A few weeks ago, I wrote that I dislike piety. The Zen masters are wild men, not eunuchs. Someone asked me what it means to be pious. I think this is worth some exploration.

According to dictionary definition, “piety” has to do with the quality of being religious or reverent. In Chinese Buddhism, the Zen people are often seen as arrogant and irreverent. Zen and piety do not mix. Someone asked a Zen master, “What is Buddha?” The master answered, “A dried shit stick.” That is irreverence.

But this can be easily misunderstood. Does Zen encourage rudeness and arrogance? These attitudes are dangerous. Modern people tend to be irreligious and irreverent. Such attitude has its own dark side. It is my view that modernity sorely needs a sense of reverence.

What is the problem with piety? It has to do with blind faith and the acceptance of religious doctrines and conventions with an unthinking mind. Such an attitude is unfitting for a Buddhist. If you read the Kalama Sutta carefully, you will find that Buddha actually encouraged questioning and free inquiry. He urged us to be skeptical of sacred texts, what is traditional, and what is widely respected and believed to be true. Buddha said that even his own words ought to be independently verified by the student. He encouraged independent thinking. This is the Buddhist attitude. It is basically irreligious.

Thus, the Zen people’s irreverent attitude is actually close to original Buddhism. Blind faith and acceptance can be a problem. But this is very different from arrogance. If even Buddha’s words have to be independently verified, we ought to scrutinize our own views and opinions too. Yes, have independent thinking and be skeptical. But such skepticism should apply to every opinion, including our own.

Zen never encourages arrogance. Arrogance is an expression of ego. Perhaps we can characterize Buddha’s attitude as scientific. It urges a healthy dose of skepticism and a certain rigor towards knowledge. We have to be diligent is verifying the truth of everything we hear. What I want to add is that such skepticism should also turn inward and be applied to our own views, opinions and beliefs.

Be irreverent towards what is heard. But also be irreverent towards our own views, beliefs and conclusions. That is the required balance.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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