“That’s Not Zen”

Not long ago, I was part of an e-mail exchange among Soto Zen priests about the possibilities surrounding a new monastery being built in the US. One prominent American teacher suggested it was a wasted effort, and when pressed on it, basically said, “To each his own, but a monastery has nothing to do with Zen.”

Laypeople in the US might be surprised to hear how much disagreement there is among American Soto Zen teachers — not just on this point, but on everything. Many aspects of Zen practice, from the bowing to the outfits to the chanting to the overall aesthetic, can seem foreign at first, so from the outside, it may seem that most Zen centers are embracing traditional forms, even to a forbidding degree. It can look as if everyone’s basically doing the same thing. But they’re not, not at all.

It’s a strange thing about Zen that we seem unable to define it to anyone’s satisfaction. The world of Buddhism is huge, and some directions it has taken can be surprising (to say the least), but removed from the question of this sect or that, I think that most informed people could sit down in a room and find remarkable agreement about what defines Buddhism. (What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Khyentse is one example of someone attempting a basic definition, and doing it quite well.) There would be dissent, but a majority could probably come together. Zen just isn’t like that.

The Buddhism section and the Zen section at the bookstore are so often not one and the same — I have many times ranted about how ridiculous that is, but it’s not hard to see how it happens. Even many people in the Zen world might not be able to see the connections. In high school, I wrote a paper about Zen in which I referenced the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, then showed it to an actual zazen-sitting person to get his opinion. The only comment I got was in the margin next to the Noble Truths part: “But in Zen, these don’t apply.” So we can’t even agree on something as seemingly basic as that.

For many people, Zen = zazen. Period. Everything else is window dressing — a support at best, a distraction at worst. It’s very seductive, this idea, except in order to say that Zen is zazen, we have to then ask, What is zazen? What is it? Is it a mental exercise? A physical one? Both? Neither? Some people say zazen includes everything, while others say that if you’re distracted during zazen, then that’s not really zazen. Is zazen something you do? Something you participate in? Something you express? What does it even look like? If you do it in a chair, is that zazen? When we talk about zazen reaching into every moment of the day, is that a kind of resonance, an influence, an echo? Or can ordinary activities themselves actually be zazen? We could probably get most people to at least agree that zazen is critical to any definition of Zen, but if we took that next step to define zazen, it would all fall apart.

There’s another strain of Zen people who talk less about zazen and more about “practice.” In the case of the teacher who said monasteries have nothing to do with Zen, part of his argument was that “everything” is Zen. It’s “everywhere.” I think what is meant by this is that Zen practice is always right under our feet, that practice is the practice of this moment, wherever we are. If so, I agree, completely. But how do we arrive at that? This is a huge idea, too huge to be accepted on face value. Even if Zen practice is always ever-present, implicit in that idea is the more complicated suggestion that Zen practice actually is something distinct, something we can learn to identify — in some kind of context — so that we can then recognize it outside of that place where we first discovered it. That is to say, even if we agree that Zen is everywhere, that does not mean that everywhere is Zen. Zen is something. Otherwise, why do we keep using the word?

I had a friend who used to complain — only half-jokingly — about how much she hated “dharma friends.” Dharma friends are a kind of Buddhist friend who is always jumping right over the relative to the absolute:

My friend: “My boyfriend broke up with me. I’m feeling so sad.”
Dharma friend: “Who is this ‘I’ who is sad, but an ever-changing aggregation of components which are themselves both impermanent and empty of inherent self? And what is this sadness? In attaching to this false idea that ‘I’ am ‘sad,’ you’re just perpetuating your own dualistic delusion. Here, I’ll lend you these great Dharma talks I just downloaded….”

To me, “everything is Zen” sounds like advice from the dharma friend — even if it’s true, it’s not useful, not right now. It’s too removed. It’s an insincere response to a sincere question.

When I first got interested in Zen, I would have used these kinds of words to describe it: cool, rational, simple, creative. (The only word I’d still use is cool. I still think Zen is pretty cool.) Even if I’d hit the mark, these are just adjectives — descriptors of a thing, but not the thing. Adjectives don’t mean that much (and “zen,” when used as an adjective, means even less than most).

The thing called Zen that I have found, through teachers and training and my own inquiry, is an immersive world of ritual enactment, one in which we sit not like the Buddha, but as Buddha (Taigen Leighton’s “Zazen as an Enactment Ritual,” from Zen Ritual should be required reading, along with the rest of the book). We don’t just chant the words of our teachers’ teachers, but we say those words as our own. We bow over and over again, offering ourselves — not symbolically, but literally, completely. We hold a teacup not as if we are holding all beings, but as a complete act, as our point of contact with all beings in that moment. It is a practice with no explicit goal except to do what we are doing without reservation, without hesitation, completely. It’s deeply physical, both in its requirements and in its expression. The things that we hope might come from practice — deepened compassion, awareness, mindfulness, concentration, whatever — are not goals. They are side effects. That’s a very different thing.

If this thing we call Zen (and more specifically, the Soto side of Zen) is definable, if it is a thing, then historically, it has been something like what I have experienced in monasteries. It has been the cultivation and preservation of that atmosphere and those traditions, mostly by monks. That doesn’t mean that Zen has not changed over time. It has, in significant ways. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to change. It will. Nor does it mean that all the things we say about Zen being relevant in ordinary modern life are untrue, or that “Zen is everywhere” is missing the mark. But again, when we say that, we’re talking about something that starts somewhere, that has a shape, that is recognizable.

For myself, I am amazed when I hear, “Zen is everywhere,” and then, in the same breath, “monasteries have nothing to do with Zen.”

If you were to ask me what “dance” is, and I told you that dance has nothing to do with dance studios or stages, you might not bat an eye. After all, one can dance anywhere. But what if I told you it had nothing to do with the body? What if I told you dance was ineffable, and all-pervasive, and part of our ordinary experience, and also something that most people know nothing about? I can imagine someone with a deep feeling about dance making this kind of argument. But is it meaningful? In this case, even if this comes from a deeply felt sense by the teacher, the message is that dance is just that: a feeling. It’s something that lives only in the world of the mind, an aspect of experience we either recognize or we don’t. You don’t see dance in going to the toilet? You don’t see it in opening a bank account? Well, then, I guess you’re not a dancer yet. Keep working on it.

That’s not good enough.

I am hesitant to define Zen, to say that it is this. Any adequate definition will be complicated, and full of words like sometimes and but also and not just. Limiting it by saying what it is is not the point. But I will say that Zen is not what we think it is, which is to say, Zen is not the experience of Zen (just as zazen is not the experience of zazen).  It’s not our ideas about it. If it is something, then it really is something. It starts somewhere. It has a taste and a feel and a look. If I tell you that it’s the taste in your mouth right now, the feeling in your hands right now, the look of what is directly in front of you right now, in this moment– If I tell you that, I’m not lying. It’s all true.

But it’s also no place to start.

24 comments on ““That’s Not Zen”

  1. Joel says:

    Very thoughtful considering how slippery the whole thing is. Still, it is hard to argue with thunderous silence or the laughter of a couple of old zen fools over a pot of tea or flask of wine.

  2. Al Coleman says:

    Koun,

    This is the most refreshing thing I’ve read in a while. Thank you soooooooo very much. This blog is my new favorite.

    Regards,

    Al

  3. Aaron Caruso says:

    I used to be a Dharma friend. What an ass I was!

    Oh well, I, and my wife and friends got through it. Anyway, all I know is that tomorrow morning, I will be up before my kids, and before the sun to sit. I think it is zazen, but who is to say for sure?

    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Aaron

    • Koun says:

      Aaron–

      Oh, me too. I think almost everyone, in their honeymoon phase with Buddhism, has been insufferable to some degree. I cringe at some of the things I’ve said. A lot of people have been incredibly patient with me over the years.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  4. At the risk of being an insufferable Dharma commentator: What is Zen?

    When I first started practicing Zen I felt clear about what it was. I read Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen, and thought Zen was a set of practices which would lead to a direct experience of your “true nature” or “original face”. I had read of this concept before in earlier and extremely crude readings of Zen when I was 13 and 14- I remember explaining to an assuredly perplexed father when I was 16 that I did not want to go to school and pursue a normal job, I wanted to see “my face before my parents were born”. When I started practicing Zazen, at the age of 18 or 19, I thought it would be a way to experience the essence, the true reality, of my self and of life.

    I’ll insert a spoiler here and tell you that more than 15 years later, after many changes of view and path, I have come back to this same opinion: Zen is a set of practices which aim at a realization, an understanding, a direct experience, and an embodiment, of the reality of the self and of life. This reality is sometimes called “buddha nature” “one mind” “mind ground” “tathagatagarbha”, and goes hand in hand with the understanding of the emptiness of self and things, of subject and object. Put another way, the self is ungraspable, and things too are ungraspable. The reason this realization is important is that it frees us from our deluded grasping, which is the source of the suffering of both ourselves and of others, and also the source of our inability to truly serve others, which is the same thing as serving that which is deepest within us.

    After I began sitting Zazen I continued reading books on Zen, and after an initial ecstacy of love became more and more confused. Within about a year I felt I no longer had any idea how to practice Zen. When I tried I found I was trying to fake various Zen-like attitudes I didn’t really understand. It was then that the late Patrick O’ Connel, great Manitoban poet, Buddhist, and sometimes Christian, handed me a copy of Nyaniponika Thera’s Heart of Buddhist Meditation.
    The Burmese Mindfulness meditation of that book was a revelation. The gentle attentiveness, the pursuit of reality, the whole body and mind presence, and the promise of self knowledge and freedom I had also found in Zen, but here it was without the pretense and obfuscation!

    I took up Mindfulness meditation and read Goldstein, Kornfield, Salzburg and crew. I felt relieved and energized by the clear, simple teachings. When I applied them my clarity increased and my afflictive emotions decreased. All aspects of my life improved.

    I took up Theravadin practice and ultimately ordained as a bhikkhu (monk) in the Thai Forest Tradition under the brilliant scholar and meditation master, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. I benefitted tremendously from his teachings and from Buddhist practice as taught in the Pali Canon (the earliest, pre-Mahayana scriptures) and Thai masters like Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Chah, and Ajaan Maha Boowa.

    The other side of the story was that I slowly became a slave to technique, form and dogma. I lost sight of the possibility of radical insight here and now, of direct penetration, freedom, and contemplative creativity. I felt I had to perfect my monastic discipline, my renunciation, and my jhana (sankrit: dhyana) before I could hope to have any real insight or freedom beyond character development and increased skillfulness and happiness.

    To simplify the story considerably this was what led me back to Zen, which I keep on coming back to like an old lover ever since I tremblingly took the four Bodhisattva vows as a teenager. To my thinking Zen is exactly as it was described by Bodhidharma: “Not depending on words and scriptures, a special transmission outside the teachings, direct pointing to the heart and becoming Buddha.” Zen goes to the same place as other forms of Buddhism, but does it not by relying on the Buddha’s techniques and philosophies but by direct realization of the Buddha’s mind of freedom. The Buddha’s mind is the mind of non-grasping, the mind of nirvana. The only difference between Zen realization and Theravadin realization, in my opinion (whose worth is questionable and you will question very justifiably) is that Zen takes the mind of non-duality and non-grasping further, going beyond realization of nirvana to the Mahayana ideal of non-grasping to nirvana or samsara, to emptiness or form, to rejecion of the world or addiction to to it. This is the path of the Bodhisattva- endless non-abiding practicefor the sake of self and other, beyond self and other, the ultimate mind of non-grasping.

    I believe that Zen attempts to keep practices to a minimum, well aware of the tendency to worship the means and forget the end. Of course this happens in Zen still, but no one is perfect and everything flowing in the stream of samsara is relentlessly pulled into the muddy waters. Only the steel guts of the Bodhisattvas pull Zen out again and pass it along until the next muddy wave.

    I understand Koan study to be a technique for transmitting understanding of that which leads to the non-grasping mind- understanding of the ever-free nature of our own awareness, our Buddha nature; understanding of the illusory and projected nature of our concepts and perceptions; understanding the emptiness of self and phenomena; understanding our non-seperation from all things; understanding the non-grasping compassion of a Bodhisattva. It is a thorough training in the seeing through, in barrier-lessness, in letting go.

    Shikantaza is a direct taking up of the mind of a Buddha, the non-grasping, luminous mind. Even though Shikantaza by definition must be done without desiring attainments, without doing, and without grasping to any ecstacies, insights, or even any simple ease and pleasure, that comes with it, I believe that shikantaza properly done leads to a real “dropping off of body and mind” where one realizes directly the always and ever free Buddha nature and the emptiness of self and other. I believe that the writings or teachings of Dogen Zenji and Keizan Jokin, Hongzhi Zhenjue, or for that matter Obaku Zenji (Huangpo) or Eko Zenji (Huineng) amply point in this direction.

    I do not believe that this means Zen rejects precepts, sutra study, chanting, or for that matter psychotherapy, psychiatric medication, yoga or tooth brushing. It just means that these things, thought they may help stabilize and put in order body and mind, are not Zen. Zen is the direct realization of the Buddha’s heart. It is the wholehearted effort to let nothing else get in the way.

    Some may argue, rightly, that Zen says there is nothing to attain. That is true. We are already free and all of our suffering is an illusion. But until we know that we must practice. We will not gain anything, but we will lose every thing, which is exactly what we need.

    • Koun says:

      Matthew–

      Thank you for taking the time to write this comment, to share so much of your story. Great stuff.

      I, too, started out with Three Pillars of Zen. For years, I desperately wanted the kind of insight described there (or to be the kind of person who had such insight — I was a kid, it’s hard to differentiate).

      You wrote, “Zen is a set of practices which aim at a realization, an understanding, a direct experience, and an embodiment, of the reality of the self and of life.” I’ve wrestled with all of these, and (again, based on my encounters with my teachers and my training) I’ve come, over the years, to see “embodiment” as the word in that list that is in all caps, bold, underlined. (“Realization” can be just as good, as long as we read it as “making something real,” rather than “figuring something out.”) To me, that’s the critical thing. I’ve met a lot of people with what we might call insight, or “deep realization,” who do not express it in their actions or words. They have experiences they can tell you about. In many cases, you can see it in their eyes — they’ve seen something, and perhaps continue to see something, that is out of reach of our ordinary way of viewing things. It feels very powerful, that’s clear. But if it’s not embodied, what’s the point?

      If, as Dogen tells us, practice and realization are one and the same, if we go down that path, then it seems to me that realization is always inseparable from doing something. It’s in how someone walks, the words they choose. It’s offered, visibly. Put one way: in that context, I think that what we usually imagine as enlightenment (as a felt experience, an opening, an insight, a letting go) is also a side effect of practice, not the goal. Put another way: the enlightenment described by Philip Kapleau (which still sounds great, by the way) is not the enlightenment described by Dogen. I admire anyone who makes the “wholehearted effort to let nothing else get in the way” regardless of which definition we’re working from — it’s that effort that keeps it from being just a story.

      You’ve written a beautiful description of Zen here. I know I’ll be reading it a few more times before I’m through. Thank you.

      Gassho,
      -koun

      • Koun

        Thank you very much for your eloquent and thoughtful reply. Rereading my post and your reply I want to clarify a couple of things. The first is that I don’t consider the aim of Zen practice to be any particular experience, but rather a shift in understanding. I believe Zen practice does aim to produce certain experiences (of big mind, selflessness, nonseperation, pure awareness, everything-perfect-just-as-it-is, emptiness, and others), but only because they are likely (not certain, just likely) to provoke those shifts in understanding. I believe it is also possible to attain those shifts without the experiences, as a natural result of practice but in a less dramatic way. And, to underline the point, I think it is possible to have the experiences without them provoking significant shifts in understanding.

        The reason the shifts in understanding are important is that they reduce our suffering and lead us to embody our understanding in ways that reduce the suffering of others- in ways that manifest Buddha. This happens because one of the fundamental and most important understandings of Zen is that understanding is tested by whether it is embodied.

        I also agree that for Dogen, practice that itself embodies realization is the way, and this goes on endlessly. This is a very pure, practical, and beautiful approach to practice (and the one that I follow). It shifts attention away from what experiences are encountered towards how one encounters all experiences. I believe it is important to understand that one is still engaging in practices that if done wholeheartedly will produce insights and openings. I think it is just honest to admit that we are still engaged in practices with aims, however minimalistic they are, and however much they aim to directly embody Buddha. In Dogen’s way insights and experiences are not the focus, even though his way will produce them. One just practices. This is a very realistic, very humble, very wise approach I think.

        Thank you for this wonderful conversation.

        Gassho

        Matthew

      • Koun says:

        Matthew–

        Thank you for the clarification. I think we’re really in agreement here. In insisting that we don’t aim for certain results, I want to be careful not to accidentally disparage those very real (potential) effects of practice.

        The reason the shifts in understanding are important is that they reduce our suffering and lead us to embody our understanding in ways that reduce the suffering of others- in ways that manifest Buddha. This happens because one of the fundamental and most important understandings of Zen is that understanding is tested by whether it is embodied.

        Exactly, yes.

        One of the things I find beautiful and attractive about some other traditions (Tibetan, in particular) is the straightforward clarity of saying, “You want to cultivate compassion? Well, then, let’s do a ‘cultivation of compassion’ practice.” It’s explicit and unmistakable, and I find no fault with that at all. Much of what can be frustrating about Zen is that it can seem so roundabout: “You want to cultivate compassion? Here, dry these dishes.” Compassion is compassionate action, an offering of the self, and we learn, in this practice, to offer ourselves all the time, in every little mundane way. But that explicit conversation with the heart that happens in so many other traditions is really not an explicit part of the process, and often, I think we want that (because, as you suggest, even if the practice is goalless, that doesn’t mean that we are). When people accuse Zen of being cold or of obfuscating even the most basic ideas, I sympathize. I get it. I don’t agree with it (anymore), but I do get it.

        I’m grateful for this kind of extended discussion. I’ve also enjoyed perusing your blog, which I would recommend to anyone.

        Gassho,
        -koun

  5. Hi Koun,

    I wonder if you are setting up a bit of a strawman here? For some, practice may be primarily in the monastery, following traditional forms closely, the vitality of ritual enactment may be lighting incense and holding a teacup in a monastic setting. But I do not know any Zen Teacher who would simply run to the other extreme, saying that whatever one does, and however they do it, is Zen Practice.

    Yes, as you write, this way is action “as the Buddha … as a complete act … with no explicit goal except to do what we are doing without reservation, without hesitation, completely.” But to those who see and hear, all actions in daily life can be the pivot point … and a sick child or a breakfast dish or a pencil in the office can be held as sacred, “as if we are holding all beings … as our point of contact with all beings in that moment.” Not something limited to within monastery walls or without, but a place for each in their time. Some may be more suited for the monastic path, some for path in a mountain hut, some in a house, some in the city streets. What matters is not the location, or the content of the act, but the way that instant in life is undertaken and perceived … as a sacred act, whole and fulfilled, sincere, nothing lacking.

    Dance is everywhere, and so is Zen. Some may find it in dance schools repeating classical forms, though some may find such an environment stifling and robbed of creative expression. On the other hand, some may be lost without such instruction. Yet some may find their balance and rhythm, their pivot points and leaps and lively expression … dancing anywhere, in monasteries, on hills, on battlefields, in living rooms, nurseries, office, factories … . Perhaps most students would benefit from both classical training in the academy and “taking it outside.” What matters is not the place for learning, the stage setting, or that the dance be just what has been danced by generations before us … but the gift and practice of the dancer, the life of the dance, and the Buddha as the dancing.

    Gassho, Jundo
    http://www.treeleaf.org

    • Koun says:

      Jundo–

      I (playfully) submit that perhaps the one setting up a strawman is you. You know from other exchanges that I am a strong advocate of monastic practice — I won’t deny that. But if you re-read what I wrote, you’ll find that I never once suggest that the only way to arrive at an authentic definition of Zen is through monastic training. In fact, I went out of my way to leave space for other possibilities. What I am trying to say (perhaps unskillfully) is something like this:

      - Zen is not simply what we want it to be.
      - Zen is not simply an internal experience.
      - Simply saying that Zen is everywhere doesn’t mean anything unless we have a referent for this thing we keep calling Zen.

      I have, on a few occasions, read where you’ve said something to the effect of, “The monastery is everywhere,” or “Our everyday lives are the monastery.” (Am I misquoting here? Please correct me if I am.) That kind of statement, to me, seems very similar to what I’m trying to address here. If the monastery is everywhere, then what does “monastery” mean? By saying that wherever I am, that’s the monastery, am I not referencing something called a monastery, and am I not somehow holding it up as an ideal? In insisting that it’s right here, am I not, by naming it, also insisting that it’s something separate? And is that useful, from a practice perspective, or is it an added layer? When I stand in my kitchen at home, is it beneficial to say to myself, “This, too, is the monastery,” or is it more skillful to simply think, “This is my kitchen,” or can I go beyond that and just start cutting vegetables without this idea of where I am or where I am not? And one more: Is it meaningful to tell others that “wherever you are, that’s the monastery,” if the audience actually has no idea what a monastery (in its more classical definition) is? Or am I just encouraging people to create a story, to project their own fantasies of what the monastery is for themselves?

      I know this is an issue close to you and your sangha — I would be very grateful for any other thoughts you can offer on it, if you have the time.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  6. Hi Koun,

    I have, on a few occasions, read where you’ve said something to the effect of, “The monastery is everywhere,” or “Our everyday lives are the monastery.” (Am I misquoting here? Please correct me if I am.) That kind of statement, to me, seems very similar to what I’m trying to address here. If the monastery is everywhere, then what does “monastery” mean? By saying that wherever I am, that’s the monastery, am I not referencing something called a monastery, and am I not somehow holding it up as an ideal? In insisting that it’s right here, am I not, by naming it, also insisting that it’s something separate?

    Yes, no need to name any place a “monastery” or “not a monastery”. One might simply call each place and time … in a monastery, a nursery, an office or factory, a cave, hospital or hospice room … a sacred place and space, Buddhaland, the place and time for timeless Practice, a holy ritual.

    Gassho, Jundo

  7. Dave Laser says:

    Koun-
    Thank you! This is so much fun! And- there’s something here, in the world of ‘holding the lotus to the rock’, I think; we’re all still working on how Buddhism and Zen will take shape in the West, in a new age. Your post has me thinking about the limitations, and the possibilities, of language, and how that may apply- what came to mind was Searle’s distinctions between ‘descriptive’ and ‘creative’ language. ‘Defining’ is a descriptive form ( I assert), and while it may be useful in a limited way, according to circumstances, it is also ultimately futile. How can you describe Zen? There is no ‘is’ Zen. ‘Zen is everywhere’ is the same as saying ‘Zen is nowhere’. If everything is Zen, well then, nothing is. Creative language, on the other hand, actually causes something– Searle refers to ‘speech acts’: declaring, promising, requesting, etc. What occurs to me is the possibility of causing Zen to be present, rather than attempting to describe or define it; using language to create Zen, rather than create a story about Zen. Chanting, koans, teisho, Dogen’s writings, e.g.; causing Zen to be present. We can do the same with our bodies: bowing, sitting, standing. Perhaps one view of a monastery is that everything about it, all its various languages ( architecture, ritual, etc.) is designed to cause Zen to be present, 24/7. That would make it a unique sort of place.
    regards,
    Dave

    • Koun says:

      Dave–

      Beautifully said — I couldn’t agree with you more. (Perhaps we should have to hold these discussions in e-prime for a while, to see what comes from that.) Thank you.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  8. judy says:

    Enjoyable discussion. :-)
    I think one meaning of the word “Zen” refers to specific traditions of lineage, rituals, forms, and practices, but just participating in or enacting those forms does not necessarily create a person or situation that is vital, awake, aware, compassionate, embodied; and that quality of profound presence, awareness, openness, etc. is the other meaning of the word “zen”.
    Many people (maybe even most people..?) “practice zen” forms for many years, and remain asleep, oblivious, self-absorbed, going-through-the-motions, and all that is cultivated is a rigid obsession with clinging to the forms.

    • Koun says:

      Judy–

      I agree, absolutely, that practicing certain forms does not necessarily make certain kinds of people, not as a guarantee. But the person you describe — “asleep, oblivious, self-absorbed, going-through-the-motions,” who has only “rigid obsession with clinging to the forms” — is someone I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met.

      An acquaintance of mine (a layperson) who runs a rural Zen group was talking once about visiting teachers, and she said, “I love monks — they’re the only ones who don’t care about form.” It’s counter-intuitive, maybe, but in my experience, that’s pretty accurate. When you really immerse yourself in something for a long time, when you integrate that thing into your actions and your consciousness in that way, the result is not rigidity and obsession, it’s a letting go, a discovery of freedom both within, and from, that activity. When a ceremony slips completely into chaos, the person who will have the best sense of humor about it, 99% of the time, is the person who has done it the most times. But the beginner (for whom the ceremony is still something separate, something to be “aced”) will freak out.

      Dedication to an activity for which there really is no clear reward (and for which one is often distrusted or mocked) can be a very humble and generous way of living. Dedication to form, like anything, can become a place where we hide, but it can just as easily be a place where we are revealed.

      There’s a common assumption that form and substance are two separate things; Dogen insists otherwise. That’s a pretty big idea, one that I hope has enough fans to keep the experiment going. :-)

      Gassho,
      -koun

  9. [...] you were approached just now and asked “What is Zen?” what would you say?Over at Nyoho Zen, Koun raises American Zen’s dirty little secret – we don’t agree what it is. Koun [...]

  10. judy says:

    Interesting!
    You and I must certainly have met different people. ;-)
    I think most (all) of us go in and out of degrees of “asleep, oblivious, self-absorption”. Whether we’re doing “zen” forms, or office-work forms, or washing-the-car and cleaning-up-after-the-kids forms.. Heaven knows I spend most of my time that way.
    Re: ‘rigid obsession with clinging to forms’.. again, I have clearly met different zen practitioners and monks than you and your lay-friend.

    I do agree that a dedication to form can be humble and generous, and a place where we can be revealed. But it can indeed (perhaps more often does) serve as a place where we can hide..

    Dogen’s assertion that form and substance are not different is deeply mysterious and beautiful.
    I think it is the dragon’s gate, the gateless gate… perhaps not entered so easily.. each moment is another opportunity.

  11. Maria says:

    I have a dharma friend in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, who, whenever I tell a problem, answers that everything is samsara. At which point, I just tell her to shut it. ;-) I suppose dharma friends are good for testing your patience, and thus great for practice.

    Gassho,
    Maria

  12. Taigu says:

    Koun,

    I don’t always agree with what you come up with, but it doesn’t matter. I really like the soundless sound of your voice.

    Thank you so much

    Taigu

  13. [...] at Nyoho Zen, Koun raises American Zen’s dirty little secret – we don’t agree what it is. Koun frames the [...]

  14. Raj says:

    Thank you for the most enjoyable post. The crown of Zen, so to say is zazen. It is humble. Your space is true and stripped off unwantedness. This journey of Zen questioning Zen and reaching true doors and cul -de -sacs is good fun. Meanwhile , let the practitioner discover the ground of her practice – the penetration of the present moment. For that, any place is sacred enough to start. Gracias.

  15. Raj says:

    A great post. Thank you.Zen encounter in words if often clearing and explaining our intentions. Any point is the starting point. Any point is the end point. So it is a huge practice and a very responsible job.Thank you.

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