Zen Sells: How Advertising has Co-opted Spirituality
From computers to beauty products, Madison Avenue has discovered that spirituality sells. What is the sound of one hand reaching for your wallet? Todd Stein on the irony of enlisting spiritual themes in the service of materialism.
Enlightenment, it turns out, can be found in a jar. Just ask Lancome, whose Hydra Zen “skin de-stressing moisturizer” sells for $42.50 in most boutiques. Or, if beauty products aren’t your bag, test drive a Ford Ranger pickup and “seek wisdom on a mountain top.” Along the way you can “thank heaven for 7-Eleven” and stop in for a bottle of Evian spring water, famous for its “eternal life force.” Or “seek the truth” in a glass of Heineken.
Oh, and once you get to the mountain top, don’t be surprised if you run into a group of scarlet-clad Tibetan monks running Lotus Notes on their IBM laptops, two companies that were recently “joined in spiritual harmony.” If you can’t find any monks on the mountain top, look for them on the basketball court. They’ll be the ones with the shaved heads and the Nikes.
With so many real and fictional spiritual teachers pitching consumer goods these days—Apple nabbed Gandhi and the Dalai Lama for its “Think Different” campaign—you might want to cancel that trip to the mountain top and seek a guru in the local shopping mall instead. At least, that’s the message coming out of Madison Avenue these days.
Advertisers are hawking everything from burgers to cars by appealing, ironically, to our most immaterial yearnings. “Serenity Now” is no longer just a funny Seinfeld line; it’s the unspoken philosophy behind a distinctly nineties’ breed of commercial—the spiritual ad. Fielding an army of angels, enlightened sages and barely disguised religious figures, advertisers are hoping to cash in on the quest for inner peace by teaching us, as Chapman University sociologist Bernard McGrane puts it, that “life becomes radiant through consumption.”
“If consumerism is the religion of our day, then advertising is the liturgy and the high priest,” says McGrane, a media critic and author of two books on advertising. “It has the same all-pervading quality as the church in the Middle Ages. It’s everywhere. It permeates everything from the bottom of your shoe to the back of your shirt to the car you’re driving.”
As it preaches the salvation that comes through buying and having, advertising also is subtly changing how we think about spirituality and ourselves. Just as it did with sex in the fifties and sixties, advertising is well on its way to taking our highest spiritual yearnings and transforming them into the profitably banal.
Appropriating spiritual images and language to sell stuff is nothing new, of course. In the old days of advertising, Xerox used monkish scribes to sell photocopy machines, and Hebrew National hot dogs claimed standards for meat exceeding the USDA’s because they had to “answer to a higher authority.” But today’s versions of these ads are far more common and they reflect a growing interest in things spiritual that spans the consumer spectrum from bestsellers (The Celestine Prophecy) and TV shows (“Touched by an Angel”) to teen jewelry inscribed with the initials “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?).
In this case, Jesus would probably throw his TV out the window. Few of the rest of us do. By the time the average American reaches 20 they will have seen about one million TV commercials. For those of us who grew up in the TV age, those numbers add up to an undeniable truth: we have been programmed since childhood to seek fulfillment through buying.
No less a figure than S.I. Newhouse, Jr., chairman of Conde Nast magazines, decries the rising influence of Madison Avenue. “Advertisers have taken over the world,” the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair complained to the New York Times in August. Few doubt the industry’s lengthening reach—ads are perhaps the primary socialization force on earth. The industry is all the more influential because they are designed not to appear influential. The less we pay critical, conscious attention to advertising, the more powerful its effects upon us. And it can transform anything into a part of the consumer universe, even the anti-materialist creeds of spirituality.
A case in point. Flip through any recent women’s magazine and you’ll come across an ad for a new hair shampoo called Abba. A model with angelic features stands facing the viewer, her blonde hair tossed by a breeze. Straightforward enough, right? But a reading of the accompanying text hints at more. We’re told that Abba can “harness the healing power of nature,” and help you “rediscover how real beauty comes from within.”
Hmm. Leaving aside the question of why you would buy a shampoo to get what can only be had from within (what ads and Zen koans have in common is that they always defy logic), let’s consider the “healing power” of Abba. On closer inspection it turns out the model is standing in a desert. Her hands are opened palm out in supplication at her sides. She is dressed in a shapeless, nearly monkish black dress. The sun lends her a halo.
If none of this rings a bell, consider that Abba is the word for “father” in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is also the root of the honorific “abbot,” a term first applied to the desert hermits of early Christianity. The “healing power” Abba is selling will do more than cure a few split ends. It’s not enlightenment, true, but what do you want for less than $10—God?
“Most marketing books tell you to go for some real estate in people’s heads,” says Doug Gilmour, president of Gilmour Associates, a Larkspur, California advertising firm that specializes in New Age-style campaigns for health food companies. “I want to go after some real estate in their souls.”
Whether they aim for our souls or our karma (Finlandia Vodka and Volkswagen both hype reincarnation in their current campaigns), advertisers say they are simply mirroring the public’s current fascination with spirituality.
“We are not devious people setting out to manipulate you into buying something,” says Myra Stark, senior vice president and director of knowledge management at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, one of the nation’s largest advertising firms. “We’re people who try to understand what a brand or product means to a consumer, and the consumer either connects with that image or doesn’t connect.”
A consumer study initiated last year by Stark points to a less innocent conclusion. The study was designed to help Saatchi & Saatchi better understand consumer beliefs and attitudes about spirituality and their perceptions of brand names. After defining spirituality as “concern with things of the spirit, the values and the meaning of life, rather than everyday and material things,” Stark explains, the study found that when companies forge an intensely emotional bond with consumers through use of spiritual symbols, it spurs sales. Especially sales, she might have added, of those “everyday and material things.”
“The bottom line is, they’re all praying for good business,” complains Marc Balet, partner in Balet & Albert, a New York ad agency whose clients include Georgio Armani and Anne Klein. “It’s like seventies’ bellbottoms. They glom on to whatever’s hot now and in another three months they’ll have moved on to the Jetsons.”
It may be disingenuous of advertisers to claim they are only a mirror of society, when people pay $150 for the right brand name on their jeans and young women starve themselves to look like Kate Moss. But in hitching a ride on spirituality, the pitchpeople are definitely behind the curve, racing to keep up with the interests of their biggest meal ticket, the Baby Boomers.
As the largest group of children ever in America, the Boomers were targeted by Madison Avenue from the beginning. Not surprisingly, they grew up acutely aware of themselves as consumers. Today the youngest member of the former Pepsi Generation is 35, the oldest 53, and for maybe the first time in their lives they are staring death in the face. Or at least glancing in that general direction.
The result, predictably, is a sudden resurgence of interest in the spirit. While more and more of us are turning our backs on mainstream religion, our fascination with spirituality has gone through the roof. In the four years between 1993 and 1997, the number of Americans who said spirituality was important to their lives jumped from 58 percent to 75 percent—an astonishing statistical turnabout for such a short time span.
“The spiritual earthquake,” as Psychology Today founding editor T George Harris calls it, has sent shock waves through the religious spectrum, kicking up forms of spirituality undreamed of a generation ago. The current crop of spiritual schools reads like a self-improvement editor’s Dream Team: creation spirituality, Eucharistic spirituality, native American spirituality, Twelve-Step spirituality, feminist spirituality, earth-based (Gaia) spirituality, eco-feminist spirituality, Goddess spirituality and men’s spirituality, as well as the traditional Judeo-Christian brand and, of course, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and all things Eastern.
Advertisers, who after all are members of the culture, can’t help but notice the new fad. And what they notice, they use.
“Basically, advertising is just a writer and an art director in a room, trying to come up with hundreds of ideas to pitch to the client and hoping that one sticks,” says John Lombardi, a former art director for McCann Erickson who dropped out of the business to work for the San Francisco Zen Center. “They have to produce, so they use whatever they see going on in the world around them, and they don’t make a moral distinction between using swing dancing or professional wrestling, or Zen.”
But then, morality was never a big hit with advertisers. Author Thomas Frank established in his The Conquest of Cool that advertising’s great achievement in the years since the 1960s has been to incorporate the idea of dissent from the doctrine of consumption into the doctrine itself. So we find Canon naming its new camera “The Rebel,” and Burger King telling us, “Sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules.” As novelist Jonathan Dee put it in a recent Harper’s essay: “The perfect capitalist-realist hero (is) a ‘rebel’ whose dissent is confined to the products he chooses to buy.”
And what works for the rebel works for the saint.
The Dalai Lama peers beneficently down from the billboard beside the freeway. His gentle visage radiates not only his own wisdom but the wisdom of the Buddhas throughout the ages. He is at once a Nobel Peace Prize winner; the leader of the international movement to free Tibet; the human embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of Compassion, and a symbol of everything that is not greed, unbridled desire, and thoughtless materialism.
And he’s a spokesman for a computer company.
If you’re like most of us, you saw that billboard and your first thought was something like: “Oh, I love the Dalai Lama! Apple is so cool to use the Dalai Lama in its ads.” The subtext: Next time, maybe I’ll buy a Macintosh.
“What advertising has done is to co-opt our deepest yearnings and use them to sell us Rice-a-Roni, a house in the country, and the next fastest computer chip,” says Bob Whalley, an Episcopalian minister who teaches a class in spirituality and the media at the University of San Francisco. “They take our yearning toward humanity and transcendence and transform it into a yearning to buy.
“Whether this is comedy or tragedy depends on whether there are any absolutes or hopes in how we look at what it means to be human. If it’s okay for us to be just consumers, then that’s fine. But if we think part of being human is to foster deeper communion and community, and advertising precludes that, then it’s terribly sad.”
Advertisers, of course, would prefer we see their work as a cosmic comedy; humor is their weapon of choice. In a new print ad promoting the Ford Ranger SuperCab (“the planet’s coolest 4-door compact pickup”), the humor borders on ridicule of meditation. A young man (“Spence”) is seated with crossed legs, closed eyes, and an ironic smile in front of a pile of expensive toys—scuba gear, skis, a bicycle, an electric guitar. In the background, atop a hill, is the new truck, its interior lit by the same golden glow that outlines Spence.
The text reads: “Spence put a new twist on an old philosophy. To be one with everything, he says, you’ve gotta have one of everything. That’s why he also has the new Ford Ranger. So he can seek wisdom on a mountain top. Take off in hot pursuit of enlightenment. And connect with Mother Earth.... He says [the truck] gives him easy access to inner peace. Which makes him one happy soul.”
It’s easy to see why humor is one of the dominant tools of the trade. By laughing at Spence’s unrealized spiritual aspirations, the ad lets us impose an ironic distance between ourselves and our own decidedly un-enlightened behavior. The underlying message is: Forget meditation; the only thing that really counts is having the right toys.
The Ford ad illustrates how advertisers use the medium to trivialize spirituality. When the ultra-materialist Spence mimics a meditator, or when Victoria’s Secret parades a bevy of lingerie-clad supermodels and asks, “What kind of angel are you?” they aren’t celebrating the special qualities of meditation and angels. They’re using these spiritual images to promote ideas that lie precisely opposite the images’ original meanings. Thus desirelessness is correlated with materialism, and purity with sex.
Of course, sex was the target of the advertisers’ switch play long before they ever thought of trying it on spirituality. We have become so accustomed to bikini-clad babes popping up in commercials for automobiles and health clubs that we no longer even question the connection between product and promise. This objectification of women (and lately men) to sell products has transformed the “mysterium tremendum” of human sexuality into “tits and ass,” says Whalley.
Now he fears that we face the same danger with spiritual ads. “When the mystery of our spiritual side is turned into car ads,” Whalley says, “we lose our sense of the awesome. The world is actually both very small and very big; incredibly intimate and also awesome beyond belief. But when everything, even spirituality, is reduced to buyable terms, we end up with bite-sized chunks of possibilities that keep us from either fasting or feasting.”
Do advertisers see the irony in using an essentially anti-materialist message to sell us stuff? Well, yes and no.
“Sure they see the irony,” says Lombardi, “and they don’t care. It’s not a very nice business. It’s filled with a lot of soulless people. It’s kind of hard to embrace spirituality and be in advertising. Your client is Exxon and they just crashed the Valdez in Alaskan waters. Your job is to make that look good. Or your client is Ortho and your job is to sell herbicide to people in their back yards and you know it’s not good for them, not good for the planet.”
“The whole manipulation aspect of the business never sat right with me. Advertisers can get you to believe anything. They could spend their time trying to improve the world. It’s so powerful: they could really change some of the terrible things going on—drugs, guns, gangs. Instead, they’re trying to get you to believe spirituality can be had through buying things.”
Still, blaming advertising for all the ills of capitalism is a bit like shooting the messenger. One can almost—almost—feel sorry for the pitchpeople, always taking it on the nose for doing their jobs. And even if we can’t muster compassion, let’s admit that not everything about advertising is bad. Ads can be funny (Pepsi’s little girl imitating Marlon Brando). They can be touching (Kodak’s memorable moments). Occasionally, they can even help the spiritual quest.
Humans, after all, need a helping hand on the long hard road to self-actualization or enlightenment. As long as we know the food or the clothing we buy is simply a prop to help us along the path, we can use it in the spirit of Garrison Keilor’s powder milk biscuits, which “give you the strength to do what needs to be done.” This “journey talk” fosters a kind of manna-consciousness that helps us cross the spiritual desert without fear of starving.
Nor are all advertisers hungry ghosts intent on seducing us off the path. Doug Gilmour, for instance, is serious when he says he’s appealing to people’s souls. His “You are energy; energy is you” ad for Clifbar, the popular protein bar, grew out of his belief in “the mature male warrior ideal, and participating in the community in a humble way,” he says.
Yet even if it is not a vast conspiracy designed to trivialize or deny our spiritual motivations, the new spiritual advertising is certainly the product of a lot of unintentional small conspiracies. The cumulative effect of individual decisions by ad copywriters and artists vastly exceeds their expectations or design. Like news reporters whose reliance on government sources during wartime makes them little more than propaganda tools, advertisers have unthinkingly absorbed the nonmaterialist themes of spirituality and twisted them into a kind of Big Brother doublespeak.
Maybe the clearest portrait of the consequences of this new anti-theology appeared in the film Network, when the television executive played by Ned Beatty holds forth on his peculiarly Orwellian vision of the future. Raising his hands skyward and beaming with satisfaction, Beatty envisions a vast web of global corporations whose products instantly gratify consumers’ every desire, assuring that “all anxieties are allayed.”
Meditation? Wouldn’t you rather have a Pepsi?
Todd Stein is a freelance writer and former Sacramento Bee reporter who lives at the San Francisco Zen Center. His screenplay, “Chloe’s Way”, about a belly dancer who shakes up a stodgy Zen center, is currently in pre-production.
What Time is Now?
What Time is Now?By: “Clock time has to do with where we are not. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand.”
A great walnut grandmother’s clock hung above the mantelpiece in our living room when I was growing up. Its movement was governed by a pendulum and three brass weights decorated with fine scrollwork that hung down on thin cords. My father would open the wood-framed glass door and take a little key and wind up the weights from three cranks in the clock face. It chimed once at each quarter hour and then a separate set of chimes for the hours, so 12 o’clock was heralded by 16 chimes in all. It was in no way digital. Its resounding tick-tock and mellifluous chimes were my introduction to recorded time.
It was monks, they say, who first introduced mechanical clocks as a way to signal prayer times, but timekeeping has advanced far beyond such simplicity. It is a double-edged sword. It provides us with tremendous precision and the ability to do things according to schedules, such as the magazine deadline I face right now, and yet as we know so well, it enslaves us in arbitrary rhythms. With computers, we have evolved the notion of “real time,” which so far as I can tell means right away and fast, but real time as we experience it defies the clock. Time crawls or flies or languishes, in keeping with our state of mind.
The Japanese concept of ma refers to the ability to stretch and bend time according to the movements of a human body dancing. If we watch dancers adept at ma, they create time for us as we witness their movements through space. They are the watch face or the weights on the clock. This is time management on a grander scale than the proficient use of an electronic organizer.
Scrupulously measuring the passage of time presents no inherent problem. It certainly makes it easier to make a lunch date or to know when to show up at the airport, but when timekeeping develops into time addiction it can limit development of one of the greatest human attributes: timing.
Clock time has to do with where we are not. When we ask what time it is, we are not trying to find out where we are but rather where we ought to be or ought to be next. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand. When someone looks at their watch just as you are about to get to the point of what you are saying, it says to you, “I don’t have time for this. I am on a different schedule.” Their sense of clock time may be well tuned, but their sense of timing is clumsy and rude. Adding the “ing” makes time less a matter of math and more a matter of intuition and sensitivity.
Our marriage to the clock and the calendar can breed a false sense of knowing time and place. We know that we are of a certain age and have had a certain job and a certain relationship for so long and we know what day and month and hour it is, but the chaos that governs existence does not let us know when illness, disaster, or good fortune may strike to radically alter our current stack of reference points. We call this unpredictability, but nothing is more predictable than that our schemes and schedules will be disrupted. Yet we often react with panic and throw our sense of timing to the winds. When my father died suddenly, I raged against the schedule disruption, but in the greater scheme of things it was time to do something else.
Measured time gives the illusion of solidity and linearity, but a close look at our lives lets us know that events are much more fluid and hard to pinpoint. On what day were we no longer young? At what precise hour on exactly which day did our relationship to someone change its character? When did our child turn the corner from teenager to adult?
To truly be kind to others (and ourselves for that matter), it helps to abandon time slavery and try to notice what kind of time others are keeping, to notice their face and their gesture, to know when they are ready to say something, ready to be quiet, ready to come, to go, to be led, to be followed. So many times I have been unable to listen or to notice what someone was going through or where they were headed because it didn’t meet with my schedule. Patience and timing are inextricably linked. Patience, which we can regard with such excruciation, offers a hidden reward. When we stop watching the pot, we may learn that it boils right on time.
Sometimes my father would forget to wind the big clock, the weights would fall, and time would stop. We wind the clock. It does not have to wind uss
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication: http://www.victorycommunication.ca
A Time to Find Meaning
A Time to Find MeaningBy: “Even when disease cannot be cured, there is often a way to use this difficult experience to know more intimately the value and purpose of your life.”
It is only quite recently that illness has been defined as a function of the body. At the beginnings of medicine, the shamans or medicine men defined illness not in terms of pathology but in terms of the soul. In this older wisdom, illness is seen as “soul loss,” a loss of direction, purpose, meaning, mystery and awe. According to these ancients, healing required an attention not to the body but to the realm of spirit, a recovery of the soul.
Illness and suffering draw the soul and its issues closer. Much of what I know about spirit I have learned from listening to people with cancer in my work as a physician and from my own experience with chronic illness. These experiences have taught me that spirit is not just a human capacity; it is a human need. This seems especially true in times of loss, in times of illness and crisis. At such times, spirit is strength.
What then is spirit? Spirit is the basis for the value of every human life; it is the source of our dignity and the foundation of our experience of integrity despite bodily change. The capacity for spiritual experience is so universal that every language has its own name for it: the Atman, the Ne-shuma, the Ra, the Ru-ach, the Divine Spark. We call this capacity the soul.
The language of the soul is meaning. We may first discover the soul when life events awaken in us the need for meaning. In the setting of a chronic illness, even people who have never considered this dimension of experience before instinctively reach for personal meaning. Meaning helps us to see in the dark. It strengthens the will to live in us.
Many years ago when I went to medical school, the meaning of illness was seen as irrelevant. But we did not know much about healing then; our focus was on cure. But these things are mutually distinct; expertise cures but it is meaning that heals us. Many things that are beyond cure can still heal. I suppose one might even say that there is a healthy way to have a disease. Even when disease cannot be cured, there is often a way to use this difficult experience to come to know more intimately the value and purpose of your own life. An illness will mean something different to every person who is touched by it.
Experiencing spirit and meaning does not require us to live differently; many of us already live far more meaningful lives than we realize. Meaning does not change the particulars of our lives; it changes our experience of those particulars. Finding meaning requires seeing beyond the superficial to the essential, seeing what is familiar and even commonplace in new ways. When this happens, many people who have seen themselves as victims are surprised to recognize they are heroes.
Illness often naturally initiates a movement towards greater wholeness and perspective. As a physician, I have accompanied many people as they have discovered in themselves an unexpected strength, a courage beyond what they would have thought possible, an unsuspected sense of compassion, and a capacity for love far deeper than they had ever dreamed.
Through illness, people may come to know themselves for the first time and recognize not only who they genuinely are, but what really matters to them. In illness, people sometimes abandon values they inherited with their family name—values that they have never questioned before—and find the courage to live in new ways.
Often these ways are more soul-infused. In all the years that I have listened to people with cancer, no one has ever said to me that if they died, they would miss their Mercedes, even if such a car and all that it represented had been the focus of their lives for many years.
The capacity for spirit and meaning are present in all human beings. My experience as both physician and patient has led me to believe that illness is often an awakening to this capacity and a profound spiritual path. What challenges and even diminishes the body can evolve and strengthen the soul.
Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a clinical professor at UCSF School Of Medicine and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal and My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging.
This column is adapted from Dr. Remen’s foreword to Meditations on Diabetes: Strengthening Your Spirit in Every Season, by Catherine Feste, published by the American Diabetes Association.
The Teacher in the West
The Teacher in the West
Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts. Asia has Confucius; we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice: Norman Fischer on the teacher-student relationship in Western Buddhist practice.
In most traditional meditation-based forms of Buddhist practice there is a tremendous emphasis on the centrality of the teacher. The idea is that Buddhism cannot be learned from books, nor is it a matter of spontaneous personal insight or mystical intuition. In order to be liberated from self-attachment, the student needs to let go of self-view, and this is nearly impossible to do alone, since self deception is so natural.
It is all too easy to substitute a transcendental spiritualized ego for the garden variety; I have seen it happen. So the teacher is needed. In order to ensure that the practitioner’s understanding is really accurate, and not just some delusionary enthusiasm, he or she needs a contact point, a way to check. In some forms of Buddhism the teacher is this check, and even more: it is through the ineffable relationship to the teacher, with its devotion and merging of identity, that the transformation to be affected by the Buddhist path is said to occur.
But the transmission of this intimate tradition of teacher-student relationship from Asia to the West is not a straightforward thing. Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts, and they aren’t subject to explanation. Relationships are what we do and what we live, not what we figure out.
In Asia, although there may be a variety of ways in which students and teachers relate to each other, the basic style is generations-old and flows naturally from the traditional Asian family system. In the West, by and large, traditional family systems are no longer operative and, even where they are, the Western template is quite different: Asia has Confucius, we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice!
It would be tempting to want to throw the whole thing out as inherently abusive or infantalizing and reaffirm our strong Western sense of individualism and self reliance. But I do not think we can do that. We have to work it out. This will take time and a lot of trial and error. We will have to rely on the goodwill, wit and understanding of dharma students and their teachers over time, but we ought to be able to do it, as long as we are clear that the main point is the transformation of the individual, not the protection of institutions, traditions or personal authority.
For me, the magic of the teacher-student relationship lies in trust. Lately I have been thinking that trusting one’s self and the world completely and absolutely, no matter what comes, is the essence of liberation. This trust is achieved in large measure through our relationships with our teachers. Having confidence in someone whom we look toward as an example, as an inspiration, seems necessary if we are to do the hard lifetime’s work of transformation. And once we develop that confidence in another, even through all our imagined and perhaps not imagined betrayals, we begin to see that the confidence we have is actually in ourselves, our real selves.
I have found in my life of practice that in the end I could always trust my teachers—could trust them to be themselves as they actually were, not as I would have liked them to be. To remain trusting of them was perhaps the greatest thing I learned, not because they turned out to be perfect and all-wise, but because I came to realize that trust was my practice and my responsibility, not theirs. There’s one story of an old Zen master who was asked why he venerated his teacher so much. He said, "I respect him not for his great grasp of dharma but because he never taught me anything. And that was the greatest gift."
The job of a student, then, is to practice trust. The job of the teacher is to be as truly trustworthy as he or she can be, which means to be wise enough and well enough established in the dharma as to not be so easily caught by self-centeredness. And to be willing to show up.
In Zen there are said to be two ways of teaching—the granting way and the grasping way. The granting way follows the heart of the student, gently letting the student find her way. The grasping way emphasizes the absolute in all things, snatching away ego whenever it appears. This way seems more exciting (because dangerous), but frankly I wonder whether it is really effective with Western students. So far I have not seen many good results, and plenty of bad results. And I wonder whether there are any Western teachers who are really mature enough to use this method, or any Asian teachers who understand the Western mind deeply enough to use it.
There is a lot of interesting lore in the Zen tradition about the student-teacher relationship. Many of the Zen tales involve students and teachers probing each other’s understanding, sometimes in a rather rough and tumble way. This is a good idea. Teachers are said to occupy the "absolute position." This means they sit in the dharma seat; they are stand-ins for the Buddha. We give them this role, which they occupy on the strength of our faith, because we know it is of benefit to ourselves. But sitting in that seat doesn’t make a teacher into a god or a superhuman.
Every teacher is a person who is still walking the path. His or her perfection or transcendent wisdom is an assumption we might make for the purposes of our study, but we should never be confused about the provisional nature of that assumption. So it’s always a good idea to argue, complain, yell at, and challenge the teacher sometimes. It keeps everyone honest. Sometimes the teacher seems scary, and that is good as long as it is only sometimes. Other times he or she should be like a pussycat, just some old sweet person hanging around. The flexible ability to assume a variety of roles according to conditions seems to me a true test of a good teacher.
In Zen there’s also a tremendous emphasis on the independence of the student. Similar to the completion of the transference process in psychotherapy, the Zen student is enjoined to, finally, stand up alone, letting go of the teacher’s support. "Teacher" and "student" are ultimately seen as roles, as positions, not as fixed individuals. Sometimes the student is the teacher and sometimes the teacher is the student, and in the Soto Zen dharma transmission, this is enacted as part of the ceremony. In the Zen lineage charts the line of succession goes from Buddha, through the many generations of teachers, to the present disciple, and then back up to Buddha again. So each one of us, when we find our feet in the dharma, are not only the teacher of our own teacher, but the teacher of Buddha and his successors.
There’s also the often repeated notion that, "If the student does not surpass the teacher he is not a true student." I contemplated this saying for years but could never make sense of it: by its logic each generation must be wiser than the last, so a teacher in my generation would have to be almost a hundred times wiser than Buddha! But of course the meaning of the phrase is, "Each student must be completely himself or herself, find his or her own way, express his or her uniqueness in the dharma."
This is finally what the teacher wants, and if she doesn’t want that, then there is something wrong; she has more work to do (and this is a common failing of powerful teachers). Once someone asked a monk, "Do you agree with your teacher or not?" And he responded, "I half agree." "Why only half?" he was asked. "If I agreed completely then I would be ungrateful."
In the end it is not clear who is the teacher and who is the student. Yes, we must be able to see persons and harmonize with the roles that they occupy, according to circumstances. But if we really understand the teacher then we see him or her everywhere.
Here is an old Zen poem on the subject. The poem turns on the image of a chick (the student) pecking her way out of her shell (of ego), with the mother hen (the teacher) helping by pecking at the same spot at the same time. Together, their efforts produce freedom for the student.
The chick breaks out, the mother hen breaks
When the chick awakens, there is no shell.
Chick and hen both forgotten,
Response to circumstances is unerring.
On the same path, chanting in harmony,
Through the marvelous mystery, walking
—The Blue Cliff Record, vol. II, p. 109,
translation by Thomas Cleary
Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer is the author of The Narrow Roads of Japan (San Francisco: Ex Nihilo, 1998).
The Rain and the Temple
The Rain and the Temple
"Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. ‘I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it.’ Natalie Goldberg visits the tomb of her teacher Katagiri Roshi in Japan.
I just returned from Japan a week ago. I had never thought of going before. I had my own little Japan when I studied with Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master, for six years in Minneapolis. But when he died I had a great desire to see where he came from and the country that produced him. I should say, that produced the Japanese Zen that I was studying, but I had a heart to heart connection with him, and that personal connection is really what carried me. So I wanted to go to Japan, but I was scared. They didn’t speak English, I didn’t know how to get around, and their signs were in kanji. I had bought airplane tickets two times in the eight years since he died and then I forfeited them. But this time I decided I had to go. I had a friend who is a good traveler and she said she’d come with me.
Right before we went, I visited Katagiri Roshi’s wife, Tomoe, in Minnesota. I asked her for exact directions to his old temple. When his teacher died it became his temple. No one since had been abbot there. When I studied with Roshi I’d heard stories about it all the time. Only he and his teacher practiced in this temple. There were no other students. And so I got the directions, and this is how precise Tomoe was: she not only told me where to get the bus after I took the train, but she then opened up a photo album and showed me photos of the train station, the bus stop where I should get off, the spot where I should turn at the corner. And I thought, oh, Tomoe, you’re being silly, I’m quite sophisticated.
And so I arrived in Japan on a Thursday and we went to Kyoto and the following Thursday I got up my courage to go out into the country. It was pouring rain. Pouring may be no big deal to someone who lives in San Francisco, but I live in New Mexico, where rain is an auspicious event. You might want to remember that, next time it rains, wherever you are. But the rain in Kyoto scared me—it was flooding the streets. I thought, should I go today? And then I thought, well, I planned to, okay, I’ll go. My friend came with me. We wore our green slickers. The Japanese only carry umbrellas, and they think it’s very American and cloddish to wear these big plastic things on public transportation where you have to sit all wet next to someone else.
We traveled first in Kyoto on the subway, climbing four deep flights down. You don’t realize how deep someone can dig. Really, when you think about it, it’s a tremendous thing—a subway under a city. We took that subway to the train station where we would catch the train to a town called Tsuruga. It was going to leave at 9:31. Well, you’d better believe in Japan it leaves at 9:31. And that was really the only way we knew that it was the right train. It showed up at 9:31 and we jumped on. Then I asked people sitting in their seats with newspapers and box lunches of pickles, rice, sushi and seaweed on their laps, "Tsuruga? Tsuruga?" To get their attention I called out, "Hey!" But it’s not "Hey"; it’s "Hai!" "Hai!" I corrected myself and tried to act Japanese. Then I’d forget and say "Hey!" again. And they’d say, "Hai! Hai!" "Tsuruga? Tsuruga!" "Hai." Yes, we were on the right train and it was pouring hard and the clouds were dark gray.
In about half an hour we passed a big lake on the right and I heard the conductor announce, "Biwa." I looked harder—that was Lake Biwa, where Ikkyu in a rowboat at twenty-seven years old in the sixteenth century heard a crow caw overhead and became fully enlightened. I touched the window glass for a moment. I knew that lake, and even in the storm it was icy blue.
The train ride was altogether an hour and ten minutes and we got off in a little town. I thought Tsuruga was going to be a big town. We went to the small tourist station, but they didn’t speak a drop of English and I didn’t speak a speck of Japanese. I had the name for the next destination. I said, "Kitada?" "Kitada," they nodded. "Kitada?" "Kitada." I wanted to ask, "Bus Two? Three? Where?" I held up fingers. They pointed to two. After ten minutes we figured out it was bus two, leaving at 12:25. They wrote down "Kitada" in kanji on a slip of paper for us, so we could match it with the sign on the front of the bus. The buses, unlike the trains, don’t leave exactly on time—we needed to check that the lettering was the same. We found the bus, but it was 11:25. We had about an hour to walk around.
Usually in the U.S. I don’t eat lunch at the Greyhound bus station. But when I’m in other countries I’m suddenly wide open and we were hungry, so after finding the bus, we went into a tiny—I mean tiny, one small table width—restaurant. The waiter stood by us, pen poised to take our order. We pointed to something on the menu—we didn’t know what it was. The waiter spoke quickly with hands jerking and we nodded, "Hai! Hai!", and he shook his head and went in the back room. A few other people were there and they were being served noodles, vegetables, pieces of white fish. We weren’t served and the time was going by. I whispered to my friend, "I think he was trying to tell us something important and we didn’t get it." We had 15 minutes till the bus left. I screwed up my courage and ran into the kitchen and pointed to my watch and held up my hand—I flashed five fingers three times—fifteen minutes till the bus leaves, but what my motions meant to the cook I had no idea. I went back to my seat, and Michele said, "So it’s going to come?" I said, "Oh, yeah, he understood."
Ten minutes before the bus left he placed an omelet before us. We were thrilled it wasn’t octopus. We ate it up quickly and ran to the bus. I spoke to the bus driver, "Kitada?" He nodded "Kitada." Again I said "Kitada?" I wanted him to tell us when we got to Kitada. How would we know? But he just said, "Kitada." We sat down hoping that someone would motion when Kitada came, or that I would recognize the bus stop from Tomoe’s photo in the album. People on the bus were staring at us—we were further away from the city—these giants in green slickers with no umbrellas. And it was still pouring out, the kind of rain that hits and bounces. The bus was moving through the wet countryside and the road became narrow. People in the bus continued to gawk at us. Several times I ran up to the bus driver, "Kitada?" He nodded "Kitada." Finally everyone on the bus knew, Kitada, so when we got there they yelled in unison, "Kitada!"
We stumbled out into the rain, the bus took off, and we were left on the edge of the road next to a Japanese version of a 7-11 and a car mechanic building. Kitada? I looked for the picture that Tomoe had shown me, but there was no picture. We were nervous and then we saw a road. As soon as we turned we were suddenly in the Japanese countryside of rice fields, reeds and ponds. In the distance we could see a village. No shops or bakeries, just little houses and farmed fields. It was beautiful through the slate gray of rain. A heavy, powerful bird swooped down in front of us—a cross between a feathered owl and the royal size of an eagle. I said to Michele, "What kind of bird is that?" It was the only bird out that day because it was raining so hard.
We trudged into the little town and everything was closed down. The intricate flower plots dripped with rain. Over a hill I saw the Japan Sea and I remembered Tomoe saying there was a sea. And so we kept going, and finally there was a marker in kanji. I took a chance, "This is it," and I hoped I recalled it from one of Tomoe’s photos. Behind it we saw a mud path—the old entryway, Tomoe had told me. We both hesitated. Michele nodded, "Let’s follow it," and we stepped off the pavement. The earth was soggy, and we squished with each footstep.
In the distance I see a red tiled roof—I know it is Tasoin temple. There’s one person in a paddy field in the rain, working with a hoe. He sees us walk by, and he turns and I wave, and he nods. Maybe other people have come over time to visit Roshi’s ashes. The temple is deserted, no one to practice here anymore, once Roshi left for America more than thirty years ago. So it’s closed down and the little village takes care of it. They open it, I guess, for burials. I see a little cemetery and I say to Michele, "Can I go by myself. I’ll meet you." And it’s fine. It is a really ancient cemetery with stone buddhas and other things. I don’t know anything, but it is wonderful.
Then I panic. I came all the way to Japan. What if I don’t find his tombstone? I walk around lots of old stones and then in the distance I see a clutter of rounded tops. I know the rounded part signifies the gravestones of the teacher lineage for that temple. I hurry over and at the very end is a new tombstone. I know it is Roshi’s. It is still pouring but I push off my hood and then throw off my slicker. I prostrate myself three times on the wet earth and then I kneel in front of his stone. Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. "I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it," and I cannot say how good I feel to finally be there with him.
I look around. Two rhododendron, then trees I cannot name, but I can see them even now, dark green, tall, with drooping needles. A camellia bush, rice paddies, the Japan Sea, and the village. For years with Roshi I’d hear about this place. It was just him and his teacher practicing together. As a young monk, he thought that it was silly to get up in the morning. Why bother? So his teacher kept a schedule, got up at five, sat zazen, made breakfast, and then he’d go and shake Katagiri. "C’mon, it’s time to eat." And Katagiri would say, "Oh, I’ll just sleep late." And his teacher would be quiet and say, "It’s good to follow the schedule even if no one else is here."
Every day, or every few days, they’d walk into town to formally ask the villagers for food with their begging bowls. And every time it was just the two of them, the teacher in front and the student behind. When the student decided to come to America, he told his teacher. His teacher didn’t discourage him, but Roshi told us, "When we walked into town I could tell from his back that he felt lonely."
I remember the two of them as I sit in the rain in the cemetery. I make a vow to him right then and I pick up a single black stone and put it in my pocket. I walk over to the temple, which I had been told was locked, but Michele has found a way to unlock it. We take our shoes off and go in. It is a really old temple with a brick oven for a stove. We slide open paper walls, discovering spaces with tatamis on the floor. The final place we find is formal, with a large altar and a faded picture across the room—it must be Katagiri’s teacher—and then a little photo is tucked into the bottom of the frame, very faded. I step closer. I can make out Roshi’s profile. He must have sent it from America. I stand in front of it a long time, as the rain thunders down on the roof. I’ve come a long way to see this, I think to myself.
When we leave, walking down the road, facing the Japan Sea, I know this is the path he took into the village, and suddenly that brown bird swoops down in front of me and flies right back to the eaves of the temple. I follow him with my eyes and turn and watch him open and close his wings, calling to me, as he clutches the edge of the roof with his claws. I swallow, lift my hand, wave good-bye and keep walking.
And that one afternoon was worth my entire trip to Japan, to go and do that.
Among Natalie Goldberg’s books are Writing Down the Bones, Long Quiet Highway and Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World. This article is adapted from a lecture given in the "Buddhism at Millennium’s Edge" series, sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center.
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