I arrived back in Los Angeles at noon on Saturday, October 29th. I’m still not home, though. I lent my nephew my apartment while I was away and he can’t move into his new place until Tuesday. So I’m still living out of a suitcase.
Americans in Europe tend to be obnoxious. I lost count of how many times I heard a much too loud voice pontificating about, “In America…!” followed by some observation he probably thinks is brilliant.
While I was out on the road, I did a lot of dokusan. Dokusan is where participants in a Zen retreat spend a few minutes each talking with the retreat leader. Some teachers offer it and some don’t. Nishijima Roshi didn’t really do dokusan as such, although he was always available to anyone who asked to speak with him privately. I often did. My other teacher, Tim, usually offers dokusan on his retreats.
Sometimes there’s a formal procedure for dokusan, but I follow Tim’s method. His dokusan was always very informal with no specific ritual. So when I do it, I just invite people to sit and chat.
One strong impression I came away with this time is that there is a lot of stuff being called “Zen” or “Buddhism,” which I personally don’t care much for. How’s that for a diplomatic way of saying it? I originally was just gonna say, “There’s a lot of bad Zen and bad Buddhism out there.” But I didn’t. Pretty good restraint, right?
For example, I heard from a guy whose teacher got highly upset at him for getting a tattoo. I heard from another guy who witnessed a group of what he called “celebrity Buddhists” denounce some lawyers in their group who were acting to help poor people defend themselves against wealthy landowners. The “celebrity Buddhists” thought this interfered with the poor peoples’ karma. I heard about retreats in which there is little meditation but lots of religious indoctrination.
A lot of what I hear about “Buddhism” and “Zen” is pretty disheartening. I feel bad for encouraging people to get involved with it sometimes.
The mere fact that something is called “Buddhism” or “Zen” is no guarantee it’s any good. I think there’s probably more good stuff than bad stuff going on under those names, but you still gotta be careful.
People keep asking me about the differences between Zen as practiced in the various countries I go to. This year I led retreats and/or gave lectures in Northern Ireland, Ireland, England, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria. Each culture has its own unique way of doing most things. But when it comes to Zen practice, it’s all sitting on cushions staring at the wall.
It’s hard for me to say what, for example, British Zen practice is like as opposed to, say, German Zen practice. I only know what goes on at my retreats and things. I don’t go check out other teachers. When I’m leading a retreat at another teacher’s place, that teacher usually lets me do stuff my own way.
The differences I see are mostly superficial. Like in Finland they go sit in the sauna every night after the day’s zazen is done. In German retreats they tend to feed you a lot of cheese and pretzels. That sort of thing. But the practice all tends to be the same.
I don’t know if I accomplish much with these tours. I feel more and more like Zen is a hugely long term project. It’s been going on for 2500 years already without any real success. Maybe it’ll take another 2500 before anything much starts to change.
If I have any objective, it’s to make it OK for regular folks to do this stuff. For too long the only people interested in Zen have been intellectuals and people deeply into oddball religions. Just the word “Zen” tends to turn away a lot of people. I try to keep things casual at my retreats in the hopes that people who come to them might be less scared of the whole thing.
I’ll let you know if this ever starts to work.
November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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