I’m almost done with an e-book that will be titled Hardcore Zen Strikes Again! and will consist mainly of articles I wrote back in the early 2000’s for my first website. Most of these articles haven’t been available since around 2003 when I took them off the web in anticipation of the release of my book Hardcore Zen. I’ve added new introductions and afterwords to each of the articles as well as a new introduction and afterword to the book as a whole. Plus I’ve also included a chapter that was cut out of Hardcore Zen and an article I wrote for a magazine I’ll bet none of you out there has ever even heard of.
And there’ll be another new item soon too. People started talking about an audio book version of Hardcore Zen almost as soon as the book was released. But nobody ever did anything. Around a year and a half a go a small record label approached me with a concrete offer to do the audio book. When I mentioned this to the publishers of the printed book, they were like, “Don’t do it with them! We’ll do an audio book!” OK, said I, let’s do it.
Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. After about six months of this I asked the publishers what was going on. “We don’t wanna do it anymore,” they said.
Oh. OK. Thanks for letting me know, I replied.
So I decided to do it myself. My friend Pirooz Kaleyah, director of Shoplifting from American Apparel, gave me a microphone. I plugged it into my MacBook, opened up Garage Band and started reading the book out loud. It’s a pretty D.I.Y. thing, but it sounds good. Almost professional!
I added some of the actual music I talk about in the text and a few other surprises to try to give a bit of extra value to people who’ve already read the book. I’ll be plugging both of these like mad here once they’re done.
OK. So what about the subject of “spiritual tourism” and “spiritual journalism” mentioned in the title of this piece?
The response my last blog posting got me started thinking about the difference between what I think of as spiritual tourism and spiritual journalism and actual Buddhist practice. I need to be clear from the outset: Spiritual tourism and journalism are not bad things. In fact I appreciate them. Especially some of the journalism that’s being produced these days. But I think a lot of people are getting confused and think that they’re the same thing as Buddhist practice. Or they appear to think that Buddhist practice in the 21st century ought to resemble spiritual tourism and journalism more.
Spiritual tourism and journalism both involve going out into the big wide world and sampling a little bit of a lot of different types of spiritual practices. In the case of spiritual journalism it’s essential to do this. A person who wishes to write about a wide variety of spiritual practices needs to know about a wide variety of spiritual practices. She needs to read about them and to experience them. She needs to know the differences between them and the historical reasons for those differences.
In the case of spiritual tourism, it’s perfectly acceptable to go around to various spiritual centers and suchlike and see what’s out there.
But in doing either of these activities, it is impossible to get any real depth of experience in any of the the spiritual practices you sample. You cannot get deeply and fully into a practice that takes decades to develop by taking a weekend retreat or a week-long retreat or a month-long retreat. You sure can’t get that by stopping by for the Saturday morning service a few times.
In my case, I chose a different path. But this is kind of the way I like to do things. For example, ever since I was a little kid I wanted to go to Japan. When I became an adult I figured it was at last possible for me to really go there. But I didn’t want to experience Japan as a tourist. I didn’t want to run over there and spend a week gawking at the sights in various cities. I wanted to deeply experience Japan. And to do that I had to live there, full time, for at least a year, I figured.
I found a way to do that by joining the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. And after that I really immersed myself by getting a job at Tsuburaya Productions, a company one could argue is an important producer of Japanese culture. I lived in a Japanese house, married a Japanese woman, and I spoke and read Japanese every single day for eleven years. It was about the Japanese-est Japan experience one could have.
I took this even further by limiting my Japan focus even more narrowly. In my decade-plus of living in Japan I rarely left Tokyo and its suburbs. I loved Tokyo and wanted to thoroughly experience just that one city. In order to do so, I had to limit my experience of the rest of Japan. I visited Osaka and Kyoto and Sapporo and a few other cities. But those were tourist excursions. I lived in Tokyo.
I’m not trying to say I’m a better person than someone who just visits Japan, or that I’m harder or tougher or whatever. But I am saying that my experience of Japan was almost entirely different from the kind of experience you get as a tourist.
In terms of Buddhist practice, you really need this kind of immersion. You have to pick one teacher and stick with that teacher for a long time. In doing so, you learn your teacher’s ways very thoroughly. But you necessarily miss out on having what one might call a “well-rounded understanding” of Buddhism as a whole.
I’ve taken some flak from people who think it’s a terrible thing that I don’t know much about Buddhism beyond what I learned from my two teachers. And if I were trying to be a spiritual journalist, maybe they’d have a point. But I’m not. I realize that by writing a blog I tend to invite people to think of me that way. I believe I’ve made it clear on a number of occasions that I’m not a journalist. But I don’t expect every one to read every last bit of writing I put up on the Interwebs.
That doesn’t mean I have no right to talk about the other things I see going on out there. It’s just that my perspective is that of a practitioner, not that of a journalist.
The fact that I have such a narrow focus in terms of Buddhism does not make me unique at all. It makes me an oddity to those who mistake me for a spiritual journalist. But among Buddhists, it’s perfectly normal. In fact, when I go to places like Tassajara I see it even more clearly. A student of San Francisco Zen Center teacher Norman Fischer, for example, will often be almost completely ignorant of the teachings of San Francisco Zen Center teachers Steve Stuckey or Reb Anderson. The focus is that narrow, even though they often live right next to each other in the same gosh darned temple. This is very typical of the way things are done in Zen practice, as well as in all other forms of Buddhism.
I’ve actually got a more well-rounded understanding of Buddhism than most Buddhists I know since I travel so much. I often end up telling people at the Zen centers I visit about how their practices differ from what folks do a couple towns away — often even when the temples in question are in the very same lineage.
There is nothing wrong with being a journalist or tourist who has had a tongue tip taste of all the things on offer from the vast smorgasbord of spiritual practices available these days. It’s fine. But their bellies are so full after all that sampling that they usually don’t have room to enjoy a full meal of just one dish. And that is a very different experience.