If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Protest His Privilege: Zen Gets Radical


Note, 11.9.18: I wrote this 6 or 7 months ago. I’ve made a couple of addenda to the text since then, some notated. My concerns have only compounded, leading me to resign as a Zen priest. I hear from people all the time who share my concerns, who have severed ties with Zen groups, left centers, and lost faith. It is a real crisis, and my reasonableness and careful considerations, in some evidence in the article, have been replaced by a traverse through stages of grief for what I consider the likely end of a valid Zen experiment in America.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra

The United States and much of the modern world stand at a political crossroads. The stakes feel extremely high, the threats potentially the most catastrophic since the fall of the Soviet Empire. Autocrats consolidate power in the most powerful nations on earth. The greatness of unprecedented collective human success and well being casts dark shadows on natural environments worldwide. New technologies emerge and permeate our minds and lives, amplifying every mistake and human foible; corruption gets painfully revealed, emotions get played, and this often results in drastically skewed perspectives. In this pressured atmosphere a kind of cultic fundamentalism has overwhelmed American public dialogue – at least the fundamentalists have. College professors are shouted down, biased pundits troll each other, orchestrated riots eliminate rational discussion, angrily hurled slogans replace dialectic. Politics in this country has always been a contact sport. It is qualitatively different now, and we all feel it.

Kasemir Malevich abstractly diagramming the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917

For a host of possible reasons, many visible American Buddhist teachers and organizations have made their political affiliations increasingly overt. Rather than seeking nuanced methods of reasoned inquiry toward grounded solutions for complex problems – or more importantly, the maintenance of a space for the cultivation of a sound personal foundation for that potential – many clergy and community leaders are enthusiastically adding their force at one ideological extreme. It might be considered the working end of sharp red wedge. Obviously motivated by a sympathetic impulse to counteract the abusive tendencies of those in power and support the citizenry’s most disenfranchised members, more and more these and other cultural leaders overcompensate by aligning themselves and the traditions they represent with outmoded political and destructive social views that are at times antithetical to the received spirit of those traditions: prejudicial, tribalist, victimized, scientifically unsound, and vociferously illiberal. There are no commonly visible exceptions, critics, or voices of dissent, and I’ve come to wonder if all light between American Buddhism and radical leftism has been eclipsed.

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