Yesterday at Sweeping Zen, Adam Tebbe posted a video of Jun Po Denis Kelly, head of the Hollow Bones Order and the creator of Mondo Zen™, laughing about a sesshin in which he “terrified” a whiny participant by grabbing him by the chest, throwing him against a wall, and growling, “Wake up. People are dying.” Jun Po uses this as an illustration of the “ferocity” of Rinzai Zen, and ends by saying that though that ferocity needs to be maintained, it also has to be used skillfully. Adam’s question was, Does this kind of violence have a place in Zen? There’s a lot to be said about it — I understand the concern, but I do think there’s a place for a kind of ferocity, an intensity, even if we don’t often see it in the Soto world.
So I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts about it, but I’m finding that it’s hard to separate out the question at hand from the fact that I feel predisposed to distrust Jun Po Denis Kelly. I have never met him. I like his photographs — he has a powerful look about him. And his resume is pretty great — he’s worked hard to be where he is, and I don’t doubt at all that a deep sincerity has been behind that work. I would say that he comes off as arrogant in the video, but that aside, I actually like that he seems to take a hardline, my-way-or-the-highway view of training. That can be a good thing, assuming other factors are in place. So this distrust I feel may be completely unreasonable; the reason may be too simple to be legitimate. But here it is: it’s the little ‘ ™ ‘ after Mondo Zen™.
The official description of Mondo Zen™ begins as follows:
Mondo Zen™ is based on Japanese and Chinese Zen, updated for the 21st Century. Mondo Zen™ transcends the hierarchical/authoritarian, gender-biased and constraining monastic aspects of traditional Zen in favor of practical, experiential “in the world” engagement. Relying only on direct personal experience – as taught by the Buddha himself – it does not allow mythic constructs to complicate its philosophical orientation. This includes ideas such as reincarnation, soul as personality, bardo realms, past lives, a creator deity, or other faith-based beliefs. It is important that in our practice of Mondo Zen™ we consciously choose to set aside all such ideas at least until we have experienced, tested and evaluated for ourselves a simpler and stronger way of knowing. Why is this important? Because those beliefs and concepts force our immediate experience into a container of pre-defined understanding, robbing us of the experience of deeper insight. By letting go of our attachment to our beliefs and mythologies, at least while we are actively doing this practice, we remove a barrier to insight caused by our attachment to those views.
It keeps going: Mondo Zen™ is “a transmission of Correct Understanding,” “a full heart-mind collaboration between ‘student’ and ‘teacher,’” and so on.
I have trained exclusively in traditional Japanese monasteries, and I would describe Zen in the same way. Of course Zen relies on direct personal experience. Of course it does not allow mythic constructs to complicate its philosophical orientation (though I would add that it also doesn’t allow its philosophical orientation to complicate its philosophical orientation!). Of course it transcends the hierarchical, gender-biased and constraining monastic aspects of traditional Zen — it transcends all containers, and fills them too. This is a strawman argument. This is packaging the obvious as something revolutionary. There is no “update” to be found here. If anything, this stinks of Boomeritis, the term coined by Ken Wilber (a brilliant philosopher, and colleague of Jun Po’s) to describe baby boomers’ inclination to believe that they are the first ones to see things as they really are, and that they will be the ones to establish the new paradigm.
In short, this is just cynical marketing. And though I understand it, I think it’s a crime.
The more famous example of the ‘ ™ ‘ is Genpo Merzel’s Big Mind Process™ (“Big Mind®: The gateless gate to boundless perception”). In some ways, Genpo is too easy a target. His activities had been the object of private derision by Zen teachers for years, then last year, after various scandals were made public, he became an object of public scorn. Much was made of his indiscretions, and along the way, some critics also laid into Big Mind Process™ itself, mostly labeling it a scam, something with no connection to Zen. But in its marketing, Ken Wilber referred to it as “arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism. …With the Big Mind Process, a genuine kenso can occur in about an hour — seriously.” It was called “the third turning of the wheel of the Dharma.” In reality, it’s Voice Dialogue repackaged for a Buddhist audience. And as a tool of inquiry, I have no problem with it; like many others, I am, however, uncomfortable with the over-the-top claims made about it (among other things, if realization is just an experience in your brain, that’s a reductive re-definition of realization).
To be fair, in one important way, Mondo Zen™ and Big Mind Process™ are not really in the same category. Mondo Zen™ describes Zen exactly the way just about everyone would describe Zen, then claims that it’s new and improved. Big Mind Process™ takes something that has almost no relationship to any historical understanding of Zen, then says that Zen has evolved into this. Both arise from the assumption — always confusing to me — that Zen and Buddhism are somehow fundamentally irrelevant to “ordinary life,” that they’re broken and have been waiting for someone to come along and make them meaningful again. But each is trying to sell something very different from the other.
Both, I suspect, offer something fairly valuable. I’ve watched videos of Big Mind™ workshops — it looks like a nice therapeutic tool, one that many could benefit from. And I suspect I would like Mondo Zen™, because it appears to be exactly like, well, Zen.
But it’s this “selling” that does not sit well with me.
I want to be perfectly clear: I have no problem with Zen priests trying to make money. A lot of people, in my experience, take a puritanical view that priests should live in poverty, and they begrudge them any income at all. But the fact is that in most cases, even the famous ones live with very little, and the obscure ones barely scrape by. I’m sure Genpo Merzel has a comfortable personal income, but I also know that much of the income generated by his work has gone to support his center. Brad Warner has been very forthcoming about how little he makes from selling so many books, and I have no reason not to believe him. Zen priests struggle. In Alaska, the members of the center, for all their sincere efforts, couldn’t completely support me on their own, so I took another job — that job, in very real ways, was what made much of the activity at the center possible, because that non-priest job gave me the basic security to stay in Anchorage and do my work as a priest. That scenario is playing itself out all over the country, at centers big and small. I know priests who want to retire but can’t, because they know that shaking things up in even the slightest way will cause the center to collapse completely, and they don’t want that to happen. I know another priest who has worked for years as an airline attendant — his community would benefit tremendously if he could be with them all the time, but who will support that? So when a priest takes on another job, or when they get second billing on the yoga retreat circuit, or when they pursue book deals, I think, congratulations. When Zen centers make the decision to flat-out charge for events instead of sticking to a donations-only policy, I sympathize — I’ve been part of those conversations, and those decisions are never, never easy. They’re painful. It’s never about money, never just that, not as an end in itself. It’s about creatively supporting a place of practice and your own work as a priest when, in this culture and in this economy, others can’t or won’t. There are rich, fat-cat Zen priests, but not in the US, not as far as I know.
So if Jun Po and Genpo have money coming in, that’s fine. If it’s because they’re creative, forward-thinking teachers, that’s fine. If it’s even just charisma, that’s fine. I’m not concerned about teachers being successful on that level. In any case, that kind of success is rare.
However, both Jun Po and Genpo are making claims that they have discovered a revolutionary way of sharing the Dharma, one that is uniquely suited to our time and our culture, one that offers a kind of insight and authenticity that is otherwise not available. Then they’re trademarking it so that no one else can steal it. It’s so completely out of place in a tradition like this one that when you first hear about something like this, I think the normal response is not outrage but incredulity. You’re kidding, right?
When Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, he knew what a gift it was to the world. His only thought was to make it available to everyone, as quickly as possible. He didn’t sell it; he saw it as the property of all. When asked who owned the patent, he replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The Dharma, to me, is the sun. It shines on everyone equally — it is always ever-present, always available. For centuries, we’ve turned to teachers to help us to see that light, to feel that heat on our faces directly. to realize that it was always there. Some teachers are amazing in that role; others are not. Some in our history have been innovators, while others have taken a more conservative approach. Some have taken on that role gladly, with a confidence that can be both powerful and unsettling; others have tried their best to remain invisible. But in 2500 years of teachers, how many have said, “I have found the better way to introduce others to their own true nature, to guide them to true seeing, to awaken them to limitless experience. And no one is allowed to teach this way but me”? Before the turn of this century, I suspect that the number was zero.
Buddhist teaching is a deep sea of plagiarism. Teachers shouldn’t pass off another teacher’s words as their own — that kind of direct stealing benefits no one. But the reality is that if we immerse ourselves in these teachings, if we listen to others with an open heart, if we chew on something we heard for months and years, we lose track, not only of who first said what, but of the more basic question of whether the ideas in our heads are really ours at all. I have thought, “This is the perfect analogy to describe such-and-such,” and thought I was really clever, only to find that the analogy appears in a book I read fifteen years ago. It was just worming its way into my head all that time. I’ve also come up with things that felt like something I’d heard, but after years of reflection have decided, no, that really is my own phrasing, my own illustration of that point. It has to be this way, because we have to bring everything to the table every time. If I love the way my teacher teaches, I will try with every bone in my body to embody that way of teaching. I can’t help but make it my own, but when I sit in the role of teacher, my teacher is also teaching, and so is his, and so are the authors of my favorite books, and so on. “My” style is born of something borrowed, stolen, absorbed, imitated. None of this is mine. It’s not mine to withhold. It’s not mine to begrudge.
And it’s not mine to trademark.