There is a history of domination. The history of domination is the history of kings, generals, wars, armies, conquests – what often simply goes by the name “history.” The history of domination is about the power of certain men, and occasionally women, who garnered enough loyalty from others to coerce further others to give their loyalty, or at least obedience. Structures of loyalty and coercion form, and the most powerful such structure in a given geography is that region’s de facto government. The history of domination is about which governments extend their power over what areas of the earth’s surface at what times.
There is a history of resistance to domination. For as long as there has been domination, people have been defending and rebelling against it. Freedom from domination often amounts to freedom to dominate. Thus, part of the motivation for resisting oppressors is to become one: per cliché, today’s rebel leader is tomorrow’s tyrant. The Magna Carta of 1215 was not about the freedoms of peasants, but about barons resenting that the king’s domination interfered with their own. Thus, the history of resistance folds back into the history of domination.
There are traditions of liberation from reactivity. Reactivity comes from the needs of resistance to domination. Greed is zeal in securing goods against appropriation by actual or potential dominators. At times, such zeal is functional. Anger is energy for rising up against oppression. Hatred keeps that energy directed at the actual or potential dominators to be resisted. Delusion is a narrow focus on threats or benefits to one’s safety and security – which is just the focus to have when, as in the midst of fighting a rebellion, threats are everywhere. These reactive emotions arise to protect us, but when we don’t need that protection, they are counterproductive. Like the rebel leader who becomes the new tyrant, reactivity itself can be the dominator. The world’s religious, spiritual, and, more recently, therapeutic traditions offer ways, some more effective than others, to address reactivity – called sin in the Abrahamic faiths -- and liberate ourselves from its tyranny.
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I am a US American and a Zen practitioner. As a US American, I have been formed by a history of domination and of resistance to domination, including American traditions of dissent and critique. As a Zen practitioner for 18 years, I’ve also been shaped by a tradition of liberation. The history of dominance is embodied in America’s European invaders and their descendants. The tradition of liberation is embodied in Tang Dynasty Chan masters: the semi-fictional characters of Song Dynasty stories.
These two formative influences -- US History and Tang Dynasty Chan -- occurred on opposite sides of the planet and a millennium apart. In the chapters that follow, I bridge this gap by moving the Zen history a thousand years into the future and to the other side of the world. Thus Siddhartha Gotama, who died in India in 400 BCE, becomes Sidney Gotian, who died in France in 600 CE. Bodhidharma, who took a perilous journey across the ocean from India to China in the late 400s, becomes Boda Darmé, who took a perilous journey across the ocean from Europe to the New World in 1492. And so on down to Shishuang Chuyuan (best known for asking, "You are at the top of the 100 foot high pole. How will you make a step further?") born in Qingxiang in 987 and died in 1040, who becomes Steven Boyon, born in Toledo in 1987 and alive today.
The characters that I relocate spatially and temporally are those in some 200 koans from the 13th-century collections Wumenguan, (The Gateless Gate), Biyan Lu (Blue Cliff Record), and Congrong Lu (Book of Serenity). I recontextualize and reimagine these anecdotes in an American setting. Superimposing my adopted tradition of liberation upon my native history of domination, I seek a more coherent narrative sense of what it means to be a Zen American today. I’m telling a story of who I am.
Of course, It is fiction. The Song Dynasty stories about Tang Dynasty characters are already partly fictional. Moreover, in a deeper sense, history itself, and any self-identity I might have, is fictional: a creative meaning-making from indeterminate evidence selectively drawn from inherently incomplete availability. For this reason, all meaning is provisional. More seriously, meaning is delusional, a layer of separation from the fact itself of present reality. “Not knowing is most intimate,” as Dijang said to Fayan. Still, intimacy is not the only thing to be done with a life, holy and beautiful as the moments of intimacy are. We must also act, one way or another, and for that we require meaning.
The italicized initial sentences of the first three paragraphs above parallel the first three of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. First, there is dukkha – domination. For the second, I follow David Brazier (The Feeling Buddha, 2002) and Stephen Batchelor (After Buddhism, 2017) in casting it as primarily about what dukkha causes rather than what causes dukkha: the thirst (tanha) that arises (samudaya) is firstly an effect of and response to dukkha – which secondly feeds back and causes more dukkha. In the same way, resistance to domination is a response to domination that often brings further domination. Third, there is a ceasing of dukkha – there are traditions of liberation. As for the fourth Noble Truth, the eightfold path, the story that follows requires no parallel.