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Contributing editor Tracy Cochran speaks with Buddhist scholar Mu Soeng about the danger of selling the dharma.
One Saturday afternoon in December, Mu Soeng, the longtime co-director and now resident scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, walks down a street in Manhattan, talking about the sheer force of American corporate capitalism and consumer culture. This is like talking about the weather in the middle of a hurricane, because at this particular moment we are threading our way through a tide of Christmas shoppers surging into the side streets from the megastores on Sixth Avenue, and pooling around the entrance to the open-air antique and flea market at Twenty-sixth Street.
Mu Soeng, who trained in the Korean Zen tradition and was a monk for eleven years, speaks of the Zen image of the old man entering the marketplace after his enlightenment: the old man’s hands are empty, and his expression is jolly and free. This is the surprise ending of some versions of the Oxherding Pictures, a traditional Zen guide to awakening told in drawings.
“He bestows blessings with empty hands,” explains Mu Soeng. “He doesn’t try to grasp anything. He wants nothing. He carries nothing.”
“Prada! Gucci! Right here! Fourth floor!” yells a young man who is balancing on a brass fire hydrant, the better to be heard.
Mu Soeng, the author of poetic and incisive commentaries on the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and most recently the beloved seventh-century Chinese Zen poem Hsin Shin Ming (Trust in Mind), has spent the day teaching a workshop on the Heart Sutra in the serene sanctuary of the New York Insight Meditation Center, only to emerge into the marketplace at its most elemental.
“I think it would be possible to live like a kind of hermit here,” he says with a smile. “Not easy, but possible.”
New York has hermits, we think. New York is a river of human possibility. On any given day, you can see isolation and celebration, heartbreak and joy, anger and generosity, poverty and wealth, flowing past in quick succession. What you don’t see very often are willingly, reposefully empty hands. This is the world capital of finance and marketing, of grasping and longing, of materialism. Even the destitute here push shopping carts piled high with stuff. The Twenty-sixth Street flea market we pass charges admission just to browse.
I am with Mu Soeng because writings and remarks he has made in an article about the last presidential election recall the revolutionary spirit that prevailed in the earliest days of the tradition—and in the earliest days of Buddhism in America. He has written about how Buddhists, especially Buddhist teachers, can live skillfully in a culture dominated by a “corporate oligarchy” driven by “predatory greed.” His views recall a time when practice felt like a subversive act because it was sacred—set apart, beyond price. We settle in a quiet cafe and talk.
You have said that Buddhists, especially Buddhist teachers, have no choice but to be outsiders, willing to speak the truth at all costs, and you have implied that Buddhist communities in America are in a state of decline. What I have tried to say is that very few places or teachers seem to be interested in the teaching of liberation. In most places, Buddhism is in danger of becoming another consumer item.
How so? Teachers live in the marketplace, like the rest of us. They know how the game is played, and at a very unconscious level, at least, they want to play that game. Many of them have spent their lives in dharma communities and they seek the approval of their peers, yet they also want the success, the rewards, that our materialistic culture has to offer. In the end, many of them allow themselves to succumb to marketplace dynamics. They have to promote their books and attract students, so it becomes a celebrity game, because celebrity brings attention, it brings money, and it satisfies people. It’s human nature to want to say “my students” and to have a lot of students. Most people forget that they began practicing for the sake of liberation. Teachers may now be playing the student game, the numbers game, the celebrity game.