abbot_laugh_small It is more than a little odd to quote one’s own comments, but please allow me to lead in with last month’s closing paragraph:

One of the many downsides of growing older is that you step on toes more. One of the few upsides is that it doesn’t matter as much. They are not going to be mad at you for very long. This I learned from my mom. Walking on eggs takes too much increasingly precious time. Please forgive me for my bluntness. Next time we will take up the matter of criticism in more depth.

It is sometimes necessary to criticize, so we often end up stepping on toes unintentionally, especially in a large community. As a person who finds himself in the position of leading a Zen sangha, I am often called upon to respond to peoples’ criticism of others. In doing so, I cannot help but criticize the person for criticizing others, by implication, if not directly.

In Zen, we are like a large extended family, and my formal students take on qualities in my eyes much like my own children, even grandchildren, with attendant affection. This is often an age-appropriate way of looking at the relationship, at my biological age, but applies even to those equal or senior to myself. Buddha was said to have come to see all of his community as his children, and not in a condescending way.

Zen practice has allowed me to see clearly my own mistakes, and to turn self-criticism into a positive force for change. I have seen with startling clarity, in retrospect, the mistakes I made, with all the best intentions, with my own children, as an immature biological father and husband. I have been able to redeem those relationships to a degree, and hope to continue learning from my own mistakes within my dharma family as well. As a dharma father, I hope to do a better job of my sangha relationships than I did as a biological father. And I hope you come to see sangha as your true family.

But the practice of Zen Buddhist compassion is an outgrowth of insight gained alone, primarily on the cushion. The practice of zazen begins with, and to some degree remains, critical self-examination. From time on the cushion arises the “mirror of Zen,” in which we can see ourselves and others with unbiased clarity. We see that we have the same, or even more egregious, failings that we might see in others. This is what the Precepts and Perfections remind us to do: criticize the self. Zen is not about developing and nurturing self-esteem, but rather self-control, in a sense. There can be no stronger criticism of the self than to challenge its fundamental reality.

This is why personal practice comes before communal practice in Zen. I ask for forgiveness for my congenital bluntness in the social context, as I often fail to practice the best skillful means, or tact, in dealing with immediate issues of personality conflicts. I am apparently not alone in this; I have heard that Katagiri Roshi once told his students, clearly in some frustration, to “Just shut up and do it.” What it is, is a variable, I think.

As we get older, we naturally lose patience with the social preference for avoiding conflict and confrontation. In facing the inevitability of sickness, aging and death, which we so assiduously avoid on the societal level, there really is no time to waste. This comes into sharp relief with age.

Merely titling this month’s commentary Criticism is likely to trigger a visceral reaction, dreading yet another polemic. With such emotion-laden terms, it is always a relief to scan a dictionary for a dispassionate perspective on their technical meaning. From the New Oxford American Dictionary conveniently bundled with my computer, we find:



1 the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes

2 the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work

Criticism, a critical attitude toward others (#1), has unfortunately become endemic, a hallmark of our culture, and trending toward the global. Public media, covering mostly celebrity, politics and crime (the highly filtered dimensions of humanity that their owners tout as newsworthy) are filled with constant harangue, finding fault with others and praising oneself at the expense of others. Some professional critics even make a good living specializing in criticizing other critics, like vipers in a pit turning on each other. American society thus has a long way to go to accede to the wisdom of Buddhism’s Precepts, or even to engage a public discourse genuinely intended for the good of all. We are, then, culturally conditioned to be other-critical, critical of others, usually as the first line of defense of ourselves.

Criticism as positive process (#2 above), also called critique, is more in line with the Zen way, and can be seen as a skillful or expedient means:



a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.


evaluate (a theory or practice) in a detailed and analytical way

Again, from April’s comment on Community Culture, in professional arts and design circles, key to the method is critique. It stops short of criticizing persons, instead focusing on the process, or the product, under development. The outcome effect upon the audience—in the form of words, images, objects or events—is its sole purpose. It can be improved by skillful critique.

Those unfortunates who find themselves in the role of “teacher,” whether it be in the context of Zen Buddhism or the arts and sciences, have an unavoidable, built-in responsibility to critique those who ask to be their students. It goes with the territory, but of course there are few good maps.

Early in my professional career, I taught graphic and industrial design, art, media studies, and general creativity on the university level. I have since learned more about the dilemmas of teaching from many of my Zen students who are engaged in the teaching profession, in different disciplines. One of the most difficult dimensions of their job, in relation to their students, is grading students on their performance. It is not only an onerous task requiring a great deal of time, but it also results in grave consequences to the future career of the student. Whether or not a given individual should be given a certain grade in a given course of study is not a simple issue. There are many gray areas (including hair) for the teacher, who has to find a balance between the measurable and immeasurable, quantities and qualities, of the person, the subject, and the degree of its mastery.

Students these days, at least at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, are even asked to evaluate—criticize—their teachers. Their comments can have a determining effect upon the teacher’s career. It wasn’t this way when I was teaching, thank goodness, or I may not have survived for very long.

In the case of Zen, the long- and short-term consequences can be as important to the wellbeing of the student as getting a grade in college. Self-image, perceived position in the community, et cetera, can be positively or negatively affected by the teacher’s recognition of accomplishments in stages of Zen training, or by the withholding of such recognition. Envy towards, and resentment of, one’s teacher or dharma bothers and sisters can arise, yes, even in the harmonious sangha. Sibling and filial rivalry.

As with a teacher/student evaluation of a critical course performance toward an advanced degree in higher learning, in Zen we can find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it is not a good idea to ignore deficiencies in training, and hope for the best as students mature, passing them to the next level for social reasons. On the other, it can be counterproductive to be too strict in demanding adherence to standards that are ultimately not critical to practice.

Seniority counts, but it is not a simple seniority based on time. It is instead a kind of spiritual maturity, which is very difficult to judge. Over time, it can become clear that an individual is prepared to carry on Zen practice in their daily life, regardless of circumstance. It is more complicated to determine whether they have the disposition to lead the sangha. We have seen many violations in this regard, as recent and historical sangha scandals attest.

As mentioned in last month’s comment, in Zen, the Precepts are our guide. In the use of criticism as a skillful means, the balance that must be struck is articulated most clearly by those that caution us against discussing the faults of others, and praising ourselves at the expense of others. Especially in refining a learning process, we must be able to discuss the behavior of others, but must do so without finding fault. Even more so with ourselves.

At this refined level of discrimination, only the person knows for sure. It is difficult to impossible to judge the Zen book by its cover. This is part and parcel of the self-examination of Zen practice. Inside monk/outside monk, as one visiting teacher put it. It is far easier to judge our own intent and practice than it is to judge that of others. We can be honest with ourselves, but must be careful not to use “just being honest” as an excuse for criticizing others.

In Realizing Genjokoan, his recent publication of an excellent and extensive commentary on Master Dogen’s essay, Okumura Roshi reveals another facet of focusing on internal, as opposed to external, practice:

In any case, Buddha nature was originally defined as the hidden, dominant potential to become a tathagata; it is inherent in all living beings. A famous analogy uses the image of a diamond covered with rock and dirt. The diamond represents the Buddha nature that exists in all of us; it is always with us but is hidden beneath the rock and dirt of delusion. One must therefore first discover the diamond and then remove the dirt and rock and polish the diamond with Buddhist practice. Only when a person becomes an enlightened Buddha is the true beauty of the diamond revealed.

Okumura Roshi does not say explicitly that this process of discovering the diamond; removing the rock and dirt; and the final revelation of the beauty of the diamond are all first-person experience. It is implied that when the true beauty of the diamond is revealed, it is not revealed to others, but to oneself. In fact, no one else can know for sure whether or not this person has found and uncovered the gem within. Therefore we should hesitate to judge others in this regard.

When we see faults in others, we are only seeing the “rock and dirt” that conceal theirs, as well as our own, Buddha nature. As long as we focus on the “outside monk” nature of others, we will never see through our own. As mentioned before, when we try to hold up the teachings of Buddhism as a mirror to criticize others, what shows up instead is our own reflection. It indiscriminately reveals our every defect.

Most criticism is directed to obvious elements that one can point to. We cannot criticize another’s wisdom or compassion directly, as we inevitably can only see the outer form, not the inner intent, let alone insight.

Again, a precaution against criticizing each other publicly—for insignificant details such as how one executes the protocols of service, one’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the buddhadharma, or generally boorish behavior—creating a danger of simultaneously violating the two Precepts aforementioned, plus a good dose of the other eight, by implication.

Master Dogen did not hesitate to criticize others, as is noted in the appendix on his life in Realizing Genjokoan:

Lately, a number of the shallow-minded in the country of Sung do not understand the purport and substance [of the doctrine of “All things themselves are ultimate reality” (shoho-jisso)] and regard the statements of ultimate reality (jisso) as false. Furthermore, they study the doctrines of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, maintaining that they are the same as the Way of the Buddhas and ancestors. Also, there is a view of the unity of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Some say that the three are just like the three legs of a tripod kettle which cannot stand upright if it lacks even one leg. There is nothing comparable to the foolishness of such a view.

Obviously, Dogen did not feel he needed to sugar-coat his comments when it came to defending buddhadharma. This scathing indictment of Sung China, along with his others on 13th Century Zen in Japan, find clear parallels today. Amongst these are the “new-aging” of Zen; the syncretistic tendencies of religionists who would like to ensconce all world religions safely in one neat container; and the promoters of “psychological Zen” who would marginalize Zen as just another arrow in their quiver of methods. A more subtle, but equally insidious, distortion of Zen, is the attempt to make it a vehicle for social engineering, or political correctness.

Historically, Zen Buddhism never seems to completely turn its back on society, despite its reputed predilection for mountain living. But it certainly casts a jaundiced eye in the direction of what passes for society. Matsuoka Roshi said, “Civilization conquers us.” If the main point of Zen is to help us all get along together, it is reduced to a kind of Confucianism, or some other “ism” du jour. The point of people getting together in Zen communities is not the reformation of society (though that may be a possible side-effect), but to provide an environment conducive to the reformation of the individual. This is one form of the perfection of dana, or generosity.

Most of these distortions amount to ill-founded if well-intentioned attempts to mount a critique of Zen, because accepting it on its own premises is very challenging. Zen is the “comfortable way” when it comes to its meditation. But its implications can, and should, make its practitioners uncomfortable. Zen cannot be put in a box. Attempts to do so, however well-intended and intellectually defended, amount to not much more than an evasion of its single-pointed truth that “ultimate reality” can be directly apprehended. This central message of Zen can be lost in mixing it up with other ideas.

In Zen teacher/student and student/student relationships, we are mutually engaged in a mission. Matsuoka Roshi remarked, “We teach each other Buddhism.” But he did not mean that all opinions are equal in Zen. It is an asymmetrical relationship, and Zen is not a democracy. Teachers may perforce criticize students, but students who criticize their teachers may as well find another teacher.

This may be unfortunate, but it is true, nonetheless. In discussion with my contemporaries, I have seen that they all take this position. We cannot be 100% responsible for making Zen clear, let alone palatable, to our students. Maybe 50%, but that is assuming a lot. The Zen student is at least 50% responsible for her/his own training, and cannot hold the teacher accountable for a lack of understanding. An old saying holds that if you equal your teacher’s understanding, you have only half their power. In order to equal the power of your teacher, you have to exceed their understanding. Obviously the teacher cannot be responsible for whether or not you succeed.

An even older teaching is attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha. He was confronted, the story goes, by a young student who insisted that he, Buddha, answer the “ten cosmic questions,” such as how the universe began, how it will end, et cetera (Buddha was known for dismissing these philosophical conundrums as irrelevant). The young man delivered what he thought to be an ultimatum, that if Buddha refused to answer, he (the young man) could not accept him as his teacher. Buddha replied “You are under no obligation to be my student; and I am under no obligation to be your teacher.”

If and when we find ourselves mired in criticism of others, especially of the local teachers and senior students, it may be time, and best, to move on. It is ill-advised to attempt to shape a sangha to our personal benefit, to imagine that it would be better if the community were organized along different lines than what we find. We must all attempt to leave criticism at the door of the zendo, along with the rest of our baggage, and take up the way of critique, most especially applied to ourselves. Or we better really know whereof we speak. It has been the hallmark of Zen succession that the students stand on the shoulders of the teachers.

Next month will mark a departure from this line of criticism: Don’t know.