I was in St. Paul, Minnesota a couple weeks ago talking at the Clouds In Water Zen Center. They invited me because their previous “guiding teacher” was a naughty boy and got caught with his robes around his ankles when he was supposed to be being all spiritual. Tsk, tsk, tsk. The folks there are looking for a replacement and are auditioning prospective candidates.

As part of the process they developed a list of questions for potential candidates and I thought I’d address some of those here cuz they’re kind of interesting. I’m not taking these in order. So we’ll start with question #4. It’s ungodly long and goes like this:

Our founding ancestors, the Dharma pioneers who brought this practice to the United States, trained rigorously in monasteries for many years. Their practice was evident in the strength, equinity and clarity that drew us to them. The Buddha’s instructions to leave behind our involvements and live in a quiet place were probably meant more literally than we like to think. We are householders, lay students with activities in the community, coming to sesshin when it fits our schedule. Are we fooling ourselves? When is lay practice really practice?

Whoever wrote this obviously needs an editor. Plus I have never heard the word “equinity” before. But my Spell Check® recognizes it, so it must be real English.

Be that as it may, my answer to the first part of the question would be; Did they really? Did those Dharma pioneers all actually spend years and years in monasteries meditating and chanting from morning to night, getting smacked and shouted at every time they breached one of the bazillion persnickety rules about how to fold your napkin, which hand to hold your incense in, how to wipe your butt and all the rest of it?

We’ve grown up with a lot of romantic Hollywood fantasies about what the lives of these great Masters must have been like before they got here. We all know it was just like the flashback scenes in the old Kung Fu TV series with David Carrdine. But is that really anything like the truth? From what I’ve seen in Japan, this style of Zen training hasn’t existed since the Meiji Restoration (1868, for those of you who ain’t studied hist’ry) — and it was probably a rarity even then. The vast majority of Zen priests in Japan today have gone through, at best, a couple months of really rigorous training, after which they were turned loose to go and tend temples of their own. When they’re not running funeral services, they can usually be found puttering around the temple or sitting in the back room watching TV. And in a great many cases, they’ve even managed to avoid the Zen boot camp stuff. I took the official initiation into the Soto sect without ever having been to Eihei-ji except as a tourist, let alone doing any kind of intensive training there. It’s not at all uncommon.

My impression of a lot of the Dharma pioneers who went overseas was not that they were trying to bring a rigorous practice to us poor heathens, but that in many cases they were among the few serious practitioners in their native land and they thought that by escaping from Japan they could found a more serious practice elsewhere. Yes, some of the guys who came over here did go through some pretty rough training. But even in those cases, it was hardly like our Hollywood-fueled notions. And, in any case, who gives a care? It’s not their lives we should be worrying about, but our own.

The practice offered in Zen temples in the US is every bit as intense as most of what you can find in Japan, often more so. But a lot of what passes for “intense practice” — both here and in the Mysterious Orient — strikes me as kind of a joke. I’m not sure what anyone needs with that kind of “intensity.” Far too often it’s too removed from our dailiy lives to be of much practical use. What’s really good about temples in America as opposed to those in Japan is that, in Zen centers in America, the opportunities for real practice are available for everyone. This is extremely rare in Japan — mainly because almost no one over there is interested.

Lay practice has been a vital part of Buddhism right from the beginning. It is more important now than ever before. I don’t really like the idea of people being “professional Buddhists.” Today’s society doesn’t have a place for that role. The means of financial support for professional monks that existed in the past are gone forever. A lot of the professional monks I’ve met were just leeches, mooching off their followers while they led a life of leisure under the guise that doing some bowing and chanting and talking a whole lot of trash once a week constituted a real gift to society. I have a lot more respect for people who actually work for a living.

When the writer of this question asks, “are we fooling ourselves,” the question is really, “shouldn’t we run away from this mundane work-a-day life into the beautiful romantic world of being a peaceful monk in a dreamy temple in the far off mountains?” If you cannot find the truth of your life right here, you will not find it anywhere else. There is no anywhere else.*

But you do need to commit to daily practice. You’re fooling yourself if you think that a week of intensive practice at a sesshin makes up for slacking off on your daily zazen for three or four months. The real practice is the practice you do each day, with no one around to force you to sit still. It’s much easier to do zazen when there’s someone standing over you with a stick in a temple than it is to forgo watching the Today Show every morning and David Letterman every night and get down to business at home.

* Those of you who were at my talk in St. Paul know that I was a lot more polite about this on stage than I am being here. That’s because I’m now far enough away that you cannot kick my ass.

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8 Responses

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  1. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 13, 2014 at 2:12 pm |

    It’s an interesting question for me, comparing lay practice (mine) to monastic practice (ain’t gonna happen).

    I want to think my practice has more merit than monastic practice (of course!) but I frequently doubt that this is true. Even my lay practice still feels quite selfish to me even though I can usually see that it is not.

    Hopefully, like some of my other questions, this one will fade away with time.

    Boy, things sure are painful right now.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 14, 2014 at 4:42 am |

      Physically or otherwise?

      As you engage further with the practice, you may find yourself automatically intensifying what you do, in solitary or with others. It might be more all-involving than what monks generally do.

      If so, what’s the difference between lay and monastic. Daido Loori-roshi thinks there is one – he wrote that a lay resident who takes vows after a while has to go through the same training program again. What’s the difference?

      The vows, of course! It’s a much deeper commitment and gets down to the level of messing with your worldview.

      The Japanese system is not so good an example of Buddhist monasticism for this discussion, I feel. I’ve been priveleged to have close contact with monks and nuns who practice the whole Vinaya, and from that perspective, while it’s not necessary to leave lay practice to follow the Buddha Way, a healthy monastic order sure enhances the health of the entire Sangha.

      Don’t know if it won’t die out in this culture, but while it’s still around, you ought to spend some time with Vinaya monastics. Their stuff rubs off on you.

  2. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 14, 2014 at 10:37 am |


    Following me in my random babbling eh? I wouldn’t bother, it’s just for my own amusement.

    The painful is due to the fact that the crisis that drove me into practice years back has returned with a vengeance. I am dealing with it better than the first time but it’s still a pain.

    I am at the point that I can see very clearly that I am driving myself nuts, but am a loss.


  3. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 14, 2014 at 4:47 pm |

    I suppose, if you are driving yourself nuts, you can stop. But not knowing the details of your life or current crisis, I’ll just wish you the best.

  4. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 15, 2014 at 8:54 am |



    I don’t think the details are germane. Suffice it to say I can fairly good at recognizing un-helpful thought patterns during the day and can set them aside.

    But at night, when things aren’t going well, my sleeping brain plays with those thoughts like an otter with a sea urchin. Then I wake and slowly watch them settle down. Repeat until crazy…

    And as far as I can tell, I am the only person who can think my thoughts so I am also the only person who can’t think them.

    Thanks for your good wishes.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 16, 2014 at 7:15 am |

      I’m not being critical here, and you have a right to say as much or as little as you want about your current trouble. [After that prologue, doesn’t it feel like there’s overwhelming linguistic pressure to use the word BUT to start the next clause?] But that you post about it, even though in obscure, supposedly dead, comment threads, suggests you have at least a subliminal desire to discuss it.

      Well, do you, punk?

    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 16, 2014 at 7:23 am |

      I just had to end that comment on that line.

      Anyway, the point is, it might be helpful to talk, and this venue is cheaper than therapy or even spiritual counseling. Being mindful that you get what you pay for.

      It may be just an invitation to talk might be a useful challenge that clarifies things for you, without even a need for you to write anything further about your knot o’ karma.

      I just hope I don’t hit the wrong piñata.

  5. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 16, 2014 at 10:43 am |


    I am certainly aware that posting on dead comment threads is in some part a muffled cry for help.

    It’s also, as I mentioned to either you or Andy, a whimsical game, posting useless comments into dead air. Pretty much defines a diary, doesn’t it?

    It was only after I started doing it that I realized that there is a log of latest entries on the left side of Brad’s blog. I actually never seriously expected anyone to read the damn things. I’m not a very prolific or skilled poster because a) I a confused by the rules b) I type really slowly.

    Honestly things are as about as clear as I could imagine right now. I can see very clearly that I can expect to get nothing from meditating (although this doesn’t stop me from wanting shitloads).

    And as a result I will continue to sit. I really don’t have any choice.

    I started meditating about 5-7 years ago because I was in a deep anxious depression about the death of the planet from climate change. Laugh if you want, but it is a problem I have been worried about for over twenty years and at that point I was (and am) convinced it is here.

    The current relapse I am dealing with is due to the current drought in California. It is the worst winter I have had in forty years of living in the over-irrigated mess that is Southern California. And last year we got about as much rain as Death Valley (3.2 inches in 2013 vs 2.5 average for Death Valley).

    After a long hot and dry summer I treasure our winter. Clouds, rain, cold, I really wake up, go hiking, take longer bike rides and love, love, love the cool, damp and green season. This year it is gone, nothing but hot, dry, dead weather. The hills I love hiking in are dead and brown.

    On my worst days I feel like the world around me has gone to sleep in the midst of an emergency. Thinking of the rich bastards who spending a billion dollars a year to stall any meaningful action on climate change makes me seethe.

    In other words, I’m pushing every one of my panic buttons. And as I mentioned above, during the day, believe me, I can see myself doing this and let it rest.

    At night, not so much.

    All this said, whether it is do to the meditation or not I have no idea, compared to 5-7 years ago I’m in clover. But sitting here writing this on an 85 degree, dry as death March day, I’m not a happy camper.

    Hope this clarifies stuff. Like I said, I type very slowly so putting up this M.S. took a good fifteen minutes. Just be assured I’m not some suicidally depressed zennie crying out in to the wilderness.

    I’ve just seen better times.

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