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Zen and the Art of Spiritual Bypassing: Rethinking a Western Culture of Discipline

BodhidharmaIn a Japanese legend, the great Dharma Chan(Zen) master Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids because he fell asleep in meditation. According to Chinese legend his main disciple Dazu Huikecut off his arm to convince Bodhidharma he was sincere and worthy to receive the teachings.

In the 60’s many of us new Zen students of Shunryo Suzuki Roshi took to the austerity of Japanese Zen with gusto. But many of us didn’t appreciate how the model of Japanese aggressive determination (inspired by stories such as Bodhidharma’s and Huike’s) would combine with our Western guilt and shame to produce some rigid and stern Zen students quite unlike our soft, but strong, disciplined, but delightful teacher. (Read my dharma brother David Chadwick’s excellent biography of Suzuki Roshi, Crooked Cucumber.)

Most Westerners I encounter think of discipline as harsh pushing of oneself, even abuse. Because of the ability to do spiritual bypassing, meditators can turn meditation from a heart/mind opening practice into a spiritually decorated denial system that breeds and justifies unkindness, compulsiveness, and addictions of all kinds.

Idealizing the legendary acts of self-mutilation of these genuine teachers doesn’t seem to help Westerns advance on the path. For us discipline is more rightly understood as “following with love” rather than “push and punish”.

When we make exertion  from love the actions are kind, yet strong, and can bear loving fruit. When we make exertion from fear and judgment, the nature of the exertion is punishing and the fruit is intensified shame  and self hatred, often proclaimed as the virtue of perfectionism or, on the passive side, the virtue of  uncommon and creepy meekness and invisibility.

Many of us in the first waves of American Zen had to work through this confusion – some of us made it, some didn’t.

One of my role models early on was homeless teenager. While many would come to the door of Zen Center with meekness signifying respect, and politely ring the doorbell, this young man would stand at the door and yell, “Open up!”

In my opinion, that’s the spirit to have! Approach the sacred place with full self-respect, respect for your own sacredness, and demand to be let in – no slicing and dicing or fawning required! No arrogance either — just genuine commitment to your own basic goodness which is one of the foremost tenet’s of Buddhism.

Good luck!

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