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.


  1. nothing much
    ever happens
    in a crowd

    that just is

    (as in my "shortie" (poem):

    wherever I go
    there I am

    one can-not not do much better than

    Zen Master Seung Sahn

    "inside you will not be angry, only angry on the outside."

    "checking is no good."

  2. I've been using the phrase "metric fuck ton" at least once a day since I read this.

  3. I like chanting... I chanted for an hour at a Tibetan temple in Dayton Ohio and absolutely loved it. The tune of Vajra yogini they did at this specific one was good, by the end of it I felt peaceful and blissed out. Sometimes it got obnoxious though when it seemed everyone was trying to outdo the other in singing or loudness... i could of been projecting but sometimes I felt like that. That feeling was highlighted when I went to Columbus KTC and I noticed how humble and quiet their chanting was very rhythmic with so much less ego. Either way I enjoyed chanting, it was a meditation and i love the vibrations. Im not even talking spiritual vibrations... just how the vibrations of the sounds in my body feel.

    Anyway I love your blog... every one i've read I can totally agree with man... I really like your blog.

  4. Been going through something like this myself were Soto Zen feels like home but for last couple years only sangha nearby was Tibetan. Now I'm in Vegas still no Soto but well respected korean zen center.

    Oh did enjoy time hanging out & sitting with tibetans last couple years and always learned something I needed.

  5. Brad Warner is a "Zen Master" - you are jesting? It is only in the West that we use those words so liberally. "Zen Master" is not a title that is like pigeon shit to distribute it liberally among people. It's only because we Westerners are clueless about the Zen tradition. Not even Gudo Nishijima, Brad's teacher, would be called a "Zen Master" by anyone that knows anything about the Soto tradition. Calling him "Zen Master" is an offense against the Ancestors and the Patriarchs; and a complete disrespect to the Zen tradition. That title is reserved for Dogen only - hence Dogen Zenji, and the current chief commander of the Soto sect, I forget his name now.

    Stop worshipping Brad Warner; he's just an ordinary person, like you and me. "Brad replied to my E-mail" - as if he was an especially important person.

    That being said, Kwan Um is a mix of Soto, Rinzai and Pure Land Buddhism, that's why they have many devotional practices your Zen Master idol was referring to.

    The original face before your parents were born refers to nothing "Japanese" or "Korean" or "American" or "Soto Zen". It refers to something you'll have access to only when you kill everything that comes up to you outwardly; the first one you have to kill seems to be Brad Warner.

    Next, just sit. Forget about everything else. Zen doesn't need modernization. Zen doesn't need "balance with West", because it was never Eastern. The only thing we must learn is to "sit and shut up", as your idol said, but he doesn't seem to ever shut up himself with all his blogs, books and talks.

    Anyway, in the old days, when Buddhism wasn't just a joke and "Zen Master" wasn't everyone who had a blog, things were a bit different. So look up to the ancestors and Buddhas of the past and study carefully what they taught.

    Just study Buddhism and forget about all these people.

  6. This is what the deal is with the chanting: http://www.kwanumzen.org/1975/why-we-chant/

  7. Just droppin' by to say hi to someone who appears to be a kindred spirit... I throw a few curves at the much-neglected Raging Pandit (wordpress blog) and gentler curves with that nice Vajrayana blissful wildness over at All About Enlightenment (also over on wordpress).
    But I've strayed from those a bit because some galactic stuff has been manifesting and blowing my mind... (spirit train chronicles dot com)
    not really trying to promote, just sharing because there's a great community on STC, and most of us meditate or worse.. ;)
    have a great weekend! (BTW, I'm in Atl...)

  8. Here are a few things that come to mind for me when I read this blog post:
    1. It's helpful not to be too caught up in one's own abstract world and built castles of preconceived notions. Go out and explore! I'm glad you finally made the hurdle from the attachment to Soto Zen and threw yourself into a new group just to see what it is. There's usually no harm done to yourself or to others for going out to explore. When I moved to a new state, I explored couple of sanghas that were close by, including one where the teacher talks about spirit channelling, which to me is very strange. Nevertheless, I continued to sit with them observing the uneasiness that rose in me sometimes and noticing my own critical mind and working with that. That's part of practice. Finally, when I was able to get better transportation, I did go to explore a Soto Zen group which some months later I found to be a home for me. So, go out and explore, sit with being uncomfortable rather than running away and making evaluations before you've gotten enough depth with them to actually make an evaluation.

    2. A large part of your post is framed around what the sangha can do for you. Consider flipping that around too and ask what you can do for the sangha. When we take refuge in the three jewels, sangha is one of them. To take refuge in it is not asking what sangha can do for you, but how you too can practice and give back to sangha, which also is giving back to yourself.

    3. Don't be trapped by honorifics. I don't know much about Brad Warner but I know he's respected and also maybe a little rebellious, which is all great. My point here is don't grovel over any Buddhist teacher/master/roshi/whatever. They all have faults. They're all human beings. We respect them just like any human being should be respected. And, it also means we don't throw out our wisdom to believe in whatever it is they say. While Warner may think that Korean group chants too much, you can also think about this as a kind of practice that Warner may not find helpful for himself but other people do find helpful. Depending on cultural context, social context, historical context, and personal context there are many forms of practice from prostrations to chanting to etc. So, while you may dismiss the chanting for yourself, don't dismiss it for others. Like when I was sitting with the group whose teacher believed in spirit channelling, I found it difficult for myself to find that practice useful, but I tried not to dismiss it for others who find utility in it. Our contexts are different, and yet we are the same. That's the merging of difference and unity that Dogen talks about.

  9. This was hugely entertaining. I can identify with the quest to find a balanced sangha relationship. Some seem too culty, some too cold, some too precious... And the message isn't always the same. Compare Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to Seung Sahn if you want to see that truth in action!

  10. I hear you mate!!!

    I know I've been there.

    Keep on trukin'!!

    In the immortal words of the Great Zen Master Floyd Pepper:

    "HEY, there's nothing to it but to do it."

    Floyd makes no mind, Floyd has no mind, Floyd does not make Floyd, (plays bass).

    Thanks for your post!

    (deep bow) _/|\_

  11. Garbage people become monks. Garbage monks become Zen monks. Garbage Zen monks become enlightened.

  12. Dogen doesn't even come up as a zen master in the sueng sahn lineage.I find that quite fascinating.

    1. Dogen isn't present in the Korean lineage, as the Japanese and Korean lineages have separately and parallelly evolved from the Chinese Chan. So, Chinese masters like Lin Chi (known as Rinzai in Japanese) are present in this lineage, but the Japanese ones are not, because the evolution of Japanese Zen and Korean Seon was completely independent.