Zen in America and Exclusive Humanism

Here’s the first buzz of my square head, administered by my dad with big sister peaking in.

Oh, my, how many more head buzzes I’ve had. Oh, my, how far we’ve come.

That applies to American Zen too.

This comes up for me today as I prepare for the Zen Priest Home-Leaving: Spirit, Principles, and Possibilities workshop at the Boundless Way Temple, coming up in a couple weeks.

What are some of the differences between American Zen and it’s predecessors in Asia, particularly Soto Zen?

There’s an emphasis here on mindfulness and moral precepts, of course, but I’m not going there today.

Where I will go, ever so briefly, is to the exclusive humanism dimension to our practice that may be unique in human history (that’s from Hondo – see below).

What is “exclusive humanism?”

I recently watched a presentation of Zen form on YouTube, where the presenter says that the forms of our practice – clothing, sitting, bowing, bells, and chanting – are there to support our practice. That’s exclusive humanism.

Practice is all about us?

If the forms are seen as being there to support me, then they appear rather arbitrary. I might not feel all that supported about bowing or sitting in accord with the traditional instructions. If it’s all about me, why don’t I just do it my way?

Maybe it depends on who or what the support is coming from. If the support is coming from me doing something and going to me … well, again, it’s all about me. Exclusive humanism.

Another view is that we are here to preserve the buddhadharma for the helpless ones of the future and part of how we do that is to let go of our incessant self obsession and just wear the robe, just sit, just bow, just become the koan. Just for a moment or two now and then.

Another related view is that through receiving and embodying the form from our teachers, we bring the buddhas and ancestors to life now. Support is coming from buddhas and ancestors and going to buddhas and ancestors, flavorlessly and holochronically.

For another aspect of this see this excellent post by Hondo Dave over at No Zen in the West. Here’s a taste:

“If the best human life is one marked by exclusively human flourishing, then bodhisattva practice is about improving human lives with reference only to human lives–making sure people are fed and clothed, that our illnesses are treated, that we have shelter and community and so on. That we’re happy, as happiness is generally understood. On the other hand, there’s something very deep and very basic in the Dharma that points to the unsatisfactoriness of precisely all those things. The First Noble Truth is a pretty serious attack on the “good” things in a human life–family, friends, work. All of that, a piece of our tradition whispers, is in some way not-enough. Even in Zen, we call a priest ordination a home-leaving, right? To mark precisely the fact that even a home, even a happy, stable, loving home, is somehow not the entirety of a life. That there is a source of meaning which is in reference to something else.”

The Deeply Settled Heart: Home-based Practice Period Invitation
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
  • Jeanne Desy

    I can’t quite get the word “holochronically.” Could you say more about that?

    • doshoport

      To quote my source: “…’holochronic’ is the brilliant term coined by Pamela D. Winfield in her book on Dogen and Kukai). It works with the math of A=B because all the players (all the teachers before Dogen, Dogen himself, the ones receiving the precepts, the ones receiving the precepts from the ones receiving the precepts) are all ultimately doing the same thing at the same time, actualizing the same thing in the same breath, across time.”

      • Paul


    • Koun Franz

      Winfield uses it to describe how Dogen so often talks about 3-dimensional time (events taking place, and informing each other, in the past, present, and future, simultaneously). He would say, for example, that in Dharma transmission takes place from teacher to student (and onwards to all the student’s students), as well as from student to teacher (and onwards back to the buddhas before Buddha). Wearing the kesa would be another event we can understand holochronically. (This is in contrast to Kukai, founder of the Shingon sect, who, according to Winfield, understands the practice and its realization in holographic terms, as a positioning in space.)

      Gassho, -koun

  • jamesiford

    good post. important points, I believe. but, also, I think humanism deserves better than to be part of a term meaning selfish. the humanist spirit, despite the etymology, is, as I see it, and has been for most of its historical use, a focus on the natural and the human as celebrated within that natural…

    • doshoport

      Thank you for the correction. I had a niggling feeling that I might hear from you on that point! The “exclusive humanism” phrase, as I understand it, isn’t so much about selfishness (as I was using it) but about focus and scope of practices.
      Not too much offense intended,

    • Dave Rutschman

      Hi, you two. Thanks for furthering my thinking about this, Dosho–I really appreciate it. Like you, I could sort of imagine James’s objections as I was working on my post. As I understand Taylor, though, the key part of the term “exclusive humanism” is “exclusive.” There have been lots of humanisms, going back at least to Aristotle if not further–the important difference according to Taylor is that for the first time there’s at least one option on the table in contemporary life which puts all sources of meaning ONLY in human life, and that that’s brand-new. The human within the natural as James describes doesn’t feel exclusive to me in that same way.

      I guess I’d add, too, that the problem with exclusive humanism–or the place where something in me resists, at least–isn’t so much that it’s selfish. It can be, I suppose, but I think it could also be selfless–solidarity could be an exclusively human value, I think. (Solidarity with other humans, at least, if not walls, trees, tiles, pebbles.) The sticking point for me isn’t selfishness–it’s more thin-ness, the feeling that something is being limited, flattened, diminished. That something is being left out.

      I don’t know–these questions are all continuing to act on me. I’m grateful to both of you for stirring the pot . . .

      Bows all around,

  • Paul

    I hear the question again:
    Hui-neng and Bodhidharma are cited [by Dogen] as examples of absolute freedom. Do you believe they attained absolute freedom?

    Thank you

    • doshoport

      In the doing.

      • Paul


        Need to change in answer.

  • Kogen 古 元

    Great post! Yes! I love this- ringing bells and upholding forms what’s more than human. My mind goes to a teacher names Kokyo Henkel, who suggests that there just might be a giant Ida Sonten outside the temple…we just can’t see it.

    I read Hondo’s post, but this brought some clarity to what he said.

    thank you for the bright spot,

    Kogen 古 元