Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Will Meditation Liberate You?

The Zennist blog used to "hook me" fairly often. The guy who writes it makes decisive, unwavering statements that often cut against the tenor of nearly everything convert Buddhists are doing. Some might call him a "hater," but I think that would be missing the mark.

Having read a lot of his posts now, I have a sense of where he's coming from. Dude still surprises me, which is a good thing. And I still rarely find myself agreeing with his conclusions because they so often point us back to textual studies of the sutras as THE only way to awaken. I don't buy that, and never will. However, I think a good cage rattling is helpful from time to time, so here's one especially for the Zen folks out there:

Doing zazen (lit., sit down meditation) will not open the door to enlightenment. Only mind can do that. In fact, zazen is almost counterproductive since enlightenment is independent of whatever condition the body is in, sitting or standing. This perhaps explains why Zen master Ma-tsu said that “Not cultivation and not sitting is the Tathagata's pure meditation.”

Yikes. Zazen is "almost counterproductive." It's gets better later in the post.

While there are benefits to zazen or even the practice of hatha yoga, the benefits don’t disclose ultimate reality. But both zazen and yoga can help us cope with the stresses of the everyday world. Sitting still in a quiet place recharges our batteries so to speak. When I used to sit in zazen in an abandoned mine on my ranch (especially during the summer when it was hot outside), it seemed like more of me calmed down as compared with doing zazen in a group.

Hmm, this guy doesn't think much of sangha, does he?

And then there's the final blow so to speak:

Especially in modern Western Zen, there is still the belief, although for the most part unstated, that zazen and shikantaza are sufficient unto themselves to get us to yonder shore of nirvana. But if this were actually the case, then every time a person did zazen, the Lankavatara or the Avatamsaka Sutra would become clearer. Every Sutra would eventually make perfect sense. But this is not the case.

Interesting stuff, eh? Here's what I have to say.

First, zazen (sitting meditation) is an expedient means, and really one amongst a myriad of methods. It could be considered one the more effective practices, but it's still just that, a practice which may or may not aid you in awakening. So, in this sense, I agree with The Zennist.

Second, it's curious to me that he ties awakening (or enlightenment) to an unfolding of understanding of Buddhist scriptures. I've sometimes heard comments that fall in a similar vain when it comes to reading Dogen, or other famous and often confounding Zen masters. The longer I sit and the more I sit, the better able I will be to figure out what that old rascal Dogen said. To which I say, maybe.

And yet this whole discussion makes me think of the lines from the Diamond Sutra:

"The Tathagata is not to be recognised by the thirty-two marks because what are said to be the thirty-two marks are told by the Tathagata to be no-marks and therefore to be the thirty-two marks. Subhuti, if there be a good man or a good woman who gives away his or her lives as many as the sands of the Ganga, his or her merit thus gained does not exceed that of one who, holding even one gatha of four lines from this sutra, preaches them for others."

The question for me always comes back to how you live your life in the world WITH others. Now, certainly, one could spend their life meditating in a cave, or in an abandoned mine, and becoming more and more lucid about every last Buddhist sutra. That could bring some benefit to others. However, that vast majority of us can't, or won't, be taking that route. So, then the issue is now what?

Third, and finally, I'd like to point out that I think it's worth investigating this point from The Zennist's post:

Especially in modern Western Zen, there is still the belief, although for the most part unstated, that zazen and shikantaza are sufficient unto themselves to get us to yonder shore of nirvana.

One could ask a similar thing about the nembutsu or Amitabha chants, or even exclusively relying on Sutras, as The Zennist frequently implores us to do.

How do you view The Zennist's post? Where does liberation come from anyway? And is such a question even important in the first place?


Adam said...

Whatever it takes to end samsara, that is what will lead to nibbana. I don't think there is one Rx that works for everyone. Even when you have a room full of people sitting zazen or practicing vipassana, they are all approaching it in their own way, at their own pace.

For some, it may be that 10 years of meditation followed by 10 years of sutra study works. Maybe for others, the reverse.

Or maybe you just need to go sit out in the trees for awhile.

Or maybe you should give your life over to the service of others.

Practice. Practice. Practice. However you are able to manifest it in your life, practice. And even if you never become enlightened or reach nirvana or the pure land or whatever; so what? It doesn't make your effort meaningless. I'd rather practice to practice than practice to reach a final destination. I find value in Buddhism in and of itself, without ever having tasted enlightenment.

Mumon K said...


I kind of get where the Zennist is coming from - a little bit:

1. American/Western Zen students generally could use more cultural and historical familiarity with how Zen actually arose. The students and teachers of old spent most of their time working, and this is where practice was.

2. In the Rinzai tradition, there's Hakuin. Hakuin was big on practice in the midst of everyday life. The Zennist is at least partially Rinzai-flavored (more Chan than Zen, if I recall correctly.) If this practice stays on the cushion you might as well be in Las Vegas.

3. It's important to be familiar with what the sutras say, especially in the Rinzai/Lin Chi traditions. I don't think the Zennist actually says or means to express that "textual studies of the sutras as THE only way to awaken." Rather, he says, how the hell do you know whether or not what you're experiencing as "awakening" is in fact what Buddhists have traditionally called awakening? As I've written on my blog, the Lankavatara sutra, in fact, describes the whole "transmission beyond the scriptures" thing.

4. Liberation? Practice. Question is not important.

Nathan said...


I agree with almost everything you said. I actually find myself much more in the practice within daily life "school" than anywhere else, at least right now. Working as practice historically makes a lot of sense, given that most people didn't have the luxury to "just sit" all day. This is still true for many people around the world even today.

Your point about the Zennist and texts is fair - however, I really see him emphsizing texts above all else pretty frequently.

Adam, yes - and I still think it's most helpful to see everything as potential dharma gate - because then it's all practice.

Mumon K said...

Yeah re: work. And yeah, regarding the texts; you can get too attached to them, trying to read them the way a biblical inerrantist reads the bible.

Oh, and did I mention the Zennist's exegesis of certain passages (e.g., re: anatman) seems just plain wrong, in my reading?

But I want to give the devil his due here: There's a teacher who makes podcasts of his dharma talks; I respect him very deeply, but, as they say, even monkeys fall from trees. In one talk he's going on about mindfulness and practice "while sweeping the floor and washing vegatables," and I thought, "Dammit! He's addressing middle class and upper-middle class people and he's using monastery examples when he's not even in a monastery????"

Better to use examples from people's actual lives: being late in heavy traffic, coping with a colleague's or subordinate's failure to complete a task (or vice versa) etc.

That's where the practice is.

BTW, full disclosure: I am thinking of a blog post based on his bit on Dogen (actually the scholarly paper from which it came, but I might also go into the post-mortem mudslinging by the Zennist on that point).

All of the above notwithstanding, I do agree with him sometimes, and have derived useful information from his blog.

Question everything, eh?

Anonymous said...

-all hat no cattle
-lots of opinions no workable examples
-my way or the highway

Did he ever
-make lunch for a hungry child?
-fly an airplane?
-cause something to work well?
-prepare a meal for a sangha
-get his hands dirty in the garden of desire


See any thing he loves about his life that lives off the computer screen?


Chong Go Sunim said...

Having gone back and read his original post, I think the point he was trying to make about sutras was that they should become clearer if one is truly getting in tune with the underlying reality of things.

NellaLou said...

I've enjoyed The Zennist blog over the years. The rate of agreement with his ideas though has varied considerably. Agree with Mumon about the anatman issues. Oddly those are the posts that he seems most vehement in.

I don't think of him as a hater though. Just rather earnest at times.

It seems unlikely that someone would know what is going on meditation-wise without some framework to sort it out. And also without that,long term meditation practice could become very confusing. We've all heard about people getting confused even with a teacher-for example the Louis Nordstrom story last year in the NYTimes Magazine. He had to get some serious psychotherapy.
Enlightenment Therapy
And if one is only going to study and not practice at least get a degree or two for the effort. I don't however see many Buddhist academics who don't practice as well as being much informed by their subject matter. Some seem downright hostile to it at times-am thinking of Faure at the moment in that respect.

And anonymous makes a whole pile of assumptions based on entries in a very focussed blog. Just because someone doesn't spread out their entire life for worldly consumption doesn't mean that they have no life to spread out. It is not possible to say "Nah" to any of those questions since you don't know the answers. Your theory of what is and isn't important to the guy who writes The Zennist lacks any sort of substantial evidence and sounds like a projection of your own thinking on his life. A few statements on a blog do not encompass the whole by any means.

Ardie said...

Maybe Dogen's latter-day followers should read the words of Zen master Tsung-mi (T'ang Dynasty):

“Those who transmit Ch’an [Zen] must use the scriptures and treatises [shastra] as a standard.”

It seems to me the Zennist is trying to do this.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

The Zennist said: "Doing zazen (lit., sit down meditation) will not open the door to enlightenment. Only mind can do that."

And I agree totally. Spot on. Sitting, alone, will not get you there. No practice, undertaken for the sake of getting to Enlightenment, will, alone, get you there.

Not that there is anything wrong with sitting, I myself gain many benefits from sitting, but I know that no matter how much I sat, 24 hours a day for the rest of my life even, I'd not necessarily be any closer to Buddhahood.

It is Mind that is the most vital thing, and goes beyond techniques and teachings. It also has various names and manifestations yet cannot be described. It is through Mind that Englightenment is reached.

And the emphasis on the Sutras? Good thing. Again, studying the texts alone will not get you there, but we need signposts and they are the best we have. And their study has always been one of the main activities of Zen throughout the centuries. The Zennist, when he holds up the Sutras as a benchmark, is fully in line with the Zen tradition.

Thanks so much for pointing out another wonderful post from The Zennist, a blogger who is closest I think, in many ways, to the core traditional teachings of Zen through history and who is, rightly, dismayed at how vital parts of that teaching is being lost as it moves to the west.

Thanks again,


Algernon said...

I'm reminded of Korean Buddhism's historic rift between "meditating monks" and "sutra monks." We can be doctrinaire in the manner of our choosing, if we want.

The Zennist makes a rather non-controversial point about attachment to sitting and attachment to, say, a particular sitting position. These are blind alleys that can indeed make zazen counter-productive, at least concerning ideas like "liberation."

Occasionally, when someone mentions a post like this one, I'll go read the Zennist. I do not leave comments simply because I get no indication he is interested in dialogue or other perspectives, and that's fine with me -- it's his blog.

When I have read him, very often I wonder what his sangha experiences were, positive and/or negative.

Why live? What's our job? Is our job just to understand the sutras "correctly" and that's it? What if you understand the sutras but you're such a jerk you can't love anyone or inspire them?

Is it more important to be a "correct Buddhist" or to wake up? If it is a choice between attaining Dogen or the sutras or whatever, and simply treating all sentient being (no typo) with deep compassion, I choose the latter, and hang up Buddhism.

Anonymous said...

I like the variety of views in the comments. Plenty to chew on all around.

It seems I owe NellaLou an apology my previous post: let me try to clean up the mess I created.

Regarding my view of the Zennist post:

No not a whole pile of assumptions [as you say] but an assertion about the his points in that particular post.

I choose to make assertions about his post not an ad hominem attack on his life style or his person; and I sent him a copy. Neither am I -as you say - projecting my stuff onto him; rather I'm trying to say, perhaps poorly, what I experience as missing in his post that I value.

No not entire life disclosure [your caution] but some kind of life expression that isn't isolated arid intellectual opinionating alive on the computer screen and dead elsewhere.

Some people fly airplanes, some people write flight manuals & posts, some people read flight manuals to try to get an idea what it is like to fly.

What I want is to read and share experiences of is flying real flying - that is - meditating, real meditating, real practicing.

When I read some blog writers, for example James or Flatbed sutra i get the impression -and assert - that they live their life in some way so that their writing reflects what they live.

Their life lives in their words. They are not split in two parts: here my life in the real world, here my opinions on the computer screen.

The tragic example of Louis Nordstrom you cite is an example of a life split - split between two paradigms Dogen & Freud [or really Descartes]

I think when you split you give up your freedom to be responsible, to drive the plane to keep your life alive. Really you become a tourist in your own life doing abstract fly-overs to what is real and human.

There is a big difference between flying your life like the guy who landed the A320 in the Hudson River and saved 150+ people and the 2 NWA dudes who overflew Minneapolis because they were studying their laptops.

People decided they were not capable of flying airplanes; I think they are being retrained and re-certified; anyway I hope they get another chance to fly again.

We should learn be kind to people in our community who are so confused that they split into 2 parts that don't fit together. Splitting and Suffering live side by side.

Given the post in point of the Zennist, I dislike what he wrote; as I said all hat, no cattle; all show, no go.

In my life experience, I believe this specific road is a long, seductive and empty one for many.

We leave ourselves in one more empty bookstore looking for one more instruction manual how to get it right. It is just one more Descartes dilemma: I meditate therefore I am. Right? Isn't that right?

To honor your point about frameworks, There are days when perspective is a good thing; there are other days when action removes the doubt that no amount of [blog] theory can solve. We deserve to have and share both.

I vote for blog posts about meditation and the rest that have perspective AND some kind of ordinary life quality.

Please accept my apology NellaLou; I have no commitment to offending you or your enthusiasm for the Zennist's post. I wish there was a little human expression there.

Nathan said...


"I wish there was a little human expression there."

This, I think, is the very thing I've reacted to with the Zennist's posts in general. The guy offers something to study or consider often, but I rarely find that anything he says teaches me about daily life and how to engage it.