Modernity's God-shaped Hole

Caught between the perspectives of the scholar and the religious practitioner, Andrew Cooper explores the meaning of faith in a world fixated on reason.


Andrew Cooper

That the doctrinal history of Buddhism was informed by sectarian and political forces is not limited to Zen. In fact, Tibetan Buddhism had a sudden-gradual debate of its own, and it was as crucial to the development of that tradition as the dispute, roughly contemporaneous, between the Northern and Southern schools was to Zen. In the Tibetan case, however, the gradualists, who hailed from India, defeated their Chinese suddenist opponents. Ever since, practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have followed a path marked by stages, each with specific teachings, initiations, and practices appropriate to one’s level of progress. It is ironic, though, that the suddenists in the Tibetan case were those self-same gradualists of Northern Ch’an. Which leads one to conclude that, first, one person’s sudden might well be another’s gradual, and second, those Northerners just could not catch a break.

It seems that sometimes human history pivots on the outcome of disagreements that are, to later generations, obscure or largely forgotten. Although they may appear remote, such events have a way of casting the social and personal horizons within which those who follow must abide. Had Hamilton and Jefferson’s debate on the role of the federal government not been resolved in Hamilton’s favor, for instance, the United States would be a very different place—if even a single place at all. In the years after Jesus’ death, Paul argued that the gospel was for everyone to share, while others among the first disciples maintained that the Good News was a strictly Jewish matter. Paul, of course, carried the day, and ever since, universal love and antipathy toward Jews—both the legacy of Pauline polemics—have characterized the Christian message. For contemporary Buddhists, the sudden-gradual discord is a reminder that the Buddha-dharma, while not reducible to historical analysis, is not exempt from it either.

That history is written by the winners is just the way of the world, and even back in the day I was not so naive as to think otherwise. I also knew, well before the sudden-gradual conference, that much of Zen Buddhism’s version of its own history was fictive. I found nothing troubling in this. I believed that, in a religious context, stories of the past were primarily and properly vehicles for finding meaning in the present—that is, whether true or not, the function they served was a mythic one. But what was new to me - and it was both bracing and disconcerting—was seeing that the line separating the historian’s concern with fact from the religionist’s concern with meaning, was far more permeable than I had thought. For the conference presented a case where the very lore by which the teachings of Zen were transmitted had originated, at least in part, in order to further sectarian interests. What’s more, upon further reflection, it was clear that it had never ceased to serve that function.

At the conclusion of the conference, the abbot of the Zen Center, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, summoned me to his office to give him a brief report on how things had gone. As I was well aware, the proper protocol for the occasion was for me to assure him that the conference was a great success, and then, so to speak, bow out. But my enthusiasm got the better of my judgment, and I began describing the various points of discussion I’d found most intriguing. As I rambled on, Roshi listened impassively, his face set in the sort of stern expression that Zen masters seem to favor so, and which the Japanese liken to a bamboo carrying-pole with a full bucket of water at either end.

Eventually I brought up the thorny issue of “the special transmission outside the scriptures,” one of Zen’s central tenets. Indeed, as the Exodus is for Judaism and the Resurrection is for Christianity, this transmission is an integral part of Zen’s self-definition. It is, as much as anything, what makes Zen Zen. The phrase describes the conferral of religious authority as, in its essence, a wordless “mind-to-mind” process, in which the master confirms the adequacy of the student’s realization. According to tradition, this transmission extends back, in an unbroken chain, to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The problem—at least the historical problem—is that it doesn’t.

As anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Buddhist history knows, the special transmission originated not with Shakyamuni in India in the fifth century B.C.E., but some thousand years later, in China, probably just several generations before the sudden-gradual debate. This last point helps explain the rancor between the schools. As I described it to Roshi, the conference made clear that the debate had little to do with doctrine, for scholars have found that the disagreements were far less sharp than legend would have it. What was really at stake, apparently, was each side’s claim to spiritual legitimacy. This, I ventured, cast the whole matter, and much of Zen’s later history, in a very different light.

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