Wednesday, July 1, 2009
I sent the following e-mail to Mark Dunagan, a church leader at the Beaverton Oregon Church of Christ, in respose to an article he wrote about Zen Buddhism that his congregation uses to study from. Brad Warner had posted a link to the article in his blog yesterday, saying someone had sent it to him. He called it a "funny" article; I laughed a bit too, but also felt it missed the mark so badly that it was worth a shot to write the author with my concerns. Here's the letter.
Dear Mr. Dungan,
I have been a zen practitioner for nearly a decade now. I came across
your article about Zen Buddhism in a post on the blog for zen teacher
It is definitely your right to believe what you wish, including to
elevate your spiritual tradition above others. However, you have no
idea what the living tradition of zen looks like, and your article
spreads falsehoods about our beliefs and how we live as zen
Most of your sources are from writers during early days of zen in the
West - people like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts - who placed a great deal
of emphasis on the inherent emptiness (or lack of unchanging qualities)
that accompany our lives. This is only part of the story.
We are not nihilistic, nor do we "lack morals" as you suggest. Buddhism
has throughout it's history had a strong set of moral/ethical
guidelines called the precepts. Again, those early writers rarely
talked about the precepts because they were appealing to Westerners who
didn't like Christianity anymore, and who wanted to step away from the
moral grounding of many Christian institutions. I'm not interested in
defending their reasons for running away from Christianity, nor do I
care to debate whether they were right or wrong.
"Soikie-an stated: "Though all day long you are speaking, raising your
eyebrows, standing, sitting, walking and lying, nevertheless in reality
nothing has happened". If this is true, then there never has been any crime or any
good deeds. We have accomplished absolutely nothing. If nothing has
really happened, then Zen would have to deny all human suffering, every
crime, every war, the holocaust, and so on. What possible comfort does
Zen have to offer to the person who has just lost a loved one or has
been the victim of a terrible crime?"
Do you really believe that I, and my fellow zen Buddhists, deny human
suffering, deny war, deny the Holocaust? How could you possibly say
this and keep a straight face? We cry like everyone else. We grieve
like everyone else. We suffer, and most definitely recognize that there
is suffering, like everyone else. And we find comfort and solace in our
teachings, as you do in yours.
My basic goal in writing this letter is to ask that you actually visit
a zen temple, actually talk with living teachers and students, actually
experience who we are as people. I have no desire to convert you to my
beliefs, nor to say that your faith is wrong or lesser than mine,
because I don't believe that. But spreading lies about other religious
systems to covert people, or to tell people that they are the best,
most righteous people, is wrong. And I frankly can't imagine Jesus
telling his disciples to spread falsehoods in his name, so that people
will drop what they believe, and come to him. In the end, it's just
th me if you don't feel the tradition I follow is on par with
the tradition you follow. That's your right. But for the sake of your
church members, and out of respect for being truthful, get a better
sense of zen before writing essays to teach others about it.
Nathan G. Thompson
I had no idea if I would receive a response at all. However, I got the following e-mail fairly early this morning. Even if nothing else comes of it, it's always helpful to suspend your assumptions and keep the possibility of dialogue open.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write me. I have no desire to
misrepresent Zen Buddhism and the article was the result of researching this
faith, including talking to individual believers and reading various Zen
sources. You could help me if you gave me a list of fundamental Zen
teachings. For example:
* What would be considered to be the final authority according to Zen? Is
it objective or subjective?
* Are there any "absolutes"--that is, absolute right or wrong, or is truth
* Is there a Zen publication or book that most would consider to be an
accurate portrayal of this faith? What book, or the works of which teacher
would you recommend?
Again, thank you so much for writing.
Posted by Nathan at 12:05 PM