Zen in the West?

For a sense of where “No Zen in the West” is coming from, take a look at its initial post and some of the first responses it elicited.  What do you say?

“This crap about no Zen in the West, where do they get off? Who do they think they are?”

Of all the foreigners in the temple, Nengo and I had the most similar backgrounds; we both had trained and were established in Zen Sanghas in the States. Arriving in Japan, though, was for both of us like starting from zero, like being out at sea with no map, and no ship. We were being treated as though we had never heard a word of the teaching or sat a minute of zazen before in our lives, and I at least was starting to feel like it might well be true. The Dharma personas we had cultivated at home were now void—Roshi-sama, his magnetic wisdom and compassion aside, just berated us on our posture, and the monks, Japanese and Western alike, either totally ignored us or offered their unsolicited, candid assessments of “Western Zen” and “Western Zen teachers” (if even indulging the existence of such categories)…  

People may think that all of my “No Zen in the West” and all of my ranting about ”spineless American Zen” with it’s ”pop-psychology and free-flowing peanut butter” add up to a Jiryu who’d basically rather be in Japan.  A Jiryu who is suspicious if not convinced that Western Buddhism has moved so fast ahead that the Buddhism part got left behind.  A Jiryu looking backwards.

By now, though, many of you have seen my book Two Shores of Zen, and hopefully it’s abundantly clear that for all of my lingering doubt and confusion, I am firmly in the Western Zen camp.  My journey to Japan, like most of our journeys, led me back to the home I left.  It uncovered a deep gratitude for our Western adaptations.  They are not failings but are genuine, wise efforts to meet and actualize a tradition that we can’t and shouldn’t try to swallow whole.  The Jiryu who returned says:  Women and men practicing together – yes!  Communication exercises – yes!  Peanut butter – yes!  And even online forums…

So why do I keep bringing it up?  Why do I keep mentioning Japan?  Why do I dwell on the austere clarity of the practice there?  Why do I keep turning over and struggling with the wrenching insults I heard (and sometimes offered) to our Western practice?  Why don’t I get over it and get on with it?  Hasn’t most everyone else in California Zen?

There are lots of reasons, and I hope that by interacting with this blog you can help me explore them.

But for now it strikes me that to lose touch with where we’ve come from is to lose touch with the fact that we are creating something completely new, completely unprecedented, in what we call “Western Dharma.”  I’m looking backwards to look forwards.  I don’t just want to “get over” monastic-style practice – I want to understand how it illuminates lay life.  I don’t want to just ”get over” hierarchy – I want to understand how to organize institutions respectfully in a truly American way.  I don’t want to just “get over” harsh training – I want to study what it really takes to soften and open a heart.

So I don’t believe that Zen hasn’t arrived, but I don’t believe that it has either.  Precisely here in this middle, we find the incredible creative energy and work of our time and place.  Let’s not get lazy and lean too far either way.  If we think we’ve landed, we’re just stuck; if we think we’ve missed, we’re just lost.

It’s to find us and to unstick us that these days I want to keep reminding us that to most of the ”Right Views” of 2,500 years worth of Buddhists, what we call Buddhism in the West is completely and utterly unrecognizable.

Stay with me here for a while, in “No Zen in the West,” and let’s let each other know how we’re thinking about authentically actualizing the Dharma, and how we’re living out this American-ness of our Zen and this sometimes subtle Zen-ness of our American lives.

Some responses:

  1. As each of us are products of our conditioned existence, then Japanese zen practitioners will experience the world differently than we in the West. Neither is right or wrong, just different. So, when I practice in the East (Vietnam), my little buttons are being pushed all the time, and they look at me like I’m from Mars when I explain the difference I experience in the West (Canada). The beauty in this is that when buttons do get pushed (mine or theirs), then there is an opportunity to explore attachment, aversion, and ignorance.

    To try and practice/be like the East goes against our conditioned nature. The Buddha taught us to question what we are being taught, to try it out, and if it doesn’t work, find another way.

    Zen does not have a culture. It is existential in that it teaches to be with what is and experiencing it completely.

  • Silvia says:

    Thank you jiryu..
    For your direct and honest expression ,
    I perceive commitment in your words to the practice of what has been transmited to you.
    I am also touched by that commitment and your ponderings make me reflect upon it and if nothing else have the question alive
    In my view there is No Zen in the West as the Zen we read in the times of Dogen and beforehand
    The question I have is the essence of what is transmitted still alive and is the dharma being turned each time we sit and practice together each time we see the teacher each time we are face to face with what is as it is….?
    I like to ponder about it and I like that you bring the question forth

  • Thank you for this discussion and your work. I will read your book before commenting in detail as I do not have much to go on but the title. My concern is that there is no Zen in the East where cathedral Zen and organizational hierarchies seem to flower. My preference is Zen that is as pure as the driven snow and as dirty as the mud beneath it. My sangha exists without a temple. We sit in the street and practice to make Zen our everyday, every moment experience.

    Be well.

  • Mako Voelkel says:

    Dear Jiryu,

    Just a week ago, on day 5 or 6 of Rohatsu sesshin at Tassajara Zenshinji, three members of the Japanese Sotoshu arrived (unannounced) to have a conversation with the presiding Abbot about the idea of a Sotoshu-run training monastery in the US for priests. One of the Japanese members was a translator who had sat sesshins at Tassajara before. One of them functioned as the note-taker. And the senior member had flown in from Japan and appeared to be traveling to the US in order to investigate the need for such a temple. The main question was one of ensuring authenticity of training and Sotoshu certification for western priests. He indicated that he himself was not convinced of the need, but had received requests from America-based Sotoshu officials.

    Anyhow, the gist of the conversation was the Sotoshu bringing up this question of necessity (and not themselves so convinced) and the Abbot and Tanto expressing their doubts as well, as well as remarking about the need for significant American-Japanese collaboration if such a training temple were to be at all useful to Western priests.

    Many questions, concerns, and assumptions were merely hinted at during this brief conversation, but not (at least in my mind) adequately conveyed or expressed. As the conversation was coming to a close I felt compelled to sayto the Sotoshu officials that as a Western Soto Zen priest living and practicing in an American Zen monastery for over seven continuous years, I would truly love and appreciate to participate in a Sotoshu-run ango, and feel that Western practitioners could greatly benefit from such an experience. This, I think, came as a surprise to both the Abbot and Tanto.

    Jiryu, I so appreciate the questions you raise in your book and in what you have written to start off your blog. I would like to be a part of this conversation as it unfolds. I would like for our western zen teachers (many of whom have eschewed the need or desire for “Japanese” training for themselves or their students) to be a part of this conversation as well. It took hundreds of years for Buddhism to become established in China and in Japan as it moved eastwards. While airline travel and the internet have expedited the process of transmission at the turn of this century, I am with you in not believing that Zen hasn’t arrived and in not believing that it has either.

    Thank you!
    Mako Voelkel
    MRFS of Tassajara

  • Mushim says:

    The best (for me) take on this topic is a talk by Victor Sogen Hori, which was the keynote speech at the 4th Vashon Island Seminar on Buddhism in August 2008, I believe. You can find more information and how to order a CD of the talk from Puget Sound Zen Center at http://news.northwestdharma.org/SeptOctIssue/vashonseminar.php .

    Prof. Hori is a former Rinzai Zen monk who trained extensively in Japan, then returned to his home country of Canada, where he teaches religion at McGill University. This talk is stimulating, informative, and incisive. It contains an interesting critique of San Francisco Zen Center. I donated the set of CDS with recording of this speech and other discussion from this seminar to SFZC’s City Center library, via their diversity coordinator, Dr. Lee Lipp.

  • Abby Cunningham says:

    The issue this discussion raises for me is “what is authentic practice?” Is it practice that is physically difficult? Mentally tough? Culturally exotic? Is it skillful or unskillful to practice in a way that is progressively more rigorous in its mental and physical demands?

    And given my own relentless cultural habit for competitive advantage seeking, how do I know when it’s time to loosen up? When my teacher says so? When my knee says so? When I end up in the hospital with a torn ACL that needs to be sewn back together?

    Like Jiryu and others have said so well already, I think that authentic practice is a practice that helps the heart and mind open. We can always ratchet up the difficulty, but do we know how to be kind, how to soften?

    Zen practice in the West has evolved exactly as it should have, otherwise it wouldn’t be this way. It would be some other way. That’s not to say that it won’t or shouldn’t continue to change, grow, expand, or contract in response to the social and cultural context in which it lives.

    However, to hear that the Japanese establishment is visiting America to explore the option of offering a Zen training center for American priests implies that 1) our practice is not suitable for the rigors of priesthood and 2) there should be a separate, certified training just for priests.

    Does that mean there is or should be a fundamental difference between lay people and priests or in the practice of these two mutually interdependent groups?

    My view is that Americans like me are already good at building elitist hierarchies—and using normative comparison—as the basis for those hierarchies.

    Which makes me wonder…will Zen practice ever be as rigorous as say the indigenous religious practices of Papua New Guinea?

    And in the end, does it really matter?

  • Renshin Bunce says:

    I just finished the three year SPOT training. I know that my friends at SFZC are familiar with it; others may have read about it in the fall 2009 issue of Buddhadharma. At the first session, Grace Schireson, one of the teachers, abbess of the Empty Nest Zendo, and a psychologist, pointed out that techniques had been developed in the last 2500 years that could aid students in self-knowledge, and that these techniques could be useful in training unsui zen priests, and that’s one of the things that they would try to do with us during SPOT. I understood that to mean that Western psychology could give us a short cut in zen training.

    After completing that course, which I’m very grateful for, I still feel that there’s nothing more useful than spending thousands of hours in seated meditation, and no place more conducive to staying on the cushion than a monastery. When I lived at Tassajara, I asked the then-tanto whether everything non-zazen we did was really just trimming to keep us occupied while zazen worked its magic on us, and he didn’t hesitate before agreeing.

    What SPOT did give us, in addition to some Western exercises in self-knowledge and working with others, was a greater sangha. SPOT was designed for unsui priests outside of Zen Center, and one of the goals was to help us find each other. As the Buddha is reputed to have said that sangha was the whole of the treasure, this is an important point.

    Jiryu, I’m so grateful for your book, which gave me an insight into Japanese training and more resolution with my gripes about Zen Center, and grateful too that you’re attempting to start a dialogue here. I will say that I heard the blog mentioned derisively in the flop room at City Center as “someone saying there’s no zen in the west.” That question mark is crucial!!!

  • Theo Mann says:

    There is an undercurrent of disbelief in the west that the experience of transcendence aimed at by Zen and other spiritual practices exists or is a real possibility for modern practitioners. In the East the prevailing belief is that this transcendence is indeed real and reachable, though an untrained mind may be to weak to manage it. The latter attitude sets a challenge that one can work to overcome and may serve to motivate the practitioner. The former attitude is pernicious doubt that can block the early experiences of transcendence that would buoy the practitioner’s hopes.

    Doubt is a twisted and inverted belief that claims to aim toward open-mindedness but in fact acts to make the doubter feel smug despite a lack of personal experience. From my experience, serious students of spiritual paths are well served to get up and out of this mindset, mentally, emotionally, and by means of a plane ticket, physically. Once one has had a few deep and moving experiences, the period of faith has been crossed, and with a steady and firm resolve, one can continue to have them back here in the west.

  • Genro says:

    this last entry is the most pointed. I am also a zen failure recently rearrived from Japan, a student of Shodo Harada Roshi.

    Zen practice and instruction in the west is lame, weak and watered down. Norman Fisher? Puhuleeze.

    Get a grip. Is it a stick, or is it not?


11 thoughts on “Zen in the West?

  1. What is west? At a certain latitude if you go west you will go to Toshima-yama, or Bishkek, Ankara, or Madrid, Philadelphia, or Denver, or Chamisal Mountain in Redwood National Park. It is the same moon. . . . As Hondo Crouch said illustrating that Luckenbach, Texas was the center of the known universe: if you start out there and continue in any direction, you will end up again in Luckenbach.

  2. I had the good fortune to spend time at a Thai Wat as a samanera, and lived as a monk for a temporary period. Is the life of waking at 430 am for chanting, eating once before noon, and barefooted alms rounds necessary for training in the West? Maybe not, but it is in my opinion a requisite for a serious practitioner. American Zen is currently being watered down and corporatized, and it is in the hands of those who have experienced Japan Zr Asia generally) to keep the flame of Zuimonki alive. I feel that in order to truly breathe fully and widely the breath of zazen, one must have sat zazen in the rarefied air of an Asian temple.

  3. Responding to a very old comment, but curious about Genro’s beef with Norman Fischer, would love to know what her/his problem is with that particular teacher. I haven’t studied with him, but have a lot of respect for his approach.

    Also, there’s a tendency to idealise ‘practice’ in far away places. I don’t personally see why it’s a necessary, except perhaps to allay one’s own delusion that there is some essential essence in Asia that makes it a better place to practice. That strikes me as spiritual materialism, plain and simple. A friend of mine spent 3 years in Sogen-ji with Harada Roshi. I won’t say it broke him, but put it this way- he no longer practices, alone or with a sangha.

    “The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading.” It even pervades as I sit here in my IKEA chair, writing on a laptop, hearing the garbage truck passing outside. No need for a shakuhachi soundtrack.

  4. Sigh. The continued debate.

    Take the Zen-based Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: It works. It’s empirical. It’s growing. Some DBT workers are as serious about it as to insist on going full Zen.

    So now the cognitive behavioral science community is looking at trying to understand the nondual approach. The beyond-cognitive. I think eventually they’ll find a way to bring that aspect under the empirical umbrella.

    At which point we’ll have an empirically-supported dharma. A portable one, not just the Brahma made portable ala Buddhism, but a wholly broader, more ecumenical creature. The fruition of the Fourth Wheel…

  5. It’s possible that dharma practice in the East can make you believe that you are a more authentic practitioner and better qualified to speak on the question of Zen, western or otherwise. You might hear dharma talks that tend in that direction if you spend any time in an Asian monastery; and if you value patriarchy in the way that our Buddhist ancestors did, you might internalise these abbatial words as Zen gospel. The tenacity and dedication that led to you to Asia might have all kinds of shadows that sitting practice may fail to dislodge: not that you’d know it, having failed to dislodge them. I myself have trouble, this decade later, with my own arrogance about having trained as a priest in a Japanese temple: it seems to lend me undeserved credibility, and I don’t always mind it. On the other hand, all temples are imperfect; all cultures are imperfect; Zen is everywhere stained – and written in inked fingers. Not, in any sense, the moon.

    • Thanks for that, Jacqueline. Something to look at closely. Even “failing” in Japan can be something to add to the ego-pile. It’s the shadow of any intense training I think – in my experience only the very most mature of the “hard trainers” can go beyond the pride in their own “hard training.” May be that in the end it’s well worth it, but it’s sort of an awful occupational hazard and can rightly make us wonder whether there’s any good at all in it.

  6. I recently came back from a long trip to Asia visiting, staying at monasteries and mountain hermitage. During a visit, a monk told me: “Because the Buddha allowed women into monastic order, he knew this would cut his Dharma transmission period short 500 years.” I told the monk. “The Buddha was a revolutionary seer, during his time women were non-persons, not even included in the caste system but mere possessions for men. He raised them to the highest level: that of a clergy, similar to men, having same ability for nirvana as men. This was revolutionary not only 2500 years ago but even now when women in most parts of the world are subservient and seen less than a man or mere possession. Even in the Buddha’s own orders till this day disregard his revolutionary act of allow women equal opportunity for liberation, such as Theravada traditions refusing to ordain women and many other traditions suppressing women’s leadership or standing in the sangha as equals. This is the reason why the Buddha Dharma will die 500 years early, by the counter reactionary forces of ignorance and sexism.”

    At these words, the monk was silent!

    I met another monk who recently came back from a speaking tour in the US. He told me: “I do not believe the Buddha Dharma can thrive or take proper roots in the West. Westerners are selling the Dharma charging money for retreats and speaking engagements.” I asked him. “When the Dharma resides within oneself, in one’s own heart, how do you know if it resides in a person or not? How can you tell?”

    He replied: “By talking, observing a person carefully for some time while living closely with them.”

    “How many Westerners have you met during your short visit there and how many did you have a chance to intimately talk with or live with to observe for some time?”

    “A few people.” He replied.

    “In a short trip you only met a few people, how then can you conclude that all Zen practicing Westerners are like them?” I replied.

    He was silent.

    Another time I met a monk who insisted that married monks in Japan goes against the Buddha’s teachings and cannot in anyway attain liberation or freedom from delusion. I asked him. “Did the Buddha Vinaya code forbid the keeping of money, only allow 3 robes and an alms bowl for monks and one meal a day?” He replied: “Yes.”

    “I guess no one but those Thai forest monks are able to attain nirvana.”

    At this, that Zen monk was silent.

    I met a Vegetarian Zen practitioner who asked me. “So now that you spent months on a Zen mountain hermitage eating only vegetarian food, are you a vegetarian now?” I replied. “No, I eat whatever is food I come across.” She said. “How can you practice meditation effectively then?” To that I replied: “The Buddha wasn’t a vegetarian or chooser of foods. He eats whatever is offered. If you are a vegetarian to become Buddha, does this mean that all cows and rabbits are Buddhas?”

    The Buddha’s Dharma or Zen as transmitted from any culture, needs to be stripped down to the bare truth without cultural bias or rituals. It needs to serve to help free the mind from hindrance of views being attached one way or another. To me Zen is about constantly questioning reality of any views until no view is held in the face of revelation of present reality. When it doesn’t meet reality, let it go. Zen haven’t arrived in the west, it never left!

  7. I met a Zen monk who insisted that solitary retreat means that you must be locked in a room for days on end not leaving it for the whole duration of the time and sit all day with only small breaks of walks around the vicinity of the room only. Outside of that austere practice, it is not a true solitary practice. I asked him: “Did the Buddha sit in a room for 49 days”
    He replied: “No.”
    “Did the Buddha locked himself in a cave?”
    He replied: “No.”
    “So how would sitting locked in a room coincide with the Buddha’s practice or what he teaches?”

    The Buddha during his time practice meditation with famous Yogis and spent 6 years in austere meditation practice. Did it help him attain nirvana? No! It was meditating in the right way and removing ignorance that helped him attain nirvana. Not the 6 years but the 49 days. Why then do people keep thinking they have to clock a lot of amount of time on the cushion to realize the Dharma?

  8. Zen is simply being in the moment. It has nothing to do w/ Japan, or even sitting in meditation on a cushion. It is not an endurance test, nor cultural. It is just being present w/ what is.

  9. It’s been a revelation for me to read that Kobun Chino Otogawa started sitting the lotus at age 7, wrestled in the lotus with his brothers, and could get in and out of the lotus without using his hands. Of course, his father was the abbot of a Zen temple in Japan.

    At the close of a sesshin I attended, Kobun said it was his third sesshin in a row, and when asked he said he didn’t experience pain in the lotus. In fact, in what I read he said he sat the lotus to stay out of pain!

    All these years I’ve carried his instruction to “take my time with the lotus” (since I heard him give that advice in the early ’70’s), and I continue to do so, and to regard the lotus as my teacher.

    My posture is not good, Zen teachers can barely keep their hands off me, when I go to sesshin (sounds like the same is true for American Zen priests who go to Japan, even if they have good posture).

    The job here in the West, as far as I’m concerned, is to understand the causality, physical and mental, behind the action of the posture and the mind, accept it and let it play out. If I sit up straight some of the time, it’s not because I’m trying to sit up straight.

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