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Blizzard of Depictions

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 08/08/2009
In Topics: Writing / Art / Creativity

A talk about the essentially unrepresentable nature of Buddhism, given by Norman at the “Speaking For the Buddha?: Buddhism and the Media” conference at U.C. Berkeley on February 8-9, 2005Speaking for the Buddha? Buddhism and the Media (a conference at U.C. Berkeley). Feb 8,9, 2005.

A week or so ago there was a huge blizzard in the northeast. I was watching reports about it on television. You'd see, in the tiny box of the television, pictures of snow-covered streets and buildings, with snowflakes whirling all around. There would be a reporter standing in the foreground all bundled up in a winter parka, his or her face barely visible, clutching a cold microphone. The reporter would be saying something like "There is really a lot of snow out here!" I watched these reports in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the weather was mild, with a light drizzle.

Wittgenstein famously said, ""Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." But he didn't mean by this that what you can't speak about is irrelevant or non existent. In fact, Wittgenstein felt that the unspeakable was the most salient reality. He also said, "The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is."

I suppose that what I am trying to say is that the world of media is not the world that I or probably most committed Buddhist practitioners live in. The world I live in is more or less difficult to talk about or to depict in any way that is broadcastable or otherwise commercially viable. It's a quiet world, an unspeakable world, an intimate world. I am not saying that I don't watch television or go to the movies or read books or pay attention to the current buzz in Washington, or Baghdad. I'm only saying that I pay attention to these things knowing that they are different from the world I live in. (Of course the intimate world I am talking about also exists in Washington and Baghdad- only you do not see it on television). I pay attention to the media because I care about all worlds, not just the ones I happen to inhabit. I also know that "Norman Fischer" exists in several worlds, including the media world. I try to be clear about the difference between the various worlds so as to avoid getting them mixed up.

I realize that the title of this conference is "Speaking for the Buddha, Buddhism and the Media," and I suppose I am saying that it is really doubtful that anyone who can appear as a spokesperson in the media, including "Norman Fischer" or the "Dalai Lama," would actually be speaking for Buddhism. Because I don't think that Buddhism – at least as I understand it – is that sort of thing. I appreciate that in the title as it appears on the website there is a question mark after the phrase "Speaking for the Buddha." I guess that I am also doubtful about the language of the conference description that reads, "The notion of what it means to be Buddhist in America is determined not only, or even primarily, by learned monastics, but also by publishers, film producers, marketers, and entertainers." As far as I am concerned, what it means to be a Buddhist is not determined by any of these.

I wanted to get that thought off my chest so that I could go on. In this panel our specific topic is authority and transmission in Western Buddhism. This is something I know about and I am happy to address it. As a Zen priest and teacher I have been given the authority to transmit the Dharma to worthy disciples, and I have done this several times. One of the things we do in the lengthy process of Dharma transmission is to study together. We study, among other things, texts of Dogen that talk about the ineffable intimacy between teacher and disciple, and between person and world, and about the fact that Zen transmission is essentially undefinable and therefore undepictable, even in the realm of thought. I am not trying to be mysterious here, and Dharma Transmission isn't anything mysterious. It's just a fact of ordinary life. In our tradition there's no test you can give to ascertain whether someone who has received Dharma transmission actually has received it. All you can do it examine the documents of transmission and hear the testimony of the people involved that the process of transmission actually took place. In the tradition, authority in the Dharma is conferred not as a reward for skill or brilliance but mostly I suppose out of a sense of faith and confidence, on both sides, in this ineffable yet quite ordinary intimacy.

Some years ago when I was involved in the formation of an organization called The North American Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a professional organization for Western Soto Zen teachers, we considered how we would choose our members. In other words, how would we ascertain who was and was not a qualified Soto Zen Buddhist teacher. In fact it was quite easy: since we all understood that there cannot be any objective, in other words, media-worthy, way to suss out a Zen teacher, all we had to do was to trust that anyone who had been through the recognized Soto Zen Dharma Transmission ceremony in a recognized lineage was in fact a Zen teacher. Within the small world of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West, which has very little media exposure, this has worked quite well.

A few months ago someone came to me asking, in so many words, for certification as a Zen teacher. This fellow who was not only a bright Zen student with lots of talent and understanding- he was also already a Zen teacher with a thriving Zen group, and several members of his group had previously come to talk to me, telling me of his compassion, wisdom, brilliance, and so on. But I had to tell him that I couldn't give him Dharma Transmission without getting to know him well, practicing side by side with him, and going through the long process that all Soto Zen Buddhist teachers go through. Although the fellow really was in some ways a good Zen teacher, I could easily see the difference (although it would be hard for me to describe it, other than with a dubious phrase like "a particular feeling for life") between how he was practicing and what he understood, and how Soto Zen Buddhist teachers practice and understand.

Even though I couldn't help him out by endorsing his teaching, I had no problem with his going on teaching if that suited him and his group. Why not? If someone has something worthwhile to teach, and if there are people around who want to learn it, and keep on showing up, who's to say that the person can't do this? And if he wants to call what he does Buddhism, or even Soto Zen Buddhism, who's to say that this is a misnomer? "But," you might object, "uncertified Buddhist teachers could be charlatans, and could do serious harm to their unsuspecting and possibly charisma- addicted students." That's true. But certified religious traditions, including Soto Zen Buddhism, are full of instances of serious harm done by certified charismatic or uncharismatic religious leaders. Real religious practice is dangerous stuff; it is hard to tell the difference between the fake and the genuine, and both the fake and the genuine have the potential I am sure to be helpful or harmful to our lives. Students just have to trust themselves and hope for the best I suppose. This is the post-modern West, after all!

The media will always be depicting something about Buddhism, and people will follow those depictions, which will always (when it comes to the Buddhism I am interested in) be incorrect. Despite the great influence of the various media on all of us, I have a lot of faith that the Buddhism I am interested in, the unspeakable, intimate, Buddhism, will persist and will be carried on through the various traditions quietly amidst the snow flurries. I have no evidence for this: I just believe it.

Any religious tradition is and has to be an open system if it going to survive. A religious tradition is constantly being revised, influenced by its surroundings, and usually this revision is not conscious or deliberate. If, as I believe, the various Western Buddhist traditions we have inherited from Asia will go on quietly, outside the media glare, they will not go on unchanged. Each practitioner effects a change in a tradition, as does the weather, the landscape, and yes, the chatter of newspaper, radio, television, internet, movies, and so on. Change is inevitable, necessary. and positive in the long run, I think, so I am not worried. To be honest with you, I feel that the post-modern media-crazed world is a bit off balance and deranged. Nevertheless somehow out of this blizzard what's worthwhile and true will emerge; at least it is cheering to hope so.