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 stories because they tell an important 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 (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 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.
It’s 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”, 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.