Thursday, March 28, 2013

Zen but not Buddhist

Don't worry - I'm not jumping ship, just letting my mind wander.

As time passes, I seem to have been shedding one thing after another - old habits, language, values, beliefs (see, e.g. Prayer Pruning: Goodbye Jesus?) like articles of clothing along the dock on the way to a dive into the lake.

I wrote elsewhere (Buddhist Blasphemy?) that I call myself a Zen Buddhist because the label seems to be the best description of what I seem to be. And then, because I'm a Zen Buddhist, I do Zen things, like put on a black robe and do zazen on a zafu on a zabuton in a zendo, chant the four Bodhisattva Vows and pay attention to the abbot.

Ever with an eye for a simpler way, it seemed logical to wonder about extracting from Buddhism some kind of 'pure' Zen - in words attributed to Bodhidharma:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one's] mind,
It lets one see into [one's own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.

(I was tempted to replace the last four words with "..." because of the B word.)

It's not that everything Zen has to be as wordless as the Buddha's holding up a flower evoking a smile from Mahākāśyapa, but I admit to ducking for cover when I encounter language like:

This teaching of causality is not that of universal mutual co-arising and non-temporal causality developed later (as, for example, in the Hua-yen tradition), but the temporal, twelvefold chain of dependent arising as discovered by the Buddha during his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and classically expressed in the Mahāvagga…. Dhātu-vāda is antithetical to Buddhism, since it is the very teaching that Śākyamuni intended to deny. (Paul L. Swanson "Zen is not Buddhism": Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature)

But I'm not convinced that bare bones ‘pure’ Zen as a method of transmission can stand on its own.

The law of entropy says that over time, things naturally dissipate, decay, scatter, become diluted, disorganized, out of focus, forgotten. The principle seems to have wide application: a drop of ink in water, galaxies, civilizations, memories, my desk.

Energy and direction are required to counteract entropy. This opposing force also takes many forms: biological growth and healing, cultivating relationships, repair and cleaning, spiritual practice.

So if Zen is a blooming awareness, how best help the flower unfold and propagate, and at the same time, counteract the natural tendency of awareness to become a fading memory, soon easily confused with a clever facsimile constructed entirely of thoughts?

The Buddhism component, with its priesthood, ordination, teishos, sanzen and dharma transmission, is a ready-made machine for nurturing, refining, and passing on awareness, with the added benefit of quality control to ensure that the end product is the real McCoy.

Granted, the gadget is of very old construction – some parts seem unnecessary and overly ornate, but modernizing it has mostly been rather conservative – I suspect, at least partly, because of the priceless nature of the human raw materials and the onerous responsibility for their transformation. It works, and if it ain’t broke…

Nevertheless, those inclined to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ may be turned away from the Zen by a perceived irrelevance of the Buddhism.

Domyo Burk covers this nicely in her post Zen and Religion at Sweeping Zen:

When someone describes themselves as “spiritual but not religious” they usually mean that they pay attention to aspects of life beyond their immediate and personal physical, emotional and mental concerns – like universal truths, morality, or the existence of God – but they do not identify with an established tradition, set of beliefs, or institution. If we use this popular understanding of religion, we might use the term “Zen practice” to refer to the Zen teachings and practices that address our relationship to ultimate reality, and the term “Zen Buddhism” to refer to the set of traditions, resources and institutions that people have created to support and convey those teachings and practices. Zen Buddhism includes writings, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, religious objects, clergy, institutions and – most of all – many groups of people, now and over the course of the last thousand years, consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together.


I hope non-religious folks can find a way to practice Zen, because I believe that in its essence Zen is about training to master the art of living a human life. I want people to have access to that training even if they aren’t interested in religion, or if they follow a different religion. I see this training as a wonderful opportunity to take full advantage of having a human life, but even more I see it as a fundamental human responsibility. Should we not work to master the art of our human life as we would work to master a skill, a trade, or another kind of art? Should we not diligently train ourselves throughout our lives toward greater wisdom, compassion and facility with using this tool of a human body-mind?

The value of “many groups of people … consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together” is echoed by James Ford Roshi in his Huffington Post article (well worth reading in its entirety) How to Be Spiritual But Not Religious in a Way That Actually Helps:

There's something really important about people on a spiritual path coming together regularly with others. …

We desperately need others, if we hope to grow spiritually.

The human ego is not a pretty thing to behold in isolation. We need each other. We need our rough edges bumped against, and worn down a little.

And little does this as well as throwing one's self into a spiritual community.

It's easy, and exciting, to envision an evolving Zen Buddhism that can be embraced by a wider and wider sangha without losing its edge. Surely it's happening as we speak.

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX "Ensō (円相)" (Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Practicing Buddhism is about keeping the Precepts as well as meditating. Without the Precepts how can we practice?
    In Gassho,

    1. Hi Herb, thanks for stopping by. I agree that the Precepts and Buddhism are rolled up together, which raises an interesting question - can one keep the Precepts without being "Buddhist" - e.g. might they be a natural outgrowth of Zen practice?

  2. Fascinating post... I could never *really* be a Buddhist, or a "Zennist" :) in the religious sense of the word; or the practical sense either - keeping the precepts, and doing the "training." I think I am more enamored with the *idea* of Zen Buddhism, not the reality of its practices. I love Buddhist Wisdom teachings in general, but can't embrace that reality as my way, as there doesn't seem to be a place for mystics: those who believe there *is* a cosmic animating intelligence behind life, from which we are not separate...

    I also popped over and read your link to Prayer Pruning: Goodbye Jesus? I can certainly relate to that experience! I had a crisis of faith back in 1987, leaving the religion of my childhood (Christianity), and have been meandering ever since. :) Accepting that as my "path" - as convoluted as that may seem. :) Now extricating myself from *contemporary* neo-advaita teachings as they really messed with my head... But maybe that is what they were supposed to do! lol

    1. Thanks Christine. I'm not so sure that there isn't a place for mystics - for example, Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest is also a practicing Zen master (see e.g. Ignatius Insight). Since Zen doesn't propound any set of beliefs, I don't see any conflict with a belief in the intelligence (or not) of the universe. It's a great place to meander either way!

    2. Thanks for that information! My ignorance is showing :) You're right, Zen is a great place to meander :)

  3. Love this post David, my thoughts went to pure zen is like the taking part (or, at least trying to take), with the nurturing the bloom as the giving part, respecting part. Feeling a bit guilty as like so many of us, we take so from it, but do little to nurture it. With Zen Buddhism being like an antique bowl, touched by so many (thankfully) producing a patina that if you start to wash, you inevitably mess it up - honour its ancestry, nurture its bloom. Feeling it's time care for that which has nurtured me. David, I think you're right, it is happening as you speak.

    1. Thank you Susan. Nice analogy about the patina being spoiled by washing, no matter how well-intentioned it is. Nurturing doesn't always mean trying to change something for the better. I think we nurture just by acting with sincerity and kindness and hopefully a little wisdom to see when we might be causing damage in the process.

    2. Yes, so very true - make way for new growth. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, David.
      I hope you're enjoying the blossoms - cold and snowy here today, missing the west-coast.

    3. Yes, I'm afraid it's mild and blossomy here :)

  4. it has evolved, simply by your post.


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