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.
There is a famous teaching story. In the 1880s there was a monk who was so dedicated to liberation that he had the meditation hall of his monastery out over a sea cliff, and he had a hole cut in the floor so there was a sheer drop onto the rocks below. He was very respected for his sincerity, and many people would come for seven-day retreats. The rules were very strict; people could not lie down during those seven days. Two trained monks guarded the door so people couldn’t leave. The monk would sit there watching twenty-four hours a day, and when he saw people nodding off, he would shout, “Wake up! Wake up! This is precious time!” Once in a while, when someone kept falling asleep, he would get up from his cushion and drag the person over to this trap door, open it, and just hang him upside down. That was his way of waking people up. I don’t know if it’s true, but the legend is that sometimes he would let somebody go. From his vast knowledge, he would see that they would not wake up in this lifetime.
I don’t think this approach would attract many people in America, nor does it seem at all a realistic one in our culture. But it was ahighly respectable one in Korean society within the context of Buddhist practice. This kind of unflinching and uncompromising commitment to practice was expected. The teacher was putting himself on the line to do his job. When you’re working with that kind of pure motivation, it doesn’t matter if you have many students or if you’re working alone. But everybody in America seems to want to become a teacher in the shortest possible time. Then the competition begins for students and all the means to get students—centers, books, media engagements—and this takes away from the purity of the motivation. In ancient times, a person would become a monk and stay a monk for fifty years and not bother about being a teacher. Out of ten thousand monks, one teacher might emerge. Here, out of ten students there will be one teacher.
The hard reality, though, is that the centers have to raise money to survive, and in the thick of whatever else may be arising, there is still a genuine motivation to spread the dharma. This is true. But some of them get caught up with getting media attention, and it’s very sad to see what happens to them. They get caught up in a desire for fame and for the wealth and comfort that comes with it.
Getting caught up, as you say, with establishing a bourgeois version of a Buddhist lifestyle is just another way of being manipulated by the system. It’s like an addiction, though, isn’t it? It is. American Buddhists have brought a very sophisticated understanding of psychology, cognitive science, physics, to Buddhist practice. Yet we may not have paid sufficient attention to our personal greed, hatred, and delusion.
What do you think in your own background has contributed to your view? I grew up in Delhi, in India, in a middle-class, devout orthodox Hindu family. But at a very early age I had some insight into the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society all around me, and that sense of disappointment has never left me. Indian people can be very materialistic. I was influenced by Marx and the existentialist thinkers as a teenager, and these influences segued into my Buddhist practice. I am very conscious of the way that bourgeois society co-opts everything it comes in contact with.
What brought you to the U.S.? I came here in 1969 because a close friend was coming to New York. We had thought of getting a car and traveling all around, and then I was going to go to Europe and enroll in a university. Once I got here, I was completely fascinated by the counterculture, which was in full bloom at that time. I really believed that the counterculture was going to change America, that there was a new consciousness that was the cutting edge of some new evolutionary leap. As it turned out, it was a very fringe movement and it never made any real impact on the mainstream culture. I misread the movement.
Yet you stayed. I stayed, but not with any intention of living the typical immigrant life. One of my personal benchmarks has always been the question, “Why did the Buddha choose to live the life of a homeless person after his awakening?” He did not return to his palace to live a life of luxury as a philosopher-guru. I’m not suggesting that Buddhists go around half naked today, but it is still crucial to look and investigate the levels of greed, hatred, or delusion in our psychological lives. A lot of what goes on in Buddhism in America is about creating a personal story and an identity. Dharma centers can become social clubs that allow people to process an identity, allowing them to feel good about themselves for a short period of time. I meet people who tell me, “I am a Theravada person” or “I am a Zen person.” But this is just another process of commodification, of packaging oneself. It has nothing to do with Buddhist practice. It’s a group sharing, a group identity. Yes, there is some connection to Buddhist practice, but underneath it all people don’t really want to displace their personal and social identities or their inherited Judeo-Christian worldview. When Buddhist teachings are practiced authentically, there’s no choice but to deconstruct the inherited psychic structures.
This is not an Asian culture. The teachers and centers have to hustle to survive, and it is clearly good and valuable to have retreat centers where people can go practice. So what is the alternative? To just let these places go? In some cases it may indeed be appropriate to let some of the places go. I think your question contains the hint at the problem. If a teacher or a center is “hustling,” as you say, what exactly is the point? Is it necessary for a teacher to have a center? Why can’t a teacher be happy as a hermit? Granted, one will still need a few basic necessities to survive, but I have seen plenty of self-aggrandizement when teachers rationalize their teaching by saying that they are teaching the true dharma. The story of the Buddha meeting his five former colleagues after his awakening experience is quite instructive, I think. The Buddha was not hustling to find disciples. It was his inner radiance that convinced his hearers that they were in the presence of something transformed. When this radiant presence is not there, a dharma center is in danger of becoming another business shop.
Still, isn’t a center the most skillful way to reach people? In my reading of Buddhist history, I have always been struck by how the tradition was kept alive in each generation by a handful of practitioners. The pursuit of liberation was never a mass movement.
The Buddha advocated the homeless life for his own community. You could not stay in the same village for more than three nights. You could not stay under the same tree for more than one night. Buddha was completely committed to the wandering ascetic life. He was aware of the dangers of even an institutionalized monastic life. He understood that human self-interest basically dominates everything else. The point of promoting this kind of community was psychological homelessness.
Who is an outsider today, someone outside of our institutionalized society? That’s a good question. I think Noam Chomsky is an outsider. Ralph Nader, perhaps. Gary Snyder.
These people are famous. There may be countless nameless others who haven’t bought into the system.
Do you think this is what’s required for a sincere Buddhist practice? I do.
The post-Marxist Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse talked about how America could dismantle any revolution by making a consumer item out of it. Is this what is happening to Buddhism in America? The old lion is being made to tone down the roar? I think so.
So what are we to do? This may be controversial, but as an example, I don’t think a Buddhist should own stocks. The stock market is driven by greed and manipulation, and by its very nature an investor becomes greedy. And yet there are dharma centers that have their money in the stock market.
And the Barre Center of Buddhist Studies, of which you are co-director, does not? It does. But this was not my choice or decision. This was decided by the board of directors.
Isn’t your presence at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies a tacit approval of their policies? Don’t you benefit materially from those policies? You separate yourself from the board’s decision to invest in the stock market, saying it is not your decision. Yet you have a home, a salary, and a forum all provided by that decision and other values and policies that you disagree with. How do you view this apparent contradiction? One way of looking at BCBS is as an ongoing process rather than an organization with identifiable goals, such as selling a product, making profit, supporting an entrenched corporate managerial class, et cetera. Participating in the values and aspirations of BCBS is, I think, a significant form of public discourse about Buddha-dharma in the West. BCBS distinguishes itself from most dharma organizations in that it is not centered around a particular teacher or a sectarian tradition and does not seem to have those unconscious drives that ignore the shadow side of things. Apart from the fact that BCBS has its endowment in the stock market, BCBS is a transparent organization. The internal conversations about its vision and its possible role in the transmittal of Buddha-dharma in the West seem like a wholesome and worthwhile thing to do. At this stage in its evolution, I may even have something to contribute to that process and to public discourse.
The only thing I can do as an individual in this complex situation is to be responsible for my own motivations and integrity, and argue for those convictions when possible. In the case of Tricycle, for instance, if it doesn’t want to be an engine of Buddhist commodification, it could throw itself at the mercy of like-minded philanthropists who will privately support its publication entirely. But it would work only if Tricycle stops taking ads. Tricycle can perform a valuable service, but it has to be radically honest itself.
It is true that I am provided with modest housing, but I only get a stipend—just barely enough to buy my toothbrush and gas for my car. I would like to think that by consciously choosing to live a life of self-restraint I am better able to argue for it as a necessary condition for the core paradigm of Buddha-dharma. There does not seem to be a disconnect between my personal views and my participation in the ongoing conversations about the vision of the study center. If, however, the situation changes in such a way that I feel my core values are being distorted by the policies of the board and our internal conversations, I would be happy to pack up and move out.
Yet you speak of psychological homelessness as the preferred state. Wouldn’t it be more true to the path, and more honest, to really choose homelessness—to walk out on BCBS? Psychological homelessness is not necessarily dependent on physical homelessness. If physical homelessness is full of angst and confusion, it does not serve any purpose. I mentioned that I thought it would be possible to live like a hermit in New York City. I meant that I think there can be creative ways of pursuing psychological homelessness without being physically homeless.
But what do you think the Buddha would do? Knowing a little bit about the shramana [ascetic or monastic] culture of ancient India, I feel reasonably certain that the Buddha would choose to live in a community of hermits and let the world come to him. There’s the story of one of the prominent Korean Zen masters of the twentieth century, Han Am [1876-1951], who came to live at a mountain temple in 1926 and vowed never to leave the mountain. Even when the North Korean Communists invaded in 1951 and took over the temple, he remained. The rest of the Korean Buddhist world came to him.
I would like to think that if the Buddha were alive today, he would not be on the celebrity circuit and would not participate in the marketplace and turn his dharma into a commodity. Of course, the community will have to be supported by some people, just as the structures in the Jeta Grove were supported by [the wealthy merchant] Anathapindika. The crucial thing here is to consider whether the symbiosis between the Buddha and Anathapindika of ancient times could be replicated in our contemporary situation. I would like to think so. Of course it also means there needs to be a Buddha with the sensibility of the Buddha and an Anathapindika with the sensibility of the latter, with the same clarity of intentions and motives and commitments, on the part of the donor and the recipient.
To many laypeople in the dharma today, the purity and uncompromising nature of your views will seem like a luxury, even an indulgence. Many people seem to be all but overwhelmed by their jobs and their lives. To support themselves and their families there seems to be no choice but to get up each day and go to work. There is a certain kind of circularity here. People want to engage with teachings that point out that craving and clinging are root causes of stress. Yet people don’t want to let go of patterns of being and consuming that fuel craving and clinging. We have to ask honestly whether the people you describe really want to be transformed or whether they are simply looking for ways to reduce their stress. What do they want?
In the Buddhist cultures of East Asia that I know of, there is a pattern of people finding themselves in the difficult situation of having a family and caring for them, but there was also an equally powerful understanding that this is not how one should live one’s life forever. The spiritual markers of those societies encouraged people to leave home after reaching middle age, having taken care of their families. In Chinese and Korean societies, there was a respected tradition of rich merchants using their money to build a temple or monastery where they would retire and live the rest of their lives as lay monastics, either with or without an ordained monk as the resident teacher. Like-minded retired laypeople would join in and create a community that could perhaps survive for a few generations.
This way of thinking and being may be totally horrifying to Western sensibilities, but it is a model that should not be dismissed out of hand. This model may also highlight the basic clash of intention in the Buddha-dharma and the Western intellectual and Judeo-Christian traditions about self and being. For the Buddha the basic issue is unsatisfactoriness, as opposed to “being.” It seems much more reasonable to expect that this unsatisfactoriness gets resolved to a large degree if one retires to a community of like-minded practitioners, leaving the problems of the world behind them. Likewise, if this is the retirement plan one is working toward, one naturally tends to live a life of self-restraint now.
The intentions of Buddha-dharma are remarkably different from the inherited intentions of Western culture, and this tension needs to be sorted out by each and every practitioner in their own life. The basic intention that gets set up in the study and practice of Buddha-dharma is that the whole sense-linked world, samsara, is inherently unsatisfying.
What about our style of practice in the U.S. itself? According to an article in the New York Times, the world’s fastest-growing religion is not any type of fundamentalism but the Pentecostal wing of Christianity. What is most important to Pentecostals is not doctrine and the inerrancy of Scripture, as it is for Christian fundamentalists, but spirit-filled experience and healing. The same tendency seems to exist in American Buddhist practice. Without the context, meditation practice can become another quest for a certain kind of experience. But it is worth considering that while the broader context of Buddha’s teaching is dukkha [unsatisfactoriness], its resolution is nibbana, or liberation, not sukkha [happiness]. Sukkha is an experience, a by-product, a fruit of letting go. The search for happiness, as some teachers might offer, is not the context of Buddha’s teachings. It does not mean that Buddhists want to be miserable. The context of Buddha’s teachings always and above everything else is of anicca [flux] and anatta [insubstantiality]. I translate them together as “psychological homelessness,” to get out of the trap of empty philosophizing and provide a context for personal transformation. We could, for example, take the Pali word nibbida [turning away] as another layer that informs the context of psychological homelessness. I believe all of Buddha’s teachings are aiming for this contextualization.
Buddhist philosophical thought is extremely sophisticated, and I find myself fascinated by its ideas, but it must be in the service of psychological homelessness as the framework for personal transformation rather than a word game.
What do you suggest we do to get out of our peculiarly Western predicament? What’s the solution? It is a peculiar American hubris to look for radical solutions. Each solution has its own life cycle, and it gets commodified. Small communities are a start, but I continue to think of small, intentional communities as a process and model rather than a solution. The ultimate problem in human existence is alienation. The only solution to alienation is to deal with it in wholesome and skillful ways. The teachings of the Buddha seem to be a wholesome model for dealing with alienation. But these teachings cannot be a formula or even a solution. They have to be living truths.
Images: © Libby Vigeon