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Mu Soeng - Dharma for Sale

Mu Soeng - Dharma for Sale

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Published by: Memento__Mori on Apr 16, 2013
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08/05/2013

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Dharma for Sale
Contributing editor Tracy Cochran speaks withBuddhist scholar Mu Soengabout the danger of selling the dharma
One Saturday afternoon in December, Mu Soeng, the longtime co-director and now resident scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre,Massachusetts, walks down a street in Manhattan,talking about the sheer force of American corporatecapitalism and consumer culture. This is like talkingabout the weather in the middle of a hurricane, because at this particular moment we are threadingour way through a tide of Christmas shoppers surginginto the side streets from the megastores on SixthAvenue, and pooling around the entrance to the open-air antique and flea market at Twenty-sixth Street.Mu Soeng, who trained in the Korean Zen traditionand was a monk for eleven years, speaks of the Zenimage of the old man entering the marketplace after his enlightenment: the old man’s hands are empty,and his expression is jolly and free. This is thesurprise ending of some versions of the
Oxherding  Pictures,
a traditional Zen guide to awakening told indrawings.“He bestows blessings with empty hands,” explains Mu Soeng. “He doesn’t try to grasp anything.He wants nothing. He carries nothing.”“Prada! Gucci! Right here! Fourth floor!” yells a young man who is balancing on a brass firehydrant, the better to be heard.Mu Soeng, the author of poetic and incisive commentaries on the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra,and most recently the beloved seventh-century Chinese Zen poem
 Hsin Shin Ming (Trust in Mind),
has spent the day teaching a workshop on the
 Heart Sutra
in the serene sanctuary of the New York Insight Meditation Center, only to emerge into the marketplace at its most elemental.“I think it would be possible to live like a kind of hermit here,” he says with a smile. “Not easy, but possible.” New York has hermits, we think. New York is a river of human possibility. On any given day, youcan see isolation and celebration, heartbreak and joy, anger and generosity, poverty and wealth,flowing past in quick succession. What you don’t see very often are willingly, reposefully emptyhands. This is the world capital of finance and marketing, of grasping and longing, of materialism.1
 
Even the destitute here push shopping carts piled high with stuff. The Twenty-sixth Street fleamarket we pass charges admission just to browse.I am with Mu Soeng because writings and remarks he has made in an article about the last presidential election recall the revolutionary spirit that prevailed in the earliest days of the tradition — and in the earliest days of Buddhism in America. He has written about how Buddhists, especiallyBuddhist teachers, can live skillfully in a culture dominated by a “corporate oligarchy” driven by“predatory greed.” His views recall a time when practice felt like a subversive act because it wassacred — set apart, beyond price. We settle in a quiet cafe and talk. — Tracy Cochran
You have said that Buddhists, especially Buddhist teachers, have no choice but to be outsiders,willing to speak the truth at all costs, and you have implied that Buddhist communities inAmerica are in a state of decline.
What I have tried to say is that very few places or teachers seemto be interested in the teaching of liberation. In most places, Buddhism is in danger of becominganother consumer item.
How so?
Teachers live in the marketplace, like the rest of us. They know how the game is played,and at a very unconscious level, at least, they want to play that game. Many of them have spent their lives in dharma communities and they seek the approval of their peers, yet they also want thesuccess, the rewards, that our materialistic culture has to offer. In the end, many of them allowthemselves to succumb to marketplace dynamics. They have to promote their books and attractstudents, so it becomes a celebrity game, because celebrity brings attention, it brings money, and itsatisfies people. It’s human nature to want to say “my students” and to have a lot of students. Most people forget that they began practicing for the sake of liberation. Teachers may now be playing thestudent game, the numbers game, the celebrity game.There is a famous teaching story. In the 1880s there was a monk who was so dedicated to liberationthat he had the meditation hall of his monastery outover a sea cliff, and he had a hole cut in the floor so there was a sheer drop onto the rocks below. Hewas very respected for his sincerity, and many people would come for seven-day retreats. Therules were very strict; people could not lie downduring those seven days. Two trained monksguarded the door so people couldn’t leave. Themonk would sit there watching twenty-four hours aday, and when he saw people nodding off, hewould shout, “Wake up! Wake up! This is precioustime!” Once in a while, when someone kept fallingasleep, he would get up from his cushion and dragthe person over to this trap door, open it, and justhang him upside down. That was his way of waking people up. I don’t know if it’s true, but thelegend is that sometimes he would let somebodygo. From his vast knowledge, he would see thatthey would not wake up in this lifetime.I don’t think this approach would attract many people in America, nor does it seem at all a realisticone in our culture. But it was a highly respectable one in Korean society within the context of Buddhist practice. This kind of unflinching and uncompromising commitment to practice was2
 
expected. The teacher was putting himself on the line to do his job. When you’re working with thatkind of pure motivation, it doesn’t matter if you have many students or if you’re working alone. Buteverybody in America seems to want to become a teacher in the shortest possible time. Then thecompetition begins for students and all the means to get students centers, books, mediaengagements — and this takes away from the purity of the motivation. In ancient times, a personwould become a monk and stay a monk for fifty years and not bother about being a teacher. Out of ten thousand monks, one teacher might emerge. Here, out of ten students there will be one teacher.
The hard reality, though, is that the centers have to raise money to survive, and in the thick of whatever else may be arising, there is still a genuine motivation to spread the dharma.
This istrue. But some of them get caught up with getting media attention, and it’s very sad to see whathappens to them. They get caught up in a desire for fame and for the wealth and comfort that comeswith it.
Getting caught up, as you say, with establishing a bourgeois version of a Buddhist lifestyle is just another way of being manipulated by the system. It’s like an addiction, though, isn’t it?
Itis. American Buddhists have brought a very sophisticated understanding of psychology, cognitivescience, physics, to Buddhist practice. Yet we may not have paid sufficient attention to our personalgreed, hatred, and delusion.
What do you think in your own background has contributed to your view?
I grew up in Delhi,in India, in a middle-class, devout orthodox Hindu family. But at a very early age I had some insightinto the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society all around me, and that sense of disappointment hasnever left me. Indian people can be very materialistic. I was influenced by Marx and theexistentialist thinkers as a teenager, and these influences segued into my Buddhist practice. I amvery conscious of the way that bourgeois society co-opts everything it comes in contact with.
What brought you to the U.S.?
I came here in 1969 because a close friend was coming to NewYork. We had thought of getting a car and traveling all around, and then I was going to go to Europeand enroll in a university. Once I got here, I was completely fascinated by the counterculture, whichwas in full bloom at that time. I really believed that the counterculture was going to changeAmerica, that there was a new consciousness that was the cutting edge of some new evolutionaryleap. As it turned out, it was a very fringe movement and it never made any real impact on themainstream culture. I misread the movement.
Yet you stayed.
I stayed, but not with any intention of living the typical immigrant life. One of my personal benchmarks has always been the question, “Why did the Buddha choose to live the life of a homeless person after his awakening?” He did not return to his palace to live a life of luxury as a philosopher-guru. I’m not suggesting that Buddhists go around half naked today, but it is stillcrucial to look and investigate the levels of greed, hatred, or delusion in our psychological lives. Alot of what goes on in Buddhism in America is about creating a personal story and an identity.Dharma centers can become social clubs that allow people to process an identity, allowing them tofeel good about themselves for a short period of time. I meet people who tell me, “I am a Theravada person” or “I am a Zen person.” But this is just another process of commodification, of packagingoneself. It has nothing to do with Buddhist practice. It’s a group sharing, a group identity. Yes, thereis some connection to Buddhist practice, but underneath it all people don’t really want to displacetheir personal and social identities or their inherited Judeo-Christian worldview. When Buddhistteachings are practiced authentically, there’s no choice but to deconstruct the inherited psychicstructures.
This is not an Asian culture. The teachers and centers have to hustle to survive, and it isclearly good and valuable to have retreat centers where people can go practice. So what is thealternative? To just let these places go?
In some cases it may indeed be appropriate to let some of the places go. I think your question contains the hint at the problem. If a teacher or a center is3

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