I emerged from my self-imposed exile at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery on September 10th. At around nine in the morning I said my goodbyes and some twelve hours later I rolled into Los Angeles. It took that long because I caught the Tassajara cold that had been going around the cabins and I kept having to pull over and rest along the way.
The skit above is one I put together for the skit night they do at the end of each guest season. Though I came up with the original premise, my script was rewritten and fleshed out by Paul Cathy, Ryan Adams and Heather Ites. It’s very much an in joke, but I think it might be funny even if you don’t get it all. Work Circle (the setting for this skit) is something that happens each morning at Tassajara where announcements are made about what’s going on the rest of the day and where visitors say their hellos and goodbyes.
Anyway. It’s useful to get away from the mainstream world for a time. It gives you a different perspective. For six weeks there were no cell phones, no Internets, no Facebook, no Fox News in my life. We fill ourselves with too much information. Most of it we don’t need. It helps if you can find a way to cut all of that off for a time.
Every time I go to Tassajara I find myself trying to figure out what, exactly, this Zen Buddhism stuff really is. The Zen I practiced since I was a wee lad of 18 or 19 is in some ways identical to what they do at Tassajara and at monasteries like it and in some ways entirely different. Is it the same Zen Buddhism? I find myself asking. Is there one Zen Buddhism or are there many? Are there as many Zen Buddhisms as there are people who practice Zen Buddhism? Or are there even more than that.
Being in Dogen’s lineage, the folks up at Tassajara practice shikantaza style zazen, just as I was taught by Tim McCarthy and Gudo Nishijima. It’s propless meditation. There’s no goal to the practice. There are no mantras to recite. There are no trick questions to answer. Nobody tells you you’re doing it wrong. Nobody asks you to assess the relative success or failure of your meditation afterward the way they often do in other Buddhist lineages. You just do it and then do something else. But you keep on doing this pointless thing and years later sometimes, if you’re lucky, you notice the point to it. Which is precisely that there is no point to it. And, goofy as that sounds, it makes perfect sense.
But Tassajara has all the trappings my teachers removed from their way of teaching Zen practice. There are hierarchies of rank represented by the silly colors of certain people’s clothing. There is a lot of chanting. There are rules. There are a lot of cliches and buzzwords traded back and forth by the community — “Practice with that!” “That’s comparing mind!” “Think of it as a practice opportunity!” and so on and on.
There is a cult-y vibe to Tassajara sometimes. Which is not to say that the place is a religious cult. But there are aspects of it that are identical to the things you see religious cults do. The aforementioned cliches and buzzwords help to keep outsiders out by being obscure and impenetrable to all but the initiated. The funny clothing signals group affiliation. The repetitious rituals help harden the sense that we who belong are somehow better than those fools who come and gawk at us but who do not know what we know. All of this stuff bothers me tremendously every time I go to the place.
And yet I keep on going. Because I want to understand this side of Zen better and the only way I can ever hope to understand it is by diving deeply into it. And yet I’m not sure I understand it yet.
I just wrote a book all about why I think it’s wrong to call Buddhism a “religion without God.” While at Tassajara I started to think that maybe the type of Zen Buddhism they practice there could be called a “religion without belief.” They do all the things that religions do, but nobody really believes any of it. Even if a couple people do believe it, there is no importance laid upon belief.
There is no sense that one must believe the chants we did every third day or so for the protection of the temple actually do anything to protect the temple. There’s no sense that one must believe the chant we do asking for the guidance of the Buddhas and ancestors actually reaches all those dead people and helps convince them to lend us a hand. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not. You just do it.
It looks religious. But internally it’s not. This is what I think the atheists are missing out on. By dismissing all religious ritual as essentially ridiculous, a man-made invention with no real cosmic significance, which it is, they miss out on the beneficial qualities of performing those rituals.
And religions are adding a lot of needless silliness by insisting their members believe ridiculous stories that can never be proven. It’s stressful to believe because you can never be certain if what you believe is precisely what others believe. In fact, it never is. It never can be.
I’m in Calgary today. Here’s the details:
Title: About 90 minutes of Zen with Brad Warner
When: Saturday, September 14, 2:00pm to 4:00pm
Where: University of Calgary, MacEwan Hall, Room MSC 317
Cost: A recommended donation of $15
What: Some instruction and practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) followed by a talk by Brad Warner with a question and answer period.
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Your donations are, as always, gleefully accepetd!