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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Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
  • The Barking Unicorn

    Are you complaining that people don't want to do it your way, but their own way?Please don't say it's not your way. It's the way you insist it be done, so it's your way.

  • Dosho Port

    I'm not complaining, that's not what I'm saying, and it isn't way I'm talking about. Letting go of self-clinging is definitely not my way. And you don't need to be afraid of it.

  • senshin mats fredriksson

    A real unicorn have one unified horn. Knowing its direction, there is no doubt.This barking unicorn seems to have two horns, divided. Not really knowing the way.When the wildfoxzenblogTruth is spoken all the rabbits jump down in their holes and hide in the dark."You gotta serve somebody, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but still you gotta serve somebody" Dylan wrote that.That is another way of putting it.I really agree Dosho but it is really hard to follow this all through

  • Jamie G.

    I just imagine that the number of home practitioners will continue to increase until the majority of "roshis" come to see the subtle hypocrisy of the zen institution and their teacher followers stop perpetuating ego-centric myths. In the spirit of the words of Shunryu Suzuki, it seems that "beginners" are better at catching this than the long-time "true believers".

  • Harry

    Merely believing this as opposed to that is not it at all… how could it be? That's just a comforting type of stupidity resulting in stasis. Doubt and renunciation seem much more important… the bodhisattva's sword.Being thouroughly cut in two or 10,000 may be it.Dylan is an asshole and a consumate long-term egoist… and a wonderful artist who has served humanity.Regards,Harry.

  • Harry

    "Letting go of self-clinging is definitely not my way."ps.Pithy phrases like 'buddhas along with buddhas…' seem to suggest that it is our own way… along with others, that is. This seems correct.This way of buddhas, however, is already jumping free of our own unique viewpoints and beliefs.If we really are just one big ultimate mush then, in terms of substantial actions, what could we ever possibly do that was real?Regards,Harry.

  • senshin mats fredriksson

    HarryI see what you mean but this was not clear to me:Doubt and renunciation seem much more important… the bodhisattva's sword.renunciation of what?regardssenshin

  • Dosho Port

    "True believer" is not the mature practice of which I speak.

  • Ed

    Wiping your ass with clay balls like Dogen did might bring you a little closer to the Shobogenzo, and perhaps to Dogen and ancient sanitary practices in some unusual way … but I'm not really making the Dharma connection.I may be a soft modern Westerner, but I prefer toilet paper. Scott brand, primarily, because it's a little sturdier and doesn't have that awful perfume-y smell.

  • moritheil

    In this sentence:"Letting go of self-clinging is definitely not my way."Would the emphasis be on "my"?

  • Harry

    'renunciation of what?'Yes, exactly, 'what?' as renunciation.Regards,Harry.

  • Nathan

    "In other words, you gotta be sick of your self to begin practice." What would you say of those born into Buddhist homes, who are involved from the very beginning? How can anyone really know under what circumstances intentions will arise? Maybe being sick of yourself is entry into practice for us converts who start as adults, but everyone? I do see it. As for self styled zen, I'm all for digging a deep well and sticking things out. And at the same time, what I dig with, at what speed, and frequency, will vary no matter what. What is renunciation anyway?

  • Dhyan

    The timer goes off. Lifting the lid from the pot I see that the cauliflower is nicely tender. Turn off the heat and let it coast until it is time to eat. This present moment without endless consideration.I think, "I am not participating in the program enough. When was the last time I came to the blog to see what is happening, to consider what is being said, to participate in the discussion? I come today and the question under consideration seems to be "Do you do your own thing, or do you surrender/accept/embrace a tradition/a practice/what the teacher tells you to do?I look out my window, considering, and I don't know. MY question is: From my admitted ignorance, do I even HAVE the wisdom to choose from the numerous paths suggested by others, the "right" one or at least a "useful" one? I look at the pictures of the zen monks. I feel absolutely nothing in common with these Japanese men from a different time. Is that a sign? On the other hand, I look at my life and the leaves turning yellow on the crab apple YET AGAIN, and think I'm not doing such a great job making sense of life and living left to my own divices. Who am I to make any kind of a decision one way or the other? – which, in the end, is another way to pass time being stuck."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." Neither of these options appeals to me. I want to be shown what is disease and perhaps get pointed in a direction away from it. The above looks like a game to me that is a time waster and isn't very funny.A last thought: Did not the Buddha pursue someone else's practices to the uttermost end of them until finally he sat down under the tree (his own path) vowing to not get up until he was enlightened? Did not the Buddha himself ultimately choose to follow his own path and not another's? What to say of mimicing the past to the use of clay balls?

  • Anonymous

    Great respect to you Dosho, but how do things actually turn out?In two of the three zen-centers I've studied at, what you got was basically an ego-pyramid-scheme. The people at the bottom was supposed to be relinquishing their egos and the people at the top (teachers included) could inflate their egos no end and by definition be ego-less.If someone tries to sell you on training or practice that will let you free yourself from your ego, run. (And no, that's not how I read you Dosho :)

  • Dosho Port

    "Ego pyramid scheme" – nicely put. The spiritual masquerade by all sides is a great danger in spiritual life and the reason that I suggest several years of checking out the scene before jumping in. And nobodies' perfect. I've written about that some in Keep Me In Your Heart. Also, in an earlier blog post I wrote about power in the post modern world. Taking up the practice and renouncing self-clinging (and tripping and stumbling along, seeing more and more how subtle ego clinging is) … does not mean pretending to be a pre-modern person or a 18-year old Japanese monk and entering into a medieval, hierarchical relationship or a modern, community-centered one. Post modern power is by nature as complex as the people involved and isn't one set thing.

  • steve

    1/2 Time Scorecard: Ego Ornamentals vs the Zen Suckers—————–Next round beginning soon:—————–Barking U: Are you complaining, YOUR way vs own way?Dosho: No,I'm not saying waySenshinMS: Truth is hard for rabbits & Unicorns & meJamie: It's just beginners growing vs true believer hypos Harry: No, not this vs that = stasisHarry[again]: Point: jump free & substantial actionsSenshinMF: important to renounce…but…renounce… what again?Dosho: I'm not speaking for true believersEd: Full of shit Westerners need real TP forget about those authentic clay ballsMortheil: Parsing sentences[again]: whose "my" is it in "…not MY way."Harry: Renounce what, you say? That's it!Nathan: No need for cure if Buddhist family? I'm in a deep dig now, what's renunciation??Dhyan [watching timer] weird monks vs crab apples – and look out for them clay balls too.Anonymous: watch out for pyramid schemes and sales guysDosho; yup, spiritual masks all around, take up the practice, renounce, no pretenseSteve: I j got to this game late, what started this shoot-out again? What's the score now?

  • David Clark

    As regards home practitioners. The can-do, do it yourself at home tradition has deep roots in American attitudes. The ultimate beyond all opposites original face whatever exists to be known. Why can't the homespun seeker tinkering in his garage or basement find the Way? We ask ourselves this question and won't take no for an answer.The translated blueprints seemingly now abound, the internet beckons! "Kids! Embody the dharma in your own basement! Awaken now. It's fun!"Not every salmon that begins the journey upstream makes it to the spawning grounds. But some do.

  • senshin mats fredriksson

    Seems like the rabbit-hole goes rather deep in some cases…I bet they have lots of books down there and maybe they are connected to the net too, who knows?Anyway IMHO, The fact remains: You still got to serve somebody (something)It may be the devil or it may be the Lord.Call it what you want, You are still resposible of what or who you choose to follow.This is not fanatism. You make your own choice.

  • Monk in the world

    Hey Folks,Not sure I understand what is all going here but may I suggest:The Four Noble TruthsEight-Fold Pathand just a bit of Rumi:eyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,there is a field. I'll meet you there.When the soul lies down in that grass,the world is too full to talk about.Ideas, language, even the phrase each otherdoesn't make any sense.From Essential Rumiby Coleman BarksBows,Alan

  • Harry

    In the realm of religion there's never 'our own' as opposed to 'someone else's' because it's always effectively we ourselves who fool ourselves blind with our own 'take' on religion be it fundamentalist or personalised or everything in between. We can only really fool ourselves in the end.This doesn't stop us looking for someone else to blame, obviously. Also, there's plenty of 'spiritual masters' who are all too happy to cash in on the fact that we generally fool ourselves blind and rob ourselves of our natural freedom. They can do this because we convince ourselves that freedom exists somewhere else, in some spiritual 'class act', or in some convincing looking institution, or in a cave on top a remote Tibetan mountain… 'It couldn't possibly be right here, and it couldn't possibly be about boring, non-spiritual, non-white bearded, non-Japanese, non-levitating and non-clairvoyant old me.'Religion without substantiality and a real recognition of our responsibility to be free is really, really stupid and dangerous. History repeatedly reminds us of the cost.'I cannot be fooled by others'… wonderful statement of human freedom from the Zen tradition.Regards,Harry.

  • billy daijo yman

    Gosh, how we love a good row! All this because we can't admit to needing a teacher? While teachers are imperfect, the imperfect student still needs refinement, just as salt was used to refine silver from ore.Yes, choose this salty old teacher with care. But what's the fun in practicing alone?

  • senshin mats fredriksson

    I know all too well about manipulative teachers and so called spiritual masters and people getting it wrong and becoming hurt or worse.But, let us say there is a genuine Teacher…Are u sure they dont exist? People who dont take personal advantage of you? For example if you spend some time in a monastery, it is better to accept the teacher than to resist. To follow through.If you can not follow there is no point in going there. So in that case I guess there is a lot of closed doors for people who insists in doing it their way.Speaking about Rumi, I have an Iranian friend, a sufi who knows his Rumi and explains a lot to me about this more than interesting poet/master.His country is an Islamic country and you all know the score about Jihad and all that : He once asked zen-master doko about :if there was a level of the diciple/Teacher relationship where there is a question of "complete surrender", meaning if the teacher say -Go die in war- the diciple go" Doko asked him: are you on that level? no ! So why do you ask?Back to here and Now.But I refuse to only look at that aspect knowing how much you can learn and unlearn with a good teacher and sangha.It is a sorry state of affairs I feel to read some people turning their back on learning within a traditional form.You dont have to perpuate what you dont like, and you dont have to always voice your personal opinions (sometimes yes)I once met with a friend of nobel prize Winner Heinrich Böll on a train. This man was a expert/authority on anarchism, he came from Berlin (60-70´s) and gave lectures on anarchism here in Sweden. As a young man I was a anarchist (not an violent one) and parts of me still am. Anyway He answered my long term question how an anarchist society could be possible. He laughed and said: It is not possible, there is always just a few human beings which can live as real anarchists. Most people do best to follow some established form, they cannot do otherwise. This may not be exactly what we are discussing here but it tells something."do not be fooled by others""be a lamp unto yourself"also means to me to not be afraid of investigating whatever you need to investigate to grow. Everything have its place, its function and its time. Sometimes study with Teacher, sometimes not.Maybe a whole life with your master, beautyful I think. Like marriages who lasts through this crazy times. What is wrong with that?I hope I dont bore you too much with this long roll. roll on,senshin

  • Dhyan

    In the space between waking and dreaming this morning I suddenly realized that even if you think you have surrendered to another's path you have still choosen to do this, making it your path afterall. There is nothing but one's own path.

  • Harry

    Yes, if we ourselves alone have the choice then how can it be someone else's way?Yet isn't realising that we have a choice always transmitted to us from others? A teacher, friends, pains-in-the-ass, trees, mountains, rivers, a shout, a punch, a staff, a stone lantern, a pebble, my daughters carelessly dropped lego bricks (ouch!)…etc etc etcWhat if 'I cannot be fooled by others' effectively means 'I have been realised together with everyother'?Regards,Harry.

  • Anonymous

    Hopefully a real teacher is not someone who in return for your selling out your individuality (*) convinces you you just won the spiritual lottery, but someone who can be your mirror and poke at you until you open up some to life and its insecurities.(*) if you react to that word with a lot of zen-holiness I just caught you :)

  • moritheil

    Steve – that is indeed the difficulty.

  • steve

    This particular Ego Post is a challenge because there is a tension between the work of the Anjo which for me at least feels like being in a VERY BIG game and the content of the Ego Post. My personal intention is to play this Anjo game full out for 100 days. After that I will make a different decision and a different commitment. [By the way I am the sole author of my commitments, starting operating and stopping commitments an exercise in freedom for me]. I intend to be a live & lively participant in the Anjo, tune in in the video conference, dig into the Genjokoan, sit with as much precision, gentleness and letting go as I can, be present to the other participants on skype, and manage the space between sittings with as much integrity as I can muster. On the other hand joining the commentary in this Ego Post feels like being "in the stadium stands" watching listening to people hiss and cheer about the hot game that I'm actually in. It is actually a little weird. It feels like being a journalist secretly writing commentary about my own team. It is great writing, people are REAL clear about what to cheer and boo about, it is pretty fun, but it frankly isn't doing much for the way I'm playing in this Anjo. .There is no make-wrong here. Playing is Playing. Commentary is Commentary. Both are valuable but, truthfully, comenntary from the sidelines doesn't have much impact on the way any game is played -fun yes, make a difference? No. How about if we have a video session and try to get listened all the main commentary points:-beginner pukes vs old farts-out of date Japanese culture vs out of date American culture-staying sick of yourself vs renunciation-practicing healthy vs getting sick of yourself-practice leader jerks vs practice leader hman beings-practice communities with integrity vs practice communities with no integrity-practice in a community vs do it yourselfSeems like we could invite some of the "Ego journalists" to play in the Anjo and come to the video conference and participate full-out too. I'll ask.Steve in San Jose Costa Rica

  • steve

    Anonymous continues to raise really good questions – to ask for an accounting of the way teachers & teaching works, of noticing what it is like being hooked on zen holiness, of noticing the sticker price of your own individuality when you sell it for self-invented foolish dreams and expectations. Thank-you for the clarity of your questioning.Here's what I see about the pretense aka delusion that you describe, Anonymous. A long time ago I saw an advert, I think in the WSJ and wrote it down. It says for me in real simple terms how I can keep track of my own crazy behavior and keep myself straight at the party of my choice -and prevents me from inviting others at the party into some blame-game trance where we all co-conspire to give up our freedom together and whine and puke and snigger around the edges.The quote also suggests a basic standard of workability for any group of people in an organization whether they have something to teach or something to learn or not. The standard is called accountability – as in – you can count on me to clean up my own messes when I make them. I think it is the line that distinguishes foolishness from truthfulness.As I read the quote now it sounds a little harsh, a little critical, a little shocking. It has the sound of someone realizing for the 1st time their own delusions and being truthful about who they are and what they are up to at the party and what it means to give up a long-held pretense of injured even highly-specialized innocence.Choosing to leave victimhood status behind probably means giving up being a kid and a sharpshooter critic and taking on the freedom of living an ordinary life, warts and all, pretense and all human suffering and all. It is like Lucy says to Charlie: "See any other world to live in? Well, live in it then".Here it the WSJ quote:Accountability is:taking responsibility before the fact, rather than after the fact. it is taking a stand, and standing by it. When those who are accountable are right, they take credit. When the’re wrong, they take the heat. it is a fair exchange. Accountability is a way of working. Those who practice it have an unspoken respect for each other. And a visible distain for the absentminded apologizers, mumbling excuse makers, and trembling fence-sitters who run from integrity as if it were the plague.***I want you to know that in this Ango I'm going to try to account for cleaning up my own messes and delusions. I maybe slow but I'm not snoring and I'm not sleeping either, unless I am, in which case I might need some help waking up and smelling the coffee sometimes. And I'm prepared to blow the whistle on someone else if I notice they are snoozing, by the way. We should ask for nothing less than trying to be human beings and follow good examples.The sky is blue over the Escazu mountain, just now in this moment and that's all there is.Gassho Steve

  • Garrett

    My service is neither to myself nor to any so-called master or tradition.My service is to the middle way. Teachers, traditions and self-generated intentions may each be helpful or unhelpful in various situations, but to substitute any of them for the Way itself is fundamentally idolatrous.Gassho,garrett

  • Andrew C. White

    Talk about setting people's hair on fire! LOLIf my way was working I never would have started searching for a new way. The first step for me was admitting that my way didn't work. Someone said to me, "If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got." I didn't want anymore of what I had been getting so I made a conscious decision to listen to others that seemed to have a little something I might want and to give it a try.During a long conversation one evening a woman said to me, "Today I have peace and quiet in my own mind."I thought to myself, "Damn! I have no idea what that is like but it sure sounds nice!"Dogen said, "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things."I find that the only one ever in my way is me.Peace,Andrew