Gummy Bears for Dinner and LARPing Zen

Last night at the Angel City Zen Center’s usual Monday meeting the folks there got into a discussion about LARPing Zen. LARP stands for “live action role playing.” Google’s online dictionary defines this as “a type of interactive role-playing game in which the participants portray characters through physical action, often in costume and with props.” Here’s an article on how to LARP.

The discussion of LARPing Zen emerged out of a talk that Jason, one of our Zen center members, gave about what bowing means in the context of Zen practice. Before we do zazen we bow toward our cushions and then turn and bow toward the room. We also bow as part of the ceremonies we do. It turns out that a lot of our folks felt like bowing during Zen practice was like LARPing Zen.

I’ve been to a few Zen places where it really did feel almost like the folks there were LARPing Zen. There’s one school of Zen that’s very popular in the west where they take the ceremonial aspects of Zen practice much more seriously than I’ve seen anywhere other than in Japanese monasteries. Everyone wears robes and they all seem to know every ceremonial move far better than I do. And that’s just fine. I don’t think it’s bad to do LARPing Zen.

But my teachers didn’t teach Zen like that — not even Nishijima Roshi in Japan. He felt that Japanese Zen was too concerned with ceremonies and rituals. He wanted to focus purely on zazen.

In America, we value rugged individualism. Americans want to do things our own way. When we Americans see someone from another culture doing something, our first inclination is to think about how we can do the same thing better. Usually this means doing it more efficiently. 

So when Americans get interested in Zen practice, the first thing they want to do with it is figure out how to improve it and make it more efficient. Lots of commercial meditation stuff I see straight up advertises that they have found a quicker easier way to achieve enlightenment than the old fashioned methods they do over in Asia.

Get your enlightenment quick so you can move on to the next thing!

But how can you make a practice that whose aim is to achieve nothing more efficient? And what makes us think it isn’t pretty efficient at doing that already?

At one point during the discussion last night Jason talked about how we tend to pick and choose only the aspects we like about Zen practice. He said it was like just having dessert without eating your vegetables.

It reminded me of when I worked for what was then called the Summit County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. I’m sure they’ve changed the name by now. Anyway, part of my job there was to supervise mentally handicapped adults who had jobs outside of the sheltered workshop environments.

One of our people worked bagging groceries at the Giant Eagle supermarket in Cuyahoga Falls. A friend of mine also worked there. Once our guy, let’s call him Doug (I don’t remember his name), came through my friend’s check-out line after his shift. She noticed he was buying several large bags of gummy bears. She asked why. He said they were for his dinner that night.

When it comes to Zen practice, most of us are kind of like Doug. We don’t really know what the important parts are, and if we’re left on our own to decide we’re probably going to get it wrong.

Even so, lots of folks in the west are intent on “improving” the meditation practices we’ve discovered in other parts of the world. We want to streamline them, get rid of the unnecessary cultural stuff, and concentrate on what’s really important. 

The problem is that we generally have no real criteria by which to make such judgments. We don’t have enough experience with meditation to be able to know what we can change without damaging the essential parts of the practice. Individually we don’t know and as a culture we don’t know. Because this is so, it’s probably better to do things in the traditional way for a while until we really understand them before we start trying to make improvements.  

In my own case, I had a teacher in Japan who understood the traditions and ceremonies but had eliminated most of them. Yet when I came back to the USA, I started thinking that maybe the Americans I was teaching weren’t quite ready for that kind of practice. And so I reintroduced a lot of the ceremonial and ritual aspects of Zen practice that Nishijima Roshi had dropped.

Not everyone responded well to the changes. A few people who used to come regularly to sit with me stopped coming when I added a few ritual elements. Maybe they thought we were LARPing Zen. 

But that’s OK. Maybe they’ll come back someday. Or maybe not. 

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Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check aczc.org

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