Scholar Monks: Deshan, the Old Woman, and Rice Cakes

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

This is a Chan story from ninth century China (1).

“Deshan Xuanjian was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra, but he was not a Chan practitioner. He was traveling south in search of the Dharma, carrying his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra with him. In the course of his travels he came across an old woman on the roadside selling tea and rice cakes. He asked her, ‘Who are you?’

She responded, ‘I am an old woman selling rice cakes.’ When he asked if he could buy some refreshments from her, she inquired, ‘Venerable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?’

He said, ‘I am a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, and here I have all my notes and commentaries.’

Hearing this, the old woman said, ‘I have heard that, according to the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this, you may buy a rice cake from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere for refreshment.’

Deshan was unable to reply. The old woman then directed him to a Chan master nearby. Deshan burned all his notes and commentaries the next day.” (2)

Books burning in fire
Who is the monk, who is the scholar, and who is the scholar monk in this story? The old woman presents herself as an ordinary person, and the story does not even give her a name. Yet she reveals deep knowledge of the Dharma and tests Deshan with a question he cannot answer (3).

Deshan presents himself as a scholar, but his knowledge is limited. He carries his extensive works with him, and yet he is still seeking the Dharma. One might presume that, despite all his study, he too knows he is missing something. The old woman, upon first meeting him, addresses him as priest, not scholar. What does she know that he does not?

When Deshan burns his notes and commentaries, does he stop being a scholar? His academic studies brought him south in search of truth, brought him to the teacher selling rice cakes on the roadside. Yet ultimately he needs to let go of his commentaries and notes and seek a different kind of knowledge.

How many scholars pile up publications in the name of knowledge, carrying around their C.V. and pointing to it whenever anyone asks who they are? I already feel the pull of the publishing frenzy and the desire to build a monumental CV that rivals the Tower of Babel, and I am only just out of a Masters program!

How many nameless masters are out there, testing the knowledge of these scholars? Who are the scholars? Who are the monks? Who are the scholar monks?

 

Notes

(1) Chan is a school of Chinese Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Chan comes from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means deep meditation, and is most well known by its Japanese name, Zen. See Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 217-222.

(2) In Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 256.

(3) Reb Anderson describes Dharma as having at least three levels of meaning: “Dharma is ‘freedom from any difference between ourselves and buddha’; it is also ‘the truth that is realized by a buddha’; and it is ‘the transformation of that truth into scriptures and other forms of teaching.’” From Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2001), p. 41.

(4) The image of the burning text in this post is from http://biblioterapiaitaliana.blogspot.com/2015/03/filosofia-spicciola-sui-roghi-di-libri.html

Researching and Writing Angst

I am now writing my Master’s thesis, a project I have been working on for about 6 months in earnest. Today is the day I stop researching and begin the nitty gritty of putting all my thoughts and research onto paper. It hasn’t been easy to make the shift. I keep stumbling across footnotes, journal articles, and books that I feel I must read in order to bring them into the conversation. Lately I’ve felt like this:

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Another take on a classic image (1)

But this level of zeal isn’t always good for my health. And anyhow, that process can be endless, and the time has come to stop jumping into rabbit holes and to start crawling back out of them.

I have been surprised at the level of angst this process arouses in me. I don’t consider myself a very anxious person, but when it comes to research and writing, I get gripped. I read and I read and I read, feeling like I know nothing. Then after a while, I start to get it and begin creating critical ideas of my own. This feels good, even groovy at times. Then I read something that has ideas similar to my own, and the groove is gone. Despair comes in: how have I been reading all this material and I still have nothing original to say??? So I dive even more fervently into reading and note-taking, until I start to feel alright again, and the cycle continues.

I have a hypothesis as to what’s going on here: I attach my self-worth to my work. If my work is good, then I am good. If my work is shit, then I am shit. Producing high quality work means that I am a worthwhile person, and so any inkling that the work is not perfect arouses anxiety. Of course, this paradigm is problematic in many ways. No amount or quality of work can ever repair a feeling of worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a delusion that must be worked through via other means.

One way I try to break through this angsty business is to keep a shrine righManjusrit next to my desk. The shrine consists of images of two bodhisattvas (2), an incense holder and a candle. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri (3), the bodhisattva of wisdom who wields a sword to cut through delusion, and a second bodhisattva, whose name I do not know, who is sitting in steadfast meditation. Whenever I sit down to work, I light the candle, offer incense, and ask that I may cultivate wisdom, cut through delusion, and be steadfast in my practice. Building this ritual into my work is slowly transforming my work into work practice, in Zen called samu. Instead of multiplying my suffering through work, I am trying to understand it.

How do you deal with anxiety in your work, academic or otherwise?

Notes

(1) This image is originally from the fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half. I created this image with the help of Meme Generator.

(2) A bodhisattva is a being who has committed to staying in the world of suffering lifetime after lifetime until all beings realize their true nature.

(3) The image to the right is of Manjusri. I obtained this image from http://www.buddhamuseum.com/sm-manjusri_52.html

To PhD or not to PhD…

That is the question I am currently considering. I received admittance to a doctoral program in the study of religion this week. I was delighted, to say the least, having considered long and hard whether this further educational commitment and career choice was the move for me to make. Working out my thoughts on Scholar Monk has been an important part of this process.

Many say that doctoral study will ruin relationships, take over your life, burn you out, beat you up. I am not interested in allowing any of this to happen. I see how academia encourages this sort of personal and interpersonal breakdown by putting the work before everything. There are so many unreasonable expectations placed on young scholars: publish incessantly, present papers at conferences all over, be educated in one place, do a postdoctoral fellowship somewhere else, and apply for a tenure-track position in an entirely different location, uprooting your life and family with each move. That is the only path to success.

Cherry blossom and moon

Blossom Moonlight by Megan Morris (1)

I say, “no thanks.”

Even though my spouse and I have discussed the possibility of further education, I knew once I was admitted that this would have to be a family decision. And it has prompted a wonderful discussion between us regarding our near-term goals, visions for our family and our free-time, and perhaps most importantly, to set our intentions.

I intend to root my work and study in practice. The slope can get slippery and it can be easy to fall into the “work-first” mentality. It is clear to me that of all things that would come first, scholarly work is not it – family and practice stand out as two very clear alternatives.

Clear and critical assessment is undoubtedly necessary in coming to a decision about doing a PhD. But ultimately, I feel that it is my job to get out of my own way and be open to the unfoldment of the universe. Thinking has its limits, and at some point the time to think through things has come to an end.

So, do it; don’t do it. Does it really matter? Or as the eminent martial arts master, Oogway, has said,”Noodles. Don’t noodles.” (2) Give up the past and future, along with cognition, and allow yourself to be.

Notes

(1) This Cherry Blossom Tree Art Print by Megan Norris can be purchased in various formats at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cherry-blossom-tree-art-print-megan-morris.html.

(2) The full quote is “Quit. Don’t quit. Noodles. Don’t noodles. You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.’ ” From the film Kung Fu Panda.

The Benefits of Being a Monk

There is a New Year’s sesshin each year at Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado. A sesshin is an intensive practice period that mimics monastic life and involves a lot of sitting and walking meditation, work practice, eating practice, chantings, and dharma talks. Dharma talks are given by a teacher, in our case the abbot of the temple, Hakubai Zenji, and cover various themes, including Buddhist doctrine and how to live in the world.

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The lotus pond at Hakubai in summer

The theme of this year’s sesshin was “how to make meaning in a purposeless universe” and the dharma talks followed this thread. The benefits of being a monk came up a couple times in our talks about worldly meaning. I found both references to be puzzling, though relevant to our discussion on this blog, and so I am sharing them with you here in order to think through them.

First, Hakubai Zenji talked of someone slapping you in the face. If you’re a monk, he said, that’s great! You think: look at this, they’re slapping a monk in the face. I took this to mean that since you are a monk, you don’t care what other people think of you, because you are not attached to your worldly person. Of course, this is easier said than done! It may be easy to not get ruffled when someone you don’t know says something nasty to you, but a slap in the face is a bit more intimate.

One of the currents of our talks over the course of the sesshin was that meaning may not be important in the realm of the absolute but that it is important in the relative realm. In Zen, it is said that there is no birth, no death; no beginning, no end; no meaning, no meaninglessness. But clearly in the world of objects, the world of space-time, beings are born and die, things come to an end, and people constantly struggle with meaning and meaninglessness.

When we talk about scholarship, this is an activity of the relative realm. Conceptual knowledge and discourse requires a subject and object, observer and observed. And therefore it would seem that making meaning is also something worth considering in the world of the scholar.

When a scholar is slapped in the face, how do they react? With polemics? A nasty review of the slapper’s next book? From what little experience I have, the Academy cultivates bloated egos, and bloated egos tend to burst when they are slapped. Would the reaction look different if the scholar was not attached to their scholarship? I think so. But getting to that place in an academic ecosystem of intense attachment and identification takes work.

The second statement: one of the benefits of being a monk is that no one expects anything of you. Later on, Hajubai Zenji added that when you are sitting all the time, doing nothing, people think you’re crazy or useless. As I get ready to launch myself into further academic work, I find I keep falling into this pit of other people’s expectations. Publish like a mad person! Sacrifice your marriage for your PhD! Present papers everywhere! I don’t care about any of this stuff, nor am I interested in playing these games. Yet I get sucked in time and time again to believing that the expectations of others are my own. They’re not. I’ll just keep on sitting, doing my best to do nothing, if that’s what needs doing.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a scholar” – thoughts from the American Academy of Religion National Conference

I am in San Antonio, Texas, for the national conference of the American Academy of Religion, and had the pleasure to listen to Cornel West speak on a panel this morning. When a question was asked about the academy and the role of scholars of religion, West had this to say:

I’ve never thought of myself as a religious scholar. I’ve been fundamentally called to be a lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy. I engage with ideas and scholars to do this, but the fundamental question for me is the kind of witness you bear. (1)

aar-plenary-panel-cornel-west

Cornel West is sitting second from the left.

As I sat listening to this engaging panel, I was struck by West’s response, especially within the context of my wonderings on this blog about what it means to be a scholar who is rooted in practice. Rather than a scholar, West is a “lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy.” This language reminds me of philosophers as lovers of wisdom and mystics as lovers of God. I also think of the school formed by Claudio Naranjo called the Seekers After Truth, which began in the 1970s with an influential group of spiritual teachers.

The love of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy leads Cornel West to engage in ideas and with scholars. Scholarship here appears to be a vehicle for witness, for the living out of a love of truth. The identity of scholar is not important. Perhaps more of a role to play, or a hat to wear, than an identification to take into one’s personality. I do not take him to mean that the identification or role of scholar should be discarded, but rather that it has not been part of his paradigm, merely a sphere he inhabits while he lives out his love and witness.

Surrounded by almost 10,000 people this weekend who generally call themselves scholars, this is an important shift, I think. It begs the question: are “scholar” and “monk” merely spheres we inhabit while we live out a love for truth? A loyalty to truth? Also, West described himself as a lover of truth, not of knowledge. Is the love for truth inherently practice-based, whereas the love for knowledge is not? What role does the love of love/goodness/beauty/holy play for the scholar?

I’ll be checking in with more as the weekend unfolds and I continue to learn from my colleagues in this rich setting.

Notes

(1) I have not captured the precise wording of what Cornel West said, but I have done my best to retain its original structure and essence. For this reason, I have not put it in quotation marks.

Concerning Scholars, Part 1

A basic definition of a scholar is one “who has engaged in advanced study in a special field.” (1) It’s pretty simple. Study something long enough and hard enough and you’re a scholar. But wait… what constitutes a “special field”? Say, for example, that you have spent a lifetime learning the nuances and intricacies of torture. Are you then a scholar? Or just a sadist? Or perhaps your object of study is yourself. Are mystics, meditators and contemplatives therefore scholars as well? Mmm… not so sure.

These examples cause me to question the sufficiency of this definition, even though I’m quite fond of its brevity. It seems that there are other attributes required of a person to be scholar that are not covered by Merriam-Webster. Clearly learnedness is one. But what else? Does a scholar need to be dedicated to the common good? Dissemination of knowledge through writing and education? Engaging the public? Is there a moral or ethical component of being a scholar?

To sort this out, it might help us to step back a moment. Let’s take a look at a bigger picture and try to get some context, with the caveat that I am speaking from within the United States and from that perspective. Scholars are often also called academics, and together they make up what is called the Academy. This isn’t the Academy of Plato in Ancient Athens, the Greek name of which gives us our modern term “academia.” We’re not talking  about a specific place or group of people. The Academy is more like an ideal, a conceptual place where scholars and knowledge comingle. It can have a sort of lofty, ethereal feel to it.

sanzio_01

Raphael’s School of Athens (2)

But that’s not the only way people talk about the Academy in the U.S. A common metaphor for it is the Ivory Tower, a place where elites funded by the public write a bunch of stuff that nobody reads and have esoteric discussions on stuff that doesn’t matter. This description contains critiques of elitism, power, privilege, and control. It also contains a kind of expectation that the Academy do something that matters to people.

For the work to matter to people, it seems to me that they need to be able to engage with the work  in some way, which leads us to the problem of access. Most academic work (at least that which is most highly prized by the Academy) is published in academic journals which generally have absurdly high subscription and purchase rates, or in very small numbers by university presses. The highest quality teaching (informed by that work) is becoming increasingly inaccessible as tuition for higher education climbs.

This leaves us with a few closing points to ponder. Basically, a scholar is someone who studies something and knows it well. But in the U.S., there is an expectation that the scholar actually DO something with that knowledge, ideally something that benefits the many and not just the few. Scholars on the whole value this ideal, and strive to achieve it, but often get stuck in the mechanisms of the Ivory Tower.

Questions to keep considering: what is a scholar? what are the attributes of a scholar? what kind of product or outcomes are expected of a scholar? is there a moral or ethical component of scholarship? what is it? where does it come from?

Please respond with answers and comment! Next time we’ll turn our eyes toward monks and see where that takes us.

Notes

(1) “Scholar.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scholar.

(2) Wikipedia. Stitched together from vatican.va, Public Domain. Accessed October 20, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4406048