Zen Dojos Are Not Churches

Looking over some of the responses to my previous blog post, I think I am starting to get a handle on why I find myself so often at odds with the way a lot of people think about the matter of welcoming-ness and inclusivity in Zen.

In that previous blog post, I compared Buddhist centers to churches. The Pew Research Poll I used grouped them together and I followed suit. But actually I don’t think we should consider Zen Buddhist centers as a sort of church. 

They are dojos, just like in the martial arts.

In Japan you’ll often hear a space where zazen is practiced referred to as a “zazen dojo,” just like a place where karate is practiced is a “karate dojo” and a place where aikido is practiced is an “aikido dojo.” I think it’s better to think of a Zen center as a “zazen dojo” (or “zen dojo” if you like) rather than as a church. This can help make sense of why issues of inclusivity and suchlike are handled differently in a zen dojo from how they’re handled in churches.

A karate dojo or an aikido dojo that only admitted people of one particular race or refused to admit people based on their sexual preference would look very suspicious. Maybe such places exist, but for most of us that is unacceptable. It’s the same with a zen dojo.

It is unacceptable for a zen dojo to ever discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, and other similar matters. The Buddha accepted members of all castes and required them to mix together — much to the horror of his contemporaries. We should follow his example.

Because of the nature of the sport, most martial arts centers have separate dojos for men and women. This is not because they think one sex is superior to the other, but because they believe the training methods ought to be different. This may help us understand why zen dojos have traditionally separated the sexes. 

But there are martial arts dojos where men and women mix. And, in the west today, it is standard practice for zen dojos to be mixed-gender spaces. I think this is a good development.

Zen is a different thing from the martial arts, so the analogy isn’t perfect, especially when it comes to mixing the sexes. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful analogy and I’m going to press on with it.

So should a martial arts dojo be welcoming? This depends on how you define “welcoming.” A karate dojo ought to be welcoming to anyone who wants to learn and practice karate — regardless of race, and so forth. But there is no need for a karate dojo to be welcoming to people who aren’t willing to practice karate — and to practice karate in the style the dojo has been established to practice.

If you went to the head of a karate dojo and complained that there was too much punching and kicking and yelling, and that this made you feel unwelcome, he’d probably tell you that you were in the wrong place. Or if you told the head of a karate dojo that you didn’t like the style in which he taught karate, he’d probably tell you to look for another teacher. 

Traditionally this is how a zen dojo treated those kinds of complaints too. For starters, a zen dojo wouldn’t let anyone in unless they proved that they were up to the challenges that were going to be presented. There is a Zen tradition called tangaryo. This literally means “spending the night.” In practice it often meant spending several nights outside in front of the zen dojo, exposed to the elements and in danger of being eaten by bears, begging to be let inside (remember that in Japanese there are no true plurals, so it doesn’t necessarily mean just one night). These days tangaryo is a bit more stylized and might involve, for example, doing zazen non-stop for five or seven days.

Once you were allowed inside the zen dojo, there was work to be done. Newcomers were given the most undesirable jobs as yet another way of testing whether they had it in them to do the necessary work. Newcomers were the lowest in the social pecking order inside the zen dojo, and so, could be expected to have to endure a certain amount of poor treatment from the rest of the monks. This was not supposed to rise to the level of outright cruelty or abuse — although, unfortunately, it often did. Rather this was supposed to be another way of testing the aspiring monk’s sincerity of purpose.

This sort of thing is familiar to anyone who has trained in the marital arts. But it’s not familiar to those who walk into a zen dojo expecting it to be like a church, where everyone welcomes the newcomers with smiles and hugs and plates of freshly baked cookies. It’s also not familiar to those who expect a zen dojo to be like a business in which they will be treated like valued customers.

Sadly, this expectation for a zen dojo to be like a church or like a business where “the customer is always right” is becoming the norm in America. And, even more sadly, those who run American zen dojos are starting to believe it’s their job to treat those who enter their spaces like new members of a church or like customers to be served. So we are hearing all sorts of complaints about how our spaces must become more welcoming and feel more inclusive. And, sadly, we’re responding to them.

To repeat what I already said, a zen dojo should allow anyone who wants to practice to give it a try — regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender (if it’s a mixed space, like most are in the west), and so on. It’s also very nice when a zen dojo can make allowances for people with physical disabilities. Zazen is not as physically demanding as the martial arts and so people with physical limitations can almost always find a way to practice that works for them.

But the bottom line is that Zen is a well-established practice and philosophy with thousands of years of history that has already traveled through many different cultures. It is very important for us to remain true to the practice as it has been passed down to us. 

This means that the atmosphere at a traditional style zen dojo might be perceived as unwelcoming to someone who expects to be treated like they’d be treated in a church or in a store. I suspect this is the source of a lot of the complaints we hear from Americans who enter more traditionally minded zen dojos. 

Even our most traditional style American zen dojos are positively warm and cuddly compared to those you find in Asia. People like me who have experienced both are often astonished by the difference. Maybe a bit of that is OK. But if we start to bend further and further to the desire for comfort and ease, we’re not being true to Zen practice. 

It’s not supposed to be comfortable or easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. If it becomes comfortable or easy, it’s not zen practice. It’s like if you eliminated all the punching and kicking and yelling from karate. What’s left wouldn’t be karate. If you called it karate, you’d be cheating those who want to practice.

Zen has already shown itself to be adaptable to cultures other than the one in which it began. But one of our problems in bringing Zen into American culture is that we Americans are very quick to want to change things. The spirit of innovation runs strong in this country. And this spirit of innovation has served us well in the past. 

Zen, however, is a conservative practice. And it’s a slow moving practice. Most of the time there’s no movement at all. Change, like everything else in Zen, happens at a pace that we Americans are prone to find especially frustrating.

I’d like to suggest that we Americans should stop asking Zen to change to suit us. Rather we should practice the established tradition to the best of our ability, just as it is. After we as individuals practice in the traditional manner for a few decades, then it may be appropriate for us to ask if changes are necessary.

Until then, we ought to sit down and shut up.


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