For the past 13 years I’ve been doing my Zen practice in a very public way. In at least one of my books I likened what I do to being a porn actor, in the sense that I am doing what is usually an extremely personal and private thing in front of the public as a kind of performance.
In doing so, I may very well have irreparably damaged my own practice for the sake of introducing it to more people than would have come across it had I stayed quiet. It sounds really noble to put it that way. But my initial intentions weren’t quite that pure.
I wanted to be a professional writer. My first three novels failed to interest any publishers. So I wrote a book about Zen. At the time I considered this more of an exercise in writing nonfiction than as any serious attempt at writing something for publication. When I looked over the finished book — what would eventually become Hardcore Zen — I decided it was unpublishable. I only sent it out to a few publishers because I figured I’d finished the damned thing, so why not at least send it out? I was shocked when Wisdom Publications said they wanted to publish it.
Upon the publication of that book, my once private Zen practice became a public matter. Up until Hardcore Zen came out I rarely talked about my practice. Aside from the people I sat with hardly anyone I knew was aware that I did this crazy thing of staring at a blank wall every morning and evening.
I’ve spent the past decade and a half (nearly) chronicling my Zen adventures for an ever increasing audience. In commercial terms, that audience is still barely significant. But compared to most Zen practitioners who have no audience at all, it’s pretty big.
Making my practice public has had a lot of drawbacks. I would not advise anyone to follow this path if they really wanted a pure, true Zen experience. Things a practitioner would usually only share with a teacher or with fellow practitioners, I share with the world. Many of the people who read my stuff or watch my videos don’t have any grounding in this practice. So they’re either overly impressed or they completely misconstrue the stuff I say.
It’s sort of like talking about auto repair to an audience, a large number of whom have never even looked under the hoods of their cars. These folks are often either amazed beyond any sensible measure that you know the difference between a carburetor and a manifold, or else they start criticizing your theories of engine repair without the slightest understanding of what actually makes the wheels of their Volvo go ‘round and ‘round.
But we humans are very sensitive to the opinions of other humans. We are social animals whose very survival depends upon being accepted by a community. We are far less interested in what is actually true than we are in what our tribe believes is true.
This is because whether we live or die depends directly upon whether or not we are accepted by the tribe. As long as the tribal belief system is close enough what’s true to keep the survival systems from immediately collapsing, it will do. The real truth hardly matters beyond the what is necessary for eating, mating, and establishing a social hierarchy.
Taking one’s search for ultimate truth — that is, truth beyond these things — to the public can have dire consequences. It’s easy to get derailed in your quest. It’s easy to start buying into the praise or putting too much stock in baseless criticism.
The reason it’s so easy is because sensitivity to praise and to criticism is directly tied to our survival instinct. Any insights you might have that go against the prevailing understanding are going to be attacked because they will appear to be dangerous to the survival of the greater tribe of which you are part.
Heaping praise upon these insights is a subtle form of attacking them. By praising someone you are able to control that person since that person will naturally want to keep being praised. Praise means acceptance and acceptance means survival. All praise comes with an unspoken threat of someday withholding that praise and thereby threatening your survival.
It’s very nearly impossible to rise above this. Even knowing how this stuff works is no assurance you won’t fall prey to it. The instinctual processes work on a level that is inaccessible to the thinking mind. These instinctual processes are unaffected by what you know intellectually and continue to operate in spite of whatever knowledge you have about how they function.
Yet it is only because some people choose to make their meditative or mystical practices public that these practices are able to survive and be passed on. It is only in this way that they become more widely practiced and, thereby able to have some effect upon the larger society.
Before the advent of mass communication, even the most popular practitioners of these meditative and mystical arts were not known by great numbers of people. In the past century it’s become possible to share these practices with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people.
Yet most of these people will not, themselves, ever practice. Even those who do practice are usually far removed geographically or in other ways from the celebrity meditators they follow. So there can never be any real communication between them.
Those of us who are now attempting to navigate this new world are doing so without any precedent to follow. Maybe the mistakes that I and others doing what I do make will become lessons for those who follow us to learn from. In that sense, even our mistakes may be valuable. So I think we should try to share our mistakes as much as we try to share whatever insights we might have.
I feel like, at this point, I have no real choice but to continue producing Zen porn for mass consumption. I only hope that, in the long run, I am doing more good than harm.
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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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