Thursday, April 20, 2006


I was in St. Paul, Minnesota a couple weeks ago talking at the Clouds In Water Zen Center. They invited me because their previous "guiding teacher" was a naughty boy and got caught with his robes around his ankles when he was supposed to be being all spiritual. Tsk, tsk, tsk. The folks there are looking for a replacement and are auditioning prospective candidates.

As part of the process they developed a list of questions for potential candidates and I thought I'd address some of those here cuz they're kind of interesting. I'm not taking these in order. So we'll start with question #4. It's ungodly long and goes like this:

Our founding ancestors, the Dharma pioneers who brought this practice to the United States, trained rigorously in monasteries for many years. Their practice was evident in the strength, equinity and clarity that drew us to them. The Buddha's instructions to leave behind our involvements and live in a quiet place were probably meant more literally than we like to think. We are householders, lay students with activities in the community, coming to sesshin when it fits our schedule. Are we fooling ourselves? When is lay practice really practice?

Whoever wrote this obviously needs an editor. Plus I have never heard the word “equinity” before. But my Spell Check® recognizes it, so it must be real English.

Be that as it may, my answer to the first part of the question would be; Did they really? Did those Dharma pioneers all actually spend years and years in monasteries meditating and chanting from morning to night, getting smacked and shouted at every time they breached one of the bazillion persnickety rules about how to fold your napkin, which hand to hold your incense in, how to wipe your butt and all the rest of it?

We’ve grown up with a lot of romantic Hollywood fantasies about what the lives of these great Masters must have been like before they got here. We all know it was just like the flashback scenes in the old Kung Fu TV series with David Carrdine. But is that really anything like the truth? From what I’ve seen in Japan, this style of Zen training hasn’t existed since the Meiji Restoration (1868, for those of you who ain’t studied hist’ry) — and it was probably a rarity even then. The vast majority of Zen priests in Japan today have gone through, at best, a couple months of really rigorous training, after which they were turned loose to go and tend temples of their own. When they’re not running funeral services, they can usually be found puttering around the temple or sitting in the back room watching TV. And in a great many cases, they’ve even managed to avoid the Zen boot camp stuff. I took the official initiation into the Soto sect without ever having been to Eihei-ji except as a tourist, let alone doing any kind of intensive training there. It’s not at all uncommon.

My impression of a lot of the Dharma pioneers who went overseas was not that they were trying to bring a rigorous practice to us poor heathens, but that in many cases they were among the few serious practitioners in their native land and they thought that by escaping from Japan they could found a more serious practice elsewhere. Yes, some of the guys who came over here did go through some pretty rough training. But even in those cases, it was hardly like our Hollywood-fueled notions. And, in any case, who gives a care? It's not their lives we should be worrying about, but our own.

The practice offered in Zen temples in the US is every bit as intense as most of what you can find in Japan, often more so. But a lot of what passes for "intense practice" — both here and in the Mysterious Orient — strikes me as kind of a joke. I'm not sure what anyone needs with that kind of "intensity." Far too often it's too removed from our dailiy lives to be of much practical use. What's really good about temples in America as opposed to those in Japan is that, in Zen centers in America, the opportunities for real practice are available for everyone. This is extremely rare in Japan — mainly because almost no one over there is interested.

Lay practice has been a vital part of Buddhism right from the beginning. It is more important now than ever before. I don’t really like the idea of people being “professional Buddhists.” Today’s society doesn’t have a place for that role. The means of financial support for professional monks that existed in the past are gone forever. A lot of the professional monks I’ve met were just leeches, mooching off their followers while they led a life of leisure under the guise that doing some bowing and chanting and talking a whole lot of trash once a week constituted a real gift to society. I have a lot more respect for people who actually work for a living.

When the writer of this question asks, “are we fooling ourselves,” the question is really, “shouldn’t we run away from this mundane work-a-day life into the beautiful romantic world of being a peaceful monk in a dreamy temple in the far off mountains?” If you cannot find the truth of your life right here, you will not find it anywhere else. There is no anywhere else.*

But you do need to commit to daily practice. You’re fooling yourself if you think that a week of intensive practice at a sesshin makes up for slacking off on your daily zazen for three or four months. The real practice is the practice you do each day, with no one around to force you to sit still. It’s much easier to do zazen when there’s someone standing over you with a stick in a temple than it is to forgo watching the Today Show every morning and David Letterman every night and get down to business at home.

* Those of you who were at my talk in St. Paul know that I was a lot more polite about this on stage than I am being here. That’s because I’m now far enough away that you cannot kick my ass.