This was originally a series of 5 separate posts, which I’ve combined for ease of access. I’ve noticed based on stats that 90% of readers didn’t make it past the first post; while it pretty well makes my overall point, there are nuances and expansions in subsequent posts that of course I felt worth explicating, or I wouldn’t have written them. Maybe with them all in one place, a few people might find the patience to at least scan through the rest. I know we all struggle to read more than 140 characters at a time these days, but hopefully the pseudo-essay format still serves for something, or someone. – T.O.
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’d steer a wide berth around 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.
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.
Part 2: Looking for Gold
Of course I want to get beyond stony critique, to veins of reassuring, golden insight. But first you have to get the lay of the land, and analyze the nature of the mountain, inside and out. Smash some rocks.
I take a brisk “philosophers’ walk/run” most days on some nearby trails which run along (in some cases) 300 year old irrigation ditches. I was thinking today about dilemmas, having found myself in several lately. Di-Lemma: two sides. There’s a concept in both ancient Greek philosophy (Aristotle, I think) and Buddhism (Nagarjuna, I think) of the Tetra-Lemma – looking at a proposition from four angles: as true, as false, as neither true nor false, or both true and false. I actually first learned of this idea many years ago in a little book by one of America’s first Zen fanatics, artist/eccentric Paul Reps. He related visiting a Japanese primary school – his books are full of ink paintings, poems, and short anecdotal tales about his travels around the world seeking simple goodness and wisdom. The school had the children use a square pillow with sides marked with these positions as a physical aid to internalize this logical/analytical system. Sounds nifty, right?
We recognize that black-and-white, binary thinking, can get us into trouble, potentially giving rise to fundamentalisms at every dialectical juncture: relational, political, religious, aesthetic, philosophical, sexual. However, some things are black or white. Some things are true, and some are false. In a pressing current example, the life of each human being on earth depends on there actually being only two genders; exceedingly rare exceptions merely prove nature’s golden rule, one’s feelings/psychological disorders notwithstanding (respectfully). The corporate-globalist-left’s systemic and sustained attack on this baseline reality tells us plenty. Recognizing and mapping watersheds may save your life. All the water may indeed end up in the sea, but how it gets there may mean the difference between genocide and civil society. I honestly think these points might best be made in comedy – treacle to help bitter medicine go down. But I’m not a comedian (I don’t know what I am) so I’m going to continue to plod my way through these ideas, and just lay out how I’m finding myself thinking about these things.
A comedian might point out how women tend to be more emotional, erratic, bad drivers, or foolish politically, for instance, and have most of the audience laughing in the recognition of some general truth. Of course such characterizations are inherently unfair, but they must be true statistically-beyond-chance or it wouldn’t result in those involuntary communal chuckles. Stereotypes, like jokes, always contain some truth, if they stick, and/or generate laughs. Actual comedians are like artist-scientists honing in on the seams in culture and ideologies, finding the places where consensus or self-identification is strong or weak and doing verbal tai chi to massage, test, shift, and topple. Like cultural vermin (flies, vultures, possums, coyotes) they eat the dead meat and keep the psycho-cultural ecosystem healthy and tuned up. They also underscore dialectics, oppositions, di-lemmas. As tricksters, they may turn on a dime and attack the ground they just shifted you to. But you probably asked or even paid for it.
Time was, as the stories go anyway “Zen Masters” did this too. It’s little evident today. When all the Zen Masters invest their collective psychic/ideological mass into an absolutely humorless, historically, politically, and philosophically untenable, utterly one-sided position, they have doomed themselves, and I believe at this point, the whole religion as a viable part of the culture. I will give them one thing: there is no church schism. They are in lock step. I recognized this suddenly, so got the hell out.
What is this dialectic they’ve failed to navigate in harmony with actual reality? That’s the real question. You could get caught here with tetralemma, trapped in endless cycles of ratiocination, losing whole forests for their trees. Or, you could allow Logos to operate, and guide you through – or at least further along the trail. The Buddha didn’t say you should understand completely before acting rightly, and Jesus didn’t say being well liked was the highest value. What the Soto Zen Buddhist Association/unified American Buddhist establishment has done is pick a side, opposed to Logos, which is to say sanity; they’ve chosen chaos over natural order, destruction over Tao. They take advantage of most people’s fair mindedness, tolerance, and frankly ignorance to manipulate and brainwash them. They traffic lies and call it inviolate spiritual truth. It’s just so damn sneaky, it drives me crazy. Avowed leftists do tend to be quite sneaky, mean-spirited, neurotic people: the further to the left, the more sneaky, mean, and crazy, like a natural law. Whether that is caused by genetic nature or flawed nurture is a complex problem. But it’s born out in science: a dozen studies have shown lefties are objectively less happy, less charitable, less tolerant, less prosperous, and less kind than religious conservatives.
Here’s a personal example (I’ve racked up so many, I should write a book. “Sideswiped by Leftists”?): I started a small Zen sitting group with another guy. Basically my teacher ordered me to, I was game, and it seemed like a meaningful, worthy challenge. This guy had started and ended a group years earlier in the town where I’d moved. Turned out he was a nice enough fellow, and interested in getting back into it. I was relieved to not have to do this alone, which sounded like a total drag. I have a deep aversion to gurus, so it felt like a way to share that burden, split or deflect authority so that it was less one pointed. Plus, neither of us were “transmitted” yet, so our respective teachers became titular heads of the thing, hopefully lending some kind of legitimacy, if little practical guidance (and in the end, mostly headaches).
Things went fine for a few months; then this woman started showing up named Hilary (of course she was). A real piece of work. I look back and I can shorthand it, but it wasn’t so clear then. The very first time she came, she boldly announced to me afterwards that she was starting a study group under our auspices. I said, uh, thanks. Why not try coming for awhile and lets see how it goes? In retrospect, I was not as alarmed as I should’ve been. She continued to consistently be rude, self-centered, bossy, messy, controlling, tardy, and it eventually turned out, an honest to goodness sociopath. I felt increasingly dubious when I’d see her, which wasn’t often thankfully, because she didn’t come regularly – but always tried to run the show when she did.
A year goes by and I get an email from her on Christmas of all days, essentially a formal list of demands. I instantly read it correctly for what it was: a coup attempt. I only learned over following weeks she’d been peeling people off for months and meeting in secret, plying folks with weed and wine (seriously!) and urging on them their collective obligation to join her in “overthrowing the patriarchy,” which practically-speaking was just me. She of course was happy to assume control, and proposed herself as the new leader. Just insane; she’d only started practicing Zen with us, and was a refugee from a dozen other Buddhist groups she’d surely alienated. Partner-guy had retired months earlier after the birth of his second kid (he was only involved about 10% of the total time of the group, it turned out in the end). I came to find out later this childless, angry crone had also been calling him and working on his weak psychological seams – sociopaths have an intuitive deviousness that you can hardly even believe. It can feel almost demonic its so invasive, and hard for healthy people to anticipate (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition). She got a couple other childless, post-menopausal feminists to join her crusade – and one weak-willed, uptight little fellow who just got twisted in knots by these women and used as the fall guy. Poor bastard. I couldn’t help but recognize some patterns here.
You have to understand that this was just a free sitting group that met once a week in a yoga studio, and sat for an afternoon once a month. I did all this as a service, not asking for or taking a penny (any donations went to guest teachers and the studio). I made no demands, there was no joining, no quitting. Just show up if you want, sit, and be cool. Period. As the be-robed “priest” (for awhile; I stopped with the robes in time) I’d lead a brief, casual discussion of some text (usually Suzuki roshi) after zazen. As often as someone appropriate was available, I asked them to give brief talks, while recognizing that we had to maintain a clear direction focused on Suzuki’s simple emphasis on just sitting.
I had no desire to socialize outside of that context, maintaining and working to insure the practice of good boundaries all around, having seen bad ones decimate other Zen groups. Well, these toxic, co-dependent personalities ruined it for everyone (for a moment; the group quickly rebounded), and it wasn’t just from these conspirators. As this all went down, I came to find that my lapsed partner, his teacher, and my teacher either failed to recognize the problem, address it with any decisiveness, or in a few cases compounded issues by being secretive, manipulable, or woefully unskillful themselves. Gossip swirled; everyone, Zen Masters, novices, and priests alike, acted like a bunch of Housewives from Orange County. A truly pathetic showing that shook my confidence in them, myself, and the practice (which of course was Hilary’s true intent). That they were mostly all culturally Jewish I’m sure is just coincidental. That they were all avowed Marxists or aggressively “progressive” seems less so. I’ll save the story about the pedophile ardent communist who sideswiped me and the group as I was wrapping it up in 2018, and still trolls this site (I just hope he’s on somebody’s watch list, somewhere.) This one teacup tempest illuminates a dozen crucial issues and problems for the tradition in this country that I don’t see Zen leaders doing anything but exacerbating. And I’m like, you want this enough to lie, cheat, and live in hell? Take it. I made a successful stand, in one little bunker. But clearly I lost the war. Luckily, by God’s grace, there are other religions and churches – for the country, and for me.
With 20/20 hindsight, what happened in my sitting group was like the first signs of a storm breaking. It’s been no beach vacation to watch these tides turn into a cultural tsunami, and I know millions of other people have experienced similar awakenings, often tragic, equally comic. It’s already been a tragedy for the culture, as comedy, art, and free speech are systematically assaulted, violence escalates, and no one knows what we’re really in store for. Chickens are coming home to roost: the real costs of the imbalances in academia, the failure to teach reason (or civics) in grade schools much less beyond them, rampant corruption in government, greed and debauchery among the ruling elites, the weakness of religious organizations, and the perversion of the cultural classes all reveal themselves, at once, and corporate technocracy runs amok on its own post-human track.
Which way do we turn? Not into your local Zen, Shambhala, or Mindfulness center, I’d suggest. Still, I see signs of hope, a rise of logos, especially in certain Christian churches, and in a populace waking up despite a constant onslaught of lies.
Part 3: Poisoning the Chalice
There’s a famous Zen anecdote, told in many variations. Basically a Zen master hosts a scholar for tea. The scholar blathers on, so when the priest pours the tea, he just keeps pouring until it spills all over and the scholar yelps. The Zennist sagely says something along the lines of, respect the emptiness of the cup; allow fresh things in. “It’s the space that provides the vase its function,” said Lao Tse, from whom much of the Zen spirit derives. The leaders of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association would do well to brush up on their Tao Te Ching, since they are systematically violating nearly every principle in it, as well as those in Soto Zen founder Dogen’s teachings. They do indeed instruct people to empty their mental cups in countless hours of mind-erasing ritualized Buddhist activity – which they then they proceed to cram with toxic programming concocted by some of the most murderous, spiritually disordered fiends in human history. Begging the question, who’s side are they really on?
I don’t want to go reaching for chapter and verse, so I am just going to wing this, having spent 30 years absorbed in Dogen and zazen. I get it, to the degree that I get it, and all I had to do was condone my teacher’s radical politics, or at least keep my mouth shut, to complete the final steps in my “transmission process”, thereby making me an apostolic heir of Dogen and my still beloved Suzuki roshi, no less. This evidences my teacher approving of my understanding, up to the point where I began to question him presenting his politics as Zen – prompting him one time to scream that I knew nothing about Buddhism because I disagreed with some of his political views, which probably should have been our last conversation. Those that followed didn’t do much but demonstrate willingness to dialogue, however fruitless it turned out to be. I share these anecdotes merely because they tell an important meta-story. It truly isn’t personal, not in the grander scheme.
A couple years back I was in a Dogen study class with a half dozen fellow ordained priests. We ran too quickly past a line that struck me, that read along the lines of, “nothing but the practice of zazen (silent sitting) should ever be discussed in the zendo. To do so is to defile all the Buddhas,” or some such Dogenistic sentiment, of a type which consistently abounds throughout his voluminous writings. He expressed no ambivalence on this point. After letting others carry on the discussion for a bit, I quite gently and respectfully said, this seems to point to something important that some of us have been struggling with, about the intrusion of all these partisan political ideologies into Dharma talks and the direction of the center. Can we talk a little about this as a group?
The teacher became instantly enraged, told me to shut up, said he and I had already talked about it, and the matter was settled. It was far from that. He also for the first time since my ordination many years earlier called me by my Christian rather than my ordained name, which I was not alone in considering notably passive aggressive. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. I remained silent and let the conversation awkwardly restart, attending to my breath and letting my pulse return to baseline. Later, the teacher began to discourse on how Dogen was wrong, and politics should and must be discussed in the zendo. At this, I finally spoke again and said, if you’re going to shut me down on this topic, you can’t simply surreptitiously circle back to it and authoritatively assert your (patently heretical) view without discussion. But that’s the thing. Honest, free discussion was never truly allowed or even really possible, not when the rubber really hit the road; it was always somewhat forced and theatrical – a serious problem in Zen I’ve struggled with since the beginning of my practice.
This is partly due to the context, by which I mean zendo vs. classroom, brown robe vs. black robe (master/novice), shaved head vs. follicled head (ordained/unordained), Buddhist-named vs. “Christian,” exotic Asiana set awkwardly against a modern American milieu. No matter the 10,000 instances of authority in Zen framed as relative, the very forms and top-down, Confucian structures of the religion make free exchange virtually impossible. There are individual foibles, of course, and some people are demonstrably better at facilitating dialogue and handling authority. But this anecdote is not an isolated incident. I’ve personally seen it played out hundreds of times, with every teacher, and every Zen student. And no, it can’t just be chalked up to a universal social or institutional problem. If nothing else, the SZBA has flatly proven that Zen practice doesn’t naturally produce wiser, happier, more reasonably thinking people.
This is all an intentional, distinctly foreign psycho-theoretical construct, built into the nature of these traditions and (as explicitly stated as core Soto belief) embodied in the robes, the endless bowing and prostrations to teachers and statues. It can’t help but create cognitive dissonances. Sure, lip service is regularly paid to the statues being “empty” (ie relative), the role of “teacher” being empty, the forms; there are endless Zen stories about burning buddhas or tossing them out windows, students besting teachers and laymen schooling monks. There are also tons of stories of Masters and monks beating and abusing disciples or subordinates, and cutting cats in half. As literature, these can all be theoretically compelling. Build a real temple in brick and mortar, stick modern westerners in layered medieval kimonos, have them bow 150 times a day, sit for 16 hours in silence days on end, chant ancient Buddhist vows in unison, and then send them in to small rooms alone to sit knee to knee, face to face with a “master”: can you consistently expect natural insight, wisdom, or mature workable relationships to arise out of that? The argument in favor is that it’s like boot camp to, through such manufactured stresses and psychodramas, produce wiser, more compassionate people. I had 30 years of boot camp. Finally, it was time to stand up and say, enough. I know enough about the teachings, about life, and about my own mind to know when a thing is plain wrong, and I refused to be cowed into submission – to an authority I personally cared about, or a noble tradition I loved; much less an irrational, cultish, Marxist mob.
But the proof is in the pudding. I again present to you exhibit A, the primary evidence of my case: the infamous SZBA repentance statement (the Lion’s Roar webmaster must be wondering about this fanatic linking to one article over and over; I just don’t want to send anyone scrambling for it). As I’ve said, it’s not the only problem, but it handily encapsulates hosts of them. I was raised Christian, and I’m more frequently returning of late to Christian churches in search of a new spiritual home of some sort. We need community, and guidance; I distrust modernity’s sense of endless free agency, especially in spiritual life. It’s why I became a priest. I sought refuge, and hoped to help others who recognized the need as I did to likewise find refuge. I never renounced my Christian upbringing; the Biblical sentiment, “Be still and know that I Am God” has over the years best summarized my basic attitude toward Zen. If one line could do it, that’s it. And that itself indicates that despite 30 years of reading, memorizing, reciting and chanting Buddhist texts, it’s still the Bible in the deepest recesses of my psyche; still Christ, not Buddha. I’ve never once considered myself “Buddhist” and coined ‘Zennist’ as close enough to indicate some felt affiliation. (The Dalai Lama himself has emphatically said, don’t convert! Stay in your native faith. He’s also lately repeatedly said Europe is for Europeans. Clutch your pearls and malas, progressive Buddhists.)
The fundamental premise of Zen is just that: sitting still, we allow natural and inherent wisdom and compassion to manifest and be kindled. Period. Ok: so how did let’s say roughly 200 people silently sit in concentration for literally 10,000,000 combined hours (a very rough calculation adhering to SZBA standards and an average career of practice), plus countless hours of ritual activity and Buddhist study, get “enlightened” and become Zen masters, and not one of them see a problem with saying everything wrong in human history and America especially is the fault of men, white European Christian men in particular, while reducing everyone else to helpless perpetual victims? And that the solution is to be found not in Buddha’s own teachings, but Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, written in the 1960s and dedicated to Lucifer himself? I anticipate howls of denial (and accusations of…everything), but I am hardly alone in reading this statement and being utterly dismayed by its sheer inanity and programmatic dogmatism. In fact, no one among the dozens of people I’ve talked to about it, including mostly fellow liberals (yes, people, I am indeed a liberal who’s mostly voted straight D. ballots for over 30 years, often for the most progressive candidates on any given ticket), not a single one of them found this statement anything other than abhorrent or ridiculous. They may not understand that it represents the culmination of 60 years of Marxist planning and development, that will basically only serve a globalist corporate elite. But they instinctively know it’s gross. What happened to the SZBA leadership’s instincts? Zazen is supposed to develop not stunt them.
When you combine the manifesto with the religious ritual context, bows, chanting, incense, robes, and the total bastardization of an ancient ceremony of personal atonement and forgiveness, I simply cannot fathom how on earth I am the only member of the organization to publicly state his problem with this, put his money where his mouth is, protest, and even quit. Who are these cowards? These zombies? As I say, I don’t want to get into chapter and verse, decimating this statement as the grotesque bastardization it truly is of actual Buddhist and Zen teaching. When I retained the capacity to remain somewhat more measured in my analysis, I got into more of that here. That critique even predated the SZBA thing. I was just gearing up, and waking up, and considered that someone in Zen leadership might still have their head on straight. So much for that idea.
Hardcore Zen! renegade Brad Warner reposted that essay of mine, sending a burst of traffic to my blog. We shared some emails later, and while he joined the chorus telling me I was entirely too annoyed by the SZBA thing, I basically encouraged him to man up and use his platform to say something, prompting him apparently to make a video about the statement where he probably rolled his eyes a lot and said, “I told you so about these people” (I never did watch it.) He’s never been in that fold, defiantly stood apart and been critical, and I’ve always half agreed. He did a peculiar form of non-monastic training in Japan with maybe the most eccentric outlier in Soto Zen in the last 50 years, and while I respected he was doing his thing and appealing to the Gen Z tattooed set, I never really liked hardcore punk (I stopped at Husker Du and Fugazi, who still had melodies); plus I wanted to be a part of a real “church,” a movement beyond “Rah! Let’s rock and be enlightened rebels!” Spiritual free agency is dangerous, and I wanted to be a part of a Zen that appealed to adults, and might survive beyond my short time on the planet. Maybe he does too, but it’s not going to happen based on his cheeky books, which while breezily populist, aren’t likely to become enduring religious classics down through the ages. As far as I know, he’s not ordaining or authorizing anyone, and as a fellow Gen X’r, maybe like for me it seems almost as unthinkable a thing to engage in. It’s an active question: what, if anything, needs to be done to suggest to people that they just sit still and breathe occasionally?
Any inkling I had of possibly passing on some torch went up in flames with SZBA attempting to set the stage for a Maoist race war, becoming dutiful soldiers for self-serving ruling cabals attempting to drain the sap out of all resistance to their subjugation of the planet (did you know San Francisco Zen Center has priests instituting Zen programs at Google? That’s not creepy at all…) They will fail, of course, and the SZBA will be left with this stain on their collective conscience and the public record, lumped together into one camp as they so clearly relish doing to others. Thing is, this evil mark is an actual documented ideology asserted in their names, not a blanket judgement on strangers based on skin color or gender and poisonous twisting of history. I have no doubt most of the people who participated and signed off on this thing will continue to compartmentalize and disassociate, as clearly has become their actual discipline, going to their graves never realizing that they did anything wrong at all, thinking they’re just “saving all beings from suffering”. I hope that’s not the case, for their sakes. It’d be nice if even one of them came to their senses, maybe even apologized. In the true spirit of Zen, I won’t be holding my breath.
Part 4: Why?
I’ve pretty much flogged the ‘how’ to death at this point, but I’ve not really drilled down into the why. Why did all these dedicated, self-enlightened Zen heroes capitulate to such dreadful ideologies, ignore reams of wise teachings from the traditions they are supposed to represent, abandon the true spirit of Zen, turn on their nation, and plain lose all common sense if not human decency?
We’re talking about a lot of individuals here, so generalizations are dangerous. They spoke with one authoritative voice however, these Zen Masters, in inherited rhetoric they didn’t invent, thereby inviting broad assumptions and shared opprobrium. Beyond this relatively tiny radical conspiracy, we see entire swathes of the US and European populace equally bamboozled. Much of this can be credited to the all out assault on truth and sanity by the main stream media, and the self-interested corporate lackies who mostly appear to run the country – this includes a spectrum running from manic sanpaku-eyed Ocasio-Cortez to Mitch McConnell (although at this point I much prefer the latter, who can at least string three words together without saying “um” or “like” and isn’t auditioning for the role of Mall Girl Mao.)
Maybe it started with Jay Leno and the like sending interns out onto Hollywood Blvd. to interview passersby that many of us first began to glimpse how stunningly ill-informed and incurious the average modern American was developing into, especially those under 30. Now on YouTube, dozens of heroic citizen journalists brave assault while vainly attempting to get straight answers out of pussy-hatted and black-masked mobs carrying mass-produced Soros signage at marches and protests, escalating violence day by day, with prime time MSM anchors running cover. What pours out of these “activists” mouths is usually an unbelievable stream of disconnected, predigested disinformation, programming, and sound bites. They rarely know who even the Vice President is, much less branches of government; forget about what’s actually in the Bill of Rights. “America was never great!” they scream with twisted glee.
All these Zen priests are supposed to be leaders, and they certainly assume grand authority, presuming to atone as they do for all the sins of humanity thus far, so assuredly assigning where the real blame lies. “The Patriarchy!” “Colonization!” “Capitalism!” “The Whites!” “AmeriKKKa!” Do they know they are useful idiots in a Marxist revolutionary dialectic set in motion decades ago, forecast and warned of by people like KGB defector Yuri Besmenov in the 1980s, before he was assassinated for his trouble? I assume enough good faith to think not. But a few key people are pulling strings, and they can’t be totally in the dark.
I’m not alone in assuming by just its tone that the SZBA’s repentance statement was largely crafted by Zen priest Greg Snyder, who is named as one of its presenters. It has his borrowed voice and clammy fingerprints. My aforementioned former Zen preceptor played host to another conference of Zen teachers maybe a year before this SZBA business. I did not attend, but he afterwards gushed how Snyder represented the future of American Zen, and solemnly announced how he was now going to recommend Snyder’s Brooklyn Zen (read leftist indoctrination) Center as an East Coast training alternative to the Northern Cali temples which have been standard (I’ve heard from a few people who’ve fled SFZC places in Cali because they saw the same thing happening there.)
At that point I knew Synder’s name, but not much else. It was only later that I read some articles of his in Buddhist magazines and online, and was then only mildly annoyed to see that he was just another guy preaching cliche-ridden radical leftism and calling it Buddhism. His star has continued to rise, as he appears to have tapped deeply into the leftist sympathies of the overall American Buddhist establishment, along with a handful of Black Panthers and Weathermen disguised in monks robes ( see “Radical Dharma“, etc.) He seems to experience no recoil from his laying out a steady barrage of identitarian neo-Marxist rhetoric, indistinguishable from its use in 1000 other contexts, like any other two-bit pol who’ll peddle any lie, push any button to capture and move a base. Concocted, honed, and codified over decades in, and once reserved for, the confines of umpteen university “studies” departments – Womens Studies, Diaspora Studies, Latinx Studies – its finally all ready for prime time, and in a mind-bendingly rapid shift of the Overton Window, now constitutes the Democratic Party platform itself. Viva La Revolucion.
I went through an Ivy League postmodern academy grinder. As I’ve mentioned, the left still had to be sneakier back then. They didn’t just tell you what they were selling was a race/gender grievance communist war forever. It nevertheless all nauseated me, I felt what it was indicating more than understood it, and I all but fled after: the academy, the East Coast, the fine art world which was even then possessed by it, the increasingly debauched machinery of culture, and I went headlong into Zen. I washed dishes. I worked construction. I lived with Indians. I practiced with this sangha, and that sangha, trying to find a way to survive, maybe even thrive, ideally in or close to my beloved mountain west. I guess I hoped Zen was a refuge, a bastion of sanity, or at least a method to preserve and cultivate that. It posits itself as such.
The drive behind this series of posts is obviously an attempt to come to grips with how it turned out to be the opposite of that, a sense of betrayal suffusing that realization, and a sense of responsibility to own my part and at least say something about it. Like, I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. Maybe I helped promote something evil. If I did, I didn’t know it. Maybe it was different before, but we’re told to know a thing from its fruits. If Zen’s fruit has turned out to be race war, genocide, the destruction of modern civilization, and dissolution of the United States, was this tree always just toxic? Who handed me this apple? Did I pick it myself?
I am going to continue to presume, as a person of faith, that there is sense and larger purpose in this unraveling, this apocalypse (literally, unveiling). I participate and enact this faith by exerting reason and presenting an analysis; this confession. It’s too late for some things, and I hope not too late for others. But the truth and the real are always on time, aren’t they? Even if we don’t get it until later. Being human, we can be too late, and we shouldn’t let ourselves off too easy. I’m talking to you, boomers! And of course to myself.
The reality of this Soto Zen leadership is that they are mostly boomers, inordinately college educated, Jewish, and “white”, proudly countercultural, and rooted in California (whether or not they live elsewhere; their roots or training emanate mostly from the north left coast). None of these things are in themselves problems, of course. Sane people don’t demonize individuals wholesale based on circumstantial markers beyond individual control like ethnicity or geography, much less proudly “repent” on their behalf. Added together however, these categories do begin to form the outlines of a puzzle: how something (Zen) that in its actual literature and traditions does not naturally or inherently result in communism, was still forcefully and successfully co-opted without apparent resistance by people possessed by radical neo-Marxist ideology, which it turns out, is their actual religion. That is what the “repentance statement” means, and shows. It certainly isn’t an objective, informed analysis of history. And it is simply not true: spiritually true, morally true, or factually true. What in it that is true (that oh wow, gee, injustice has occurred during 40,000+ years of human society, surprise surprise, on our way to the most abundant, advanced, and fair civilization in the entire human story) is warped and distorted beyond recognition in service to a larger lie, i.e. identitarian neo-Marxism.
Zen Buddhism’s immune system turned out to be incapable of withstanding this infection, which flowered from deep within its breast; while every other religion and the culture generally continues to see lively and purposeful debate along these meaningful ideological divides, in Soto Zen there was no debate. I attempted to initiate one, or at least a conversation, from a left of center position addressing the way further left. I didn’t vote for Trump, certainly never attempted a case in his favor; I just didn’t want Zen helping set the stage for all out race war. I’ve never much liked any president as a personality; no one most of us would genuinely like would want or be capable of getting the job. But again, as a person of faith and someone who appreciates his family, the land, people, and society of his birth, and something we can shorthand as God (or Buddha, I suppose), I’ve practiced and found reasons to trust that something intelligent is guiding this ship, caring for us if we care for ourselves and each other. This means, I didn’t vote for him, but I didn’t grouse about Bush either (though protested his wars at California beaches and street corners on the weekend). I still prayed he’d be well and do a good job, as I wish for Trump – as every American should, and every human on the planet.
The original Zen meal chant I learned used to contain a prayer for the leaders of the nation. I was disappointed to find when I started with my last teacher, probably in keeping with his teachers, that he had taken that part out. Another sign I probably should have attended to. I went to a church yesterday that said a prayer for the president, and our exceedingly progressive female governor, both by name. It made me want to go back, as did how friendly and bright-eyed all the people were. I went because its a traditional Anglican church, from a branch that’s split off from the increasingly left-possessed mainline Episcopal church. I’d gone a few times to one such nearby Episcopal church known to fly rainbow flags for Pride month. All the sermons I heard there, spread over months, happened to focus on immigration in a quite doctrinaire way (as in, get rid of the border). Their music was better, of course, because the choir was obviously comprised predominantly of gay men and sharp-dressed lesbians, but generally most people were glassy-eyed and uneasy-seeming, uncordial, and in nearly all the handful of personal encounters I had there, within seconds somehow Trump was insulted, conservatives were bashed, and fear was cultivated. Litmus tests were being administered. We all must have experienced this, somewhere. I seem to get it everywhere these days. I have furtive conversations in bars with insurance salesman where we lower our voices amidst the mustachioed skinny jean hipsters and weekend antifa warriors and say, “he didn’t turn out half-bad afterall, right?”
How many Trump supporters or just “conservatives” appear to be in the SZBA? The correct response is laughter and a shake of the head. If they’re there, man are they (understandably) keeping their heads down. There is total consensus, for now, on aligning the religion with the most radical forms of political leftism, and dissenters are thoroughly purged. Sure, lip service to tolerance is made; that’s always how the left disguises its bigotry. But as a left-of-center moderate, when I dissented or even asked questions, I was totally shut down and ostracized, without hesitation or recourse, and no one stood by or for me. That other dissenters were also sent packing, I only learned later. I honestly thought at first, totally naive, that people would actually want to talk about these things, dialogue toward consensus, listen to ideas they hadn’t considered – especially these “spiritual friends” and fellow priest-monk-philosophers. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Then again, I was poking at the foundations of heavy psychic and institutional structures, and people don’t tend to like to have their houses shaken. Isn’t the ideal just a grass hut anyway?
So my former teacher yet again provides good personal examples, and I think he is in many ways stereotypical. It’s not personal. He was protesting against the Vietnam War and taking Acid long before starting Zen practice, and these generational values often appeared to subsume he and his peers dedication to Dogen’s teachings. No Zen teacher anywhere, ever, for 2000 years, said to willfully dismantle your country’s government and economy, blame certain groups for the flaws in your culture or personal life, and institute a centralized authoritarian political system that without exception has proven to be more murderous and destructive than any other force in human history. The Buddha actually did not say to do those things. Shocking, I know.
It’s been said that anyone who thinks “communism just hasn’t been done right” just thinks they’d be the exception, the one to do it better: communism in their own image. These are also just the types of people who end up drawing up the lists, and drafting the re-education camp curricula (oh look, they already have). There’s no such thing as a peaceful and tolerant communist revolution, or state. It might have been the day I first heard that sentiment, or the week, when my teacher said to me, “Communism just hasn’t really been done right yet.” My blood chilled; it was another hold-the-phone-away-and-look-at-it moment. “I am an atheist and Marxist!” he’d occasionally say to me over the years, beaming with pride. And I would smile and shrug and think, ok, whatever, as long as we’re sitting zazen and reading Dogen, you do you, brother. Until that joke wasn’t funny anymore.
Part 5: Smash and Grab
Through anecdote and discourse I’ve thus far attempted to present the overwhelming case that American Zen is fatally cracked, a 50-something year old Humpty Dumpty that doesn’t appear capable or maybe even worthy of the meticulous restoration required for his repair – a Herculean effort no one has yet expressed one iota of interest in instigating. Quite the reverse: the leaders of the religion are still busy smashing the larger fragments.
What blame lies within the tradition itself? Why did it attract the ne’er do wells it attracted, what did it do to them and the more innocent once they were in, and what mineral or nutrient was lacking in the religion’s or adherent’s body-minds that they were so especially subject to virulent neo-Marxist zombification? The main complaint levied toward Buddhism historically, in the east by Confucian leaders and in the west by Christians, are accusations of “nihilism”, idolatry, and superstition. Zen has well practiced denials developed in both contexts, but personal experience and the religion’s subjugation to contemporary leftism actually affirm these threats. Leftism is itself profoundly nihilistic, in its essence. Nihilism is actually irrational; it involves inescapable cognitive dissonances. Life is inherently good. Zen practice purports to support life. But by alloying itself with irrational superstitions (i.e. systemic racism, genocidal communism, climate catastrophism, etc.) it destroys life by deteriorating natural, healthy, God-given qualities of self-reliance, faith, cheerfulness, practical reason, and passionate inspiration.
People in Zen centers today do not tend to have children – a bad if telling sign. When they do end up having them, they subsequently drift away. The all-consuming, often discombobulating rigors of Zen practice are not conducive to raising families. My own teacher, childless himself, actively discouraged me and my wife from having children, despite my expressing the desire, saying that it is better for Zen priests to remain childless – which if I’d had better sense I would have told him was none of his business (he felt everything in my life was his business – the Zen guru’s infinite prerogative). No matter that his teacher had children, and Suzuki (his teacher’s teacher) had 5 children I believe, and so on, back to the reforms in 19th c. Japan that saw nearly all Zen priests marry and build families (leading to its own issues, with ancient temples becoming essentially inherited family properties). The priests in question were all pros, supported by communities and paid for their efforts. I’ll reiterate that this is possible for maybe 1% of Zen priests in the US, with the church’s political stances likely eroding those chances even further.
As I say, Zen practice is deeply disorienting by nature. It’s early American adherents tended to have thoroughly blown their minds on drugs, and were often looking for ways to repair their psyches and shore up vestiges of insight psychedelics promised but failed to confirm, like an elusive dream. But formal Zen is even more intense in its way, very much itself like a drug that disconnects you from normalcy, commonly giving rise to psychotic breaks and psychotomimetic states, as is well documented and haphazardly understood in every Zen center. Some boomer counterculturalists, realizing they’d thrown babies out with bathwater, wanted a return to tradition, just not Christian, Jewish, or the secular materialism they’d been raised in. I’m a Gen X’r, so my motivations were not unrelated, but had a distinctly less idealistic or utopian cast – and way less drugs and sex, if still likely too many and too much. For decades, I remained among the youngest people I encountered seriously committed to practice, even into my 40s, and I was still 5-10 years younger than anyone I ordained with in my late 30s. Because I practiced in different traditions with wildly differing standards for their ordained clergy or “teachers,” I never settled into any particular mode of Zen professionalism, “taking precepts” no fewer than 5 different times, with umpteen other ritualized stages and levels performed – often receiving different colored accoutrements to distinguish my rank like my beloved knife-twirling chefs at Gasho of Japan in my Denver youth. As indicated, these paths were hardly very socio-economically promising even for the most zealous Zen missionary, which I was not. You practiced for the sake of practicing, and each retreat, intensive, or session at the temple seemed to provide its own serene rewards. That is what kept me practicing, despite everything; as it really should be.
But sitting and Zen insistently occur in context. Teachers in the past and today almost invariably insist it’s better to not sit at all than just sit alone, in your room, making it up for yourself. One more anecdote from the sitting group I led: I got an email out of the blue from some guy I didn’t remember, which was unusual for such an intimate group. He said he’d attended some months earlier, and after an inflated preamble extolling the virtues of all the Buddhas and ancestors and the holy triple treasure of buddha dharma and sangha, ad nauseam, he launched into a pages-long attack, critiquing the way I walked, talked, wrote, sang, smiled, and lived – “with deep love and respect” (mind you, our group just sat silently facing the wall for 35 minutes, collectively read a paragraph of Suzuki, and talked informally for 20 minutes. I didn’t even call myself the “teacher” but merely “facilitator.”) I responded with one line thanking him and suggesting if he really wanted to be helpful, he could actually come sit regularly and stick around after to put away cushions (this was consistent: no one who ever complained actually practically helped with anything.) I had no idea how he’d come to so many conclusions about my supposed personality flaws after one visit in which I was primarily invisible – which of course seemed to have more to do with him than me. Later I found out he was the 20-year “boyfriend” (refusal to get married is weakness) of a borderline case I was warned to be wary of, who crept in and out occasionally. She of course later participated in the “coup attempt.” I only mention the guy because he said he couldn’t come regularly because he didn’t like to sit with others; he had been sitting by himself for 25 years and found other people disturbed his “samadhi.” I’m sure they do…
So that’s another thing: Zen is not only a magnet for weirdos, but it can derail the better adjusted. This is my overwhelming frustration and sadness about what all these Zen “priests” have done. Zen mostly attracts quite vulnerable often dysfunctional people, hungry for spiritual sustenance, renewal, even redemption. It presents a systematic program built to disrupt normal cognitive habits and patterns, right down to the cellular and electro-magnetic level. The mind is habitually “cleared” and “settled” which is then supposed to be left fallow to reseed into more faithful routines. Instead, onto this tabula rasa these folks scrawl, “white man bad!”, “America bad!”, “global crisis yikes!”, “open all borders! We’re all refugees!”, “gender dysphoria is normal!” “terrorists are the good guys!” And “Atone for the sins of dead people we associate you with by your genitals and presumed ancestry!” This sounds like an exaggeration. I hope I’ve sufficiently conveyed that it is anything but.
So that about wraps it up: my exegesis here, and any meaningful future for Zen in America, I suspect. Apologies for smashing any cherished personal idols, if I have. I did my part to try to slow Humpty’s fall, however ineffectually and too late (this isn’t just egg on my face; I nearly drowned in the stuff.) I likewise felt the need to discuss the conspiracy that pushed him over the edge, since no one else seems to have even noticed. As one wag puts it: I may be wrong, but I’m sure as hell not lying.