Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership

Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership

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by Thomas Cleary

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This guide to enlightened conduct for people in positions of authority is based on the teachings of several great Chinese Zen masters. Drawing on private records,
letters, and long-lost documents of the Song dynasty (tenth to thirteenth centuries),

consists of short excerpts written in language that is accessible to the reader


This guide to enlightened conduct for people in positions of authority is based on the teachings of several great Chinese Zen masters. Drawing on private records,
letters, and long-lost documents of the Song dynasty (tenth to thirteenth centuries),

consists of short excerpts written in language that is accessible to the reader without any background in Eastern philosophy. This book serves as a guide to recognizing the qualities of a genuine Zen teacher; it also serves as a study of the character and conduct necessary for the mastery of any position of power and authority—whether religious, social, political, or organizational.

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is a collection of political, social, and psychological teachings of Chinese
adepts of the Song dynasty, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.

If the Tang dynasty, from the early seventh through the ninth centuries, may he called the classical period of Chinese Zen, the Song dynasty may be called its baroque period, characterized by complexity of form and ingenious imagery with multiple meaning.

In contrast to the relatively plain and straightforward Zen literature of the Tang dynasty, Song dynasty Zen literature is convoluted and artful. This is not regarded, in Zen terms, as a development in Zen, but as a response to a more complex and pressured society and individual. The Zen adepts of Song times did not regard the reality of Zen as any different in its essence from that of classical times, but considered the function of Zen to have become complicated by the complexity of the contemporary mind and the rampant spread of artificial
Zen based on imitations of a few Zen practices.

The proliferation of false Zen was stimulated by the enormous impact of real Zen on
Asian civilization. After the Tang dynasty, there is hardly anywhere one can turn in Chinese culture without seeing the influence of the Zen charisma.

The ill effects of the resulting influx of insincere followers into public Zen institutions are already noted in the works of great masters of the latter Tang dynasty, and these Zen Lessons. The inner dimension of the outward history of
Zen, during which it first breathed life into a new Buddhism and later revived other philosophies when that Buddhism grew aged and ill, is hardly observed by those who think in political terms, but nevertheless it is consistently emphasized by the Zen adepts themselves.

illustrate the art of combining ultimate and ordinary truths, using society and conduct as a way into Zen enlightenment, by the practice of constructive criticism and higher education. This was one of the original tools of Buddhism, but in many schools it had lost its edge through excessive formalization by the time the
Zen Buddhists revived its original open flexibility.

Among these schools may be counted even the Complete Reality schools of Taoism and the Inner Design schools of Confucianism. The results of Zen methods applied to
Taoist and Confucian classics, these schools had as profound an impact on
Chinese culture as had the original Chan schools.

The classical period of Chinese Zen is usually said to have been the Tang dynasty,
from the seventh through the ninth centuries. The first large Zen commune was established in the mid-seventh century under the fourth founding teacher of
Zen, and countless people were said to have been awakened by the public talks of the sixth founding teacher who was founder of the so-called southern tradition. The fourth, fifth, and sixth founding teachers were all invited to be imperial teachers, and many of their spiritual descendants became teachers of leaders of Chinese society at all levels of organization, from local to imperial.

During the Tang period some of the most influential men and women on earth studied Zen on a par with some of the humblest and most obscure men and women on earth. Zen introduced a revolution in social practice that maintained its energy through centuries of opposition and corruption, and provided one of the only historical forums for unbiased social understanding as well as spiritual understanding.
Zen also influenced painting and poetry, two of the most important of Chinese arts, traditionally used for emotional education and therefore of great social significance.

As noted earlier, the Song dynasty was characterized by complexity of form and multiplicity of function within its intricate, ingenious, and often ambiguous designs. Song Zen further extended its influence through the urban arts and soft sciences, but also maintained its contact with the huge countryside of
China by means of the travels and retreats of Zen workers through the network of Tang dynasty relics.

Over the Tang dynasty, Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, grew to the point where there could have been no class of people or general geographical region untouched by its influence in the China of the Song dynasty. The problem was,
as predicted in Buddhist scripture, that the very success of the work would eventually attract the wrong kind of people, or rather that too many people would come with the wrong aspirations. By the last century of the Tang dynasty there are already notices of Zen establishments losing their order due to the invasion of people with faulty aspirations, and by Song times the tone among the distinguished teachers is one of emergency.

Put in elementary Buddhist terms, Zen establishments were originally set up to free people from the poisons of greed, aggression, and ignorance that ordinarily afflict individuals and societies to greater or lesser degrees and do not allow humankind to attain complete practical understanding of its real destiny.

According to Zen teaching, when people in positions of great responsibility in society trust Zen adepts, it may be because of the reputation Zen gained over the centuries in this enterprise, or it may be an unconscious response to the safety felt in the presence of a truly detoxified human being. In either case,
the false appeared in such profusion precisely because the true was so effective.

complication introduced by this situation was that followers of Zen, both inside and outside the Zen establishments, often had no objective means of judging the authenticity of Zen adepts. These
reflect some of the lengths to which Zen teachers and outside supporters went in order to maintain the existence of certain organizational and psychological ideas capable of stimulating accurate perception of Zen mastery under appropriate conditions.

An enormous proportion of the Zen canon uses techniques honed to perfection during the baroque period, and therefore consists in one sense largely of technical descriptions of misconceptions of Zen and human values, analyses of the major problems of human thought and behavior in individual and social life. These descriptions are like designs of the locks that bind the conditioned human mentality, and are used to unlock those locks. The results of this unlocking are popularly called enlightenment, regarded in Zen as the initiation into higher learning experiences available to humankind.

One of the major problems encountered in the dissemination of the liberative Zen arts was the usurpation of the teaching function by imitators without the genuine inner knowledge of human psychology and Zen enlightenment. The fetishism that came to surround tokens of initiation and adepthood in Zen orders was to the true Zen leaders simply a sign of trivialization, but it was enough to deceive many naive Confucian grandees who, in the words of a late
Song Zen teacher, "only admired the flowers and did not take the fruit."

the relationship between teacher and apprentice in Zen was formalized only after a period of association in which a certain tacit recognition had taken place. When the would-be apprentice was a monk or nun, a homeless wayfarer and professional student, it was ordinarily the teacher who recognized the student;
when the would-be apprentice had home, family, and social ties, the teacher awaited the student's recognition.

By the dawn of Song times, there was already a considerable degree of formalization of many aspects of Zen procedure, demanded by the large number of followers who flocked to the gates of the prestigious Zen institutions. There developed a system of public monasteries under government control, where known
Zen masters were invited to teach large assemblies during summer and winter study periods.

In the original Zen communities, everyone had to work, and duties were assigned according to ability as perceived by the core of adepts guiding the community.
The Tang dynasty literature has tales of certain adepts working as cooks or hospitalers for twenty years in the communities of their teachers, but in the
Song dynasty there seems to have been more rotation of internal administrators of Zen establishments through the reservoir of adepts who served in the various monasteries.

Eventually the Chinese government took official control over the appointments to the higher echelons of administrative and leadership duties. Of course, it was customary for the emperor, governor, military route commander, local grandee,
or whoever was legally in charge of approving appointments to monastic office to consult the communities and adepts, but there was still ample room for imposture.

Objective criticism particularly self-criticism is an ancient tradition in Buddhism. It would not be too much to say that critical insight was one of the mainstays of the original schools of Buddhism. One of the strengths of the authentic projection of Zen Buddhism was its impersonal pursuit of the liberating effects of this practice. Applied to social, political, psychological, and deep contemplative experiences over the centuries, this method endowed Buddhism with a profound understanding of human nature.
explores the social, political, and psychological dimensions of this understanding.

Much of the most famous Zen literature of the Song dynasty, which in fact became the classical literature of Zen, derives from the public lectures of the masters,
and therefore is highly veiled due to the inherently secret nature of Zen experience. These
in contrast, are largely derived from private teachings, and therefore are mostly explicit.


Mingjiao said:

Nothing is more honorable than enlightenment, nothing is more beautiful than virtue.
Those who have enlightened virtue have it even though they be ordinary people,
while those who lack enlightened virtue lack it even though they be kings.

There were some people who starved to death in ancient times but have been admired ever since for their virtue; there were others who were kings but have been despised ever since for their lack of virtue.

So learners worry about not being imbued with virtue, they do not worry about not being in positions of power and authority.


Study and Learning

Mingjiao said:

The study of saints and sages is certainly not fulfilled in one day. When there is not enough time during the day, continue into the night; accumulate it over the months and years, and it will naturally develop. Therefore it is said,
"Accumulate learning by study, understand what you learn by questioning."

This means that study cannot bring discovery without discernment and questioning.
Nowadays where students go there is hardly anyone who asks a question to discern people. I do not know what they will use to help their spiritual stage and achieve the benefit of daily renewal.


Great and Small Evil

Mingjiao said:

Of the evil that people do, there is that which has form and that which has no form. Formless evil injures people, evil with form kills people. The evil that harms people is relatively small, the evil that kills people is great.

That is why "there is poison in a party, there is spear and shield in talk and laughter, there are a tiger and a panther inside the chamber, there are savages in the next alley."

Unless you are yourself a sage and nip these in the bud, guarding against them with standards of propriety, the injury they do will be considerable.

Lake Annals


Mingjiao related the following story:

Chan Master Dajiao was abbot of Ashoka monastery, it happened that two monks were arguing endlessly over alms. The director of monastery affairs could not stop them, so Dajiao called them to him and upbraided them in these terms:

"Once when Bao Gong was judge in Kaifeng, one of the people reported on his own initiative that someone who had entrusted a hundred ounces of white gold to him had died, and when he tried to return the money to the man's family, the son would not accept it. So he asked the judge to summon the son and return the money.

Gong thought this admirably extraordinary, and called the son to talk to him.
The son declined the money, saying, 'When my late father was alive, he had no white gold to entrust privately to another house.'

"Since both men, the trustee and the son, continued to firmly refuse, Bao had no choice but to give it to a monastery in the city, for unseen blessings to propitiate the deceased.

saw this with my own eyes. Even people in the mundane world are still able to be so aloof of wealth and look for what is right, as this story illustrates.
You are Buddhist disciples, yet you are so shameless."

Dajiao cast them out, according to the rule of Chan communities.

Lake Annals

Vessel of Enlightenment

Master Dajiao first went to Mount Lu, Chan Master Yuantong Na, seeing him once,
treated him as a great vessel of enlightenment. Someone asked Yuantong how he recognized Dajiao.

Yuantong said, "This man is true to the middle way, not biased or dependent.
Whether active or at rest, he is noble and dignified. Furthermore, in his study of the Way his actions are correct, and his words are simple yet logically complete. Whenever people have endowments like this, seldom do they fail to become vessels of enlightenment."


Meet the Author

Thomas Cleary holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. He is the translator of over fifty volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Islamic texts from Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Pali, and Arabic.

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Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There are some management pearls to be found on this recording, but they are delivered bite-sized, in fortune-cookie style. And the monotonous 'I'm trying to hypnotize you' tone seemed forced. Perhaps that's what I deserve for trying to drive and learn at the same time.