My last post “Authentic Vs. Inauthentic Performance” prompted some of you to send me emails. I would like to thank those of you who commented on the post as they help me in thinking about all of this. I have chosen three comments to respond to in this post. In all cases, I have changed the names of the Sangha members.
COMMENT: “Hi Manoj, fascinating line of thought, to quote Mr. Spock.”, Mufungo
RESPONSE: It may be “fascinating” because it is…”Most Illogical” to quote Mr. Spock. Mufungo’s comment suggests to me that she found my post to be entertaining or engaging to some degree and that she may also be doubtful as to whether or not what I said is true or correct. This is fine by me. Today’s “post-modern” society is characterized by a dwindling confidence in any authority (religious, political scientific etc.) purporting to offer “the truth” on some topic. Since the term “author” is derived from the word “authority”, writers, such as myself, are also suspect. I recently read an article called “Beyond Postmodernism? Towards a Philosophy of Play” by Robert Miller, who points out that readers should remember that what authors (including himself) have to say should be best understood as something to be “played with” rather than some statement of truth. ( http://home.vicnet.net.au/~exist/pdf/2001_December.pdf). Interestingly, he also suggests that this is exactly what is encouraged through Zen practice. Accordingly, I see my posts as being more like an art pieces than articles; where whatever is said is hopefully seen as fodder for “mind play”. Even though I’m not sure whether or not there is any validity to what I am thinking, I continue to write as if I know what I am doing; as if I was an real author; “faking it”, in other words.
An essential characteristic of
child’s play is a dimension of pretend—that is, an action
and interaction in an imaginary, “as if” situation.
COMMENT: Here is comment #2 from Makita:
‘To educate/clarify the teacher needs to make a point.
The student does not’.
Here is my response to Makita via email:
“Thanks for the comment. Not completely sure of the “point” but maybe that is your “point”.
Maybe you could fill me in when we see each other. Manoj
Makita responded to this via email saying:
“What I meant is just related to Buddha as a “performance artist”.
Every good teacher uses some elements of performance to make his/her point. We can add that when the performance is “sanctified” the essential point most likely would be forgotten. Maybe this is a link to the origin of certain rituals…..
RESPONSE: Here is my response to the second email:
In the first of Makita’s emails, I was not sure to which part of the blog he was responding. It turns out that he was commenting on another article “Buddha As Performance Artist” that was referenced in the latest post. Now I understand where Makita was coming from and appreciate his observation on the topic. I think that his last point is important as it expresses a key point in Thurman’s article on Buddha as a Performance Artist. In order to convey “knowledge” that goes beyond and can not be expressed in ordinary or “secular” (i.e. dualistic) language, one must use what Susanne Langer calls “presentational” (as opposed to “discursive”) symbols and this is where teaching and art begin to intersect. Certainly Zen has placed an emphasis on “presentational” communication throughout it’s evolution. According to Robert Aitken (The Gateless Barrier) koan study helps students perform using “presentational” communication.
COMMENT: (The last email came from Zen-Doe and entails two separate comments. Here is the first one.)
When I substitute the word “behavior” for “performance,” the idea of “ritual as performance” makes much more sense to me. Then, the phrase, “Buddha was a ‘performance (behavior) artist’ rings quite true to my understanding of who and what Buddha was. I think “Buddha as a performance artist” can be misleading and very confusing.
RESPONSE: I am guessing that Thurman chose the term “performance artist” on purpose to emphasize that Buddha had to be “artistic” in his presentation of what he had learned to his “audience”. In other words, Thurman was engaging in the kind of “post modern play” referenced by Miller (see my introduction above). As the term “performance artist” is a contemporary term, I don’t believe he wants us to believe that Buddha said to himself “I’m going to be a performance artist”. This was Thurman’s playful attempt to talk about Buddha’s use of upaya (skillfull means). In other words, Buddha used “presentational communication” to help the audience understand his teachings.
“Faking it until you make it” certainly may work for some personality types, but not for all. I’ve been hearing that phrase for 25 years and it has never “spoken” to me as a path I should follow. I’ve been recently reading about Jung’s various personality types and there are major differences between them in how they understand and interact with the world and their experiences in it. You having some (maybe a lot of) innate “performance” ability — along with others who may enjoy performing/acting — might be likely to find “faking it” a helpful approach to dealing with inner discomforts, but I doubt that would work for most.
I am not surprised that some people find all this talk of “performance” and “faking it” off-putting. But, remember it is just one perspective; one among many that could be used to talk about Zen and Ritual. I recall Roshi lately saying something to the effect that we should always remember that our opinions are only one of the many possible perspectives on an issue, and that we should be open to trying out (playing with) other perspectives.
The term “fake” has a negative connotation associated with it and most of us would not want to be thought of as a “fake”. However, I would suggest that all of us engage in the kind of actions described in the three articles covered in the post “Authentic Vs. Inauthentic Performance”. That is, we play roles in various social situations even though we are not convinced that our actions in that role are expressing who we really are. One example of this is when we take on a new role such as being a new parent or a new marriage partner. When I first started painting I certainly felt “inauthentic” whenever I referred to myself (or was referred to) as a “painter”. I certainly feel like something of a fake when thinking about being Shuso at The Vista Zen Center. In my first Shuso talk, when I referred to not knowing why I was taking on the Shuso role (and thus jumping into the abyss), it was due to my extreme self-consciousness about my performance and the feeling of not being authentic. in that role.
The first reason I posted “Authentic vs. Inauthentic Performance” is that I am wondering whether that distinction is very useful. For one thing, when we feel authentic it is because we feel that our performances capture or express our “true” or “inner” self. Well, we know that from a Buddhist perspective (as well as contemporary social psychology) there is no authentic, real or true self. In Zen, we are supposedly authentic when we are expressing our true nature (Buddha nature) which is who or what we are without the conditioned self concept that results from socialization. And supposedly this expression can be recognized by teachers who have supposedly also expressed this authenticity to those who conferred transmission to them. Often this expression of authenticity is displayed in the context of being tested by the teacher during Koan study. However, most long time Zen students I have talked to portray this as a highly subjective and arbitrary process. We can also look at the number of students who have gone bad after the authenticity of their expressions have been validated by their teachers. Also an article by William Bodiford (Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practices), concludes that throughout the history of Zen the criteria for transmissions have been inconsistently applied so that which student does or does not receive transmission can be best explained by looking to matters of politics and personal ties than evaluations of performances expressing students’ true nature.
The second reason for posting “Authentic Vs. In Authentic Performance” is that the “performance perspective” on ritual seems to resemble the ideas behind “faking it until making it” I am going to go in more detail in my next Shuso Talk but Dale Wright seems to suggest that this idea has been incorporated in Zen training since days of old. For instance he states:
“Ritual practitioners proceed in the ritual “as if” things were different than they seemed before entering the ritual. They imagine a state of affairs other than common sense would dictate and proceed as if something other than that were true. Zen practitioners engage in zazen as if they were enlightened Buddhas, and in the act of imagination, something really changes.” (p. 12, Zen Ritual; Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice.)
Is this way of understanding true? At first blush it sounds like a bunch of hooey to me. However, because of my interest in art, theater and music , I am willing to explore this new perspective to see whether I might find it helpful in feeling more “authentic” as a Zen student and Shuso. The journey continues.