Is Zen a Maserati or a Schwin? Reflections on Elitism and Pluralism

The fine Buddhist scholar Dale Wright (see Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhismfor example) gave a fine talk at the recent bi-annual meeting of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association about the virtues of Zen practice and his concerns about where this boat is going.

I wasn’t at the meeting but listened to the mp3 of his talk available for members only, unfortunately, at the SZBA site.

Grace Schireson’s blog posts at Sweeping Zen first alerted me to the talk, paraphrasing Wright, “Zen is like a Maserati, Part 1: Sleek, Beautiful, Expensive, and High Maintenance.”

In Wright’s words, “…Zen is like the Maserati of religions. It’s gorgeous, it’s sleek, it’s simple, nothing unnecessary, and it’s really costly. And I love it.”

The simile that Zen is like a Maserati is a central pillar of the Zen myth with the Zen practitioner being a spiritual hero, bravely going where few have gone before, sitting through the years as if her/his hair were on fire. Dogen is the patron saint of this aspect of the myth, turning to the mountains and his hermitage, blazing brilliant dharma from his far-from-the-capitol hide out.

The other pillar is that Zen is for everyone. Another talk from the SZBA meeting was by Duncan Williams, author of The Other Side of Zen. Williams mentions that in 1750 there were 17,000 Soto temples in Japan and that in only 1% did they offer zazen. So what were they doing? Attending to the everyday needs of the people, just like churches do everywhere. Keizan, the third ancestor of Soto Zen in Japan, carries the mantle of this pillar in the mythology.

As Zen wanders it’s way into the global culture, it is important that we hold these two pillars – or foci – gently in our hearts and let the conversation between them open the way for us here.

I often bitch that the second pillar is what we’re moving toward exclusively. This is dangerous because the heart of the matter, the heart of what Zen has to offer, may be sacrificed in this uni-pillar approach. It would also be unbalanced just to go with the first pillar, ignore the community and the suffering of the many beings.

And our culture seems to have a really hard time having an open conversation about pluralism and elitism. We seem to bull shit ourselves about how pluralistic we are while the political and economic elites get a bigger and bigger share of the goodies. We have the opportunity here to lead the culture toward a dynamic, ongoing resolution of this issue. How we work it – Maserati or Schwin (both and neither) – might have great influence in the future.

Wright’s talk, as I said, is mostly about what he sees as virtues and areas of concern of Soto Zen in the present. Listening to the virtues, I felt better about Zen then I have for a long time.

Here’s the list (some of these are my paraphrase, most are Schireson’s) of the virtues: The practices of this tradition yield a long list of ingredients of human character. Zen is about actual practice. Zen Mind is not localized to a specific cognitive skill or a specific area of development. Zen is about the here and now. Belief not required. Zen does not conflict with science. Freedom. A Sense of Humor and Fun. Going beyond your teacher. Zen’s aesthetic sensibility as an expression of practice. Zen’s vision is expressed through literary tradition.

Challenges: Morality Matters. Politics Matter. The Intellect Matters. Working with the mystery of Enlightenment. Integrating the vertical and horizontal aspects of Zen (teacher and community) and integrating innovation with tradition.

See Schireson’s commentary at the Sweeping Zen site for the gist of Wright’s talk.

I find the ideas here really compelling. For example, in Wright’s discussion of “The intellect matters,” he references the college students he works with and their hunger for a compelling life vision and challenges the teachers in the audience to speak more clearly to this hunger.

What is a Zen life and what does it have to offer?

“Empty, no holy,” of course, but what are the dynamic contents of that empty?

More on that next week.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
  • homer simpleton

    Zen is a mirage. Sleek. And the ego you protect, loves IT.

  • Hoag Holmgren

    Ego is expensive and high-maintenance, not zen practice.

  • Jeanne Desy

    This is interesting. The local peer-led sangha I am familiar with has no social activities, and has been this way for many years. The only time people get to talk to one another is in structured discussion after listening to a dharma talk. Any human interaction has to take place standing around after sits. Unfortunately, there’s not a quiet casual restaurant/coffee shop nearbye that would facilitate that getting together. What you write makes me see a little more clearly how that is a problem; we don’t know one another’s lives off the cushion, so we are not in a position to minister to one another.

    • doshoport

      When I started to sit at the Minnesota Zen Center in 1977, almost no one talked to me – even to say “hi” – for about a year. I stayed for zazen … and might have been more encouraged to get to know people off the cushion too! I found that I built up a lot of groundless projections about my fellow students after we did start to talk.

  • Al

    It is too bad the MP3 isn’t publicly available. Any chance that this will change?

    • doshoport

      I’ll see what I can do.

  • Lee Love

    “Is Zen a Maserati or a Schwin?”

    Not sure about Zen. But the answer for “Is Buddhism a Maserati or Schwin?” would be yes.
    The teaching is on many levels, according to the ability of the student.
    I remember when I first met Luding Khen Rinpoche, he said about Zen: “It is a quick way to enlightenment. But very few people are capable of following this path. There are skillful means that can reach the rest of the people.”

  • Larry Anderson

    Hi Dosho,
    Having worked with precision machines my whole life, and in the late 60′s and early 70′s, having built, raced and repaired muscle cars, I can appreciate a maserati. But I think it is a poor metaphor for Zen, as is calling our brains computers or our bodies machines. It is all too reductive. These artifacts are not living nor organic and function by blind mechanism or when activated by a living someone. A schwin is a little better. At least we have to pedal it, it doesn’t need gallons of fossil fuel, and often we have to put our feet back on the Earth. But it’s still too mechanistic to be a metaphor for Zen.

    I don’t care much for the pillar metaphors of elitism or pluralism either. The many and the few all stand on the same Groundless Ground. All pillars fall eventually to (or through) that Groundless Ground.

    Zen is my crooked old wooden walking staff. The gnarled root-end now aimed skyward looks like Wild Fox, or maybe Coyote or Raven or just a root. It helps keep my right end up and my big flat feet stepping along on that same Groundless Ground.

    An Inter-Net Bow to You,


    • Larry Anderson

      By the way………….Happy Bodhi Day!!!

      • Larry Anderson

        Wholey Holy………….Holy Empty!