How Zen Ended in America, Part 1: Jumping the Shark

As mentioned in my last post and evident in the paucity of content I’ve produced here in recent months, I’ve been somewhat pulled in, and busy with other tasks – namely a book and museum exhibit on psychedelic posters, set for January. But I continue to feel pressed to externalize a few more thoughts about the collapse of the Soto Zen experiment in America, the catastrophic failures of its major proponents, leaders, and practitioners, and some reasons why I think this might have happened. The title of this piece is floated more as a proposition than as an assured dictum. Still, I think it’s a sound premise, with ample evidence to back it up.

First of all, I would especially dissuade any young person from getting involved in it, at all. That itself says a lot. I think to gain its real benefits, it should be probably best be started in ones 20s. I’m not the only one to say so. A few years ago, I was leading Zen meditation on a college campus, and have spoken to Zen groups at colleges more recently than that and spanning decades now, so I clearly didn’t always feel this way. What’s shifted? As documented elsewhere on this site, I resigned as a “Zen priest” last year, essentially in protest of the radical leftist takeover of the entire Soto Zen establishment, as evidenced in this “repentance statement” issued by its most senior leadership, and in many other instances I won’t bother to list. Suffice it to say, the proof is extensive and damning (pick up any Buddhist magazine, for instance. They all beat the same warped “social justice” drum.) You may say, so what? Who cares? Live and let live (or you might say they’re right, in which case I have no more time for you.) As someone who was so involved for so many years, I feel a responsibility to at least digest my own experience, sharing it publicly as record in hopes it might help even one person avoid a pitfall, and support those who might likewise have struggled. I know they are out there – I’ve heard from them. Also, this all has to be understood in a broad historical context, as an epochal event or shift, as the head of the SZBA even acknowledged with pride in the linked article. Not many people are equipped to provide this critical context, and few that do seem to have the interest or courage to speak up. This magazine article about the statement was the final nail for me; I knew before that point I would split from my own “Zen Master,” but honored the seriousness of my commitment by waiting to see if there were other options; any hope to remain within the tradition’s frameworks in this country. This statement was a definitive negatory.

As a Zen “priest,” you are first-and-foremost a representative. That’s what it came down to for me. Being an Asian religion, there is an especially strong emphasis on tradition, lineage, and sublimating one’s personal ego to the will of one’s teacher. This in itself is the source of potentially fatal flaws, and I want to drill down into that aspect at some point. For now, I want to underscore this quality of representing a tradition. As I say, I knew I couldn’t represent my own teacher any longer, for a host of reasons. But I had spent many years, decades even, loyally training to represent the proverbial Soto Zen school. When the complete leadership of the SZBA jumped the shark, 80+ senior priests strong with hundreds more acquiescing in deafening silence, the die was irrevocably cast.

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What, me worry? Aaaayyyy.

As I say, this has to be understood historically, as is true with any religion. Years after the Buddha died, all the senior monks got together and essentially defined the tradition. After a couple centuries of it being orally transmitted, it was written down and further codified by another large gathering of ordained leaders. This process has been repeated in some shape or form in each country and culture the tradition has been introduced, for well over 2000 years now. Certainly similar processes have occurred in all the world’s major religions and denominations. This is how the SZBA must be understood; they clearly see themselves in this light. In SZBA conferences I attended years ago, the organization was in the process of setting strict standards about the training priests must undergo to not only be considered members, but to be acknowledged as bona fide teachers at all – they’ve set themselves up to be the Soto Zen Church in America. I wasn’t totally comfortable with any of this, but in Zen there has historically been this greater emphasis on the student’s personal relationship with the teacher, and I never had designs on “turning pro” and making my living as a Zen cleric. It sounded kind of idyllic at times to think one could, but I’ve never seen a practical path for that: economically, socially, or psychologically.

And that points to another huge problem. Zen priest/monks in Japan actually have a social function, like Christian ministers or priests in this country, and can survive and build lives and families and meaningfully belong in the culture. That is all but impossible for Zennists in America, and the SZBA has insured this will remain the case by intentionally alienating all but the weirdest, least productive, least psychically sound sliver of its populace. This is a profound tragedy, and a total abrogation of their collective responsibility as Zen’s self-declared “custodians.” While hubristically taking on personal responsibility to flagellate themselves for the sins of a largely mythical “patriarchy” and all the mistakes of pre-modern global civilization (Asian and European, but mostly European), they totally sold out the Zen religion, parasitically infecting it as merely a host organism to be puppeted for their own tediously radical political ends. It is truly that bad; an incomprehensible failure of moral and intellectual honesty, decency, respect, and accountability.

So Soto Zen’s teaching establishment have basically insured the tradition will remain nothing but a fringe religio-political cult in America by irrevocably alloying the tradition with identitarian neo-Marxism. This can’t be overstated, which is why I keep hammering at it. As the cultural tide continues to turn against this kind of radicalism, as it rapidly is, Zen looks to be all but washed away.

They won’t even see it coming, and as they go under they’ll think themselves martyrs to a glorious revolution. In months of truly maddening arguments with my Zen teacher, it was very, very difficult to get him to see that anything was amiss. This is a man who proudly and publicly marched with Occupy, BLM, and Antifa, often on a daily or at least weekly basis, whose 2017 New Years resolution was to get arrested protesting Cheeto Hitler. Such issues were the increasingly frequent subjects of his broadcast weekly “Dharma talks,” circulated emails, promoted teachers and programs. As I began to tentatively express concerns about the bigoted and incendiary tone of a lot of this material, he repeatedly screamed at me in denial that he had any political biases whatsoever, emphatically declaring that his political beliefs were Buddhism and reality itself. I was told to get with the program, or else. That other students had left for similar reasons was kept secret, by him and other senior students, until I separated and spoke to some myself. Basic cult behavior, in short.

On the other hand, he’d collapse and deny any accountability when challenged, on specific issues backed with stats or with arguments supported by plain reason, in turn crying, “I don’t have any authority,” “This is what people want me to do and say!”, “You must respect my views!” and the classic, “Stop censoring me!” I’m not sure he ever comprehended that he was the one with all the power, literally shouting at me to shut up in meetings with other priests, when I was just a moderate liberal guy uncomfortable with blaming “white” Christian men for everything wrong in human civilization, and reminding us all that the teachings say in 100 places, leave personal politics outside the zendo. I felt and feel sorry for him, but there are pipers to be paid. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is spiritual bypassing (another topic to dig into at some point.)

One of the few named authors of the repentance business and arguably the most respected and influential teacher in the entire Soto Zen establishment likewise deferred all accountability when I mildly called him out on it, claiming, “I didn’t really write it, I was just playing ball.” He didn’t see any problems at all, except in my having any issue. These are leading professional “Zen Masters,” with dozens of published books between them, hundreds of “disciples,” Zen centers, and apostolic heirs. I still can’t quite believe or wrap my head around it. So, I write to come to terms.

Other students who even closely shared his politics said to me that political “revolution” was all my former teacher seemed to really care about, and that he appeared to want to quit teaching Zen and just agitate full time. Once our current President was elected, 40 years of daily zazen made him no more immune to Trump Derangement Syndrome than any 18 year old girl steeped in prevalent leftist disinfo online, or a Feminism101 freshman college course, and I found his political analyses hardly any more nuanced or thought through. This was not just him. I was still on social media (since abandoned) and witnessed dozens of other Zen teachers just as or more unhinged. So the SZBA’s racialized, explicitly Maoist manifesto wasn’t a total surprise, but the dumb virulence of it still shocked.

So where does the toxic groupthink evident in their statement come from? These are professional wise people, gurus, saints even. They invariably would deny this, to a person, with an “oh we’re all sinners, dear” wave of the hand and affable chuckle. This kind of self-delusion is especially mind-bending because I’ve experienced first hand the viciousness of their reactions when really questioned. They’ll explode like powderkegs, making you wonder what’s been brewing during those thousands of hours of silent sitting. The shadow will out. To buy totally into the deep-rooted lies of identitarian regressive leftism at a scale the SZBA has; not only that but to pronounce it as literal, not just implied, religious dogma as they undeniably have – this reflects and compounds sorts of disorders that threaten to destroy not only individual psychic integrity, but healthy society itself. Which is of course their goal. This has nothing to do with Zen. This is postmodern Bolshevism, and that means revolution and division, without end.

Without getting into every single lie of the SZBA statement (and it is rife with lies, half truths, disinformation, and manipulative distortions), I’ll say that nearly every line contains major problems and points of debate. But the entire thrust of it is undifferentiated from radical leftism delineated in 1000 other places and instances, a tidy encapsulation in fact, and there are plenty of sources dedicated to dissecting the obvious problems of these ideologies, if simple reason has been so disordered you don’t just get it prima facie. I would underscore in particular the shamefully patronizing attitude it takes toward American Indian peoples it purports to support, and blacks, whom they wholesale dismiss as helpless victims who’ve contributed nothing significant to American civilization but their suffering. And it inevitably sets up “white” people, men especially, for the guillotine. Really – extend this attitude out decades, think it through (a capacity seemingly lacking for leftists): we’re talking a recipe for genocide. They of course have no clue that “white” people didn’t exist until roughly 1960. Were Poles white before then? Ukrainians? Italians? Spanish? Irish? Greeks? Jews? Finns? No, of course they weren’t. Such simple realizations are made all but impossible by the overwhelming tide of ginned-up shame, rage, and resentment that are the intent of all such pronouncements. But then, Andy Ngo is a gay Asian center-leftist and that didn’t stop Antifa from bashing his head in for being a Nazi white supremacist. That’s who the SZBA is now providing religious cover for, folks.

How did this happen? I used to practice in a Korean tradition, and I doubt they’ve gone this direction, though I haven’t checked in with them in awhile. Their founder, my first Zen teacher, was explicitly and adamantly anti-identitarian, dismantling everyone’s self images and identifications, maybe even failing at times to honor important distinctions (supposedly a celibate monk, he secretly slept with some female students, for instance – one of whom was my teacher for years; she took full responsibility for her own actions, without blame or resentment. A warrior.) Not holding to fixed notions of self, and cultivating gratitude, was the entire thrust of his teaching. His school remains based on the East coast, with many centers in Europe and in flyover states, so maybe that alone might protect them to some degree. Soto Zen is overwhelmingly influenced by its Left Coast origins, and the San Francisco countercultural roots of its baby boomer senior teachers. They clearly have no idea how extreme they are, because they’ve never known alternatives. They seem to think its still 1980, or 1970, with the threats coming from judgemental Church Ladies and an entrenched neo-con Republican establishment. Down with The Man, man! They venture occasionally into the heartland, attracting mostly a fringey handful of like minds, then return to their coastal urban enclaves, and wring their hands at the sorry deluded state of average Americans. I have seen it over and over and over. I ran a small, diverse Zen group for a few years in the Southwestern US, and was often embarrassed by the patronizing attitudes of guest teachers there and elsewhere, who would single out brown and gay people in the sangha for special attention, declaring their woke “alliance.” Ugh.

I’ve lived on reservations and among tribal people through my whole life, and rarely in areas where “white” people even predominate. I’m a writer/artist/Zennist/adjunct prof, which has meant cash poor and living in one ghetto after another. Native Americans, and working class Hispanics (the bulk of my current neighbors) are, as groups, the most patriotic, funniest, least pretentious, most deeply conservative people I know, as proven by their rates of military service, church attendance, and the size of their families. They hate all this Marxist crap. I went into Zen to some degree to plug in to some kind of related ancestral wisdom and tradition, hoping to carry that forward, getting authorized and more confident to hold a container for others to get in touch with a deep groundedness Zen used to promise. The SZBA, comprised of hundreds of leaders of the tradition, have in word and deed totally cut this possibility off. I can barely comprehend what the long term consequences of this are, for themselves and their own souls and psyches, or for countless people who will never access Zen’s potential benefits. That’s on their heads.

I think I’ll leave it there for now, and next time get more into problems of the traditions themselves, that have toxically mixed with distinctly generational and culturally American issues, dragging Soto Zen (and American Buddhism more broadly) into the muck and mire.

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2 thoughts on “How Zen Ended in America, Part 1: Jumping the Shark”

  1. Your former teacher is currently on a long sabbatical. Any chance it is because he is re-evaluating his infusion of politics into his teachings?

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  2. I have no idea. I strongly suggested he take one when we were still in regular contact – he had some serious health things going on, not unrelated I’d guess to the cognitive dissonance I would posit as inevitable from his positions and activity, and that I personally found intolerable, as documented. That’s just me speculating.

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