Lockdown reflections: transmission, transformation and ‘secular Zen’

Here in the UK, life over the past two months has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic changes this has brought to our usual way of life. Lockdown, social distancing, R numbers and the shortage of toilet rolls and flour have become regular topics of conversation – topics that were far from our minds in early March. Humans are extremely adaptable and those of us privileged enough to have a roof over our heads, food enough to eat and an income that enables us to access social media and the Internet – we have been turning our attention to online communications and delivery services. Businesses have discovered (if they didn’t already know) that online meetings can, in many respects, be as productive as face-to-face meetings in a room – with the resulting savings in travel costs and possibly, in future savings in office costs and other infrastructure spending.

Divergent experiences of the pandemic

In recent months across the globe there has been a dramatic divergence in everyday experiences. On the one hand, huge numbers of people have been fighting for their lives within medical systems that have, or have not, been able to cope. Too many have died, frightened and isolated from their loved ones – in too many cases victims of inadequate political planning and action as of the effects of a complex and relatively unknown virus. In addition, large numbers of people have lost their jobs, suddenly bereft of their livelihoods and dependent on state aid, food banks and the kindness of neighbours. On the other hand, vast numbers of people (particularly the better-off) have had time on their hands – time to pay attention to the natural world, to lavish care on their gardens and to reflect on the world we live in.

Many of those who live in cities have noticed how cleaner the air has become and most of us have experienced quieter skies and roads. Neighbours have got to know each other better and communities have established new networks of support and contact. Many are speculating whether these improvements can be sustained in some way, or if we are to return to our previous noisy and polluting ways. Many are questioning whether their working lives have to be so frantic and whether it would be better to focus on wellbeing, community and looking after our planet as our primary concerns – rather than chasing after possessions, profit and the exploitation of others and the environment.

Reflecting on empathy, compassion, and interdependence

Like most people I have found the slower, quieter and cleaner days to be a time for reflection – pondering on what is important and what is not important. The suffering we have witnessed reinforces our sense of the sanctity of life, the importance of empathy and compassion, and the interconnectedness of all phenomena. We have been reminded that we live in a beautiful world, full of precious beings and that our quality of life depends on how much we care for each other and for the world in which we live. Covid-19 has brought home the fact that we are all in this together – that working together heals divisions and conflicts, as it also helps us alleviate suffering – both physical and mental. Scientists in laboratories around the world are sharing knowledge and expertise to try to make a vaccine that might be effective in limiting the effects of a virus that was unknown even six months ago. While our interdependence has made possible the rapid spread of Covid-19, it is also the key to how we deal with it.

Impact on the Exeter Meditation Circle

In our secular Buddhist group, Exeter Meditation Circle, we have had to come to grips with the challenges, anguish and opportunities that ‘Lockdown’ has brought about. After a few weeks of reorientation, we re-established our regular weekly meetings using Zoom technology. Though we have lost the physical contact of being together in the same space, we have been able to see each other, to talk and to sit in a mindful silence that is calming, supportive and re-energising. Even in a virtual meeting we can feel the presence of others, share our experiences and benefit from each other’s insights and wisdom. As the founder of the Circle, I have been recording a series of short talks that, hopefully, provide food for thought and for ongoing conversations. Our discussions have inevitably turned to how we are coping with the current situation, how to negotiate the stress, anxiety and uncertainty we face, and how and what we can learn from it.

Mindful awareness of our daily experiences

In my own case, I have been thinking about the Meditation Circle itself and how we started it with a very strong sense of how we wanted it to be grounded in mindful meditation and in the sharing of experiences and a mutually supportive process of learning. Our focus was, and is, on this life – our daily life with all its ups and downs, shocks and surprises, messiness and mystery. Mindful awareness of our daily experience is our primary method for understanding, and coming to terms with, life’s pleasures and pains. Mindful meditation, including zazen, is not only about awareness and insight, it is also about minding – caring for ourselves, for others and for the wonderful planet that is our home.

On the About page of our website we wrote this statement:

Our aim is to understand how things are (Dharma) by paying attention to our own experience – learning to live in harmony with a world of constant interaction, change and uncertainty.

The process of awakening is a process of learning – in this sense we are all students and teachers, helping each other to grow in understanding.

A ‘secular Zen’?

As a retired academic, and still active artist and writer, I have often reflected on the extent to which Buddhist practice, particularly Zen, can be grounded in a creative, democratic and dynamic educational ethos. How can we develop our insights and understanding in a way that is mutually beneficial – taking account both of the disciplines and traditions of mindful meditation practice, and the developments in educational practice and understanding that have taken place in the past half century? This has led me to pose the question: can there be a ‘secular Zen’? This is a potentially controversial notion as one of the key features of the different traditional forms of Zen and Chan, as practiced in Japan, China and other east Asian countries, has been the concept of transmission of awakening from master to master, and the legitimising of authority provided by the master-disciple relationship. It is worth noting that this has been a largely patriarchal history, with all the issues and questions that this poses for a twenty-first century practitioner.

Freire on transmission versus transformation

One thread of reflection that I keep returning to, is the tension between two important functions of education, namely, transmission and transformation. The Brazilian philosopher of education, Paulo Freire, developed an approach to learning that he called ‘critical pedagogy’ – an approach that stressed the need for all agents within a learning institution, (students, teachers and support staff) to be considered as of equal importance in the development of understanding and practical wisdom. Central to Freire’s radical view of education was the need to respect all voices, opinions and views, counterbalanced by an equal respect for critical questioning – particularly of those with power and authority. So how does this relate to secular Buddhism and the idea of secular Zen?

Freire points out that there is a tension between considering educational institutions and processes as ‘instructional sites’ and seeing them as ‘sites for self and social empowerment.’ The term, ‘educational institution’, can be applied as meaningfully to a Buddhist sangha or monastery, as it can to a school or university. Education, in Freire’s view, has two complementary functions: one, to transmit knowledge, values and culture from one generation to the next, (or from one class of society to another); and two, to transform individuals and communities – to change, to empower and to liberate. Too often educational institutions act primarily as agencies of social, economic and cultural reproduction, reinforcing the status quo, legitimising oppression and coercion – neglecting or actively inhibiting the potential for social and personal transformation. Those in power use education as a way of retaining and consolidating power, rather than as a means of distributing power or of empowering others. The maintenance of power (and the transmission of knowledge and values integral to that power) becomes the ‘hidden curriculum’ that underlies the stated curriculum.

The emphasis on transmission within Buddhism, and the potential for abuse

Within a Buddhist context the emphasis on transmission of experience and realisation from master to master is understandable. Buddhists would like to be able to trace the process of realisation from generation to generation back to the Buddha’s own awakening. However, there can be no certainty that contemporary experiences of awakening are the same as those of earlier generations, let alone of the Buddha or his immediate circle of students. Undoubtedly, as in the game of ‘Chinese whispers’, accounts of experiences (and probably the experiences themselves) have evolved and changed over the centuries. All we can do is to compare contemporary descriptions with those of the past and note the echoes, similarities and reiterations that are indicative of consistency and continuity – though such similarities cannot guarantee or provide proof of what will always remain unknowable.

This method of validating authenticity needs to be seen against a backdrop of the power relations involved. There is always the potential for institutions, and individuals – including Buddhist abbots, priests and lay teachers – to be more concerned to maintain their own hierarchies and privileges rather than to liberate and awaken students. My years as an art educator showed me that over-attachment to a teacher or tradition, can severely inhibit learning, growth and realisation. I have also seen how students often become dependent upon their teachers and invest them with too much authority and reverence. This can lead to abuses of many kinds, and in recent times there have been a number of well-documented examples of such abuses within different Buddhist schools and traditions, including Zen.

The need for transformation and democratic sanghas

Within the context of understanding that all things are interdependent, Buddhist authority figures should be working to empower their students, to enable them to think and act independently, rather than to cultivate dependence and uncritical acceptances of their teachings. There are no formulae that can ensure a balance between transmission and transformation is kept on the side of the latter – but, teachers need to be sensitive to their own power and always work towards the awakening of students, rather than clinging to status and tradition as being of most importance.

In my view, Buddhist teaching and learning should be primarily concerned with personal and collective transformation and empowerment – trying to realise the Buddha’s aim of alleviating suffering. It is important to be aware that institutions of learning (including Buddhist temples, monasteries and lay sanghas) almost inevitably reinforce the instruction and transmission functions of teaching and learning – despite the rhetoric of creativity and empowerment they often promote. It seems to me that we need to do all we can to redress this imbalance of power and emphasis, by focusing on the transformative function of education. This means enabling students to have an active voice, to be questioning, engaged and self-reliant, and to be full participants in their own learning. In this way the learning process becomes one in which individuals, working together, can see into the nature of reality (dharma), and be awakened, transformed and empowered.

The Kalama Sutta: the test of experience and the crucial role of mindful enquiry

The Kalama Sutta is a famous Buddhist text describing how a community of people of the Kalama clan were visited by a stream of teachers, priests and ‘wise men’ who argued among themselves and offered everyone contradictory advice. Every time the community thought they had learnt the truth, another teacher came along and told them it was untrue. The people were confused and despondent and came to the Buddha to ask his advice. This is what the Buddha had to say:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is written; nor upon speculation; nor upon an accepted belief; nor upon unsound reasoning; nor upon assumptions and preconceptions; nor upon another’s apparent ability; nor upon the thought that ‘this person is our teacher.’ Friends, when you yourselves understand that: ‘These ways are good; these ideas are correct; these actions are wise; if you experience that these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ practice them and abide in them.

In other words, do not accept what you read or hear at face value. Do not depend on the understanding, or misunderstanding, of others, but on your own understanding. Learn from your own experience and test the accounts of other people’s experiences against your own. The Buddha advised that we should always test his teachings against the reality of our own experience and leave the teachings behind – letting go of the raft when we’ve crossed the river, not putting it on our backs and carrying it with us. There are many such accounts of the Buddha advocating free enquiry, learning from experience, weighing up for oneself what makes sense and what makes life more peaceful and less painful or burdensome.

The value of Zazen

Experience is the ultimate teacher – not the Buddha, a Zen master or a charismatic guru. Everything that happens – all our meetings with other humans and encounters with the world – are aspects of our experience. In this way we learn from everyone and every situation becomes an opportunity for learning and for contemplative enquiry. Zazen, and other forms of mindful meditation, can be seen as a lens or prism through which we can see more clearly everything that arises. The practice of mindful enquiry is also a space in which to learn how to trust our own experience, understanding and judgment. Certainly, for me, the practice of zazen over the past fifty-five years, has been my primary learning experience. Zazen has been my teacher along with all those individuals I’ve met who manifest kindness, insight, wisdom, compassion and equanimity – many of whom would not call themselves Buddhists. Not all these individuals are living. I have learnt much from historical figures within the Buddhist tradition, and from thinkers, philosophers, poets and writers who are part of my cultural inheritance, though not part of the history of Buddhism. This, along with the Meditation Circle, is the very inclusive and diverse sangha to which I belong.

As a largely self-taught, somewhat reluctant, sceptical, secular Zen practitioner, I have been very aware that I run the risk of wandering into cul-de-sacs and blind alleys, developing ineffective practice and understanding, and becoming too attached to my ‘own’ opinions. Self-deception and hubris are tendencies that I have had to particularly guard against. I long ago learnt that glorying in one’s own knowledge or virtue is just another form of attachment and is a hindrance to learning, growth and realisation. Occasional retreats, being part of a regular sitting group and studying the writings and learnings of others, have provided a critical framework with which I can examine and realise my own understanding. Zazen itself, the practice of mindful meditation, maintained over many decades, teaches patience and contemplative stamina. It also erodes any excesses of self-congratulation, pride or misunderstandings as surely as rain and ice erode the sharp features of a boulder.

Secular Zen can contribute to a ‘culture of awakening’

When we started the Meditation Circle, I hoped that it would provide a space within which those who were interested could meet as equals – sharing our experience and understanding – and learning from each other. During this time of anxiety, uncertainty, social distancing and critical reflection, I feel we have come some way toward realising these aspirations. In our own small way, we have been contributing towards an emerging culture of awakening in which all beings, and the environment in which we live, are valued and cared for.  In my case, this is a manifestation of a secular practice that is grounded in zazen – a form of secular Zen, if you like – and is part of a process of change that points to a positive way out of our current crisis. I firmly believe, that as we help each other cope with the vicissitudes of life under lockdown, we are contributing, in a small way, to the ancient Buddhist project of freeing ourselves and others from unnecessary suffering – enabling all beings to grow in health, understanding and peace.


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