When I asked for suggestions for a topic for this month’s Dharma Byte, the publisher of our newsletter replied, “One topic that comes to mind is the present day twisting of Zen teachings. Two instances: I remember the saying, ‘No worky, no eaty,’ which—besides being somewhat racist against Chinese people learning English—was twisting Hyakujo's saying (“A day without work is a day without food.”) from one of self-discipline to one of threat (e.g. if we kids balked at doing our chores).
“More insidious is the twisting of the concept that every individual has a different perspective on things (and hence one should actually listen to others rather than wantonly dismissing their view), to the bizarre political view that, “Truth is whatever I say it is.” Politicians may be doing us all an unintended favor by so blatantly manifesting what most of the rest of us also do, only more subtly.”
This first point is central to Zen: Any meaningful discipline is necessarily self-imposed. When we attempt to foist an attitude or opinion on others, to “teach them a lesson” (or as Albert the Alligator once explained to Pogo the Possum, “I don’t want to teach him—I want to learn him!”), they will learn a lesson, all right. But it is not likely to be the lesson we intend to learn them. Indeed, they will probably form an opinion about us, most likely an unflattering one. Teaching in Zen is largely by example. E.g. observing silence oneself is the best way to model it for others.
Many meditation and retreat centers endorse imposing silence on their attendees, as a rather innocuous example of this approach. And for good reason - Americans in particular are known to be a rowdy bunch, usually oblivious of the impact their loquaciousness and general loudness have on the people around them. But to have silence imposed from without as a discipline is to miss the opportunity to have imposed silence upon oneself as a choice.
When an individual suddenly or gradually becomes self-aware that they are the only one jabbering away on the third or fourth day of the retreat, it can leave an indelible mark that is not soon forgotten. Peer pressure, up to and including shunning, does not have its robust history in society for no reason. Beyond kindergarten, middle and high school levels, one would think adults would gladly observe silence on their own, for a change.