Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ayn and Rita: The Praise of No-praise

The local PBS station had an interview with architect Stanley Tigerman (pictured below) looking at his career of over fifty years ( He loved the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who he called brilliantly original, but he didn’t like all the followers just copying Mies’ designs. Mr. Tigerman said many of today’s architects are trying to be a “brand name,” imitating their own past designs over and over. Mr. Tigerman spoke as the voice of mujo (“not-always”), saying he approached each new project with fresh ideas (including respect for his clients’ concerns) instead of trying to force the project into the cookie-cutter mold of “my style.”

He said a big influence on his becoming an architect was the book The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. On one occasion he was excited to have the chance to finally meet her in person. The interviewer had a good laugh as Mr. Tigerman recounted that when he told Ayn Rand how much her book inspired him to be an architect, she responded by looking at him coolly and saying, “So what.”

That reminded me of my encounter with feminist Buddhism scholar Rita Gross a few years ago when she was one of the featured speakers at the annual Buddhist Council of the Midwest’s Visakha festival. She was being led through the exhibition hall by the festival organizers and when I saw her I jumped up from our temple’s information table and went to greet her, almost falling over in my formal robes. “Dr. Gross, you’ve been such an inspiration to me and I talk about you a lot in my articles,” I said, shoving a copy of my “Women’s Liberation in Buddhism” article in her hands. I don’t remember her saying anything to me – the escorts were in a hurry to get her to the room where the other VIPs were gathering – but the look on her face said, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

It would probably be the same with the Buddha and any of the historical teachers such as Shinran and Dogen. They don’t need to have fans rushing up to them singing their praises and asking for autographs. What they want are questions—from our earnestly seeking hearts to arouse new questions in their minds. The teachers want to learn from real situations – whether we or they found neat solutions or screwed up royally.

In our monthly sutra study class we see the give-and-take of the Buddha interacting with questioners in the Sutta Nipata chapters. A year ago in our weekly class we read selections from Majjhima Nikaya (the Middle-Length Discourses) and witnessed the Buddha having discussions with a wide range of people: men and women, some noble and some despised, some taking his words seriously and some flipping him off. But in all the encounters the Buddha showed himself actively engaged in deepening his awakening, continually refreshing his beginner’s mind.

The real way to honor our teachers for their dynamic spirit of inquiry is to discover our own path of seeking. Mies van der Rohe is not honored by all the copycat followers but by the praise for each individual’s originality from a man of mujo like Stanley Tigerman.

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