One of the main things that originally attracted me to Zen is the fact that Zen does not proselytize. On the contrary, rather than trying to get as many people as possible to come to join their groups, the Zen Masters of old routinely told people who tried to enter their practice spaces to go away. In order to enter a monastery, a wanna-be monk had to wait on the doorstep for several days in order to concretely demonstrate that he was deadly serious about being there.
In our contemporary times, things have changed. Running a large Zen, or any other type of meditation center — especially in a big city — costs a lot of money. In order to function, these centers need to get as many members as possible. In order to play the capitalist game of continuous growth, they have to constantly find ways to attract more and more people and thus more and more donations so as to grow bigger and bigger and bigger.
This has changed the fundamental nature of much (though certainly not all) of Zen in the West. It has, in fact, altered it from its original purpose and thus transformed much (again, not all) of what passes for Zen these days into something that is absolutely not what it’s supposed to be.
What we’re getting instead is something approaching a sort of Zen Gospel of Prosperity. The Gospel of Prosperity or Prosperity Theology is a phenomenon that developed in the United States in the 20th Century. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the subject “the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity.”
Most smaller Zen centers don’t engage in anything like the Gospel of Prosperity. But it hardly even matters whether they do or don’t. In our media driven age, it’s the larger places with the bigger overhead to maintain who generally set the tone for things because they’re louder and more visible. The general population has come to expect Zen centers and the teachers in them to be warm, welcoming and above all accommodating.
The selling of meditation as a commodity has only increased the confusion in the marketplace. Every form of meditation is getting called “Zen” these days and the average person on the street has no idea what is what. A very prominent and prosperous teacher of Transcendental Meditation™ (TM™) that I recently became aware of is routinely referred to as being “Zen” in the press and doesn’t seem to worry all that much about correcting this. After all, Zen sells — at least the word “Zen” sells. If there were only one person doing this it wouldn’t matter very much, but, in fact, it’s a widespread trend.
TM™ is a highly a commercialized and expensive program. They advertise four easy payments of $240, though apparently you can end up shelling out around $2500 to get the same “secret mantra” every newbie gets (which is “hong-saw,” by the way). So obviously they’re going to be heavily invested in trying to demonstrate to potential consumers that their programs get results.
TM™ is just one of the many prominent commercial meditation programs cashing in on the confusion surrounding the word “Zen.” All of these programs are as highly profit-driven as any megachurch — though, like megachurches, they’re mostly technically “nonprofit organizations.” So, naturally, they proselytize as much as possible.
There’s a very good reason why Zen does not proselytize. Zen does not work for people who do not actively want to do it.
As regular readers know, I’ve been trying to create a Zen center in Los Angeles. But I have no interest at all in starting yet another Zen megachurch or commercial meditation superstore.
I don’t want a thing that needs to grow, that needs to keep adding new members in order to survive, compelling us to try to convince people to come. I’d like to have a space available for people who are serious about practice, who already know that they need it. I do not want be forced to accept people who aren’t actually serious just because we need more butts on cushions and more dollar bills in the collection plate.
I do not have any interest in spending a single moment trying to teach someone about Zen who has been convinced to come. This isn’t just because I’m a sourpuss or some kind of elitist — although maybe that’s kind of what I am sometimes. It’s because doing that is a complete waste of my time and theirs. Zen is not for people who have been convinced or sold on it. It can’t do any good at all for someone who has come for that reason.
I sent an email about this to my friend Zuiko Redding who runs the tiny but very sweet Cedar Rapids Zen Center. She said, “A Zen center is not a business. It’s there as a haven for suffering human beings and it’s not about size and fame and all those things Dogen told us to steer clear of. Letting people know it’s there through social media, the newspaper, fliers, and word-of-mouth is fine. Suffering people need to know in order to come. If the emphasis is on growth, the dharma gets diluted.”
I’d go further and say that any emphasis on growth doesn’t just dilute the dharma. It mutates the dharma and distorts it into something completely unrecognizable.
Because many of those selling it are trying to grow their organizations, much of the commercial meditation stuff out there is all about feeling good. It’s sold as a means to success. But the very concept of success is antithetical to the dharma.
There is no success.
It doesn’t matter whether you define success as riches and fame and a brand new Escalade or if you define success as achieving your spiritual potential. Even if you define success as feeling more connected and joyful, compassionate and caring, naturally and effortlessly centered and free from suffering you’re still chasing after a fantasy. You’re still on precisely the same treadmill as every other junkie or consumer. Commercial meditation products are designed specifically to make you feel good so you’ll keep on paying for more.
I’m taking a hard line on this because it is vital to what I want to do. This isn’t just some tangential matter that can be overlooked. It is absolutely essential.
I hope I haven’t turned off every potential donor by saying this stuff. But, then again, if I have maybe that’s OK too.
If you’re still not completely disgusted, consider helping me and my friends in Los Angeles make a Zen center. Contribute to our fundraiser to make the Angel City Zen Center come alive! Every little bit helps a lot! Click here to learn more!
I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page! (I have no qualms about selling books about Zen. It’s hard work to write them! Selling Zen is an entirely different matter.)
October 27, 2015 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
October 30, 2015 Canton, Ohio ZERO DEFEX at Buzz Bin
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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