Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Myth of Zen

As a student and teacher of Zen, I find myself making a common mistake that many people do when referring to Zen--assuming that there is ONE kind of Zen. There isn't. One of the most powerful myths that exist about Zen Buddhism is that there is a normative standard, as if all Zen school and practitioners agree on one set of principles.

They don't.

Zen (including Seon and Chan) is a blanket term that is completely conventional, provisional, and conceptual. In other words, Zen itself is empty of having any sort of essence. Ironically, despite emptiness (sunyata) being such a central tenet of (many schools of) Buddhism, Zen Buddhists often subscribe to the myth that there one single entity called "Zen." Which as history would have it, in the West is more often not Japanese.

Actually, there is very little consensus about what Zen is. Despite Zen's etymological connection to the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation, not all Zen schools emphasize meditation to the same degree. For example, zazen or seated meditation, represents the sommum bonum of practice for the Japanese Soto school; whereas in other sects, meditation may take a more peripheral role next to koan, hua-tou, chanting, or mindfulness practice.

My point is, there is no single Zen. Although it is very difficult to have a conversation about Zen if we constantly have to insert, "Well some Zen schools believe...," we need to be cognizant of assuming that we have the authentic Zen.

Western Zen--and this is based entirely on my personal experience, and thus is merely an opinion--tends to be elitist. Zen practitioners, subscribing to Bodhidharma's quasi-mythical maxim that Zen is beyond words (and thus connotatively reserved for the spiritual elite), like their Zen a certain way. Too much Mahayana Buddhist liturgy or study and Zen loses its bare-bones flavor. Too much chanting or bowing or reciting the Buddha's name and--gasp!--Zen "degenerates" into pan-Buddhism and is no longer "Zen," whatever that means. Not enough emphasis on form and Zen appears loosey-goosey.

For instance, Korean Seon is much more ecumenical than Japanese Zen. It has a much broader range of practices and doesn't subscribe to such a narrow self-definition of identity. The same applies for early Chan monks who practiced right beside students of Hua-yen and T'ien-T'ai because the idea that "I'm a Chan monk and therefore..." didn't exist then. It had not yet developed. Which suggests an important point:

Zen developed over centuries. It didn't appear fully formed in its current state. Contemporary Zen is the result of hundreds of years' worth of political, social, religious conditions and factors all playing off one another.

This is very humbling and informative. My concern as a Western Zen Buddhist teacher is how this impacts our practice and lives. Humans are prone to appropriating any idea and incorporating it into their identity, or sense of self. After a time, students may find themselves saying or thinking, "I'm a Zen Buddhist; therefore, I practice [such and such] exclusively."

Frankly, that's unnecessary. If we take out all of the superfluous verbiage from that statement, all we are left with is "practice"--whatever form that may take. For me, it's a constant return to the empty, clear awareness of "Don't know" mind. From there, we then ask, "How may I help you?" I won't presume to say that this is THE Zen practice, because it isn't. That's a huge assumption, arguably narrow-minded, elitist, and most importantly, not very helpful.

To avoid ending on a negative note, I'll conclude by paraphrasing one of my favorite instructions of Zen Master Seung Sahn: "Practice, practice, practice, for 10,000 years. Reach enlightenment and then save all sentient beings!"


  1. This is a good reminder. In the Mountains & Rivers Order of (American) Zen, in which I am a student, we hit what feels to me like a sweet spot between tradition and innovation, but there are many modes of practice out there. The Diamond Sutra assures us the Dharma will survive. It's worth noticing that recent scholarship suggests there were in fact many Mahayanas even in the early days, with different codes of behavior and variations of doctrine--modern Zen continues this somewhat chaotic tradition.

  2. I completely agree, Joseph. MahayanaS all the way. To borrow from the real estate mantra--"Upaya, upaya, UPAYA!" The moment we attach to a practice or teaching, we run the risk of reifying it. Thanks for your contribution, Joseph.

    1. LOL! First time I have heard the real estate mantra. Wonderful! I will definitely pass it along.

  3. "Zen practitioners, subscribing to Bodhidharma's quasi-mythical maxim that Zen is beyond words (and thus connotatively reserved for the spiritual elite), like their Zen a certain way."

    For my money, it is a false and facile deduction ["connotatively"] to say that because Zen is sometimes described as being "beyond words" it is therefore elitist. I would agree that Zen -- and even Buddhism in general -- has a number of elitist tendencies ("a bunch of smart white guys" as an acquaintance of mine once put it), but what is "beyond words" hardly qualifies in that regard. Anyone who can sneeze or love or be wracked by grief -- irrespective of race, sex, education or income level -- knows there are matters that do not lend themselves to the self-annointing confines of words.

    I do agree that so-called teachers can present the matter in an upscale or elitist tone [dig my wisdom!], but that does not mean that "beyond words" is therefore elitist of itself.

    Just my two cents.

  4. This is a very important topic. Thanks for raising it.

    First, I agree 100% that we must understand which of the meanings of the word "Zen" we are pointing at when we use the word. But I would not go so far as to say that all the meanings are merely or even "completely conventional, provisional, and conceptual." This hits the most important point about words: the meaning is not in the definition. Definitions point to the meanings. If we think that there is nothing other than the word then we might think the word is "completely conventional, provisional, and conceptual" but the meaning is not bound by the conventionality, provisionality, or conceptuality of the word. This is the teaching of the Lankavatara Sutra which is of course the quintesential Zen sutra.

    Now, the relationship between the persons and the teachings of Zen is found in Bodhidharma as a living presence. So we can say unequivocally that Zen is the lineage of teaching that connects back to Bodhidharma. This point was established by Guifeng Zongmi (780 – 841C.E.) when he surveyed the Zen landscape in the first half of the 9th century and nearly singlehandedly popularized the adoption of the word “Zen” as the standard reference label for all the streams and branches of teachers who came from Bodhidharma’s descendants. Zongmi identified at least 9 distinguishable branches in the tree of Zen, and these branches stemmed from the 4th, 5th, and 6th Zen ancestors.

    By identifying how they all stemmed from Bodhidharma and how they all related to the essential teachings of Bodhidharma, even though they had distinguishable features of emphasis, Zongmi established in the minds of both the literati and the populace the fact that there was a Zen school then functioning alive and well in China. Zongmi clearly established that there was no single model for how to practice Zen and that all the apparent differences were brought together and made understandable as one school in reference to Bodhidharma.

    The importance of Zongmi has been lost to many Zen students, especially to those of the Japanese lineages because of the emphasis of sectarianism between Soto and Rinzai streams and the cultural chauvinism of many of the Japanese teachers. I would argue that the Korean lineages (as an institution) have maintained their ecumenicalism precisely because the main founder of modern Korean Zen, Pojo Chinul (1158-1210) was a great advocate and admirer of Zongmi. Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769) is a notable example of the ecumenical spirit of the Buddha Dharma that is reminiscent of both Chinul and Zongmi.

    Zongmi, Chinul, and even Hakuin all based their ecumenical view of Zen Buddha Dharma in the context of the One Vehicle. Zongmi and Chinul found their One Vehicle connection largely through the Avatamsaka Sutra and Hakuin found his One Vehicle connection through the Lotus Sutra. Bodhidharma of course began it all with the connection to the One Vehicle through the Lankavatara Sutra. To me the important point is not which sutra a particular teacher had most affinity with but that Zen has always had such a close connection to the One Vehicle regardless of any particular sutra; so much so, that we can honestly say that Zen is the One Vehicle.

    (continued due to size limit)

  5. (comment part 2)

    The connection between Zen and the One Vehicle goes back all the way to Bodhidharma so that it is the One Vehicle that is the common denominator of all the Zen schools today, no matter who diverse and strange those Zen branches may appear based on their cultural paths. In the “Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks,” the author Daoxuan, a Vinaya Master, tells us about the monk Fachong who was an expounder of the Lankavatara Sutra known to have lectured on the sutra well over 100 times. Fachong in his travels came in contact with and studied under “those who had been intimately taught by master Ke, relying on the One Vehicle lineage of Southern India to explain it.” This “master Ke” is none other than Huike the second Chinese ancestor of Zen who is famous for receiving the transmission directly from Bodhidharma. Thus we learn in one of the earliest non-sectarian descriptions of the Zen lineage that it was called the “One Vehicle lineage of Southern India,” which of course is where Bodhidharma is said to have come from.

    I honestly believe that Zen will find its suitable ground in being transplanted to Western culture when we who are followers of the many diverse and varying streams flowing from Bodhidharma realize the ecumenical context of what it means that Zen is the legacy of the One Vehicle lineage of Southern India that Bodhidharma brought from India to China. As Doshim says, Zen is practice and realization for saving all beings and this is the essential core of the One Vehicle as confirmed by all the One Vehicle Sutras such as the Lankavatara, Avatamsaka, Lotus, Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar, Great Dharma Drum, etc..


  6. Seems to me that the notion (and so often it seems to be taken no further than a notion) that 'Zen is beyond words' needs to be qualified with the direct observance that words are already beyond words, and that meaning is already beyond meaning, and that that 'beyondness' is a nothing even a hair's breadth separate from the quality that allows them to exist and function in the very real ways that they do in the world... Otherwise 'Zen' might be a load of redundant old waffle.

    Best Regards,