in early Indian Buddhism. For better or worse, I would say that vigorous criticism and even denunciation is a core form of Buddhist discourse, and the idea of a number of traditions coexisting in mutual respect is mostly fantasy. Differing philosophical commitments and technical innovation have routinely led to precisely this kind of vitriol. One view is that this is damaging and hurtful, another view is that it is warmly compassionate, throwing generations of students into productive confusion. Both may be true.

For my part, I do find the Big Mind stuff sort of off-putting. I do tend toward a realizationist view, and I find myself suspicious of notions of practice that appeal to our desire to "get something". (Furthermore, or maybe on the other hand, I also believe that practice itself is a lot more important than our ideas about it.) I admit that the bulk of my distaste for this particular program is largely aesthetic. I do tend to mistrust the marketing aspect of it, and I think the conversation about that was fair. At one point, it was suggested that this is a normal adoption of "Western forms" or words to that effect. But I do think we should be careful with that. First, it's possible that some forms are better than others: it's possible that adopting marketing and trademarks and all that is just a step in the wrong direction. Then again, maybe it's fine. On a deeper level, though, we should be suspicious of the idea that there is an "essential teaching" that can remain unchanged despite being dressed in different forms ("trademark" versus "lineage", to use their example). In some sense, it's "forms" all the way down. I don't have any answer to propose. This is a difficult question. And as much as I dislike this particular experiment, I do believe it's being made in good faith.

Finally, and most importantly, I found the discussion around the teacher-student relationship pretty surprising. I would have guessed, I suppose naively, that the norm in American Buddhist practice was a traditional long-term personal relationship with a single teacher. It surprises me to hear that this is not the case. Certainly it has been my experience. I'm accustomed to practice at a very small Zen center, with a teacher who indeed sits every period in the zendo. It's hard for me to imagine anything else. This makes me grateful for my good fortune, but I also suspect that if you dig past the more famous teachers, there may be something very valuable close to home. I would encourage students to look for this. I really don't believe that Buddhist practice is best done in seminars.


Im so sorry

Submitted by Brandon Curtis on Sat, 12/12/2009 - 15:04.

im sorry that your one of those people that doesnt enjoy their sitting practice to the extent that they must find any critism against traditionally suffering on your cushion for twenty years before you give yourself the freedom of peace, but maybe twenty more years of painful sitting will show you that, buddha said your awake, listen to him, and enjoy the wisdom and compassion that comes from being the buddha that you are. That is what the big mind process has done for me, it has strengthed my sitting and will continue to awaken all beings who are open to it, but unfortunately not for you, your cup is waaaaaaaay too full to even listen to a different perspective than one that has lasted since the buddha awoke under that tree.

I'm sorry, too...

Submitted by matt on Tue, 05/18/2010 - 12:58.

I don't think this comment is really at all justified by what I wrote. My feelings on the subject are really quite moderate. Anyway I'm glad you feel that the Big Mind system has been helpful for you.