Friday, June 22, 2007

ZAZEN BY ALONE (Part A Million)

OK. Today I was trying to answer some of the e-mail people keep sending me. As I’ve said before, I read everything. But I’m usually so swamped with “real job” stuff that it’s nigh on impossible to answer even a fraction of what I get.

The following e-mail expresses some things that I get asked a lot. So maybe if I answer this it’ll be relevant to a number of people out there with similar questions:

“I wonder if the following could be a subject for one of your posts. I’ve done zen meditation for 2 years now. I started joining a soto-shanga in Amsterdam for 6 months. I don't regret it. They taught me how to sit, how to breathe and meditating in a group can be really uplifting. But there were a few things I didn't like: the sutra-chanting, the bowing for the buddha-statue and the 'responsible monk' had kinda authoritarian habits. For example, he didn't like my questions, though I found them quite innocent. When I asked him why wearing a kesa was so important for him, he gave me a long, deep glance and stated: "My kesa is the cosmos." And when I asked him what 25 years of zen exactly brought him, he gave me an even deeper, not to say furious glance, and said solemn: "The essence". I couldn't help laughing, and he didn't like it. So I left his sangha and started to sit by myself, at home.

“Now a lot of zennies try to convince me that sitting on your own is impossible. I can never do it without a good teacher, they say. Now I would like to have one, but I can't find him. My meditation is slowly getting better and deeper. I might not be a perfect zen-BUDDHIST, but my wife, who is Japanese, always says: "You western people confuse the paraphernalia of eastern wisdom with eastern wisdom itself. Forget about the kesas, the statues and the sutras." I try to avoid evil and try to practice good. Already for years I’ve tried to solve the lines from the Heart-sutra 'form is emptiness and emptiness is form'. My question is: is my zen worse than 'sangha-zen'? Isn't it better to avoid crap teachers and stick to the classics zen literature and face the challenge at home? And: do I have to be a convinced zen-buddhist to practice pure zen? I wonder I you one day could elaborate on this. If not: already your writings are a source of inspiration and encouragement to me. Thanks a lot.”

And thank you for asking!

I’ve just come back from the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and it’s got me thinking a lot along these lines. SFZC is probably a bit like the place you attended — a large, professionally run Zen center with an established physical space and a permanent staff. The staff at SFZC rotates, as do the staff of most similar centers, but the positions are filled at all times. In order to keep a place like that going you have to establish it more or less the same way you run a business. There has to be a hierarchy within the organization, there have to be policies, there needs to be a set curriculum for students and established rules and rituals for members to follow. Otherwise the whole thing goes to Hell.

When most people think of Zen, they think of places like this, whether they know it or not. The great monasteries of China and Japan both ancient and modern were and are all run pretty much the same way.

This is one stream of Zen. I’d say it’s probably the main one, the one you’re most likely to run into if you Google the words Zen and the name of your home town and head off to the first place that pops up on the screen.

I happen to have studied in a different style. The two teachers I had were from lines under the overall umbrella of the Soto school. But both of these lines rebelled against the way the Soto school as an organization ran things. The Soto school, to their credit, allows and even to some extent encourages this.

Since Buddhist teachers tend to call themselves “priests” and/or “monks,” most people tend to assume things are run pretty much like the Holy Roman Catholic Church runs things. But that’s not really the case. I could write a book about this — and I am kinda/sorta doing that — but this is s’posta be a casual blog entry so I won’t go into it much more than that.

I cannot say across the board whether the institutional type way of running things is better or worse that the very loose way things were handled by my teachers (and by my teachers’ teachers too). It’s up to the individual to see what works for him or her. I can say most definitely that I would not have pursued this Zen thing as long as I did if the only forms available were the institutional ones. Not a chance in Hell. Some representatives of the institutional stream might think that’d have been a good thing. Let 'em think whatever they want.

However, I am glad those Zen institutions exist and I often encourage people who write me in far away places to go to them. I do not know first-hand whether or not the particular teachers in any of these institutions are good, bad or indifferent. Some people, like Mr. “I Found The Essence” you talked to take themselves waaaaaaayyyyyyyy too seriously. Some are far too concerned with matters of protocol, ritual and who’s higher than who in the pecking order and all that nonsense. Some don’t give a shit about any of that stuff but allow a certain amount of it to go on in their places just so everything keeps running smoothly. You don’t know until you spend some time with them. It's not something you can usually judge very quickly.

If the only places to practice in your neighborhood seem like big ol’ monk factories and you hate that, I’d say go there anyway. Sit with your hate. Maybe it’s justified. Just sit with it. Maybe your impressions are completely wrong. Don’t matter. Just sit. If the place is really a snake pit, you'll probably figure it out soon enough and you can leave. Or maybe you'll be one of those idiots who follows the cult leader to the Kool Aid® tray, in which case I can't really help you. I tend to suspect that those types don't read my stuff anyway (or else they do read it and leave snippy comments).

I am a firm believer that the right teacher will always appear eventually. Sometimes it takes a while. Just keep at it. If you have a decent bullshit detector installed in your head you probably won’t get led too far astray. Just pay attention. Ask questions. Don’t accept easy answers. Don’t be a sheep following the herd. Don't drink the Kool Aid®.

Also don’t get any fantasies that if only you could come sit with me — or some other teacher whose stuff you’ve read — everything would be just peachy. My dad met someone on-line recently who was a huge fan of my books. My dad said he was nervous about meeting this person face to face because she might expect him to be just like me. I said, “Dad, even I am not just like ‘me’ when people meet me in person!” The same goes for absolutely anyone else. If you could get in your time machine and go meet Dogen or Nagarjuna or even Buddha himself I bet you dollars to donuts you’d be tremendously disappointed in them. And I can guarantee you’d be disappointed in me!

It’s OK to keep sitting on your own and it’s OK to be skeptical of the various teachers you encounter. It’s true that you do need a teacher. But you don’t need to be in a big, huge rush to find your teacher. If you really know how to listen everyone and everything becomes your perfect teacher.


Anonymous said...

Great post. And to the asker, I would also say: count your blessings! I would love to have your soto-zen center here (somewhere in the Netherlands as well). If you want to experience really awful zen, just come here (sorry, I am not saying where to protect the well meaning people). "My" zen center is also part of a large organization, but it seems the teacher does not get "it" at all. She does not think I should bother trying to do even a half lotus posture. When we are done "meditating" she asks "how did that feel?" and the correct answer seems to be that it felt really great.

What is wrong with bowing for a buddha statue? What answer would have satisfied you, instead of "the essence"? Don't you think laughing when someone (not just someone, but your teacher) talks about what is really important to them is disrespectful?

Whatever organization you join, it will never be perfect the way you envisioned it. There will always be something that bothers you. Isn't that one of the points Brad stresses: that it is a mistake to think "if only...." and then everything would be great.

Mysterion said...

When I asked him why... kesa... he... stated: "My kesa is the cosmos."

Don't be too hard on the guy...

Toshi kurenu
Kasa kite waraji
Hakinagara -- Basho Matsuo

Another year is gone;
and I still wear
straw hat and straw sandal.

...I asked him what 25 years of zen exactly brought him, he... said solemn[ly]: "The essence".

Read about essence hare (not my writing)

Best regards,

Jared said...

Well MY kesa is the cosmos times infinity! In fact, I ride my kesa to work and use it as a napkin at lunch. What can YOUR kesa do?

Offending society since 1988

Jules said...

I use-a my kesa to open da locksa.

Vince/Sillynun said...

First and foremost, Was lovely meeting you and hearing from you here in SF this time.

I loved your answer to this guy. It's probably the same one I would give him, except I would add to allow yourself to change as well.

I sat for 9 years alone, or with a few guides and friends, and a ton of reading. IF you had told me at any time in that process that I would find myself practicing at SFZC and appreciating all the bowing, sutra chanting, bell ringing, robe wearing stuff, I would have told you you were crazy. (actually I did tell a few folks who suggested it they were crazy). But here I sit, now 3 years of joining the sangha and I really do see the place for all of it. The time alone, and the time in sangha, the bowing to the statues, and the sutra chanting, and the silence. It's all good by me, for me, and with me. At least at this moment.

Be well, and Again, nice to meet you.

Jared said...

>>>"I use-a my kesa to open da locksa."

If Jar Jar Binks was a Buddhist, I would hope he would be the kind that set themselves on fire...

Imperatrix said...

Smokin' post, smokin' reply.

Jinzang said...

When I became a Kagyu Buddhist I did so with the attitude that there's stuff here that I find strange and hard to understand, but I'll do it, because that's the way my teacher practiced and since it worked for him, it will probably work for me. And Tibetan Buddhism has way more strange stuff than Zen.

Plenty of people want to practice Buddhism, but are only willing to do it on their terms. Sorry, but you have to practice it on your teacher's terms. That's what having a teacher means. Obviously not every teacher is a good match for every student and I don't begrudge anyone's atempt to find a teacher that suits them. But if you're unwilling to give, even a little, when faced with new and unfamiliar ideas, then you definitely will wind up practicing Zen on your own.

muddy elephant said...

So if you don't ever have a "real" teacher and only learn from books--so what?

No big deal.

I think a lot of people are better off doing just that, anyways.

But although the Buddha had many teachers along the way, eventually at some point he said "screw all y'all--I'm going my own way."

I'm very skeptical of teachers in general as I think the writer of the e-mail to Brad is. The only obection I have is that Brad, jinzang, and others seem to want to plant the "must have teacher" seed in our heads (despite Brad's warning not to rush the process).

I think this is lazy b.s. dogma. The actuality of the situation of not having a teacher will eventually resolve itself own its own terms, and in its own time, not because of some prevailing concept such as Buddhism.

salvador dali parton said...

whenever i see the word "if" it makes me think
of the poem by kipling...well in this case i think more of a saying i heard somewhere:

*IF* the dog hadn't-a stopped t'shit
the fox WUDDN'T-A got away.

*IF* only i haddn't smoked all that meth...

Anonymous said...

"If you really know how to listen, everyone and everything becomes your perfect teacher."

It's non stop 24/7, everywhere, everything and your eyes keep brimming and you can't tell if its happiness or sorrow. Everything, everything precious, present and accounted for, all part of this big bubbling LIFE GUMBO.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day when you sit in Zazen you are doing just that. It does not matter how many people are there or what the colour of the paper on the wall is or whether there are statues of Buddha or Tara or whoever or whether the room has been protected and blessed.

You are still sitting on a cushion.

If the teacher is useless (or you merely think he is) it does not really matter. It is still you and the cushion. You don't have to believe anything that he says.

When I was attending a Sangha I went to one from a tibetan tradition and it was widescreen technicolour buddhism. It wasn't my bag baby but I went there in part because it wasn't my bag and in part because the teacher (female) was hot. I liked the people even if our views were different.

Sometimes they did meditation pratices that I was not happy with and so I did not do them and just did Zazen instead. The physical position was the same only the intention was different.

There is always a catch-22 in finding a good teacher in that you often have to have done a fair bit of meditation before you can recognise them and if the teacher is exceedingly good you may not consciously recognise it but instead might just for some reason 'like' the guy.

There is no need for you to believe anything or learn anything. Sitting on the cushion is of itself sufficient for quite some time. If you can accept that then it is much easier to sit with whoever you choose.

Sometimes sitting in a group is nice.

The Sangha I chose was chosen on the very scientific grounds that I liked the 12ft high Buddha statue they had in their window - it didn't fit in the residential setting of the Sangha.

Anonymous said...

A great many of the great respected Zen "masters" of the Edo era in Japan NEVER had any teachers. Many didn't even receive inka or authorization.

It didn't stop them from practising, setting up their own sangha, and going down in the history books as some of the greatest teachers of Zen in Japan. All this stuff about "you must have a teacher" and "lineage stuff" is crap. Just sit!

yudo said...

Pretty much all the European Zen centers are in the Deshimaru school, and that means authoritarian, no zazen at home, and no questions. No surprise thus. They are divided into two rival schools, the Association Zen Internationale, and the Assotiation du Vrai Zen de Deshimaru (Deshimaru's True Zen). Just as bad one another. But what Brad says still holds. Go there, practice and shut up. They don't need to know what you think of them. There might be people there who might need you in time, if you manage to keep your critical mind.

As for the bowing and the kesa, it's just like the picture of your ol' granny (or granpa or whatever). It's a sign that you are grateful for what those people left you. The kesa is a symbol that you need little to be clothed aside from a patched robe.

Anonymous said...


A teacher is useful - not perhaps as a source of knowledge but more as a reference point "Here's one I made earlier".

A teacher may not be ESSENTIAL but for most people they can be very useful.

There are lots of tricks that you can play with your mind in meditation and some of them are very seductive and dangerous. A teacher MAY help you to avoid some traps or get you out if you fall into them.

Think of it perhaps like learning to drive. You could teach yourself but it is often safer and more sensible to have a teacher.

I have never formally had a teacher but there are people whom I have sought out in order to learn things from - mainly as reference points but not always.
Sometimes the teachers were IMHO in many ways bad teachers but there knowledge was good and I could learn from them.

Of the two people most influential people in my experience of Buddhism one never taught using words and one spewed forth Dogen that he had perhaps not fully understood. I learnt from both men and recognised the limitations of each of them.

I am currently spending some time watching Jundo Cohens Zen Movies over on I am not entirely clear why beyond the fact that I enjoy watching. I am open to the fact that I might learn something from him. I am also open to the fact that I might not.

Does that make him my teacher or me his student? No. Do I always agree that his understanding and mine are the same? No. Do I respect him? Yes. Do I want to be him? No. Do I think that he can teach? Yes. Do I think I can learn from him? Sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I've been a non residential member at SF ZC, and one way I figured it out was to hang out with those who had a sense of humor, so long as it was kind humor.

I greeted Brad by addressing him as 'Mr. Warner' (he turned around and looked behind him), then stuck my tongue out and blew him a Bronx cheer/rasperry.

It seemed a fitting way to give my best regards to someone who is an ancestor in the Punk Dharma lineage...

Warning to visitors: it is a LONG way from Santa Cruz to SF and back again. I once rode the whole thing on a bicycle.

PS If you think you want to ride a bicycle (or even a motorcycle) from Santa Cruz back up to SF, start at sunrise. Around 11 am, headwinds kick in, and by 2 am, they're so intense you will feel like you are in a wind tunnel.


If using a gasoline fueled vehicle, your gas consumption will increase accordingly.

Anonymous said...

being completely intimate with yourself
this is an area where a teacher can serve as an invaluable aide.
There are parts we just prefer kept unexamined.

finding a good teacher is like finding a good marriage/partner: you got to date them for a while, see how it goes
When you open completely, you open completely not just to yourself but to everything. Can your teacher serve as 'midwife' to this ongoing process which is never completely finished?

(It goes without saying that It is precisely because of the nature of this degree of intimacy that it is NOT a good idea for teachers to have sex with students--but I'll say it anyway because this kind of thing does occur--which is quite sad because with it comes a whole lot of confusion--

In the beginning (2-5 years?) sitting with dedicated groups is very useful and can deepen practice. But at some point, comes a time you do, you just really do need a teacher: you'll know it--
give a teacher a chance--you don't have to 'like' them, it's how working with them assists in your accessing parts of yourself from the inside.

In the end, all teachers are teaching something--they are either teaching you what to do, or what not to do. There is something to learn from both.

in appreciation to all teachers, gassho

and good luck to those looking and good fortune to those of us who have found a suitable one

yudo said...

Mikedoe writes
"A teacher is useful - not perhaps as a source of knowledge but more as a reference point "Here's one I made earlier".

As a music instrument maker, I had a VERY bad master. I still learned a lot of things from him. Not always on violin making, though. But having learned a lot of things by myself, I have had ample occasion to notice that one loses a lot of precious time doing that, rather than being able to count on the example of another, be it eventually an example that one will not follow. Being able not to repeat someone elses mistakes can be precious.

Anonymous said...

Sitting alone...well, it worked for Bankei :)

Why sit with a room full of zen schmucks who think talking like yoda makes them sound enlightened?

Misanthrope zazen ftw :)

Jinzang said...

The actuality of the situation of not having a teacher will eventually resolve itself own its own terms, and in its own time,

Sure, but it may not resolve itself in a way favorable to you or that you like. Just like the war in Iraq will eventually resolve itself, but ...

There are lots of advantages to practicing in a group and having a teacher. You don't need to start out with either. I learned how to meditate by reading Nyaponika Thera's book "The Heart of Buddhist Meditation" and for several years I practiced on my own. This was the Seventies, when you didn't see the Dalai Lama's grinning face in every bookstore, and Buddhist groups were scarce on the ground.

But practicing on your own is like trying to find your way around Tokyo without knowing the language and the without help of someone who lives there. Why pass up the help of someone who's been there before you and knows how things work?

P.S. For Brad: Brian Eno likes the Buddha Machine and ordered one in each color.

muddy elephant said...


Yes, you do have a good point.

I've always thought a good analogy was the one where a novice undertakes a spiritual journey and upon finding a piece of glass thinks it is a diamond(true wisdom). The teacher is the person who tells you that what you think is a diamond is in fact a measly piece of glass.

All in all though, as far as "authority" is concerned I remain a die hard skeptic...

Shomitsu said...

Working without a teacher is certainly possible, but harder in the long run because there isn't someone there to burst one's bubble of "enlightened thinking," and get back to now and what is.

Anonymous said...

>insert AMSCI image of calvin pissing on buddha here<

ha-ha ha.
ha ha.

hardy har-har ye sandy sand-filled vaginas!!!

-yo momma!

(whatever man, yer mom's a troll!)

Jared said...

I had a comment up, I thought, but I guess's what it said:

I think there's value in practicing alone, as well as with a teacher. I think a lot of us have this Commando Zen attitude. I know I sure do. Fuck teachers, I can do it on my own! Good ol' Gotama made it all by himself, right? Well, no...

Buddha was a brahman, a samana, and finally broke away from the practices of the ascetics 'cause he didn't want to be a meatbag. Well he WAS a meatbag, but he didn't want to be a dead one. Anyway, a lot of people then say that because Buddha didn't have a Buddhist teacher, he must have taught himself. No way! Buddha had all kinds of teachers. He would learn what he needed from them and when they had no more to teach, or when he realized that what they taught was counter-productive, he would move on. His decision to sit by himself under the Bodhi tree seems similar to the other decisions he made to leave other teachers, and its the same with us.Buddha used the breathing techniques, the meditation techniques, and the patience that he learned from his collective teachers to improve his ability to see reality. For example, certain people don't like Brad's use of "foul language". But they continue to read the blog and his books. They don't (always) let his acerbic style of writing keep them from seeing what it is that he's saying. In ways like that, I think we all choose teachings that resonate with what we really need to hear to understand reality better. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

**P.S. Even though I haven't seen him around, Gniz: I'm not assuming I know anything about Buddha's life! It's just what we seem to know from his teachings/writings. That, and we play scrabble every weekend.

Anonymous said...

Just because I don't have a teacher doesn't mean I'm not constantly being taught. I have no interest in playing the guru game, nor do I care about lineages or rituals or any of the stuff that looks extraneous to me. Hell, I'm not even searching for enlightenment, nor am I foolish enough to think one day I'll pat myself on the back and say, "Gee, I must be enlightened now".

Visits to a zendo, reading Buddhist texts, and following the debates on the Internet about what is and is not Buddhism (and who thinks they have the authority to make such judgements) have all taught me that a great many Buddhists are trying too damn hard.

Jared said...

I think we all know that it's the internet debates that really make you a Buddhist. Who needs zazen when we can quibble about the color of Brad's pubes and how that relates to Bodhidharma's beard being red...


P.S. Brad I'm sorry for bringing your pubes into this. But studies show jokes with sexual content tend to be funnier to the general public, so blame society :-)

Anatman said...

Everyone you ever meet will be your teacher if you are open to learning from them. And the teacher that you decide is full of shit may, in the end, teach you some of your most valuable lessons.

Trevor said...

"My kesa is the cosmos."

Call me crazy, but I like that...

And maybe that's why I like SFZC.

Most of the time.

So Daiho Hilbert said...

Hello Brad, As always a thoughtful and to the point answer. Thank you. As a monk school priest :) I am working toward re-inventing the roles at our urban practice center. Monks in monasteries are monks in monateries;I suspect in the US we need a whole other way. Our rituals support our practice, in my view, and our response to them act as grist for the mill of understanding ourselves. Practicing alone is good, but does nothing to teach us about the value of sangha. Moreover, Zen is not a do it as you please practice. It is a dynamic practice that is like a looking glass. We need others to act as our glass.

I hope you are well. I have thoroughly enjoyed your new book. If possibple, please consider coming back to the Zen Center of Las Cruces someday!


professor said...

Bow to a statue, bow to the toilet.

It's the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I think it's quite simple, people get what they ask for. If I ask whether I need a teacher or not I will get an answer that fits to my insecurity and doubt.

If I am really "confident" that I don't need a teacher at the moment I wouldn't ask in the first place.

I had people actively pushing me to select a teacher etc. and I admit this is not the same situation. But basically, why ask if you are only happy with one kind of answer?

Even Buddhist structures and also our dear punk friend Brad W. can only relate to their taste of the big thing and their indidivual history.
There is indeed an understanding of Buddhism as a general inquiry metaphor, but this would actually imply to avoid any rules, techniques, and structures altogether.

Good Buddhists won't claim they invented the wheel, still they will try to sell their shiny rims.
Nothing wrong with that, you just need awareness.

Mysterion said...

For your "ZEN wanna-bes" I have a challenge... open book, open group, open friends, etc...


The POINT is "cognitive equivalence."

When translating archaic Japanese to Modern Japanese (or even archaic Sanskrit, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin) one is faced with the basic question:
"Is it supposed to possess only one (correct cognitive content) meaning or is it supposed to possess many meanings?"

And THAT, I suspect is the value of your Zen Master in Japan. He went to great pains to maintain cognitive equivalence between the archaic Japanese of Dogen's Shobogenzo and that of modern Japanese.

By the way,
Primer of Soto Zen: A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki
by Reiho Masunaga

is readable... (and cheap)

Mysterion said...

Picture link is broken in previous post...

Haiku - for translation - is here:

Anonymous said...

Wow, "ZEN wanna-bes", it's good to meet people here, who really know Zen and are no "wanna-bes".

Is that the attitude of this page, too?

Mysterion said...

"There is also another issue. Choosing that which is necessary and rejecting that which is false and distressing. Each spiritual tradition differentiates between Light and Darkness. Yet, it does not mean that all spiritual traditions other than ours, the one that we cling on to, are dark. Neither does it mean that religions other than ours arise from the powers of darkness. We should rather recognise the Forces of Darkness in our own ways of thinking, emotional reactions, actions, or general attitudes, which do not correspond with the teachings."

Anonymous said...

It just feels wrong to close a comment thread with a Mysterion post.

Proposing dualistic practice on a blog of some teacher of a non-dualistic lineage is at least interesting. Because I really dig organic sun dried banana chips.

--IceBucket (yes, I decided to accept thy naming, teacher)

Zen said...

Great post - I have been mulling over similiar issues for some time. This is a valuable answer for me. Thanks Brad.

Anonymous said...

"It’s OK to keep sitting on your own and it’s OK to be skeptical of the various teachers you encounter. It’s true that you do need a teacher. But you don’t need to be in a big, huge rush to find your teacher. If you really know how to listen everyone and everything becomes your perfect teacher."

find a formal teacher if you want. sit alone if you want. we all do need a teacher - this doesn't necessarily mean a formal monk/priest/zen master, it just means that inspiring thoughts come form other places other than our own heads. basically look,learn,listen, be willing to accept new ideas. everyone and everything have the capacity to be a great teacher if you don't stick to one side of something. just what i got from the post, if it sounds like crap just remember that crap has to be interpreted as crap.