Monastic Musings, Part II, the Zen Thing

In the previous posting, after hearing about the closure of the Trappist monastery in Colorado,  I briefly reflected on problems  and issues confronting Christian monasticism.  Now I have before me an article, sent by a friend, which is a blistering critique of the state of Zen Buddhism, especially in the U.S.; and it is a critique that comes from within that community.  Obviously there are some real differences in the problems that each community faces, but I have also found it fascinating where there is some significant common ground.  

The title of this essay is, “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi,” by Stuart Lachs.  It is somewhat dated (2002), and all the references to the mess at the San Francisco Zen Center are a well-known thing.  But the article brings up all kinds of issues that have hardly changed.  The article begins like this:

“Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian, simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d’etre is to produce people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything about Zen’s presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind. This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen.”


(Incidentally, if you want to read the whole article, this is the link to it:

And the website, “thezensite,” is a most valuable resource of zen writings, including the critical ones.)

Some scattered comments:

  1. Zen vs. institutional Zen Buddhism.  The author does make this distinction, but I am not so sure that he drives home the full implications of that move.  If you do  not clearly see and understand the difference between the two, you will miss the reality by the “width of the universe!”  And this is so true of the scholars who in the last several decades  have worked so diligently to “demystify and demythologize” “Zen.”  They have brought out many interesting and important facts about the historical development  of zen buddhism and buddhism in general.  The picture isn’t pretty; you get a sense of it in Lachs’ article.  But this is true of every religious institution, including Christian monasticism. (And not to mention the enormous problem within Catholic institutions of sexual dysfunctionality and abuse that has been uncovered and that really has not been dealt with in any adequate way.)  What the scholars have done is provide an antidote to living in a kind of religious fairyland that is ultimately toxic to one’s spiritual health.  

However…..there is a tendency in these writings to conflate the institution of zen buddhism, as it unfolds in history, with the reality of zen.  Even if not intended (but I think it often is intended), zen is reduced to that collection of practices, beliefs, institutions, etc.  that is found under that umbrella called zen buddhism.  This is a serious mistake, and it can easily lead one far astray from the reality of zen.

Incidentally, proliferating pop notions using the word “zen” in modern western society are another distorting agent that is a real problem.  I did a search in my local library for books with the word “zen” in their title.  Here’s a few of them:

Zen Guitar

Zen Golf

Zen Happiness

Zen Poems

Zen Interiors

Zen Miracles

Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen and Mindful Parenting

and the list goes on and on……  In other words, the term “zen” is being used willy-nilly.

Now of course the scholarly literature and the critical tracts are not that bad!  But they are prone to go wrong in several ways:

  1. The word “zen” is simply used as a shorthand expression of zen buddhism.  A controversial point…because it is assumed that always when we speak of “zen” we are talking about “zen buddhism.”  What if that is not the case?  We will shortly explore that.
  2. Then the term “zen buddhism” is, as I mentioned above, reduced to the beliefs, practices, teachings, values, etc. of a certain institution.  Zen Buddhism (and by implication “zen”_ is then this cultural, historical entity—an undeniable fact.  But is THAT all there is….?
  3. Applying scholarly, scientific, critical, historical methods, scholars dissect this entity, and they uncover all kinds of interesting facts and, alas, all the “stuff swept under the rug.”  Really, no one should be surprised by all this…all religious institutions are plagued by similar problems.  But to borrow an image, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the scholars but simply to emphasize a certain point, they are like   vultures who are picking at a carcass…the living reality is not grasped by these methods.

Now I will give an extensive quote from Thomas Merton. You might wonder why bring in a Christian monk to comment on Zen, etc.  Well, this will not be a popular claim, but in my opinion Merton had a deeper sense of the reality of Zen than most American Zen Buddhists.  Also, already in the 1960s he had an intellectual grasp of some of problems as Zen Buddhism “translated” into American culture.  The following quote is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology?  And if so, can it be “understood”?  And at once one can see that the question can probably be answered by “yes” and by “no.”

In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, and in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system—“yes.”  In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, “yes.”  But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen.  The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse.  In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific  investigation—and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history [and culture]….  And then a lot of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential.  The Zendo, the zazen sitting, the study of the koan….the bows….the visits to the Roshi….  Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures—for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy,etc….  One can examine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common.  They share certain cultural and religious features….  Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water….  All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist Religion.’

When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’  For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically, ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’  To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it – or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either.  Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say, ‘There it is.’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in  its own category, separated from everything else….  …Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and…it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them.  It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves  them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them.  Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness.  It is  therefore in a sense ‘void.’  But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow.  If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever.  Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-men) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen—even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism.  But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself (more than any ‘religious system’) points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’  It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers).  The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a  breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief….”

So….a powerful but extremely controversial statement by Merton.  A goodly number of scholars and experienced Zen adherents, Western and Asian,  would disagree with Merton.  But if Merton is right, and I truly believe he really is so, then that gives you a better insight into how a religious tradition, no matter how ancient, no matter how “beautiful” can really go awry.  The fact is that every religious institution, practice, form, structure is prone to corruption; and not only “prone” but actually likely to deform and distort what it’s meant to communicate.  That’s why there are these historical “reform” movements….and renewal figures like Dogen and Hakuin in Japanese Zen Buddhism are examples.  And the cycle starts all over!

  1. The Roshi Thing

Among corrupt structures in Zen Buddhism, this one is big!  For one thing, this is  how the tradition supposedly travels through  history: the Dharma transmission from the master (roshi) to the disciple.  If this goes bad then you have a debilitating problem of major proportions.  I am not going to go into all the details that Lachs presents; suffice it to say he does a commendable job, but it is depressing to read.  But what interests me is the universal nature of this problem.  I saw something like this happening in my own Catholic ambience in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  There was this proliferation of “spiritual teachers,” spiritual directors, even borrowing a term from Eastern Christianity, “spiritual fathers” (and “mothers”).  And, oh yes, how many wanted to be seen as some kind of spiritual guru. Colleges and seminaries even began offering degrees in this.  A lot of people were taking on a role that they were  not spiritually equipped to play.  (So in Japanese Zen Buddhism when father  passes  a spiritual office/role to son, that’s obviously a problem.)  Incidentally, Plato said that the  person who desires to lead others is by that very fact the least qualified to be a “leader.”  I think that holds, with some modification,  for so called spiritual teachers.  Think about all those people, both in Buddhism and in Christianity, who now make a living doing this. It’s a big industry.   Makes one wonder.  Then there’s the sexual abuse problem….also present in Buddhism and an enormous problem in Christian religious circles.  A bizarre and extreme instance of that was exemplified by one of the Jesuit spiritual directors of Mother Teresa, Fr. Donald McGuire….he was discovered to be a profligate sexual abuser of children!  

The actual fact is that the reality of being a “spiritual teacher” in its full essence, a spiritual father, is a truly rare gift, not to be self-designated and maybe surprisingly so, a mysterious burden.  And this reminds me of the tradition of the hidden  zaddik in Hasidic mysticism.  The “specialness” of the hidden zaddik is completely concealed by God, even from the zaddik’s own eyes and mind.  He does not realize his own special gift, but in the community in which he finds himself he is the occasion of blessings and illuminations in the hearts of many.  One of the  hidden zaddiks was a village butcher; it was said of him that with every cut of meat one could feel the Holy Presence. (An interesting story  in this tradition can be found here:   Another instance is exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima (modeled on a real Russian spiritual father), who is considered a “pretender” by most of his community…and when he dies his body corrupts exceptionally  fast, contrary to popular criteria for signs of holiness….so his spiritual fatherhood is completely hidden to  most eyes.  

In any case, no matter the rarity of this reality, there is the simple fact of someone having a bit more experience, a bit more knowledge, which can be helpful to a fellow-traveler.  Lachs has some good, common sense wisdom here:

This article is not saying that there is no place for a Zen teacher. As in any field, there is a need for experienced and knowledgeable teachers. However, crediting a teacher, by definition of their role or title, with exalted qualities he does not really possess, is begging for trouble. A Zen teacher can certainly assist his students in their practice, can encourage the students to be diligent, guide their meditation practice in both public and private meetings, offer aid in difficult times, talk about Zen texts to enrich the student’s sense of the tradition and explicate Buddhist and Zen ideas. Importantly, teachers can inspire followers by setting a living example through interactions with their students and others and, with the conduct of their own life, demonstrate that Zen practice can make one a wiser and more compassionate human being. In addition, as there are other practitioners around the teacher, it is helpful to be part of a community of fellow practitioners.

  1. Where have they all gone?

 The diminishment of Catholic monasticism and Zen Buddhist monasticism is quite obvious.  They are part of other, larger patterns of diminishment,  but I am not going to go into  that here.  Suffice it to say that both groups have “shot themselves in the foot,” “sawed the branch off that they were perched on,” etc….whatever other cliches one can think of.  Whatever blame you can put on the social conditions for this diminishment, ultimately both groups are largely responsible for their own shrinkage.  To show you how bad  things are in Japan, consider these two articles:

  1. Concluding remarks.

Let me begin with the foundational story of what is called Zen or Chan.  This is one version of it: The Flower Sermon:

One day the Buddha gathered all his key disciples as if to instruct them.  But instead of speaking to them, he held up a lotus flower before them.  All looked puzzled except Kashyapa; he only smiled.  The Buddha then spoke:

I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. This wisdom does not depend on letters, it is transmitted outside all formal teachings. I now entrust it to Kashyapa.”  

Let me now say that it matters not one  iota whether this story is a description of a historical moment or a myth rendered in these words.  The important thing is Kashyapa’s smile.  Yes, we see the smile in these words…so words can be useful, helpful….but the smile is a sign of a realization beyond all words.  No corruption can touch this smile; no scholarly analysis can make it go away.  The smile is always there.  And if you want to know what Zen is all about, you will need to look at that smile.

And here is Merton at Polonnaruwa (from The Asian Journal)…to help you:

“ The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha . .. . I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything-without refutation-without establishing some other argument.  I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape figure, rock and tree …. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded …

The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya  . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains  but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage,  Asian or European or American.”