Thursday, August 18, 2011

Modern Soto Zen and Social/Political Contexts

I have had a lot of tangled thoughts about various things related to spiritual practice over the past week or so. Nothing terribly clear or even muddy, but writable has come however. Which explains the slight slow down in posts here.

Anyway, I found this, from a post our old internet curmudgeon The Zennist interesting to consider:

Modern Zen has not escaped the problem of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you check in at your local Zen center, you may not be aware that your modern Western Zen center may have thrown out something resembling the baby with the bathwater insofar as seated meditation or zazen appears to be the centerpiece. But real Zen, according to contemporary Zen master Joshu Sasaki, is not about sitting (cp. Zen Notes XX, No. 8).

Looking back to the early history of Zen it was not regarded as a school based on seated meditation. During the Sung period, a number of Zennists argued that Zen or Ch’an was a synonym for the Buddha Mind (fo-hsin). Zen has nothing to do with sitting and everything to do with realizing Buddha Mind. In fact, dhyana from which the words “ch’an” and “zen” are derived is not about sitting. Sitting is not contained the the accepted Buddhist Sanskrit definition of dhyana.

I think this post demonstrates it's own throwing out the baby with bathwater experience. Precisely, that seated meditation "has nothing" to do with Zen. I have always felt that the Zennist's critique that too much emphasis is placed on zazen in modern Zen circles has some validity. And yet, at the same time, zazen can be a powerful skillful means towards awakening Buddha Mind.

Lately, I have thinking how much social/political context plays a role in the way things are, and how the choices we make around influences from the past and present are often both indicative of the current context, but also help bring forward particular trends and patterns into the future. That's a mouthful, isn't it. Perhaps an example is in order.

Many Western Soto Zen communities seem to have brought forth an emphasis on the teachings of the founder Dogen, while placing less or no emphasis on the teachings of those who followed Dogen over the next several centuries. Dogen's teachings were, at least in part, a reaction to what he experienced in 13th Century Japan, including the perceived staleness of Buddhism as it was during those times. In some degree, I can imagine that the 20th Century Japanese teachers that brought Soto Zen to the U.S., Europe and other places felt a keen resonance with Dogen, given that many of them believed that things had gotten stale in early to mid-20th century Japanese Zen circles. Because my understanding is that there was a period of time when Dogen's teachings had virtually fallen from consideration, only to rise in importance again in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Anyway, consider if the teachings emphasized by Soto Zen communities came from a different period in Soto's history. If perhaps Dogen was considered to be important as a founder, but his teachings not terribly centralized. Maybe seated meditation takes on a different role in modern Zen circles, and perhaps even de-emphasized all together in favor of chanting or bowing or textual study or some other practice form. In great part because the teachings brought forth and emphasized come from a time of reaction against "just sitting." It's happened. Go do some reading if you don't believe me.

I actually think that The Zennist sometimes misreads Dogen as well. Because Dogen himself never said that all of practice is just seated meditation. However, there does seem to be such an emphasis amongst a fair number of convert Zen folks, enough anyway that his persistent ranting has some merit in it.


Adam said...

I also think the Zennist on the issue of Dogen is generally wrong. He tends to cherry pick quotes from Dogen to try and prove how Dogen didn't understand Zen or Buddha nature, but that doesn't work with Dogen.

I think part of it might be in Dogen's clunky writing though. I really think that sometimes, Dogen reached to far in his writing, and that his work could be interpreted in extrodinarily varying ways. Look no further than how the Zennist interprets his work vs. how someone like Ted Birringer interprets his work.

The point I'm in agreement with him is that unfortunately, Zen is too often distilled down to "just sitting", but I think that this occurs more often in the pop culture side of Buddhism, and isn't as pervasive as he makes it out to be.

Adam said...

Should be "too" far...

Petteri Sulonen said...

Not just post-Dogen, also pre-Dogen. I think a part of this impression may be due to the Internet prominence Brad Warner and many of his Dharma brothers enjoy -- it seems that Nishijima Roshi really doesn't draw from many other sources, except just maybe Nagarjuna.

Also, what Adam said.

kgrey said...

The Zennist continually re-displays his simplistic/literal misunderstanding of Dogen, which would be fine if he weren't so damn sure he knows what Dogen was saying. He ends up obsessing over a false issue he has created.

The real irony is that more often than not, from my perspective, the Zennist is making Dogen's points for him. They agree in all but the Zennist's misinterpretation of what's being pointed to.

I do enjoy some of his other posts, his attempting to sort the wheat from the chaff, and his overall emphasis on gnosis/realization.

Anonymous said...

The Zennist and Dark Zen have little to do with any sort of traditional Zen. There is an essentialist agenda there and the idea is that everything you think about Zen is wrong—which wouldn't be so bad except that the next part is, the only one who knows the right answers is—the Zennist!

Ben said...

"Sitting is not contained the the accepted Buddhist Sanskrit definition of dhyana."

This is not entirely wrong. Dhyaana refers to a specific class of phenomenal experience, generally attainable via meditation... seated or otherwise. But this,

"Furthermore, dhyana has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting. It has everything to do with abandoning our psychophysical body and the material world to which we cling so that we might behold pure Mind thus realizing that all things are illusory and unreal. There is only Mind, in other words." just idealism.

Nathan said...

Yeah, I agree with all of you concerning the Zennist's consideration of Dogen. I have read and worked with a lot of Dogen's teachings, and if anything, I'd say Adam's point about the writing being perhaps too wide open at times is more accurate. It's also the case that Dogen's focus and presentation changed over the years. And the dude wrote a hell of a lot as well, which makes it even easier to rely on him as a major source of teaching.

The point about Nishijima Roshi and his dharma heirs is interesting as well, given that a fair number of them have internet presence. I don't know Roshi's background well enough to say whether his teaching is limited in sources/influences or not.

Algernon said...

Sasaki roshi says "it isn't about sitting," and the Zennist says it "has nothing to do with sitting." The two statements are not the same and I don't think the Zennist has ever understood the difference.

If sitting is a very useful practice for realizing the Buddha mind, there is of course a danger of making something special out of sitting itself -- a kind of idolatry.

But I agree with you that throwing out sitting -- as the Zennist does in post after repetitious post going back years (I used to read "Dark Zen" and it was the same thing) -- is not only throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it suggests some very strong holding is going on.

I just remembered, however, that Zen Master Seung Sahn initially did not emphasize sitting meditation very strongly either. He was more into doing prostrations -- thousands a day back when he had a lot of physical strength. He added more intensive sitting practice at the urging of his western students, as I have been told by people who were there. For him, too, Zen was about realizing the Buddha Mind rather than attaching to one particular form of practice.

David said...

It’s important to remember that Dogen lived during a time in Japanese Buddhism when “single-practice” was the thing. Nichiren was a contemporary, who advocated a single-practice which was basically a reaction to another single-practice, Nembutsu. So, it’s little wonder that Dogen emphasized “sitting” to the extent he did. I do however think that modern readers latch on the sitting aspect, either positively or negatively, and ignore some of the other important elements of his work.

The Zennist is kind of amusing sometimes, but too often he is way off the mark and comes off as a blowhard, to me. How are you supposed to realize this pure mind if you don’t engage in some sort of meditative practice? Prostrations ain’t gonna get you there.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yah, Dogen is murky. In places anyway. And I don't think it helps that most of us are reading him in translation. The bit about how to poop was fairly easy to grasp, but the One Bright Pearl one was on the hairy side.

Still, there's surprisingly little about just sitting in Dogen, considering that that's what he's so closely associated with.

Re prostrations, I wouldn't be so sure that they wouldn't work, if you do enough of them. From what I've heard, the Tibetan ngondro practices can work extremely well for certain types of people, and they're mostly repetitive activities; as I understand, repeated 108,000 times each. That's a lotta prostrations!

In fact, I have a hunch that any activity might start to function like meditation if you repeat it enough and attempt to focus your mind wholly on it, whether you call it meditation or not.

David said...

Petteri, you may be right. I am not sure that any activity would be as effective, though. Not to say they're aren't a few that would.

And don't get me wrong, I have nothing against prostrations, as long as they're kept in moderation.

Mumon said...

Many Western Soto Zen communities seem to have brought forth an emphasis on the teachings of the founder Dogen, while placing less or no emphasis on the teachings of those who followed Dogen over the next several centuries.

Not to mention those who preceded Dogen, nor those in the Zen/Chan lineages that were profound teachers outside of Soto - the former (the predecessors of Dogen) I think is the nub of the Zennist's true animus against Dogen.

If you read the Chinese predecessors, you'd find that most of what they're talking about/doing is off the cushion, plain and simple.

Shaolin didn't become famous for tso-chan (zazen) alone. Though it helped.

I've been keeping my own blog a bit dormant, and am going to start it up a small bit, but one thing I'll point out in this late summer of mine of Zen and China and martial arts, is that the Western Buddhist blogosphere can get really provincial from time to time.

Nathan said...

Mumon, I agree with you - and even the Zennist - about the myriad of Chinese ancestors and others who came before the time of Dogen. I've been digging into Hui Neng's Platform Sutra a bit recently, and also find myself returning again and again to Shih-t'ou's few teachings as well.

David, et al - the points about prostration practice and forms always interest me. Since my own "formal" practice is fairly eclectic, mixing yoga postures and breath work with different forms of meditation, chanting, and occasionally some more rigorous bowing practice. To me, it's always been about continually facing yourself, being with what is coming up, and some kind of sustained effort. But the form of practice shifts around for me. I tend to do a lot more zazen in the fall and winter, whereas in the warmer months, the forms practice takes are more diverse.

Algernon said...

To David: Prostrations won't help at all, if they are separate from "meditation." But if you hold "meditation" separate from what you are doing just now, meditation isn't going to help either. This is sort of like the mistake I think the Zennist makes, going the other direction. He says "just realize the Buddha Mind" whatever you're doing -- but he excludes formal meditation as if it were some distraction. The inverse mistake is to exclude activities other than formal meditation. Petteri's comment makes a similar point so I won't belabor it further.

With prostrations, it has to do with what comes up while doing the activity. Full prostrations are a demanding physical activity and when done at the right pace, it can make it easier to get one's attention out of the thinking consciousness and into the body. As with seated meditation, however, objects and feelings rise in the consciousness while doing them -- especially if you are doing more than 108 of them at a time -- and thus it gives you an opportunity to practice with that. So, prostrations as meditation FTW.

Nathan said...

I would also agree about full prostrations. You think - what is this about? while doing them. And yet you find that you can't really check out or you'll fall over. You really have to pay attention because it's not long before the physical strength to just plow through disappears, and you're faced with your body and mind right there. Different from seated meditation, and kind of hard to describe - but I completely get why some folks emphasize bowing and prostrations.

David said...

I’m not saying prostrations aren’t valuable, but they are activity. I just don’t buy it as a main practice or a substitute for seated meditation. I think stillness requires more “mindfulness” or concentration or whatever you want to call it, where along with everything else you are trying to conquer you are also trying to subdue the desire for movement, which requires an increase of brain activity, which in turn is sort of the opposite of what meditation is all about.

Nathan said...


I have had some interesting conversations with "yoga folks" about meditation practice and asana (posture) practice that sound really similar. In that context, I was saying pretty much what you are saying now. That those who are just doing yoga asanas are missing the meditation piece. Some countered that point by saying that there are ways to do yoga asanas that embody meditation.

After those discussions, I felt like it might be possible. However, it's also true that it's really easy to get lost in the activity of movement.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Nathan,

Thank you for another thoughtful/non-thoughtful post.

I cannot speak for all of Nishijima Roshi's Dharma Heirs, or even for Nishijima Roshi himself, but some of us feel that Zazen is just one aspect of Buddhist Practice and all of Buddhist Practice, To wit:

When sitting seated Zazen there is only seated Zazen with no place else to go, nothing more to add, nothing lacking from that moment of sitting. A moment of Zazen is a moment of Buddha.

And when rising from the Zafu, all practice and daily life is our Practice ... bowing to chanting to changing diapers to changing a flat tire. That is why so much of Dogen's writings concerned so much beyond seated Zazen, from going to the toilet to performing various ceremonies ... all the "daily life" of the monks he was primarily writing to. In all this actions, there is no place else to go, nothing more to add, nothing lacking from that moment of sitting. Each is a Buddhist practice when pierced as such, each is "Zazen" in its wider meaning.

Anyway, that is what I feel.

Even Nishijima Roshi, no matter his great focus on seated Zazen, did not spend all of his day there ... and would bring Practice and what was into sitting, eating, chanting the Heart Sutra, translating texts or his life as a family man and working man doing the 9-to-5. All transformed, in his view, by what was encountered "on the cushion" ... but not just "on the cushion".

Gassho, Jundo

jundo cohen said...

Oh, hey, and let me add too because it was missing ... that while there is not one thing to add or take away from Zazen as sitting or all of life, no place to get to, and never anything "missing" ...

... there's a lot of sincere effort required for realizing this Practice, things to add to one's life and realization to get to ("realization" both in the meaning of "to grock" in one's bones, and "realization" in the meaning of "to make real in one's life" by how one lives).

I needed to add that about not adding, and hope folks get the point about not getting.

Gassho, Jundo