Why There’s No Zen in the West: Tassajara Dispatch #4

It turns out there’s no Zen in the West because of a ninth century Japanese Tendai school monk named Annen.

Maybe I should back up a bit. My critical, scoffing friends (and alter-egos) who say there’s no Zen in the West say so in large part because there is no real Zen monastic practice in the West. As there’s no real monastic training, there are no real enlightened trainees. Thus no real teachers, thus no real Zen.

I’m writing this from Tassajara, a place we like to call the first training monastery in the West. And it’s true that folks here are sitting a lot of zazen and living immersed in ritual. But by no standard measure is it a monastery – “a place for monks” – because by no standard measure are we who practice here monks. We are not monks in any regular sense of the word because we have taken no monastic rule. Even those of us ordained as “home leavers” really have no stipulations on our behavior, have no vow of discipline. We’ve committed to a life of moral conduct, but no differently – no more narrowly – than a “lay” Buddhist has. The only unique vows we have taken are in the fine print of the ordination ceremony: vague vows, which we never renew, about how we will handle our priestly gear in the spirit of the Buddha. Nice vows, but not enough to make a monk, and certainly not enough to hold together a monastic order.

This lack of concrete monastic vows is why Japanese “monks” have to stand in the back if they’re ever around “real” Buddhist monastics; it’s likely the reason why even the great Japanese teacher Dogen Zenji had to wait on the boat in a Chinese port and was nearly barred from joining the Chinese monks’ practice. Then as now, ordained Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Tibetan Buddhists look at us and say: “Well that’s nice, but say again how you figure you’re a monk? Because you took on a few vague rules about doing good, not evil?”

So this is the thin ice that Japanese monasticism has been on for some centuries, and we in the West with our Protestant and Enlightenment values have certainly stomped on the ice our fair share – sometimes indeed a joyful and useful stomping, and a stomping this blog likes to look at.

But looking back it seems like the damage we’ve done to monasticism is fairly mild when compared to what the Japanese did.  Our situation is in some sense just the unfolding of causes they set into motion.

Which brings me back to Annen, the ninth century Japanese Tendai monk who is the reason I can write this while wearing monks clothes while my “layperson” wife sits in the head monk’s seat in the Tassajara zendo and my son sleeps on our (immodestly high) bed. According to Paul Groner in another excellent piece in the book Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha that I mentioned a post or two ago, Annen was responsible for what became the definitive Tendai interpretation of a very important Chinese precept text, the Brahma Net Sutra. Annen’s predecessor Saicho had succeeded in instituting that Sutra as the official precepts of the Tendai school. (This is the subject of Groner’s fascinating book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School.)

Now the Brahma Net Sutra, Groner argues, was already too vague to hold together a monastic order, and only really made sense as a supplementary set of precepts – a way to add a more Mahayana flavor to the much more comprehensive traditional Buddhist vows that all monks would naturally have taken. In China they did (and I believe still do) use it that way, as more precepts rather than as the precepts. Particularly since the Brahma Net Sutra lacked any enforcement mechanisms, made no provision for assessing or addressing lapses, it couldn’t really stand alone.  So once it was adopted in Japan as the primary monastic precept text the Order was, in Groner’s assessment, more or less doomed – unless a Tendai commentator would have come along with an authoritative commentary that could give the Sutra teeth.

Instead of a toothy new interpretation, though, we got Annen, who proceeded to make the toothless even gummier. As Groner describes it (and I haven’t read Annen’s commentary myself), Annen’s approach was much like the precept interpretations you hear in Zen to this day (recall Suzuki Roshi’s telling freshly precepted students that they may need to go out and break all of them). Annen emphasized intention over action, and he argued that ultimately the precepts can’t be broken anyway (you know the drill: fundamentally life is not killed, etc.). He also insisted on the power of confession and repentance ceremonies to effectively remove any karmic obstacles born of past action. As if that weren’t enough, he further offered that even in the worst of offenses, simply re-ordaining would wipe the karmic slate. He suggested that people with low spiritual faculties might want to try taking up some literal precepts, but that really all rules are simply provisional – the real work is to leap beyond this realm of “right” and “wrong” and realize the total liberation of Buddhahood with this very body.

Apparently this was the right message for Japanese Buddhists, because it stuck. Where Annen went, the Tendai school went; where Tendai went, so followed virtually all of the Japanese sects. Now and again a reformer would come along to try to recover the urgency of monastic discipline, but it didn’t take, it couldn’t take. Humpty Dumpty wasn’t getting put back together.

So to draw this rather technical ramble to a close, I certainly don’t say Annen was wrong, or particularly that he was right. We all look for the balance between form and the formless, and there’s no final landing anywhere in that. I bring all of this up not to pass judgement but just to appreciate again that the road to the current state of “No Zen in the West” has been a long and slow one.

I mean, if you will, that we didn’t start the fire.


9 thoughts on “Why There’s No Zen in the West: Tassajara Dispatch #4

  1. A few years ago now I spent 9 months attending an NKT Sangha. To me this was day-glo Buddhism with technicolour gods and goddesses and a 14ft golden buddha statue in the window visible from the street. I stuck around in part to understand the symbolism and to let go of my personal aversion to this manifestation of Buddhism and in part because one of the lay practitioners was cute.

    I failed with one of my objectives but did succeed in understanding the symbols and ended up with a fair bit of admiration for what they represent and how they externalise a complex set of internal symbols and information. Most crucially how they give people something to cling to and to guide them.

    When I look at Monastic Zen I see many things that are very useful and impressive and would clearly be of benefit to many. However over the centuries there always seems to develop this habit of cheerleading “We are the best, there is nothing outside of these walls” which may be a knowing wink by the Abbot that is lost or it may be a strongly held belief. There also in this environment especially the more traditional ones sometimes seems to be a culture that could be called bullying or abusive. It may work as part of a Zen practice but it may not also be necessary.

    To peek outside the monastery walls and to see a world in which “No Zen” is alive and well is all that’s required for a more balanced viewpoint about the role of monastic tradition.

    Some people are born monks, some poets, some yogis and martial artists. The question is never which is the right or the best path. The question has no meaning. The question is only “Which is the right path for me”. That is the hardest question to answer. Knowing how to find the answer is part of the start. Knowing where to look is part of the start.

    In a week when Dennis Merzel is once more trying to hock his wares it doesn’t hurt to remember that one’s own feelings of value and attainment may not be accurate. If Dennis quit Zen altogether and got a real job would the world be a better place? Would there be less harm done?

    It wouldn’t hurt in the least if we had some real monastic Zen in the west. At the moment the picture might be unbalanced. However, such a thing would need to be balanced by knowledge of what lies outside the monastic walls.

    Now I’m late for work. Hmmm!

  2. Alternatively, if we use Dennis as an example.

    If Dennis set up a traditional [unisex] Zen Monastery would that be an equally viable solution? If his goal is as stated a transmission of the Dharma then it would be given a suitable outlet.

    In a traditional monastery AFAIC the monks gave the monastery free labour in return for board, rent and dharma. They did not give cash. The monastery, the abbot and the monks lived or died by whatever they could raise by their own hands as beggars, farmers or labourers and of course from rich donors to the monastery who were not themselves monks. There was AFAIC generally a separation between the dharma funders and the dharma practitioners. AFAIC a monk on entry had to provide enough cash to cover his/her funeral but beyond that nothing much.

    In the west I think we are in a bit of a muddle because many Zen practitioners want to also make a living through Zen. That may or may not be a good idea but it can lead to problems. The problem is some people get into the idea that dharma can be bought and others that dharma can and should be sold. That is only one model.

    A traditional monk understood that a lifestyle was being chosen and another relinquished. In the NKT Sangha that I attended there were a lot of monks and nuns and they lived a traditional lifestyle – one which would sustain life and spirit but not much else.

    There are of course a number of Zen teachers who earn an income that is separate from their Zen transmission. Producing and selling books is one way in which the dharma can be separated from supporting those who transmit it.

    Brad Warner for example makes clear that his books do not really support his lifestyle but he also has a lifestyle that is commensurate with his life choices. He also accepts donations.

    The mess in the west I think comes from people who both want to teach Zen and be paid to teach it in order to provide a particular level of lifestyle. This is where we depart from the traditional models and lose much of what the monastic tradition would give.

    In the west it seems that many people want the best of both worlds. They want to live a comfortable life AND they want to do it as a full-time dharma-teacher. From that desire I think a lot of mess arises.

    There are of course a lot of Yoga and Martial Arts teachers and they all can make some sort of living doing full-time teaching. I certainly paid for both often enough. But they also tend to be clear about what they are selling. They sell two things – one which can be bought and one which cannot.

    In contrast, when you sell Zen you can only sell one thing and so the pitch is different. Narrow.
    In addition to this to sell something well you really need to believe in the value of what you sell. Problems arise if you go down the path of selling something which you feel has no value.

    I don’t think there are any perfect models.

    I work on the assumption that I have nothing of value to give away and that assigning value to it causes problems for me. At the same time I have also been known to send donations to various monks, pseudo-monks and lay practitioners who are willing to accept donations. I do this because it’s healthy to recognise the alternatives and that there might be no right or best solution. I have also paid nominal amounts to attend Sanghas and Retreats. What I have not done is pay for anything offering “special” somethings. My personal pain level arises when Zen becomes Zen Business.

    Apologies for the ramble, hopefully you will feel it’s “on topic”. If not at least it’s free!!

  3. I often feel that monastic practice is so “yesterday” … so “13th Century”.It’s true, and in some very important ways, it may be time to knock down the monasteries, throwing their cloistered inhabitants into the streets! **

    For most of its history, lay practice has taken a back seat to the “real spiritual action” said to happen only among the ordained Sangha, usually behind monastery walls. However, this no longer need be the case.

    I in no way intend to deny the beauty and power of the monastic path for those called that way. There are depths and lessons to be encountered and awakened to and lived in that simple life, in the silence, in the sincere effort and routine. So much of that may not be easily perceived in the noise and distraction of an “in the world” practice. (Although, in my view, stillness is stillness, and the very same stillness can be encountered “out in the world” with a bit of diligence and attention to day-to-day life). I do not in any way intend to discount the importance of monastic practice for some folks … and at appropriate times and doses for all of us.

    However, there is also a beauty and power in paths of practice outside monastery walls that may be unavailable to those within the walls, with lay practice having depths and opportunities for awakening all its own. There are aspects of an “in the world” practice that are denied to those following a monastic way. There are depths and lessons of practice that can be encountered and awakened to only out in the city streets, in our work places, families, raising kids. Where is the Dharma not present?

    Lay practice now is not the same as lay practice has been in centuries past.

    One vital reason for monasteries and the like … from the earliest days of Buddhism … was an absence of other chances for communication with teachers and fellow practitioners, and a lack of other means to encounter “live teachings”. In other words, wandering ascetics walking hither and thither in the Buddha’s time needed to gather during the rainy seasons to “touch base” and reconnect with the group after being on their own for weeks and months. In the middle ages in China and Japan, one could not easily encounter a Buddhist teacher, teachings and opportunities to practice without going to live full time in a monastery. This is just no longer the case. Members of our Treeleaf Sangha, for example, can have 24 hour contact, using modern means of communication, with teachers, teachings, sittings, robe sewing, Sutra and Text study, sharing with fellow practitioners times of sickness and health and smiles and tears, Samu, spiritual friendships, “sharp stones crashing into each other” … much of which, until the current times, was denied to people outside monastery walls.

    In some important ways, sincere lay practitioners today may enjoy better surrounding circumstances for practice than did the average monk in, for example, Dogen’s day. Things in the “Golden Age” were not so golden as we too easily romanticize. Most monks back then were half-educated (even in Buddhism), semi-literate (or what passed for literacy in those times), superstition driven, narrow folks who may have understood less about the traditions and teachings they were following … their history and meaning and depth … than we now know. The conditions for practice within old temples and monasteries might have been less than ideal, many teachers less than ideal, despite our idealization of the old timers. Studying Sutras by smoky oil lamp, living one’s days out in Japan or Tibet while having no real information grasp on China and India and the customs of prior centuries, living in a world of rumor and magic and misunderstanding (in which all kinds of myths and stories and superstitions were taken as explanations for how the world works), unable to access a modern Buddhist library, or to “Google” a reliable source (emphasis on making sure it is reliable however!) to check some point, or to ask a real expert outside one’s limited circle, being beholden to only one teacher at a time (no matter how poor a teacher), with no knowledge of the human brain and some very important discoveries of science … and after all that effort … getting sick and dying at the age of 40 from some ordinary fever. (Can you even imagine trying to listen to Dogen Zenji recite “live” a Shobogenzo teaching from way across the room … without a modern microphone and PA system and “Youtube” to let one replay it all? I suppose many never heard a word!)

    The “Good Old Days” were not necessarily the “Good Old Days”.

    In contrast, in many ways, the average lay person practicing today has very many better circumstances for practice than those monks in 13th century Eihei-ji. For that reason, it is time to re-evaluate the place and power of lay practice. What was true in the cultures and times of ages past need not be true today!

    Now, we need the monastic way … and we need the “in the world way” … supporting each other.

  4. Please also see my series on points for possible improvement in the monastic institution …

    POINTS OF POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT IN THE MONASTIC INSTITUTION – No. I – : Have monasteries, throughout their history, been (not just necessarily exclusive in order to maintain levels of training, but) -too exclusive- in their availability to those who may wish to enter and undertake the Dharma? Although monasteries also have a function of training the next generation of gifted Teachers … have they, in fact, excluded many more individuals who would be gifted Teachers but could not enter the monasteries for social, political or economic reasons? Rather than admitting those who should be there, have they tended to admit those with the political and social connections, and (even today) economic means to be there? Have they tended to admit, not just the many great talents and serious “seekers”, but also a disproportionate number of folks who are there for the wrong reasons or should not be there?


    POINTS OF POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT IN THE MONASTIC INSTITUTION – No. II -: Have traditional monasteries become egregiously loaded down with superstition, hocus-pocus and folk beliefs, worship of bizarre or hyper-exaggerated images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas added on as Buddhism evolved through the centuries, coupled with quasi-magical rituals and arcane Sino-Japanese cultural customs which are not necessary and which need a real cleaning out?


    POINTS OF POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT IN THE MONASTIC INSTITUTION – No. III -: Does the system of Buddhist monasteries embody both the POSITIVE and NEGATIVE aspects of an economic “Guild”? Instead of serving primarily as places of good spiritual practice, or for the training of truly enlightened and gifted priests and teacher “apprentices”, can the dominant purpose of the monastery as an institution come to be maintenance of the economic position or monopoly, territory, brand name and image exclusivity of the sponsoring religious sect?


    and more along such lines. 🙂

    Gassho, Jundo

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  6. Hi,

    I was just looking back at my opening comment …

    I often feel that monastic practice is so “yesterday” … so “13th Century. It’s true, and in some very important ways, it may be time to knock down the monasteries, throwing their cloistered inhabitants into the streets! **
    … and noticed that I left out the ** part, because some folks have taken these words literally in the past, thinking that I am advocating a literal taking of torches to monasteries and defrocking of their inhabitants! That post should have included …


    As well, it is important to emphasize that the monastic path is the Right Path for so many, and the Traditional Path. It is a wonderful Path, rich with teachings and rewards only available within monastery walls. However, it is simply not the exclusive Path of Training, Cultivation and Practice up the Non-Mountain Mountain, nor the Right or Best Path for all. Other Paths, if walked with Wisdom and Compassion, offer their own Teachings and Rewards (many of which perhaps unavailable within the walls). Nor was monastic life and training in the past, any more than now, likely and necessarily what the idealized Buddhist stories would make it to have been. We tend to emphasize the good … overlook or cover the weaknesses.

    Gassho, Jundo

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  8. Jiryu; It almost seems (there being a nice, structured version of the Brahmajala in the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon) as though most of what the original text forbade, the Chinese and Japanese openly adopted as the list really IS quite long and would have, over centuries, produced quite a different taste for Zen as a whole. For instance; Gotama the recluse holds aloof from…
    DN.13.16: using eye-ointments, garlands, rouge, cosmetics, bracelets and necklaces (skip a bit up to;) turbans, diadems, “whisks of the yaks tail” and Long fringed white robes-Gotama the recluse holds aloof from such means of adorning and beautifying the person.
    Also abstains from; Counting with (or without) using the fingers, summing up large totals, arranging or officiating a wedding, accepting cultivated fields, buying or selling, games on boards…etc. Its the basic outline for the patimokkha, elaborating the 10 precepts. I don’t see a good reason why monastacism of the Buddhas time is on the decline in almost every country, impacting almost every tradition when there survives the pretext for a monastic sangha, even a bhikkhu sangha (anyone can be a monk, not everyone can be a bhikkhu). Zen has become, it seems, a conglomerate of laypeople, some less “lay” than others with layers of formal robes, even going so far as to ritualize even the most insignificant aspects of life. Some people argue that the Dharma naturally evolves with whatever culture its entering into, but I don’t quite buy into that. I believe we may fool ourselves into this pattern of thought, believing it ok to change the doctrine, a decision conditioned by our resistance to renouncing our unnecessary attachments, but what we have changed (and possibly lost) is the true method of liberating the mind strictly because we change over and over what the Buddha taught us about his liberation which is what we use as a template for our liberation. One of the most striking things to me now, for example, is the emphasis in Buddhism on Liberation and understanding how our Aggregates function, yet in my time practicing Zen have never been taught about my Aggregates, Dependent origination, etc. Obviously I don’t believe monastacism is necessarily conducive to Enlightenment more so than the lay life, especially when we find post canonical texts like the Vimalakirti Sutra, which are so profoundly inspiring. What I’ve come to believe over time contemplating this same subject is that Zen in the West (at least) is entirely based on the precipice of the 3 Rights as being enough for the whole path (that is; Intention, Action and Livelihood) which leaves us with minor Wisdom and weak Ethical Morality. Monastacism may not be THE path to liberation, but unfortunately the Buddha did say that the Dhamma-Vinaya would succeed him as Teacher to the Sangha, meaning (or at least inferring) that the Vinaya (or discipline) is THE way to the cessation of suffering, ordained monastic or not.
    All that matters is that the Truths are apparent.
    The Path will culminate in complete cessation of suffering but one must understand the chain of dependent origination and cause a disruption in the feedback loop, ending the creation of karma here and now, and in the future. If you can do that, you dont need to be a monk, you will be an Arhat.

    • Jundo; So very well thought out, I especially enjoyed the suggested improvements on the monastic institution, but have one question.
      If there were a forum which allowed discussion with head monks and priests in any given monastery, how can we be sure that Buddhist monastacism hasn’t been changed over time by a western analysis of it? What I mean is that traditionally -lets go with Japan during the time of Dogen for this example- just to gain the opportunity to practice and come into relative contact with real teachings, a lot of people (men, back then) were forced to ordain, you could not even enter a Monastic Institution then without being a student, and one was not a student until one was ordained. However, unfolding in the west we see in many Buddhist institutions (least of all, notably Theravada) lay practitioners living with monks in temple complexes, practicing for 6-10 years before they ordain, then spending another 10-15 years before they receive transmission to teach or leave and be on ones own. I’m really wondering where this came from. I understand in the west, where specifically Orthodox Christian traditions are abundant before one enters the priesthood (as a friend of mine is doing) one must spend years learning the curriculum, years in seminary, the culmination of which is a parish of your own (at best). Is this where the west changed traditional Buddhist Monastacism? The only Institution I see open about this is the Shasta Abbey group of Monastics who take it farther than that; then there are Thich Nhat Hanhs Monasteries like Deer Park (openly practicing fully the 227 of the Vinaya) which stands alone in my mind as the only Zen lineage still in possession of the “original” 227 vows found in the Vinaya, though most monks there dont necessarily found a parish, most I’ve seen stay at their monastery as a senior teacher, or follow Thay on teaching tours around the world. Though no matter how many times I search, of all the institutions I only find lay people entering a weird stage of limbo where they are neither a Monastic nor Laity (something like an Anagarika) then entering the stage of a Novice, all the while I wonder to myself if this mode of ordination we have here is traditional in context to what Buddha Shakyamuni did himself, a product of the west influencing the east in turn influencing buddhism before it got here, or us altering it once it arrived?

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