1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

The Dance of Two Truths

By February 21, 2013

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Expanding a bit on the last post, I want to say a little more about hierarchies and formalities in Buddhist institutions. Lots of people have ISSUES about authority figures, spiritual or otherwise. And whenever we have another scandal eruption, I hear from folks who say that this is why they don't join a sangha, thank you very much.

I have pointed out before that there must be a few hundred Zen teachers in North America by now, and that the number of "bad eggs" can be counted on one's fingers. This observation never seems to make a dent in anyone's conviction that teachers are not to be trusted, and one is better off practicing alone.

And in the case of Zen especially, I think people also are taken aback by all the formalities -- the ceremonies, the bowing, the priests, the robes. I run into people who are certain Zen did away with all that. The "Beat Zen" mystique will not die.

Japanese Zen includes a lot of bowing. The beginning of a sitting period is like a dance of bowing. Before sitting, the student bows to the meditation pillow, then turns and bows toward the row of students on the other side of the room. Other students, facing the bower, bow back. The officiating teacher or priest, called the doshi, also bows and receives bows, and everyone bows to the Buddha. By the time meditation begins, everyone in the zendo has bowed and been bowed to multiple times.

This is bowing with hands in the gassho position, which signifies nonduality. The gesture acknowledges that our appearance as separate beings is an illusion.

This formality can be a bit like the "Rubin Vase," those pictures that look either like a vase or two faces, depending on how you focus. If you look at it one way, you see a hierarchy, with a doshi, attendants, and senior and junior students. Looked at another way there is no hierarchy, no distinctions. Just practice. It's a dance of absolute and relative, or two truths.

The bowing procedure also underscores that we're all engaged in something together. It is not a room full of individuals who are each doing his own thing, but a sangha engaged in practice together, giving and receiving strength and teaching from each other. And in this sense, the distinctions are only those of function. There is han striking, time keeping, candle lighting, incense offering. No one possesses the hands doing these things.

Many years ago I noticed something about my first teacher. Whenever you bowed to him, he would return the same bow, with just as much respect and sincerity. Once I saw him bowing to a monastic much shorter than he, and he bent more than she did, so that his head was not above hers. And it struck me that this bowing was an expression of the absolute -- "abbot" was just a function, not an identity. A teacher manifests only in the presence of students.

This is why the really great teachers don't want to be treated as the Lord High Pooh-Bah Teacher. Nothing is above or below. The hierarchy is no-hierarchy.

You might ask, then why not just do away with the positions and the robes and whatnot? I have a couple of answers to that. One is that emptiness is form, and in the relative world their are hierarchies, authority figures, submissive figures. Throwing the robes out doesn't change that. Second, the formalities -- the choreography, if you will -- creates a kind of neutral container that doesn't belong to any one person. The functions are carried out according to tradition, not according to somebody in charge.

Like it or not, forming hierarchies appears to be hardwired into human behavior. Put together any group of people, and sooner or later they will sort themselves into leaders and followers. The traditional formalities, if properly honored, create a structure in which functions are not assigned according to who is most assertive or intimidating or charming, but according to what is traditional and needed at the moment.

In time, shy people are nudged out of their comfort zones; assertive "I'm in charge" people learn the virtue of sitting down and shutting up. If properly honored, the formalities are a great equalizer in a way that isn't obvious at first. I'm saying "if properly honored" because I'm sure there are Zen centers in which individual egos have taken over and killed the true spirit of the formalities, but I've been fortunate to have seen very little of that.

The dance of two truths is a means to make sunyata more than a concept or an intellectual exercise. It is reality. It is your body, the teacher's body, the incense bowl, the bow.

Same thing with robes. You can look at Buddhist robes as something that makes the monastics and priests (or whatever) stand out, or you can look at the robes as something that makes them less distinctive, because they're all dressed alike. What you see is in your own eyes, not in the robes.

Many people practice by themselves, but a truly solo practice is not a Zen practice. (Indeed, I would argue that "solo Zen practice" is an oxymoron.) Especially if you keep yourself cut off from the tradition because you have issues about hierarchies, and not because you are too far from a Zen center, it's not a Zen practice. Why? Because your practice is built around maintaining an illusion of a separate self. Plugging into the tradition even a little bit, by doing a couple of weekend retreats a year, can make a world of difference.

February 21, 2013 at 11:29 am
(1) Mumon says:

There’s a lot embedded in those bows: What are you aware of when you bow? What are you aware of when your teacher bows to you? Can you practice the humility and gratitude of the bow by just bowing? Can you appreciate the humility and gratitude of those who bow to you?

It’s a similar situation to sarei 茶礼 – can you appreciate truly being served? Truly serving?

If a person cannot, I would go so far as to say then that person has missed so much.

February 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm
(2) CL says:

“A teacher manifests only in the presence of students.”

For me, that’s the crux of the whole thing really.

Sometimes I like to say that I was born anti-authoritarian and, in many ways that is true. I also have a contrarian nature. However, this serves very little purpose if we want to properly approach a path of learning in this lifetime, especially in the West where we often only unite in the stadiums of violent war sports, or in angry defiance to some measure we feel is cutting into “our” rights or “our” pockets, or when it’s time for “my” meeting (ha, that one makes me want to laugh, the phrase “my meeting.”)

The things to honestly respect is the process, the gathering, the ceremony in the air, the assembly on vulture peak, the gassho in response to gassho.


February 21, 2013 at 3:24 pm
(3) Mila says:

“The things to honestly respect is the process, the gathering, the ceremony in the air, the assembly on vulture peak, the gassho in response to gassho.”

Yes indeed …. respecting the “One Body” of which we all are a (seeming) part: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, hands, feet — each with its function, and yet “no-one in possession” of those organs, nor of the whole body for that matter :)

The role of “teacher” is ultimately no different from any of the other roles — any difference lies only in the Teacher’s having realized more completely their “absence of somebody-ness” — already they are knowingly embodying the gassho.

When someone playing one of the other roles manifests as a “student” — with a question or concern — the Teacher playfully assumes the role of teacher, enacting the drama of teaching ….

February 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm
(4) Gavin says:

I just read a similar formulation (relative and absolute) in regards to Jodo Shinshu: the principle of “Shinzokunitai”, the two truths of the absolute and conventional. Alfred Bloom mentions it towards the end of this article/chapter:


Thanks for the blog.

Namu Amida Butsu

February 22, 2013 at 9:31 am
(5) Yuan says:

In many suttas, students of Buddhism are encouraged to seek out Kalyāṇa-mittatā. A person maybe inclined to practice solo, but a Kalyāṇa-mittatā can be instrumental in providing the catalyst for a breakthrough and pointing out the right direction.

Kalyāṇa-mittatā does not have to be a formal teacher and it is worthwhile to find them.

While it is possible to be enlightened without a teacher (c.f. Samyaksambuddha and Pratyekabuddha), one probably should not be arrogant enough to think that they can do so.

February 22, 2013 at 10:45 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Yuan — good point. It isn’t necessary to rush into a formal, permanent commitment to a particular teacher. I encourage solo practitioners to attend an occasional short retreat, and those don’t have to be at the same place with the same teacher. Nobody is going to suck your brains out and take away your free will. Even people in traditional monastic practice switch teachers sometimes, and usually that’s not a big deal.

buddhanonymous — good analogy. And that’s because nearly everyone in the West knows or has known an athletic coach who is a good guy, but very few in the West have known a Zen teacher. So people are more likely to fall into some kind of faulty generalization logical fallacy about Zen teachers than about athletic coaches.

February 22, 2013 at 5:01 pm
(7) Mila says:

hmm …. have tried twice to share some links to some Buddhist cartoons, just for fun ….. but the comments seem to have been drawn into some cyber-cul-de-sac …. so maybe the third time is a charm? –

* Buddhist conundrum

* Interfaith dialogue

Happy Friday! :)

February 22, 2013 at 8:42 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mila — For some reason, you comments were getting caught in the spam filter. Sorry about that.

February 23, 2013 at 5:39 pm
(9) Chris White says:

I agree with much of the article that the rituals, robes, and traditions are part of the practice and reality of Zen; personally, I would hate to see them done away with. I think that perhaps some who see them as entirely irrelevant are attached to a specific idea of what Zen “should” be like, rather than living with what it is.

However, there is always the danger that robes, and traditions become empty of meaning and practiced or worn without any real relevance. In the Theatre, we talk about “wearing” a mask (embodying the ‘personality’ the mask reflects) and “carrying” it (just having it on your face). There are always instances of those who “wear” the robes and rituals and those who “carry” them; I think it is important to find and work with a Sangha where the robes and rituals are addenda to the dharma, rather than substitutes for it.

Which brings me to my second point. I have been a “solo” practitioner of Zen for most of my life; largely because when I discovered Zen there were no centres nearby (small-town New Zealand over 40 years ago). In later years I attended several Buddhist sanghas, but never found one that reflected what I had learned from my readings and discussions with other Buddhists (I wrote A LOT of letters – no email in those days).

More recently, the advent of the internet has given me much more access to other Buddhists and to on-line Zen communities, though I have still not found a Sangha in my hometown (now in Australia). Those I have attended seem to be of the “robes-and-rituals-will-bring-you-to-enlightenment” variety.

While it has probably taken me longer than it might have, I have been able to progress in my understanding of the dharma largely alone, relying on readings, occasional advice at a distance, and my own meditations. I find it a bit off-putting when you write that “a truly solo practice is not a Zen practice”; it may not be what you see as Zen, but surely that does not mean it can be dismissed out of hand.

February 23, 2013 at 8:41 pm
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

I find it a bit off-putting when you write that “a truly solo practice is not a Zen practice”; it may not be what you see as Zen, but surely that does not mean it can be dismissed out of hand.

Zen isn’t the be-all and end-all of Buddhism. There are lots of ways to approach dharma that are very different from Zen. And it’s perfectly OK to have a solo practice that involves zazen, if that’s what works for you. But what I’ve come to appreciate is that the Zen tradition requires face-to-face group practice. This is not just about the practice training the individual, but the individual merging into the great ceaseless practice, giving back what is received. Without that, it’s incomplete, like trying to learn to swim without getting into the water. So a truly solo practice — not counting interludes or hermitage retreats between teachers — is not a Zen practice in the same way that football is not tennis. I’m not saying tennis is better than football; I’m just saying they aren’t the same thing.

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