OK. Today I was trying to answer some of the e-mail people keep sending me. As I’ve said before, I read everything. But I’m usually so swamped with “real job” stuff that it’s nigh on impossible to answer even a fraction of what I get.
The following e-mail expresses some things that I get asked a lot. So maybe if I answer this it’ll be relevant to a number of people out there with similar questions:
“I wonder if the following could be a subject for one of your posts. I’ve done zen meditation for 2 years now. I started joining a soto-shanga in Amsterdam for 6 months. I don’t regret it. They taught me how to sit, how to breathe and meditating in a group can be really uplifting. But there were a few things I didn’t like: the sutra-chanting, the bowing for the buddha-statue and the ‘responsible monk’ had kinda authoritarian habits. For example, he didn’t like my questions, though I found them quite innocent. When I asked him why wearing a kesa was so important for him, he gave me a long, deep glance and stated: “My kesa is the cosmos.” And when I asked him what 25 years of zen exactly brought him, he gave me an even deeper, not to say furious glance, and said solemn: “The essence”. I couldn’t help laughing, and he didn’t like it. So I left his sangha and started to sit by myself, at home.
“Now a lot of zennies try to convince me that sitting on your own is impossible. I can never do it without a good teacher, they say. Now I would like to have one, but I can’t find him. My meditation is slowly getting better and deeper. I might not be a perfect zen-BUDDHIST, but my wife, who is Japanese, always says: “You western people confuse the paraphernalia of eastern wisdom with eastern wisdom itself. Forget about the kesas, the statues and the sutras.” I try to avoid evil and try to practice good. Already for years I’ve tried to solve the lines from the Heart-sutra ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. My question is: is my zen worse than ‘sangha-zen’? Isn’t it better to avoid crap teachers and stick to the classics zen literature and face the challenge at home? And: do I have to be a convinced zen-buddhist to practice pure zen? I wonder I you one day could elaborate on this. If not: already your writings are a source of inspiration and encouragement to me. Thanks a lot.”
And thank you for asking!
I’ve just come back from the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and it’s got me thinking a lot along these lines. SFZC is probably a bit like the place you attended — a large, professionally run Zen center with an established physical space and a permanent staff. The staff at SFZC rotates, as do the staff of most similar centers, but the positions are filled at all times. In order to keep a place like that going you have to establish it more or less the same way you run a business. There has to be a hierarchy within the organization, there have to be policies, there needs to be a set curriculum for students and established rules and rituals for members to follow. Otherwise the whole thing goes to Hell.
When most people think of Zen, they think of places like this, whether they know it or not. The great monasteries of China and Japan both ancient and modern were and are all run pretty much the same way.
This is one stream of Zen. I’d say it’s probably the main one, the one you’re most likely to run into if you Google the words Zen and the name of your home town and head off to the first place that pops up on the screen.
I happen to have studied in a different style. The two teachers I had were from lines under the overall umbrella of the Soto school. But both of these lines rebelled against the way the Soto school as an organization ran things. The Soto school, to their credit, allows and even to some extent encourages this.
Since Buddhist teachers tend to call themselves “priests” and/or “monks,” most people tend to assume things are run pretty much like the Holy Roman Catholic Church runs things. But that’s not really the case. I could write a book about this — and I am kinda/sorta doing that — but this is s’posta be a casual blog entry so I won’t go into it much more than that.
I cannot say across the board whether the institutional type way of running things is better or worse that the very loose way things were handled by my teachers (and by my teachers’ teachers too). It’s up to the individual to see what works for him or her. I can say most definitely that I would not have pursued this Zen thing as long as I did if the only forms available were the institutional ones. Not a chance in Hell. Some representatives of the institutional stream might think that’d have been a good thing. Let ’em think whatever they want.
However, I am glad those Zen institutions exist and I often encourage people who write me in far away places to go to them. I do not know first-hand whether or not the particular teachers in any of these institutions are good, bad or indifferent. Some people, like Mr. “I Found The Essence” you talked to take themselves waaaaaaayyyyyyyy too seriously. Some are far too concerned with matters of protocol, ritual and who’s higher than who in the pecking order and all that nonsense. Some don’t give a shit about any of that stuff but allow a certain amount of it to go on in their places just so everything keeps running smoothly. You don’t know until you spend some time with them. It’s not something you can usually judge very quickly.
If the only places to practice in your neighborhood seem like big ol’ monk factories and you hate that, I’d say go there anyway. Sit with your hate. Maybe it’s justified. Just sit with it. Maybe your impressions are completely wrong. Don’t matter. Just sit. If the place is really a snake pit, you’ll probably figure it out soon enough and you can leave. Or maybe you’ll be one of those idiots who follows the cult leader to the Kool Aid® tray, in which case I can’t really help you. I tend to suspect that those types don’t read my stuff anyway (or else they do read it and leave snippy comments).
I am a firm believer that the right teacher will always appear eventually. Sometimes it takes a while. Just keep at it. If you have a decent bullshit detector installed in your head you probably won’t get led too far astray. Just pay attention. Ask questions. Don’t accept easy answers. Don’t be a sheep following the herd. Don’t drink the Kool Aid®.
Also don’t get any fantasies that if only you could come sit with me — or some other teacher whose stuff you’ve read — everything would be just peachy. My dad met someone on-line recently who was a huge fan of my books. My dad said he was nervous about meeting this person face to face because she might expect him to be just like me. I said, “Dad, even I am not just like ‘me’ when people meet me in person!” The same goes for absolutely anyone else. If you could get in your time machine and go meet Dogen or Nagarjuna or even Buddha himself I bet you dollars to donuts you’d be tremendously disappointed in them. And I can guarantee you’d be disappointed in me!
It’s OK to keep sitting on your own and it’s OK to be skeptical of the various teachers you encounter. It’s true that you do need a teacher. But you don’t need to be in a big, huge rush to find your teacher. If you really know how to listen everyone and everything becomes your perfect teacher.