Thursday, August 29, 2013

Power - A Postscript

Yes, this series has drawn to a close. The fracturing of the Missouri Zen Center community is complete. Osamu Rosan Yoshida has fought back the barbarian hordes and sits safe atop the throne-seat of his zabuton, to be joined by the faithful and the indifferent. The rest have scurried away, to sit zazen in silence wherever they might find it.

What a bizarre and unfathomable tale this has been – almost surreal! Would anyone else happen to have the refrain from that classic song echoing in their head?

Sometimes the lights are shining on me,

Other times I can barely see.

Lately it occurs to me…

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

 the Grateful Dead, Truckin'

Yes, and sometimes things happen that are just so bizarre and unfathomable that the only “logical” thing to do is smash an ice cream cone into your forehead, as does the Ice Cream Kid on the artwork of the band’s Europe '72 release. Wouldn’t that feel really good about now?

The Ice Cream Kid

Come to think of it, smashing an ice cream cone into your forehead just might serve as a suitable modern day equivalent to putting your sandal on your head and walking out of the room, as does the monk, Joshu, upon hearing the fate of a cat found on the temple grounds. Here’s the “whole” story, Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two, as told in the Mumonkan (Sekida, 1977):

Nansen Osho saw monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said, "If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it." No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in two.

That evening Joshu returned, and Nansen told him of the incident. Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked out. "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat," Nansen remarked. (pp. 58, 59)

Lest anyone find themselves repulsed by the brutal treatment of innocent life portrayed in this story, let me be quick to point out that this story is a koan – not necessarily a factual recounting of an historical incident. It is intended to be pondered from myriad angles before (hopefully, anyway) its “meaning” appears as eel-like insight, too slippery for the rational mind to apprehend. For now, though, let me ask just one superficial and na├»ve, but very pertinent question with respect to this present blog series: Why is it up to Joshu, or anyone else for that matter, to save the cat from the actions of the master? Is not the master himself responsible for the killing of the cat? And yet we are foisted into such circumstances all the time, aren’t we, in which we must choose either to act or not act; and if we act, how best to act; and if we do not act, how best to not act – for not acting is indeed an action all its own.

Another, perhaps deeper way to think about Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two is to think in terms of action resulting from karmic conditioning and action resulting from the embodiment of Buddha mind – the unconditioned. In the story, two factions of monks are quarreling – most certainly acting on the basis of their conditioned minds, their self-centered and egoic attachments. Caught up in their quarreling, the monks may very well not have realized how their actions were disrupting the unity of the sangha. It was only after coming face to face with the shocking reality of the cat being cut in two – just as the sangha was being cut in two – that they were jolted back into some semblance of sanity. Perhaps what Nansen wanted to see in order for the cat (the sangha?) to be saved, was at least one monk acting once again out of that unconditioned mind – as Joshu did when he put his sandal atop his head and walked on out of the room.

So, could anyone have saved the Missouri Zen Center from being cut in two? Could the board have acted differently? Could its teacher, Osamu Rosan Yoshida, have behaved differently? Could the members supporting this side or the other, or the ones sitting on the fence not wanting to take any side whatsoever have done something other than precisely what they did? Alas, it’s too late now for the smashing of ice cream cones into our foreheads in order achieve a different outcome. But, then again, it might feel really, really good!

Oh no! Here comes Nansen!

Notwithstanding the grim fact that the cat is dead, how might we begin to comprehend this bizarre unfolding of events? When death occurs it is a very human urge to try and find some meaning in life's passing. But what does any of this mean? Why did it happen? Toward that end we might attempt to examine this story through a number of different lenses – each affording a different glimpse, however imperfect, of whatever unfathomable truth might have actually transpired.

Lens #1: Might we reasonably contemplate the possibility that Rosan has begun to show signs of cognitive impairment? Indeed, such reflection will likely offend some people, but I actually think this is a very compassionate lens through which to examine some rather bizarre and seemingly inexplicable behavior: persevering with ideas despite evidence to the contrary, imputing malicious motives to those with whom one has been closest, engaging in extreme ideation related to the impending catastrophe from which the Buddha Dharma must be saved, engaging in obviously unethical and unacceptable behavior as if it were  business as usual… Of course, some are willing, in instances such as this, to chalk up whatever bizarre and abusive behavior a teacher might exhibit as being that of an enlightened Zen master – inexplicable when viewed through the lens of the unenlightened mind, but totally appropriate from a "supramundane perspective". Well…, feel free to persevere with such ideation if you so choose, but I will not.

Lens #2: I’m sorry, but this lens affords us a much darker image – that of a fundamentally narcissistic individual. I’ll leave it up to the reader to research the actual clinical criteria for this disorder, but here are some things to consider: Is there not a certain sense of grandiosity present in the ‘I am a buddha’ and the ‘only I know of the supramundane’ sort of thinking that undergirds many of this teacher’s recent communications? Is there not evidence of an obsession with power in this teacher reacting so extremely to…, not a hostile takeover from outsiders…, not an effort to remove him by unfriendly insiders…, but an initiative to make the bylaws legal by a board that has been with him for years? Is there not a presumption of specialness inherent in this teacher’s contention that only one who has sat as much zazen as he has and become transmitted in the Dharma as he has can understand how to keep the Dharma free from corruption? And what about the sense of entitlement that this teacher appears to display with respect to his being able to enjoy unchecked authority over MZC matters, despite the fact that the board and others do and have done nearly all the work, consideration, planning, etc. required to make and keep the MZC viable? Is it not also reasonable to wonder as to the apparent lack of empathy regarding the destruction of a spiritual community, the resignation of a board member under duress, the targeted removal of another board member whose dire shortcoming was being able to articulate well the facts of the situation, the accusations of lies and libel and schism-creation, etc.? And is it not also reasonable to consider the interpersonally exploitative nature of behind the scenes communications that are specifically intended to manipulate opinion with falsehood and/or affect a personally beneficial outcome – regardless of the spiritual harm done to both those enlisted as agents of aggression on this teacher’s behalf, and those who are the intended targets of such aggression? Wow, that’s a pretty dark image, isn’t it? But is it the case that the lens is a dark one, or is it more the case that we are seeing something that we’d just rather not look at so closely?

Lens #3: Okay, here’s a little bit brighter image – as seen through the lens of culture. Through this lens we see very simply that we have the authoritarian, patriarchal, hierarchical enculturation of a 70+ year-old Japanese-born male clashing with that of his much more egalitarian young American students. Such a view would seem to make sense – up to a point, anyway. It’s just that such a clash of cultures seems like it ought to be something that could have been worked through much more successfully than, in fact, it was, i.e. not at all. No, while this lens might provide us with partial understanding, it clearly leaves a great deal yet unexplained.

Lens #4: Perhaps we might take a peek through a little bit more complicated “system of lenses”, so to speak – that of the relationship between state and stage development as theorized by Ken Wilber in, for instance, Integral Spirituality (2007). Of particular relevance to our understanding of state development is the idea that, while we all have access to higher states of consciousness, some individuals have more developed familiarity with them, can reach them much more readily than others, and can perhaps help others reach them more readily. However, notwithstanding our familiarity with higher states of consciousness, we interpret these more transient states of consciousness according to whatever more stable stage of development we have actually attained (p. 90). And so it is that an interpersonal dynamic which might result is that of one individual who is perhaps more adept at reaching higher states of consciousness interacting with another individual who, though less skilled at attaining those higher states of consciousness, is nonetheless operating from a higher foundational stage of development. Says Wilber (2013):

[I]f your teacher is at this structural level – maybe mythic, maybe magic even – and you’re at rational or pluralistic or integral, then you’re going to run into trouble with every issue where these two values systems clash, and they clash on [just about] everything; they agree on very, very few things. And so if you disagree with your teacher, it’s taken as if you…, it’s your ego disagreeing with the enlightened master, whereas in fact his or her response is just wrong, it’s just at a lower level of structural development. (Session Six, Track 4)

We might also use this state/stage theory as a lens through which to consider two students who might have very objectively similar experiences of the teacher with whom they are working, but if one student happens to be operating from, say, a mythic stage of development and the other from a rational stage level, then the subjective experiences of each student with regards to their teacher will be quite different. For instance, someone acting from a mythic orientation might remark, when questioned about this teacher’s extreme behavior: “Extreme? What behavior is too extreme when it comes to fending off potential thieves of the robe and bowl? What behavior is too extreme in order to ensure the purity of the Buddha Dharma?” For those whose orientation is just a bit more rational, however, such behavior might be hypothesized to be the result of some cognitive deficit or personality disorder or perhaps some clash of cultural values. It bears noting here, that this integral model can be used to the betterment of all, i.e. to facilitate navigation of both higher states of consciousness and higher stages of development by all. Clearly, however, this is only possible IF all parties are knowledgeable of and open to such facilitation.

Are there any other lenses worth considering here? I’m certainly open to looking at things from yet another perspective. In the meantime, I think I’m going to go get an ice cream cone. No, no, no…, not to smash into my forehead..., to eat! And while I enjoy some nice Cherry Garcia ice cream with those big chunks of real cherry and chocolate I think I’ll reminisce for a bit. For, even after writing this at times distressing and dismaying account of what transpired at a place that I once considered my spiritual home, I nonetheless still harbor some fond memories of serious Zen practice there, even in recent years – engaging in daylong sitting practice, taking lunch and tea breaks on the back porch, enjoying the sunlight playing in the garden just outside the full-length windows. Yes, the board president was there, and the secretary, too. That board member who was prompted to resign after those stressful exchanges with the teacher was there as well, as was the member who tried to step in and tell the truthful story to the sangha at large, even when the board could not bring itself to do so. Others would come and go, always a pleasant addition to this core group of practitioners. Of course, Rosan was there also, and in silence concurrence was always easy enough to find. The Buddha Dharma seemed not to be in need of protection then either, only attention...

Thank you for staying with me to the end of this series. I understand that it has not been the most uplifting of reads, but I hope that it has nonetheless been good medicine in some way, somehow. I’ll be taking a bit of a vacation from this forum for a time. Please check back in another month or so if you’re interested in whatever new direction this blog will have taken by then. Once again, thank you for reading. Peace.


Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.) Weatherhill, Inc.

Wilber, K. (2007). Integral spirituality – A startling new role for religion in the Modern and Postmodern world. Integral Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Wilber, K. (2013). The future of spirituality: Session six – the future of spirituality (transcribed from lecture). Sounds True.

Rosan Osamu Yoshida
Image Credits

Ice Cream Kid from the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 album:

Temple cat amongst cherry blossoms by Tanakawho via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. After reading several of latest Crossing Nebraska posts, I have to say it's clear that the author is pretty upset by this matter, and somewhat obsessed. There is a lot of anger and hurt in these posts, but also quite a bit of judgement and arrogance. There seems to be some imbalance, to the degree that I am made concerned for the safety of those who practice at this center.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Julie D. There is much presented in these posts related to real events and real issues. Your comments, however, rather than addressing these real events and real issues are focused entirely on your very negative suppositions regarding the state of mind of the author. Most people will recognize this as an ad hominem attack. Please be more substantive and pertinent with your comments in the future so as to keep them from being deleted. Thank you. Mark

  3. It is my honest reaction to how these posts came across. The intention seems to be hurting others, tearing others down. With the degree of obsession and anger, it makes me very concerned for the the safety of those you are targeting. It is worth saying, you don't need to hurt others.

  4. Once again, Julie D., you are supposing quite a bit. It sounds like you only read the last few posts. Try starting with the prelude in which I state my intentions. Try also to consider the harm done to those who no longer feel comfortable practicing at the MZC. I'm merely a reporter conveying a story. So, about those REAL events and REAL issues raised: any thoughts?