Is Zazen Really Zen? Did Dogen Invent the Whole Thing? Did He Really Go to China?

DogenChinaI 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.

*   *   *

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.


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.

*   *   *

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

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

73 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Tactileson
    Tactileson March 20, 2014 at 1:30 pm |

    Hey Brad. I sent a donation in last night and asked for the monster flash drive in the notes section of the PayPal donation. I’m happy to help you make up the expenses, especially for such a good cause as the show in Akron!

  2. buzzard30
    buzzard30 March 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm |

    My old teacher dodged that whole issue simply by saying it’s not introspection not concentration not mindfulness not illumination but it’s zazen. That’s why it has it’s very own word! Get with it! Where’s my monster drive!

  3. mb
    mb March 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm |

    Well…kind of reminds me of a similar “controversy” that goes on in some yoga circles. There are some modern scholars who claim that physical asana practice in the West has roots that are no more than 150 years old, and owes as much to British and Swedish gymnastics of the 19th century as to the more traditional (and older) Hindu texts. But there are those who are so attached to identifying themselves as being part of an unbroken “5000 year old tradition” that such notions are considered heresy! Krishnamacarya, the forefather of both the modern Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga schools. claimed possession of an ancient text (the “Korunta”) that supposedly proved that what he was teaching was directly connected to ancient teachings. Except that nobody has ever seen this text. One claim was that the only copy Krishnamacarya possessed by eaten by insects. Others say he made it up and that it never even existed in the first place. Regardless of “origin” or “authenticity”, does that make the practice of yoga therefore invalid?

    Likewise here you have people splitting hairs over interpreting whether some exponents of Zen either disdain meditation altogether or are at best ambivalent about the practice. And before I got tired of reading the Reddit comment thread below Grass_Skirt’s article, all I could see were recycled arguments of the “sudden enlightenment” variety that no practice or methods are really needed.
    And while it’s true that the religious and cultural baggage that humans bring to their spiritual practice can often suck the marrow out of the actual intent of the practice, does that make the practice of meditation invalid and a waste of time?

    Also, the first arguments given were arguments against meditation as “trance-absorption” as opposed to “just sitting”. The buddhists speak of the jhanas, the hindus speak of siddhis or varying gradations of samadhi, states that can arise in meditation, but that are not really the point of practicing.

    So I’m with you on this. Just practice and see if such practice is beneficial. If not, then don’t practice, but don’t rely on the finely-parsed opinions of others.

  4. boubi
    boubi March 20, 2014 at 2:52 pm |

    Don’t take all that hogwash seriously.

    It’s just the byproduct of badly read texts by some morrons who think that having a big mouth about something means dominating the matter. As if “zen” were some philosopher’s work.

    You can big mouth any philosopher because they mainly (except a few) talk about some of their own ideas of how things are supposed to work without any knowledge of anything … as if talking about the contents of a box you cannot touch, rattle, sniff, even see, not even knowing if it’s there somewhere, or if it exist …

    Those kind of trolls feed their egos with this kind of bull.

    On the other side it’s good for you to be in touch with many people.

    You can always ask them if they discuss also swimming without having ever seen water 🙂

  5. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm |


    Interesting comparison between zen and yoga.

    It resonates for me because of the way I decided to treat both practices, emphasizing acting over intellect.

    In the past, when I would start a new practice, like TaiChi, I would read all I could find on the subject to try and do it the best I could.

    However, when I started yoga, I decided to read nothing about it at all. Nine years later I still haven’t opened a single yoga book. So I am unaware of all the controversy you described.

    In zen I have read quite a few books, but none about the history.

    I decided pretty early on that reading zen books was, for me, more a matter of entertainment. I’ve found the books useful mainly to encourage practice, not as sources of priceless knowledge.


  6. boubi
    boubi March 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm |

    “I could see were recycled arguments of the “sudden enlightenment” variety that no practice or methods are really needed.”

    What does it mean? That for the “sudden enlightenment” tradition no practice or methods are really needed?

    ” The buddhists speak of the jhanas, the hindus speak of siddhis or varying gradations of samadhi, states that can arise in meditation, but that are not really the point of practicing. ”

    Siddhis are powers (telepathy etc) , samadhi is a state of total immersion with things/non dualism … to the point that samadhi is, for some, THE end point of practicing; think about Dogen’s sentence :
    “Enlightened by the 10 000 things”

    1. mb
      mb March 20, 2014 at 6:17 pm |

      What does it mean? That for the “sudden enlightenment” tradition no practice or methods are really needed?
      That seemed to me to be the excuse that some people on Reddit were using to argue against the necessity for meditation.
      Siddhis are powers (telepathy etc) , samadhi is a state of total immersion with things/non dualism … to the point that samadhi is, for some, THE end point of practicing; think about Dogen’s sentence :“Enlightened by the 10 000 things”
      Well, to the nit-picky perusers of spiritual literature, there are many different “flavors” of samadhi, savikalpa (eyes open) and nirvikalpa (eyes closed), and I’ve seen others named and described. My point was that the jhanas (trance-absorption) and the “lesser” samadhis (same thing) are considered interesting distractions, to be noted and then let go of.

  7. Muddy Elephant
    Muddy Elephant March 20, 2014 at 5:42 pm |

    Sometimes we abuse language, or is it language which abuses us?

    anyhoos–I prefer the term “honest awareness” to “zazen.”

    That being said, zazen is a serious and deep word–much respect to the history and etymology….

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 20, 2014 at 9:56 pm |

    I love the picture, Brad!

    Grass-skirt’s column reminded me of this:

    meaning she had her mind made up going into the interaction.

    As I read the Pali sermons, Gautama started out teaching a number of things, including the meditation on the unlovely, the second rupa jhana in a set of five, and the conniving character of women that he later dropped from his teaching. And after the suicide of scores of monks due to their following his advice to meditate on the unlovely (and perhaps some general hysteria), he advised that his own practice before enlightenment and the way of life of the Tathagatha consisted of “the intent concentration on in-breathing and out-breathing”. That, he said, was a thing complete in itself. Sort of like shikantaza, except somehow for him in-breathing and out-breathing was a necessary part of his experience (maybe he had asthma, or CPOD).

    He spoke of the cessation of the habitual activities of speech, of inhalation and exhalation, and of perception and sensation in trance states. The exercise of volition he said, whether for merit or demerit, had consequence and gave rise to a station of consciousness and the rest of the chain of suffering, ending in grasping after self.

    Now this is it: if you will yourself to sit, that is the exercise of volition for merit or demerit. So the great patriarchs and matriarchs spoke of not-doing, and discouraged sitting to make a Buddha. I think grass-skirt mistakes this point of the teaching.

    You will notice the great ones do speak of breathing in strange and wonderous ways, not obvious ways: Bodhidharma speaking of “have no sighing or coughing in the mind”, Yuanwu speaking of “when the breath is cut off, you come back to life”. Yet the intention to set up mindfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing is something like what Foyan referred to when he said, “better not to mount the ox at all!”

    And the difficulty, as Dogen discovered (just like Gautama), was in putting the practice into words. The beauty of Bielefeldt’s “Dogen’s Meditation Manuals” is that he documents the sources that Dogen lifted Fukanzazengi from, and how many times he rewrote it (40?). How do you talk about a practice, about which it was once said: “it’s not that the practice doesn’t exist, it’s just that it’s undefiled”?

    1. boubi
      boubi March 22, 2014 at 3:13 am |

      Hi Mark

      Siddharta Gautama experienced something, he was the first one to record*, and he had to organize it, make sense fo it.

      And he did it according to his own culture, with all it’s qualities and shortcomings, he was, i imagine, rather litterate being of the nobility, so he did it the way he did it. Wrapping it all in a wordy an rather baroque indian philosophy/vision of the world.

      Something that stroke me is that, to my knowledge, we don’t know what he did.

      What was his practice? And in a way it’s good because it allows to understand that any good practice is good.

      * Then came the “historical Buddha” thing, meaning there were of course others before

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 20, 2014 at 10:05 pm |

    I tend to be unable to breath, sometimes, without thoughts like this:

    “Question is, can you find the place where volition ceases in the movement of breath, with your eyes open?

  10. boubi
    boubi March 21, 2014 at 3:06 am |


    Sorry if i hurt you trying to explain that siddis and samadhi are different things.

    Sorry again, but it’s a good thing to call things by their name, someone could be confused and make statements like the ones on Reddit you brought to our attention.

    So a fork is a fork and a spoon is a spoon.

    Siddhis don’t entail samadi and samadhi doesn’t entail siddhis.

    This said, all samadhi, jnanas et alia are “interesting distractions, to be noted and then let go of”, why not?
    Your right to thing so, as much as thinking that all cakes are sweet.

    Practice (of which we are aware of or not), methods are really needed in any tradition, be them organized or not, unless you fall into it as a child, as the lore says about Hui-neng.

    “Sudden enlightenment” is generally meant to happen as the consequence of a practice.

    But a question to an experience meditator as you seem to be, Dogen’s “shedding of body an mind”*, was it sudden or gradual?
    From the little that this illiterate read it seem to have happened abruptly, after giving a blow to one of his neighbor zazenist.

    Gashoo _/\_

    * Sorry if the wording is not completely exact

    1. mb
      mb March 21, 2014 at 10:42 am |

      Sorry if i hurt you trying to explain that siddis and samadhi are different things.
      I just re-read what I wrote originally and it does appear that I’m conflating the two. Anyway, rather than trying to defend my poor syntax, I’ll just say that I did and do know the difference and am not hurt at being misunderstood through my poor writing skills!

      I think my main point was that both siddhis (which can arise as a result of assiduous meditation practice) and jhanas/lesser samadhis (trance-absorption states which again can arise in meditation as “unusual experiences”) are considered to be hindrances or distractions and not really the point of meditation.

      And that the arguers on Reddit were trying to paint meditation in service of acquiring these states as the sole reason for some supposedly-prominent “Zen experts” being disdainful on the primacy of meditation as the central practice.

      Anyhow, I’m kind of out of place here as I’m not really a “Zen” person – I just like Brad’s approach and (most of) the discussions at this blog. If my intellectual rigor needs sharpening sometimes, then so be it!

      1. boubi
        boubi March 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm |

        Don’t worry about your syntax, mine is even worse, at times i have difficulties reading myself.

        I even learned that there are lesser and higher jnanas.

        I think we should squarely ignore the non-swimmers comments about swimming.


        1. boubi
          boubi March 21, 2014 at 3:00 pm |

          By non-swimmers i mean the Reddit ones who try to get smart playing with words.

  11. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 21, 2014 at 7:58 am |

    臨済義玄 (Rinzai Gigen): “There are a bunch of blind baldheads who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Zen-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence”

    I’m afraid there are still a lot of the like of them around…

    1. boubi
      boubi March 21, 2014 at 9:10 am |

      Until there are places where you eat and sleep for free

    2. boubi
      boubi March 21, 2014 at 9:11 am |

      Hip hip hurrah for Rinzai !


    3. boubi
      boubi March 21, 2014 at 9:12 am |

      I always appreciated you for beeing equanimous, thanks

  12. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 21, 2014 at 9:41 am |

    The Reddit page Brad linked to is disorienting.



    Case closed.

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2014 at 10:05 am |

    Natural enough to think that Zen is about focusing on senses and sense objects other than the mind and thought, since we humans tend to indulge in the latter to the exclusion of the former, and the adoption of a body-position challenge seems to require more of the former than the latter as the challenge is continued. Unfortunately for the rice-stuffing thought-flow arresters, they might as well hold their breath, as the consequences are pretty much the same.

    Alrightee, then, I know I’m going to catch flack for this, but tell me: have you ever heard or read a voice like this anywhere?

    “Intent concentration in in-breathing and out-breathing, Ananda, is the one state which, if cultivated and made much of, brings the four arisings of mindfulness to completion. The four arisings of mindfulness , if cultivated and made much of, bring the seven limbs of wisdom to completion. The seven limbs of wisdom, if cultivated and made much of, complete knowledge and release.” (SN V 328-329 Pali Text Society pg 292)

    And here’s another way to look at it:

    “The other day I wrote about how Alzheimer patients die when they forget how to breathe, and how my experience seems to lead me to remember how to breathe as I never have before.

    Speaking with friends, I thought of something I had read: a mother’s recollection of her daughter’s birth, and of the eerie silence that continued for a full minute before her child drew a breath and began to cry. As I spoke to my friends, I realized that we are all remembering how to breathe as we never have before, from the very start.”

    (from here)

  14. esfishdoc
    esfishdoc March 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm |

    Did Dogen Go to China?

    A useless question for my life and my practice.

    Seems like more distractions for people looking for distractions. Understanding that may be more important… don’t know…


  15. boubi
    boubi March 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm |

    Did Dogen Go to China?
    It makes a lot of sense when you listen to lectures from Soto folks.
    “He went because he was not satified of Eisai (Rinzai) teachings so he went to look for the “true” Zen”. Bullshit !
    Even Eisai pupils went to China.
    Everybody who could went there, as now people go to Japan.
    I wonder why this obvious sense of …. (inferiority? you tell me) keeps being spread around … it beats me.

    Was the certificate a fake?
    Who gives a bloody shit.
    If Dogen’s experience was congruous with Heart and Diamond Sutras everything was and is OK. So why bother.
    Even Yamada Moumon had words of praise for Dogen’s works. So just show the finger to those small pricks.

    Mort aux cons !

  16. boubi
    boubi March 21, 2014 at 3:34 pm |

    Can’t believe to my eyes !

    —-“It appears that Mr. Warner is unfamiliar with Carl Bielefeldt’s book Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation which unequivocally establishes that:

    Dogen invented Zazen,
    Dogen didn’t learn anything about Zen from Rujing, and
    Dogen knowingly built a church of prayer-meditation using fraud and misrepresentation.

    “Zen” exist since Boddhidarma, since that guy Siddharta, since before him… it’s a way how to know our mind true nature.
    Anyhow, congrats to Dogen to be such a genius to invent “zen”, WOW, hats down.

    There was actually NOTHING to be learned from that other guy, just taking out the shit from his own eyes. I’d like to ask Brad to give his point of view on this.

    For the last point from the near nothing i read, Dogen didn’t look as some TVpreacher, i don’t remember him making tons of money, so it seems to me, as a whole, a big heap of crap.

    I think the author wanted to make money with a scandal book and a bunch of idiots with no real life bought his load and went around (on the net) parading selfrighteously pointing fingers.

    Screw them 🙂

  17. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 21, 2014 at 4:30 pm |

    It seems that one of the reasons for some to affirm that Dogen didn’t go to China is his description of one or two monasteries in Ningbo does not correspond to what is seen nowadays. However, more recent archeological research have shown that Dogen’s description do fit with what has been found in those excavations.
    This is the same as with words. Interpreting a 16th century word at the light of the modern meaning of such word can be totally leading to misunderstanding. What with the word “desert” in Dowland’s “Lachrimae”? He’s not talking about some sort of geographical waste. He’s talking about “merits”!!!

    Boubi: “Mort aux cons!” (Death to asses)
    De Gaulle: “Vaste programme!”

    1. Fred
      Fred March 21, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
    2. boubi
      boubi March 22, 2014 at 3:17 am |

      Same morrons said that Marco Polo didn’t go to China, must have read it all on Lonely Planet, while smoking pot in Goa.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 21, 2014 at 5:35 pm |

    I have read Bielefeldt’s book. Somebody took a wrong turn, over on that other site.

    I can’t even read the site; usually I find some redeeming merit in what people are saying, and something to relate to, but although I tried I couldn’t keep reading either side of that dialogue.

    It’s true that apparently the first attempt at a manual of zazen was relatively late, in China in the 12th century or so (think I got that from Bielefeldt!). Nevertheless, the scuttlebutt is that the first patriarch in China sat nine years in front of a wall. Bielefeldt so disbelieved in Dogen that he spent a year at Antaiji, organized a Dogen anniversary conference at Stanford (1998?), and has been part of a project at Stanford translating Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Uh-huh.

    It’s easy to understand the general lack of any mention of zazen in the Chinese Zen texts (Bill Porter aka Red Pine says in “Zen Baggage” that he likes to call it zen even in China, apparently there’s a province in China where it was described with the Chinese precursor of the “Zen” and not Ch’an); think of how many times Brad has actually discussed instruction for zazen here on his blog. Not so easy to talk about.

    The teaching in China I think was a break-away from the fastidious attention to rules and details of the teaching in India, and I also imagine that Bodhidharma sat for nine years because he didn’t know what to say about practice in his new homeland– his interaction with the emperor was somewhat less than satisfying for the emperor at the time.

  19. fregas
    fregas March 21, 2014 at 5:59 pm |

    I like how according to the poster’s references, rinzai got around meditation through koan study and soto got around it by practicing shikantaza:

    “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”.

    These seem to me to be both forms of meditation! They may just be different from what some monks were doing and different from each other.

  20. Jinzang
    Jinzang March 21, 2014 at 6:01 pm |

    Sorry to say this, but Zen attracts its share of cranks. I don’t mean Brad or any of the esteemed commenters here, but there’s a bunch of cranks out there who will tell you what Zen is REALLY ALL ABOUT and how you have missed the point entirely. And unlike New Age or Hindu cranks, who tend to be sweet and ethereal, the Zen cranks have a mean streak to them.

    1. Alan Sailer
      Alan Sailer March 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm |

      A few speculations:

      One guess would be that the (apparent) ambiguity of zen allows less grounded cranks to think that whatever crazy ideas they have are somehow true zen. They can then go full crank without fear of contradiction.

      Other traditions tend to have more settled dogma, which would make it easier to both identify and exclude cranks.

      Also, as Brad had written in the past, many people seeing zen from the outside think it is an “anything goes” tradition. So they feel free to plug in their id and go nuts.

      Finally, there is also the whole crazy wisdom section of zen tradition…


      1. Alan Sailer
        Alan Sailer March 22, 2014 at 1:39 pm |

        Another obvious thought: self selection ie hang around a lot of zen people and you are going to meet more crazy zen cranks.

        And, Brad, as a zen “master” is also going to attract more zen people, of both types.


  21. Fred
    Fred March 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm |

    “I can’t even read the site; usually I find some redeeming merit in what people are saying, and something to relate to, but although I tried I couldn’t keep reading either side of that dialogue. ”

    There isn’t any dialogue. There’s just one-upmanship and posturing putdowns.

  22. Bizzle
    Bizzle March 21, 2014 at 8:29 pm |

    That’s what she said!

  23. Pjotr47
    Pjotr47 March 22, 2014 at 3:48 am |

    In those sayings of Zenmasters they are not denouncing zazen. They are denouncing trying to get somewhere by willpower. They are telling how not to do zazen.

  24. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm |

    Jinzang wrote: “Zen cranks have a mean streak to them.”

    I think it’s because of the connection with the samurai. People get into Zen with in the back of their minds the idea of acting like samurai. Problem: samurai were military, and the military are not renowned for their gentleness or subtlety…

    1. boubi
      boubi March 23, 2014 at 5:20 am |


      You forgot to say that dharma has nothing to do with killing people, be it performed by samurai, gangster or whoever else.

      For sure grasping sunnyata may give better survival performances, since it unclutters the mind.

  25. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm |


    I am reading a biography of Erwin Schrodinger, the physicist who played a major role in establishing modern quantum mechanics.

    In my experience, quantum mechanics rivals zen for incomprehensibility.

    Schrodinger studied the Vedanta and it influenced his thinking about physics. In 1925 he posed these questions, that he said cannot be answered yes or no, but lead on in an endless circle :

    Does there exist a self?
    Does there exist world outside Self?
    Does this self cease with bodily death?
    Does the world cease with my bodily death?

    In 1960 in an essay titled “What is real?” his answer was:

    “I have therefore no hesitation in declaring quite bluntly that the acceptance of a really existing material world, as the explanation of the fact that we all find in the end that we are empirically in the same environment, is mystical and metaphysical.”

    To paraphrase, nothing is real.

    Kind of cool.


  26. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 22, 2014 at 4:56 pm |

    I have tea with a friend every once in awhile, and the last time we got together, he mentioned that he has had an experience I have not had which informs his view of things, namely hallucination of a world that seemed totally real (thanks to jimson).

    I’ve heard two people now recount such experiences. The story of the second one is more amusing, so I’ll share that one: he heard a knock at the door, and opened it to find three strangers, who asked if they could come in; he said sure, and they sat around talking for hours, at which point he asked them to leave; they said, are you sure you want us to leave, and when he said yes they walked out right through the wall.

    My friend emphasizes to me that our reality could be entirely a trick of the mind. I emphasize to him that somewhere between falling asleep and waking up is an action that takes place in the movement of breath, as never before, and I don’t really know that the nature of reality matters.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 22, 2014 at 5:19 pm |

      Waking up from the dream within a dream takes the intent to walk through
      the wall.

    2. boubi
      boubi March 23, 2014 at 5:25 am |

      A point for Berkeley.

      Thanks to the guy who let me know Berkeley recently.

  27. jiesen
    jiesen March 23, 2014 at 2:14 am |

    i sometimes get the same with pureland buddhists…like…i’m pretty sure the monastics are typically just utilizing pureland buddhism to keep ppl on the path; and i believe the also see the value in chanting…
    but then, the stuff pureland buddhist practitioners says…like, crazy stuff…it’s totally like…Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Taoism, Vajrayani, sorta all rolled into one…and of course meditation is always referred to as “oh, that’s not my dharma door.”
    now, one argument is that if you keep an erect posture while chanting, it’s similar to zou-wang(zazen, Taoist meditation.)

    but, my arguement on that is that if there was no Sakyamuni, who utilized seated meditation(regardless of what type vipassana, etc…) there would be no Amitabha…then i thought…well, may be not. may be Amitabha is of a completely different “Buddha” and Buddhism. look at how similar Janism is to Buddhism…

    but, i have yet to find anything that replaces seated meditation.

    i don’t know why anyone would try to debunk Dogen saying that he never went to China.

    one thing i would say about that is the “great robe of liberation chant.” no other schools aside from the CaoDong have it as far as i know…Dogen sure knew a lot about Tiantong Rujing…?

  28. jiesen
    jiesen March 23, 2014 at 2:20 am |

    one thing i can definitely say, from scholars to individual buddhist sects and individual practitioners: they want to mash everything into their own perspective, even me….so i just accept the fact that i might be wrong…no perspective, is the most perspective.

    recently, it occurred to me, that the buddhism i practice now…may not be anything like the original form from sakyamuni…truly, i have no idea because i wasn’t there.

    trying to gauge history from a vantage point of 2500+yrs, is like trying to see the past through a pin hole. or trying to follow a string back 2500+yrs.


    i just try to focus on what i think is right for me now…

    mind you, the lust too know exactly what happened historical is very strong l0l!!!

  29. jiesen
    jiesen March 23, 2014 at 2:30 am |

    and mind you, at the same time…the Soto Zen that ppl typically practice nowadays, doesn’t always seem to be like what Dogen taught, or at least talked about. but of course, extremely similar in many many ways as well…again, ppl just mash whatever they want, into whatever they want, to be whatever they want…they say things like “well, my friend saw Okumura Roshi drink a beer in a documentary, so, drinking is not breaking the precepts.” or some crap like that. or “oh cheese is ok to eat, but don’t eat egg!”

    its said that teachings of sakyamuni has been traditionally related to the five types of ghee(diary). and some say sakyamuni accepted a diary dish from Sujata, some say it was rice milk etc etc etc…


  30. boubi
    boubi March 23, 2014 at 5:22 am |

    Alan Sailer

    “In my experience, quantum mechanics rivals zen for incomprehensibility.”

    – – – – — – – – –

    IMO zen is more or the incommunability register than incomprehensibility.

  31. boubi
    boubi March 23, 2014 at 5:58 am |

    Alan Sailer

    “I have therefore no hesitation in declaring quite bluntly that the acceptance of a really existing material world, as the explanation of the fact that we all find in the end that we are empirically in the same environment, is mystical and metaphysical.”

    To paraphrase, nothing is real.

    – – – – – – – –

    Could it be real (whaterever the meaning) BUT having an explanation/logic that doesn’t fit into our minds?
    Minds evolved/hardwired to survive by feeding on that ripe fruit, running away from that ugly beast who wants to feed on us, mating with that one/those ones (mate as much as possible*), planning for a better living.

    Again, many philosophers being “right” just having different point of view? As for light particules or wave behaviour?

    BTW in the Lukhang murals of the mahasiddhis, there is a painting showing some adepts seeing some kind of canvas-like structure (pixels) in the world …

    Hormone driven or following some divine command to grow and multiply, your choice

  32. Bizzle
    Bizzle March 23, 2014 at 7:24 am |

    … and nothing to get hung about?

  33. zenfor1zenforall
    zenfor1zenforall March 23, 2014 at 7:41 am |

    Other than getting everyone worked up into a state, triggering sympathetic nervous system hormonal responses, stimulating testosterone levels, and giving everyone a chance to chime in with their take on things, what exactly is the point of this discussion?

    People change. Zen changes. Buddhism changes.

    So what?

  34. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 23, 2014 at 10:52 am |

    Imagine a room full of people, sitting on the floor facing the wall, saying absolutely nothing for hours at a time.

    Now imagine those same people, mumbling to themselves into the ethersphere all at the same time, talking out loud because of the intensity of what they’re trying to keep together. I used to mumble out loud when I worked as a travel agent, and in the office we called it an occupational hazard.

    Welcome to the comment thread of Brad’s blog! It’s fun! 🙂

  35. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 23, 2014 at 11:00 am |

    “Hormone driven or following some divine command to grow and multiply, your choice”– uh, ok, I’ll take two from column A, and one from column B (we’re all bonobos, on Brad’s thread! strawberry fields, forever.).

    jiesen, check out “Indian Buddhism”, by A. K. Warder. Here’s the blurb:

    “This book describes the Buddhism of India on the basis of the comparison of all the available original sources in various languages. It falls into three approximately equal parts. The first is a reconstruction of the original Buddhism presupposed by the traditions of the different schools known to us. It uses primarily the established methods of textual criticism, drawing out of the oldest extant texts of the different schools their common kernel. This kernel of doctrine is presumably common Buddhism of the period before the great schisms of the fourth and third centuries BC. It may be substantially the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, though this cannot be proved: at any rate it is a Buddhism presupposed by the schools as existing about a hundred years after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone other than the Buddha and his immediate followers. The second part traces the development of the ‘Eighteen Schools’ of early Buddhism, showing how they elaborated their doctrines out of the common kernel. Here we can see to what extent the Sthaviravada, or ‘Theravada’ of the Pali tradition, among others, added to or modified the original doctrine. The third part describes the Mahayana movement and the Mantrayana, the way of the bodhisattva and the way of ritual. The relationship of the Mahayana to the early schools is traced in detail, with its probable affiliation to one of them, the Purva Saila, as suggested by the consensus of the evidence. Particular attention is paid in this book to the social teaching of Buddhism, the part which relates to the ‘world’ rather than to nirvana and which has been generally neglected in modern writings Buddhism.”

    “About the Author
    Dr. Warder is Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit at the Uniersity of Toronto.”

    And from the comments on Amazon:

    “Warder is one of the giants of his generation on Buddhist research, casting a long shadow over his time teaching at the University of Toronto. Though semi-retired, he still occassionally teaches a class on the history of Asian Buddhism for the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, and this book, no surprise, is a main text for that class, as well as the one on Introductory Buddhism. It really is one of the classic works on the period of early Buddhism, a time that goes largely ignored in the modern West’s taste for Mahayana forms of Buddhism. Most don’t realize that Buddhism quickly split up into nearly two dozen schools with some fairly significant differences between them. Warder covers not only them, but also the tangled history and context that shaped these early Buddhists. It is detailed and thorough to a level that would boggle the layperson, but is well worth the time and concentration needed if you are specifically interested in this time period. Not only does it contain good chapters on what you would normally expect, such as the Buddha’s life and doctrines, but there are also chapter length discussions on issues that are often sidelined, such as how the Buddhist writings were preserved and collected, and how popularization effected it’s teachings. Over all, it’s a grande job, so don’t be afraid to have it imported.” (here)

  36. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 23, 2014 at 11:11 am |

    Then buy yourself a set of the first four collections of the sermon volumes, if you are curious about what Gautama taught. I think what you’ll find is that the information in these volumes is amazing, and that it is ignored largely due to the difficulty in conveying the phenomena of trance to persons who have not consciously experienced the phenomena of trance. And don’t even start talking about how “the way is entered”, as Bodhidharma did, because we all know that everyday life is the way and nobody is ever in a trance in everyday life around here. Actually here, perhaps, but not around here:

    Bodhidharma: “Where are we going?”
    Huike: “Please go right ahead– that’s it.”
    Bodhidharma: “If you go right ahead, you cannot move a step.”
    (Denkoroku #30)

  37. boubi
    boubi March 24, 2014 at 9:47 am |

    Dedicated to Berkeley and other enthusiasts :

    1. boubi
      boubi March 24, 2014 at 9:54 am |

      Some enthusiasts :

      from Lukhang murals

      1. boubi
        boubi March 24, 2014 at 10:00 am |
  38. Daniel
    Daniel March 24, 2014 at 10:50 am |

    Well at the end of the day it’s very true that many popular Zen-Teachers back in China haven’t been very fond of Meditation like Zazen. It’s really a pretty new-age thing, the Zazen promoted by Japanese Teachers since Dogen.

    I personally also can hardly say that Zazen enhances the odds of liberation. Maybe it can make your prison a bit more comfortable but so can dope, sport and music. It’s just whatever you enjoy more…but at the end I don’t think liberation is more likely to occur if you sit zazen than if you watch football…but many people enjoy sitting in silence after liberation. Same here I can watch the floor for hours because it’s just fucking amazing. But now don’t think that if you do the same…aw u know 😉

    1. Andy
      Andy March 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm |

      Would that be the Travis Bickle school of Zen, C…Daniel?

      1. Daniel
        Daniel March 24, 2014 at 12:59 pm |

        Sounds cool, let’s call it like that if you want 🙂

        But in China they called it “CHAN”.

        1. Andy
          Andy March 24, 2014 at 10:33 pm |

          You mean like on here we call you CosmicBrainz?

  39. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 24, 2014 at 2:16 pm |

    Not really. now, in Putonghua, they do call it “chan”. But you have to realise that languages change, and that what they pronounce today is not necessarily what they pronounced then.
    Words borrowed from another language, on the other hand tend to keep their pronounciation as they were when they were borrowed.
    Challenge is the old Norman pronounciation of what is today, in French, “calomnie” (slander).
    The original word is dhyana pronounced jhana in prakrit, which would have given “zan-na” in Chinese. And strangely, it is exactly what they said before they abbreviated to “zan” and then “zen”…
    Get a life. The Buddha constantly taught people to sit. And sat, himself. I wonder why?

    1. boubi
      boubi March 24, 2014 at 5:10 pm |

      The Buddha constantly taught people to sit. And sat, himself. I wonder why?


      To keep them from going around and opening the fridge?

  40. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel March 25, 2014 at 5:04 am |


Comments are closed.