March 24, 2011

Zen Sinners, Zen Saints: Tricycle Responds

James Shaheen

The longtime Zen practitioner and writer Stuart Lachs recently criticized Tricycle for what he considers the magazine’s participation in the long tradition of Zen hagiography (see “When the Saints Go Marching In”). To support his argument, Lachs cites two articles Tricycle published, “Down East Roshi” (2009), about Walter Nowick, and “The Wanderer” (2008), an excerpt from Sheng Yen’s autobiography, Footprints in the Snow.

As I’ve written on our site before, I have regrets about the Nowick piece. It’s true that there was much to report that wasn’t. This had nothing to do with any intention to idealize Nowick; rather, the lapse had only to do with our own partial knowledge of Nowick and an uncharacteristic lack of due diligence.

I don’t agree with Lachs that both pieces “were presented as straightforward reporting.” The Sheng Yen piece was certainly not—and obviously not. It was presented as autobiography. Subjectivity is a baseline assumption when it comes to autobiography, so I will not address this.

With regard to Lachs’s idea that we accept the hagiography of Zen, with specific emphasis on the myth of unbroken dharma transmission, it’s clear that Lachs is not a careful reader of the magazine; or, if he is, something more than criticism of our efforts is at play here. Consider one brief passage from features editor Andrew Cooper’s essay “What the Buddha Taught?” (2010):

Like other Buddhist schools, Zen sought to establish its legitimacy, and its preeminence, by tracing itself back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Zen did this, however, not through scripture but through a direct "mind to mind" transmission, "outside the scriptures" and "beyond words and letters," which began when the Buddha recognized Mahakashyapa as the sole heir to his true and complete teachings, and which continued in an unbroken lineage down to Bodhidharma, who is said to have brought Zen from India to China. The problem with these and other such accounts—at least the historical problem—is that they are simply not true.

I don’t think we could be more explicit in critiquing the mythology of unbroken mind-to-mind transmission.

There is, however, a question about what sort of critique makes sense for a magazine that appeals to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, many of whom are new to Buddhism. And whether and when to publish such critiques is often a topic of discussion in the office. It's fine to challenge readers' unexamined assumptions, historical biases, and misconceptions about Buddhism but controversies within particular communities tend to be less helpful when they require a detailed understanding of that particular sangha's history and culture. There are exceptions, however, some of which I mention below. In those cases, many readers who responded took positions diametrically opposed to Lachs's and felt our criticisms were inappropriate and disrespectful.

Lachs writes that the respondents to scholar Brian Victoria’s 1998 article  (“Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan”) were “defending” Yasutani, which was not the case; they were simply responding, mostly trying to shed some light on how someone they regard as a great teacher could hold such repugnant ideas, as those Victoria wrote about, providing context, not excuses. He also fails to mention two recent articles that show revered Zen masters as flawed, multidimensional if extraordinary, human beings: Thich Nhat Hanh (“The Debacle,” 2010) and Joel Whitney’s irreverent take on Aitken Roshi, “No Mean Preacher,” in the current issue.

A few other things occur to me. At one point, Lachs cites the Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf, but doesn’t bother to acknowledge that we ran an interview with Sharf that focused on western Buddhists' misconceptions about Buddhism. He leaves out mention of articles about Taizan Maezumi Roshi, in which we published for the first time the circumstances of his death; our lengthy review of Shoes Outside the Door, which dealt with Richard Baker Roshi;  June Campbell’s controversial interview concerning Kalu Rinpoche; and Stephen Butterfield's thoughts on Chogyam Trungpa. I won’t even mention Stephen Batchelor.

Of course, there are plenty of times we turn down such pieces. We don’t publish everything critical of teachers and traditions, although cries of sensationalism aren’t uncommon. We are discerning and we try never to be gratuitous in our criticism. It is also true that we sometimes publish articles that portray Buddhist teachers in a very favorable light. We think there is room for a range of approaches. We may not always get it right but it's something we discuss again and again.

By implication and omission, Lachs misrepresents Tricycle’s twenty-year history. In fact, he simply ignores it, and since he is a reader of the magazine, it's not easy to see why. While the things we published about Sheng Yen and Walter Nowick may indeed be misleading (I cannot comment on Lachs's conclusions about his teachers' characters), they were not, on our part, deliberately so. 

Lachs accuses Tricycle of intentionally perpetuating hagiography. Quite the reverse has been true over the past two decades. Because of our history of mentioning what is otherwise unmentionable—and accusations of muckraking from without—it is mystifying that Lachs chooses Tricycle for his example.

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slachs's picture

Reply to Mr. Shaheen

I find James Shaheen reply to my article “When the Saints Come Marching: Modern Day Zen Hagiography” off the mark. Already the article’s title clearly states and the contents that follow are about modern day Zen hagiography, not a general critique of Tricycle magazine. Mr. Shaheen also assumes that I am a reader of his magazine, which is incorrect. I almost never read the magazine except when someone informs me of an article that they think is of interest to me.

But let me give the history of my encounter with Tricycle. On April 9, 2009, I sent Tricycle an email with a “letter to the editor” responding to the Nowick article “down east roshi.” I received an email back on the same day from Aaron Lackowski, Editorial Assistant, acknowledging the receipt of my email along with a note saying “I will circulate it in our editorial department.”

I heard back from Mr. Lackowski two months later, on June 17th, with the following, “While it is not our place to get into the details of conflicts within communities (unless that is what a given article is specifically about), you could certainly submit a briefer account of how the community disbanded, saying something to the effect that it was not the focus on music but Nowick’s personal problems in dealing with students that drove them away. To go further than this would mean writing a short follow-up article, which is not something we're interested in doing. Keep in mind that we don't often publish letters longer than three paragraphs.”

He added: “Do be in touch if this [three paragraph letter] is something you're interested in doing. For your letter to be considered for the current issue, we would need it by the end of this week. You would have another three months for consideration in the following issue.”

The next day I sent Mr. Lackowski a three paragraph “letter to the editor,” but this was rejected.

So by June 2009 Tricycle had published at least two hagiographic articles, the Nowick article and the Sheng Yen article titled “The Wanderer,” within a year. I gathered from the above letter that they did not really want to hear, or rather want their readers to hear, an informed criticism of what they had published. So it strikes me as odd that Mr. Shaheen is now so offended that I wrote an article critiquing two articles that he chose to publish, while he declined to include my critical assessment of one of those articles in his magazine.

Let us put this in the larger context of Zen in America, which has been plagued by scandals since the mid 1960’s, beginning in Hawaii with Eido Shimano and continuing to this day with the same Eido Shimano roshi and now Dennis Gempo Merzel roshi, and a long list of names in between. A good part of the problem is related to over-empowering the master/ roshi much beyond his/her level of attainment, while necessarily disempowering students. This is exactly what hagiography does, and this is exactly what the two hagiographic articles Tricycle published do. It is problematic that Zen literature is filled with hagiographic presentations from the distant past, that present the master/roshi as a fully enlightened being. Unfortunately, all too often Zen followers then project these outstanding qualities highlighted in the hagiographies onto the present day title holders. But now Tricycle magazine, supposedly better informed than the average reader, presents two modern hagiographies and thereby gives these stories a stamp of approval, or at the least some form of public endorsement.

I believe that by endorsing these two hagiographies, published along with photos of these supposedly highly enlightened people, Tricycle does much more to continue the fantasy of highly enlightened Chan/Zen figures beyond the understanding of ordinary people than any critiquing article can counter. With the Sheng Yen article Mr. Shaheen chose to publish the most dramatic section of the auto-hagiography: Sheng Yen’s fantasized homeless living on the streets of NYC during the winter months. Exactly this story has now been repeated in the blogoshere and in several obituaries of Sheng Yen, thus becoming a fact of modern day Zen. The poorly researched Nowick article presents the problematic Nowick figure as an iconoclastic old style Zen roshi- the “real deal,” as the article stated.

Intentionally or not, Mr. Shaheen is “perpetuating hagiography” in Zen, because he chose to publish these two articles. But maybe Mr. Shaheen does not think these articles are hagiographies? This aspect is not addressed at all by his reply, although it is evidently the main point of my article.

The main aim of my article is not criticism of Tricycle, but rather, to critique two hagiographic articles published by Tricycle. My critique shows that the two articles are perfect examples of how traditional Zen hagiography is perpetuated up to the present day, and points out some of the tragic and far reaching consequences of this fact. That both these hagiographies were printed in Tricycle within a year was Mr. Shaheen’s choice.

G's picture

I think you misrepresent his critique, which was generally limited to the two articles in question and was not a broad critique of Tricycle's history. And in those two cases you most certainly perpetuated hagiography.

Stating "subjectivity is a baseline assumption when it comes to autobiography, so I will not address this" is a cop out. Running excerpts from someone's autobiography is a tacit endorsement of the material. Subjectivity may be a baseline assumption there, but the subjectivity that autobiographers are permitted does not include wholesale fabrication and misrepresentation of important episodes, which is what Sheng Yen is accused of doing (by a very credible witness).

You may have been unwitting participants in Sheng Yen's self-hagiography, but you certainly did participate in it. I think you owe your readers a follow up on the matter.

I applaud your articles by Campbell and Butterfield. Those examples are a bit dated though. A LOT has been rotten in Denmark since then. I hope those are not the last such pieces you intend to run. They may ruffle feathers, but they also do an great amount of good for people who would otherwise be subject to very serious, potentially life-ruining abuse. We have all looked the other way far too often and for far too long.