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Friday, December 23, 2005

Why I Do Zazen

Our local Nashville Zen Center has a Yahoo group. It was started before I joined the Center, and my perception is that it was started by them as a way for them to receive notices of events, but it's been left open to all comers in terms of membership, so there are people in there whom I have never seen at a zazen session (and some whom I don't think exist outside of cyberspace). Both these entities and some of the real members are inevitably drawn to do what Yahoo group members do best -- post, on whatever. Sometimes it has to do with Zen. Recently there was a lively debate on vegetarianism, which as interesting as it is, has very little to do with Buddhism (since the historical Buddha died of bad pork, I'm told).

Irrelevance is no stranger to me, and it doesn't bother me. Actually I kind of like these discussions, and they do beat the rantings of the jingoistic homophobe at my office (see prior posts). Lately we are getting postings from group members and group leaders on their own favorite aspects of Buddhism. A recently posted note on spirituality drew my attention because I have aversions to terms like "spiritual," especially when the term is designed as other-worldly. My snotty response drew a reference to Ken Wilber. If you don't know who Ken Wilber is, see if this sets off your bullshit detector: "Ken Wilber is the developer of an integral "theory of everything" that embraces the truths of all the world's great psychological,scientific, philosophical, and spiritual traditions. He founded the Integral Institute, a think-tank for studying issues of science and society, in 2000. Wilber is the author of twenty books." Wow. The theory of everything. And I thought everything lay in reality. Theory is reductionist. But I can see why a theory of everything would take twenty books. At least.

I won't say anything more about Mr. Wilber, but I do love open discussion. And because I was a philosophy major and a lawyer, and sort of a 48-year-old adolescent, I find it hard to stay within the rules of academia when I argue. So saying someone is obviously full of shit won't get me on the debate team. But I get to feel like Johnny Rotten for five minutes.

So, my point was? After having studied every philosophy I could find for the last thirty years and having tried several varieties of Buddhist practice, what has it come down to? I just sit there. Shikantaza.

I discovered Buddhism when I was a very lost college student at the University of Tennessee in the late 1970's. I had long known that I didn't fit into normal society and didn't share its belief systems. So like every other "rebel" of my generation, I spun off the wheel into drinking, recreational chemicals, and rock and roll. Being a philosophy major, I had some other options to pursue. So having known by no later than nine years old that Christianity was a fairy tale right up there with the Easter Bunny (a perceptive ability that kicked in years later when I heard about the Weapons of Mass Destruction), I found Buddhism and Zen in particular appealing. But if there were Zen Buddhists or Buddhists of any kind in Knoxville, TN, in 1979, I couldn't find them, and if I could've found them, wouldn't have been sober enough or focused enough, read mature enough, to practice. But I was inspired.

So when I went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1980 to study law, I was drawn to the San Francisco Zen Center. My girlfriend and fiancee at the time, a New Jersey jock with no previous interest, was so drawn to them that she lived there and worked in their bakery at Tassajara for several years. I tried sitting with the priests and lay practitioners there, but I was too much into the San Francisco night life and the prospect of being a rich lawyer to really take advantage of my real opportunities. I gave up my first and best chance to practice.

It was six years later in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I came back to Buddhist practice, through a strange side door. Three years of trying to work for law firms had taught me that I didn't belong there; lawyers are a race of shallow dilettantes, and the American court system is such a farce that a few years in its bowels will teach a perceptive person that the system is warped and rotten beyond redemption. In February, 1986, I was out of a job, sitting around drinking in an adobe apartment wondering what I was going to do with my life. By sheer luck I did all the right things, and my life -- well, didn't change forever just yet, but opened me up to the possibilities that later began to shape who I hope to be now. At that point I quit drinking for the first time in at least eleven years, began to work out for the first time ever, and fell in with the (then) Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists of the NSA.

I fell in with these people because I was suddenly, with my head clear and my body discovering itself, drawn back to the Buddhism I had left behind. Why NSA? Because I looked in the phone book and they were the only ones listed who spoke English. Honestly.

Nichiren Shoshu (which means Nichiren Orthodox, basically) is a school of Japanese Buddhism founded on the ranting of Nichiren, a Zen priest from the twelfth century who was banished for heresy and being a general egoistic shithead. To most Japanese Buddhists, he is a clown. To the NSA, Zen was the devil. I say was because there is no more NSA. Just after I quit them, the head priest of Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the lay leader of the Soka Gakkai, the Japanese parent organization of the NSA. It appears this was based on the fact that the Soka Gakkai was using Nichiren Buddhism as a tool for social and political power in Japan. They were widely known as a Zen cult. They would approach you on a street corner or in your home like Jehovah's witnesses, because one main way you could achieve merit ultimately resulting in salvation was shakubuku, or proselytizing. At this point in my life, I was a self-employed lawyer, so there was nothing quite so helpful for my professional image as passing out pamphlets on a street corner.

But in the middle of all this cultish bullshit, I discovered a real truth: the power of Buddhist practice. The Nichiren practice consisted of chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," framed by selections from the Lotus Sutra, in front of a scroll called the Gohonzon, which means "great object of worship." One did gongyo twice a day. I had become a minor leader of sorts in the practice, all of which I abandoned by the fall of 1988, after being an NSA member for 2 1/2 years. And eventually my new purity of mind and body, focused through the power of the practice, led me to stop fighting my perception that the teachings were half true, half bullshit, and leave the group.

I made a mistake when I left. I quit practicing, which means I quit chanting and abandoned all forms of meditation. I became all-powerful in my own mind, which meant that two years later everything had gone to hell again; I finally left Albuquerque in 1993 to return to Tennessee. It was 2004 before I resumed Buddhist practice, and eventually after a false start with the Tibetans returned to Zen after reading Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen, which finally blew away the shit for me and encourage me to resume practice.

The thing about the real truths you discover for yourself is that they always recur as memories, as things you knew before but had forgotten - obvious things that were there the whole time, so how could you have missed them? Having seen through the bullshit of traditional religion at a young age, and having suffered the lies of Nichiren Buddhism and the dreamy obfuscations of the Tibetans, it suddenly became clear to me that all it takes is shikantaza, just sitting, to connect with reality. Just keep your spine straight; you will perceive that all reality radiates outward from a line drawn between your hara and the top of your head. The closer to that line a thing or event is, the more meaningful and important it is to you. This is all you need. You don't need to chant. You don't need to visualize Oprah. You don't need to count your breath. That's all OK but it just adds more crap to the cesspool that's already swirling in your mind. Just let what's already there settle. It won't go away.

The truth is, your mind will never stop swirling. You just have to learn to accept its swirling. Your mind won't stop thinking until your heart stops beating, and you can no more put one that the other on "pause." Neither can you change your personality. I will not stop being the angry, sarcastic individual I am. I just have to look at this character and realize its not me. "Me" is everything and these are all just parts I play. As I mentioned is "No small furry animals," I have to step outside the movie.

So this is where it's all lead me after all these years. All theory is bullshit. All discussion of Zen, or really of philosophy in general, is reductionist, so that whereas the finger may indeed point at the moon, the theory itself is always wrong.

When you pursue a theory of everything, you have already made the first error. If you believe in your theory, you will have completely mistaken the map for the territory, and you will be completely living in your head. The true answer is always "Mu." So for me, I will just sit shikantaza. But if you want to chant to a gonhonzon, go for it; the remnants of the NSA are still out there as the Soka Gakkai of America, I believe, and they're a lot less militant since they were neutered. Just don't get caught up in their shit. Incidentally, the only thing I've discovered that won't work is the guided mediation of the Tibetans and similar groups. My experience is that all that crap will take you down the same delusional path as the Christians.

And if you do that, then God Bless You, Every One.


Jon said...

I remember hearing the same story on NPR, I was very disappointed to hear the DL back peddle on reincarnation like that, especially since it was completely unnecessary. I don't hold any firm opinion on reincarnation, I believe it is one of a few likely possibilities and won't pretend that I "know" which is true. But I don't see how the scientific notion of consciousness manifested as electrical impulses in any way contradicts anything one might believe about the "soul". Wherever it comes from, however long it lasts in the long run -- for the time that it exists in this earthly meatspace, it has to function, interact with, and adhere to our flesh by *some* mechanism, why not electrical impulses?

Bob J. said...


awmyhr said...

Hi Bob, I really enjoyed reading how your philosophy developed, as I am in the beginning stages of the same thing, though starting much later in life (I'm over 30). I'm going to be studying a variety of philosophies and religions, with special emphasis on Buddhism. Though tempting to take the short cut and dive fully into Zen (as it seems to work for a lot of people), didn't Buddha say something about finding your own truths before traveling the path?

Anyway, I'll be documenting my journey on my primary blog (btw, looks like you found your way to my secondary blog, thanks for checking it out).

I've added your RSS feed to my daily list, and look forward to reading more about your Zen experiences...

Michael said...


I'd like to correct what I see as a few serious errors in your post.
First off, Nichiren wasn't a member of the Zen schools of Buddhism. He founded his own school. Second, he isn't dismissed by the Japanese as some sort of crank; Nichiren Buddhism is one of the larger denominations in the country. Having lived in Japan, I know this to be true.
By the way, I lean toward Zen in my orientation and don't see much to admire in much of Nichiren doctrine and its offshoots, such as Soka Gakkai. But, facts are facts.

All the best,

Michael said...

Sorry if my previous post sounded pedantic. I didn't mean it to be so. Japanese religions are a keen interest of mine (even though I sometimes get my own facts mixed up), and occasionally I express too much missionary zeal, if you'll pardon the pun!

PA said...

Interesting stuff!
I worked with a Japanese lady who was a member of Nichiren Shoshu. She went to great pains to tell me that Nichiren wasn't a cult. I think after the AUM Supreme Truth cult and then with the controversy surrounding Nichiren and Soka Gakkai, the Japanese are weary of Buddhism in general. I often feel that anyway...
Happy Shikantaza!

Ryuei said...

Hi Bob,
I want to second what Michael said. I am actually an ordained minister in the Nichiren Shu - which has no connections whatsoever with Soka Gakkai or Nichiren Shoshu. Nichiren Shu is the mainstream form of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan, and is respected no more or less than any other traditional school of Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren started off as a Tendai monk just like Dogen, and originally meant to reform the Tendai school (which was overrun with esoteric Buddhism for the elite and bands of warrior monks). He eventually did end up staring his own separate lineage which came to be called Nichiren Buddhism. He was a bit cranky, but was by no means the violent, know-nothing, nationalist that others have made him out to be. As a translator of some of his writings for the U of Hawaii and as someone who has gone through the traditional training both here in the States under my sensei and in Japan, I think I am in a good position to say this.

If anyone is interested in the actual history of Nichiren Buddhism please see my website and scroll down to the History of the Hokke Schools subsection.

BTW, I am also a fan of Brad Warner, and I also practice with Soto Zen teachers in San Francisco as well as being involved in a group that studies the Pali Canon. So I am by no means a sectarian Buddhist.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Jon said...


Looks like I posted comments here ("I remember hearing...") that I meant to post under riffing-dalai-lama -- that might help them make more sense : )