I Find Myself Asked What of Zen is Worth Preserving?

I Find Myself Asked What of Zen is Worth Preserving? May 28, 2018

Rick McDaniel, the author of several narrative histories of aspects of the Zen tradition in China and Japan and the Americas, recently asked me a question.

“What is there about Zen that makes it worth preserving?”

I found a lot packed into those ten words. There is the entire history of Zen hidden in that question. And while it can be about Zen writ large, I think he meant Zen in the West. So, there are all the specifics of Zen come West flooding out of that question. And. So much more intimate, there is also my own life. How can I avoid that? And so with that truth the constellations of justification and wish as well as a hard looking at the matter of the bare words.

So much in those ten words.

Of course one thing at the very beginning is “what is Zen?” How can we speak of value without knowing of what we are valuing?

And it turns out there are a surprising number of ways to answer that question. There is the word which means meditation. There is the history of religions and cultures clashing in early Medieval China and a unique and very Chinese style of Buddhism. There are the missions to Korea and Vietnam and Japan. There is for me especially and for many that next religious and culture clash in Japan and the birthing of Japanese Zen with its own flavors and issues. And, now, Zen come West, where it is both a school or more properly a constellation of schools of Buddhism, and at the same time independent of Buddhism where there are generally recognized masters of Zen who sometimes disavow specific religious traditions or embrace another, principally Christianity.

So, there are those faces of Zen.


One Korean Zen Buddhist missionary famously said “I don’t teach Buddhism, I only teach not knowing.” Before thought. Beginner’s mind. The mind on the other side of that great leap past form and emptiness. What some call the awakened mind.

Is that the Zen that I’m being asked to comment on?

Or, is it the Zen of popular culture, where “getting my Zen on” seems sometimes to mean chilling out? Or, where a “moment of Zen” seems to be embodying the non sequitur, and exercise in existential meaninglessness flavored with a large dollop of irony?

I don’t think that’s the Zen I’m being asked about. But it is what many people think Zen is, and can that be ignored in a question of continuity and value?

I’ve also been connected to a community that includes a fair number of people of Japanese descent for whom Zen is a tradition that allows them to honor their family, to memorialize them, to pray for them. Beyond that it is a place where their cultural heritage is honored. And, I would add, for whom the practices of zazen, formal Zen meditation and retreat, are strictly for the professionals. And, to infer from facial expressions and what is not actually said, all thought of as a bit weird.

What about that Zen? I’ve come to feel that’s a very important aspect of Zen. What about it?

And, then there is the Zen of the Zen center, and perhaps associated rural retreat. Here the rhythm is around zazen and retreats. There probably is a liturgical life, sometimes elaborate and daily, sometimes vestigial. Here there are spiritual directors, mostly who’ve been formed by many, many years of practice, perhaps digging into curricula koan practice, perhaps not.

Is it that Zen I’m being asked about? Superficially I think yes. But, there are those other Zens that cannot be ignored.

Like the Zen of my own life. Mostly it has been driven by that thread of regular practice and many, many retreats. In aggregate I’ve sat several years of retreat, counting nine, ten, or more hours of each day devoted to seated Zen meditation. Early on some monastic experience. Later as a spiritual director leading others in their practice and counseling those wishing to dig deeper into that matter of not knowing as a most intimate thing.

How about that Zen?

And threaded through all of this the other things, those other things. The Buddhism of it. The universal nondual perspective of it. The rationalist analysis of it. The Buddhist church of it.

And for me, finding in the early years an inadequate support system and becoming involved in Unitarian Universalism and eventually even becoming a UU minister serving congregations around the country. And, behind that my childhood Christianity and my lifelong interest in that faith tradition. A fulfillment out of not finding the “church” of it.

Those things. Can they be excluded from that question? I don’t think so. It’s that whole mess that must be taken together to say Zen. And which must include the Zen, really for me the Zen Buddhism that is yet birthing into the world, the saving tradition that presents fully. A dream. Maybe never to be realized, but which burns in my heart, and I believe in other hearts, wanting to be born.

So, is that great mess of Zen worth preserving? And if yes, what about it births that yes?

For me the great matter is always awakening. Zen in the last analysis is about awakening – that great step away beyond form and emptiness, into before thought, into that not knowing, into that beginner’s mind.

This is the great gift of Zen, the salving of the heart, the quickening of the spirit, the enlivening of matter.


And, of course this nondual consciousness is not the property of Zen. But, Zen, I honestly believe, brings the best bag of tools going. The spiritual technologies of Zen, especially zazen, shikantaza, and koan introspection – especially as it developed in the Hakuin inheritance, are unparalleled.

So, that Zen, the Zen of awakening and the Zen of those technologies of spirit that help us to awaken, those are absolutely worth preserving.

And, with that, I personally feel an obligation to help a next generation acquire the skills to continue the tradition.

The rest of it, however? I don’t know. There are more things needed. That I’m convinced of. Awakening by itself is not enough. I’ve learned that the hard way. I’ve seen people bypass their lives in the quest of awakening and end up monsters of the spirit, people with “an eye” as we say, but who cannot balance a checkbook and sometimes incapable of governing their passions. I’ve been that person in lesser or greater degree. Awakening is everything, and its not enough.

It turns out these things are also important. And so Zen needs something more than simply awakening and its tools. It needs larger contexts of support and integration.

So, the preserving of Zen needs more. Although what precisely, I cannot say. I can envision Christian Zen communities nestled within or probably at the edge of their larger spiritual family. And, I even feel some call in that direction. But, more, I think we need a larger Zen Buddhist context. But, it’s hard to say they are “worth” preserving when they’ve not really yet been created. A hint here and there, a start here and there. Parts here and there.

But not yet the Zen of the West. Not yet the full blown Zen Buddhism that “deserves” to survive.

Will it come? Perhaps. I desperately hope so. But that’s still to be seen.

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