Colloquially, the word “Zen” today is shorthand for a sort of hip stoicism; for being “in the moment,” in a non-discursive flow state. You can be Zen, have Zen, lose your Zen, and get your Zen on. But few people have any meaningful grasp of where the term originated, or what it actually means. It’s a useful cipher, like karma; a vaguely “Oriental” synonym for something calmly capable. That’s one hell of a brand, as countless corporate uses of the word demonstrate. That an actual religion properly owns it you’d think would indicate a higher than average propensity for its adherents to possess sound wisdom and grounded perspectives. That is certainly how contemporary American Zen “priests,” “masters,” and “practitioners” present themselves. But in keeping with the inversion by the increasingly unhinged political left of nearly every objective reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Organized Zen Buddhism in America today has sailed far from its historical moorings, tossing overboard and sinking to the depths the fact that most of its early missionaries to the west were themselves fleeing authoritarian communist regimes and influence, and defiantly repudiated all forms of tribal identitarianism and factionalism. These late founding teachers proudly embraced America as the land of liberty and unprecedented equality they emphatically recognized it to be.
Contemporary Zen Buddhism in contrast has been transformed by its second-generation, aging radical boomer leaders, with their allied Gen X and millennial apostolic “Dharma successors,” into nothing more than a degenerate neo-Marxist front, fomenting murderous revolutionary chaos and committed to the complete dismantling of western civilization – all in the name of twisted notions of “progress” and “social justice” based in half-truths, misdiagnosed problems, and poisonous fictions. This disastrous cataclysm reveals deeper paradigmatic conflicts that no amount of inter-faith, feel-good ecumenism will ever resolve. Aligning themselves with the morally and intellectually indefensible side of this epochal national, global, and quintessentially spiritual battle has further marginalized the Zen religion – a faith with tenuous enough roots in American soil as it is. Beyond simply risking their institutions’ non-profit tax status, acting as petty agents of hatred, lies, and death while posing as paragons of “wisdom and compassion” leaves these leaders more than deserving of some unbridled criticism. The kid gloves need to come off.
A Little Zen History
Zen is an ancient, tradition-bound, perennial sect of Buddhism that claims to predate Christianity. Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese term Chan, which is itself a transliteration of the Sanskrit Dhyana, meaning (essentially) meditation. According to its own hagiographies, Zen was a reform movement that returned Buddhism to a rightful emphasis on such silent introspection. In or around the 5th c. CE, a South Indian Dhyana monk named Bodhidharma allegedly travelled to China, where he found the nascent Buddhist establishment caught up in fruitless doctrinal debates and obsessed with abstract texts. Like an Asian guru showing up in 1960s America or Europe, the lore presents him introducing health foods, yoga, martial arts, and “authentic” Buddhist meditation and doctrine to a complex, literate civilization ready to absorb and integrate them with extant native beliefs – in China’s case, that meant Taoist, Confucian, and tribal animist traditions.
In subsequent centuries, similar missionary processes occurred throughout South and East Asia, and eventually Japan, where Zen reached its apotheosis. In the west, we can thank countless literary and artistic references, increased post-War tourism and trade, and maybe the appearance of samurai movies in arthouse theaters for dawning popular consciousness of Zen in the 1950s. But these were fresh flowers on a much older tree. European encounters with Buddhist ideas date back to Alexander. Some myths have Jesus studying meditation in India during his prolonged absence in the Biblical record. Flashing forward, American Unitarians and Transcendentalists found resonance in early translations of Buddhist texts as early as the 1840s. Occidental Romantics and Modernists appropriated Oriental traditions with abandon, even concocting occult, pseudo-Asian philosophies and religions – like consummate con-artist Helena Blavatsky’s absurdly grandiose Theosophy, and creepy Aleister Crowley’s boldly Satanic Ordo Templi Orientis – that obsessed or imperceptibly influenced millions of people left reeling by the collapse of every established order in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Asian immigrants, lured to America in various waves for their steady industriousness, quickly became successful, integrated members of their American communities, and while a majority adopted the Christian faiths of their neighbors, some established Buddhist temples in the traditions of their forebears. One of my first exposures to Buddhism came from a memorable school visit to a local Buddhist Church of America– even then a waning, syncretic immigrant sect – in conjunction with a 5th grade geography course on Japan. There were also dollar theater Bruce Lee matinees, karate classes, and afterschool reruns of the ‘70s TV classic Kung Fu, in which David Carradine’s mixed-race protagonist was raised by sagacious monks in Bodhidharma’s own Shaolin Zen/Chan temple. I was obsessed early, and my persistent interest in all things East Asian was invariably encouraged and supported by parents, teachers, and the culture around me (there’s white supremacy for you.)
While there were a handful of actual Zen monks and teachers who visited or lived in the US before them, it was two Suzukis in the 1950s who really set the hook. Daisetsu Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki (1870-1966) was not a monk but a prolific academic who was originally sent to America in the 1890s by his ordained Zen mentor to assist a Midwestern scholar with some translations of Zen texts into English. Suzuki even married an American (a Theosophist, in fact). He spent most of his influential life and impressive career teaching and working in Japan, but he also spent considerable time in the United States throughout the course of his active 95 years. He toured American universities in the 1940s, and while living in New York in the ‘50s gave series of open lectures at Columbia University. These seminal courses were attended by the likes of Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, conceptual art pioneer and alleged Beatles dismantler Yoko Ono, resident PBS religious scholar Huston Smith, and avant-garde “sound organizer” John Cage, who credited Zen ideas gleaned from Suzuki for not only transforming his work, but saving his sanity (I felt much the same when I worked and corresponded with Cage as an ambitious, naïve young art student.) Suzuki became a mentor and inspiration to a generation of American scholars, and most of the Zen religion’s first authentic western practitioners and teachers.
Comparing himself, Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) quipped that D.T. was the “Big Suzuki” (though neither man was much above five feet tall.) That might have been true in the 1960s, but those roles had completely reversed by the turn of the century. D.T. Suzuki’s countless books, when read at all or still in print, are generally considered admirable but hopelessly dated, his reputation marred by debatable nationalist and fascist sympathies during WWII (he was an early casualty of postmodern political correctness.) Shunryu on the other hand has been virtually deified by the tens of thousands of American Zennists who keep his sole, modest little book and perennial best seller, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, permanently on their nightstands or next to their zafus (meditation cushions). The middle-aged Little Suzuki came to America in the late 1950s, to cap his to that point completely unremarkable clerical career as a temple functionary for San Francisco’s shrinking Japanese Buddhist community. But he had bigger plans secretly stashed in the billowing sleeves of his classical kimonos (a couple of which I was tasked with caring for as a novice monk in the late 1990s.) When young American beatniks, then hippies started showing up asking for meditation instruction, seeking the satori (“enlightenment”) they’d read about in college world religion classes or thought they’d glimpsed on LSD trips, Suzuki made his allegiances clear, much to the annoyance of his appropriately skeptical Japanese parishioners. He left their cramped old temple behind, opening the first residential American “Zen Center” to not only make authentic Zen practice and teaching available to westerners, but to salvage a tradition that he was not alone in feeling had grown moribund in its countries of origin.
Before his early demise from liver cancer, in less than a decade he would also found the first Zen monastery outside of Asia, and generate the most influential, consistently expanding Zen organization in the west. Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Zen Farm, and Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery are all located within 200 miles of each other in Northern California, and are collectively considered the “mother ships” for countless Zen adherents. His close first-generation students tended to stick around the Bay Area, opening dozens of other Zen centers, Zen businesses, and religious organizations. Slowly but surely, Suzuki-lineage centers have continued opening throughout the Americas and Europe, as have temples in related traditions. In keeping with ancient practice, but with the fervor of the recently converted, statues and images of the saintly Suzuki are ritually venerated each day in Zen temples coast to coast.
Unfortunately, most these places are now little more than dysfunctional radical leftist indoctrination camps. Simple meditation instructions, and accompanying ornate ritual activity, have been deviously usurped to brainwash those still left unconverted to the Woke neo-Marxist/anarchist revolution, and for consolidating power for radical activists who’ve infiltrated and shaped Zen organizations over decades. I’ve spent thirty years seriously engaged with Zen in various traditions, in locations coast to coast, attending countless Zen meditation retreats, serving on the boards of Zen organizations, founding and directing a Zen community myself, then finally feeling forced to resign as a Zen priest and renounce all formal affiliations with the religion, so I’ve understandably been left asking myself a few questions, like: how did this happen? When did it start? Is anyone to be held accountable? And what the hell was I actually participating in this whole time?
Thanks to YouTube (and a controversial ad for the latest Call of Duty installment) tens of millions have become familiar with KGB defector and socio-political prophet Yuri Besmenov, who began warning the American public in the 1980s that seeds had long been tactically sewn for their own destruction. It’s uncanny watching grainy VHS footage of him, in his polyester suits and clunky glasses, calmly and methodically describe virtually every distressing trend in American society and media writ large today, decades in advance. Namely, the systematic, orchestrated degeneration of morality, reason, education, and faith in core institutions, for at least three generations and counting; the ginning up of racial antagonisms and gender dysphoria; and total corporate media collusion in shutting down dissent and rational debate, resulting in the nation hurtling full speed into an Orwellian socialist dystopia.
To my great disappointment and increasing dismay, from my seat the most egregious culprits in this culture war have often worn Buddhist robes and assumed the titles Zen Master, Zen Teacher, and Zen Priest. For years now, they’ve appeared en masse at Antifa, BLM, and other thug-left rallies, proudly posting pictures of themselves online in their clerical robes, holding protest banners, fists in the air, chanting not prayers but revolutionary slogans. And now the religion’s largest organizations and most prominent leaders regularly regurgitate vicious incitements to race war and call for the total dismantling of our civilization, barely deigning to even sprinkle the occasional Buddhist catch phrase amidst the cultural revolutionary pabulum they’ve swallowed unmasticated from the craw of the triumphant radical left. There are reasons why those in Zen leadership have been particularly susceptible to this coopting, including pervasive intellectual laziness, moral weakness, and spiritual arrogance.
My own former “Zen master” – I’ll call him S__ – has for decades been at the vanguard of a proud revolutionary cohort implacably driving the Zen establishment ever further toward the radical cliff and eventually right off it, arm in arm with others set on undermining anything that smacks of conventionality, or anyone professing beliefs to the right of Cornel West. With no little regret, I can recall S__ cheerfully telling me of his ardent communism and atheism while I just suppressed my unease, shrugging my shoulders. “You do you, buddy. I’m just here for the sitting,” I’d think. Almost daily, he’d find an excuse to theatrically break down into tears over some lefty cause, be it Fukushima radiation killing the Atlantic (it didn’t,) the female wage gap (totally debunked,) human-caused global warming (a predictable cyclical solar peak, already diminishing,) the incomparable holiness of Saint MLK (never mind the raping,) or all the poor, poor oppressed brown peoples of the world, lord Buddha have mercy. “Here come the water works,” regulars ruefully joked. A few minutes later, he might tee off at the teenage neighbor for accidentally blocking his car, or a put-upon student for rubbing him the wrong way. S__’s close “disciples” (a term he tried fruitlessly to employ, but soon dropped when none of us bit) learned to avoid his tantrums, and I foolishly turned a blind eye not only the severity of this kind of emotional discontinuity and compartmentalization, but S__’s mounting radicalism and its toxic effects. It was like a scentless gas that poisoned the atmosphere slowly, and I wasn’t yet testing for it.
There were a thousand red flags, but in my own compromised state, concentrated on personal motivations and overwhelmed by crush of gig-economy responsibilities, I just carried on, dubious but dedicated. I’d had other teachers, and at mid-life I sure wasn’t looking for a perfect guru. He’d published some respected translations of Zen texts, and was never shy about declaring his noble bodhisattvic intentions, which most simply took at face value, and aware of their own, kindly overlooked his more glaring faults. (A bodhisattva is the ideal Zen Buddhist, its equivalent of a saint, working for “the awakening and liberation of all beings, throughout space and time.” It’s increasing use by progressive Buddhists to describe and address each other, like a New Age substitute for “comrade,” always left me queasy.) As an independent, left-of-center moderate, more or less accepting the factory settings necessary to even modestly proceed in my callings as writer, artist, adjunct academic, and Zen “facilitator” (the term I came up with as an alternative to priest or teacher,) I generally avoided overt expressions of my own half-baked political views. Art and Zen were supposed to transcend all that, right? Plus, I considered myself in the patience and toleration business. Then, seemingly overnight after the Trump election, a whole lot of things became intolerable. I lost Zen patience, and patience with Zen – at least with what it was turning into.
Masters and Students
My preceptor (which I also preferred to teacher, much less master; no man should call another either) tellingly had some boundary problems, which are really just baked into the Zen cake, not to mention leftism itself. Control issues are endemic to the radical psyche. Leftists are defined by their very inability to leave other people alone. Plus, every serious Zen student will have their own tales of how their teacher overstepped, meddled in, or muddled up their lives, no matter their politics. To paraphrase the Depeche Mode song, when in the formal Zen context you tacitly accept playing master and student. Zen is a tradition built on not only these relationships, but of stories about such interactions. One of the attractive things about these ancient Zen teaching tales (koans) is that many demonstrate role reversals where the student becomes the teacher, lay person schools priest, wisdom is revealed to be contingent, and everyone has some intrinsic “Dharma quality” or inherent wisdom merely waiting to be revealed, in context, moment to moment. The master/disciple framework has appealing, deeply archetypal aspects, and theoretically seemed workable to me, if not taken too seriously; a situational way to heal Americans’ intrinsic authority issues in a performative melodrama. Maybe it functioned in some such way in the rigidly hierarchical, feudal milieus of South and East Asia. I have come to believe it is especially anathema to modern Americans, inevitably producing pointless demons and conflagrations. It inflates and infantilizes, without fail or exception. Projections fly everywhere, uncontained and miscomprehended. At best, it draws people into labyrinths of pointless distraction. At worst, it’s utterly devastating. Shaken or stirred with Marxist Critical Race Theory and liberally dosed with Dionysian counterculturalism, you have a truly noxious cocktail on your hands.
Admittedly a little disappointed to have discovered myself an almost stereotypical Gen X’r, I’m one of the younger people to have practiced with a first-wave Asian Buddhist missionary to the States. In my case, it was the Korean Zen monk Seung Sahn. Korean Zen (or Son) is distinct from its Japanese equivalents, with its own unique history and traditions. Like Korean culture itself, it is spicier, rowdier, more colorful, more extroverted, and sometimes even more violent. While I at times fantasized of ending up in a Korean mountain hermitage, I decided to stay here and practice with Americans who had maybe done that and come back, or who never felt the need. Through Korean Zen I met practitioners and teachers in Japanese traditions, including many direct students and heirs of Shunryu Suzuki, and I switched back and forth before settling and getting re-ordained in the Japanese Soto school. I joined increasing numbers of people inspired and intrigued by new, accessible translations of the great Japanese Zen monk Eihei Dogen (1200-1253).
Dogen was the original patriarch of the Soto tradition in Japan, by far the largest branch of Zen there, and he is key in this discussion. Through thick and thin, I continued to pursue Zen due largely to the enigmatic writings of Dogen. I maintained faith in Suzuki’s lineage and style of practice because he himself credited everything to this founder. It is Dogen’s own words, not to mention the very spirit of Zen itself, that completely contradict the Woke contagion that has infected American Dogen/Soto Zen, and I suspect most other Zen traditions here. Seung Sahn often directly assaulted his acolytes unexamined identitarian fixations and attachments. “Who are you?” he’d ask almost everybody. To their prosaic responses he’d cajole, “Only don’t know!” That was his primary, patently Socratic slogan (a philosopher he often invoked.) Suzuki tended to put things more subtly, as in the line that opens his book: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Needless to say, there were never calls by any ancestral Zen teacher to exhibit “pride,” much less shame, in one’s sexual predilections, gender, ethnicity, or race. All were undercut or downplayed, and resentment or blame toward others considered terrible scourges with tragic consequences. As in Christian doctrine, there were definitive exhortations to respect the powers that be, uphold law and order, and to concentrate on the difficult enough work of maintaining the integrity and dignity of yourself and your immediate environment. There is a famous anecdote about Suzuki even suggesting his students wait for walk signs at empty early morning street corners on their way to zazen. Take it slow, and no shortcuts! Zen is a tradition of radical personal responsibility, which makes its conversion into nothing more than a victimizing collectivist “wedge” that much more ironic, and grotesque.
Losing Dogen’s Plot
Thousands of volumes have been written about Dogen, and he was himself the most prolific Asian religious writer of his own era, or most others. I can’t attempt to do him justice here. But as he reassuringly posited ad infinitum, Zen has only one real concern, and that is the practice of silent, upright sitting called zazen. Most people would call this meditation, but he specifically said not to. To meditate is to engage in some special, dualistic activity, and Dogen emphasized that just sitting upright with a good posture, “dropping off body and mind,” is the only point. Suzuki’s emphasis was in some ways even simpler than Dogen’s, because he was addressing members of a non-ordained, non-Buddhist, non-Asian culture, trying mainly to just get a gestalt of Zen across to total neophytes. Suzuki said relatively little about Dogen, predicting his heirs and descendants would build more direct bridges to this ancestor. I would say their failure to do so authentically is a profound betrayal for which serious consequences will be paid. Even in Japan, Dogen was essentially lost for hundreds of years; like Alec Guinness’s Pope in the film Brother Sun Sister Moon, Dogen was cocooned by the religion’s gatekeepers within layers of brocade robes and occult ritual accoutrement. Japanese Zen comes with more than its fair share of absurd cultural baggage, which is used by contemporary religious leftists to both repudiate aspects of the tradition that hamper their revolutionary ambitions, and through the grandeur of exotic costumed ritual, mask these motivations prima facie. This is hardly an issue unique to Buddhism today.
Dogen directly said that political concerns should be strenuously avoided in the zendo (zazen hall) which is the heart of any real Zen training place. Zen teachers now routinely talk about little else, and when they do, their “Dharma discussions” are merely foregrounded against an unquestioned and unquestionable leftist worldview. I am not one to lean on sacred texts for authority on any subject, but shortly before I ended thirty years of formal Zen study, I was a call-in participant for an advanced Dogen class with my preceptor’s handful of other ordained students. S__ blithely skimmed past a passage that succinctly ordered, “political matters should never be discussed in the zendo.” When a chance presented itself, I circled back around to this quote, and cautiously expressed my concern that such exhortations seemed to be increasingly ignored throughout the religion. Even anticipating a little blowback, I was stunned when he exploded, shouting that Dogen was wrong, “silence is violence,” and (ironies perpetually lost on him) I better keep my mouth shut. Of course, he felt free, clearly even obligated to give countless talks at his Zen center touting his pet political causes. He shoehorned them into nearly every discussion, no matter how far-flung from the topic at hand. He would give cringe-y wink-nudge disclaimers that as the head of a 501c-3 non-profit, he’d never advocate for particular candidates or parties, but as is true in countless churches and temples nationwide, this was a total farce.
S__ would proudly broadcast his visits with political candidates and activists, including hapless communist millionaire Bernie Sanders (kicked out of a commune for being even too lazy for hippies) who S__ criticized for not being radical enough. For years, he announced his attendance at weekly marches and sit-ins supporting Occupy, womyn, open borders, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter; or against nukes, fracking, species extinctions, the unbearable sins of whiteness and capitalism, and of course, climate change. He had me post a flier in the window virtue signaling his center an illegal immigrant “sanctuary” (taking the chance to critique the way I applied the tape.) Needless to say, his concerns never included late-term/post-birth abortion (i.e. infanticide); decades-long efforts by leftists to dismantle the nuclear family (the actual proven cause of most black poverty and crime); an epidemic of violent race-based attacks by blacks against Jews, whites, and asians that exponentially dwarfs anything in the reverse; unprecedented global persecution of Christians; or rampant cross-border child trafficking and sexual abuse. And my concerns about just remaining moderate and neutral were clearly unacceptable. His tediously doctrinaire ideologies were more and more the focus of frequent, hours-long supposed Zen teaching lectures, by him and hosts of curated guest speakers/“allies.” S__ was, in short, a walking leftist caricature.
Other students, most of whom generally shared their teacher’s political beliefs, confessed privately that they were fed up with being constantly harangued about them. In my last visit back to his center, to serve as the “head monk” for a nine-week practice intensive after living away for a few years, a number of veterans expressed relief at my return, whispering to me in alcoves and over coffee, “we’re so glad you’re back. It’s gotten so depressing. All S__ talks about are the planet dying and white supremacy.” A few months later, when he made his final annual visit to the vibrant satellite sitting group I’d founded five years before, I watched helplessly as a weekend of events featuring his now totally unexpurgated political diatribes (disguised as a seminar and talks on “Buddhist Ethics and Social Activism”) ran off nearly two dozen regulars, many of whom were minorities that didn’t appreciate being treated like pets and poster children, lectured about what fictional or overblown crises they were supposed to support based on their apparent ethnic group or sexual preference. “White” people limped away burdened with pointless guilt, or furious at being coerced to feel so. Afterward, remaining attendees almost exclusively consisted of those who’d been unable or uninterested in attending his talks, and I received many complaints from those who did, most of whom simply never returned. I’d worked hard for years to build a consistent, politically neutral space in a complex, inherently diverse region where people could just come and rest their minds and spirits from obviously accelerating cultural battles. In a few short days, S__ nearly destroyed that. But he all also shook me irrevocably awake from denial I could no longer indulge. It forced me to put some bigger pieces together, and take steps.
Stereotypically, as for any ideologically possessed person, attempts to actually discuss in meaningful detail any number of the specific socio-political issues S__ was promoting simply triggered him. After years of just avoiding talking about any of it, I began to try to help him see that many of his doom-gloomy opinions often weren’t based in actual statistics or facts. This forced me to do research to support views that seemed obvious enough, but that he wouldn’t entertain for fear they might challenge his most cherished activist premises. Conflict-averse like most other introverts attracted to Zen, I didn’t want to best or school him. I had gone above and beyond for years as a dutiful lieutenant and banner carrier. I just wanted him to have some relief, relieve others, and hopefully get off my own case. My overall attitude was that people were obviously coming to Zen for peace, for optimism, for faith, and for the space to “work out their own salvation with diligence,” as the Buddha’s final words exhorted. In keeping with the teachings, I felt attendees needed to be uplifted if possible, but mostly left alone to do their own thing within the rigorous, self-guiding frameworks of the highly-structured Zen practice format, which are in themselves supposed to do most of the redemptive healing. The primary Zen emphasis has always been: show up, follow along, suspend judgment, and see for yourself. Ancient Zen sages famously kept their mouths shut, encouraging their students to do the same. So constantly telling people that the sky is falling, that they need to grieve for the death of “Gaia,” and that all “white” Americans are secret racists whether they know it or not, was not what I or many other people signed up for. Some certainly did, and were happy to have found a cult that reinforced their preexisting political bubble with a shiny religious epoxy.
Driven and energized by self-righteous activist ambitions and power lust, like wolves among a passive majority of sheep just minding their own business, this radical minority quickly assumed positions of greater influence and power – a wider phenomenon which explains problems within many institutions, religious and otherwise (“…the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as the oft-quoted apocalyptic Yeats poem goes.) In another of many such anecdotes I accumulated, a small coven of what I suspect were actual witches secretly initiated a coup to take over my little Zen group in the name of “overthrowing the patriarchy.” This was just a free weekly zazen session, that also met once a month for a six hour silent retreat. There was nothing to take over, except a somewhat burdensome responsibility I kept up as a community service, and personal commitment to my own Zen training.
I was constantly inviting people to take more of the reins and help shoulder the load, to little consistent effect. Without even the courage to give me a heads up and maybe just have a single friendly conversation about any concerns like sane adults, on Christmas of all days I received an email with a comical list of demands consisting of dozens of weighty issues, like the donation bowl needing a lid, and my traditional black priest robes scaring one lapsed Catholic. The ringleader of this charade rarely attended, never helped when she did, and was generally unpleasant, bossy, and weird. After my initial courtesies were met with a pile of more crazy, I realized this was nothing more than a load of anti-social, power-tripping nonsense, so I courteously invited this woman to go start her own group, and not let the door hit her in the proverbial. Like manipulative children, a couple of them went crying to more senior Zen teachers around the country. Disoriented themselves by leftist insanity, they came down on me for not simply caving. I was just a white guy, after all. I needed to listen. In retrospect, I see such incidents as shots across the bow in the culture war we were all sailing straight into. At the time, I just felt like almost everyone around me were losing their minds, and I alternated between frustration and despondence at the senselessness of it. I plugged away in any case, as the teachings suggest.
I was finally gaining enough clarity that I started challenging S__ more directly about his promoting not only factually inaccurate but often patently evil ideas. As if he were facing informed opposition for the first time in his life, when he wasn’t just telling me to shut up and “respect” (read ‘don’t question’) his views, in shocking displays of character weakness S__ dared to claim that he had no free agency, no real power, and couldn’t do anything about it. “I’m only saying what my students want me to say,” he whined. Also true to leftist form, my resistance resulted in him accusing me of censoring him somehow, though he held every institutional string in his hands, and was often yanking on them with force. Never mind I lived five states away, accepting near total isolation from many once close friends to avoid any semblance of creating conflict or dissent in the community, not to mention keeping my contact with him to a bare minimum. No, just disagreeing with a leftist or asking them to think something through is seen as an existential threat, like the recent video of the Antifa protest girl who kept poking a cop in the face with a balloon. When the officer finally merely reached up and popped it, she instantly collapsed screaming as if he’d shot her. Or as if she were two years old.
Programming at Odds
I was foolish to have ever believed that the effects of these underlying political beliefs could be eluded, sublimated, or compartmentalized without “ideological struggle,” to use the apt Marxist phrase. Knowing what I know now, I should never have returned after S__’s confession of communist faith. Not due to McCarthyite bigotry, but because to declare yourself an actual communist after Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and Guevara, et al. reveals either inexcusable ignorance for a literate adult person, or a severely disordered mind and spirit – as I was witnessing. But I was years in at this point, putting it all together on the fly, trying to salvage a lot a work and energy devoted, and having no little personal affection for a lot of friends I was in the process of losing. These dialogues were rarely if ever enlightening, back-and-forth attempts to logically seek reality – the ostensible purpose of practicing Zen at all. I began to realize certain core motivations were themselves in conflict.
In 1984, Orwell illustrated that to the authoritarian leftist, it isn’t enough that one merely accept the imposed fallacy that 2+2=5; subjects must earnestly believe the lie to be true. What became clear was that the pre-Zen programming every convert harbored (and all Americans are converts, including the tiny handful of people raised by boomer Buddhists who might turn to its practices as adults) still shone through any superficial Zen lacquer. It didn’t even matter if, like S__ and many of his peers, you’d trained in Japan, practiced Zen for 50 years, written piles of books on the religion, and owned a closet full of clerical robes. If anything, that appeared to make things worse. Dogmatic leftism resists rationality, unable to even survive in its presence. It was specifically fabricated to supplant, destroy, or parasitically inhabit any other religion, faith, or creed it encounters. And Marxism certainly has its own exorbitant share of blood-thirsty gods demanding sacrifice.
My background is in many respects stereotypically American. I was raised solidly working middle class, and casually Christian in the bland Suburban Protestantism of the 1970s and ‘80s, in a country then at a material and possibly societal apex. My intelligent, responsible mother directed what little religion I was exposed to, and since she had been traumatized by the Bible-thumping, tent revival, three-times-plus-per-week church going Southern Baptism of her impoverished Texas childhood, one whiff of fundamentalism and I was shipped off to a different church the next Sunday morning. They all seemed basically the same to me. Presbyterian, Methodist, non-denominational: there were plodding hymns, cold basement Bible study classes, hip pastors in corduroy jackets and turtle necks, the smells of percolated coffee and cloying perfume, grocery store donuts, and very little of the meaningful ritual that I (like many children) deeply craved. Still, I took it as seriously as a kid could. The people were kind and friendly. I loved the Bible, and religion felt like the natural waters humans should swim in. An aspiring comic book artist, I often illustrated Biblical stories.
Like many teens do, I flirted briefly with a more “born again” type of faith, but ultimately rejected that in favor of first, pseudo-intellectual existentialism to accompany the angular, Mancunian post-punk music I was especially enamored of; then I tried improvising some personal form of generic meditation gleaned from Eknath Easwaran, Carlos Castaneda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and old scholarly books on Zen I found in used book stores (the culture was still years away from the crescendo of pop-Buddhist and yoga potboilers that would flood the market.) Needless to say, I didn’t get very far. In my early twenties, a year or two after meeting John Cage (who preached Zen ideas but didn’t formally practice,) I encountered Seung Sahn when he visited a large state university campus an hour’s drive from my tiny midwestern art school, on tour like a spiritual rock star. I was not only smitten by his charismatic presence, but relieved to learn there were actual forms, simple instructions, and places to go, across America and around the world, to practice what he preached: namely, sitting quietly with other people. I loved the religion’s philosophical rigor, open discussions, lively chanting, and synesthesic atmosphere, and I took to its intense physicality with the enthusiasm of the merely capable but persistent athlete I’d been through my youth.
My passion for practice was fueled by a profound dismay at the wanton, vacuous materialism that defined the culture at large. It was the dawn of the Grunge era. Young people were generationally disillusioned, and cartoonishly angsty. This was a response to both the war-mongering, greed-is-good mendacity of the Neo-Cons, and the virulent corruption and louche debauchery of me-generation Neo-Libs, who over the following decades meaninglessly tossed control back and forth like a beach ball in the nation’s capitol, accelerating societal decay. Contributing to my personal frustration were the cynical, pretentious Foucault-spouting cretins I landed amongst in a soul-crushing Ivy League postmodern graduate art program. They turned out to represent the types who would not only take total control of the academies, but art and creative culture as a whole. I saw Zen as a spiritual path through or maybe even above this whole fin de siecle mess. Over the next three decades, with periods of varying intensity, I spent tens of thousands of hours in daily silent sitting and structured monastic activity, and years living a sort of half-life as an ordained person in and out of these environments. There is profound beauty and ancient, accrued intelligence in the traditional forms and rituals of intact Buddhist religions, which makes the tragedy of their political coopting that much more poignant. Before we as a society even knew what we were encountering, it was stolen and Patty Hearsted.
There are too many instructive vignettes to relate detailing my own awakening to this contemporary “red menace.” Like how I once pointed out to S__ that according to the United Nations, granting a plethora of tragic exceptions, there are far fewer people per capita in actual war zones than ever in recorded human history, and fewer in desperate poverty, largely thanks to capitalism and the collapse of socialist regimes. Even a cursory, objective understanding of civilization, population, and current events would indicate as much to a reasonable person. In a typical response he just shouted, “I don’t believe you! There are more wars than ever, and more poor people, all caused by American imperialism!” He also denied the possible existence of the female black Nigerian Nobel-prize winning economist I related seeing speak, who convincingly asserted that free markets (and free thinking) were the only hope for her nation’s young people, and the African continent. I spoke of my dismay at the increasing number of videos of BLM and Antifa riots featuring unbelievable calls for the deaths of cops and white people (this was a few years ago, before such things were daily news.) “Well, I’ve been to protests and I’ve never seen that! Those are fascist lies!” he barked, head firmly planted somewhere dark and unreachable. I’d send him sources following these discussions, and he’d twist himself into cognitive pretzels discounting them. I went through this kind of thing with other high-ranking Zennists, and countless fellow liberal friends and family members. I participated in some meetings with radical coastal priests who had instituted open Zen enclaves at Google, totally chuffed they were influencing culture from the top of the social manipulation pyramid. The Overton Window had violently careened to the left, a clear revolution was underway, and I didn’t know anyone personally who seemed to even register the face-melting G forces. I felt like I was living through a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, surrounded by pod people who, sensing that I wasn’t part of the collective, more and more frequently attacked.
Like any good leftist, endless revolution was S__’s most ardent desire. Donald Trump’s election propelled him right over the edge. Committed to marching as often as possible alongside brain-addled cat lady spinsters, low-T Antifa trustfunders, and crazy-eyed, septum-pierced feminist dance theory majors, he appeared distastefully ecstatic that the time had finally arrived. “Resistance!” was his battle cry, and he frankly announced his 2017 New Year’s resolution to get arrested protesting as many times as possible. He’d tried to bring it all down at Columbia in ’68, but only got a juicy tale about being busted by the Man, having to spend a night in lock up partying with SDS fellow travelers. He related this legend ad nauseum as if to perpetually reinforce his leftist bona fides, keeping the embers of those rebellious flames warm.
His closest boomer friends and associates included a host of former Weathermen and radical leaders; he trended even further left than them on many issues, and was clearly angrier. When he finally began prompting his caucasian students – and most were very pale, indeed – to attend Maoist reeducation “retreats” (like the eerily titled, whites-only WAIC UP! White Awareness Insight Curriculum for Uprooting Privilege!), and delve into the patently unreadable Ta Nahisi Coates or Radical Dharma (a monstrous black supremacist golem costumed in Buddhist robes,) I was the only person to speak up and say, “hold on, now; wait a second…” Witnessing my subsequent treatment, cowards all, no one else spoke of the necessity for meaningful community discussion on such important issues, much less uphold what to me were obvious truths, like: we don’t single each other out for special treatment based on race, or substitute political revolution for zazen. I was in a leadership position. I felt a duty to say something. It had little effect, except to alert a few of the revolutionaries they’d best mute their rhetoric slightly, which was the only concession any of them made, and even that pretense barely lasted until I was pushed out.
Begging credulity, for a long time through our increasingly excruciating weekly discussions, S__ completely denied being a leftist, as if those were pejorative colors he didn’t want to fly. He hated being pinned down, often refusing to take responsibility or even admit to saying the very things that were the crux of a particular discussion. It was maddening. Although he’d often said point blank he was an atheist and communist, and though he once with a sinister air defended that position to me by saying “communism just hasn’t been done right yet,” he categorically denied having any biases, whatsoever. I’d say, look, it’s not a bad thing, I’m not trying to “get” you; we just have to share some terms here. In what turned out to be our penultimate conversation, yet again blowing his stack at my stubborn insistence on employing reason, utilizing pesky facts, and holding him accountable for his own words, he just began screeching, “Shut up shut shut up shut up shut up!!! You don’t know anything about Buddhism! My beliefs are Buddhism! I don’t have any biases or an ideology! I only talk about reality! I only read and listen to objective news sources like the Guardian and Democracy Now!!” (Yes, that actually happened.)
Some weeks earlier, he’d brought up gun control. I often didn’t want to talk about these things, and sometimes refused; it was pointless and exhausting. But he seemed equally intrigued and infuriated that I didn’t automatically agree with his politics, like all of his other students (at least the ones left standing.) He concluded that my failure to accept his views came down to “regional differences.” This was basically a way to dismiss me as a fly-over-state rube – somewhat difficult to square with my unfortunately complex biography, largely spent in major urban, even international capitols. I don’t doubt he believed this, concocting this notion in an attempt at sympathy. However, it really just revealed another layer of the stereotypical leftist elite thinking that he so often displayed, but could not for his own life perceive. He was right in a way, just not why he thought. I was born and raised in the mountain west, and grew up with a lot of guns, a competitive marksman and hunter. I’ve only rarely gone shooting since leaving for college, and as a priest, I’d thought it appropriate to rid myself of all but a couple of keepsake firearms. Still, I maintain nuanced views about gun control, and strongly support the second amendment. A touchy, bookish intellectual who I suspect has never touched a gun, S__ knew next to nothing about them, beyond “gun kill. Gun bad.” Unable to sustain an informed argument about the issue he’d raised, out of the blue he just began shouting, “Black Lives Matter! Climate change is real! Trans rights are human rights!” Not for the first or last time, I was left staring at my phone, my mouth hanging open, speechless.
I was forced to begin treating him like someone with serious mental health problems who needed help, not the spiritual mentor that was his purported role in my life, and more disturbingly, for hundreds of other people. Considering the host of other stressors all coming to a head around this same time, most for similar politically-implicated reasons, S__ wasn’t exactly a problem I had a lot of extra resources to deal with. Of course, some of this amounts to actual insanity and abuse. I dealt with it as best I could, and decided not to escalate things by initiating what I considered a pointless in-house formal grievance procedure, which was the only recourse open to me. I did insist he find a way to take a sabbatical ASAP, and seek a therapist, as my final codependent expressions of care. The writing was on the wall. My time associated with that place and that man was over. This also meant the end of my sitting group, unless I could soon find another transmitted teacher or organization to affiliate with. Events conspired to help me realize that if anything, other options were just as bad or worse.
I know it doesn’t seem possible that a 70+ year-old professional wise man would say things this utterly absurd, behave in these ways, be so totally asleep to himself. But as a writer and avid journalist, I kept careful records of these exchanges in the process of maintaining (or returning to) sanity, sometimes confirming them in email follow ups in which such sentiments were invariably reinforced. I finally had to just cut him off to stop the bleeding, turning my ragged attention to more pressing issues at home and at work, definitively concluding a ten-year relationship in which he had often indicated that he intended for me to take his place, the heir apparent. I had found these expressions both flattering and disturbing, forced to consider what the concrete ramifications would be. But long before all these wheels fell off, I had decided that path wasn’t mine, not least because of the spooky secret rituals I learned I would have to participate in, and the large-swastika-adorned silk “transmission documents” I would have to sign with my own blood. Later, I spoke to others who had gone through similar dynamics and left, but in another box to tick on the “Are You in a Cult?” checklist, we were all actively isolated and shunned as we went through it ourselves. Of course, most “senior students” have stayed, each person stuck in their own broken dynamics of dysfunction, self interest, and ideological possession, reinforcing an echo chamber absent any meaningful dissent. I relate all of this not to denigrate or shame any individual, which is why I withhold names and locations. It’s not personal. Rather, through these real stories (my “lived experience”) I hope to vividly paint a microcosmic picture of the entire Zen religion in this country, and demonstrate more broadly how leftist cult dynamics and thought function.
As a moderately successful worker in the equally left-possessed, cultic worlds of art and academia, I could relate similar disintegrations that occurred all around me, resulting in the loss of jobs, friends, and family. I know millions of others can do the same, and it can be as darkly hilarious as it is heartbreaking. I caught it from all sides, which as distressing as it often was, I also took as signs I was on some kind of right track, especially as I began returning more deliberately to my original Christian faith – a faith that to this point I’d wrongly assumed as a kind of bedrock I could take for granted, and keep unheralded. I found myself often writing about feeling like “a secret Christian.” I worked to make conscious sense of the gently implacable drive I had to pray to God, Jesus, and various saints, as all attraction to the many Buddhist texts and practices that once captured my attention simply evaporated.
Another trend I became painfully aware of at this time, particularly in Zen, was that many of the individuals whose actions and opinions I found so objectionable themselves shared a certain cultural background, distinct from my own. This included my teacher, many of his most radical peers, other senior students and prominent leaders of the religion I felt were leading it astray, plus a disproportionate number of the more difficult participants alluded to in my Zen group. These people were all actively, passionately socialist/communist, or merely less consciously left-possessed. And though some were lapsed, some active, some atheist, others agnostic, an unmistakable majority were of professed Jewish ethnicity. Even noticing this initially caused shocks of self-recrimination, testament to what a good college educated liberal I’d become. I’ve spent a life surrounded by and largely admiring Judaism and its adherents. As an artist, writer, and culture worker, coming of age when I did, you could even say cosmopolitan urban, even popular culture were themselves mostly Jewish. I love movies, rock music, stand up comedy, modern art, American Zen, and applaud the demise of Jim Crow as much as the next guy. Without Jews, we likely would have none of them. But we all have our shadows. Discourse can’t be relegated to just talking about the purported evils of so-called “white” Christians, the destruction of whom the left has lately made loud and clear is a core motivation. It was certainly one of Karl Marx’s; the Bolsheviks even more so.
In an earlier draft of this essay, I attempted to at least indicate where some outlines might lie for a meaningful discussion about latent tensions between the Christian and Judaic paradigms appearing today, and how I perceive this underlying tectonic activity playing into Zen’s cooption. It is profoundly complicated, and obviously controversial; an unwieldy, book-length topic in itself, and frankly still above my pay grade. In no way did I go looking for these issues; difficult, sometimes shocking contradictions simply kept revealing themselves, as I began to try to understand why so many people I cared for seemed unable to consistently behave with integrity or think rationally, and who outright rejected values and ideas (about freedom, autonomy, reason, patriotism, faith, economics, and our system of government) that I wasn’t even aware I had so deeply internalized or were committed to, until they were under all out assault. I have hardly been alone in this these last few years.
We don’t truly know what we think until we confront the necessity and opportunity to voice ourselves, hopefully meticulously thinking through and “coming to terms” with our beliefs and presuppositions. The problematic “Judeo-Christian” label doesn’t effectively paper-over all the sharp corners still uncomfortably protruding from these related but in many ways inherently contradictory religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions. Nor does it begin to delineate how both Christian and Jewish communities are each themselves severely riven along so-called progressive/conservative lines, adding more folds and complications, but also leading to well-trodden crossroads of interfaith collaboration and alignment. It has been said that American politics are impossible to understand without perceiving that they’ve been shaped by three primary, competing religious paradigms: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. As much as our ethics and emotional tendencies point us toward peaceable unity, sometimes distinctions are meaningful, even crucial, needing be explored with courage and curiosity. Our current censorious climate, especially heightened by rabid representatives of the political left who firmly grip most institutional levers of power, make this increasingly difficult – even dangerous.
It will have to suffice here to simply observe that a disproportionate percentage of Zen religious leaders are both proudly culturally Jewish and defiantly leftist, questioning the potential meaning and significance of this reality. As I kept encountering in research for a recently published text on 1960s psychedelic art, political leftism and Dionysian counterculturalism throughout the 20th century and into the 21st have often been theorized, strategized, and implemented by individuals and organizations who’ve credited their Jewish backgrounds for instilling in them an activist ethos rooted in ideas like tikkun olam (“healing the world.”) Though often touting the compatibility of the religions (“all roads lead…”), and not shy about declaring their own admirable tolerance, few Zen teachers or practitioners today are actively Christian. Not one that I know of is politically “conservative,” or evidently even capable of authentic sympathy for such views. S__ would occasionally mention with a condescending chuckle, or as a brittle defense of his broad mindedness, that there was a Trump supporter who sometimes came to sit at his center, as if this balanced out the hundreds of other unadulterated lefties who were 100% of the regular attendees and temple leaders, including myself. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I understood and respected why other people did, and I knew for damn sure he wasn’t Hitler. S__’s treatment of me (a moderate liberal that he claimed to care about) itself belies his declarations of tolerance, illustrating how typical leftists think and behave when push comes to shove.
Most Zennists with Christian backgrounds are bitterly apostate and forcefully repudiate traditional American values, the rejection of which often defines their identities, heavily contributing to them landing somewhere as weird as a Zen temple in the first place, and leaving them fundamentally disoriented. As described, these convert Judeo-Christian-Marxist Buddhists have formed radically countercultural “cells” within a still majority Christian civilization, transparently cultivating and encouraging attitudes defiantly set against that majority, without apology, going so far as to drum out any vocal dissent. Are all reformed or lapsed Jews, apostate Christians, or Zen Buddhists leftist revolutionaries? Obviously not. But it is readily demonstrable that the Zen religion as a whole in America has been subsumed by neo-Marxist, tribal identitarian ideologies and taken over by its most committed activists.
To truly grasp why Zen collapsed so wholly and spectacularly into the left pit, to understand what made it so vulnerable to this take over, we may need to not only come to better grips with ancient, civilization-defining contradictions between Judaism and Christianity, and how these are further complicated and challenged by the atheistic, scientific materialist baby they birthed and nurtured. We must then also somehow integrate that interfamilial, essentially Eurocentric struggle with an entirely exotic religio-philosophical cohort with roots stretching back to complex civilizations that were ancient when Moses was leading an unremarkable exiled tribe around an obscure desert. Five centuries before Christ, “Buddhism” evolved out of a much older religious culture, then developed thousands of unique forms throughout all of Asia: from the pointed tip of India to the steppes of Mongolia; far western China to the eastern shores of Japan. It is perhaps little wonder then that instead of humbly and patiently submitting to studying and untangling such mind-bending complexity, recent generations of entitled Americans – who have been programmed for at least sixty years to embody an absurd ethos of rock rebellion, despite unprecedented material abundance; who thanks to decades of degenerative brainwashing, know less about their history, language, and political systems than any Americans since the founding; who have self-identified as the pinnacle of global, civilizational, and socio-political progress based on little more than their strong feelings and narcissistic regard – would then simply cash all this incalculably rich cultural inheritance in for the cheap, murderous stupidity and spiritual vacuity of leftist ideologies responsible for the physical deaths of hundreds of millions of human beings, and unimaginable global destruction. After all, chaos and resentment are much easier to unleash than order and faith are to build.
Like Christianity, which merged prophetic monotheism with Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism is a synthetic product. Indian Mahayana Buddhism blended with strains of pre-Buddhist thought that Bodhidharma and other missionaries encountered in China, namely Taoism and Confucianism, and similar syncretic processes occurred everywhere the religion migrated. East Asian Buddhist traditions are Frankenstein monsters of cobbled-together parts. But none of these traditions has the uniquely Judeo-Christian sense of historicity, or its clarity around the supremacy of practical reason. There is no unifying purpose or evolutionary teleology to South or East Asian histories or cosmologies, and logic almost invariably takes a back seat to mystical, intuitive gnosis. Indian religion and philosophy see time occurring in endless, essentially meaningless cycles. The existential mission, and anything resembling redemption or sense granted to our fleeting mortality, becomes therefore to somehow spiritually or psychologically escape the grinding wheels of life and death. Buddhism forever teeters on the brink of nihilism, and threats from egotistical inflation, even psychosis loom large. Criticisms leveled at the religion by believers and nonbelievers alike have underscored these hazards. This was true in China, in Japan, and centuries later in the west, especially as Americans encountered early textual translations which awkwardly rendered the central Buddhist concept of “emptiness” (shunyata, usually intended to mean impermanence and relativity) as “voidness.”
This nihilistic critique has ineluctable validity. Though evasions, proscriptions, and internal struggles about “attachment to emptiness” permeate its doctrines, complete self-righteous denial of the threat persists today, which makes recognition and treatment of the problem almost impossible. In fact, the common American conflation of Buddhism and leftism is actually a concrete modern manifestation of this nihilistic tendency. Both the “void attached” Buddhist and the postmodern socialist completely fail to recognize healthy boundaries, respect natural laws, or honor authentic humanity and autonomy. When communist Zennists vow to “save all beings from suffering,” they never bother to ask those beings if they want to be saved, what from, or how. Like all Marxists, they know how the future is supposed to “scientifically progress,” and they feel emboldened and entitled to just bend “the arc of moral justice” on behalf of whomever they condescendingly or manipulatively deem oppressed. Possibly even right around their necks. Radical leftism is by its very nature a nihilistic death cult, deceptively disguised as kindness and care.
Mahayana Buddhism developed a few centuries after the historical Buddha expounded his original Dharma, or system of wisdom teachings. In part, these later “prophetic” developments attempted to introduce transcendental purpose and redemptive “other power” intercession into the Buddhist religion, providing more psychologically effective means to move beyond the pitfalls of personal will and spiritual ambition. Nearly every sect of Mahayana in some way instructs adherents to let “Buddha take the wheel,” often seeming almost indistinguishable from Christian doctrines – save the notable absence of Jesus, and some profound differences he represents. I’m not sure any American can truly, deep down, feel that any of the countless redemptive cosmic Buddhas that Mahayana sutras enumerate will help them on their death beds, or through the realest personal crises. If they pray (and most of us do sooner or later, when the rubber hits the road,) I suspect most Americans and Europeans will still turn to Mary, Christ, or the Biblical God, be He Old Testament or New. This is without getting into the complex, meaningful theological distinctions between Christianity and Buddhism which modern convert Buddhists tend to think they don’t even need to consider, having skipped to the clearly more evolved, tolerant, scientific religion; they typically remain completely ignorant about the rich religious heritage they are trading it for.
If it means anything at all, Buddhism to most Americans is in the end little more than a few semi-practical self-help techniques to help them feel better, and achieve personal goals. For quite a few others, it’s a fashion choice. What I am mostly describing in this essay is a manipulative, sociopathic minority who use the trappings of the religion mainly to further their heinous political and personal aims, and passive left-leaning followers who don’t know enough or lack the courage to question them. Asian Zen teachers were pretty consistent in steering Americans away from the tradition’s monumental piles of philosophical, ritualistic, and even ethical texts and teachings, accurately predicting that most of these newbies encountering a massive 2500 year old, totally foreign religious body would get distracted and confused by them. What I have witnessed is that contemporary radical Buddhists specifically misuse these extensive ethical teachings to paradoxically camouflage their theft of the religion, twisting these prescriptions into confused, self-contradicting apologetics for their political designs. This is the preeminent Rule for Radicals, as when they use specific tragic social crises or events to play on people’s sympathies to manipulate them in audacious efforts to expand their power. This is the entire premise of the radical Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Engaged Buddhism movement. Again, sounds nice. Just visit their websites or a local chapter meeting for a quick plunge into the polemical tsunami I am describing.
Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, developed a complex set of ethical and behavioral precepts or laws his ordained followers adhered to. This is another complex topic, but suffice it to say that Eihei Dogen boiled these hundreds of rules down to sixteen general guidelines that he felt covered the bases, utilized by both lay and clerical ordained followers alike. Other traditions went through similar distillations. They are essentially Zen versions of the Ten Commandments. However, these “sixteen bodhisattva precepts” have lately become little more than a devil’s playground. At best, they are treated like general suggestions, and we can all readily see how well modern Americans have been able to consistently adhere to any kind of moral code. In reality, Zen has become an ethical and philosophical free for all, and because these sixteen precepts aren’t supported by real ancestral connection for western people, and they do not represent a divine decree or mandate, they simply don’t carry any weight. They sound pleasant and common sensical, but if an individual doesn’t like one translation, there are hundreds more, crafted to mean or allow almost anything, by anyone who feels “patronized,” “excluded,” or “microaggressed” by one version or another. They were all just written and handed down by long dead patriarchal cis-gendered men, after all, who obviously existed in much less evolved times and places.
For the postmodern leftist, everything is up for grabs and for interpretation. The precepts change almost every time they are invoked, and the academic Critical Theory-educated drips who’ve taken over have plenty of practiced lingo to substitute for traditional phrases. Liberal westerners feel every right to just wing it, piecing together their own crazy quilt of beliefs, bending and blending doctrines to suit their every whimsy. American Zen teachers have lately begun to pretend to take these precepts extremely seriously, often preaching about them and publishing a growing list of books on the topic. But the novel emphasis on this moral element is just another tactic to justify whatever agenda-driven course they are already set upon, be it excusing the endless vagaries of their own moral relativism, or throwing fuel on the fire of a tribal civil war they’ll just end up hiding from in their little meditation rooms. They’ll never entertain a single doubt as to their being on the righteous side, no matter the peaceful riots and mounting body count outside the doors. Don’t you know the violence and arson all come from Nazis dressed up as Antifa to ruin their reputation, and that the BLM looters are just KKK Grand Dragons painted up in blackface? Radical leftism represents a pernicious disconnection from reality: moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical.
In keeping with ancient Vedic precedents, Mahayana Buddhist texts enumerate worlds, eons, and even enlightened Buddhas in the intentionally stupefying billions, or trillions. Every individuated thing comes into being and flows out of being, evanescent and ephemeral, worthy of “compassion” but essentially devoid of any objective meaning or external purpose. The more practical Chinese were more circumspect. When Lao Tse spoke of “the 10,000 things,” he was indicating the same cosmic infinitude as his more baroque south-western cousins. He kept his formulations refreshingly direct and simple, and recommended the same radically laissez fair attitude toward ones own self and psyche as toward governing entire human civilizations (“governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish – too much handling will spoil it.”) That Taoism disintegrated into a formless cloud of occult superstitions with next to no political influence might indicate certain deficiencies in his estimations of human beings and their societies. The mid-level governmental bureaucrat and political philosopher Confucius (Kung Fu Tse) lived roughly contemporaneous to Lao Tse, around the time of Shakyamuni Buddha in India, and had a much more pronounced influence on not only Chinese culture and society, but on Buddhism when it showed up centuries later.
If the spiritual heart of Zen remains close to Lao Tse’s originaly pithy, no-nonsense simplicity, the traditional Zen religion’s fixed hierarchical structures, bat-winged robes, ornate formality, and obsession with spiritual lineages are all distinctly Confucian. Confucius addressed the political mechanics of culture and civilization, less so its abstract meaning, concluding that most attention should be given to enforcing and adhering to rigid social structures in order to keep an enormous empire and the world’s largest population fed and relatively peaceful. Mao and his communist successors also obviously take much greater inspiration from Confucius than the Taoists. Like a thousand despots before them, they actively persecute religious minorities, including Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and Uighur Muslims, millions of whom fill contemporary Chinese gulags, where they are tortured, starved, and murdered for religious faiths which are each deemed nothing more than ideological subversion: clear and present threats to the state. If not outright anticipating the conversion of our own society into something similar, contemporary leftists applaud the CCP as just another valid world view to be celebrated for its “diversity,” and certainly no matter we have any right to judge, much less interfere in. Leftists now even argue that a bit of Marxist revolution is just what the doctor ordered: a little mass death prescription for our founding diseases of slavery and “colonialism.” Secretly, most of these people just wish they were in charge of their own camps. “Communism just hasn’t been done right yet.”
There was a specific event that served as the moment I knew I was done formally representing Zen, prompting my resignation as Zen priest and from all the organizations I remained tied to. I’d always felt reassured and inspired by the aspects of the formal Zen religion that most corresponded with Christianity. Though lazy and ambivalent about it, I never renounced the faith of my forbears and my upbringing, and generally felt that I still at least honored the spirit of Christ in my Zen practice. There is a confessional “atonement ceremony” in Zen that has distinctly Christian resonances, echoes which I appreciated. It developed from a practice instituted by the historical Buddha, in which monks would gather monthly to openly confess transgressions of their ordination vows. The sangha (ordained community) would then collectively absolve each individual. This was transformed in subsequent centuries and traditions into a ceremonial blanket confession of “ancient, twisted karma”: original sin, in essence, “beginningless and endless.” This ceremony is often conducted on the full moon, but might be held daily during longer practice intensives or retreats. It involves lots of chanting and physical prostrations, with each participant left to reflect internally on what it is they are owning, or to just lose themselves in the ritual space, “liberated” from feelings of guilt or regret in this immediate, Zen-like way. Tragically, two years ago this ceremony was simply turned by the religion’s radical leftist leadership into a self-abnegating Maoist shame ritual. For me, this symbolically represented the complete success of their takeover. In one fell swoop, any authentic American Soto Zen experiment was effectively finished.
Soto Zen is one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan, with many thousands of temples and countless adherents, although relatively few of them actually practice zazen. This includes the Soto priest/monks who usually inherit their roles from uncles and fathers, and who primarily function as ritual psychopomps, reduced to doing little more than conducting village funerals. The Japanese Soto school has a clear structure akin to many Christian church denominations, but minimal involvement with the many eccentric, controversial offshoots that developed in the US and Europe in recent decades. The Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) was formed a few years ago to centralize control and unify these dozens of various sects outside of Japan, while providing a clear public front. Only ordained clergy are allowed membership, and just the apostolically transmitted “Zen masters” have voting privileges. A few years ago, I was present when they set controversial guidelines for the training and authorization Zen teachers/masters. Without meeting these criteria, a Zen teacher risks not getting the SZBA’s stamp of approval, as essentially the only accrediting agency for the religion in this country. They’d be left isolated and outside the fold, and a handful of teachers who’ve refused to join have been – not that even many Zennists are paying much attention. There are approximately 400 ordained SZBA members, with only something like half of these able to vote. Though small by many standards, that is still a lot of priests considering there was not a single American-born Zen cleric as recently as the 1950s.
Despite having practiced Zen since before some of the SZBA’s current leadership were born, due to my own eccentric path and the randomness of American Zen authorizations, I was an “ungraduated” junior member for a number of years, having not yet completed the secret blood rituals etc. that would have allowed me to assume different colored robes, hang out my own shingle, and begin to train my own “students,” thus becoming a full voting member of the SZBA. I was allowed to attend their biennial conferences, however, and did so just once in 2012. I was disturbed by things I witnessed, and some subsequent fallout in my own life (ironically, I was retaliated against by an avowedly right-wing Christian supervisor at my university job. He resented that I’d asked for time off to participate in what he admitted he perceived as a bizarre Marxist cult, long before I myself came to a similar conclusion. “I’ve looked at life from both sides now…”) Things grew much direr by 2018, when that year’s entire SZBA conference, a hundred priests strong, reverentially performed this adapted Maoist repentance ceremony. With bells, drums, monotone chanting, and dozens of abasing prostrations, these overwhelmingly Caucasian, boomer, bourgeois leftist cult leaders collectively “atoned” for the sins of patriarchy, whiteness, colonialism, capitalism, European civilization, etc.: the entire laundry list of postmodern Wokeness. Of course, such rituals have since become commonplace in the wider culture, with participation often enforced with threats of violence, or at the very least economic and social “cancelling.”
I’d already basically cut off contact my preceptor by that time, and despite being thoroughly disillusioned with the entire master/disciple succession rigamarole, I’d held on to my hand-sewn rakusu and o-kesa (clerical robes) wondering if there was someone else I could complete my training with, one priest left standing who hadn’t completely lost their mind. But reading glowing accounts of this event in major Buddhist magazines and websites (which themselves had all likewise long since gone full Woke,) seeing dozens of other Buddhist leaders applaud it on social media, and failing to perceive one other person with the guts to stand up to these people, I immediately knew there was no alternative. I would abandon the religion completely. I knew one of the three named authors of the race-repentance ritual fairly well. He is among the best known representatives of the entire Soto tradition in the west, the equivalent of an archbishop or cardinal, and his underscored involvement clearly legitimized and elevated the importance of the act. I frankly told him how devastatingly heretical I found it. True to form, he completely dismissed my concerns and denied all responsibility, saying, “well, I didn’t really write it,” and “you’re taking this too seriously.” He simply couldn’t understand how I perceived any problem with the views expressed or indicated through this event, or his weak “who, me?” failure to take ownership. One final nail in the coffin; a cherry on the top of this turd sunday.
The End of Zen
Wearing the robes, learning to facilitate meditation and all the complex rituals of Zen priestcraft, I had only ever wanted to represent and pass along something noble, decent, and helpful. I didn’t want to be an “enlightened” free-agent cult leader, much less a Maoist revolutionary. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life as the solo opposition in my religion, forced to start a protestant, orthodox Zen faction. If such a thing were even advisable, I wasn’t equipped to do it. No, the mandate from spirit and the facts on the ground were clear: let the dead bury the dead. Obviously, there have to be some other Zen priests who don’t consider themselves revolutionaries who are just standing or sitting by, letting this happen without comment. I can attest how difficult it is to crawl out of the leftist muck; you will lose more than just a shoe, or even your pants. Maybe they think it’s a fad that will settle down or fade away – if they just stay still, as they’ve spent a lifetime learning to do, they won’t sink anymore. They are sorely mistaken, and they are cowards.
There are Zen traditions other than Soto, but they have either been devastated and marginalized by a plethora of scandals, or have similarly succumbed to leftist pressure to conform. If you call yourself a Zen teacher in this country, you are either actively with the overwhelming radical Woke majority or just silently standing by, but the entire movement has undeniably been hijacked, and anyone associated is implicated. In any case, I‘d personally had quite enough: of navigating the gaslighting, the distracting esotericism, the projections, the unreason, the alienating otherness, and cognitive dissonance run amok. It was all worse than pointless. In keeping with tradition, to officially signify my resignation I packed up and mailed my robes, ordination documents, and bowls to my preceptor the day after I learned what had gone down at the SZBA conference. I then gave away most of the Buddhist accoutrement and books I’d collected along the way, and boxed up the few sentimental keepsakes I chose to hold on to. A plastic flea market Jesus had already replaced Buddha on my altar, and a crude yard-sale Madonna shrine the Kwan Yin statue in the living room. I shed no tears over any of this, and am still releasing occasional sighs of relief. My deeper grief was saved for other anticipated losses that followed. My resignation letter to the SZBA, thoughtfully relating how their actions had prompted this decision, received no response. They did keep asking me for money, however.
Since then, the SZBA has just continued to issue regular public statements of radical leftist allegiance, if anything somehow even amplifying the rhetoric. What follows is merely the most recent example, cut-and-pasted from their website: “In deep grief over the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association acknowledges the deep-seated, systemic, and structural racism that poisons life in the United States of America. We vow to continue the work we are currently engaged in and call for a fresh and coordinated effort to dismantle racism at every level of our culture, society, government, our Zen communities, and our own hearts. Today, we see and hear the searing pain and anger of Black people, who have endured centuries of oppression in the United States and who, as a community, continue to suffer acts of violence and discrimination, including at the hands of law enforcement. We grieve the disproportionate number of people of color who have died of the coronavirus, and see that many people of color performing essential functions of society are undervalued and oppressed economically. Those of us who are white fully avow our complicity in perpetuating this harm.”
It goes on. Blah blah blah. There is no sense in even breaking it down, except to call it what it is: shameless race baiting, pure revolutionary programming, “intersectional” obfuscation, and outright lies. We know the sources. This is a play acted out by Marxist occult terrorist organization Black Lives Matter, and anarchic shock troops Antifa. Their booking agents are a decadent academic establishment, deep state cabal politicians, and the global corporatists who fund them and pull the strings. The script was written by the likes of Saul Alinsky, and produced by the fully infiltrated Democratic Party and debauched Clinton/Soros mob machine. It is promoted and disseminated by a demoniac trillion-dollar media hydra, every head spouting the same venomous deceptions. The Zen establishment in America have volunteered to serve as chaplains and high priests for this transparently Satanic movement. Radical leftism already has all the hallmarks of a religion; an almost perfectly inverted Christianity, in fact. Karl Marx quite consciously constructed his philosophy to serve as just that (see the excellent recent book, The Devil and Karl Marx, for a detailed explication.)
Current forms of radicalism, recycling Marxist iron, were forged in the hell-fires of the gleefully Luciferian rebellion of the 1960s, super-heated and alloyed with the tenets of Reichian sexual revolution, and charged with Crowleyan occult fanaticism. Intentionally obtuse postmodern “intersectionality” developed in the meantime to dismiss all critics or dissenters as racists, tribe traitors, or toxically masculine before they even open their mouths. This updated leftism constitutes the actual tie-dyed-in-the-wool faith of most of American Zen’s aging boomer leaders. As their lives and careers near their ends, they have distilled their real concerns, repudiated the explicit teachings and implicit spirit of Zen, and parasitically “occupied” the religion’s shell as merely a gold-gilt, leering Trojan Buddha, dressed in a BLM t-shirt and pink pussy hat, mechanically waving a rainbow flag like a sushi restaurant register cat. “See, we’re harmless! We just compassionately want you to wake up! There are only wisdom teachings packed inside here! Let us in!” Zennists who even passively accept this, while a majority passionately promotes it, are still complicit in the horrendous violence seen on our streets in recent months; they too have blood on their hands. They can dedicate themselves to as many hours of zazen as they want, doing nothing, saying nothing, believing themselves to be saving the world merely with their conscious breathing and “ally-ship,” while their impressively garbed Zen master preaches doctrines of division, hatred, and death. Prices will be paid, and interest rates are going up.
Asian teachers who preceded and authorized these current generations of Zen leadership were often fleeing the chaos created by leftist revolutions, or wars stemming from them, in their homelands. They sought peace and to create peace, forcefully repudiated identitarianism, communism, and tribalism, and extolled authentically conservative moral world views and attitudes (how well they lived up to them is another discussion. The short answer is, too often not very well.) Shunryu Suzuki in particular would be thoroughly discouraged with what the religion has turned into in this country. I see absolutely no hope for things to turn around, and I am not sure that would even be desirable. This would entail Zen leadership not only completely changing their tune, but their followers forcefully replacing the orchestra; these outspoken proponents of race war and tribal revolution would need to be totally repudiated, and their sins atoned for. That isn’t even conceivable in an imaginary alternate universe. Another season of terrible wildfires once again threaten Suzuki’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery as I type. Through the grapevine, I’ve received many reports of students fleeing that and other temples in recent years; not from the flames, but from all the insidious wokeness, just as I have. I wonder if the protective blessings granted in the past by the “spirit of pure practice” might finally be dispelled due to the heretical teachings that have subsumed the religion, leaving Tassajara liable to just be swept away. The old teachers warn of such things. These fires themselves stand as tragic testament to leftist mismanagement and neglect of the land, and prosecutions mount against bands of Antifa/BLM anarchist maniacs who’ve been caught intentionally setting many of them. Indeed, just as the Zen teachings state, “cause and effect are very clear.”
Increasingly over the years, as these deep paradigmatic schisms arose in awareness and gained importance, I was forced to come more fully to terms with the Christian culture I was raised in, and what it meant to me and the civilization around me. While I had too long postponed this reckoning, I believe these roots nevertheless allowed me to intuitively, instinctively see this profound evil when it appeared, and to reject it, even if I didn’t fully understand why. I thank God for guiding my steps on this often quite confounding journey. In the final years and months of my attempts to make zazen available to people, mainly through my sitting group, my approach (never grandly complex) grew simpler, and I came more and more to rely on one Psalmic phrase: “Be still and know God.” I carried on with my group for awhile after my resignation because I wanted, after five years of hardly missing a beat, to land the plane as gently as possible, for everyone’s sake. I gave myself a few months to wrap it up. Even before turning them in, I’d dropped the robes. I’d stopped with the abstract talks delving into Buddhist philosophy or Zen liturgy, and finally even stopped holding my hands in any special Zen mudra. Then, I stopped promoting the religion at all, and went back to church (I’ve been especially attracted to the Catholic latin mass.)
A senior student of S__ recently began intruding upon comment threads of social media posts I’ve been issuing since returning to certain platforms, after months of recuperative absence. Perfectly echoing her beloved guru, undifferentiated from any other leftist online, when meeting pushback or challenges to her programming she was instantly reduced to shouting (in all caps) series of slogans unrelated to the topics at hand. I finally blocked her when with obvious relish she described her pride in her many abortions, topped with “Science is real! BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER!!!” Full leftist bot mode. I’ve learned the hard way that there is simply no reasoned cure for that kind of programming, and no sense in entertaining it. She fits a template of elderly feminists, often childless or estranged from their kids, who along with “blocks” of other angry, psychically disordered men and women, constitute the backbones of many American Buddhist communities, and often enough their leadership. Their harassing insanity drives out more balanced people, amplifying the toxicity. Zen centers magnetically draw in wounded people seeking help and support. These days, what they are almost invariably going to find is a re-traumatizing radical indoctrination camp, where certain fatal conclusions they might have arrived at using broken compasses and upside-down maps will be reinforced. On the surface, the place is likely to smell good (lots of great incense, in the temples where hypochondriacs and control freaks haven’t had that practice banned,) and be well appointed with a hodge-podge of Buddhist statuary from a dozen unrelated cultures and even contradictory traditions; and where until the Chinese bioweapon COVID19 was unleashed, you could spend hours in relatively peaceful contemplation and prayer, alone with others. However, after these hours of mind-erasing meditation, with spirit open and vulnerable, you are assured of being emotionally blackmailed and programmed to hate and resent yourself, others, your country, and your cultural history, with superficial markers of race, gender, age, and ethnicity underscored and warped to abuse, confuse, and totally undermine personal integrity and innate human reason.
Zen has always primarily attracted intellectuals and the highly educated, in every country it enters. It provides simplicity and integrated physicality for over-thinkers, but also endless texts for study, and heightened aestheticism for those so inclined. The wealthy are too pampered for its endurance aspect, and the desperately poor too preoccupied for its pointless enforced austerity. No, Zen centers are mostly populated by well-meaning, well-behaved, college-educated, lapsed Christian, self-identified “white” people: run-of-the-mill liberals, in short. That was me, too. They are stupefied into blind obedience by the intensity and exoticism of the religion, and if disillusioned with the programming they become aware of receiving, mostly just stop attending without comment or complaint, leaving it to the radicals. Typical cult programming (“you can’t escape the reality Zen/BLM has initiated you into!” is a common sentiment) dissuades the weaker-minded from straying, and keeps their donations rolling in.
My investment in time, money, and dedication was at another level than the casual weekend or monthly attendee. I couldn’t begin to calculate the hours I’ve spent in Zen centers and retreats, in study of the religion, in expense for travel, materials, robes, contributions, countless sacrificed opportunities, and deferred desires. Thirty years of blood, sweat, and tears. So even though I pretty quickly recognized the hopelessness of it, I couldn’t in good conscience simply walk away, not without attempting to at least make a case for reason and moderation, if not an actual return to the intrinsically conservative values at the true heart of the tradition. If I wasn’t actively shouted down and opposed, my concerns were minimized or simply ignored. I just hope in sharing this tale, testimony, and the mere outlines of an analysis to provide a modicum of support for other people awakening from the sleep of leftism wherever they’ve encountered it, who are turning away from its persecutions and abusive adherents, and returning to sanity. Zen might be lost. But the possibility of grace persists, and reality freely endures.