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Thread: Mainstream Zen

  1. #1

    Mainstream Zen

    There is a story on today about the PBS Buddha documentary that I thought was interesting.

    The basic idea of the article is that Buddhism is becoming more mainstream and leaving its countercultural image behind. This is something that's always concerned me as a westerner who's interested in Buddhism. I have to admit that one of my biggest problems since starting a Zen practice is the fear that anyone but my wife will find out about it. While I find it to be a deeply significant practice that does wonderful things for me and gives me a clearer approach to my day-to-day life - I am embarrassed by my interest in it too. I hate to admit it, but I am.

    I am a skeptic and a down-to-earth person. I like real things. I'm of a generation raised on TV and thus very suspicious of image-making. I want nothing to do with something new age, no enlightenment, no mandalas, no Maitreya, no crystals, no chakras, nothing mystical, no lotus blossoms. The things my parent's generation considers cool, far out, and mind-expanding are very lame to me. Chanting freaks me out. I never want to wear a robe. I know that many of these things have nothing to do with Zen or even Buddhism, but they are part of the environment surrounding it. Take a look at the advertisements in Tricycle Magazine for evidence. I am also uncomfortable adopting the trappings of eastern culture. The whole thing seems vaguely tainted with colonial condescension and romanticism and for me, at least, it would be fake, a pose. Yet, here I am, cringing when these things come up, but following the path none-the-less.

    I was initially attracted to Buddhism for its content, but put off by its style. I found Zen, which is the least stylized, most minimal form of Buddhism I know of, and I'm mostly ok with it. My vision of what it might be like in the future, in the west, is even more minimal, even more stripped down. This would make me much more comfortable with it. Would it make it less appealing to you guys?

    I get the impression from a few of the posts on this forum that there are some people here precisely because they are attracted to the parts of Buddhism I don't like so much. I am not trying to criticize or begrudge what appeals to others. If it works for you, it works for you. But I bet there are others like me around here too. While I'm sure I offended some people with my thoughts, they are my honest thoughts. So, how about it? Could there ever be something like a truly American Zen? Something the average Joe could do without feeling silly? What would it look like? Would you still want to be a part of it?


  2. #2

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Hello Jamie,

    it was very refreshing to read your post. There is obviously a great danger coming from exoticism....but at the same time one can truly start to appreciate the "silliness" of certain things once one has at least partially understood what they might be there for. That process usually takes years.

    My seriously humble suggestion to you would be to keep your very critical mindset by all means, but at the same time don't forget to empty your cup...meaning that if deep down inside you might feel that ultimately you already understand most things in the best possible way,what room is there for Buddhadharma to transform you?

    A very obvious anc colourful example is Tantra/Vajrayana, due to the many cultural trappings, funny hats just reading a few texts and looking at a few pictures one could get the impression that its all perverted madness....however once one starts to get deeper into the actual teachings, one might discover that there is an incredibly profound base underneath most of it. ( I highly recommend Ken McLeod's "Wake up to your life btw,).

    Coming back to my chosen path, Soto-Zen...well, IMHO there are almost as many trappings, they just have a slightly different dress sense

    Seriously though, the whole Koan tradition sounds like MumboJumbo in the beginning....but the more one gets used to its internal grammar, the more one can get past the seemingly exotic.

    Buddhadharma deals with the great matter of life and death. To face this vast topic with a righteous and self-honest mind takes a lot of guts in the long run. We have to dress somehow, we have to greet each other somehow, we have to "dance" together somehow. Whichever kind of etiquette, traditions and norms develop over time...they will seem strange and exotic to newcomers at first. I mean "shaking hands"; kissing lips, wearing trousers and/or skirts...oh how silly we westerners are...

    I am not a great fan of superstition, on the contrary, but there is more to "spring" than the sun making frozen H20 melt and turn into liquid water. The magic of this life we face/are intimately in Zazen is more mysterious than any question a materialist scientist might come up with. Ever.

    Don't let the wish for non trappings trap you

    Just my lazy two cents.



  3. #3

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Don't let the wish for non trappings trap you
    Thank you Hans - that's not how I had seen it, but I do think that could be some of what's happening here. Maybe I am being too uptight in my thinking? Too conservative? I could maybe be more open to some of these things that might seems goofy at first. But when dealing with "spiritual-type" things, it can be hard for me to know what is real and when I might be getting taken for a ride. Some of the trappings we mentioned can make that even harder.

  4. #4

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    I like some ritual and have no use for other, but that seems to be more about the group doing it than the ritual itself. One group might chant something because it makes them feel like they belong, while another group chants the same thing as a significant spiritual practice. So I try not to judge the message by the messenger, and I put myself into things as much as I can, at least for a while -- and I sure do learn a lot about myself in the process.

    Oh and I used to think Zen had very little ritual but my mind was slowly changed. I now think Zen is very ritualized. Watching Jundo demonstrate what to do when you approach the toilet clinched it.

  5. #5

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    This is something I fought against early on my Buddhist path. First I embraced all the 'zen trappings' (or zen baggage, as I later called it), then later I pushed them all away, feeling like anyone else who embraced them was a charlatan at best. I became very disdainful of many of the little rituals. Bowing for me was very hard, during this period. I viewed it as something very Japanese and not really Buddhist, so why would some little white girl from America do it?

    After a time, though, I found the middle road. I sincerely believe now that both overly embracing the rituals and repelling them all are both the same thing that manifests in a different way. Anything we resist or embrace is a teacher of sorts. I wrote about this process a few months ago on my personal blog, so I am going to share that here:

    "...Somewhere along the line, the preconceptions--the way things ought to be--started sneaking in on me. I started doing a whole bunch of stuff because thatís what I got into my head that Ďreal Buddhists do.' Using $5 dollar words and phrases that had no meaning to me, but hey, itís what Buddhists do! Peppering my day with little rituals and traditions I didnít quite understand, but hey, itís what Buddhists do!

    A couple of years ago I read something, I think in Chadwickís book ĎThank You and Okay,' that really hit home. He mentioned that a lot of the traditions of Western Zen werenít so much Zen traditions, but Japanese cultural traditions that got mixed in. Once I read this, a bunch of uneasiness I had been feeling lifted away. I had already been having trouble wrapping my head around the self help philosophy of the West that seemed to permeate Buddhism. I was pretty convinced I was the only Zennie in the U.S. that didnít have a horrible childhood, addiction problems, or low self esteem (I know better now. I am not judging anyone who has had to live with these things and in fact I have a ton of respect for those who work through these things every day. This is just how I felt as an inexperienced kid of 20-something). All in all, I was having Ďbelongingí issues. The least of these being that I wasnít Japanese.

    Chadwick hit the nail on the head, I thought. I lot of the little rituals we Zennies hold dear are Japanese, not Zen, and definitely not Buddhist. I tossed them all away, but I also tossed the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bath water. I still sat, though not always in a proper meditation posture. Sometimes I meditated laying down, or sitting with one leg folded up under me, but rarely in the proper, uncomfortable way. And was the extent of my Buddhism. Sure, Iíd go through the rote and form when practicing with others, but it was rare and I only did it grudgingly.

    Then one day several years later, Jundo over at Treeleaf said something that once again hit home. (The following is paraphrased from how I perceived it, not Jundoís words, but I think his meaning). Buddhism is Buddhism and Zen is still Zen even without all the little rituals, but we should do the rituals because we resist them. Most of us resist sitting, at least for a time, which is exactly why we need to sit, right? We resist because of a mental block, or even more precise, an ego block. Force yourself through that resistance and you free up one more aspect of the self, which is the whole point of the trip in the first place.

    So my next step was releasing the baggage of no-baggage. Part of my baggage is the Zen talk I ranted about a few days ago. It annoys me mainly because it excludes me. Iíve made peace with it by calling it pretentious, but is it really? Nah, it isnít, and if that is your Zen, flow with it. My Zen will be releasing my self consciousness about it when others do it. Iíve finally reached a happy medium. I sit properly now at home, and I always follow the little rituals of others when I sit with them. I donít even do a mental eye-roll now. At our lay sitting meetings, I often lead the same sort of little rituals that take place in other Zen groups and centers. We could say it is because it is what people expect, and what they want, but that isnít why at all.

    No, we do it because the rituals have value. They prepare us for zazen- the act of sitting- both mentally and on a physical level. But better yet, they tame the ego. I resist bowing, so I must bow until my ego no longer resists it. I resist chanting, so I must chant until the ego no longer resists it. It is the ego, the self, that resists because of a myriad of little preconceptions that have formed in my mind, so I must let go of these things."

    All this being said, I still am not a fan of a lot of the 'new-age-iness' that has slipped into Western Buddhism. I find less of it in Zen than in other traditions, but it is still there. Really, I see less of it now than I did ten years ago. Buddhism is still finding its place in the West. Just like when it traveled to China, then Japan, then onward, all the cultural connections of the new locale are absorbed then those that do not fit are slowly shed. Buddhism strikes me as an ever-evolving spiritual path that changes while staying always the same.

    Enough of my rambling ops:


  6. #6

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Hi Jaime, 30 years ago I could have written your post. Now, when in Rome I just do what the Romans do. Brad Warner is big on no robes, rituals; maybe he's trying to create an American cultural zen, I don't know. The most important thing is to maintain your practice.

  7. #7

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    thanks so much for this post. i have always struggled to find "the middle way" in all of this. i dont have much interest in some of the rituals either, but hearing some of the comments here put them in a bit better context.

    its like a swinging pendulum (i butchered the spelling ops: ) when i feel myself going to far to one side, i try and pull mysefl more toward the middle

  8. #8

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Hi Jamie,

    I will just echo much of what has been said here. The following is my usual response on this subject ...

    This practice is not limited to any place or time ... we drop all thought of place and time. It certainly is not Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French or American. But, of course, we live in place and time, so as Buddhism traveled over the centuries from India to China, Japan, Korea etc. it naturally became very Indian/Chinese/Japanese?Korean etc.

    But what of the cultural trappings?

    Must we bow, ring bells, chant (in Japanese, no less), wear traditional robes, have Buddha Statues, burn incense? ... All that stuff besides Zazen. Are they necessary to our Practice?

    No, not at all!

    We don't need anything other than Zazen, any of those trappings. In fact, they are no big deal, of no importance, when we drop all viewpoints in sitting Zazen.

    On the other hand, we have to do something, to greet each other somehow, read some words, dress some way. Why not do such things? As I often say, for example, we have to do something with our hands when practicing walking Zazen ... why not hold them in Shashu (I mean, better than sticking 'em in your pockets)?


    As well, there are parts of our practice which we do BECAUSE we resist (for example, when visiting a temple for Retreat, I usually put my heart fully into ceremonies and arcane rituals BECAUSE I resist and think some of it silly or old fashioned). Ask yourself where that kind of resistance is to be found (here's a clue, and it is right behind your own eyes).

    What is more, there is method to the madness, and many (not all) customs have centuries of time tested benefits ... embody subtle perspectives ... that support and nurture Zazen Practice at the core. Many parts of our Practice, though "exotic", are worth keeping, even if they strike someone as strange at first. Bowing, statues, rigid decorum in the Zen Hall and, yes, weird talks about Koans all fit in that category. They may seem like unnecessary "Japanese" or "Esoteric" elements at first, until you understand the role they serve. I have given talks on all these things recently, for example ...

    Bowing ... ... eat-3.html

    On the other hand again, it is okay to abandon or reject many practices. However, KNOW very well what you are rejecting before you reject it. For example, I wrote this to someone awhile back about which of the "Japanese trappings" are worth keeping and which can be discarded. I wrote him:

    Absorb what is useful and discard the rest. For example, I think Oryoki [formal meal ritual] is a great practice, and worth keeping.. Same for bowing.

    Some things I keep out of respect for TRADITION [the robes, the ways of doing some ceremonies]. It is important to keep ties to where we come from. Some things also have a special symbolic meaning if you look into them, so worth keeping [for example, a Rakusu]

    But other stuff, no need to keep: For example, I usually avoid to chant in Japanese or Chinese [except once in awhile, out of respect for tradition]. Tatami mats and Paper screens have nothing to do with Zen practice particularly [but I happen to live in an old Japanese building, so ... well, tatami and paper screens!} Some things I think are just dumb (except symbolically), like the Kyosaku stick. Incense is great, until it was recently shown to cause cancer. Many beliefs of Buddhism are rather superstitious things that were picked up here and there. I abandon many of those.
    The outer wrap of Zen Buddhism is changing greatly as it moves West. The greater emphasis on lay practice over monastics, the greater democracy in what was a feudal institution (arising in societies where the teacher's word was law ... oh, those were the days! :wink: ), giving the boot to a lot of magico-supersticio hocus-pocus bunkum, the equal place of women ... heck, the use of the internet to bring teachings that were once the preserve of an elite few into everyone's living room.Those are good and great changes to the outer wrapping (you can read about them in books like this one (author interview here: ... anChat.htm ). The coreless core, however, remains unchanged.

    Do not throw out the baby with the bath water. Many completely "Japanese" practices which seem silly at first are worth keeping. ...

    ... other things, like some of the arcane incense, bell & drum filled rituals, take them or leave them.

    Gassho (an Asian custom), Jundo (a Dharma name)

  9. #9

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Hi Jamie,

    A truly American Zen...Sure, it has to be otherwise it is not Zen. Zen is universal. Not American, not Japanese. Neither Western nor Eastern and at the same time, truly what it is where it is. Rituals? Zazen, would you like it or not, is a ritual. The robe? If you study the meaning of the robe you will find out that it is not about looking the real thing, eastern, monkish or whatever...the robe is a form expressing the formless, the boundless. Bowing? An excellent way to release the spine to start with...Chanting? Well, if you open the voice, you open your heart...

    Your resistance is very natural and perfectly legitimate. Give your practice a few years. You may still feel the same, may change. Who knows?
    You don t offend anybody. You are just locking yourself in an American uniform.



  10. #10

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    I stumbled upon the following text by Kariyawasam, author of Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka. He has the following to say, which I think addresses your question. It's from a Theravada perspective, but I think it holds true even in Zen:

    Ritualistic observances also pose a danger that they might be misapprehended as ends in themselves instead of being employed as means for channelling the devotional emotions into the correct path. It is when they are wrongly practiced that they become impediments rather than aids to the spiritual life. It is to warn against this that the Buddha has categorized them, under the term silabbata-paramasa, as one of the ten fetters (samyojana) and one of the four types of clinging (upadana). Correctly observed, as means and not as ends, ritualistic practices can serve to generate wholesome states of mind, while certain other rituals collectively performed can serve as a means of strengthening the social solidarity among those who share the same spiritual ideals.

    Thus ceremonies and rituals, as external acts which complement inward contemplative exercises, cannot be called alien to or incompatible with canonical Buddhism. To the contrary, they are an integral part of the living tradition of all schools of Buddhism

  11. #11

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Thus ceremonies and rituals, as external acts which complement inward contemplative exercises, cannot be called alien to or incompatible with canonical Buddhism. To the contrary, they are an integral part of the living tradition of all schools of Buddhism

    Hmmm.. I just discovered that a moment ago. Ever have one of those days? Not days...moments. When coming back to "normality/balance" (so to speak), bowing is just an extension or action of that. It's natural and contains vast amounts of great things. But this will get interpreted wrong probably. It is only bowing, like it is only Zazen, but both hold a treasury.


  12. #12

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Quote Originally Posted by Jen
    I had already been having trouble wrapping my head around the self help philosophy of the West that seemed to permeate Buddhism. I was pretty convinced I was the only Zennie in the U.S. that didnít have a horrible childhood, addiction problems, or low self esteem...

    All this being said, I still am not a fan of a lot of the 'new-age-iness' that has slipped into Western Buddhism. I find less of it in Zen than in other traditions, but it is still there.
    Well, Buddhism does start with the "First Noble Truth." Our experience of suffering, and dissatisfaction, is what starts us asking the questions that make us want to practice, to wake up, to get the wobbly wheel to stop wobbling and roll true. I don't think "great suffering" is required, but I don't see how anyone can come to practice or the path without having been spurred there first by some sort of suffering or dissatisfaction. An ex of mine told me his Zen teacher told him "The path to the zendo is paved with broken hearts."

    The problem with "New Age-y-ness" as I understand it is that it is just as materialistic as the "feel better once you're rich, famous, and have a yacht off the shore of Greece" approach. The idea that if you do the right practice, you can "transform your life," get everything you want, and live happily ever after. It keeps that stuck-axle wheel herkin' and jerkin' down that dusty old trail to nowhere that we think is taking us to Shangri-la. All "The Secret" gives you is a way to stay stuck in the deluded belief that the universe revolves around you. The belief that is the root of all suffering.

    The difference with Buddhism is that it presents the notion of a "fitter, happier you" as a delusion. This path is the path of letting go of every hope or belief in a "shinier new me" or a "shinier new life." And I don't think that anything other than suffering would keep a person on such a path, because it is incredibly hard to let go of the "happily ever after" belief system that not only Western cultures, but all cultures, build themselves upon. That's not "culture," that's samsara, and it's universal.

    I don't think that any particular practice is necessary, even zazen (though zazen is necessary for me). I'm convinced from my research and experience that people of all backgrounds, cultures, practices, and religions (or non-religions) have woken up. For example, Rumi writes better "Zen texts" than the majority of Zen teachers publishing books right now, and his practice couldn't be any more different from ours.

    But at the same time, a lot of these Zen practices are valuable. I think bowing is second only to zazen. Bowing is the physical act of humbling and surrendering oneself. The reason we don't like to do it is because we don't want to bow down before anyone or anything else, we want the world to bow down to us. Every time we bow, we force the ego into a position it doesn't like to be in--acknowledging someone or something is greater than itself, worthy of praise and reverence.

    And bowing used to be a common practice in Western cultures too. It's not an "Eastern" or "Japanese" thing. I'm slowly reading through Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and people bow to one another often in that book. Just as people bowed or curtsied in European courts, or did similar gestures before tribal chiefs or religious icons in any number of cultures. Bowing is a fundamental human practice and it's something I wish was still practiced in America. I'm always touched when I see someone bow or gassho or do a similar gesture in an unexpected setting like a grocery store. It's as if it's in our cellular memory and arises from the depths from time to time when we are moved.

    Not to mention that full prostrations are great exercise.

  13. #13

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    My two cents on the subject.

    When I read your post, a couple of things hit me right away. First, from the way you spoke, you feel that some of the trappings are silly but sort of realize that you don't want to feel like they are silly. Second, you stay on the path even though you feel this way. Buddhism in general, and Zen especially, in my oppinion is sort of like a magnet. If you pass it through enough stuff, it starts to attract all manner of things, paperclips, old staples, etc. Soon the magnet might get so covered, all you see is a bunch of wierd stuff jutting out at all angles, the original shape hidden or distorted. Brush it off.

    Buddha had a realization. A bunch of people wanted to have a realization too. Some may have, some may not have. The more people came in touch with the idea and teachings of the Buddha, the more they picked up extra stuff. Some of it is useful, and helps us to sort of come back to ourselves. Some of it isn't.

    The thing is, at the end of the day, are you a more complete you because of the practice? Did you achieve that wholeness, that spirituality and moral improvement, without ringing bells, wearing robes, and chanting? If so, you did zazen perfectly.

    Of course, if you do all that stuff, and you reach that place, you still did it perfectly. It will probably take some time, and you will probably want to ask lots of questions (an activity, by the way, that the Buddha was a huge fan of) and Jundo, Taigu, and lots of the members on this forum with really big post numbers are great at either answering you directly, or letting you know if you might be.....focusing too much on something that isn't essential to the practice.

    Best of luck, good to see you on the forum

  14. #14

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    When you sit and free your mind of all fears and expectations, old age, sickness and death,
    the world appears to be in slow motion. You experience Zen. A state of awareness occurs that can only be experienced.
    This experience cannot be described in terms of the five human senses. It is not something imaginary, it is the absence
    of illusion. Phil Porter said "You can't tell someone who has never smelled a rose how a rose smells". I say the experience
    is beyond words (Zen not roses). No study material, rituals or wrappings can replace sitting with the Buddha mind.

  15. #15

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    i, for one, am all for a more secularized approach to "contemplative science"...

    just thought i'd say.

  16. #16

    Re: Mainstream Zen

    Some of the stuff is what would be spiritual materialism. You don't need any robe (Tibetan, Japenese, otherwise) to meditate. :wink:

    Quote Originally Posted by jgreerw
    My vision of what it might be like in the future, in the west, is even more minimal, even more stripped down. This would make me much more comfortable with it. Would it make it less appealing to you guys?
    Actually, not too far into the future. In certain ways, teachers like Charlotte Jocko Beck or Gil Fronsdal have been doing for a while presenting and teaching about Buddhism w/o the "bells and whistles."

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