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What is Stolen in Mappō Empire Buddhism? A Black-Pacific Meditation

What is Stolen in Mappō Empire Buddhism? A Black-Pacific Meditation

by Fredrick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd

You should study the green mountains, using numerous worlds as your standard. You should clearly examine the green mountains’ walking and your own walking.

—Zen Master Dōgen, Mountains and Waters Sutra (Sansuikyō)

As we practice embodying the time of Kaliyuga, Mo-Fa, Mappō, how are we to take up this great practice and the self/no-self? And in investigating such common Buddhist terms as compassion and wisdom and emptiness and kindness, how stinted do these become in a Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal stolen by the culture/times in which we live? How are we, then, to examine our own walking?

Mindfulness has sometimes been translated as a practice of ‘remembering.’ In practice, what is often being practiced is a phantom dharma. Remembering is very stunted without cultural history and memory. Life is just about ideology and emotions. No Time is present. Only the present is present, without past or future. If we recognize this, then perhaps there would not be so much complacency, ignorance and resulting violence. The spirit of investigation that Shakyamuni Buddha and other masters have suggested we do, is severely restricted by unexamined nationalism in practices. In so doing, the other forms of oppression come into play and even made superior. Buddhists often use terms like ‘simplicity’ or ‘child-like enlightened mind’ or ‘straightforwardness’ and other such ways to avoid the real fact of power struggle and history in everyday action and our sense of self and other in our quest to see through that duality. From the beginning this is delusion.

Iolani, Sapapali’i, Guåhån, Olongapo, Angeles City, Koza, Tokyo, Kure, Yokohama, Inchon. Kichij’on. Jedju-do, Seoul, Dien Bien Phu, Saigon, Arnhem Land, Seattle, San Francisco. Places of a so-named Pacific have had traditions stolen by, taken by, and forgotten and used by the dominant global cultures. In so doing, the people of places have changed in alignment. Or there is risk of bodily life, limb, and health when resisting dominant moves to annihilate memories of place and culture. Everywhere this is so. How do we respond to pratītyasamutpāda (co-dependent arising), as we embody it in Buddha Dharma Sangha?

In each of those Asian nations, as well as in the West (including Europe), the first translators of Buddhism were mainly the elites of each place, who were socially privileged (race, ethnicity, gender, caste, etc.). What forms of violence within the structure of dharma-language priorities, create-construct what is ignored or considered ‘Not-Buddhist,’ laying ground for the maintaining of the status quo and called this a magnanimous spiritual practice? Shakyamuni resisted orthodoxy. What ways do we create practice while we destroy? I venture to say that these are forms of stealing that we must face in the great hall of mirrors.

In the United States and Japan, co-linked in multiple and contested Pacific military security pacts, especially, we practice as embodied aspects of the mirror-hall of global north empire-lands. For myself, having been born and experienced life in occupied Japan into the present, as both Black-American and Japanese, have seen the differences and changes between cultures that collapse together cohesively in Japan and the United States, to create societies unable to think, unable to recognize, and centered around ease and comfort while practicing violence. The ease and comfort that we seek and maintain, matches the bourgeois security and comforts that empire seeks to internalize into us. It is planets away from Master Dōgen’s Ease and Comfort put forth to us in his teachings. Far from the Peace that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of. The trappings of Nirvana and the inability to face up to conflict and diversity and internalized notions of self and societies match up perfectly in ‘Empire Buddhism.’ In assimilation, stealing happens. How do we practice then?

Equanimity as a goal, can become a further practice of ignorance precisely because of its vision of balance being stolen by Empire (western metaphysical): balancing of the scales. It becomes a form of backing off, of repression, retreating to an inward-looking space. Actions become watered down. As alienated modern people, it is a familiar place to go. The mountains and the waters cannot be seen except when we are sitting in it or feeling it in a certain place. In this instance, the green mountain stands still, they do not walk. It is not only ‘human’ but social-historical. It has been taught to people in social engineering. But if we feel that everything is impermanent, what is the use of a ‘social-historical?’

When impermanence is made transcendental, then impermanence colludes with progress. Progress is a western idea used to colonize the brown bodies of the world. If these are not thought in Buddha Dharma, how is change and impermanence understood and practiced without examination? And without examination, does an idea not collude with an empire that assimilates people to itself, allowing for oppressions in the name of evolving, in the name of the unified nation with a single high identity. That single identity is usually aligned with the socially privileged, not those who have been systematically excluded, demoted, or killed with the shrugging of the shoulders in quick succession with the expression “oh well, they weren’t strong enough, smart enough, progressed enough, modern enough, buddhist enough.”

I feel that mindful action is stunted and fragmented in our efforts to follow some of the other admonishments of Buddhist teachers to simply do this, simply do that. However even more so, I think that Empire Buddhism limits its actions to person-to-person affairs and effects, as well as a heavy reliance on certain insights and awarenesses that are not socially relevant to fight oppression. Individualism has stolen our relationships with each other. If Buddhism thinks to become a missionary activity where the world comes on board, it still must face up to its own historical violences and wars as well as inaction and escape in the midst of conflicts. Since these are eternal questions of any part of living in the world, what then must we do in samsara and dukkha? I would say that skillful means needs to become more seriously considered.

For skillful means to be cultivated, the repertoire must widen to include our unexamined notions of life, of histories that have been stolen and hidden. Buddhism often hides from itself because of its adoption of certain tenets and perspectives at the expense of others that may be forgotten and refused. Often, Buddhism maintains its own internalized oppression and carries on quite ossified views of its own premises, forgetting the Buddha’s admonishments—not clearly investigating the mountains and the waters as skillfully as one may be able.

Are our investigations limited by our cultures and times, or do we limit our cultures and times ourselves? We and they, are the forgotten, the refused ideas, people, voices, communities that fall into the silence. At what point are dharma practitioners responsible for that silent space that meditative practices and our everyday cares and time alone cannot fathom at this moment? When are these silent spaces, not just that which makes itself clearly recognizable, a result of conditionings that we must see?

When is our need for security and comfort seen not as progress on the dharma but investigated as middle-class values that have been what we were truly hoping for, disguised as spiritual desire for enlightenment? In giving up desire and enlightenment, what place is history besides the morass of dukkha and the wheel that practitioners often easily relegate to ‘the same ol’ story’ and to be ignored?

Certain post-structural and decolonizing movements, as well as some artists and thinkers working from that wave of disturbing dominations in the present, have quite a bit to teach Buddhist practitioners in the empire-lands. Language, in religions and transnational migrations of ideas, steal and use to suit the purpose of dominance and how creative and powerful modes can counter it. What we must remember is that our practice is guided by our teachers, yet are our own.

When we examine green mountains walking, not making our own walking separate, what comes forth? I think to examine the blind spots of our own lineages and practices is quite useful in bringing vibrant energy to a very shrunken and stunted array of Buddhist practices now proliferating. Why can’t practice include the investigation of language-assumptions, to see the tendency of psychologizing or making Buddhist terms into colonial metaphysical ideas, and to see the tendency to either make ourselves middle-class or special and outside-of something.

In order to do this, we must begin to understand self as something more than a dharma practitioner and to realize ourselves as dharma practitioners within and without histories. Not taking and taking are conditions of living in Empire. How shall we live as embodiments of this delusion? In walking, walk. Green mountains laugh. The waters see. When?

Fredrick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd has been a dharma practitioner since 1983. His first teacher was Philip Kapleau Roshi at the Rochester Zen Center, as well as being one of the first persons in Colorado to be at the forefront of the original Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He received a Masters degree in postcolonial cultural anthropology in San Francisco. He is currently working on publishing his auto-ethnographic project entitled: Dream of the Water Children: A Black Pacific Memory Journal. He has been published in Kartika Review, Oakland Word, The Pacific Reader, and Nikkei Heritage (National Japanese American Historical Society Journal) and has been the subject of numerous interviews for numerous cable television, radio programs, newspapers and journals since 1975.

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Comments (5)

  • Richard Modiano

    Coming from the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism where meditation is considered a “sundry” practice appropriate to an earlier era, I was intrigued by the seeing mappo in the heading. In this latter Dharma age meditation and similar practices result at best in a temporary and fugitive glimpse of buddha nature, not at all in the realization of unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.

    From this perspective, skillful means in the original sense of the term is severely limited, so that a careful examination of skillful means would also consider the limitations of skillful means in the age of mappo. It seems to me that the place to start is with the realization that we are all foolish beings of blind passions (blind because we can them in others but not in ourselves) and proceed from there.

    With respect to Zen pratictioners, it should be obvious by now that meditation is no guarantee of ethical behavior much less of spontaneously responding with skillful means in any given situation. Only calculated skillful means is possible at present, and it’s not necessarily reliable.

    The class struggle is the daily reality of those of us who live in the current world hegemonic empire, and to the extent that one is aware of this struggle it becomes an anti-imperialist struggle. It seems to me that activity precedes consciousness. People are shaped by the activity forced upon them in a capitalist society. Consciousness is not best understood by taking a public opinion poll. A sociologist who took a poll in Paris in April 1968 could not have predicted the upheavals that took place a month later. Indeed, the people themselves did not know in advance what they would find themselves doing when that moment came. Activity comes first and in the course of activity consciousness changes.

  • Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

    Dear Richard Modiano and readers,

    It is very interesting to read your comments, and to see the issues that I raise in my piece, reflected in your comments.

    Competitiveness between the practitioners of the different sects of Buddhism are an aspect of all life, as spiritual practices and religious views are a part of all of life in diversity and tensions.

    First, it is interesting that you place your subtle comments regarding ‘meditation’ in the Zen sect in an evolutionary, linear construction, placing meditation in a more ‘primitive’ light. You also say that your views can be placed in the Jodo Shinshu view. I would say that these are perennial issues in the ways in which we construct and place our spiritual practices in a larger world. I would say that meditation continues to have value in spiritual practice. There are some Zen teachers who stress sitting meditation more than others. While others would say that the entire Buddhist pantheon is meditation. It depends on what the purpose of your words are pointing to. I choose not to make Buddhist practices hierarchical and as well as not making Buddhism evolutionary-based, where one’s own practices may be deemed superior or valid.

    Also, it is interesting that you point to how Zen meditative practices do not necessarily lead to ethical behavior. Of course.

    Not one thing can lead to all ethical behavior. Zen’s stress on Zazen–if I may use the Japanese term here to make it different from a general ‘meditation’ has never been about solving all ethical problems, although some teachers have tried. Not all teachers say the same thing in regards to what is important across the board. If one practices with the teachings on our shoulder, we understand spiritual practice to be highly individualized and contextualized and particular to the student’s understanding and the teacher’s understanding, if there is a relationship with a teacher or two. Nothing in Buddhism, as far as I understand it, means to be a panacea. The practices are myriad.

    Skillful means, like any single practice, is also limited. Of course.

    Skillful means, again is not a cure-all. In my writing, I never say that skillful means is ‘the path,’ or Zen is ‘the path,’ or meditation is ‘the path.’ My own feeling is that you are attempting to demote some of these ideas I put forth. My whole entire piece is a way to point to things. Skillful means needs more serious consideration. It is not a single answer to all spiritual practices.

    Meditation as a glimpse. Of course. That is what the teachers say. As the Zenist would say ‘seeing into one’s true nature’ is not a permanent space, place, or moment. It is a glimpse. Yes, I confirm and agree. However, its impact covers everything. And yes, like you say, it does not mean that suddenly one is a master or an ethical person. As you reiterate for us, there is plenty of unethical behavior amongst Zen practitioners. But why point this out? There is unethical behavior everywhere. That is why there is ‘continual practice.’ Otherwise, why would there be a practice, or a ‘Buddhism?’

    I say that we should bring gratitude for whatever brings to light our investigations into practice. Skillful means would include how we view our own practices in relation to others. Not every opinion is okay. I would go for the ones that the Buddha said would bring more insight, wisdom, compassion, mindfulness.

    For these to occur, we would need some skillful means. But these means are not an answer to everything. But I still think we need to consider *how* we do skillful means, *how* we do meditation, *how* we understand Buddhism. This, to me, is how we practice.

    Making one’s own sects and practices more evolved, or progressed than others, is a waste of time. Instead, we must look at the great way and enter.

  • Richard Modiano

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment Frederick.

    Your last paragraph describes my experience with Zen practioners when they talk about Shin Buddhism, and the discourse on Shin one finds in certain books and magazines makes the same assumptions about the Pure Land path. For example, virtually every entry on Shin Buddhism in the The Shambala Dictionary of Zen and Buddhism denigrates Shinshu. My personal Zen friends are receptive to a deeper understanding of Shin because we engage in face to face discussion, but outside of this small circle in my experience misunderstanding prevails (this is not the case in Japan however.)

    Why point out the ethical failings of roshis? It seems to me that every time a scandal about a roshi surfaces students are traumatized or ready to abandon the way. By contrast, a scandal involving a Shin kaikyoshi is much less emotionally disturbing to the Shin monto since the kaikyoshi is perceived as a man or woman subject to the same passions as everyone else in the sangha. The kaikyoshi and the monto are on the same level, the relationship is horizontal and not vertical as it is in Zen. The Japanese expression we have in Shin is “ondobo ondogyo”, fellow seekers, fellow travelers.

    I should add that while there’s no formal sitting practice in Shin there is mindfulness in caring for one’s o-butsudan, opening the sutra book, entering the hondo and chanting the sutras, not to mention mindfulness in daily life that comes with reciting the nenbutsu as a reminder.

    Please let’s continue the discussion.

  • Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

    Dear Richard,

    I do not disagree with your points. However, my article on practicing Empire Buddhism is not about making Zen higher than Jodo Shinshu or anything else. Nor do I mention how Zen Roshis are superior to others in any way. My practice is Zen, amongst other things. So this is where I write from. What do we bring to words?

    These are perennial issues in institutions. Between making everything equal and flat–where nothing is exalted or intense—- and the making of everything into a hierarchy and constant denigration and superiority, is the struggle of everyday practice in the (post)colonial. Social Justice and Nirvana. Very loaded terms.

  • Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd

    Oh, and yes. I think issues of disempowerment, searching and loss, spiritual seeking, and authoritarian and anti-authoritarian issues are a problem in the US. So it is with the histories of the events of the betrayal of ideals and spiritual utopias in Zen practice.

    I think these are inherited from the Western metaphysical ideas of Utopia coupled with a single universal Truth and truth-place—an ascendance. There is no ultimate circle. This makes aspects of dharma practice need the exact things in relation to skillful mindfulness practices examining internalized histories all that much more important.

    American dharma practitioners need to look closely at running away from authority of any kind and ‘depending solely upon oneself’ and its relationship to relationship to power and knowledge.

    In Japan, the relation to authority is different, since it has been a caste-based society through its own particular histories, grappling with the US-Allied Occupation’s legacies and issues of top-down democracy. These struggles play out in Zen institutions as well.

    What becomes more palatable is often quite disempowering.

    Thank you so much for this conversation.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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