Koun Franz, a Zen priest from Montana currently living in Japan, writes that in Japanese monasteries, priests often sub-specialize in one particular thing. For example, there's a priest who is the expert in folding transmission papers. Others master particular ceremonies, or styles of chanting, or forms of poetry. When a particular skill is needed, the go-to guy is called forth to take charge and make sure the thing is done correctly.
Some of the larger, older Zen centers in the West may be developing such a depth of skill now, but most of us are struggling with a learning curve. Even those of us familiar with zendo etiquette and the daily chanting service -- when to stand, when to bow, when to put hands in gassho or shoshu -- can feel challenged when something new is introduced.
For example, my Zen center will hold a formal fusatsu ceremony on Friday. This is a beautiful and elaborate ceremony that requires a style of chant-singing that's quite different from our usual monotone drone. We're trying to learn it by listening to recordings of other Zen centers' ceremonies. And, of course, centers in different lineage traditions go by different scores, so to speak, so the recordings don't match.
We could use a coach.
Fifty years ago yesterday, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself and died in Saigon. The Associated Press photograph of the burning monk was one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It was published in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Those of us old enough to remember can tell you it was hard to avoid seeing it.
The self-immolation was part of a protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was determined to impose Catholicism on his people and had forbidden even such innocuous practices as flying a Buddhist flag on Buddha's birthday.
A campaign of protests against the anti-Buddhist policies began in the sprig of 1963. Public demonstrations were suppressed; more than a thousand monks and nuns were arrested, and many others simply disappeared. After Thich Quang Duc's sacrifice, foreign journalists began to cover the "Buddhist crisis" in Vietnam, and the world paid attention. Once Ngo Dinh Diem had lost the support of U.S. President John Kennedy his days were numbered; he was deposed and assassinated in November 1963. (Read more -- "Buddhism in Vietnam.")
The new book by Brad Warner is titled There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places. Here is my formal review of There Is No God and He Is Always With You. Consider this post the short and informal review.
This is a lovely book. I enjoyed reading it. It is engaging and funny and moving. I even agreed with most of it.
Here's a caveat -- Brad Warner and I both practice in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. So his perspective on many aspects of dharma is familiar to me. Most of the references to Dogen were familiar to me, also. It's possible that a reader with a different background might have more trouble "getting" this book. But maybe not.
Via the Rev. Danny Fisher -- Al Jazeera reports that a Buddhist monastery in Burma is sheltering Muslim refugees displaced by allegedly Buddhist mobs. The report says only a minority of monks are participating in the anti-Muslim violence in Burma.