Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In case anybody's been looking for the Gudo Nishijima / Chodo Cross translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo and couldn't find it, or else found it for a ridiculously high price, check out the link below or click on the title of this article. The full four volume set is now available through at just $23.99 per volume.

This is the best, most reliable English translation of the complete Shobogenzo that ever has been or ever will be produced. I've sat down with the Japanese version and this translation open to the same passage a great number of times and it's like someone gave you magic glasses that enabled you to read exactly what the original Japanese text says in crystal clear English. You cannot do this with any other edition.

It's great to see this available once again. Buy a set or be a loser!

Thursday, May 11, 2006


In the span of one week I was called a "Hollywood assclown" by some guy posting on an Ultraman forum who thinks he could do my job way better than I'm doing it and a "blind donkey" by some guy who thinks I should drop Nishijima as my teacher and follow him -- oh yes, right away, Sir. In assessing these two categorizations, I tend to prefer "Hollywood assclown" simply because it's far more creative. "Blind donkey" sounds like someone trying to talk like Dogen the way white-boy Hare Krishna followers often put on fake Indian accents.

In the same week I probably received a half-dozen or more unsolicited thank you's for writing Hardcore Zen and this silly blog. Yet I can't quote any of them off the top of my head. It's funny how criticism, even when it's completely irrelevant as in these two recent cases, always seems to stick in my mind more than words of praise and encouragement. That's just the kind of person I am, I suppose.

Buddhist sutras often talk about keeping our balance in the face of both praise and blame. Some people like to suck up praise while others, like me, have a tendency to enjoy wallowing in blame. But both types of reaction are just the function of the ego. Praise and blame have equal ability to build up our false sense of selfhood. Thinking "I'm the greatest" and "I'm scum" are ultimately rooted in the same desire to define "I."

Buddhist teachers tend to caution against sucking up praise more often than they caution against wallowing in blame, I assume, mainly because most normal people get stuck on believing their own hype more often than they get stuck on believing their own bad reviews. But, unfortunately, this sometimes has the effect of making those of us who are more prone to focus on blame think that we're doing the right thing already and don't need to fix anything. This is why I'm always wary of people who say they're trying to destroy their egos. In the past, when I've followed that way of thinking, it just led to a lot of depression and despair. The ego is fueled just as much by constantly reinforcing your view that you are worthless as it is by constantly reinforcing your view that you are the coolest thing on two legs.

Neither praise nor blame can ever touch what you truly are. I am no more a Hollywood assclown or blind donkey than I am the brilliant Zen iconoclast fans of my book think I am. You're not anything your fans or your detractors say you are either. What you really are can never be put into words either of praise or of blame.

So there!

Back to the questions from St. Paul. This one is number 5 on their list and it goes like this:

How should we “embrace and sustain forms and ceremonies” when it comes to monastic liturgical practices that may present obstacles for many western students?

I'm curious as to why the words "embrace and sustain forms and ceremonies" are in quotes. Did someone tell them in the past that they should do this? Maybe so. I don't know.

I find that there are people who have a very, very hard time with the ceremonial stuff and there are people who love it to death. I tend to be one of those who has a hard time with it. But after pursuing Zen practice for a number of years, I've begun to see that it really does have value.

On the one hand, there's nothing magical about the chants and bows we do or the costumes Zen guys sometimes wear. This is true, of course, for all such customs, although plenty of people out there will tell you that their costumes, chants and rituals really are magic. And if you wanna believe that, go right on ahead. I don't.

But there are other reasons to wear costumes, do chanting and bow to statues. A couple weeks ago I performed a wedding ceremony for my friends Emily and Doug. You could say a wedding ceremony is a kind of useless thing. In the Sixties and Seventies it was really trendy to dispense with weddings, thinking that if two people loved each other, there was no need to formalize it with some silly ritual. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Lately, though, people have gone back to having weddings because they can see that there really is something powerful about making a formal public declaration in a very ritualized way.

I was really against taking the formal Buddhist precepts because I felt like the ceremonial aspect was all a big load of horse crap. Either I was gonna follow the Buddhist vows or I wasn't. It didn't matter if I made some ritual declaration of my intention to do so in public. But Nishijima talked me into doing it, so I did. And to my great surprise, it really did make a difference. I feel a kind of obligation now to uphold those vows much more strongly than I ever did before.

When I do my talks on Buddhism, I like to start and end with a short chant. The opening one is called the "Verse to Open the Sutras" and it basically says, "We're so lucky to get to hear this Buddhist teaching, let's pay attention." The closing chant is called "Extending Merit to All Beings" and says we give whatever merit we got from listening to this good stuff to all the beings in the universe. Awwwww. How sweet!

For a while I dropped the chanting cuz it felt very ritualized and fakey. But when I did so, the stuff I said in lectures didn't feel as important. I felt free to chat, to stray from the topic at hand, to make small talk. And that wasn't right. So I brought the chanting back. Now I still digress plenty. But I always feel an obligation to get back to the Buddhist stuff.

Nishijima's view on the rituals and funny clothes is great. "It's just a hobby" he always says. I like that attitude.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


OK, folks, here are the dates for the upcoming day-long retreats at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica. Click on the link to your right for further details.

June 17, 2006
July 15, 2006
August 19, 2006

Also, I have confirmed the dates for the annunal Dogen Sangha Zazen Retreat in English at Tokei-in Temple in Shizuoka, Japan.

September 2-4, 2006

For details click on the title of this blog entry or on the word "link" below.

If you want to know more about the Shizuoka retreat, feel free to write me at

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Getting back to the questions from the fine, friendly folks of St. Paul. Here’s a funny one. It’s number 3 for those keeping score at home.

“What is the place of common curriculum and established sequence vs. independent response to an individual student’s development in your approach to priest training?”

Say what, now? I mean, I know where this question comes from. But it’s not the kind of thing I’ve ever really had to deal with.

Most people’s model for how one becomes a religious authority of some kind is that they go to a seminary or what-have-you and they study all the approved books and put in the required hours of whatever training is demanded by the organization. After that they graduate and get some kind of official documentation by which the governing body of that organization officially sanctions them to lead a congregation of their own under the in the name of the organization. That’s pretty much the contemporary Western model for how it’s done.

Nowadays more-or-less this same model exists in Japan and, I assume, in other Buddhist countries. One of the ways one can become a Zen Master in the Soto School is to enter one of the training temples officially approved by Soto-shu, the governing body which officially approves such things. You follow their curriculum, jump through the appropriate hoops and at the end you get your certification.

But there’s also another way to do it. See, everyone who goes through this process then has the authority to choose his or her own successors. Those successors do not necessarily have to follow the same curriculum if the teacher does not deem it necessary. When a person becomes a Zen Master that way, he (or she, but since I’m basically talking about myself we’ll skip that from here on) may or may not end up on the official Soto-shu registry of teachers. Whether that actually matters or not is up to the Zen Master himself to decide.

I can understand why that system sounds totally whack-o to a lot of people. I mean, just imagine if your local parish priest could make anyone he wanted into an archbishop. The chaos! The outrage! Yet, this system seems to work pretty much OK within Zen Buddhism. Yeah, a few nutjobs have managed to get Dharma Transmission. But then again look what’s happened in some other religious organizations that have a more carefully administrated system. I don’t think you could say Zen is doing any worse for allowing things to flow a bit more organically.

The folks in St. Paul, like Buddhists all over the country, are concerned about the future of American Buddhism. They want to set up standards so that anyone who wears the robes and calls himself a Buddhist priest can be counted upon to have mastered a specific body of teachings and to have trained in a particular way which will insure that he maintains the spirit of those teachings. Oh, but if it were only that easy…

The problem is that no matter how carefully you set up your standards somebody’s gonna louse it up by being a complete dickhead. And even if that doesn’t happen, there are as many ways to interpret whatever standards you set up as there are people who read those standards. So you’re never gonna satisfy everyone no matter how hard you try. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try. You just have to know that from the outset.

But to get back to the question, if you want to know how I’d deal with it, I’m just not that into the whole curriculum thing. I mean, I could sit down and come up with a list of must-read books and maybe another list of things you gotta have done before you get a set of robes. But I’m just not really interested in setting up things like that. Besides, that isn’t how I did it anyway. So I’d feel a little fakey about the whole thing. And I’m not gonna require students to have played bass in punk rock bands, and to have worn rubber dinosaur costumes in bad Japanese movies before they get their robes.

But as for more standard type curriculums, I mean, look, I think Sobogenzo is a wonderful book. But, frankly, there are people I know who’ve read Shobogenzo a dozen times and still can’t come close to embodying anything even remotely like its teachings, while there are people I know who’ve never even heard of the damned thing and who are far better human beings than a lot of those who’ve studied it to death. There are folks who have practiced and sweated and struggled through approved courses of Buddhist training who I would not want to spend so much as an afternoon with because they’re so completely obnoxious (most trained Buddhist clerics are exceptionally nice people, I’m just citing the exceptions to make my point). I can’t imagine any curriculum I could come up with would do any better to insure that absolutely anyone and everyone who followed it became a decent human being.

Another big problem is that once you’ve set up such a curriculum you’re saying, in effect, “Do this stuff and when you’re done I’ll reward you with some robes and you can call yourself my successor.” Otherwise why would anyone waste years of their lives following such a thing? I can’t see myself sanctioning some obnoxious butthead simply because he passed through a specific curriculum of study and training.

The only way I would ever make someone my successor would be by spending a lot of time with that person over a period of many years making absolutely certain that person was sincere and dedicated and not likely to become a total asshole as soon as I turned my back. So I guess that means that I’m only interested in “independent response to an individual student’s development” and not at all in whether that person has passed through a specific curriculum even if I was the one who designed it.