I have no idea what Zen is or how it should be done.
I don’t know what a Zen priest is or how you should ordain one.
I don’t know what it means to be a “Zen master” or even a Zen teacher.
I can’t assess the relative value of one way of practicing over another, or the results of one form of practice over the results of another form. I can’t see the point of trying.
I don’t even know what it means to be a Zen student. This is why I get so confused when people ask if they can be my student.
I’m not trying to be all tricky and “Zen” by saying this stuff. I am being completely 100% serious, straight-forward, and un-ironic. I mean this. Absolutely.
I can say a little about what Zen means to me, perhaps. To me, Zen is like some kind of crazed wild beast with big fangs and slashing claws. The task I have set for myself is to try to somehow make friends with that beast so that I can sleep next to it in the warmth of its fur with a certain degree of confidence that it probably won’t decide to tear me to pieces, disembowel me, and eat me.
This beast isn’t a kitty-cat or a puppy-dog. It’s not only not tame, it is deranged. Even if doesn’t kill me tonight, it could kill me tomorrow night. It’s totally unpredictable.
The emerging consensus of American Zen, on the other hand, seems to me an attempt to capture that beast, anesthetize it, pull out its claws and teeth, and force it to breed tame, clawless, fangless offspring. These offspring will then be slaughtered, their bodies dried and salted, then packed in plastic bags with a picture of the original beast on them and the words Wild Beast Jerky in flaming red and a slogan below that says “Can you tame the wild beast?”
Please understand that I am not trying to describe every teacher, ever center and every Zen experience that takes place within the fifty United States and its territories and possessions. I am describing what I see emerging from a consensus aggregate that is rapidly coalescing at meetings where self-selected representatives of American Zen come together to discuss what they think this thing they’re creating ought to be. And the strong consensus I see emerging is “standardization is the way to go.” Because standardization is safer and more consistent. It’s what made McDonalds such a success. They may not offer the best burger in the country, but everywhere you go it tastes exactly the same and it is statistically less likely to give you the runs.
My understanding of the beginnings of what we now know as the monastic forms of Zen practice goes like this. First there was the early group that formed around the Buddha in India. Some of what we do nowadays derives from that. They made up their monastic forms and practices as they went along.
The Buddha was not the first person to attempt to discover the deepest truths of life by sitting quietly and observing them at work within himself. Lots of people had done that. The Buddha’s great innovation was creating a way to teach others to do what he had done and transform what had been an individual practice into one that could be done in community with others.
The Buddha didn’t set out to form a religion or even a monastic order. He set out to find the truth for himself. After he had discovered that truth, he initially thought there was no point in even attempting to tell anyone about it. No one would get it. Legend has it that the god Indra asked him to teach what he’d learned to others. So Buddha gave it a try.
Fast forward a thousand years or so and we get to Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was this cranky guy who just wanted to sit by himself and discover the truth. He traveled north from his Indian homeland and found a cave somewhere in what we now call China. He sat in his cave for nine years meditating alone.
Word got around about the weirdo sitting in the cave and pretty soon four people — three men and one woman — wanted to join Bodhidharma in his cave. I like to imagine them one-by-one sheepishly coming into the cave and asking if they could sit with him. Bodhidharma was probably all scowly and mean-looking just like the caricatures and statues depict him. He probably was all like, “Grrrr. All right. Just sit over there. And don’t bug me or I’ll boot your ass out of here!” He probably made them clean up the place and do other stuff in exchange for allowing them to stay.
This is the bottom line for absolutely everything we do in Zen practice. It is all there just to make it possible to engage in a personal meditation practice within a group. Nothing else. Anything that looks like an attempt to standardize things is only there to make sure nobody’s practice gets in the way of anyone else’s. That’s all. We are there to support each other and stay out of each other’s ways. The hierarchies exist only to make things run smoothly. If they do anything other than that, they’re just causing needless interference.
No one can measure anyone else’s practice. Well they can if they want, but that’s a stupid waste of time and energy. Anyone who tells you your practice is better or worse than anyone else’s has no idea what they’re talking about. Anyone who tells you you’ve achieved something or solved something or failed to achieve or solve something is just messing with your head. There’s no reason to listen to that kind of bullshit.
Your teachers aren’t even teachers. They’re just people who’ve done this stuff a little longer. They’re working on the same thing you are. You can learn from them sometimes. And other times you’d be better off not doing it their way.
I never try to teach anyone anything. My whole approach is that I am trying to learn as much as I can about zazen, and the role of being the guy who gives the talks and does the one-on-one meetings during retreats and the writing of books helps me do that. If other people benefit from watching that happen, great. That’s beautiful. But I have no message for anyone. I’m not kidding about that either. I really mean it.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the Zen tradition is that anyone who has been made a “master” can make anyone else a priest or a “master” in any way they see fit. And nobody can say dip about it.
No one’s ordination has to be approved by any committee or organization. No one has any say about how much experience the ordained person needs to have or how many bureaucratic hoops they need to jump through except that person’s teacher.
To me, that’s absolutely genius. Sure, a few bureaucratic religious institutions claiming Zen as their lineage exist, but they have absolutely no more claim to legitimacy than some guy who decides on a whim that the dude he just met on the elevator deserves dharma transmission.
There are a bunch of folks in America who would like to change this. It’s too chaotic! It’s out of control!
But to me the chaotic and uncontrollable nature of the current, time-proven system is precisely the point.
In the past, the wilder side of Zen has always been allowed to co-exist with the institutional aspect. It is well understood in Asia that the big box store-like Buddhist institutions owe their very existence to pioneers who were completely out of control and un-institutionalized. I very much fear that in America what we are going for is the complete destruction of the wilder side of Zen. This is the American Way. Same as what we did to our own homegrown traditions that evolved in the same way. Same as what we did to our unique downtowns and our independent burger stands.
I feel very certain that the folks in America who want to turn all this chaos into Wild Beast Jerky will eventually succeed. This makes me really sad. Their dharma descendants will sit in judgement of that which cannot be judged and American Zen will devolve into nothing more than just another bullshit institutional religion with pretty robes and cute ceremonies surrounding a dead and hollow shell of something that once could have been important.
Even so I fully intend to keep fighting all the way down. If you want to join the losing side, I will have your back. Let’s at least give them a fight they won’t forget. Info below.
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 8-9, 2016 Berlin, Germany 2-Day Retreat
October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands 12:30pm Workshop at KenKon
October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands 8:00pm talk Wageningen University, Impulse Building, Ncounter room
October 12, 2016 Brussels, Belgium Talk
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 18, 19, 20, 2016 Salzburg, Austria, 1-Day-Retreats
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat
* * *
* * *
Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
* * *
I’ve got a new book out now! Stay up to date on my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
* * *