Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What This is For

As it says off to the right there, under my glamorous picture, the opinions expressed here are for entertainment purposes. I'd just like to reinforce that, assuming anyone still checks this blog after my large hiatus.

Actually, the purpose of this blog is two-fold. One: to chronicle my experiences as a devout Buddhist in a land that doesn't understand, respect, or care about Buddhism. Two: the entertainment value of my experiences, which have a good deal of comedy about them.

A lot of people would disagree with the notion that America doesn't understand, respect, or care about Buddhism. Those people are wrong. America is TRYING to understand Buddhism; that much is clear. There are plenty of scholars and practitioners out there dedicated to comprehending this path through the lens of American culture. But the general populace does not understand. And most likely will not. They feel reasonably convinced that Buddhism is something exotic like what the Dalai Lama does, or something inscrutable and foreign, like Zen. There is no impetus for them to further their understanding. Why would they? The only time Buddhism impacts their daily lives is when it's co-opted for advertising. My own grandmother asked me once if Buddhism believes in God. I told her no and she told me I was going to hell while she'd be in heaven. She has no desire whatsoever to understand anything further about Buddhism. It doesn't worship her God so she's done. That's it. While I don't believe this is fully representative of America as a whole, I think it's a big part of it. Buddhism is not on the radar because we haven't broken the hold of divine religion yet.

As a corollary of this, America doesn't respect Buddhism. This is actually fine with me. Belief systems and philosophies don't deserve respect. They're something to DO, not something to possess and defend. But Buddhism will probably never be granted the status and protection that Christianity has, which sucks. Buddhism is most definitely a third-class religion here and it will take a long time to change that, if it's even possible.

This lack of understanding and recognition are why people here don't care about Buddhism. It's an exotic import, not a part of everyday life. It's something people in California do, which automatically makes it pretty much bullshit.

And here I am. I'd like to report all the things that occur to me as I exist in this country, state, and city as a Buddhist. Some of them are funny; some are sad; some are mean; most are pointless. That's where the entertainment value comes in. Because, rest assured: my understanding of Zen is immature. There won't be much in the way of wisdom here. What there will be is stories about how I relate to the world, and it to me, filtered through the net of my practice. I'm not trying to inspire anyone. I'm CERTAINLY not trying to teach anyone. I'm just giving you the opinion of one callow guy fascinated with Zen. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Japan vs. Korea In Full Dharma Combat!

So here's what's going on. I've been practicing Zen Buddhism in the Japanese Soto tradition for awhile now. Sure, there was that brief flirtation with the Theravada school, but that's all over now. I was attracted to it's voluptuous Vipassana curves and it's subtle Shamatha mystique. But I couldn't stay away from Zen. I was helpless against it's charms. The big stick, the black outfits, the shouted gibberish, the insane questions and staring at the wall - it all makes me sort of mentally...erect.

So I came back. And have been enjoying it ever since. More or less. Problem is, it's hard to practice something like this without any kind of support unless you're already very well-versed in the tradition. For example, Brad Warner studied under Gudo Nishijima for many years while he lived in Japan. Before that, he studied with Tim McCarthy while he attended Kent State. Brad spent a long time under the guidance of experienced teachers, and, as a result, is now considered a Zen Master himself, much to his eternal chagrin and dismay. He is perfectly capable of practicing on his own, which is how he admittedly prefers it. It's still helpful to occasionally sit with others, though, which he does during his travels around the globe teaching Zen.

I, however, have noticed a relative paucity of Soto Zen action here in Lexington, KY. There is the ubiquitous Shambhala Center, of course, which any town with more than 25 Buddhists is required to have. As I might have mentioned before, I spent my nascent Buddhist days bumbling through this labyrinthine establishment. But, since leaving it about 9 years ago, I've been on my own. I do what anyone these days does when faced with this particular situation: I read a lot of books and I study on the internets.

It's not the same, as anyone who has gone through this will tell you. While I am not much of a joiner, and generally freaked right the fuck out when any group gets large and organized, I am definitely missing out by not having a sangha. The Buddha established the community of practitioners for a reason; it's not like he was just lonely. The sangha functions as support and encouragement for those dedicated to this path. It provides a place to develop the mindset that we take out into the world. Most of us solo artists practice when we can, huddled in whatever little corner we've managed to carve out that isn't overrun with advertisements, cellphones, FaceBook and the goddamn Jersey Shore. But sometimes we need a bigger place than what we have at home. Sometimes we need to retreat a bit from the world we usually practice in with a larger group of people doing the same thing. We can focus more tightly on what we're doing and feel like we belong somewhere. I don't know about everyone else, but when people find out I'm a Buddhist they usually look at me like I'm about to whip out a tract and start preaching about Tibet and what it was like being Julius Caesar in one of my past lives. People here don't know shit about Buddhism, and America's not helping since it considers anything exotically named, bald and decked out in robes an authority on the subject. If you're a Christian in this area then you've got options. Boy fucking shit do you ever have options. There's a church every 60 feet in this town. I think there's a place two miles away that still handles rattlesnakes. Point is, there's just about any flavor of Jesus you could possibly get a hanker for.

But no Soto Zen. Not even a little. Shambhala, yes. Another Tibetan group, yes. Nichiren Buddhism, which is a bit too culty, definitely. Oh, and one Korean Zen group. Which I've dismissed for years because it's Korean, not Japanese. Missing the point of practice entirely, I was way too attached to my own ideas.

The Lexington Zen Center
meets every Wednesday night 15 minutes from my front door. They sit zazen and do walking meditation for about an hour and a half. And they have a big-ass retreat center in the Daniel Boone National Forest 40 minutes away. They offer very affordable weekend retreats plus longer programs all year long.

But I remained uninterested because I wanted to practice Soto Zen, goddammit. So much so that I contacted the abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center to see about traveling down there to study. I was preparing to drive 6 hours to another state in order to be a part of a group. I should mention at this point that I have two jobs. And a wife. I don't have the time or the finances to go traipsing off to Atlanta every month or so. I figured this out later rather than sooner.

I decided to take a closer look at the Korean place. It turns out that their guiding teacher, Dae Gak, is a well respected Zen persona. He studied with Seung Sahn for many years and received permission to teach, at which point he formed his own Zen group. Seung Sahn was a part of the Kwan Um school of Korean Zen, which, according to Brad Warner, is "totally legit." Seriously. I emailed him. I was so traumatized by the idea of being a part of something that wasn't Soto Zen that I immediately ran to Brad to get his opinion. Here is his response:

"Kwan Um is a legit school. I was just at one of their places in Kansas. They're good. They do way too much chanting. Literally an hour of chanting at some services. They also have a ritual where they do 108 prostrations. But they're totally legit in terms of Zen. Some Kwan Um teachers use koans. But they don't tend to do them the stereotypical Rinzai way where you have to demonstrate your enlightenment by getting the answer correct. They're more likely to assign you one and then discuss it with you in private meetings. I don't know Dae Gak."

Note the brevity. And it probably doesn't just stem from the fact that he gets one metric fuck-ton of emails every day. It's also partly that I was asking an asinine question. I was essentially begging him to tell me what to do. I asked him if he knew anything about Kwan Um and Dae Gak, which he answered quite succinctly. I also asked him if he thought I should practice with them, considering my options were severely limited. Notice he didn't answer that question. Do you know why? Because he can't. I'm the only one that can answer that. I'm not reading something deep out of his email. I don't think he sent me a super-secret teaching concealed within his words that led me to realize I'm the only one that can make this decision. It's much more prosaic than that. How the fuck does he know what I should do? He's a Zen Master, not a fucking fortune teller. He just left those parts out. Probably because he was in a hurry to get on to the next retarded question someone emailed him.

I decided to just shut the hell up and go. So last Wednesday I packed up all my reservations and headed out to the Lexington Zen Center. I found several very warm and welcoming people there who seemed genuinely glad to have me. I ran into an old high school buddy that I hadn't seen in 18 years who has also become a Buddhist. I sat zazen just exactly the way I do it at home. I did walking meditation the very same way I've always done it. In short, it was a great experience. Very comfortable and no pressure, which makes me want to return very much.

Not to say there wasn't a downside. Brad was correct across the board, which means there was indeed a lot of silly chanting. I've never gotten into chanting. I had to do it when I was at Karme Choling, one of Shambhala's practice centers in Vermont. I always hated it. It seemed like a total waste of time. Still does. But I know myself, and I realize that it's going to be impossible for me to find something that I love one hundred percent. There's always going to be something I disagree with, something I don't like or don't want to have to do. Nothing is going to fit my prescribed, preconceived idea of what I want my Buddhist group to be. Chanting is a small price to pay if it turns out that I truly connect with this group and find a place where I can really learn.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

So I've mentioned the blog Buddhism Sucks, and, happily, the author has returned and put up new posts. He has gained numerous new followers, who are excited that someone is critically examining Buddhism. I would imagine those same folks would enjoy reading this blog, which I like to think does the same thing. I'm sure many people would accuse me of simply ranting against that which I don't agree with, but...wait, there is no but. That's what I'm doing.

However, this isn't simply a knee-jerk response on my part. I haven't solidified in my mind exactly what I think Buddhism is, because once that happens, your mind closes and won't open again. However, I DO know what Buddhism AIN'T, and will happily combat those ideas any time they arise.

People seem to think that if you attack a staid concept, especially if you use words like "fuck" and "shit" when you do it, that you're being provocative or iconoclastic. I don't see myself, or John at Buddhism Sucks, that way. I don't see Brad Warner that way, or Noah Levine or any of the other folks that have decided to strip away the detritus and try to see Buddhism as it really is. I don't think it's rebellious or provocative to get sick of bullshit and refuse to accept it anymore. It's not like we're proposing a crazy new solution or calling for the wholesale destruction of what we oppose. We're pointing out that Buddhism, in the West specifically but also in the East, has degenerated into a rotten gumbo of of thrown-together ingredients that have little to do with the original recipe. Shunryu Suzuki, who helped establish Zen in this country, told his American students that they would have to be responsible for re-establishing Zen in Japan because it had fallen into such disrepair. A Japanese Zen monk, who had received a classic education at the hands of Japanese Zen masters in Zen monasteries in motherfucking Japan, where Zen originated, told his dumb-ass, whitebread students that they would have to fix Zen. In Japan.

And why? Because Zen in Japan had turned into a worthless pile of shit. Parents sent their sons to monasteries so they would emerge a few years later as Zen priests. Then they could eventually take over as head of a temple, which came with a lot of respect, not to mention cash, land and tons of other goodies. While these inchoate priests were in training, they were required to sit zazen, which is the only thing in Zen that really matters. But once they graduated and moved on to a temple of their own, they usually didn't do it anymore. They became funeral directors, marriage officiators, and local politicians. They abandoned zazen because no one was forcing them to do it anymore, and, frankly, that shit is kinda boring and weak anyway. It's like a Marine going through boot camp, and then deciding that everything he did there wasn't really important to being a Marine after all. He didn't need to keep doing push ups and sit ups and daily runs and weapons training anymore because he'd already done it. Now it's over. You do all that stuff to BECOME a Marine, not to STAY a Marine.

Of course, that's ridiculous. Staying fit and strong and being able to shoot straight are all central to being a Marine. And zazen is central to the practice of Zen. But Japan had lost touch with that and Suzuki thought his Western students could help with this problem because they were so enthusiastic about zazen.

But that was the 60s. Since then, Buddhism has become exotic but mainstream, foreign but comforting, abstruse but simple. Everyone thinks they know what it's about because everyone has seen the Dalai Lama, or read a Kerouac book or listened to a fucking Beastie Boys album. It's like learning to play poker by watching the movie Rounders.

I am not trying to tear Buddhism down. I'm trying to destroy the ridiculous shell around it. But people who have grown accustomed to what they believe Buddhism is will always resist.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fuck Buddhism!

"I’ve got some stuff to say that I think and hope will be of use to some of you out there. But I have to warn you, a lot of what I have to say is gonna sound like I’m ANTI-Buddhism. In a way... I am. But only because I believe that the thing we in America label as Buddhism is really nothing more than a shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged, mind-fuck that’s been engineered to maximize consumer interest."

This quote is from John over at Buddhism Sucks. I just discovered this site and it has a lot of great shit. Unfortunately, the last post was dated April and it's more or less November now. So that means it's been about 7 months since the last entry, which sucks. Hopefully he'll get back at it.

This attitude, this notion of destroying what Americans believe Buddhism is, happens to be very important to me. John is right that Buddhism has been entirely co-opted in order to sell shit, up to and including Buddhism itself. For every good, cogent, intelligent book about the subject published, there are at least 100 more that are utter trash. The shelves in every bookstore groan under the weight of ridiculous volumes, many of them by the folks John calls Buddhism's "All Stars": the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron and Lama Surya Das. There are tons more, of course, but these 4 are at the top of the food chain. And he means "All Stars" pejoratively, by the way. I have no doubt that 3 of these 4 authors are really trying to represent Buddhism to the best of their abilities. Mr. Lama, Ms. Chodron and Mr., uh, Nhat Hanh, I guess, are deeply entrenched in monastic forms of Buddhism and are conveying their highly specific points of view. Lama Surya Das, on the other hand, is mostly an idiot. His books are the epitome of pop-culture Buddhism and should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on people's lives. With titles like "Buddha Is As Buddha Does" he can't honestly imagine that people will take his work seriously. And yet, his books are bestsellers. The drivel that he peddles is exactly what Americans have come to expect from Buddhism, which is why it's in such a sorry state of affairs in this country.

One of my teachers, Brad Warner, titled his third book "Zen Wrapped in Karma, Dipped in Chocolate," which is goddamn hilarious. However, it's a parody of a Yoplait yogurt commercial that claimed its product was that very thing. It really doesn't matter what you're selling here in America; if you can cover a few "Buddhist" basics, people will buy your product simply because it appeals to our nature to covet other culture's (misunderstood) spirituality. Since our entrenched Judeo-Christian mentality has proven over and over again that it's no match for the rigors of real life, we are captivated by age-old Eastern ideas. It doesn't matter that people don't COMPREHEND those ideas. Matter of fact, Buddhism in the West DEPENDS on our lack of comprehension.

Here are the "Buddhist" basics that convince people to buy things:

1. Master On The Mountaintop

This one is a classic. The commercial, or full-page glossy in a magazine, will generally feature some kind of common slob (American) at the end of his trek to the peak of a daunting mountain. The common slob wants something, he NEEDS an answer or advice or a tip for buying a fucking used car. When he reaches the mountaintop, there's a guy there hanging out in robes with an unmistakable aura of wisdom. Now, the people that handle these ads do absolutely no research into the types of robes worn by the various sects of Buddhism. Often it's just a carbon copy of the Dalai Lama's daily threads, though it can be any bastardized combination of the Big Three: the maroon of Tibetan monks; the bright saffron of Theravadin monks, or the black/brown color scheme of Zen monks.

Whatever they decide on, the idea is the same. At the top of a cloudy mountain, far removed from the world of material concerns, sits a man (always a man) who can prescribe answers for anything. It doesn't matter that the ostensible purpose of a practitioner removing himself from the world is so he won't be bothered by worldly concerns. Here in the West we believe that if someone has attained a certain kind of wisdom, it extends to every facet of everyone's life. Do you know what would have happened if someone had asked the Buddha what the best way was to maximize profits and minimize losses as it pertained to business? He would have had a blank fucking look on his face. The Buddha didn't know shit about business. He took himself away from shit like that to concentrate on meditation and ethics. Would you approach a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy to get his opinion on the best way to lose 40 pounds by spring? No. Of course you wouldn't. And why not? Because a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy does not specialize in diet and exercise. Likewise, a master of meditation would not have the appropriate tools to help you renegotiate your mortgage. Nonetheless, the image of a starry-eyed monk on a mountain will captivate the American conscious because we believe him to be a magical fortune-telling machine.

2. The Word Zen At Any Time, In Any Place

This has become an American staple. One of my favorite episodes of King Of The Hill features Hank sitting on Henry Winkler's porch on his Montana ranch. Henry is going off about his love of fishing. Hank states that he fishes, too. Henry talks about how fishing is a washing machine for your brain. "It's so deliciously Zen," he says. Hank says he thinks he might do a different kind of fishing.

Indeed. The word "Zen" simply means "meditation." But it's become a catch-word for anything that seems paradoxical, peaceful or contemplative. "Zen" invokes so many complex things in the brain of an American, it doesn't really matter what the word actually MEANS, it's only important what we IMAGINE it means. This is why Yoplait used the phrase "It's like Zen, dipped in Karma, wrapped in chocolate" to describe their product. The phrase itself makes about as much sense as saying "It's like pig fucking, coated in mascara, drizzled with HIV-positive semen." Asinine. But Americans ate it up because the words "Zen" and "karma" were thrown in there and those are exotic words. We have notions about those words. Those notions usually don't bear any resemblance to what the words actually MEAN, but that's not the point.

You can use "Zen" to describe anything you want. A laptop, a car, an espresso machine; it doesn't matter what the fucking thing is. "Zen" connotes certain images in our brains that the media have tapped into. When the TV says "Zen" we perk up because we imagine that, whatever this thing is, is brings with it the wisdom of the East. It is simply BETTER than what we have here. A Zen laptop will propel me toward enlightenment with every keystroke, and probably help save the planet at the same time. A Zen car will make me more aware while driving, and probably help save the planet every time I fill up. A Zen espresso machine will jack me up on pure spirituality, with none of the side effects of regular caffeine, and probably help save the planet every time I brew a cup. We seem to think anything that bears the "Zen" label will automatically have salubrious effects without our having to actually do anything.

3. An Image Of Meditation

Meditation can mean many things. In Buddhism, it means something specific, and, in Zen, it means something more specific still. It has absolutely nothing to do with the common American idea of meditation. We think meditation is a kind of panacea. Stressed out? Try meditation. Love life in the toilet? Maybe meditation can help. Confused about the myriad problems that life throws at you in the normal course of human existence? Sit down and meditate on it. Absolutely flummoxed by the idea that someone who considers himself a Buddhist is sitting here writing such inflammatory shit about the very philosophy that means so much to him, yet will wake up tomorrow and sit down in front of an altar and meditate? Well, by God, you should meditate, my friend.

Whatever is going on, no matter how bad it might seem, meditation can help you. Well, that's actually true. But not for the reasons that you may think. Meditation doesn't help you TRANSCEND what's going on. It doesn't elevate you to a higher place where you don't worry about the $247.50 that you owe Verizon. It doesn't remove you from normal responsibilities like having your nasty teeth cleaned or taking out the trash or getting to work on time. You still have to do those things and you always will. What meditation does is make you realize that the normal aspects of life, the things we hope religion will help us overcome, are all that we have. They are the most important things in your life. You can't ignore all your late fees at Blockbuster because you're concentrating on your spiritual practice. Switching to NetFlix isn't gong to solve your problem. There is no higher plane where a collection agency isn't going to find you because you've understood the nature of the universe. Jimmy the Spoon isn't going to NOT break your kneecaps because you finally get that everything is interconnected.

Yet images of meditation remain in our culture for one major reason: they portray something that you should be doing if only you had the time. We are a busy people, there's no doubt about that. We have Facebook and Twitter and Android phones. I personally just had to check my DVR to make sure I'm all caught up with Sons Of Anarchy. We have Levitra and Ambien and Lunesta to make sure all our dicks are hard and we're getting a good night's sleep. We have MySpace to remind us of just how far we've come and GPS to show us just where we're going. We've got checking accounts and IRAs and 401(k)s and the imminent collapse of Social Security to keep us worrying. If we could only find some time to meditate, like the barefoot asshole in the yoga ads maybe we could finally find some peace.

We'll buy the IDEA of meditation, but, for the most part, it's just something that other people do. We will never be those people because we have shit to do. However, it's comforting to see visual interpretations of people doing it, because it reminds us that it's out there. That makes us feel better.

In the meantime, we are still a culture searching for that thing that will save us without us having to do any work at all. It still seems like Buddhism can be that thing because it's just so goddamn foreign. Maybe mala beads and eco-friendly Tibetan meditation cushions and documentaries on the Dalai Lama will just do it all for us. Maybe we'll wake up one day and the whole world will be a better place just because Buddhism exists.

But probably not. So fuck it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You're Either In or You're Out

“In the world but not of it” is a paraphrase of something Jesus was reputed to have said before he was crucified. It has become an oft-repeated tagline not only for Christians and other religious-minded folk, but also for those who identify themselves as “spiritual.”

You know the people I’m talking about. We’ve all had a conversation with that guy who’s obviously learned to act all calm and wise, like Steven Seagal in any number of shitty movies. He nods sagely in all the right places, his long hair gently swaying from the leather cord that binds it. He mentions his yoga training and how much he loves futurist percussive poetry. And he has a long-practiced wry grin ready when the topic of religion comes up. When you notice this inherently douchbaggy expression, you might be tempted to make a polite inquiry. “Are you not very religious?” is a perfect example of what you might say. Now, while this question is a bit silly, it is nothing compared to the idiocy that generally follows.

“No,” he says, the righteous scorn obvious in his voice, “I’m NOT religious. I’m a SPIRITUAL person.”

Whenever you hear this response, you can rest assured that this person has absolutely nothing, either religious or spiritual, in his life that makes any goddamn sense. You’re likely to be treated to a monologue on the “spiritual practice” he’s cobbled together from Eastern philosophy, Native American thought and ancient Icelandic shamanistic traditions. Whatever it is, it’ll center around the notion that organized religion is bad and a personal, spiritual approach to life is the only way to live it fully. It’s also a safe bet that when you (most likely in self-defense) mention you’re a Buddhist, the scorn will be dialed down a notch but still present.

“Yeah, the Buddha was cool, man, but he didn’t take it far enough. What his philosophy needed was ________.” And he’ll go ahead and fill in this blank for you with some ridiculous tenet of Taoism or Hinduism or fucking Zoroastrianism that he’s decided fits.

This is a common approach to “spirituality” in this country. We took the riff and the raff from Europe, mashed em together and called em citizens, why not take the drips and dregs from world philosophy, swirl em around, and call it personal religion?

“In the world but not of it” is central to both this mismatched patchwork of “spirituality” as well as the plain old “religion” you can get on any corner when Sunday rolls around. Both of them seem to think that this existence is not reality, that it’s something to be transcended. REAL reality, REAL salvation, REAL happiness exists somewhere else. It’s OUT THERE but never IN HERE. “In the world but not of it” means you have to live here, but you strive not to be tainted by it. You live in the world of flesh and blood and sex and pro football and Jon Bon Jovi but you can’t let it soil you. You have to rise above. This world is just one side of the veil, and the disgusting, filthy, unenlightened side at that. The white light and love is on the OTHER side.

Zen says all that is bullshit. It’s worth noting that Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages because this particular worldview was dominant. The ignorance, superstition and outright horror that plagued an entire continent stemmed directly from religion and spirituality. And it was a vicious cycle that kept perpetuating itself. As Europe became a stagnant cesspool, people imagined there was no hope for earthly salvation. Life was so foul and rotten that the only chance to escape it was a better life that occurred only after death.

My Zen teachers call this viewpoint “idealism.” It’s the rejection of the material world and the sensual pleasures that it offers. Idealism is concerned with what COULD be, not what actually IS. It’s focused on getting through this awful life as best we can so that we can reap our rewards later. Life only matters in that it’s used to set up an infinite, invisible paradise. These teachings usually maintain that our souls are perfect, but trapped in an unworthy vessel whose desires and urges must be denied. Earthly pleasure is ignominious and sinful; heavenly pleasures are eternal and pure.

The other side of this coin is “materialism.” This view is what pulled Europe’s scabrous ass out of the Dark Ages and launched the Renaissance. This time period was characterized by a resurgence of art and science and saw religion fade into the background. Sensuality was glorified and logic and reason began to supplant the faith-based way of life. This period was brilliant only because it contrasted so vividly against the Dark Ages. Materialism is arguably a better view than idealism because it’s a bit more realistic. It can cure diseases, create the Mona Lisa and vastly improve the quality of life. The problem is that it can’t tell us what life is FOR. It does nothing to alleviate the suffering most of us feel when we wonder why we exist. And knowing the “how” without the “why” is pointless.

Now, centuries after the Dark Ages, people are starting to return to the “spiritual” or “idealist” view. They hope to find something beyond the realm of science, something that can soothe the pain of living in this vast, seemingly cold and random place. The problem is, we’ve already tried it and it fucking sucked. Trying to transcend this earthly sphere, with all its pain and misery will never work. Whether you believe there is something beyond this or not, right now, you’re stuck here. You don’t live on the “ideal” earth, in the “ideal” galaxy, surrounded by “ideal” beings. You live here, where it’s smelly and boring, in a galaxy that’s indifferent to your happiness, surrounded by assholes like me.

According to Zen, that’s perfect. What you have is perfect because it is real. It doesn’t get any more real than flat tires, diarrhea and flu shots. Trying to live “in the world” while at the same time not being “of the world” is stupid. You are obviously “of the world.” You are nothing BUT “of the world.” When we force ourselves away from the true grit of our daily existence in favor of something heavenly beyond our current reach, we rob ourselves of our actual existence.

Buddha discovered the Middle Way. It’s in between all extremes, including idealism and materialism. It’s a little of both but not too much of either. It recognizes the value of sense experiences, and doesn’t demand we mortify our bodies to purify our spirits. But it also counsels against overindulgence, so we don’t become addicted to fleshy, sexy goodness. It puts a premium on rational thought, but doesn’t expect it to explain the mysteries of the universe. Buddhism is not religion, but it’s also not atheism. It’s not materialism but it’s most definitely not spirituality. Anyone who says they’re not religious but “spiritual” is destined to end up back in the Dark Ages. There’s no way out of this world, so it’s time to embrace it. We are all in this, and of this, together.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


About a year and a half ago I was running a Buddhist meditation group here in town. I was discouraged that only one person kept showing up so I decided to make some fliers to post around. It was kind of a struggle to find the right words for the flier. When I first started this group, someone said that because I identified it with "Buddhist" meditation I might scare some folks away. He pointed out that while some people may be interested in "meditation" in a generic sort of way, a lot of them have no interest whatsoever in actual Buddhism.

I understand. This is a prevalent viewpoint in America and one that has helped turn Buddhism into the wishy-washy, spiritual feel-good-a-thon it’s become. But I practice zazen, which is Buddhist meditation, which is different from Hindu or Christian or Jain or Taoist meditation. It’s a specific method that the Buddha used which he based his entire teachings upon. This form of meditation is the most practical path to personal liberation. It has nothing to do with gods and goddesses or holy and unholy. It has to do with one thing and one thing only: suffering and the way to end it.

I get that there are people that would like to learn about and practice meditation without having to become Buddhist. That’s perfectly fine. Many Buddhists don’t even self-identify as Buddhist. Meditation can be used for many things, from simple de-stressing to getting totally blissed out in alternative mind frames. It’s completely possible to practice most forms of meditation and never even hear the word “Buddhist.”

Not so with zazen. Zazen is distinctly Buddhist, but that doesn't mean that you become one when you start doing it. That's like saying you stop being a Christian when you begin studying physics. Zazen is beyond these silly labels but we have to keep using them in order to convey meaning sometimes.

People don’t have to abandon their faith or convert to Buddhism in order to practice zazen. However, the point of zazen is to see things as they really are and one needs to be prepared for the idea that they may not like what comes up. Our minds are crazy places and zazen lets us see deeply into the madness. Sometimes it’s liberating. Sometimes it’s horrifying. The point is, either way, it doesn’t matter. It is only necessary to watch what happens, and not get too attached to whatever it is.

Since zazen lets us see Truth as it really is, it’s possible to become frustrated or discouraged when it doesn’t conform to what we want. Having insights into the nature of our lives is only one step of the process. The other is accepting what we find. No matter how disappointing or ugly the Truth turns out to be, no amount of wishing is going to change it. For some, this can be crushing. Deeply held beliefs can be swayed, twisted or even destroyed. Buddhism accepts this and doesn’t hold on very tightly to beliefs. In other religions, belief is usually the cornerstone of the entire shindig. If zazen starts messing with that foundation then practitioners can quickly run into trouble.

I’m not saying it’s always better to be a Buddhist during this process. I’m saying that, as a Buddhist, should I ever run into doubt during my practice, IT DOESN’T MATTER. Did the Buddha really exist? Doesn’t matter. Are his teachings the ultimate Truth? Doesn’t matter. Am I wasting my time? Doesn’t matter. What if this is all wrong? It doesn’t fucking matter. This is often hard for practitioners of other religions to comprehend. It certainly does matter to Christians that Christ really lived. It definitely matters to Muslims that Muhammad’s teachings are the ultimate Truth. The doubt that assails members of other religions is viewed as natural, but still something to be overcome with faith.

Zen looks at doubt as a natural part of practice as well, but understands that it’s not something to be overcome. You just sit with it. Doubt, just like faith, boredom, hate, jealousy, and everything else, comes and goes on its own. We don’t control it; we only strive not to get too caught up in it.

Zazen can destroy Buddhists as well. Anyone that isn’t willing to accept things as they are is in for a real nightmare. Personally, I think the Buddha’s teachings (as well as those of Brad Warner and Gudo Nishijima) prepare us for this unique journey. They guide us and help us to relax when we encounter something that at first seems terrifying or antithetical to our ideas. Zazen and the teachings are specifically designed for this path to awakening. They are the tools perfectly suited to the job at hand. There’s no doubt they’re useful in non-Buddhist hands as well, but practitioners should exercise caution. Zazen isn’t a delicate little brush, meant to gently sweep debris of off our true selves. It’s a fucking hammer meant to smash through good and evil, right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, faith and doubt, love and hate…whatever you’ve got. You’d better be ready for the pile of rubble.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I'm So Hardcore

In October of 2003, Hardcore Zen, by Brad Warner was published. I cannot possibly overestimate the importance of this book. Wait. That actually sounds like a challenge. Of course I can overestimate the importance of this book. Watch: Hardcore Zen was to Buddhism what Citizen Kane was to film. Without Hardcore Zen, there would be absolutely no chance of survival for the human race. Brad Warner, as an author, holds in his talented hands, the entire future of the written word.

There. That wasn’t so hard. Now, let’s get on with it. There are two books that I discovered after I began studying Buddhism that affected me deeply. One was Dharma Punx, by Noah Levine, and the other was Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen. As the years have gone by, my love of Dharma Punx has faded a bit. Noah is a devout punk rocker, and he believes the Buddha’s path mirrors the contumacious nature of his favorite music. Sometimes, this seems to be the only way that Noah relates to the path and it can appear one-dimensional. I think I’m outgrowing this approach, though I don’t disagree with him. Buddhism IS the ultimate rebellion. The problem is that Buddhism is so much more than rebellion. It goes so far beyond the generally agreed-upon idea of personal revolt that it’s something else entirely. That something else is Zen.

Noah practices a version of the path called Theravada, which is often referred to as the “School of the Elders,” because it is the oldest surviving lineage of Buddhism. It’s also the most conservative branch of Buddhism, and the one least likely to tolerate any but the most moderate forms of hanky-panky. It is straight-laced, y’all, and I’m not even kidding. But there’s no doubt that this breed of Buddhism is still in the 99th percentile of rebellion. If rebellion were geniuses, Theravada would have this year’s graduating class of MIT. However, Zen would still have Max Planck and Isaac Newton.

I read Dharma Punx first and it rocked me. It was fantastic to learn that Buddhism didn’t have to be the granola-studded turd of hippie philosophy it had come to be in the West. Plus, Noah looked like me, with his shaved head and extensive tattooing. So Dharma Punx kind of paved the way. It skulked up to the door and fiddled real criminal-like with the lock. Then it knocked like the police and gave the knob one last good jiggle before it stomped off.

So the door was already in bad shape when Hardcore Zen got there. It didn’t provide much resistance when Brad Warner rammed it down with his massive steel Zen erection, jumped out on Godzilla’s back and threw the most fucked-up party the house had ever seen.

Hardcore Zen did things to me that Dharma Punx was way too vanilla to ever pull off. It shattered all my notions of what I thought Buddhism was. It destroyed notions I didn’t even know I had. It dragged those shadowy, vampiric ideas out into the daylight and laughed as they turned into bubbling goo. The book read like Brad was right beside me, screaming in my ear that I didn’t know shit, I would never know shit, and, frankly, I didn’t deserve shit. He used Zen to beat the dumb outta me.

When I got done with this book I was empty. All the structure I’d based my practice on was gone. Everything I’d built up that defined my view of Buddhism had vanished. I felt fucking great. It was like starting over.

So I did start over. I read more books on Zen and began practicing its peculiar breed of meditation: zazen. Zazen is pretty much the opposite of all other forms of meditation. When I studied Vajrayana with the Shambhala folks, there were so many practices you needed a fuckin spreadsheet to keep track of em. It all boils down to the two biggies, though, and those are shamatha and vipassana meditation.

Shamatha loosely means “calm abiding” and vipassana means “insight.” So the practitioner started with shamatha, and focused on the breathing until the mind cooled out a little. When the mental chatter had died down, vipassana was used to analyze the mind and body. Imagine a large clear jug of water with a tiny diamond resting on the bottom. Now, dump some sand and dirt into the jug and swirl it around until it’s all murky and opaque. That represents the mind in its usual state of hectic daily activity. Next, put the jug back down and allow it to sit there undisturbed. In the absence of agitation, the muck that clouds the water begins to settle down. It drifts to the bottom and collects, leaving the water clear and unblemished. This is shamatha meditation. Now, imagine you go over to the jug and begin peering through the sides, into the water, searching for that diamond you so foolishly dropped in there. Your eyes scour the thin layer of filth on the bottom, carefully and methodically looking over every centimeter. The more you look, the deeper your gaze penetrates until, finally, you spot the diamond nestled in amongst the detritus. This is vipassana meditation, and when you find the diamond, you have won major cash and prizes, namely enlightenment. You have seen through the veil and realized the ultimate truth.

Zen says all this is moose shit. The rigid structure of the meditation, the ceaseless searching and digging is all just going to reinforce your ignorance. Zen says there’s nothing to search for so this ridiculous hunt is all a waste of time. What it suggests instead is zazen. Since I went to all the trouble to describe shamatha and vipassana with such an elaborate metaphor, let me see if I can sum up zazen before everyone is too bored to read any farther.

Here goes: Sit down. Be very quiet and very still. Stare directly at the wall for 30 minutes.

There you go. I have just described the entire core of Zen practice. Of course there’s tons of crazy-ass philosophy you can study, and silly koans to drive you nuts, and something to do with fucking archery, but all that stuff isn’t really necessary. The only thing that’s truly necessary is zazen. Without it, Zen is just another chunk of the retarded, pop-culture vomit that passes for Buddhism in this country.

Stay tuned! More semi-coherent ramblings about zazen coming up!