How much truth is contained in something can be best determined by making it thoroughly laughable and then watching to see how much joking around it can take. For truth is a matter that can withstand mockery, that is freshened by any ironic gesture directed at it. Whatever cannot withstand satire is false. ― Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason
I have been observing a phenomenon in x-buddhist circles lately that cries out for further study. It mainly concerns Zen practitioners. I’ve seen it with secularites and mindfulnistas as well, though. But, given their history, rhetoric, and supposed self-understanding, it’s particularly curious coming from Zen practitioners. I wonder if some of you, the readers of this blog, might, in the comments section, offer some insight into this phenomenon.
(Before reading on, it will be helpful to recall that x-buddhism prides itself on being a vehicle, superior to all others, for attaining acute self-awareness, for destroying self-delusion, for the lessening of neurotic grasping. Zen in particular values the tropes of dismounting the donkey, killing the Buddha, not confusing a finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself, not replacing your head with a new one, and so on. All of x-buddhism speaks of the necessity of eventually “discarding the raft.” And yet no x-buddhist in the history of Buddhism has ever done so.)
To use a favorite Zen metaphor–the mirror–the phenomenon is this: A certain astute observer of Zen (and of all other “spiritual” systems, if you ask me) holds up a mirror to the followers of Zen. The reactions are various. Some glance at the image before them, adjust their pretty rakusus, and walk on. Some scowl, rub their freshly-shaven heads, and grumble, “that’s not how I look.” But some look, hesitate, turn their heads this way and that, and burst out a good old-fashioned Zen belly laugh. The response seems to span: “Ha ha ha. What funny satire! Wow, a little bit of it is actually close to home,” to “Ha ha ha, look at that buffoon in he mirror. I’m glad someone’s calling out his sorry ass.”
It’s this last type of response that I find in need of fuller explanation. How can this person not recognize him- or herself in the mirror? What tricks of perception and of self-awareness are at work here? Roshi, sensei, Jim Jikyo Jones, Susan Myoshin Smith, etc., understands enough to know that s/he’s seeing an accurate portrayal of some sort, and to some degree. And yet, something prevents the portrayal from really hitting home, from having significant impact. No matter how accurate a picture it is to a neutral observer, they always see it as a picture of someone else.
If you’ve spent time on Tutteji Dai Osho’s blog or Facebook page, you know what I’m talking about (links below). (I made some remarks here about the incisiveness and importance of Master Tutteji’s critique for contemporary western x-buddhism , so I won’t say anything more about it here.) A few examples should be enough to illustrate the phenomenon that I am referring to.
* Two robed (and stick-wielding?) Zen priests comment on a review of the book by one Ronin “Corn Cob” Tyrant Roshi: This Stick Never Fails: A Zen Memoir by a Fully Transmitted Soto Zen Master:
* On a page satirizing many Secular Buddhist/Mindfulness views–and elsewhere reviewing “his” book, The Mindful Marine: The Path of a Spiritual Warrior–secularite/mindfulnista defender of the faith, Mark Knicklebine (aka as author Mark Knucklebone), responds:
Mark Knickelbine said: This is really very funny. Thanks!
* Tutteji’s Facebook page is potted with responses to trenchant illuminations of Zen pretension, hypocrisy, commercialism, and outright silliness from people with Zen/x-buddhist names and affiliations: Ryo Chikurin of the Rinzai Hokoji lineage; Alan Senauke of the Berkely Zen Center; Hridaya Artha of the blog “Dans Le Sillage d’Advayavajra;” Adam Kō Shin Tebbe (仏門 晃心) founder and editor of “Sweeping Zen.” There are many more. Have a look for yourself.
* This example is particularly revealing, since it seems best explained as bordering on cynicism. Jundo, the “founder and priest” of Treeleaf Zendo, initiates a discussion of Chuck Genkaku Johnzen Roshi’s work (e.g., Biker Zen. A Trip Through Death, Sex, Drugs, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the American Dream ) with the admission (which I paraphrased above): “I actually asked around other Zen folks if they had heard of this guy before realizing it is a farce. A so so … sadly, sometimes too close to home … bitingly funny satire.” Sometimes? Too close? No. Always, and smack dab in your living room, Roshi. Anyway, white men with names like Enkyo, Shingen, and the gasshoing Koshin respond in ways that exemplify the Dance of EDE: embrace, deflect, evade.
* The most in-depth example is Tutteji’s post and the subsequent comments on “The Triple-edged Sword of Irony, or: All you can do I can do Meta.” There, x-buddhist teachers Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram responded to a request to write a blurb for a non-existent book titled Mastering the Core Teachings of Pharmacological Meditation. An Unusually Hardcore Book on Chemically Enhanced Contemplation, by Kenneth R. Lingam, M.D., Arhat. Both the title and the author’s name are characteristically brilliant, unambiguous send-ups of Folk’s and Ingram’s respective schticks by Master Tutteji. (Lingam, in addition to rhyming with Ingram, also means “prick” in Sanskrit, by the way). Yet, Ingram and Folk offer serious-sounding blurbs for the “book.”
Their responses are in good humor; they were not duped by the Master’s request. And therein lies the issue that begs for explanation. What could possibly possess the real-life human objects of biting, even damning, satire to embrace that very satire, and to do so, moreover, with a knowing (deflecting?) wink and friendly (evasive?) chuckle? Tutteji (paraphrasing Slavoj Žižek) offers some help:
This warm, cosy – and smug – feeling is fed on the assumption that ironic distance is automatically a subversive attitude. What if, on the contrary, the dominant attitude of the contemporary “post-ideological” universe is precisely cynical distance What if this distance, far from posing any threat to the system, designates the supreme form of conformism, since the normal function of the system requires cynical distance?
I can think of a lot of reasons for this Dance of EDE (embrace-deflect-evade). Smugness in the Dharma is one possibility. Spiritual narcissism is another. Simple stupidity, acquired or innate, of course, is always a possibility when devotees of “no-thought,” such as x-buddhists, are involved. Righteou$ money-making is a possible factor when the Dance of EDE is being performed by members of the X-buddhist Chamber of Dharmic Commerce.
Any other ideas?
 “Rev. Barnabas Billings, Jongbok Sonsa-nim is the Supreme Zen Master and Abbot of The Siddhi Institute Rev. Barnabas is a self-ordained Black Bodhisattva Priest as well as a fully transmitted Teacher in several Zen Buddhist lineages. He began studying and practicing Buddhism and the occult arts at the Black Rain Left-Hand Unitarian Lodge in New Hampshire under the tutelage of Revs. Szandor Zephyr and Jimmy Mishma Dodge…He is also a certified Mindfulness Coach as well as an inveterate student of both Jedi Arts and Sith Magick. In 2009, Barnabas received authorization as a Dharma Holder in the Korean Zen lineage, and in 2010 he received the ”final seal” or Inga (full and complete authorization as a Zen Master) from his Teacher, Bangbop Sonsa-nim, thus becoming the 82nd Patriarch in a highly prestigious lineage of Zen Masters.” (Tutteji Wachtmeister)
 Although he has been a target of serious, though of course very funny, criticism, Daniel Ingram can write on his Links page: “This is just flippin’ hilarious scathing wit: Tutteji! I hope we all continue to be able to laugh at ourselves and this is one website helping us do that.” I would ask Daniel. What is it about yourself you find so funny?