The first step in identifying “heresy” is to refuse all identifications with the subjective intuitions and experience of the “heretic,” and to see his words only in the impersonal realm in which there is no dialogue – in which dialogue is denied a priori.
-- Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
I checked out the above cited book from the library in anticipation of being stuck in jury duty and I renewed it once, but after four weeks, I only managed to read the first section “Barth’s Dream.” One thing that impressed me is that although people have described Merton as self-absorbed, in that section he gives us glimpses of the monastic community and talks about particular monks as well as quoting the many teachers of Western and Eastern thought that he learned from. The above quote is Merton’s commentary on how the writings of Meister Eckhart were systematized into twenty-eight propositions, distilling the lively human being Eckhart into some stone statue of “contemplative monk.”
The quote struck me because too many depictions of the historical Buddha (and all the subsequent teachers) show him as lecturing down to the people. One feature of the accounts in the Pali canon such as Sutta Nipata and Majjhima Nikaya is we see the Buddha in conversation with individuals, particularly laymen and women from various walks of life. In the Sanskrit canon, if the Buddha converses with anyone it’s usually either an esteemed disciple such as Sariputra or a cosmic bodhisattva such as Maitreya.
The sutras begin with “Thus I have heard” (nyo-ze ga-mon), supposedly said by Ananda as he recounts the words of the Buddha after his death. But actually as we see in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, it’s more accurate to have Ananda saying, “Thus I have asked.” The expositions by the Buddha were initiated by those who asked questions, who wanted clarification of the Dharma, because they had specific struggles in their own lives.
The previous meditation leader at our temple would conclude the sessions with what I would call “pontification.” The late gentleman was extremely hard of hearing so if anyone had questions, he didn’t notice them, but also he fell into that stereotypical idea of Buddhism of “When the Master speaks, you all must listen.”
I’ve told the volunteers who took over as meditation leaders to take the time to know the people who come – ask for feedback and questions. I gave them the acronym PB&J – explain posture, breathing and joining together. It is the joining together that makes meditation more than an exercise in navel-gazing – it becomes an opportunity to open up to each other. So I’ve been pleased when I arrive at the temple on Sunday morning to see Carlos right after the meditation session engaged in conversation (sometimes in Spanish) with the participants.
As much as I hate to listen to one-way conversations, I hate hearing myself doing all the expounding. I need feedback; I need questions. When I was studying in Japan, the teachers assumed we’re all there to listen to them without questions. One time at an informal retreat, I asked, “What is non-retrogression (futaiten)?” and my classmates burst out in laughter. So I went on to clarify, “What does non-retrogression mean concretely (gutai-teki)?” Now when I explain non-retrogression I can only talk about it in terms of my own experience – it is the awareness that my life changed in an irrevocable way when I encountered Buddhism. Though my behavior seems unchanged, I can no longer see life the way I used to.
Jodo Shinshu as much as other Buddhist sects has that dangerous tendency to make the teachings a one-way street – telling people to submissively accept the words of an automaton Shinran. The real Shinran as well as the real Shakyamuni Buddha, the real Nagarjuna, the real Kiyozawa Manshi – would be saying to us, “Let’s talk and listen to each other’s questions.”