Cursing Form and Emptiness: Soto Zen, the Great Empty, and Going to Hell

A couple weeks ago I posted “Zen is Going to Hell and It’s the Boomers’ Fault!”

Today’s post is a follow up and in the blaming way of the moment, I’ll say it’s James Ford’s fault.

You see, I was all set to let the matter rest, but then this morning I read his lovely “the prayer of form and emptiness.”

As I’ve said before, James is a much nicer person than me and much more of a gentleman. He brings up an issue that I’ve been chewing on regarding the survey of Soto teachers that I mentioned in the above post but in oh-so-delicate-a way.

Writing about the importance of tasting the great empty, James says (that I’ll quote without his myriad paragraph breaks – sorry buddy),

“And it is important. More than words can convey. I think critical for those of us who wish to see what we are, who we can be, and where it might all take us. And so. Here we stand at the gate of liberation. But, and this is where many people get confused. This noticing of the one, or, as I prefer, with slightly less luggage, the great empty  is necessary but not sufficient. Then, we need to continue on to the next realization (emphasis added).”

Although I agree, I like to emphasize a somewhat different angle. Becoming the great empty is so important in Soto Zen because it points out what is to be practiced in our practice-enlightenment way. Without a taste of vividly becoming who we already are, we are likely to go on just practicing delusion.

Or as Dogen says, “Hearing Zhaozhou’s Mu, the course of practice to be pursued opens up.”

This brings me to the survey and my present grounds for ongoing cursing and criticism of the present state of Soto Zen. I’m not exactly winning friends and influencing people, but I am saying what I think is important for Soto students and advocating for the Soto way that in my life has been enormously important and life-giving.

And, yes, I confess, it is fun for me to raise a little hell from time to time too.

Here’s the item in question – “Exhibit 2, your honored ones:”

“Is it sufficient for one’s teacher to recognize and acknowledge insights/breakthroughs/openings?”

This question and the one quoted in the previous post (posthumously referred to as “Exhibit 1″)  about the importance of awakening are the only two about the Great Matter in this long survey about Soto teachers’ views on priest training. Most of the questions are about the “what?” (demographic items) and the “how?” – how many sesshins, how many years of various things, what kind of study practice, ministerial training, etc.

In my view, practice-enlightenment of the Great Matter of birth and death is the “why?” and is what we in Zen have to offer those interested in such a thing. That the heart of the matter would be relegated to the periphery of priest training after only 50 years in the West is of great concern.

It is possible, I suppose, that Great Matter concerns are central to individual teachers and lineages in their priest training but the authors of the survey left it to them rather than make it a group issue. This is the elephant in the room of Soto Zen that we keep looking away from. The questions beg asking.

What is awakening? How important is it? How is it realized? How is it unfolded?

Such a conversation might reduce the Great Contraction I mentioned in the earlier post, by refocusing how we practice and communicate about Soto Zen from the “what” (older people with very little hair who wear dark clothing and are members of nonprofit organizations with boards and budgets) and the “how” (zazen, sesshin, study…) to the “why,” to our passion, our first intention for sitting on a cushion. See Simon Sinek’s TED talk here for more on this approach.

If we were what Sinek calls an “inspired organization” rather than talking about the safe and boring what and how of Zen, we’d bravely and transparently as possible address the why.

“We believe in awakening and are so committed to it, that we’ll do whatever it takes to offer you to it.”

That’s my first thought why. How would you express the why of practice for Soto Zen?

If what we’re doing primarily in Soto Zen as Domyo notes in her comment to the “…Going to Hell…” post (to paraphrase), is to often ordain other Boomers to serve communities, then we’ve got it upside-down – we’re about what and how but have neglected the why. The why of homeleaving is about serving (i.e., practicing, realizing, actualizing) the dharma and those who wish to serve the dharma. Community service (i.e., meeting the belongingness needs of dues-paying members) is an important service that many in our culture are well-trained at providing, but it is not the heart of the why for homeleavers and won’t speak passionately enough about the why of Soto Zen to avert or minimize the Great Contraction of Soto centers.

All of this “in my view” … of course. And this seems to be a minority view as is the view that awakening is not sufficient.

69% of the Soto teachers responding to the survey seem to disagree with James and I (and I’d guess most trained in the koan way) and answered “Yes.”

Granted, the  question is a bit different than the point that awakening serves as a necessary but not sufficient basis for ongoing practice. Here it’s about whether it is sufficient for one’s teacher to acknowledge insights.

In that context, I’d say that it is probably necessary for one’s teacher to recognize openings, but not sufficient. Acknowledgment can provide necessary clarity and confidence, blowing away the fog from the entrance to the way. After many “no’s” the teacher finally tells the student, “Yes, this is the course of practice to be pursued” and because this is in tune with the student’s experience, an important meeting of heart and mind occurs. The journey of practicing awakening then commences in daily life and ongoing training.

The survey itself offers no explanation regarding “sufficient for what?” and so we’re left with a projective test. As the question and 69% affirmative responses are presented, though, it seems that Soto teachers think that their verification of their student’s awakenings is magically sufficient for something.  Stick a fork in it, it’s done? If that’s what most Soto teachers think, we’re already 69% deep in hell.

Frankly, I struggle to see how a “Yes” answer makes sense, but I come up short with each interpretation. Can you help? If so, please comment.

Here are a few of my attempts to understand.

Maybe for the 69%, each and everything is already perfectly sufficient in itself, verification or no verification. I’d say, too much emptiness.

Maybe for the 69%, only “cut-one-cut all,” unsurpassed, supreme awakenings are acknowledged as awakenings. I’d say, unlikely.

Maybe for the 69%, awakening just isn’t that important. I’d say again, then Zen is going to hell.

On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
The Deeply Settled Heart: Home-based Practice Period Invitation
Nothing is Concealed
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
  • Mike Haitch

    Awakening is important until it’s not. But when most people talk about this they are talking about a brief thing before falling back to sleep. Affirmation is nothing more than perhaps recognizing a student has managed to play one chord on a guitar, once. It’s a rather small base on which to build a career as a guitarist!

    Emptiness is one aspect of being human. Thinking-in-words another. Physicality is another. They all overlap, inter-lock and inte-mingle.

    What we call emptiness is an important part of being human, it is not the only part or the greatest part, it is one aspect.

    Without it we are cut off from part of ourselves and from others. With it we can risk losing our sense of separateness/distinctness.

    Relating to others requires a simultaneous recognition of our connectedness and our separateness. A dynamic dance. A dance which maybe allows us to relate to and interact with each other more fully. It is this that is the fruit maybe.

    Today I found myself in a huge bookshop. There were several thousand books just on Philosophy and Psychology let alone all the other science books and religion. It felt like too much emphasis on thoughts. A large part of the day was then spent wandering around, no thinking, the sensations of being alive – the other extreme if you will, equally unbalanced. Interactions with others were mixed – we communicate on some many levels and with so muh of ourselves that the easiest conversations may be with those who hear only words and the hardest with those who hear and speak with their full selves. On another day it would be the other way around.

    The world is full of people just like me and also full of people – the same ones – who are not just like me. How do we live together and relate? What does that require? Emptiness is not the answer, it’s not even a question.

    Not feeling like I’m expressing this vey well. That feeling may be misleading!

  • Jundo Cohen

    Hi Dosho,

    I sometimes say, in teaching the old and timeless Koans, that it is not necessarily that the Master knows that the Student knows.

    … Rather, it is that the Master knows that the Student knows that the Student knows. The Teacher can see that the Student is now truly at home in the Student’s own moccasins … that the Student knows that the Student IS THE MOCCASINS and, further, knows how to walk and stand with balance and grace in them.

    I have a hunch you are misreading that survey if you think that anything less than 100% (as far as I know) of all Zen teachers would say that anything else is vital but such Realization AND the continued Practice -Realization of walking on and on, deepening, Realization to Realization. The Student knows that the Student knows, and the Student is stepping step by step.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • stevehar

    Interesting points Mike especially:
    ” Awakening is important until it’s not. But when most people talk about this they are talking about a brief thing before falling back to sleep.”

    I’d say there is a different possibility after you awaken besides going back to sleep again [and going back to sleep again is also a possibility] What else is there in life besides waking up, then going back to sleep again?

    There are some hellish even brutish dispositions to take-up of course: aversion, addiction, indifference with exquisite role models for example Ayn Rand, Johnie Walker or getting your own personal needs met ala Abraham Maslow…or maybe just becoming a journo who opines about other people’s dispositions all the while making sure to maintain “permanent observer status”.

    Dosho once gave a talk about playing the 3 door game show game called you-bet-your-life or something like that
    In the game you are supposed to choose the door-prize; and this door closed, that one no prize there and the third door is not the door for you. Now, which door do you choose?

    I don’t know about you but at age 69 it makes me sleepy just thinking about it. Probably you have more miles to go before you sleep?

    Not meaning raining on your parade Mike, nothing personal re your views, and I do actually see many ways I and others step back from the freedom to choose being up to something in your life besides waking up and going back to sleep… while there is still time.

    Once in a while there is an imperfect teacher that comes along and wakes up, stays awake, and actually invites other people to wakeup and stay awake together. I’d point to someone like Katagiri or Rosa Parks or Aung San Suu Kyi or Shunryu Suzuki who did this on their best days, except when they didn’t.

    Welcome yabuts, sowhats.

  • Nick Walser

    I think that Zen has been sold as the “safe way” and in doing so has lost its juice. There’s not much room for expression of awakening and I mean specifically talking about it and playing/wrestling with it, rather than just the “everyday activity is Zen” approach. It is the wild fox way to stand up and say “I am enlightened!” and let everyone deal with that. Enlightenement is a fabulous teaching opportunity, a way to open up…and yet Zen seems scared of its own tools.What are we scared of? That a thousand hucksters will stand up and declare their enlightenment and somehow “ruin” Zen? Surely Zen is the fool’s way anyway. Zen is slowly becoming something “useful” and “constructive”, but those generations who were fired up as artists and poets, who read Alan Watts and DT Suzuki and headed off to dig and grok their Cosmosness weren’t looking for a mere utensil but rather vast universal life and burning poetry. Even those who light the flame don’t seem to want to “stay” with Zen, like Adyashanti for example (man I wished he’d stayed as Stephen Gray but hey that’s just me…an enlightened Stephen Gray fantastic! An enlightened Adya oh, another exotic-sounding dude…) Particularly as Buddhism gets seriously concerned with “testing” meditation and communicating itself through apps (yawn,yawn…another technology- selling outlet…Zen blogs are worthy of course though) Zen’s value as a pointless, artful, waste-of-time, Luddite un-appable unstreamable ornery old mad bastard of a practice couldn’t be more needed, and I for one hope to stick with it whether the kids like it or not (I’m 33 and started at 26…).We try to be too clever, we look at the history of Zen and say “ah it’s been refined,we can avoid those stupid mistakes”, but in Obaku’s day someone could perceive the great matter in a trice and be on their Way, whereas now we are all addicted to zazen and afraid to roar for fear we won’t be allowed back in to the zendo to sit any longer. We need Bankei, we need Alan Watts ( yes flawed as he was), we need the old Chinese ways or we may as well let it sink back into the mud of the Lotus pond for a while. As for robes and all that…that’s another rant perhaps (and one about which I change my mind every day!) Phew! I really got into one there! Apologies and ta for this Dosho, great stuff! Yours, Nick, a British Zen sufferer.

    • doshoport

      So very nicely put. Even wildly foxly put. Thanks!

  • Harry

    Think another active element as to why the emphasis on Zen experience-realisation has become a bit tired and limp is the post-therapy era tendency to psychologicalise things; to assume that we grok Zen based on what therapy does, or what psychology says, and how zen can be (I’ll use that nice term from the earlier discussion) weaponized to this end. We have it all sussed!

    I think there is a very strong assumption doing the rounds that the point of zen and the point of therapy are in some way the same. This would seem to greatly reduce the scope of the Zen enterprise, as far as I’m concerned.

    If we have a damn good and watertight working model as to ‘what realisation is for’ (based on our best current understanding) then I think we’re already at a loss.

    Zen needs more genuinely doubtful people who are active and inspired in doubt, not crippled by it or by the latest off-the-peg trend in how to be a Highly Effective Person or whatever: All these soft focus publicity shots of eye-shiny, emotionally integrated smiley buddhist teacher people make me queezy. Give me cranky, depressed, uncertain people with the haggard faces and the lived in grimaces that we see in the old depictions of the old ancestors any day!



    • doshoport

      Another burst of fluency: “All these soft focus publicity shots of eye-shiny, emotionally integrated smiley buddhist teacher people make me queezy” – I love it!

  • steve Kelly

    Hi Dosho, please excuse me if I’m wrong but it seems to me you are lamenting the fact that Soto Zen dharma transmission no longer means anything in the west. (And it used to not that long ago.) It’s easy enough to see how it happened in a tradition that says the practice IS the awakening. Anyway,in my undetstanding this was the case a long time ago in Japan but somehow they are all still able to distinguish who the teachers of substance are. Everyone who’s serious seems to know. (I’m a priest of Shohaku Okumura & worked in the sotoshu office in SF a number of years ago.

    • doshoport

      Yes, Steve, I think that’s right. I’d like to get dharma transmission right here … but whoops, horse already left the barn! So maybe adding an “inka” step … or informal knowing like the Japanese model. We’re not so good at that, though, imv.
      Thanks for your comment,

  • Stephanie

    Nick and Harry (and Dosho) – thank you all for your fiery, wonderful words. You so eloquently capture so much of what I have felt as I have wrestled with my frustration with flat, neutered, gutless Zen; with realization-, sweat-, poetry-, and risk-free Zen; the Zen of smiley faces and pussywillows arranged so nicely in a vase. Through your words I realize that others have the same fire; others haven’t so fully domesticated themselves that they must think anyone ill who sustains a taste for the raw and uneasy. What draws me to Zen is not the promise of being placid and well-balanced, to all that I quote from John Daido Loori: “Feh!” And speaking of him, he remains a shining example of a teacher that roused the Great Doubt and did not coddle his students. I need that edge in a teacher, that sly and mischievous willingness to push people out of their comfort zone or cocoon – which is why Chogyam Trungpa is another personal hero. For me, it is indeed the energy of doubt that animates my practice and I believe that this Great Doubt is the true beating heart of Zen. I realized the other day that the quality I have thought of as creative passion is of the same essence as Great Doubt. The Question, that has no answer. But that is just it – an answerless question animates rather than calms, and a lot of people come to this practice wanting calm. The Zen of Great Doubt is not as desirable a commodity as the Zen of pale pastels and soft focus. You have to have a poet’s heart to want to go into the dark places as much as the light. And such a Way does not lend itself to the same appeal for social status as being or seeming calm and pure. And how wonderful such a Way exists!

    • doshoport

      Thanks for your comment. I also feel encouraged by a number of comments here and other posts when I can see the flame of other’s passion for the dharma.
      And that has also gotten me percolating for my next post.

  • buddy

    I think a big reason that Western zennies are keen on not emphasizng Enlightenment is in memory of all those who claimed to be/were proclaimed as Great Awakened Masters and turned out to be drunks, unrepentent adulterers, sexual predators, anti-Semite imperialists, and/or just run-of-the-mill assholes. So they began to demand qualities perhaps more banal but nevertheless less confusing and harmful, like a balanced disposition, consistent ethics and basic human decency.

    Perhaps the Soto Zen franchise would benefit from an inquiry prior to the importance of Awakening: a semi-consensus on what the hell it is. If Dogen is right, that practice equals realization, then the daily path of putting your ass at the right place at the right time is more than sufficient.

    I just saw a trailer for the film adaptation of On the Road, and some of the comments here seem to long for a trip down that well-Beaten path to some great captial ‘X’ experience. That’s great when you’re 22, but I would expect a lot more (and less) from a mature practice, personal and communal.

    • Nick Walser

      Ah you’ve got me there! I’ve been reading Allen Ginsberg’s biography recently: there was an example of a man was passionate,engaged, compassionate and creative (though of course not without flaws.) I suppose I wonder if there is room in contemporary Zen for one such as he? None of us want to become, or belong to some group that includes anti-semitic or predatory assholes, of course, and you are absoloutely right to say there is more to practise than some “experience” or other. But when that “experience” totally seems absent, then we are in danger of a different sort: we are in danger of becoming ritualistic, mechanical or overly careful. I think we can be passionate without being asshole-like, at least I hope we can…I suppose my feeling is that Zen is a great refuge for the crazies (I include myself in that to a certain degree) and that there are many other practice-forms which allow us to work on becoming more balanced people. Dogen also wrote, I believe, something like “Get enlightened and then find a teacher”. I am one of those, I suppose, who has an enlightenment itch that I think needs scratching. I am totally ready to be completely wrong about all of this by the way….

  • Stephanie

    In response to “buddy” – first, you set up a false dichotomy, that the choice is between either “bad guys” or “no realization Zen” (aka sitting zazen alone, with or without kensho or something more than kowtowing to conventional social morality). Not all teachers who emphasize(d) or taught from a place of deeper realization were caught up in scandal. John Daido Loori remains a great example of this to me – a teacher who emphasized the importance of precepts but also taught a Zen that goes beyond ethics, a Zen of poetry and realization. I am struck by the difference in depth reading or listening to his words on Dogen and those of teachers who have turned Dogen into the patron saint of passive Zen. Second, I find it hypocritical that advocates of the “perfection of things as they are” view are somehow yet so judgmental about teachers who did or do struggle with demons or perhaps even simply flouted traditional social values. Can there not be perfection and realization even in the mud of this world? I for one do not see realization as something that miraculously cures the personality – rather, it is something that gives a person a chance to see beyond and not be limited only to their flaws. I gravitate to the Tibetan or tantric view of being able to turn poisons into the peacock’s tail, in other words, the view that out very flaws and weaknesses are at the same time our strengths, the raw material anyone has to work with. And more passionate personalities tend to have more demons, especially when we start getting into addictions. Of course, there is a difference between predatory abuses of power and undue fondness for wine, women, and song. And of course, to try to see a flaw as connected to a strength is not to excuse harm done. But it is so easy to become immured in social convention. And we are in the modern West still so fundamentally uptight about sex. The power and drama of spirituality is sexy! And people get caught up in it. Are people who like to fuck and drink inherently more “bad” than more straight-laced types? Most accounts I have read of Trungpa indicate that he was celebrated as a transformative presence by his students, as a person who was dedicated to bringing people down to earth, not someone who sold an idealistic view. And some of the more puzzling or “offensive” things he did seem to me to clearly have been attempts to get people out of their comfort zone. He just seems to me to have been a truly genuine, passionate human being. Not perfect, but awake.

    Something else that irks me about the view of Zen people like you espouse is that “ethics” is treated as interchangeable with a very limited set of social conventions. I hate seeing Zen tied down to middle class WASP sensibilities. Zen should be as at home with people who don’t get married with a “career ,” children, and a picket fence. It should be able to take root on the street, in the lives of people who may struggle with poverty and violence; with artists and bohemians; with bachelors and swingers, prostitutes and the mad. Lotus in the fire. Realization is seeing and experiencing beyond the karmic circumstances in which one’s life plays out. How much more to say of a practice that can bring light to Hell than one that only is said to work or be “true” in more heavenly circumstances. And that is where I am starting to appreciate the value of what has been termed more a “warrior’s” approach to Zen – it is this radical and fearless approach that can cross and transcend cultural boundaries, as it says of more difficult circumstances, or people who are more “difficult,” that Yes, this too is the perfect Dharmakaya. It’s funny that this is almost universally preached by “Soto” teachers – that there is Dharma in a piss-soaked alley as much as in a manicured lawn, and yet, none of these folks are teaching from the piss-soaked alley, nor are they even embracing of it outside the language of the ideal. Begone if you are mad, sick, or on fire; go mold yourself into a bourgeois and then you can practice “correct Zen”; that is the message. “Go hone up your family values.” But having a family or 9-5 job has nothing more to do with Zen than not having either. Being a wallflower is no more Dharmic than being brash, and vice versa. Whether you are an alcoholic, in recovery, a “social drinker” or die-hard life-long tee-totaler has nothing to do with Zen or realization; practice and realization can take root in the lives of people in any of these categories. And as for what is right and moral and what is not – I think this is the favorite game of the ego; defining and contrasting the self against an “other” perceived as less good. I really liked a practice Bob Thurman described in a talk, of thinking of everyone else in the room other than yourself as an enlightened being trying to teach you and wake you up. My practice of precepts and ethics is to look at and judge my own shortcomings, not those of others, to use the precepts to constantly push myself to be more honest and generous, not place myself above others. At the end of the day, no one else can know or judge what is in our lives and hearts. As Buddha said, there will always be praise and blame, and many who will praise fools and blame the wise.

    Finally – it has become so common and easy to equate passion with youthful folly. But while people may mellow as they age by default, being mellow is not a higher moral category than being animated, any more than the opposite is true. Again, here is where we start to mistake bourgeois social convention with truth and “rightness,” rather than just one set of conditions in which Dharma can be practiced. You don’t have to be rebellious or anti-society to be able to experience and express doubt, but nor is it the case that those folks who get older but don’t get “old” are somehow less good than people who lost their fire long ago.

    • doshoport

      Phew! Stephanie, you go! The phrases Dogen as the “patron saint of passive Zen” and “bourgeois social convention” are high on the list of striking phrases in your comment. I love the first. Coming soon to this blog more about how Dogen has been maligned in the practice = enlightenment dogma.
      And for the second – jeez, haven’t heard that in Zen circles for decades. You must me my age or so! In any case, I sure enjoy your fire.

  • Nick Walser

    Just as an aside, I also think that we mustn’t let the mistakes of others in the past marr our courage for the present, though obviously, obviously we can be vigilant about falling into the same traps.

    • doshoport

      “Vigilant” or not, the traps are traps because our vigilance cannot always save us. We humans – or is it just me – don’t seem to be so good at learning from others’ experience. Some idea of specialness lingers.

  • phil martin


    Thank you for your post. Your chewing on this fed some thoughts which have now gnawed at me for a few days.

    One thought is the responsibility and acknowledgement we must take as practitioners, students, and sangha members, for this minimizing of the need for realization in our teachers. Perhaps we like it, because it takes us off the hook. If our teacher does not speak of realization or manifest it, then we can tell ourselves it doesn’t exist or isn’t important, and can give up practicing with such a goal. We can be comfortable with the social and community aspects of practice, and leave it at that.

    Another issue is that as we boomers in particular may have seen the fruit of practice in terms of discernment, we have also over the years seen what place the great empty holds in our sangha and for our teachers. We have watched, particularly in our Soto communities, how priests are ordained based on the sense of “meeting requirements” rather than the depth of their understanding. So in that short time we’ve become like what I remember of my Episcopal upbringing—some very nice and earnest people as priests who have chosen it as a profession as they might have just as well chosen to become bricklayers, rather than men and women who burn with their experience of knowing god and can transmit that to others. Perhaps we should be happy with this–it means Zen is truly attained the status of other mainstream religions. I can’t help but think of the comedian Eddie Izzard’s take on the Church of England: “Cake or Death?”

    Finally, I found James Ford’s comment on “realization is not sufficient” very helpful, too. If realization has been relegated to not being even necessary, when one does taste the great empty, there is little support or structure to move on to the next realization. And in that way such realization truly does become stunted and stale, thus seeming to confirm that view of it as unnecessary and perhaps not even real.

    Cake or realization?

    • doshoport

      Thanks for your thoughts, Phil. “Cake or realization?” sure made me smile. Some say we can have our cake and eat it too … but it seems to me that often we really don’t get to have both.
      If it seemed to me that Zen had attained “mainstream status” maybe I’d be smiling … but it seems more of a rush to be mainstream then a true maturing.
      Good to hear from you!

  • Mike Haitch

    @stephanie: re: The dark places.

    That has resonance today. Sometimes the monsters under the bed are really there. Sometimes a dark place is the healthy and right place to be. If you see your cat hit by a car there are a whole range of healthy and appropriate enotional responses among which happy is not one,

    For me one of the gifts of Zen is the idea that therebis no ‘right’ way to feel. Instead feel what you feel and being OK with that is where it’s that. When people think of calm they tend to think of emotional numbness or disconnect – being unaffected, like Prozac does. Really I think it’s a survival capsule on a stormy sea – tossed here and there but somewhere there is a centre of stability unmoved by the storm but not denying it or oblivious to it either.

  • Bud Fritz

    Stephanie, There are so many misquotes, jumping-to-conclusions and general obfuscations of what I said in your post that, quite frankly, I have better things to do than respond to. But to address the most obvious: where did I say anything about espousing bourgeois morality or advocating the merits of the 9-5 grind? I quite willingly belong to a lineage whose Western founder had an affair with a dharma heir’s teenage daughter and took his exit by drowning drunk in a bathtub. Not to mention my own lifestyle/livelihood/social milieu of which you know exactly nothing. I was merely throwing out a possible explanation for the current attitude amongst boomer zennies. Then again, if a ‘personal hero’ of yours is someone who made his wife strip naked in public and forced his students to participate in orgies, then I don’t think we’d get very far in a discussion of ‘basic human decency.’

    Kind of reminds me of the people who say that trying to stop genital mutilation or ritual rape in certain African cultures is imposing white liberal morality on the rest of the world. I think there are some basic guidelines (or ‘precepts’ as it were) about human behaviour that are a waste of time to argue about, much less justify their transgression with some ego-gratifying notion of ‘spirituality’ or ‘enlightenment’. I like to drink and fuck as much as the next Buddhist bohemian, but also know there’s a pretty obvious line to cross where things get dodgy.

    I also said nothing about there being no room in Dogen zen for realization, but rather suggested the need for a re-evaluation of its defintion. For me, it comes down to recognizing that simply being alive in these bodies is a bloody miracle that Just Sitting ™ allows me to enjoy and that daily life gives endless opportunities to respond to with wonder and compassion.

    • doshoport

      Thanks Bud,
      I think you and Stephanie are each expressing one important aspect and we need both in conversation for practice to be fully alive – one without the other doesn’t work either in sinking into passivity (the shadow side of stable, mature practice) or forcing others to strip naked (referring to the shadow side of the full aliveness aspect).

  • Stephanie

    Bud – I apologize for any way I have, or seemed to have, misrepresented you. My style of posting involves picking up on and riffing off of themes, and I am responding to larger trends I have witnessed as much as any particular thing you are saying (or not saying). There is a distinct tone of moralizing in your posts to which I am responding that reflects a common trend I find in Buddhist discussions, especially online (I note how much more open-minded people seem to be in person than on the ‘Net). I don’t think it’s anything new – actually, it feels very familiar. I am very used to a cultural norm of focusing on ‘moral scapegoats’ to which people compare themselves favorably. And I think it is a dangerous tendency in context of awakening because I think it’s a way we humans use to stay asleep. Of course, it’s important to address and resolve harm that is being done by others – but I find most often when judgments against some person’s moral character are being thrown around, it is after the fact and more about defining the self against some ‘other,’ one of the grosser ways the ego maintains itself.

    Where I see bourgeois mentality is in the lionization of a very particular, limited – but very socially reinforced – mode of living. Few people, myself included, would say there is anything wrong with having children and a nice yard, or whatever. The problem is when people start talking as if that is what awakening looks like. When people define ‘balanced’ and ‘decent’ and ‘moral’ in terms of lifestyle choices instead of active modes of response. It seems courage is a rare commodity these days, and doing well in easy circumstances more praised than the usually less graceful ways people face more difficult circumstances.

    Speaking of which, in regard to Trungpa – we are talking about a man who fled a ravaged country and was exposed to what in modern lingo would be defined as serial trauma, including the accident that partially paralyzed and nearly killed him even after enduring the woes of being a refugee. I have not seen this discussed much, if at all, in the context of his drinking, but I see that as closely linked to the physical and neurological pain and disability he had to cope with during his teaching career in the West. He certainly had some shameful moments, but I also see how people have distorted and taken out of context some of the ‘shocking evidence’ against Trungpa. A lot of the things that sound bizarre or ‘freaky’ now were actually somewhat normative in the experimental counterculture in which they played out. And I would be very careful in using the word ‘forced.’ I have read many accounts of Trungpa students and other than the notorious ‘Merwin incident’ have not encountered stories of students being ‘forced’ to do anything. And whether it was ultimately right or wrong, so much of what Trungpa did and taught, and what I appreciate about him, had to do with getting people out of their cocoons and comfort zones. This is what I find missing in so much of the type of developing Western Buddhism that is being criticized here. People aren’t pushed to give up the ways they shield themselves from what makes them uncomfortable. Instead, they receive validation for their lack of courage, their unwillingness to examine or challenge the norms that define their lives.

    And actually, going back to much earlier in this discussion a couple posts back, I think this is what inevitably happens with religion. A teacher or saint arises who teaches something that goes against the status quo, against the stream of the world, and that very teaching gets co-opted to validate the status quo. Jesus’s radical teachings on love, forgiveness, and generosity get co-opted and distorted to validate the politics and practices of hate, intolerance, and greed. The Buddha’s radical rejection of commerce and family life gets co-opted to validate a life of commerce and family as ‘true enlightenment’ and being a ‘balanced, decent’ person. Again, I do not personally reject commerce and family – this is the world in which I live and practice too. But I don’t see these as any more but the scenery of practice. I think the Buddha’s teaching can be expressed just as fully on a rowdy tour bus, in a psychiatric ward, a bar, or a war zone, as behind a picket fence – if not moreso, as it is in such challenging environs that patience, kindness, and compassion are really put to the test. It’s a lot easier to be patient with a young child’s antics than with an attacker with a knife to your throat. Not to say raising children is easy – it just is easier than a lot of what people around the world have to deal with. A person seems a lot more balanced in easier circumstances. Which comes back to a fundamental aspect of compassion that is often lost – the importance of dethroning the self when regarding others. A lot of the people dismissed as less balanced or even less moral have it a lot tougher than the people on a high horse judging them. Which is one of the things I least like about bourgeois Zen – this assumption that privilege and the good fortune to be in easy circumstances are seen as a mark of virtue or character, and this arrogance in dealing with people who have more grisly meals on their plates. Especially when the realization at the heart of Zen requires the kind of courage that is better forged in battle. I do not believe anyone’s ego goes without kicking and screaming, and I cannot see how validating and reinforcing a culture in which staying comfortable is seen as expressive of wisdom will facilitate realization.

    • Bud Fritz

      Stephanie, While I appreciate the more nuanced approach you have taken in this latest response, and understand that you are ‘responding to larger trends’, I still have to take issue with the fact that the main point you keep making, and which seems to be in response to things I have said, is that I am in any way validating bourgeois culture or especially in particular the nuclear family. (Some perhaps unnecessary personal information: I’m a 45 year old unattached filmmaker living just below the poverty line with no plans to be otherwise.) Maybe there’s something happening in your practice mileu or personal life to rail so hard against this notion, but my experience of the zen world, personally and farther afield, is quite different.

      As for Trungpa et al: 1st off, not having been there, I won’t stand by my opinions too strongly, as long as you won’t either, also not having firsthand experience. But what I will say is that there is a huge difference between judging someone’s errant behaviour (which was really not my intention) and putting them on a pedestal in spite of, or even especially because of, that behaviour. You’re absolutely right when you say that practice should break down the ego and foster compassion, not create a more rarified sense of self. Maybe for me right now this means to let go of the need to not be misrepresented by you. ;)

  • Stephanie

    Phil – great points – I do think we like to let ourselves off the hook, which is so much easier when the people we choose as our leaders don’t expect or stand for much beyond what is already comfortable for us. Religion and politics are very similar in that regard.

    Mike – so glad the ‘darkness’ bit resonated, it is a favorite theme of interest in my thought, life, and practice. I like your analogies. “Sometimes a dark place is the healthy and right place to be.” That is my exact belief; darkness has been a good teacher and friend for me. The intensity of the darker places has an enlivening effect, waking me up when I’ve been drifting on calm seas too long.

    Dosho – I am so appreciative that you enjoy my “fire,” I have to work really hard to channel it and express it in a way that doesn’t cause trouble or cause ‘unenjoyment’ for others. And I am actually much younger than you think – though I have been told many times I was born in the wrong decade ;) I very eagerly look forward to the posts you describe as currently percolating. I am really glad I found your blog when I did! I have been looking for inspiration in my practice for a long time and am finally starting to find some again, and it is now even further enhanced to read what you are writing here.

  • alain

    ‘So here’s my current theory: in the effort to reduce the intensity of Zen training and avoid some of the nasty issues that tended to come up in the intense practice containers like Zen pioneers Maezumi, Katagiri, Kapleau, etc., the Boomers threw the baby out with the bath. Out went realization and in came over-emphasizing community/belonging needs.’ Dosho Mike Port

    In our Zen center, this sense of community and belonging is almost inexistent. Besides attending morning and evening meditation 3 times a week and sesshins, there is very little contact between the members. In our center, the emphasis is on realization and certainly not on social meeting. Our teacher is now 82 years old and so far there is no successor. He said many time that it is better not to have a teacher then to have a bad teacher. Since a few weeks, I am now pondering on what to do next, I feel that many members, including myself would fell very bad if our center would die out. One way I think would be to sort of re-inventing Zen practice; a practice which could still be alive, serious, sincere even with the absence of a teacher, but how and into what, I do not know.
    We must face the fact that there is actually very few ‘real’ Zen teacher left, and that realization in my mind isn’t even enough. I have personally known about 7 or 8 realized persons, two atheists who “had’ spontaneous awakening and one from Advaita Vedanta, those three men were a complete disaster as teachers and as human being. Another 5 of which were trained in Zen, of which only two were qualified to be teachers. I also feel that the only way our center could continue will be by building progressively a strong sense of community. This will require a sense of responsibility and maturity. I feel that one of the biggest problem facing spiritual communities are those internal childish power games. This sense of being unique, distinct, important, and the compulsive need many of us have of attempting at all cost at showing it.
    We now live almost exclusively within a world of words; this world of words is getting more and more incompatible and incoherent with the ‘ongoing and flowing natural world’. It is as if this world of words has taken a momentum of its own, kind of disconnected and isolated itself from the ‘flowing and ongoing natural world’. Within this world of words, there is a split; a structural duality and a unity of process or dynamism, for this world of words is simultaneously and alternatively that by which we look from (subjectivity, bias and prejudices) and that which we look at (objectivity). Within this world of words, there must be coherence; a stable orienting center to gather our subjectivity with our objectivity, I feel the center is now eroding at a very fast pace, and is being ‘replaced’ by ephemerals, discontinuous and shifting centers or points of focus which are outside of ourselves.
    My theory on why Zen is going to hell has to do with the same reason why our societies at large are also going to hell; a shift in center(s), our emphasis is now on what we look at, we are now under the spell and fascination of ephemeral, discontinuous and shifting points of focus which are outside of ourselves; TV, e-mail, texto, internet, money, fame, etc. We seem to have lost touch with the center, within, and have progressively become ghost in a machine thanks to science; the ‘real’ is now something outside of ourselves; endlessly shifting ephemeral points of focus. What is now required – and a vital necessity in any spiritual practice is the ability to be ‘single minded’, this single minded ‘ability’ is now almost non-existent in our society and can only be aroused, from within. A vigilant mind has absolutely nothing on which to rest on.
    Awakening is a good start, but it is not enough. Insights are quite often confused with seeing into or ‘coming to’; insights may or may not have value, insights are usually articulated in an explicit form, being and becoming an experience. A shift of perspectives isn’t enough, we must go beyond experiences. We can have endless shift of perspectives, but all these shifts are still in the realms of experiences. Seeing into has no form, there is actually nothing that is being seen into and it is not an experience. Millions have had spiritual experiences; millions have had shifts in perspectives or insights and think that from these they have found the Holy Grail. Awakening is not an experience. Many teachers do not make any kind of distinction between insights, shift in perspectives, experiences and awakening. If teachers themselves lack this kind of discernment, how can you expect the student or even ordained priest to do so?
    And yes, Zen is going to hell, whose fault is it? The teachers? the students? Science? Society at large? The global context? The decline effect? Some kind of cosmic algorithm? What about me? What about my unconcerned careless attitude? What about my lack of seriousness, my inertia, my perpetually shifting attitudes? What about my pride in living in a virtual world of words?
    Spiritual groups need someone to give proper instructions to those who embark on the way. This someone we call ‘teacher’ or master. How can we be sure that a teacher has the proper understanding, depth, and of course realization? We simply cannot! Both understanding and awakening are necessary, both are ongoing, both needs depth. Without deep understanding/deep awakening feeding each other from within, not in books from without, I am afraid that practice may simply become some kind of mechanical, technical, exotic entertainment; the blind leading the blind!
    I have known a woman who did the beginners course at the Zen center, and a one day sesshin and started a community call yoga Zen the next week. Someone I know has joined a Tibetan Buddhist community, the teacher is a woman who has done only a three week Buddhist intensive course (not sesshin) and has been asked by her teacher to open a Tibetan meditation center. Etc, etc. Do we actually know what we are doing when doing it? Do we actually know what we are talking about when talking?
    Others spent years and years practicing, reading, and are ordained ‘Buddhist priest’, Zen communities are full of those highly technically trained Priests, who mostly sit in ritualized dead void sitting. Some are intellectually inclined and read all they can reach their hands on, becoming half living, half dead Buddhist encyclopedia, but forget one thing; authentic dharma transmission is beyond the scriptures, of any kind of scriptures! You do not have to read a single word or even to have a teacher, sometime an inert stone is a better teacher! Some are so good at this, that they actually see no difference between this world of words of their own making and reality.
    I said that we now live almost exclusively within a world made up of words; awakening, practice, teachers, students, shanga, have now become part of this world of words. It is extremely easy to imagine being a teacher, a student, to believe that I am awaken or even of not being awaken, that I know what practice is, that I know what Zen is, that I know who I am, where I am, what the world is, but all of this is unfortunately within a fictional world made up of words. Practice truly starts when I do not know what practice is or isn’t; it is this world of words that progressively and very slowly dies; an ongoing fiction of our own making, mere puppets in the mind!
    And yes, because of this over-emphasis on this world of words, Zen and our societies are going to hell! A scatter world, entirely made up of words with nothing to gather all the illusory puppets of our own making, having its own momentum can only give us the world we actually live in.