I Am Not A Zen Buddhist… OK. I Am.

Alan Watts, author of a number of popular books about Zen including my personal favorite This Is It, said in a lecture, “I am not a Zen Buddhist; I’m not advocating Zen Buddhism; I’m not trying to convert anyone to it.  I have nothing to sell: I’m an entertainer. That is to say in the same sense that when you go to a concert, and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music.  He doesn’t want to convert you to anything, he doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart’s music as opposed to say Beethoven’s.  And I approach you in the same spirit: as a musician with his piano or violinist with his violin, I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy.”

This is pretty much the same way as I feel. Only I did something that Alan Watts was intelligent enough not to do. I got ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. So I guess I actually am a Zen Buddhist now. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I write that I’m a Zen monk I think people have a tendency to read that as almost a kind of boast. They imagine me flashing a big toothy smile and confidently announcing it like a proud accomplishment. But that’s not how it is for me. I say that I’m a Zen monk the way a guy at a twelve step program announces he’s an alcoholic. It’s something that will be with me all of my life like a bad accident that left a visible scar. I admit it because I can’t avoid the obvious. To say it aloud is part of the healing process.

This does not mean my position on these matters has suddenly changed, by the way. In my book Sit Down and Shut Up (New World Library, 2007) I wrote about how my teacher called the Soto-shu, an official organization of Zen Buddhist to which he belongs, “a guild of funeral directors.” In my first book, Hardcore Zen (Wisdom Publications, 2004), I wrote about how I was so conflicted when Nishijima Roshi wanted to give me dharma transmission that I had to take a year to think about whether to do it or not. It seemed to me like the ultimate sell-out. Still does sometimes.

I love Dogen’s teachings. I am dedicated to zazen practice. I do my best to follow the Buddhist Precepts. I even like some of the ceremonies Zen Buddhists do and do them myself. I haven’t burnt my robes yet. Even when I said I was not a “member of clergy” it was because Zen Buddhist monks are not members of clergy — even those who think they are.

But Zen Buddhism as an organized religion holds no appeal to me. The organizations who claim to uphold the Zen Buddhist Way can be just as corrupt, hypocritical and ineffectual as any other religious institution out there. I recently read that Genpo Roshi tried to resign from the Soto-shu of Japan and the USA but his resignation was not accepted. Of course he was resigning over a sex scandal rather than getting booted out for selling phony enlightenment experiences at $5000 a pop. All of which tells you just how incredibly clueless the Soto-shu is.

Besides that, this whole business of sex scandals has a bunch of folks in black robes acting just like the Harper Valley P.T.A. Watch the video below if you don’t get the reference.

Harper Valley PTA

Then there’s the hierarchy and the almost military way some of these “people of no rank” treat their various positions and accomplishments. Could there be anything less Zen than that?

When I mentioned my feelings about this stuff on Facebook someone said, “There would seem to be a disconnect between being a zen teacher that gives talks at centers around the world, writes articles for Buddhist publications, and makes a living as a writer that uses the ‘zen teacher’ schtick….isn’t there? Not that those things are bad in any way, but it would seem better to embrace it. Without the ‘title’ surely many doors would have been closed to you.”

Perhaps. But then again, the fact that I still get invited to these centers shows that maybe there’s still some hope for Zen Buddhism. It’s not that I’m trying to tear down the practices and philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Re-read my 4th paragraph above if you need clarification about where I stand on those matters. It’s just that I want these institutions to live up to the philosophy they espouse.

It’s easy to get lost. The crusaders slaughtered thousands of people in the name of a man who said, “love your enemies.” We need to be careful we don’t go the same way.

Just sayin’…


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63 Responses

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  1. boubi
    boubi February 8, 2013 at 11:00 am |

    This is the right soundtrack


  2. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra February 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm |

    I love this post.

    I’m always at a loss as how to answer when I get into conversations about religion or philosophy or whatever. I mean, I think things like Zen and Chuang Tzu’s Taoism are sort of the guiding principles (if they can even be called that) of my life. But I’m not a Zennist or a Taoist, and plus I blush a little just bringing any of it up, because people automatically sort of start to assume that I’m into “New Agey” type of things. In fact, it’s actually worse when someone thinks they’re interested in Zen and Taoism, because usually they’re just interested in some new age bullshit they read on the Huffington Post or something. Do you know how many times, after I reluctantly say I’m into Zen, people bring up “The Secret”?

  3. Fred
    Fred February 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm |

    Here’s the secret you can share with them:

    “Rather, in practice, one authenticates the prior presence of Buddha-nature; and Buddha-nature shows its fundamental presence in any act or moment of practice. Practice (exemplified in, but not limited to, zazen) is simply openness to the pre-reflective immediacy that is already present, although hidden beneath conceptual structures and reified ways of framing experience.” – Zensite

  4. Wedged
    Wedged February 8, 2013 at 8:37 pm |

    Hey Brad, I’m sure you’ve given this before but I haven’t seen it…what is your top 10 Buddhist books? This post got me looking for my old alan watts books. I managed to find Buddha is the center of gravity after a lot of looking, I read(ing) Shobogenzo, Beginners Mind, your books n Spiritual Materalism…all are incredible n very helpful. I’d love to know what else makes the cut.


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