“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.