June 12, 2014

Only the Occasional Brothel

The “unconstrained conduct” of Zen is more literary trope than pervasive practice.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the seventh in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

The literature of Zen, especially as we know it in the West, often portrays its adepts as iconoclasts who reject the conventional norms and restrictions of the Buddhist tradition. Zen masters are said to have burned statues of the Buddha for firewood and scorned the written sutras. When the Chinese master Yunmen Wenyan was asked, “What is the Buddha?” he replied, “A dried turd.” When Linji Yixuan, the eponymous founder of the influential Rinzai school (Linji zong) of Chinese Zen (Chan), was asked what monks should do if they encountered the Buddha, he shouted, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!”

In 1964, Ch’unsong, a modern Korean Zen (Son) monk renowned for his iconoclasm, was invited to the presidential palace to give a dharma talk at the birthday celebration for Yuk Yong-su, the wife of Korean President Park Chunghee and a devout Buddhist laywoman. Ch’unsong ascended the dais and sat silently for over a half hour, leaning on his staff. When it was obvious that his audience had lost all patience, he held his staff up over his head and shouted, “This is the day the mother of the First Lady split open her vagina!” He then descended from the dais and walked off without saying another word. Needless to say, he was not invited back.

A Zen master’s awakening is said to transcend all the conventional dichotomies of right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral. This experience frees him to engage in what the tradition calls “unconstrained conduct” (wu’ai xing), which allows its enlightened monks to do iconoclastic things like frequent bar and brothels. The Hongzhou school, on what was then the wild Sichuan frontier of China, was especially known for such iconoclasm; many of the portrayals of Zen masters striking, shouting at, and kicking their students are associated with Hongzhou masters. Derived from Mazu Daoyi and his successors, the Hongzhou school claimed that all actions were equally manifestations of the enlightened mind and that conventional ethical observances placed artificial restraints on the mind’s free functioning.

Such “unconstrained conduct,” however, was subject to withering criticism by certain other factions within the Zen tradition itself. Guifeng Zongmi, a successor in the Heze lineage that traces itself back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, blasted the Hongzhou school for fostering what he considered to be dangerous antinomian tendencies.

The notion that the vast majority of Zen monks are engaged in unconstrained conduct is belied by the fact that Zen monasteries adhere to strict sets of regulations that the tradition itself developed. These codes are the so-called “rules of purity,” or qinggui, a genre of Zen literature that was intended to provide an indigenous disciplinary code distinct from the imported monastic discipline of India. The source of many of the qinggui’s rules and regulations, however, is in fact the normative Indian Vinaya tradition. Quinggui codes cover everything from the monthly and annual celebrations and festivals, down to the minutiae of daily life in the monastery and the specific duties of the monastery’s administrative monks. In modern Korean monasteries, the daily life of Zen monks is so rigorously structured around the 10 to 14 hours typically allocated to formal sitting meditation that they are permitted no time even to read or chant, let alone to hit the local bar. The “unconstrained conduct” of Zen is a literary trope, not a pervasive practice. It is the exception, not the rule.

Despite Zen’s own claim that it “does not rely on words and letters” (buli wenzi), most Zen monks have engaged in extensive study of Buddhist scriptures and primers of Zen before beginning their training in the meditation hall. Indeed, the school that produced the largest body of written literature of any tradition of East Asian Buddhism can hardly be considered bibliophobic. This literature includes such uniquely Zen genres as discourse records (yulu), “transmission of the lamplight” lineage histories (chuandeng lu), and anthologies of Zen precedents (gong’an; Japanese, koan), all of which extensively cite sutras to validate Zen views and practices. “Not relying on words and letters” is a statement of Zen’s claim about its own pedigree: a school that draws its authority not from the written sutras of Buddhism but from its direct connection through successive generations of patriarchs and teachers to the mind of the Buddha himself.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

More at Tricycle:


It's a film festival like no other! This summer we're bringing you the latest in Buddhist films, dharma talks from beloved teachers, and exclusive director interviews—all on the Tricycle site! The online film festival begins
June 16 and goes through August 3.


Shamar Rinpoche passed away suddenly on Wednesday, June 11, in his center in Renchen Ulm, Germany, at the age of 61.

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wsking's picture

"Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger." The Lamborghini metaphor is apt. Zen in America is very sad. The faintest shadow of the real tradition, and full of pride and all puffed up about it too. Heart breaking, but perhaps it will improve. Little birds have big mouths, but the rest catches up. When we have teachers from Eiheiji, Daitokuji and Wu Tai Shan here training us, then we will have something. Native teachers are essential. Meanwhile, the American heirs are doing the best they know how. This culture is very destructive for serious practice. Lets give it a coupla hundred years yet to see if it really "takes".

sanghadass's picture

Look what happened to Christianity when American culture came up with televangelism. Buddhism may undergo a similar transformation in America over time. We can laugh or cry about it. Oh well! You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear! Some of the developments in American zen are quite interesting. I am glad to have the zen practitioners as my Dharma Mitra's. I look forward to learning from them when the opportunity arises. Perhaps we should just give credit where credit is due and, let go of the fault finding mind. We are all flawed human beings and we need to make room for each other. If we cannot appreciate our Dharma brothers ad sisters what hope do we have of developing universal loving kindness. It does not matter where we are at, as long as we are all heading in the right direction - as best we can. This takes a lot of mutual support and encouragement.

I am not saying that we should turn a blind eye to abusive behavior. We should definitely learn how to forgive and support both victims and abusers when problems arise. We need to support and appreciate each other in any way that we can. When the eightfold path as a whole is being neglected for a variety of reasons it is important that we speak out. The teachings can be distorted in ways that are clearly unhelpful and unnecessary. I find many aspects of the teachings challenging. I guess it takes unconditional love and, profound stillnesss and clarity, to see through the delusions that appear to seperate us. Hopefully, in forums like this, we may help each other to clarify the teachings, its theory and practise. I love the following line of poetry from an American zen teacher - name forgotten. "The greatest recipe is not equal to a crust of bread!" Love, sangha dassa.

wsking's picture

Dear SD,
The words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore pertain to all of us: "Lovely flower, do not find your paradise in a fool's button hole."

Maybe the danger of sexual abuse is why the centers are afraid to ask for native replacement teachers? That behavior would be a shock in Asia, too. They wouldn't stand for it, and the monk would be disrobed and kicked out of the sangha. We also must "Kick the bums out!" Even if they have been the leader of a world wide organization for years, kick them out and get a good replacement monk from Asia. Don't ask them to come unless you have a return trip ticket tucked away, "just in case." Its safer if we find our teachers thru recognized monasteries in Asia. The administrators and monks there will know who is well-trained, experienced in meditation, and worthy to train others.

Regarding the sexual abuse of Japanese roshiis: How can we be so dumb? Who bombed who's country? Who was old enough to remember it? Who was old enough to have friends, relatives, family who died because of it, bore the humiliation of defeat, and the starvation of the resulting famine? What better revenge than to f*** your enemies wives and daughters? We were foolishly naiive.

But in those days, we were all very young, inexperienced in life, many still in university, and used to doing what we were told. We brought with us the mystique of Christian holiness as an expectation and projected it.. So many of us came from broken homes and lacked attention from father figures. We were "had", big time.

It is really important to avoid the numbing influence of excessive devotion and the unfortunate tendency to secrecy that seems to follow it. Balance in all things! Membership in a dharma center, or devotion to a teacher does not mean that you check your brains in at the door, or cease to measure reality against a healthy skepticism for falsehood and false teachers. Don't forget how to say NO and teach your kids to say No when they feel uncomfortable. Don't finesse away the wrong doings of a teacher with "Skillful means" gobbledy gook! Call a spade a spade and insist on the highest standards of ethics and morality. A good teacher wants students who are practical, realistic, and kind. We will all protect each other from harm that way.

wsking's picture

On You Tube tthere is a long Japanese movie about Dogen Zenji. You don't need subtitles. Just watch it and you will see what real practice is like. There are several other movies there about practice in training monasteries that are very good. Watch them and you will see exactly what I mean. I don't know how else to explain it to you. The saddest thing is that the Western and American teachers think they have everything, when so much is missing, and native teachers are still available. They have never been to Japan or China, or even to India, they have never seen it, never felt the Asian sangha so they are cut off from their own family bloodline. Its like we have this cultural mindset: "I can do it all by mine ownsefff!" but we are only three years old. Without native teachers, there is no one to pick us up and carry us for the time we need to learn everything, until we can stand on our own. You can survive as an orphan, but you miss a lot. How can a little tree grow up right without the joyousness and encouraging example of big trees around it?
That's why I said its so sad. Anyway, what do I know? We've been on our own now for over 40 years, it unlikely that people will recognize something is missing and ask for it. And maybe its not. What do I know? Nothing.....

wsking's picture

Professor Buswell, I am very grateful for these articles, but please give some pronunciation help here so that we can learn something and sound intelligent. How do we pronounce these Chinese words? Particulary, " quinggui " I can manage the rest but don't have a clue on how to tackle that one. Someday, at some cocktail party, some idiot will come up to me and say, "Oh! You studied Zen? So kill the Buddha! Heh, heh, heh!" and I will need to reply in an informative manner or pretend there is a gun in my pocket!

Also I have these questions: I always heard that Vinaya never made it to China, but recently, exploring around about Sven Hedin, I found the Dunhuan caves websites where I learned that there were copies of Sutras in the Dunhuan caves. I don't know if that included Vinaya, but if so, how did Vinaya not make it to mainland China along that trade route? It seems very strange. Monks are so particular about keeping Vinaya and teaching it properly. You would think that they took a copy with them on their travels for the monthly recitation. Did Vinaya make it to China? to Korea? to Japan? In whole or in part? and which traditions of Vinaya made it? How many Vinaya traditions are there and how do they differ? Thanks for your time and response. We do know lots more now than we did forty years ago when I was in college, so I am hoping you can answer my questions.

ph0kin's picture

This was a great post. If you actually look at the Buddhist canon, the closest thing we have to the actual words of the Buddha, he consistently preached things like good conduct, restraint in body/speech/mind, etc. and somehow this has been lost or overlooked in some of the Zen communities that have arisen in the West. People take the old stories at face-value and make judgments about Buddhism and Zen in particular that don't hold up when seen within the context of Buddhism as a whole.

abbot's picture

If you have to experience it to understand it then Zen’s own claim that it does not rely on words and letters is a true fact and I am sorry to have to use words to make this point.

wsking's picture

Ahhh! So?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Think blueprint for a Lamborghini. Words only take you so far. You gotta get into the damn thing and drive it.

glenzorn's picture

"'Not relying on words and letters' is a statement of Zen’s claim about its own pedigree: a school that draws its authority not from the written sutras of Buddhism but from its direct connection through successive generations of patriarchs and teachers to the mind of the Buddha himself."

So the authority of Zen is based upon pseudo-history largely fabricated to satisfy the East Asian ancestor fetish? If so there is no authority at all, not good news for such an authoritarian regime...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Part of Zen's appeal is its intellectual individualism: "It's every man for himself!"

reevesla's picture

Yes, people like to interpret things so they can call theirselves buddhist and still be selfish.