Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers

Lou Nordstrom

Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers
By Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger.
Shambhala Publications, Inc: Boston, 1991,
240 pp., paper, $12.95.

Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger have put together a most entertaining and lively collection of eight wild and crazy Zen masters (Layman P'ang, Rinzai, Bassui, Ikkyu, Bankei, Hakuin, Nyogen Senzaki, and Soen Nakagawa), the epithet "Crazy Cloud" being Ikkyu's nom de plume. The scholarship combines admirable knowledge of the history of Zen Buddhism with incisive sociopolitical commentary that successfully situates these eccentric teachers within a broader cultural context.

The problem with this book is its flawed polemical purpose. "Crazy Cloud Zen" is seen as having important implications for contemporary American Zen as well as contemporary Western society in general.

That these masters do in fact constitute such a Zen is not so much argued as assumed to be self-evident; I do not think it is. The lack of clarity in the definition of Crazy Cloud Zen has turned what would otherwise have been a delightful and extremely well-written work into a failed polemic. The chapters on the Zen teachers are first-rate; it is the introduction and the epilogue that present difficulties. But the authors announce their polemical purpose in the introduction as follows:

. . . these archetypal "Crazy Clouds" will particularly appeal to the contemporary Zen student steeped in western norms of individualism, political engagement, liberation theology, feminism, and the destructuralization of all hierarchy, whether religious or social. These revolutionary Zen men are apt models for our own revolutionary times.

I don't think any of the Zen teachers profiled here would have been comfortable with this ideological caricature of the sense in which they were "revolutionary." Both Soen Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, for example, were indeed opposed to the institutionalization of Zen practice, to what the authors call "hierarchical Zen," but they were not anti-institutional or anti-hierarchical in general. The Zen teachers collected here were revolutionary within the narrow context of the Zen world. As such, they are not "apt models for our own revolutionary times." The authors' extrapolation from the revolutionary in a religious sense to the revolutionary in a socio-political sense is unjustified. The authors confuse a spiritual sense of freedom or liberation that is neither ideological nor even teleological, with a socio-political sense of freedom or liberation that is both.
This leads the authors to characterize the freedom of enlightenment as individualism (and in ideological terms, in general). There is no socio-political "message" to be derived from the sort of spiritual freedom embodied by these Zen teachers. Because the authors are primarily interested in the "message," they are obliged to ideologize—and thus distort, if not destroy—the very freedom they ostensibly revere.

When Master Hakuin says in his "Song of Zazen" that "Boundless and free is the sky of samadhi, bright the full moon of wisdom!" he follows these lines with, "Truly, is anything missing now?" And here, of course, is the rub. These authors want to say yes to this rhetorical question and spell out a litany of social ills that an engaged Zen Buddhism should address and change. But in the sort of freedom that Zen points to, nothing is fundamentally missing or lacking now.

The authors' ambivalence toward the freedom that is Zen liberation (being-at-play-in-the-fields-of-the-Buddha)—an ambivalence that is, of course, ours as well—shows itself dramatically in the Soen Nakagawa chapter, where the clinical and tantric senses of "crazy" so unharmoniously interact that they do this great Zen teacher considerable disservice. Then again, it is not only the authors, but us as well who have been conditioned secretly to resent the unconventional and the free. But to hear Soen characterized as "a perpetual boy, what psychologist Carl Jung would call a puer, the charming eternal child who, like Peter Pan, simply refuses to grow up ... ," would strike anyone who knew him as psychoanalytic reductionism at its worst. Soen Nakagawa indeed seemed radically innocent, but not in the pathological sense the authors insist on; rather in a sense precisely deriving from and embodying his spiritual freedom. Soen's freedom was not very intimately or importantly connected to considerations of moral responsibility; he did not walk the authors' "razor's edge" of liberation and moral reponsibility. Nor, for that matter, did the other masters represented.

The Zen teachers the authors present frequently did not like what they encountered in the narrow Zen world and in the wide world as well; and as an expression simply of who they were—in Thomas Merton's phrase, "standing alone"—they changed what they did not like. What they did not do is provide ideological justification; they spoke neither of inherent wrongness nor rightness, for both are incompatible with Hakuin's "Truly, is anything missing now?" This is the fundamental point the authors have missed.

What has to be said outright—and not in terms of a stereotype of Zen eccentricity and eccentrics—is that the spiritual freedom embodied by these Zen teachers is, from a conventional moral point of view, both prior to and beyond good and evil; that such liberation is in this sense non-moral.
The epilogue begins by talking about "Crazy Cloud Zen" as if it is now clear that such a thing exists. Crazy Cloud Zen has been presented as the opposite of "hierarchical Zen," but this characterization wrongly identifies Zen with its institutional cultural forms. Once one questions this move, there is not much left of the concept of Crazy Cloud Zen.

Their socio-political pronouncements are as dubious. We learn, for example, that "secularization has undermined the validity of any hierarchy at all," and that it "is impossible to maintain the Asian authority of a Zen teacher in an egalitarian society." "Asian" turns out to be a euphemism for "macho male." We find out that "Zen still represents a bastion of male supremacy, a warrior religion set on combat, bravery, and death," and that "Zen is an unremittingly male practice" which involves "the denial of female sexuality, of any sexuality but the homoerotic ideal of the samurai." Perhaps some of its historical and cultural aspects could be so characterized, but, once again, this ideologized Zen is not the Zen of Zen practice.

The authors also claim that Zen "by its very nature" is "contemplative," a statement that seems to have been made only in order to provide a contrast to the concept of an "engaged" Crazy Cloud Zen. But what is "Crazy Cloud Zen" apart from this bogus contrast? We hear, for example:

This is Crazy Cloud Zen. Every child is born to it. Those who grow up to live it [sic] with every breath and crook of the finger, march alongside Ikkyu through the streets of Sakai on New Year's Day waving a wooden sword as they make their way to work in the morning; sit with Bassui in his cozy treehouse as they bake bread; and capture the unborn with Bankei over an open campfire in a mountain sesshin.

This is rhapsodic gushing. But it is hardly Zen, Crazy Cloud or otherwise. 


Lou Nordstrom, an ordained Zen monk, teaches both Zen and Western philosophy, and edited Namu Dai Bosa: A Transmission of Zen Buddhism to America, an anthology of the writings of Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, and Eido Shimano Roshi.

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