As an Ornament to Ego, Zen Sucks

We are always trying to live our way. When you get into spiritual life, intellectually you want to have freedom, but when you get into [spiritual life] you don’t like it.
- Katagiri Roshi

“Our way.” The last few days I’ve been re-struck by this “our way” key point of dharma practice. As I talk with potential students and peruse various blogs, I see quite a lot of air being used to champion the notion of self-styled (a.k.a., buji) Zen. If such people were dharma teachers you might come to the conclusion that the dharma requires a very worldly focus – we ought to pick and choose practices that seem right to us and we ought to do practice in a way that we like and we don’t need to make a commitment to go deeply into any one tradition because teachers are bums and make mistakes and so it’s best to dig many shallow wells.

In contradiction, and imHo, all the old ways teach that a precondition to really beginning to practice Buddhadharma is to recognize that “our way” is the way of suffering and the necessary (but insufficient) first step on the path for both home leavers and home dwellers is some form of renunciation, a dropping our self-styled ideas and taking up the way of freedom.

In other words, you gotta be sick of your self to begin practice.

When we don’t see that our way is the way of suffering, we aren’t quite ready yet to take it up. Indeed, unless there is renunciation, then the practice serves merely as an ornament of the ego. And as an ornament, the dharma sucks (and it’ll bite back too), so if that’s what you’re looking for, look somewhere else. Take up whatever will make people’s mouth’s drop in awe at the oh-so-totally-cool you.

Fortunately, there are good examples in the not so distant past. In Bokusan’s commentary on the Genjokoan, for instance, he talks about how he as a young man came to Zen, looking for How to do everything in accordance with the Buddhadharma. Katagiri Roshi was so strongly of this bent that he wiped his butt with clay balls just like Dogen did. Due to the movement of the dharma to the West, we now have the added wonderful challenge of finding the Way within a new cultural context (a.k.a, the dharma of wiping our butts with toilet paper).

Of course, in entering the kind of practice I’m talking about, a wise person investigates a teacher and tradition carefully for several years and if they jump in the ocean, they take responsibility for their circle of protection. The teacher might be quite a duffball and still make a good teacher for you. It really isn’t about the teacher, anyway, but about whether you are willing and able to drop self-clinging for a heart beat or so.

Meanwhile, practice in the West has already gotten so confused that there are dharma centers that offer workshops in how to design your own practice, a practice that really works for you. It would be like a sick person coming to a clinic and the doctor prescribing a disease while insisting that it really is a medicine.

One qualifier: especially for home-based practitioners, it isn’t so simple as doing exactly what you’re told, although that might be a good thing at the beginning. As a person develops practice legs, it is important that they walk on their own and declare the truth with their own voice.

Also, in order to practice for the long run, it takes a cultivated sensitivity to what’s possible and called for in the moment – get up at 5am and sit or sleep in, for example, given the many demands of the upcoming day. But a mature person while practicing will take up the practice exactly as it’s offered, dropping self-clinging and sitting in the student seat.

If a person comes to me and wants to study Zen, I don’t prescribe a disease and call it a medicine but prescribe a medicine and let them discover how it is a disease.

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