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My Inner Max

Updated: 5 days ago

Before Bernie and Martin Buber, I had my Max Weber practice. 

In July, 2000, I’d left Morrigan’s second birthday party early to fly to California for a Peacemaker gathering in the Santa Barbara hills. One of the takeaways was a new Upaya. Bernie charged us with choosing an alternate persona and, when we looked at a text, to view it as well from the point of view of our persona. I chose Martin Buber.  I have told the story of that choice many times. Bernie’s persona upaya was a “new” Zen practice but it wasn’t a new practice for me. In the early 90’s, writing my dissertation, I’d become Max Weber.

The dissertation was a challenge. I was writing about Weber’s historical methodology and his theory of authority. Weber was asking for understanding, Verstehen, in historical interpretation. Verstehen required getting inside the head of the actor, making sense of the action from the actor’s point of view.

Inspired by Alan Blum, who was the most dynamic professor at NYU at the time, I was trying to write reflexively, to turn the spotlight of the sociological topic I was talking about on myself, to look reflexively at what I was writing, at my own theorizing. Alan had challenged us to “make the old sociologists brilliant.” Debunking, he said, was too easy. That meant that I needed to understand Weber. I needed to understand what Max was saying from his point of view. I needed to become Max.

I was years away from Ellen Burstyn’s koan “instructions.” Her “suggestion” to enter a koan the way a method actor, -- Ellen trained at the Actor’s Studio, -- enters a role has shaped my koan practice both as a student and a teacher. But during my undergraduate plunge into the theater, I had read Stanislavsky. I had enough “method” to help me with Weber. I found enough Weber biographical materials for my backstory, to see some commonalities between his relationship with his parents and my own struggles with authority. I stumbled on Max’s connection with Brahms. I listened to Brahms as I wrote my dissertation. It is years since I became Max, but much of him has continued to percolate in my life.

Max’s theory of authority is part of that legacy. His question about authority now comes up for me as a question of how we ground ourselves. I think it’s a question for Zen too. Max thought there were three sources of authority. He called them “the rational-legal,” the “charismatic,” and the “traditional.” 

I gave up first on the rational-legal, when, again influenced by Alan Blum, I found myself diving into the debate between the ideal language people and the ordinary language people. While I didn’t read Principia Mathematica, I read a lot of Whitehead and some Russell. I got the message: grounding in logic, -- Weber would have called it the “rational-legal,” -- was impossible. The ground must always be somewhere else.

A few years later, Arthur Kinoy unintentionally showed me the limits of charisma. Arthur was a great civil rights attorney and had argued important cases before the supreme court. He had a lot of charisma, and when I met him he was bringing together a lot of very impressive American activists. Arthur dreamed of forming a new, national political party of the people. Somehow, I ended up way too quickly on Arthur’s national leadership council. It was at one of those council meetings that Arthur taught me the limits of charisma.

I don’t remember what the issue was, but I was passionate about it, and I felt I’d made a good point, and argued it well. Arthur responded, “Before Ken spoke, I was uncertain which way I thought we should go on this question. But after listening to him, I am now convinced. He is completely wrong.” Arthur may have said a bit more, but he didn’t give any reasons for disagreeing. The question was settled. The council would go in Arthur’s direction, swept along by his rhetoric. 

I didn’t think it was the right decision, but Arthur had the charisma. He taught me an important leadership lesson. You can win an argument and still be wrong. I found myself with a new appreciation of Socrates. I’d always wondered, “What’s with obsession with the Rhetoricians?” Why take Gorgias’ arguments so seriously? Now I saw it. The Gorgiases of the world are the cult leaders, the fanatics. The connection between rhetoric and charisma is very deep. 

If I was not finding grounding in the rational-legal or charismatic, Weber left me only one place to go, to the traditional, but tradition was a hard place for me to get to. My parents were committed atheists. I grew up without “tradition.” I didn’t even know that I was looking for a traditional ground when I stumbled into Zen, but what I found there was a ground of practice which was rooted in tradition. 

Central to what is at least my version of the Zen tradition is the story, which I take as spiritually true, of the face-to-face transmission from teacher to student through more than 80 generations. Where does my authority to teach come from? From that tradition. It doesn’t rest on charisma, although when I first saw Kyudo Roshi sitting in the zendo, I could see the gift of grace. 

Neither my authority nor Bernie’s rested on rational arguments. Bernie hated that bullshit. He hated it when beginning Zen students attempted to show their devotion by arguing that Zen was best. For Bernie, there were always many paths. Zen was just his path. There are many forms of meditation. The one I teach is not the “best.” It is the only one that I’ve trained in.

I am happy that, for me anyway, Zen is a traditional practice. I think it is for most of the teachers I know. We disagree, I think, about what is essential in our tradition. On one side are the folks I call the “formalists.” They look like they might be living in medieval Japan. If they’re ordained, their heads are probably shaved. They wear medieval Japanese clothing. As closely as possible, they follow the liturgy as it was taught to their teachers and to their teachers’ teachers.

I wonder if they’ve missed the point, taking the form for the substance. Bernie’s dharma brother, Roshi Daido Loori used to talk about Zen students who’d fallen in love with the incense. Bernie warned us too. He pointed to the Zen students who were always at the Zen center caring meticulously for the altar but whose kids went to school in dirty clothes.

It has been said that it takes 500 years for Zen to fully take root in a new culture. Our Zen lineage is in its first half century in America. Maezumi Roshi and the other Asian teachers who brought Zen to America could only take the first step. It was up to Bernie and the other American successors to take the next step. Bernie had wondered after Maezumi’s passing if Maezumi had moved on because his work in America was done, that his continued presence on the American scene could only hold back the process. 

Not all of Maezumi’s successors and certainly not all of the teachers of subsequent generations have understood Maezumi’s teaching in the way that Bernie did. Many seem intent on preserving the forms of Maezumi’s childhood or of his father’s childhood. For some, this attention to the old forms doesn’t seem to interfere with profound realization. But others may have settled for appearances and the answers to koans which they hand down to their students.

Bernie was dedicated to continuing his teacher’s mission of creating American Zen. I was in accord with Bernie. I am another generation removed from Japan. What did I get from Bernie? What did I discover in myself? Is my way another step in the Americanization of Zen? Is it a detour, a misdirection? As Bernie often said, time will tell. And as he would have added, “Just my opinion, man,” but it is where my practice has brought me at this moment, with all the ingredients of my life including my graduate school plunge into Max Weber.

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