I did a thing on Reddit recently. I’m not sure if it qualified as a true AMA (Ask Me Anything) or not since I didn’t do it live. Well… I was alive when I did it. But I didn’t answer people live on the Internets. You can see the whole thing here.
ANYWAY, one of the questions I got there really puzzled me. The question went: “Suppose a person denotes your lineage and your teacher as Buddhism unrelated to Zen, because there are several quotations from Zen patriarchs denouncing seated meditation. Would you be fine admitting that your lineage has moved away from Zen and if not, how would you respond?”
So I replied, “I do not know of any quotations from Zen patriarchs denouncing seated meditation. That wouldn’t make any sense! The very word zazen means ‘seated meditation.’ Za means “to sit” and zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word “dhyana” meaning “meditation.” I would say any Zen lineage that denounces seated meditation has moved away from Zen. It would be like a bicyclist lineage denouncing two-wheeled vehicles with pedals.”
This provoked a response from another Redditor that said, “I don’t know if I should be surprised, but it looks like Brad hasn’t read the recorded sayings. Zen’s ambivalence towards meditation is pretty famous. Those whose experience of Zen comes mainly through attendance at a meditation center may sympathize with Brad’s response. Nevertheless, there is Zen critique of meditation, which sits (uncomfortably perhaps) alongside Zen’s well known advocacy of the practice.”
So I’m just sitting there reading this shaking my head and going, “Huh?”
Granted, I am not the most reliable scholar of the recorded sayings of the ancient masters. But I’ve read a fair number of books about Zen in my time. I play this down a lot in my on-line persona because I don’t want people thinking I’m some sort of expert at citing chapter-and-verse. Also because such study hasn’t been my focus. Actual practice was always more important.
But one of the reasons I hang out at Tassajara every summer is to go through their library, which contains more writings on Buddhism than I’ve ever seen gathered in a single place since they shut down the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in LA. I spend a lot of time there going though the books. I’ve actually read pretty fair number of books on Zen and Buddhism in general. They take up two and a half shelves on the bookcase behind me right now. So I know a little bit of what’s been said in the name of Zen. If Zen’s ambivalence to seated meditation was that well known, surely I’d have come across it somewhere in the past 30 years.
So I took a peek at the link the Redditor who left that comment — she calls herself Grass Skirt (I assume it’s a she with a name like that, but I don’t really know for sure) — offered. Here it is for you folks to take a look at too.
The quotations she offers up are ones like this one from the renowned scholar Carl Bielefeld: “…there is another sense in which Zen Buddhism appears to be an ‘anti-meditation’ school. For, whatever Zen monks may talk about in private, when they discuss their practice in public, they often seem to go out of their way to distance themselves from the ancient Buddhist exercises of samadhi and to criticize the traditional cultivation of dhyana. The two Japanese Zen churches, Rinzai and Soto, have their own characteristic ways of going about this: the former most often attacks absorption in trance as mindless quietism–what it sometimes calls the ‘ghost cave’ (kikatsu) of the spirit–and claims to replace it with the more dynamic technique of kanna, or koan study; the latter rejects the utilitarian component of contemplative technique–the striving, as it says, to ‘make a Buddha’ (sabutsu)–and offers in its stead what it considers the less psychologically limited, more spiritually profound practice of shikan taza, or ‘just sitting”.’
She then gives us this from Linji (Rinzai): “There are a bunch of blind baldheads who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence–but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’”
If that’s the kind of thing that constitutes “denouncing seated meditation,” I could also add this from Dogen himself: “This sitting in Zazen is not meditation. It is simply the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma. It is the practice-and-experience which perfectly realizes the state of bodhi. The Universe is conspicuously realized, and restrictions and hindrances never reach it.”
I wouldn’t call any of this stuff cases of the masters “denouncing seated meditation” if what you mean by that is that they denounced the practice of people gathering together in a room to sit silently cross-legged and wait for a bell to ring telling them the torture is finally over. I’m not really sure if that’s what Grass Skirt and friends mean, but I can see that it’s being taken that way by some of the people who read their posts.
You need to look at this kind of thing in context. All of the masters who said these things also ran places that had big rooms in the back where people gathered and sat still and silently either staring at a wall or staring at the center of the room every day, sometimes for weeks on end. There’s a sense of irony in these statements that doesn’t come across if you don’t know that.
It’s not as if they’re saying that sitting silently is not real Zen and that something else – perhaps something a lot more fun or at least less tedious – is real Zen. It’s more about what you’re doing when you sit. These statements are all aimed at getting rid of the goal-seeking behavior often associated with practice.
Then there’s a whole other thread over there on Reddit, I’m told (I haven’t been able to find it), which posits that Dogen never went to China and that he just invented his tales of traveling there and maybe even made up this whole zazen thing by himself. That’s just lunacy. But it’s typical.
Whenever a specific topic starts to get too well researched somebody’s gotta come along with a brand new theory that fits at least some of the observed facts but comes to a wild conclusion. Like the guys who say JFK was shot by his driver or shot by a guy hiding in the sewers. Theories like that have some kind of odd fascination based on their novelty. But they don’t lead anywhere. Unfortunately for those who like things exciting, the more straightforward explanations pretty much always fit the facts a lot better.
Yes, Dogen did go to China. Yes, he did receive transmission from Tendo Nyojo. No, he did not make up the whole zazen deal himself.
It is kind of neat that Dogen is now big enough in the USA to start spawning a few conspiracy theories. Now if only people would start really reading what he said and, more importantly, practicing.
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The documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen is showing in Los Angeles and San Francisco next month, and the month after that Zero Defex is playing a show in Akron to raise money for my friend Logan Lestat’s on-going cancer treatment. The movie screenings never really make anything (ticket fees go to the theaters) and, naturally, I won’t get paid for doing a charity show with Zero Defex. So I’m doing a little fund raiser/sale here to try and raise some of the $700 or so I’ll need to make it to these events.
HARDCORE ZEN MOVIE SOUNDTRACK CD
This is a 20 track CD containing all of the music used in the movie Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen plus special dialogue snippets from the film to recreate the experience of seeing the movie. Most of the film’s soundtrack was composed by me or in collaboration with the guys from Zero Defex. You will find Dimentia 13 songs here that haven’t been available anywhere ever plus some of Zero Defex’s most memorable tunes and the classic Buddha Is A Good Ol’ Boy complete (in the film you get to hear about half a line of the song). This is the original version I did in 1986 that I recently found on a cassette tape in my closet.
I made 15 copies so the first fifteen people who donate $20 or more and specifically ask for the soundtrack CD will get them.
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Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014
The events page is now updated! Take a look at where I’m gonna be!
You can see the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations:
– April 17, 2014 Los Angeles, CA
– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA
ZERO DEFEX will play on May 16, 2014 in Akron, OH