Communal or Private: Is Zen for Everybody or Just a Few?

Communal or Private: Is Zen for Everybody or Just a Few? June 19, 2017

82-vigil-4-150x150Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler at No Zen in the West recently raised the issue of “Private Religion, Private Engagement; Communal Religion, Communal Engagement.”

The vision Jiryu presents is compelling: “…daring to stand for something in this time of so many somethings worth standing for.”

Jiryu acknowledges that for some practitioners, Zen is a private thing and then he asks what about “…Buddhist religion as communal, Buddhist meditation as communal, and Buddhist social engagement as communal?  What about Sangha?”

And hopes that “…We can work towards a moral consensus in our Buddhist communities with respect to at least some of the actual issues of our place and time.”

I hope so too. And since the Freeze Movement back in the early ’80’s (see photo from a protest at the UN in 1982, or so – in front is Bodhin Kjolhede, now abbot of the Rochester Zen Center, and I’m over on the right), in those freaky Reagan days, I thought that we Buddhists should not just sit but stand up for something (in the case of the protest at the UN, we stood up by sitting down). I do cringe, though, at the prospect of dharma communities devoting the time and energy necessary to arrive at a “moral consensus” about social action in our time – the crises in the world might not wait until we all agree what to do.

In addition, “…The true dharma,” Kyogen Carlson, the late abbot of Dharma Rain in Portland, OR, once said, “isn’t found by the majority vote in an election.”

At the Nebraska Zen Center, a much smaller group than the San Francisco Zen Center where Jiryu lives and teaches, it’s an easier matter. Both Tetsugan and I are interested in sanctuary activities and so we’re beginning to get involved with these activities and will invite others in the Zen community to join us when that seems fitting.

In terms of moral consensus, perhaps “communal action with individual responsibility” says what I want to add to the conversation. And there’s a related issue of the communal-or-private religion issue that interests me – is Zen universal or exclusive? In other words, is the practice of Zen really open to everybody? And should it be? Is Zen for everybody or just a few brave practitioners? What about when our inquiry for the truth burns past what is acknowledged and embraced by the collective?

In the Heart of Zen: Practice without Gaining-mind, translated by Shohaku Okumura, Uchiyama Roshi takes up this issue. Uchiyama emphasizes the communal or what he calls the “universal” perspective. He writes, “I believe that in a true religion, all people must be saved without exception.”

Uchiyama argues that Sōtō Zen is one such religion because Dōgen’s zazen is universal (“Universal Recommendations for Zazen”). “…The essential characteristic of Dōgen-zenji’s zazen is that it can be recommended to anyone, anywhere and is not concerned with being wise or foolish, sharp-witted or dull-witted. This is because his zazen is the colorless practice of shikan (justness) and devoid of any particular purpose.”

Uchiyama goes on to say that because Rinzai Zen practitioners train rigorously to attain satori and because such training cannot be done by all people [author’s note: assumption alert], Rinzai Zen is an elite practice, not a universal religion. He suggests it be called “Ultimate Zen” or “Adept Zen.”

It’s a wonderful thing to vow to free all beings by realizing the great way and to focus on developing a religion that is open to everybody. The problem with that, though, is in how it can dumb the practice-enlightenment down to the lowest common sense – which isn’t universal and often isn’t such a great way. Bluntly put, when the communal is over-emphasized, our Zen Centers become community centers or social clubs. Like I said above, what about when our inquiry (and commensurate practice) for the truth burns past what is acknowledged and embraced by the collective?

Uchiyama seems to acknowledge as much when he talks about how before his teacher, Sawaki Roshi [and in fairness, there were a number of other 20th century Sōtō teachers that also emphasized zazen], if Sōtō monks wanted to focus on zazen, they went to a Rinzai monastery, because there just wasn’t much zazen being practiced in Sōtō. Harada Dai-un Roshi, who brought a modified koan curriculum back into Sōtō training, was one such person.

Uchiyama notes that the Rinzai master, Shibayama Roshi, once asked him, “In Sōtō Zen, zazen is most important. And yet, Rinzai practitioners, not Sōtō monks, are the ones who have been practicing zazen constantly. Why has this happened?”

Maybe because when we believe that the great way is always manifest in just-this-ness but shy away from proving it with our own bodies and hearts, and when all intentions except purposelessness are excluded, there isn’t much reason to undertake arduous training.

There are a couple notable points of irony in Uchiyama’s perspective. First, he championed the “Antaiji-style sesshin” – one of the most arduous forms of sesshin in Sōtō Zen. And second, it evokes the question that the young Dōgen took with him to China, “Why did the Buddhas of all ages — undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment — find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?”

Dōgen was only able to resolve the issue through wholehearted, day-and-night zazen. It’s said that he didn’t lie down to sleep during his almost three years with his teacher, Rujing.

Dogen was not alone in sitting fixedly, pushing private practice, engaging in extreme (exclusive) dharma training – it’s deep in the Zen mythology. Buddha left his community of practitioners to sit under the bodhi tree, Bodhidharma quickly had enough of Emperor Wu and sat in a cave for nine years, and Dogen went to China. In the 20th century, Katagiri Roshi sat his first Rohatsu at Eiheiji in full lotus until he would pass out and the monks would drag him out of the zendo and throw him in the snow to revive him.

In my view, these are examples of exclusive practice and they are also universal practice. Just because a practice isn’t something that everybody wants to do, doesn’t mean it isn’t done with a universal intention, an intention to benefit all the many beings, regardless of intention. Encouraging a practice that truly works a person’s capacity to the full, does not necessarily exclude anybody – anybody who’s intention is to discover the heart of the buddhadharma.

So our practice is universal/communal but not only that. The exclusive/private is also vital.

In terms of training, unless we ourselves become what Dogen calls “zazen persons,” discover and practice intimate self-knowledge, our Zen religion is just another belief system. Instead of something universal to offer the community, “Under the beautiful flag of religion, we then fight,” as Katagiri Roshi put it. The private/exclusive and communal/universal are two foci, like a set chopsticks, where neither can function alone without being dysfunctional and looking kind of silly.


Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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