It Really Is Who You Know

Bryan on the right, me on the left.

I came to zazen through a series of fortunate accidents, the right encounters at the right times. Near the end of high school, my best friend’s dad was cleaning out his attic and found an old, dusty copy of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zazen that he had read in college. He tossed it in a garbage can, but my friend thought I might like it, so he fished it out and gave it to me. I’d read some books about Buddhism by then, but they were dry series of lists — so dry that I wondered if anyone actually practiced Buddhism anymore, or if it had died out (growing up in Montana, one can wonder such things). Three Pillars of Zen was a revelation to me. It’s been so many years now that I remember almost nothing about it, so it’s difficult to explain, but reading that book was the rare experience of encountering my own unarticulated ideas, articulated for me by someone else. Years later, I suspect I would find much to disagree with in those pages, but at that moment in my life, my cup was just empty enough for me to swallow it whole, to let it seep through my skin. That book changed everything about what I thought I wanted to do.

The second happy accident took place about a year later, after I’d graduated (and probably read that book twenty times). On a trip out East to see my brother’s college graduation, I’d had the opportunity to visit the Rochester Zen Center, just for a few minutes (I showed up unannounced, but they were kind enough to give me a tour. Philip Kapleau was in the building, but I didn’t get to meet him.) I was telling the story to my high school English teacher, of all people, and he informed me that he had actually organized a zazen group there in my hometown, and invited me to join. A few days later I went to his house, where he gave me a 5-minute explanation of how to sit, then we went together to a tiny room, and he rang a tiny bell (one of the members was a psychologist; we sat in the waiting room of her private practice). It was just the two of us, that time and many times after. I remember that an ant climbed up my sleeve and took a leisurely tour of my arms, torso, and face for the next hour. I’d been told not to move, so I just tracked that bug. It wasn’t zazen, but it was exhilarating, and I wanted more.

I like to say that the little group in Helena, Montana, was basically the Zen version of Fight Club: I got in because I knew someone, but it was basically a secret. Once, in a supermarket, I bumped into one of the members — she was with friends, and though she smiled and said hello, her eyes pleaded with me not to mention how we knew each other. A couple years after I started, I tried to do a journalism project for a class, interviewing the members about how they each came to Zen. Some refused, and every single one that agreed to the interview did it on the condition that I not use their name. Things are changing. That group (now the Open Circle Sangha, with their own website and everything) has changed locations and faces over the last twenty years, but in the process, it has become not only more stable, but also more open. It’s a different time. But I suspect that across the US, especially in more conservative states and smaller towns, invisible little Zen fight clubs are everywhere. One of the pleasures of driving through rural America is knowing that I am at all times surrounded by closeted Buddhists.

In the years after I first sat, I was constantly re-negotiating my relationship to the practice. Like most beginners, I had bursts of sitting once or more a day followed by a month or more of nothing, just a dusty cushion. Zen and zazen informed my sense of self in all sorts of self-serving ways –whether I was really sitting that month or not, I identified strongly as a Zen person, a guy with the inside track on spirituality and discipline. And college being the confusing time that it is, friends were happy to reinforce this image I had of myself by coming to me with their problems, looking for some Zen wisdom. I handed it out freely. I sincerely believed that I was sincere, but I was just as interested in my story of myself as a Zen person as I was in Zen practice.

After college, I moved to Japan for the first time. Meanwhile, in a different tradition and across the world in Philadelphia, my older brother Bryan had been turned on to meditation. He was completely hooked. We’d talk about it on the phone, verbally high-fiving, congratulating each other on our discovery. Then he came to visit me in Japan. Twice a day, he would lock himself in the bathroom to meditate. It drove me crazy. We were arranging our schedule around it. And at some point, I complained a little, or at least suggested that maybe he could skip it once in a while. He thought about it, and looked at my little Buddha statue and relatively untouched zafu in the corner, and he said something like this: “The thing is, if you really believe these teachings are true, then by definition, you believe they’re the most important thing in the world. You have to respond. I have to meditate. If you don’t feel you have to act on these teachings, then by definition, you don’t really believe them.”  He raised his eyebrows and looked me in the eyes for a little too long. “Am I right?”

Bryan claims he doesn’t remember this conversation. But for me, it was a big moment, one I doubt I’ll ever totally shake off. By that time, I’d been identifying with Zen for about four years, and actually sitting for almost as long. But I had never once put myself in a situation where someone could call me on my self-serving approach to it all. I’d never once put myself and my ego in a situation that was the least bit unsafe, at least not in relationship to practice. I’d created a story about myself, and I liked it, and I invited no one to challenge it.

This is what teachers are for. We need to make ourselves vulnerable to that gaze, that honesty. We need to decide that we want that.

When I was twenty-one, I didn’t have a teacher. Only a few people could have said what needed to be said, and my big brother was one of them. Maybe he was the only one. It was perfect. It almost made up for all those times when we were kids and he sold me my own toys, or made me eat chocolate chips wrapped in American cheese, or left me to watch The Shining by myself in the dark at two in the morning.

But probably not quite.

“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.

Zen and Cultural Preservation

I am an outsider to the Tibetan Buddhist world. But from where I stand, it appears that Tibetan Buddhism, in its various forms, is doing quite well in the US. I have met a few teachers, and quite a few students, and even visited a few groups, and almost across the board, I would say there is a seriousness about practice and a reverence for the teachings that goes very deep. It’s an impressive world. There are multiple (large and small) centers offering monastic-style practice and intensive retreat opportunities. In many cases, groups chant teachings in Tibetan; in some, they offer language classes so that students might better understand what they’re reading.

Of course, there have been reformers, like Chogyam Trungpa, who worked to find an authentically western expression of the tradition. Also, in many cases, teachers have chosen to downplay traditional preliminary practices for western students, letting them receive empowerments early on that might, in Tibet, have had a lot more prerequisites. I do not doubt that the question of how closely to adhere to the traditional practice and its cultural context is an active and pressing one almost everywhere. I would be surprised to hear otherwise.

But I sense (again, speaking very generally) that American Vajrayana students do not feel that the way Buddhism was practiced in Tibet was a sad, hollow shell of true Buddhism. They do not feel a sense of obligation to throw away all those aspects of the tradition that don’t easily fit into American culture; they don’t see their tradition as being broken; they don’t see themselves as the ones who will fix it. The students I have met hold their teachers — and other teachers of similar backgrounds — in the highest regard. They seem to want to do it the way their teachers did it, and if not that, they want to at least understand what it is that their teachers passed through to be who they are. It seems, from the outside, like a very respectful world.

In contrast, I’ve noticed, especially recently, that one of the defining characteristics of Zen culture is a tendency to speak negatively about Zen. It’s built in. It’s fashionable. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve heard in Japan in which priests lament the state of the tradition, of the priesthood, of the monasteries. Someone I know once asked her teacher (a very high-ranking and respected Japanese monk in his own right, a teacher of teachers), “Are there any Zen masters in Japan?” He thought about it and replied, “No, I guess not. Well, maybe that guy in…. No, well, no. Maybe not right now.” Older monks love to talk about how the young monks just don’t get it, and the young monks can see that a lot of the old monks seem to be all talk and no action*. Everyone knows that the monastic standards have gone lax — again, there are exceptions, but one doesn’t have to look far to find an authorized training monastery that is a monastery in name only, where even zazen practice is maintained at only the most basic, basic level (once a day, maybe).

If you’re new to Zen, this may all sound a bit shocking (or just sad), but it goes way, way back. 800 years ago, Dōgen (the founder of the Soto school in Japan) spent a good amount of ink complaining about how Buddhism has gone down the drain, how the people in authority have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, Dōgen believed that the teachings he had received from his teacher, at least, were authentic; he just felt that he was more or less alone in what he was carrying.

Some of these complaints about Japanese Zen are absolutely real — I am deeply pessimistic about the trends I see here. But some of this way of talking is also cultural — in a country where self-deprecation is as fundamental as gravity, one shouldn’t be surprised that so few people are prepared to say, “This is the real deal.” I suspect that in his time, a lot of Dōgen’s enemies despised him not for what he was teaching, but for the unapologetic confidence with which he taught it.

In the West we see this too, but it’s a little different. In Japan, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in Japan; in the West, priests commiserate about the decay of Zen in… Japan.

Many of the teachers who came to the West from Japan were fed up with the state of things in their home country, both within the tradition itself and within the bureaucracy-heavy institutions being built up around it. They personally knew great teachers, but they could see that there were few in line to replace them. So when they made their way across the ocean, they told students that they had the opportunity (in the land of opportunity) to establish something pure, something authentic. There was even talk of how this newly-established, pure practice might turn around and re-inspire Buddhism in Japan. This was big thinking.

And for the record, I love that they held such huge aspirations. As with Dōgen, we can’t separate out that confidence and that sincerity from what they actually accomplished, which is remarkable. But the downside is that many people heard this talk and just took their teachers’ word for it that Buddhism in Japan had gone down the drain, or that it wasn’t relevant anymore. So western practitioners were handed — and embraced — the rather lofty challenge of fixing Zen Buddhism, either because it was fundamentally broken, or because it was too burdened by Asian cultural baggage to be of any use in the West.

I suspect that a major reason that Vajrayana practitioners embrace the Tibetan-ness of Tibetan Buddhism is that there is a sense of protection, a desire to preserve not just the Buddhist tradition of that culture, but also the culture itself; it also helps that Tibetan culture as a whole seems to be closely intertwined with Buddhism, going so far as to establish a role like that of the Dalai Lama that wields not just spiritual, but also political, authority. Preserving Tibetan Buddhism is a way of supporting and preserving a displaced culture, and that’s appealing.

Zen in the West doesn’t tap into that impulse to preserve — after all, Japanese culture is doing just fine on its own. The feeling, for years, has been that true Zen has been buried under Japanese cultural baggage, and we need to free it (“it” usually being zazen). There are dozens of teachers in the US who take it as a badge of honor that they don’t wear robes, or that they don’t do the ceremonies, or that they don’t put on airs, sitting on the high seat. They’re free from all that “Japanese” stuff. And the same attitudes are common among those who frequent Zen centers. I knew one man in Alaska who was genuinely concerned that the ceremonies we performed were designed to make him feel “less than” his Japanese counterparts, as part of an agenda to suggest that Asians are innately more spiritual. I suspect that his concerns, which he was able to describe very clearly, are actually common in Western Zen, even if they are not always so plainly articulated.

I want to propose, however, that American Zen, like American Vajrayana, can take refuge in this culture-preserving mind. It’s available, and in our evolution, I think it’s important. But I also want to clarify that the culture to be preserved is not Japanese culture — it’s Zen culture.

The fact is that even Japanese people, as a whole, know very little about Zen culture. Non-Japanese often feel so overwhelmingly out of place in a Japanese monastery that they cannot see that Japanese people, too, are completely out of their element. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to stand, how to sit, how to behave. It’s a new world for them.

Of course, much of Zen culture in Japan is informed by Japanese norms. For example, I would say that one aspect of what I’m calling Zen culture is a refined formality. In monasteries, people avoid casual speech; Dōgen went so far as to insist that monks only refer to vegetables using honorifics. Some of the shape that formality takes in Japan is, naturally, very Japanese — there is a sense, from samurai movies and centuries-old literature about how one addresses those in power, about how to speak and sit and gesture in a very formal way, and some of that certainly enters the monastery. But monastery formality is its own thing. Likewise, the insistence on very specific physicality (hold your hands like this, stand with your feet like so, and on and on) has some parallels in other aspects of Japanese culture (tea ceremony is an obvious example), but I have never seen a version as complete as what one finds in a temple. Each individual accepts responsibility for participating in, and thereby creating, a very specific atmosphere, one you won’t find anywhere else.

It can be difficult to sort all this out. I’ve known non-Japanese who came here and got it all wrong. They went home insisting, “This is how they do it in Zen temples,” when in fact, that’s just how Japanese people sit. Or the reverse — they say, “Oh, that’s just Japanese culture,” when what they saw was something specific to one temple, one lineage. It takes time and patience and humility to sift through these kinds of questions.

But that is exactly what we — especially those who represent a lineage — have been charged with doing. We can bring that beautiful formality into Zen in America. It need not be Japanese at all. We can explore the full depths of what it is to create a group practice, that sense of synchronicity, of singular movement. It need not be Japanese. Even now, it’s not. There is a language spoken by people who practice in a traditional way, but it’s a language of the body, a language of gesture, a language of delicacy and fierceness and “just so.” It is not the Japanese language.

It’s just Zen.

*For an excellent discussion of the current state of Buddhism in Japan and its potential directions, please take a look at the lecture by Noriyuki Ueda in the most recent edition of Dharma Eye. Click here for the pdf.

Eating for (more than) Two

There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about “all beings”: we are connected to all beings, we strive to liberate all beings, we work for the sake of all beings….

It’s a huge idea, one that we can never fully wrap our heads around. Sometimes we run across the phrase “sentient beings,” but that’s meaningless — life is too short for us to work out what is and is not a being we should save, a being with which we have a connection. My friends are beings, the dog next door is a being, the rock in my shoe is a being, that moment of panic I feel when I think I overslept is a being. Differentiating, on that level, is precisely what this practice is not about.

This talk of all beings has evolved over time. In the earliest Buddhist texts, it seems that we don’t see so much of it. Instead, we see teaching after teaching about the universality of experience, about our shared sameness. From the time of the Buddha, it has been taught that suffering, though it expresses itself differently according to each individual, is essentially the same for everyone. Happiness too, and anger. We may get upset for very different reasons and at different times, but that emotional experience of wanting the current situation to be other than what it is — we share that, intimately. (Much of the pain of adolescence, it would seem, is just an inability to recognize that fact. We feel alone, when the exact opposite is true.)

I suspect (and I would love for a Buddhist scholar to jump in and speak to this more authoritatively than I can) that much of the evolution of Buddhism has just been a thought exercise, a matter of people saying, If X is true, and if we factor in Y, then the logical ramifications of that must be Z. In this case, if our conditions (dissatisfaction, impermanence, the absence of an unchanging self) are universal, then just by that definition alone, we share a profound connection. If we are fundamentally the same, then we are not fundamentally different. If we are not different, then the distinction between you and me is a false one. If that’s true, then we are, in a manner of speaking, “one.”

If there is no line between you and me, then your suffering is mine, and your happiness is mine. And by extension, what’s mine is not mine, and what’s yours is not really yours. It’s out of this kind of math, I suspect, that Buddhism came to take such an interest in interdependent origination, and that it arrived at a figure like the Bodhisattva, someone who accepts responsibility for all beings. It’s a logical — and beautiful — development.

The difficulty with these kinds of wide-scale teachings, I think, is that they are so overwhelming as to seem unreal. It makes for great philosophy, but for many of us, it remains an abstraction, something fun to talk about but not something that is immediate and felt in our daily lives. Maturity and empathy can lead us to see, firsthand, that other people’s experiences are not foreign from our own, and that can make us much more skillful one on one. That is no small thing — working from that place of understanding is the foundation of almost any truly honest encounter. It’s something we all need to explore, and remind ourselves of, daily.

But extending that to this thing we call “all beings” is much more difficult. How do we interact with all beings? How do we take responsibility for all beings? We can start with the person we’re with. Following this math, the person in front of you is the face of all beings, so how you treat him or her is how you are treating the world. (This applies to objects as well, which I want to write about later.) On a practical level, if we can remember just that, maybe it’s enough. But I do think there’s value in exploring this heavy, looming abstraction of “all beings.” It’s there, so it’s there for us to confront.

When we’re alone, where is the confrontation? The person that is always in front of me is me. How do I treat myself? And does it matter? We don’t need to believe that all beings are one, or that we’re all connected on some invisible spiritual level, to find this worthy of our consideration. Even the skeptic can recognize that reality is made up of its parts. I am one of those parts. You are one of those parts, just as our organs and cells are our components. If one of my cells is unhealthy, even if I don’t notice that, even if it doesn’t have measurable repercussions throughout my body, still, that cell is one part of the picture that is me, of my health, of my functioning. However we frame this, it’s not that difficult for us to accept that what happens to me is happening to the universe; what I do is an extension of everything and everyone.

This is the basis of responsibility.

I started thinking about all this differently a few years ago, when my wife Tracy was pregnant with our first child. Tracy has always been careful about what she eats, but as soon as she knew she was pregnant, eating healthy foods became a serious matter. She read all the literature and knew what to eat and what not to. She was eating for two. She accepted responsibility for this other life, and in doing so, accepted that her body is not completely her own. To any mother, I think, this must seem obvious, but it’s not limited to mothers.  I suspect it’s also a well-known realization among people who dedicate themselves to others: firefighters, nurses on call, soldiers, and on and on and on. This body is not just mine — it is also part of a larger function. If I keep it healthy, that is in service of that function. If I let it get weak or sick or injured, then that hinders my ability to be skillful, to fulfill that mission.

Watching Tracy eat for two, I had this idea: What if I were eating for all beings? What would I put in my body? What would I refuse? If we take these teachings of connectedness and singularity to one extreme, then my body is the body of all beings; what I eat is the food of the world. I forget this little idea of mine often — old habits die hard, and I don’t always eat the healthiest thing on the menu. But when I do remember it, for example at the supermarket, it changes the way I shop. I can use all manner of twisted rationalization to let myself eat those chips, or get the big box of cookies. However, if I imagine, even for a moment, that by eating I am feeding others, then so-called “foods” with no nutritional value reveal themselves to be absurd. They are absurd, of course, but this frame helps me to see it. (One could completely misinterpret this whole idea in disastrous ways, I know: “All beings sure would like a beer right now,” “I think I’m going to treat the universe to a big piece of chocolate cheesecake,” and so on. We have to look with the eyes of an adult, or it all falls apart very quickly.)

Take this as a true understanding of the body, or take it as an exercise — in either case, the effect is the same. When we allow ourselves to feel the responsibility of caring for all beings, we intuitively know how to respond. If it’s just an idea, just a philosophy, we can get stuck on the seeming impossibility of it — how to save all beings? We stumble because we’re looking for the heroic act, the grand gesture. But if we take it to its logical end, if we imagine that when I eat, all beings eat, and when I talk, all beings talk, and so on, then we start to simply offer up the best of ourselves, of our best selves. We listen to those little voices in our heads telling us to sit up straight and floss and walk the three blocks to the post office instead of driving. We take care in our actions, and in doing so, we take care of something much, much bigger.

We know so much already. We know what to do. We know how to offer ourselves.

It’s good news, I think.

At a Glance

The Buddha realized enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree.  —No, wait, that’s not the right place to start.

Let us start here instead:  the Buddha was an ordinary human being.  He went to the toilet, got hungry, had to trim his fingernails.  Some accounts say he suffered from severe back pain for much of his adult life—perhaps a consequence of his years of self-brutalizing ascetic practices, his attempts to transcend the body all together.  The imagery and myth accumulated over the last 2500 years would have us believe that he was extraordinarily tall, or that he had weirdly long earlobes, or that his skin was golden; he had special birthmarks designating him as a Buddha, including (by at least one account) rather frightening genitalia.  All these signs are supposed to reveal that he was a true Buddha, that he was the genuine article, that he was special.  But the Buddha was an ordinary human being.  He looked like the people around him.

The true signs of a Buddha are not what we imagine them to be, not at all.

The Buddha realized enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree. We don’t know what this means.  We cannot know.  It’s his word—we can believe or not, but he could not prove it in any scientific way, then or today.  Nor could he describe it—not if enlightenment is as total as teachings tell us it is.  This moment of enlightenment would appear to be the climax of the story, but it’s really just the introduction.  It’s not even the most interesting part.

After a while, the Buddha stood and began walking towards Sarnath, where his former companions continued in their ascetic practices.  They had deserted him after seeing him step away from self-mortification and towards a “middle way,” one which found a healthy balance between the comfort of the senses and the total rejection of the body.  He had bathed and eaten a wholesome meal—from his companions’ perspective, he had betrayed them.  So when they heard of his approach, they agreed that they would not even acknowledge him.  He would receive no welcome, not even a greeting.  But as his figure appeared in the distance, they caught sight of him, and they watched in silence.  They said nothing to one another, but when he arrived at their spot on the grass, all in unison bowed and asked to be received as his students.

What did they see as he walked across the grass?

What did he show them?  What did he express, and how did he express it?

This is the true story of Buddhism, specifically of Zen.  This is the start of the wordless transmission.

This is interesting.

Bowing at the Scene of the Crime

Our altar at home; our 3-year-old offered the Elmo towel.

How do we orient ourselves to the world?  When we face the center, where are we facing? What do we confront there?

A temple is a space — any space — we create for the sake of practice. It’s where we allow the practice to play itself out, freely, without distraction.

And at the heart of every temple, at its core, we find an altar, what in Japanese is called a shumidan (須弥壇).  The dan itself means an altar; the shumi is a transliteration of Sumeru, the mythological, unimaginably tall mountain at the center of the world.  According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the world that we know (the human world) is to the south of that mountain, but that is not the entire world.  To the north, east, and west, lie other kingdoms, ruled by different kings; specific beings inhabit different terraces on the mountain’s slope; other beings live in the seas surrounding the mountain, and so on (for a fascinating read — and a headache — check out the Wikipedia page).

Obviously, this kind of worldview is like saying that the earth is flat, or that corpses spawn maggots.  We know better, and in the case of Mt. Sumeru, we’ve known better for a very long time.  Yet this image of the mountain at the center of the world has continued as a powerful force in temple life for centuries.  Just as we can make a temple of our current environment, so can we face a Mt. Sumeru as a way of giving direction to our lives.

When we imagine an altar, we imagine a Buddha statue at the center.  In reality, some temples replace Buddha with one of the bodhisattvas:  Avalokiteshvara (the embodiment of compassion) or, especially in rooms where people practice zazen, Manjushri, the actualization of wisdom.  In any of these cases, we are orienting ourselves to an image we find inspirational, to an exemplum of the practice.

I have heard of individuals and Zen centers doing away with such imagery all together, replacing the Buddha image with something like a beautiful rock.  I imagine that such a choice comes out of a concern about idolatry; perhaps such centers feel that a Buddha statue would just be too overtly “Buddhist.”  Or maybe the goal is to align oneself with the natural world.  Or it could be that the rock is intended to show that “everything is Buddha,” a teaching heard again and again.  But I think this is a mistake.  I will try to explain why.

An altar is not just something that stands there.  We engage with it, and the nature of that engagement is offering.  At first we might just offer symbolically.  Awkwardly.  But with time, when we give something, we actually give it.  We truly let it go, and in doing so, we discover that there is nothing to be lost.

In Japanese temples, there are certain ceremonies in which sweetened water, tea, cakes, or even an entire meal are ritually placed on the altar as an offering to the Buddha and all beings.  Really, it’s just “all beings” — the Buddha, dead now 2500 years, is in no position to drink tea.  But that’s the shape of it.  In the monks’ hall, Manjushri even has his own ōryōki set (one common novice mistake is to place the food facing away from Manjushri, when in fact it’s arranged as if he might actually lean down and take a bite).  This is a rich kind of ritual, an opportunity to personalize our relationships with the teachers of the past, both real and mythological. How great to offer wisdom a bowl of soup!  I suspect, though, that this particular kind of giving will never find a strong foothold in the West. It takes a long time for this kind of offering to start feeling authentic, like something other than play-acting.

But this kind of offering is also not the most important kind.  This kind of practice invites us to let go of what we think of as “mine.”  And we can learn to make this a habit, elaborate ceremony or not.

One of the most simple — and universal — practices in the Buddhist world is “giving it away.”  If a friend gives you a sweater, you can hold up that sweater and say, “I offer this sweater to all beings—may all beings be warm.”  And then, assuming that all beings do not descend upon you and take it, you receive it.  But now, instead of receiving it just from your friend, you’re receiving that sweater from all of reality.  Before we eat, we do the same, giving it away and receiving it anew — not as a gift to keep, but as a treasure to hold in trust.  This is an act of generosity, but in equal measure, it is an act of humility.

The altar becomes a physical vehicle of this process.  When you receive a gift, place it on the altar, for an hour or a day or a week.  When you receive your paycheck, place it on the altar before you put it in the bank.  Feel the letting go intrinsic to that act; feel the responsibility that comes with it.

In theory, we can do this practice anywhere, altar or not — and I think we should, as much as possible.  But actually placing that sweater or that paycheck before the image of the Buddha and leaving it there — that is a powerful act.  It is the enactment of giving, receiving, and gift, what we call the Three Wheels.  It is this practice of enactment — physical enactment — that lays the foundation for being able to do such a practice instinctively and formlessly, altar or no altar, wherever you may be.

To carry out just this universal practice of offering objects, perhaps an altar doesn’t need any image at all — no Buddha, no bodhisattva.  But there’s more than this.

We all have an idea of who the Buddha was, or what a buddha is.  It’s usually at least a little superhuman; the fact that the Buddha has long been portrayed with exaggerated features (long ears, for example) doesn’t help us to see him as a person, though that’s all he was.  We can hear over and over that the Buddha was just a human being, that he was just like us, but few really believe it.   We might imagine him glowing a little, or assume he always knew exactly what to do, or believe that what he saw is beyond what we’re capable of seeing.

However, the gap between our projections about Buddha and his actual humanity mirrors perfectly the gap we ourselves feel between who I am and the immeasurable scope of who I might be.  It is no exaggeration to say that reconciling this perceived gap is the singular aim of Buddhist practice.  It is a koan — a question we confront and which confronts us — and rather than avoid it, we are charged with facing it head on.

If the image on the altar is a beautiful stone, that presents no challenge.  It may feel a little silly at first to bow to a rock, but we can get over it, because by choosing an abstraction, we can make that rock whatever we want it to be.  We can each individually create our own story about that rock, one that is non-threatening and safe and personal.  But spiritual practice—Zen or otherwise—should never be so comfortable.

There’s the famous saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” I think this is commonly misunderstood. Erasing Buddha and images of Buddha from Buddhism (or in another popular scenario, removing Buddhism from Zen) is not killing Buddha. It’s more like putting out a hit. Or getting a restraining order. In order to kill Buddha, there must be an encounter on the road. We have to meet.

In your home, set up an altar with a Buddha image and space for offerings. Let yourself be confronted by the image every day.  Let it be a part of the air you breathe.  Let yourself enjoy it and be bothered by it.

Let it be the mountain at the center of the world, the landmark by which we know which way is forward.

And bow to it.  Bow, and in doing so, offer yourself up at that same altar.  You will construct a story about this — that’s natural (and inevitable).  You will tell yourself, “I’m bowing to the idea of the Buddha, not Buddha himself.”  Or perhaps, “I bow to the Buddha as a student bows to a teacher.”  That’s fine. It will change with time.  If you keep bowing, then through that action, you’ll either figure out why you bow, or you’ll forget the question all together.  But the story you make for yourself will never do that action justice.

There are stories in Zen literature about teachers who, in order to show that the Buddha was not special, burned Buddha statues, or threw them away.  I even read once of a monastery in Sri Lanka where the Buddha’s image was printed inside urinals, to the same end.  In cultures where Buddhism is long established, and where the Buddha is sometimes accorded god-like status, such transgressive actions become profound and powerful teachings.

But in the West, we like those kinds of stories too much for them to be very meaningful.  These stories appear again and again in Western Zen literature. We smile knowingly when we read them. We love what those teachers did, but we have to remember that those teachers did those things in front of students who were horrified, not thrilled. That was the point.

I think most of us need the opposite, to be confronted directly by the image of Buddha and be forced to ask — again and again — What is this?  Different patients require different prescriptions, and in the West, we need to look the Buddha in the eye, have that stare-down, maybe wrestle with him a little.

Then we can kill him.