March 24, 2011
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.