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.