Rhie considers Zen influence in America

Photo courtesy of Frank Schulenberg via Wikimedia Commons. Bernie Rhie studied at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. from 1989 to 1992.

As part of the 2018 Faculty Lecture Series, a wide variety of professors and staff have presented their research to the entirety of the faculty, crossing interdisciplinary boundaries created by the divisional and departmental systems. Perhaps one of the most anticipated speakers of the series, Professor of English Bernie Rhie, gave his lecture on Thursday, entitled “Zen and the Art of American Literature.” Standing at the front of Wege Auditorium, Rhie presented to a crowd of community members, faculty and students across departments ranging from physics to English. By the start of the lecture, the entire auditorium, including the side alleyways and stairs, was packed with people.

Throughout his talk, Rhie merged his personal experience living at a Buddhist temple with contemporary American readings addressing the spirit of enlightenment. A high school dropout-turned Zen student-turned professor, Rhie is difficult to categorize. Regardless, he successfully captured the attention of all who attended with his vast breadth of experiences. Concepts Rhie discussed on Thursday included the self, deep ecology, misconceptions about Zen Buddhism and the various methodological debates that drive discussion in the Zen academic community. His talk also explored the various applications of Zen Buddhism to social reform today, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rhie began his lecture by talking about conceptions of the self. One of the lines that resonated with me most was a passage from the Heart Sutra, a popular scripture in Mahāyāna Buddhism: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” Rhie talked about how western philosophy, in an attempt to comprehend this, often withdraws to a form of nihilism – the idea that emptiness is the non-existence of form or a sort of deletion of the self. Rhie addressed this misconception; it is not nihilism, he said, but rather simply experiencing the emptiness of the self. He referenced his own past experience with LSD as a sample of this brief absence of the ego. For Rhie, the ego – the fundamental desire to exist – is a mechanism that instills emotions like panic, fervor, horror and nausea. On the other side, however, there is peace.

Additionally, Rhie discussed various pieces of American literature that reference this Zen Buddhist concept. But in order to do so, he first addressed a methodological debate behind texts.He first identified the groups of scholars who employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the fundamental belief that reading must be paranoid, seeing beyond the mystical and doubting everything. Rhie disagreed with this “mandatory injunction,” stating that reading at a distance loses some of the meaning created by a book. Instead, he said, one must read with naïveté so that the reader becomes absorbed by the book. For him, this is akin to LSD in that the self that the reader creates is not the self they truly are. They entangle themselves with the book; the book is an optical instrument, a lens through which to see the world. Reading and being absorbed by reading are reflections of the self in another form.

Throughout the talk, Rhie offered several contemporary American examples in which books have detailed experiences of enlightenment, and, by being absorbed into the book, the reader experiences a similar feeling of enlightenment. In this, Rhie discussed the western epistemological difference between knowing and not knowing; by reading a book for “knowledge” as opposed to reading for a desertion of the self, he explained, the reader is, in a way, unknowing the self.

Rhie continued on to talk about the various applications Zen Buddhism has in the real world, addressing the abuse, sex scandals and alcoholism rampant in many news accounts of Zen Buddhist lifestyles. He argued that these are the results of seeing oneself but not truly changing as a result. For him, the life of a Buddhist monk is not magically complete once they’ve reached this peak of self-awareness; it continues with knowing that their pupils have seen what they have seen. For him, the end goal is to end suffering.

Rhie then discussed the relevance of Zen Buddhism to western forms of psychotherapy and the Black Lives Matter movement. For him, the end goal of several Buddhist trains of thought is not necessarily to transcend the body. He provided a variety of examples in which activists have used Zen Buddhism as another tool to propagate identity and social activism – the most notable of these figures is Aaron Goggans, a prominent activist in the Black Lives Matter movement. Goggans uses the framework provided by Zen Buddhism to create social change. In fact, the three pillars of Gogganswork – holding action, structural changes and shifts in consciousness – reference the three pillars of Zen Buddhism Goggans was taught at a Buddhist retreat. Goggans realized that changing policy was simply not enough. There was a moral and spiritual awakening required, spiritual sustenance that worked on the psyche rather than simply the physical.

Rhie’s lecture on Zen Buddhism was, to say the least, illuminating. By the end of the talk, one couldn’t help but feel that their consciousness had shifted in some way or another.

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