Zen is Going to Hell and It’s the Boomers’ Fault!

Well, that’s one voice – my crabby-old-man-yelling-at-the-neighborhood-kids-to-stay-off-his-lawn voice.

Before I really get into this voice, first let me praise the Boomers for all they’ve done for Zen. Really. The Boomer Generation has been a great generation for Zen, instrumental for the Zen transmission to the West and important also sparking a revitalization in the East.

That said, here we are in 2012 and in Soto Zen, 22% of the respondents to a recent survey of dharma successors were over 70 years old. Almost 50% were between 60-69. Only 7% were in their 40s.

Now I like old people as much as the next person. I’ll be one soon myself. So I’m not hating old people here, just saying that when you’ve got 70% of your denomination’s priests over 60 years old (aka, Boomers and beyond), then you might have a problem.

It looks like the Boomer Generation did a wonderful job receiving Zen transmission, but to date, have not done such a great job handing it on.

Another possibility is that Boomers have been really careful with their transmissions and only given authorization to a very select, highly qualified group. That seems unlikely.

What does seem clear is that the Zen brand in the US – at least in most places – is a generational expression of the dharma that does not speak clearly to younger people.

Young folks were lined up at the Palisades Cliff on Lake Superior yesterday, annoyed that they couldn’t get their turns quickly enough to jump off a cliff 300 feet above the lake. If that kind of self-regard is at all typical of young people, there’s gotta be a lot more of them around who would also think jumping into Zen would be a good idea.

Now the sparsity of 20 and 30 year-olds in Zen does seem to be changing some in a few places and we’ll have to sit still for a couple decades to see if it’s too little too late or not. The question now seems to be how big the Great Contraction will be.

That gives me a little time for speculation.

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.

This shows up in the rather intense ambivalence to awakening that we find in the Zen whirl today. When the above group was asked to rate the following for priest training, “Experience of attaining insight/breakthroughs or openings/understanding of the Great Matter” (just the way that’s framed is so odd!) about a quarter didn’t think it was important.

I found that baffling until it occurred to me that this large hunk of dharma-transmitted priests view priest training akin to training Protestant ministers. For them, maybe, being a Zen priest isn’t about clarifying the Great Matter (even though it’s capitalized in the survey), but about getting down with the forms of being a priest. Not so much about the Great Matter but a career.

So the next generation will be required to study a little Dogen, deal with their psychological problems, sit a little sesshin, master elaborate systems of community consensus so that no one is ever even a little pissed off … and then will be able to roll out their credentials, gather a few followers and then sit back and watch the Zen dharma go to hell in one or two generations.

Like I said, it’s the Boomers’ fault.

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I think there are some kids on the lawn that I’ve gotta yell stuff at.

Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
  • http://JustThis@bigour.blogspot.com alan

    Ok…glad you got that off your chest……This generation of 25 to 35 year olds is also doing something completely different in the halls of Christianity…I went to church with my daughter and her husband yesterday….a Methodist church in Atlanta..The front of the church where one would normally see a choir loft, pulpit and probably some westernized version of Jesus was a stage…at the back of the stage were several very old doors…yes,just doors…and some more doors leaning against the walls..candles lighted everywhere…people in shorts, ties, people drinking coffee…people reading the bible on their cell phones…preacher in jeans (candler graduate like myself from Emory University)…talking about justice, community, the homeless….anyway you get the picture…whole new vibe!!!
    So I’m sitting because I’m tired of standing for the last 10 minutes with the sing along hymns and liturgy…but as I sit I look up and see my pregnant daughter, her husband and my son ( his wife and daughter were out of town) standing there looking for their truth in the way they look for their truth and I just begin to cry…tears of gratefulness that they are at least on a path…looking for the truth…What’s my point…not sure…I just know that things are different and things are still the same…they just don’t know that yet…Where are all the young folks seeking the dharma…they are everywhere…but things are different and things are the same…..you may be older than you realize…dharma is dharma…no matter what kind of robe you wear…

    And then again…I don’t know what I am talking about….


    • doshoport


  • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


    This is a great elucidation of some of the central issues facing present and future Zen. I struggle with the community-building aspect of it, and I was surprised, on returning to the US, how central that aspect is. I’m a big believer in the value of building a space, an actual building or set of buildings dedicated to the practice–there are kinds of practice that are near-impossible to explore without those structures. And without a patronage system, we need community support to build those structures, and that kind of support, unfortunately, seems not to be generated by focusing solely on the Great Matter. It feels sometimes as if we can establish the causes and conditions of exploring the depth of the tradition, but at the cost of ever actually getting down to it, or we can practice a stripped-down, but uncompromising, version in a tent in the back yard, narrowing the scope of the practice in the process. It feels like an unfair choice to have to make.

    As for the Great Contraction, I’d like to hear more about what you think that might really look like.

    Thank you.


    • doshoport

      I’d really like to hear your thoughts on the SZBA’s priest training draft. Or any other topic in a new blog post! I miss your blogging mind and big practice heart!
      On the Great Contraction, dang, hard to see the future is, always in motion!
      Beyond Yoda, a consensus among those few people with whom I talk about these matters, seems like the focus might shift back to the Great Matter. Maybe only the lineages that stress such a thing will survive. Probably a lot of centers will go belly up. For young priests, it’ll be a buyer’s market. So you’ve got that going for you too.
      On the other hand, that might be wishful thinking – the Great Matter part. The lines that survive might be those that have the most access to wealth and power – especially in our increasingly and incredibly stratified society (1/2 Boomers will likely retire in serious poverty while the 1% is rolling in bucks), those lineages that somehow get close to wealth and power might continue for a while. The collaboration between the upper classes and Zen seems to be how the transmission moved through China – and we are they … way down stream.
      What do you think?


      • doshoport

        And not sure if the numbers bare out your point on the need for compromise. Those places that don’t curry favor seem the healthiest and most robust, imv. Catering to willy-nilly needs doesn’t wear well in the long run.

        • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


          Thank you for your encouragement. Between travel and work, I lost some momentum. But I’m excited to jump back into the blogosphere (way to set it on fire with this post, by the way!).

          Which SZBA priest training draft? The one about SZBA-recognized ango? Did I miss something exciting?

          I hope you’re right about uncompromising centers being the ones that thrive. Of course, it doesn’t matter, as there’s no actual choice to make–compromising the Dharma is no choice at all. If the practice space has to be a dank garage, so be it. (That said, I’m still very, very open to winning the lottery, or finding a patron, or both.)

          I do think that the best-connected and best-funded groups will get to have a privileged stake in determining how this tradition presents itself to the Western world. If one group has 50 priests, and they basically share a common view about the role of a priest, for example, or on the relative importance of this tradition or that, that will eventually take on the stink of “normal.” Of course, that doesn’t take into account the Great Contraction, which really could be a reset button. Perhaps there is still a chance to establish the priesthood in such a way that people looking in from the outside will associate it with rigor and integrity and deep history and a humble call to service.

          Reading all these comments has made my day.


  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Nice rant (that word is overused badly these days IMO, ‘rant’ should really denote an impassioned, erring towards irrational, tirade).

    As a post baby-boomer practitioner (and I can only speak for myself here, as a lazy lay practitioner, I must add), I have to say that I love the core practice and elements of the study/work, but, frankly the whole ‘lets-pretend-to-be/speak/dress up like’ historic Japanese people strikes me as goofy… and a bit silly… and it’s sort of been lampooned in popular culture to the point of it appearing to be ridiculous to a great many. People have long since started to poke holes in all things hierarchical, dressed up, historic and haughty of course; it’s a feature of modernism, and certainly postmodernism, and that is part of what we really are at this stage no matter how much we’d like to deny it or resist it. The pace of these modern/postmodern movements and forces could not have been imagined before it started to happen not-so-long ago (historically speaking), so how could there be a road map to deal with it? Zen finding a place in it will either take (on the traditionalist side of the house) great perseverance and integrity and, well, conservatism and, on the ‘progressive’ side of the house, great imagination and creativity… or some clever amalgam of the two… and surely this is been done. I think there are successful models to be observed, and to inspire, there. BTW, it’s interesting to me that zen aesthetics (or some sort of imagined harmonic of them at least) contributed to early modernism in art and poetry: I’m thinking of the imagist poets here, Pound, WC Williams et al, who were influenced by Chinese and Japanese principles of simplicity, condensation and precision…

    Now, I respect that Master Dogen asserts that realisation is nothing separate from the various forms of ‘dignified conduct’ themselves (all aspects of his monastic code plus attendant forms and bells and bows)… I certainly accept that within the context of Master Dogen’s time and monastic context, and (within reason) within enduring (and not so enduring) Japanese tradition, but I cannot accept that I should be expected to play medieval Japanese-monk-person here in my little pocket of the west in the 21st Century. That sort of ‘authenticity’, to me, seems to be a serious red herring when transplanted to my own context: A red herring out of water! I also accept that some people want to do that (and I can feel their heat from here… Sorry!), and that’s fine with me.

    So, there’s a garbled perspective from a relatively young whippersnapper. Please don’t tell my mom, Sir.



    • doshoport

      Your mom did well. Thanks, Harry.
      I especially agree about the progressive and conservative part and how the dharma also has to integrate and go beyond the various present movements. Just pretending to be 13th Century Japanese is just pretending. I don’t think the solution is to establish another clerical order and turn to it for spiritual authority. That, I fear, is the present direction of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. The ritual should follow or arise together with the realization not make-believe. We need teachers now who have the gonads to be creative – not sheep who’ll wonder whichever way the wind blows.
      Regards back,

  • Harry

    BTW, here’s an interesting (and brief) comparison between modern and postmodern styles of organisation (I’m sure you are familiar with this stuff already Dosho…)


    The postmodern approach, to me, does not seem in any way in conflict with valid Dharmic principles; if anything it is more in keeping with them than many traditional Buddhist models of organisation… (but I would say that, as I am no fan of the insidious little Guru Game!)

    Maybe we are inclined to look at this wrongly (and it is understandable given our Zen delectation for ‘lineage’): Maybe we should not be looking at it in terms of how to retain the past, to realise the present in terms of tradition, but, if we are serious about it, then maybe we should look at it more in terms of how to actualise the present on, and within, and from, its very own existing and current terms.



  • http://www.treeleaf.org Jundo Cohen

    Hi Dosho,

    A wonderful, wise post. Thank you. Clarifying the Great Matter, and realizing (grocking) and relaizing (making it come to life) in this messy life must be front and center. This is not a social club picnic. At the same time, we must find a way to make this speak to the hearts of modern western folks, especially future generations, to keep the flame burning. Some traditions we may keep, some not. However, in doing so I believe that the same or about the same traditional lessons can be conveyed, even if in new forms … for example, making changing a dirty baby diaper a “sacred ritual” as much as Oryoki or lighting incense. We may lose some important practices and ways as we move to new formats and locations … but often we will be able to keep those very same practices and ways even if wrapped in new packaging, or bring out and let flower new powerful practices and ways that were missing in the traditional settings … creating a Zen Practice even more powerful and to the point of the Great Matter than what has been before. It might not always look like it did in 12th century Japan any more, but since when was the Great Matter limited by location or appearances?

    Great post.

    Gassho, Jundo

  • Rob

    Hi, Dosho,

    At 48, I’m one of the youngest of my teacher’s students. (Not a priest, and it may be another 20 years before I hear a calling…). I sometimes lament that there was not a lot of youthful energy, unless you count the handful of children (pre-teens) that occasionally drop in to cause a ruckus.

    I recently visited Halifax Roshi’s Upaya Center for a Dogen Symposium, and was delighted to discover quite a few people in their 20s who were diligently working, studying, and practicing. I believe the attraction for them was mostly towards the chaplaincy activities, and helping others. That has a lot of appeal to that generation, as well as mine, though they have a lot more energy to apply.

    That’s what seems to draw them: The desire to help, to serve, or to act out Bodhisattva fantasies. Whatever their reasons, it gets them in the door.

    And there is diligent practice. Upaya is a beautiful and gentle place, but their sesshin is Soto-rigorous. Yes, I’m sure that their quivering hormone-tainted monkey-minds are jumping all over the place, and that’s to be expected. The earnestness of their practice inspired me.

    So, there is hope, even after we Boomers (I’m right on the cusp) spoil it all with our selfish presumptions of wisdom.

  • Mike Haitch

    Last night I watched some free lectures from Stamford U on “How to think like a Psychologist”. Lecture 3 was on meditation and The Great Matter. It featured sati and smiti, FMRI and clear guidelines on when meditation of any form is a good or bad idea, why sangha is important in practical terms and more. It was pure science, it was clear and blunt and wise. Well worth watching for 90 minutes.

    Maybe the Zen of chants and ritual is falling out of fashion but the Zen of ‘The Art of being Human’ is I think in a very good place.

  • Dave Laser

    Not only did they put Zen in a handcart to hell, but the stupid Boomers used up all the good lumber! I mean, have you been in a Home Depot lately? How are you supposed to build anything nice with that twisty, knotty, splintery crap? I agree with Koun- it’s unfair. We’re screwed, for sure.

  • http://drizzleanddew.blogspot.com/ Kogen

    First, what is so Japanese about a uniform that consists of an indian kasaya, chinese robe, with a Japanese kimono and juban, with an American t-shirt underneath? To look at the trappings of formal practice and say they are 12th century Japanese is a gross partial truth.

    Second, let’s not weaponize the tradition into being “useful” like changing a diaper. If monks are issued babies upon ordination, then sure, but to suggest this would be and endless race to write gathas for every possible mundane activity (keep your baby on the zabuton, to the left, and wash it as if it were…your baby).

    Third, look closer. What does more damage to the Dharma- the lack of heirs or young heirs who can’t keep it in their pants, who think they’re immune from aids because of karma, and who set up standards of their own which spring more from neurosis than enlightenment. Rather than look at how many heirs there are, let’s speculate how many people have left this practice due to Baker Roshi, Genpo Roshi, Shimano Roshi, and so on.

    Aren’t we in the sudden and complete school? What is there to realize that the one who blogs can realize? All of the above is not separate from realization, yet, some of us know how to walk the line in between a little more gracefully than others. Dharma transmission is about someone who is steady in their practice and committed to growing Bodhisattvas.

    Chuck Norris stares or wise sound bytes are not enough.

    Gonads are not enough.

    Palms together,

    • http://nyoho.com Koun Franz


      Thank you for this word, “weaponize.” Exactly. When we reduce the tradition to its utility in cultivating this or that quality, we make this limitless practice into something very small, very manageable. And not very compelling.

      My humble contribution:

      Wiping this baby’s butt,
      I clean away excrement from the minds of all beings;
      Changing this diaper,
      All beings are peeing on my face.


  • http://sweepingzen.com/ Adam

    Speaking as someone in the 30 to 40 year-old bracket, I don’t find myself drawn to ceremony, ritual and pomp. It’s okay for a teacher to offer these things, but that’s not what I’m in this for. People turn to spiritual practice to go much deeper than this. I come from a generation which, I believe, values critical thinking greatly.

    We know when we see a politician. We can smell theater. We came of age during a time when the veil had been lifted via something we call the internet. Right or wrong isn’t really applicable – the web has changed the nature of how we view this practice and those who carry it on. It is a universal kind of check-and-balance.

    We live in an age where, due to the exchange of information, karma is quite immediate and swift.

  • Dan

    Hi Dosho,
    Great post and great discussion. Harry’s point reminded me that the Dalai Lama has said that in the end it will be Westerners who bring the Dharma to the West. I’m quite big on this myself. The Asian Dharma symbols that don’t resonate with us will have to be transformed into symbols that do. Ultimately though, that’s the artists’ job, not the work of a committee or association. To see how the Dharma is going to transform, we need to look to artists who are already working with Dharma ideas and symbols. Eventually a new set of symbols will emerge, new masks covering the same old, 12th century face. Till then we should be thanking the boomer Dharma-pioneers for planting the seed in the first place. Dan

  • http://monjaisshin.wordpress.com Monja Isshin

    Right on, Dosho!
    I, too, have been concerned about the seeming tendency of American Zen to get reduced to some kind of pastoral/counseling training – and its influence on Brazilian Zen.
    This is one moment where I am glad that Brazil is some years “behind” the US, because, although the Hippie/New Age influence is strong with many groups ignoring the Great Matter and resembling nothing more than “meditation-social clubs” (or even “meditation-social-action clubs”), I think the Japanese Soto Zen Headquarters for South America, under the guidance of Dosho Saikawa Roshi, is better recognized here. There were fewer groups formed that “declared independence” from Soto Shu, so this does make it easier for some of us to keep the idea of the Great Matter alive, as we go about facing the challenge of adapting the Japanese monastic method to western lay practice. Fortunately, most groups here are pretty well balanced, as far as the age of practitioners and priests is concerned. Recently, in our Sanga, we are also noting an improving ethnic-racial mix. So, all-in-all, I think we can hope.
    All the best,

  • Robert Schenck

    The central Zen and Buddhist principle — whether we call it realization, enlightenment, awakening, insight, breakthrough, opening, understanding, or whether we say all names misrepresent it — has suffered grievous wounds from which it has not recovered. The most devastating was inflicted by Brian Victoria’s “Zen at War.” His indictment of four centuries of Zen in Japan and the tardy but eventual admission of its truth (and apologies by both Soto and Rinzai sects in Japan) ensure that the book will continue to leak the corrosive acid of historical truth into the claims of that central Zen principle and into the concomitant principles of dharma transmission and lineage for many decades to come. Supposedly fully realized and enlightened masters, Victoria documents, were complicit in centuries of racism, nationalism, patriotism, militarism, conquest, sexism, and war. Though academics continue to dispute some of the specifics of Victoria’s indictment, the truth of the general substance of his allegation has been acknowledged even by the institutions he exposed. It will take a long time for Zen to recover, if ever it can. In Japan the criticism of “original enlightenment” and “buddha nature” and the encouragement of intellect and reason by Hakamaya and Matsumoto and their students indirectly strengthen approaches like that of Victoria. I don’t see this academic investigation soon going away or losing credibility. In the United States, Zen has received additional wounds from the misbehaviors of Zen teachers — revelations about sexual misconduct by Baker, Katagiri, Merzel, Shimano, and others. Baker’s failures stained even the reputation of Zen saint Suzuki. After all, people ask, how could a master with special insight so badly misjudge the character of his successor? The defense that is usually offered is that the Zen teacher is just a human being like any other, prone to mistakes just as you and I and any other human being is prone to mistakes. Personally, I think this is true, but such a defense does little to enhance the credibility of the priest and teacher who has experienced “realization of the great matter” by whatever name it is called; indeed, it undermines it. If the teacher, so realized, is no different and no better than any other human being, what is there to attract the young student to the Zen priesthood? Then there is the deconstruction of the Zen priest, Zen teacher, and Zen master by Stuart Lachs and others, which, right or wrong, so brilliantly pulls aside the curtain concealing the humbug manipulating the ceremonial and institutional knobs and levers of Zen. Finally, there is the funereal ambience of the Zen temple, the somber colors, black, brown, gray, the incense, the candles, the icons, the bows, the chants, the downcast eyes, the silence, the “priests in black gowns walking their rounds binding with briars my joys and desires,” as Blake writes, which makes Zen so similar, on the outside at least, to Catholicism. Given all this, it’s hard to imagine Zen attracting young people with the admonition to “just sit.” We still have Thich Nhat Hanh, god bless him, but where in all of American Zen is the charismatic figure able to restore faith in “realization” and “enlightenment” and in the practice that reputedly gets one there? I got onto the path through the urging of a friend who said the door to awakening was not sitting but total openness, courage, and honesty. How is American Zen today doing on that score?

  • steve Kelly

    I’m a gen-x Soto priest and only ordained because my teacher is Japanese and therefore willing to ordain a younger guy.(Shohaku Okumura ) Most of my peers saw the writing on the wall and wisely left for greener pastures. We have a saying about dharma transmission in Soto Zen “only a Boomer and a Boomer can know it” Soto Zen students get the joke.

  • doshoport

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments – from lighthearted to heavyhearted. I think you’ve said a lot.
    Robert, you raise an important aspect – the moral failings of many of us have certainly taken the shine off the Zen dharma for many. The gross imperfection of this tradition, our teachers, and myself are all things that I’ve had to wrestle with again and again – that’s the wild fox business. “Rely on the teaching, not the teacher” comes to mind. And the teaching is about thorough unreliability. That isn’t to excuse the failings of the tradition, teachers, or myself. There is no excuse. We’re a bunch of broken down stink bags.
    On the other hand, there’s no tradition that I so deeply resonate with and whose essential message rings me again and again and again. And that last sentence really doesn’t begin to express my gratitude to the Zen ancestors who’ve continued this way so that I might get a bitty taste.
    Palms together,

    • Robert Schenck

      I learned a lot from my practice with a teacher, and a lot from my practice without a teacher, and I’m grateful and glad that the tradition is kept alive in spite of what seem to me its obvious flaws and the mistakes by some of its teachers. Practice and the rewards of practice make it impossible for me ever to doubt the truth of the dharma, the teaching, no matter what individual teachers or students might do or say.

      Just one more broken down stink bag

  • Harry

    Re. ‘keeping it in their pants’, this model (vid below) is the pits… just became aware of this documentary recently. This guy has a major centre here in my country (Ireland), and I have met people here, Buddhists, who refuse to talk about this or criticise the lama, or even openly think critically about/discuss it, on the basis of the code of silence/non-criticism in student-Guru relationship. Sickening religious bullshit if ever I heard it… and we’re still only coming to terms here with our native Catholic Church abuse messes…


    I take your point, Kogen, about the longer history of the ‘uniform’, but I was referring in that instance to Dogen’s formalisation of standards when I was thinking of/talking about the 12th Century (which was certainly heavily influenced by Chinese values and norms)… and the ‘gonads’ statement, I have to say Dosho, was more than a bit gendered; let’s not neglect or exclude many of our venerable ancestors on that basis.



  • Stephen Slottow

    I’ve heard Pat Hawk Roshi refer to the “greying of the groups.” If standards grow slack, if the sides of the training container grow too mushy, if there is too much attempt to make Zen “relevent,” it will evaporate. This is one of the key issues that Kapleau and Aitken struggled with, and they drew different lines in the sand. And sometimes a strong top-down structure can help, as in the Sanbo Kyodan. I find myself recalling something from Robert Aitken’s introduction to his “A Zen Wave” a lot these days: “…an admonition from a member of my thesis committee, Cheuk-woon Taam, stands out in my mind. He said that just because its subject is everywhere, I must be careful not to claim universal manifestation for Zen Buddhism. Professor Taam’s words are very much to the point. Zen Buddhism does not pervade the cosmos. It presents essential nature-universal mind–but it does so as a particular teaching. Confusing the specific teaching with its vast and undifferentiated subject is a trap that has caught several tigers.”

  • Harry

    Hee hee, you learn something new everyday; hadn’t realised I’ve been in a relationship with someone who has a pair of gonads. Quite enlightening!

    Would like to see you argue the point on usage of the term with a few venerable sisters whom spring to mind however… your gonads might be little use to you then! ;-)

    Few things spring to mind: For clarity, and to establish that we’re talking about the same thing/things, what exactly is the Great Matter as you see it? I think we might tend to assume that we know what the Great Matter is; but I’m not at all sure that all zen practitioners, all zen movements, and certainly all Buddhist schools, are singing from the same hymn sheet (or non-hymn sheet) in this regards.

    Also, we’ve done the easy work of bitchin’ on the scene, now, what is your vision of how things could proceed so as to promote actualisation of the Great Matter in our time and in future times?

    … I have loads more simple questions like that lined up for you (…gird yer gonads!)



    • doshoport

      You are a lovely rascal.
      Great Matter: Who is the master that hears that sound?
      How: more on that soon! Just had an important session with a friend/advisor and have got some new ideas about how to go forward.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com Gregory Wonderwheel

    These ruminations on the recent Soto survey are in line with Yatsutani Roshi’s worries about the condition of his own Soto School in Japan 65 years ago. But because of that, I don’t see the connection with the “boomer” generation. It seems to me the issue is about the “awakening thing” more than the “boomer thing.”
    Under the notion that “practice is enlightenment” one can take the symbols literally and think that “practice” is contained by forms of practice and forget that awakening is the heart of practice. That is, “enlightenment is practice” is as true as “practice is enlightenment.”

    For example bowing to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is not practice when it is part of seeking behavior, but when bowing is unattached to seeking Buddha, Dharma and Sangha it is enlighened practice itself.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com Gregory Wonderwheel

    P.S. In one sense, to watch the Zen dharma go to hell in one or two generations has always been the way of Zen. In another sense, the Zen dharma has never left hell and only thrives in the flames of this world.

  • http://www.blindeschildpad.nl Blinde Schildpad


    On the other hand: hasn’t priesthood (and monkhood etc.) been always on average about carreer? Meditators, even in deeply dharmic countries, have always been far and few between. There are many degrees of karmic connection to the Great Way and historically the Sangha has catered for all. Some people’s path may (for the moment) be just to burn some incense or circumambulate a stupa or hang a picture of the Buddha from their rear view mirror. If Western Buddhism lacks anything, I’d say it’s a lack of commonness. In Dutch I’d say it tends to get a little bit “hijgerig” (literally, “panting”, but let’s say overenthousiastic). If Buddhism is to survive (which it will) the whole tradition needs to come over here. Not just the exciting bits. Not just the special bits. Not just, dare I say, the essence. Ofcourse I’m not talking forms here, but spirit. Also this won’t specifically get the young people to the zendos and what have you, but it will get people, generally. And a percentage of those people will practice and resolve the great matter, but hopefully without as much of a climate of high hopes and ‘Oh, that’s just Guru-Ji’s crazy wisdom!’ that seems to be at least a factor in some of the scandals in the last decades. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that people like Suzuki, Katagiri and, from (“my”) Tibetan tradtion, Dilgo Khyentse, came from a Dharma-life that was practically speaking mainly concerned with performing funerals, protecting people from evil spirits and competing who could build the gaudiest temple. They did just fine. Ofcourse the Dharma is a Jewel. But, wether we like it or not, it’s a Jewel that’s supposed to thrown before swine.


    • doshoport

      Hi Oink,
      Yes, I suppose you’re right. The confusion creeps in when priest = teacher. Not always so. Maybe rarely so. If a person’s training is about becoming a fine priest that doesn’t make them a teacher of the Great Matter, of course. Katagiri Roshi thought there were 3 teachers in Japan – among 20,000 transmitted priests. Maybe that’s more realistic.
      Thanks for you comment,

  • Oreb

    You could add several names of the first generation to that list from what I’ve heard, Maezumi and Seung Sahn seem well documented. So empirically, zen simply does not work to make supermen (morally or otherwise) out of ordinary human beings. Accepting oneself, others and the world in it’s “already broken” state might be really meaningful however, and something zen absolutely works for though it’s fricking hard to do a lot of the time.

    “Young people” (and others) these days can google you all and are in the main deeply cynical in a healthy way about everything from advertising (you will get a happy and rich life if you drink the right brand of soda) to religion (you will get a happy and rich life if you give your free will and critical thinking up to the right brand of religious belief and associated power-structure).

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for a great post. Many thoughts of a similar nature have been running through my mind lately. I have become frustrated by what I am starting to see and encounter in many Zen groups and sanghas, which I have come to think of as “therapy Zen.” I was very disappointed when I went to a local zazenkai recently and instead of the regular teacher(s) giving talks, senior students did, and both talks were along the lines of accepting and being at peace with yourself and your life. A great contrast to the teachers’ usual talks, which raise the Great Doubt and encourage you to ask questions and wake up.

    “Being okay with myself” is never why I took up, or stayed with, this practice. It was wanting to get beyond being okay or not being okay with myself. On some level I could see the falseness of the coming and going of thought and emotion, of being okay and not being okay, and I wanted to get beyond that. I wanted to see what was real, to know what was really going on. I was willing to be uncomfortable, and not at peace, and not well-adjusted, to get at truth. Actually, I found that the times in life I was more uncomfortable were more helpful to me in cutting through the bullshit, so I embraced discomfort as a way. I still feel this way. And I often (though not always, thankfully) feel like a Martian when I try to explain this to other people I encounter at various sanghas I attend or visit.

    I was fortunate enough to get my first experience of live Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery (in New York), where the Guardian Council tried to weed out and turn away from intensive practice any people coming from a “self help” angle. It was taken for granted that the reason you practice is to resolve the Great Matter, not because you want to be calmer, more confident, more well-adjusted, fitter, happier, more productive. Nothing wrong with any of those things, of course. But Zen was not seen as a form of self-help there. If you wanted to relax, do some yoga or take a bubble bath. If you wanted to get over your depression, talk to a therapist. If you want to really know what is going on, to resolve the Matter of Life and Death, you practice Zen.

    Nowadays, I often find the opposite–that wanting something more than finding a way to better adjust yourself to your daily routine is seen as false or suspect. I think back to the Buddha, who never went back to the palace to be a better prince, warrior, husband, or father after he left and had his awakening. Or the monks who sat alone on mountain tops, eating pine needles. This sort of thing is treated as quaint now, possibly misguided, while embracing without question the bourgeois parameters of your life is seen as expressive of “true wisdom.”

    Don’t get me wrong–I am among many who have chosen to practice in the context of a life of love and work and play in modern middle class America. I am grateful for the development of a lay Zen and the normalization of practicing formerly “monastic practices” in a lay context. But I do believe something has been lost, as the rhythms of lay life are increasingly being treated as the focus and point of practice, not just the scenery of it. A lot of people who fancifully think of themselves as “monks” even with families, jobs, and the whole 9(-5), have nothing of the grit, determination, or interest in awakening or going beyond as the ancestors they read about. They just want the same things as other people, to have less fear and discomfort and more happiness. The sense of fearlessness, of being willing to be uncomfortable, has been lost.

    However, in considering all of this, I also think it is too easy to say that things were not like this before, and it’s only a result of our lazy, shallow, culture, that the Great Matter is being erased from the areas of concern at zendos. My understanding of the historical development and spread of Buddhism, and of human nature in general, is that there has never been a large number of people whose desire to wake up is greater than their desire to be comfortable. I believe that, looking at humans and what the majority of us tend to believe, most people would rather be reassured and soothed regarding their existential anxieties than face them head-on. Look at how many popular Buddhist movements have capitalized on appeal to people who have given up on waking up in “this lifetime” and look to some sort of cosmic parental figure to give them a boost to Nirvana after they die. And while I see this critically, one could also see it as–everyone on some level senses that their suffering is a sign of something they have not yet realized or understood. So for a lot of people, not wanting to suffer, wanting to feel better, becomes the driving factor. So, more people are going to show up at zendos just wanting a little dose of peace rather than being willing to walk to the ends of the earth, to suffer discomfort to know what the truth is. I suppose, in the end, I am grateful there are any teachers and zendos left out there who respect and honor, and offer teachings and practices, to encourage and support the folks that seek realization above all else. I suspect that places and teachers like that will always survive in smaller numbers.

    • doshoport

      Very nicely put.
      May your life go well,

    • http://www.zenforuminternational.org Carol

      Ditto. Thank you, Stephanie!

  • Oreb

    I think it a given anyone seeking out zen have severe religious or existential doubts and want to see the ground of reality, though I could be mistaken. I’ve never come in contact with the here so reviled soya-latte/yoga/therapy/insert your own prejudice zen. Seems nice though. But to me it’s very interesting what happens with people (the zen euphemism which sometimes sound a bit like cult speak is “on the relative level”, ie eh life). It’s amazing how dysfunctional zen-centers and teachers seem to be able to become while trying to “resolve the great matter”. Made me quit zen in my youth (not many years ago:). However: if you dont believe the hype that zen makes people “clear” (more cult speak) but makes for radical acceptance of people and the world in their suchness, a zen center is just a group of flawed people practicing together, which is quite beautiful. A cistercian monk I met said (with a bit of a smile but not only) about his monastery that it was like reform school for people who couldnt handle real life. And nothing wrong with that, on the contrary.

    The big joke of zen is that after you see the ground of reality you’re basically ready to enjoy having a family and pursue a career, hopefully with a bit of compassion and humour.

  • Steven Dawes

    Great article Dosho, and some excellent points everyone. Personally, I still love the practice, but am so done with the formal religion. For over a year or so,my wife and I have been experimenting with an egalitarian model to a sitting group that began when I was studying with Shotai sensei(a really good person). It’s a non-prophet organization. However, I still question if I should encourage those I encounter in the group, that have a strong aspiration(“great matter” stuff), to enter into one of these intense residential practice settings? Do these settings serve a function? Perhaps for brief stints? I have certainly experienced a deepening of practice in this kind of setting, but honestly, I feel living and working in this beautiful mess of a world has made my practice/life much richer and more real. So I don’t know if I can, in good conscience, recommend these residential places to someone. Is the religion of Zen too fraught with risks at this point in time? Can someone realize themselves without a Zen teacher? Or was the Buddha just delirious from dehydration when he said, “Be a lamp unto yourself”? Zen might be going to hell, but don’t beat yourselves up too badly Boomers. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast you’ve been dancing with.

    “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.” -Mark Twain
    “A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows.” – Mark Twain

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Steven, good questions.
      Imv, monastery and residential time can be extraordinarily valuable – as can coming back down the mountain and living a really ordinary life.
      When you question the “religious” aspects of Zen, I wonder if you’re talking about the traditional and modern power aspects that have been culturally entwined with Zen. What I do is religious … but in a post-modern way (see Harry’s nice link above).
      From a post-modern perspective, though, why recommend or not? Trusting the wisdom of each person, let each find their way.
      Certainly, there is realization without a teacher. For that realization to be confirmed and for “it” to become the basis of practice, probably requires a teacher-student relationship. “Be a lamp unto yourself” does not exclude being in a teacher-student relationship, imv, but is the basis of every healthy teacher-student interaction – like two foci in constant intimate communication.
      Thanks also for the Twain!

  • Steven Dawes

    Thank you Dosho.

    “From a post-modern perspective, though, why recommend or not? Trusting the wisdom of each person, let each find their way.”

    Yes, excellent point. To each their own.
    It’s great you align with a post-modern approach to teaching. I think it’s so much less prone to separation and corruption. I wish you all the best with your path.

  • http://www.brightwayzen.org Domyo Burk

    Hi Dosho! Thanks for your post, I liked it a lot. Wish you had made it to the SZBA conference last week. As one of the authors of the survey you mention (and as a new early-40′s priest & teacher), I would have enjoyed your participation in our discussions. It sure was lively! Of course, those discussions continue and I’m sure you will be part of them.
    Many of the boomers are ordaining older, post-family, post-career folks (or mid-family, mid-career folks) who want to serve sanghas in their communities, so the boomers are creating a priest path to enable that. The average age of our associate SZBA members (before transmission) is not that much lower than the average age of the full members, and these folks are doing noble dharma work.
    Thing is, I think younger folks want a challenge. Not all younger folks are going to be drawn to zen, of course, but those who are will often thrive on seniors who encourage them to sit up all night without sleeping and roshis who yell at them to “Die right now!” They want to throw themselves in completely, even if they fight the process every step of the way. Heck, that’s part of the fun. Young folks can find that challenge in various places, of course, but at this point it is rarely tied to being ordained (except at places like Great Vow Zen Monastery, which has a much higher proportion of young folks than you will typically find elsewhere).
    Don’t be afraid to challenge those young folks, people! Give them something to reach for.

    • doshoport

      Hi Domyo,
      Happy to see you here.
      Thanks for the points you make above. And there is also a lateralness to many of the transmissions in Soto Zen that may be well and good individually, but the pattern does not further transmission to the next generation – like to yourself (you’re one of the 7%!).
      There may be something to having appropriate practices for different age groups, and I’ve seen some oldsters with hair on fire going beyond what the young folks are up too – so bodhi mind seems to know no age.
      I’m not saying the the ministry isn’t a noble path, simply that the Great Matter is not necessarily resolved through becoming a competent minister.
      I hope to attend the next SZBA meeting. With work, Zen, parenting, partnering, etc., just couldn’t fit it in this time.

  • Kimberley

    I’m way out of my league here, I know! But thought you might find this informative.
    When I first stared looking toward Buddhism I was initially interested in the different path of Zen. At the time I was in my late forties (now in my late 50′s). As I explored through reading and attending local groups there were two reasons I turned away from Zen. The first is what you’ve talked about here, I can’t say it any better. When I started to look at more “contemporary” figures in Zen, I found them to be brash and so totally lacking in tradition it didn’t look like Zen to me. And in some cases, as with Brad Warner, I found that compassion seemed lacking.
    I hope the Zen communities find a way to thrive. Even though I do not follow a Zen tradition I would sorely miss the voice of Zen in the larger Buddhist world.

  • http://syntheticzero.com Mitsu

    I’m in my 40′s and have practiced for over 25 years… and there are younger people in my sangha. But I occasionally speak with friends who try Zen but actually are turned off by the Asian format; literally the taking of Japanese Dharma names and the Asian rituals and so on. Frankly I tend to agree with them. This was a kind of selling point decades ago when there was a kind of fetishism of all things Asian but it is irrelevant to the real meat of what this is all about. I think it might be time to think about making a truly American style of Dharma which means focusing on the substance rather than the form.

    As for the rant: the reality is that Zen in Asia itself is mostly about community. Only the priests regularly sit; lay people do not. The idea that lay people should all practice is an American notion: one which I support. But I don’t know that the community focus is the reason for the decline of Zen in the US, if there is such a decline.

    There is a need for Zen to evolve in my view. I don’t have any brilliant ideas how, but I think it may take several generations before we begin to see the shape of it. I personally think it will come in the form of something creative which we haven’t yet seen anywhere, in Asia or here: new forms, new ways of creatively expressing the essence of the Dharma in surprising ways.

    • doshoport

      Thank you, Mitsu,
      I saw quite a few lay zazen practitioners when I was in Japan, so it might be more complicated than you present. The lay people also, even though they might not sit, still the practice of dana and generating wholesome conditions can be quite wonderful and powerful. Who’s to say that those who sit are doing the real practice?
      I’m finding the Asia rituals and names a lot more “normal” in this global culture – at least much more so than 35 years ago. I agree that there can be a fetishistic quality to them though that can be seriously off-putting for potentially serious practitioners.
      Well, really I just don’t know.

  • Tiara Askew

    but wait… you are a boomer…

  • whoknows

    I don’t know about all this Zen talk, but for me practice began with the han. Yes I was suffering. Yes I wanted relief. Yes my knees were killing me after 20 minutes of Zazen instruction. Ten sesshins later, I still sit every morning. I pray that I can continue until the day I die. How about you?