Sunday, April 25, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 222: A Response on Lineage in Buddhism

This is a brief note this time to say that, on another platform discussion of Buddhism, I answered the questions:

• how important is the notion of 'lineage' to you personally?
• what's the 'point', or 'purpose', of a lineage?
• which form(s) of transmission do you accept as 'valid'?

I thought the discussion had promise but it seems to have ended.  My response was:

Here is where I often find myself alone in my views because I think lineage is a distraction from Buddhism. There is also a bit of danger in being misunderstood (or in misunderstanding) as I interpret the questions. I'm slow to respond in this forum, usually, and I'm not really up for a debate. I'm willing to take part in a conversation.

Addressing each point,

1) Lineage is not important to me personally. It's a kindness to the egos of others. 'I got this good idea from this person or book or school of thought' is a nice thing to say in the sense of giving credit. Even that part may not seem to make much sense at times but it's seen as polite. Socially, it's generally a good thing.

Lineage is counter-important when it becomes an ad-hominem argument used to bolster a bad idea by pointing to famous people who believed in it. One of the great strengths of modern Buddhism has been a willingness to adjust to discoveries in science. Arguments by lineage, which I have heard repeatedly, generally run counter to that strength.

2) Since I don't place personal importance on it, I see lineage used mostly for the sake of argument. That doesn't seem to be its only purpose, however. For some folks, part of the point of Buddhism is worshipping a historical figure. Lineage will naturally seem important to that. I don't feel that way. The ideas and warm spirits of Buddhists are to me the worthwhile center, whole and actionable in and of themselves. Meanwhile, I don't care how the 8th lama of some temple liked tea and so we should follow his example; nor do I want to hear that plants aren't alive because it is someone's traditional view, although I have been receptive to other lines of reasoning about degrees of life.

3) Transmission from guru to guru doesn't look valid. It's declared in many traditions, of course, but for me it's the most suspect part of them. I observe the transmission of good spirit and good thought generally; it's possible to have a meaningful dharma transmission. It harder to be sure, however, that over a distance of six hundred years and several thousand miles, a particular transmission was valid.

Transmission through a community seems more reasonable, as does transmission or lineage through "admirable friends." Communities do provide an important check on understanding and also, hopefully, support for increasing understanding.

Despite my agreement with this view of transmission, both it and lineage more often seem to be practical statements used in dealing with initiates and governments (i.e, "We're not just some guys living in a commune, honest. We're a serious monastery worthy of attention.") This is not a trivial point. Societies benefit from stupas and other formal arrangements. Governments often have to consciously permit those arrangements to exist. So I don't see transmission as being about spiritual attainment so much as it is another form of argument from authority. Again, that may be a practical necessity. Arguments from authority do tend to work well, after all, with the authorities.

Beyond transmission via communities, though, I see the declaration of transmission as being a practical statement to people outside the community, even if they are being invited into it.

Note: the questions above were posted by Denis Wallez and I feel that it may be worthwhile to save some of other parts of the group discussions, here or elsewhere, with explicit permission from Denis and the other discussants. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.23: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 23

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father: Parenting in the Neighborhood

After we returned to the United States, my parents held cocktail parties for their block in College Park. By the time I was eight, they had learned their lesson and stopped hosting them. Neither of them drank. The parties introduced them to the neighborhood but otherwise, didn't do them much good other than letting them discover that a few of the neighbors drank to excess and most of them disagreed with our family politics.

One night, a woman with short, light brown hair who had appeared at our parties burst through our front door and screamed, "He's going to kill me." She rushed down the stairs and out through the back. After her, through the still-open door, ran her husband with an axe. He roared after her, almost stumbling and stabbing himself with the axe blade as he bounded down the carpeted stairs.

Then she circled around. They ran through a second time. At that point, my father had the sense to shut and lock the front door. He did the same to the back door although my mother worried aloud about the woman and whether we could shelter her somehow. She belonged to the heavy-drinking, conservative neighbors in the house behind us. Fortunately, she escaped that night and returned to her husband the next morning to make him breakfast.

That wasn't an unusual incident for the couple. The neighbors in back of us drank and fought about two days out of three. So did other couples on the block. We saw our share of their conflicts. In retrospect, I understand that our little development on Patricia Court and Mezzerot Road housed a mix of academics in single-family homes, yet also it gave homes to mechanics, plumbers, and electricians, and then a few folks who would have to be called nearly-broke although they had somehow afforded a house alongside everyone else. That was a major difference in those days, the fact that a family on a single disability income could own a home or at least a mortgage with reasonable terms.

Another difference between that age and nowadays is how the adults in the neighborhood shared their child-raising duties. Some of them had permission to administer corporal punishments. Others, really all of them, were expected to rat out misbehavior in children when it happened, which was nearly every day.

Lots of people have written about this so I'll only touch upon the wrinkle that mostly is not addressed. My parents were liberal (pushing for civil rights, supporting women in the workplace, and fighting the war on poverty). Most of the neighborhood was not. That led to some of the adults in the neighborhood trying to raise me with their values. They explained their theories on race, which they felt were more accurate than my parents' naive beliefs.

This is hard for people to picture nowadays. Some adults in the neighborhood pulled me aside although I was a boy of six, seven, or eight years old, to explain that I was black (because I was Irish) or low-white (again, Irish) or that Italians were black.

One of these was the man who had entertained me at Halloween by frying up a pan of spare change and throwing the contents into the street. Kids rushed to pick up the change and burned their fingers. Within about twenty seconds, though, most of the children realized the right thing to do was stomp on the coins you wanted. If you waited half a minute, they would cool down. For the younger ones, that meant the big kids couldn't steal your change. It was a pretty fair game. The biggest kids stomped on the quarters. But the younger ones got dimes and nickels. Toddlers scooped up warm pennies.

The other adults in the neighborhood made that fellow stop his trick after a few years. In retrospect, it was probably the wrong move. Not only did no one get seriously hurt but all of the kids learned to be clever. It was not a bad lesson.

The same man, though, was one of those who had to explain his ideas about races. He ranked groups, top to bottom, and kept up a criticism of his own ranking system as he explained it because I did not contribute to conversation. I was waiting, as most kids did, for the adults to finish rambling and give me permission to leave. His ranking ideas were a lot like the others and so, at the top, were the English. Following them in order were the Dutch, Swedish, Germans ("They would be higher but they keep on losing wars"), French, Spanish, low whites, Armenians, colored people, and Jews - these last four being an indistinguishable mass to him. This was how a lot of people thought and, although I'm glad I don't hear such rankings nowadays, I'm not sure that our loss memory about it is good. Our neighborhood, and many others, felt divided along the ethnic lines of Europe. I suspect that the divisions are with us still while the causes have been forgotten.

On top of this, one of the mothers on the block explained that mixed marriage was a sin. She meant Irish and Italians. That was the type of mixed marriage that gripped our neighborhood. At least three adults lectured me about how wrong it was and how the race-mixing would end in tragedy.

One time, an adult stopped me to explain something and I waited, not listening. I was thinking about snakes, then pennies, then frogs. My attention returned for a moment when I heard him say, "Well, you're basically all right because of your mom. You're half English."

At that moment, my brain achieved something it didn't do often back then: it replayed the previous monologue where the grownup had explained how terrible it was to be Irish. He had told me that my father was Irish. Burning with curiosity, I made a mental note to tell my father.

When I got home, I found my parents in the kitchen. I managed to relay to my father the exact words that had been said about the Irish. (I don't remember them now.) Then I watched as his pale skin slowly turned light pink and finally hot pink. He couldn't get any words out. He stomped around the kitchen.

When he regained his composure, he said, "Do you know what those words mean? Never mind." He waved off the idea looking at my blank expression. "Don't ever talk to that man again."

Scenes like this, I think, are why child-raising by neighbors was bound to die out.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.22: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 22

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Father

My father said, "Every parent has an age they're best at," and he meant it seriously. That still feels to me like a line that should be followed by a joke (e.g., "Mine is just after grad school"). If it's true, and I think it's not, he was probably his best as a parent when we were young.

He followed through with his ideas about Skinner's research. He exposed us to as many activities as he could afford and, through the virtue of community centers, that was a lot. We children took swimming lessons, wrestling, and tumbling. We played pick-up baseball games, kick the can, and tennis. He and my mother tutored us early on, in math and in reading, so that we could manage simple books in nursery school.

One evening, he passed by as I read to my mother. My mother had gotten me to enjoy Go Dog Go, Hop on Pop, Are You My Mother, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, The Big Honey Hunt, and similar books. At some point in our family evening ritual, I switched from listening to my mother to reading to her. My father caught me reciting the pages before turning them. He realized that I had done a lot of memorizing and teased me about it. He made me read them backwards. But it was still a good head start that they gave.

My father's ideas were good but the problems in them are paralleled in the current generation of super-parenting or tiger-parenting families. The Skinner concept of "you can train your child to do anything" is a powerful one. It works. It also highlights some human limits.

One of the consequences of over-parenting is that it removes children from solving problems on their own. It prevents them from inventing games and gives them no time for outdoor exploring. Given my father's philosophy, I grew up in a lucky time, the start of what would be called Generation X. Super-parenting at that point meant learning foreign languages or odd sports. That's what we did, not always well, and meanwhile we did normal things like chase snakes in the woods, defend ourselves from bigger kids, hunt mean dogs with pointed sticks, and crash into one another with bicycles. We also wheedled our way into neighborhood kickball and baseball games.

To my father, a campus protest at the University of Maryland over the continuation of the Vietnam War meant an inconvenience or an argument with the neighbors, many of whom supported the war. To me and my younger brother, it meant a chance to run across the field to Route 1 and beg the people in the traffic jam to play frisbee with us. They did.

It was an age of hands-off parenting. It matched well with my parents, who were teachers and very much hands-on.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.21: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 21

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance for His Uncle

There are odd bits of history in the scrapbooks made by Jack Light - restaurant menus, poems, letters from politicians greeting his ship, notes from basketball coaches scrimmaging against the ship's team, cartoons, and more. For most of his career, Jack served on the First Contact radio watch.

I notice that my father decided to join a signal company in the US Army, a parallel choice that seems likely to have been influenced by his life with Jack. At the least, it's an odd coincidence that Jack knew morse code and that my father learned it, too, in order to write down the North Korean messages.

Most of Jack's sailing career took place before my father was born. In his scrapbooks, he pasted his re-certifications in the new-fangled technology of radio. Radioman certification didn't even start until 1921 but in one of his early entries, already Jack was re-certifying. In another scrapbook entry, he included U.S.S. Asheville logs from 1926 including his account of surviving a direct hit by a typhoon. Later, he added his Vibroplex Key Certification, which demonstrated that he was a Morse Code operator for his ship.

He saved a lock of hair from a woman, leave passes, and Chinese money that he could afford to paste into the book. He last visited the Chinese ports about a year before the Japanese invaded them.

Later, as he continued sailing around the world, Jack visited France. He spent time in Hamburg, Germany, a city that could only have been accessible if his ship sailed up the Elbe. Years later, my father taught at the Army base in Hamburg. I went to nursery school there. But Jack got there before us.

After all of his travels, though, Jack retired from ship life and settled down in Baltimore. He started a new life there. Then, when his sister's family turned homeless again as well as fatherless, he rented a car and drove to Elmira, New York.