American Zen

Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charvel "Comes an old man, hoary white with eld, / Crying "Woe to you, wicked spirits!"

From Bringing the Sacred to Life: The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual by John Daido Loori Roshi

In America we usually have a negative reaction to “observing reflection and gratitude.”  We tend to rebel against the teachings and try to change them to suit our own particular perceptions of what we think they should be, stripping the teachings of their richness by eliminating an important part of the upaya, carefully evolved over centuries of practice.  At the other extreme, there are also people who, under the guise of Zen practice, blindly imitate the sounds and forms of the training.  This is definately not what Zen is about.  Great faith, great doubt and great determination (the Three Pillars of real practice) keep that rote imitation from happening.  Great doubt working in dynamic tension with great faith along with the deep commitment to continue, keep the student’s actice edge alive.  Zen training is neither rebelling nor comforming.  What is it then?

The dynamic between great faith and great doubt in Zen practice is still one of the most attractive to me.   Both the absolute skeptic and the most feverent practitioner fall into the same trap – the trap of extremes.  When we blindly accept or reject tradition and thousands of years of evolving practice we, in essence, ease our practice.

When things become easy we lose the great determination pillar of our practice.  The three things are so intricately wrapped together that when one fails (or we fail one of them) our practice becomes stale.  It should never be easy.  We should expect and continue to struggle.

This is lost in the “American Zen” that John Daido Loori Roshi describes.  For many practitioners expectation of ease and expediency becomes the primary concern over the actual practice.  Some contempory methods (The Grand Marketers) that have received plenty of marketing push seem to present all of the results without any of the actual work or practice.  I don’t mean to write another post lamblasting the practice of others but I think that any practice needs to balance faith, doubt and determination.  If it isn’t then it is time to re-examine.  It becomes a cookie-cutter practice.  When a teacher insists that their method leads to enlightenment (especially when it comes with a nice price-tag) but without any actual possible doubt, my flags go up.  My largest issue is that enlightenment does not come in one shape and size.  It is worked towards and no path is the same.  Promises are meaningless.  And that is what you get when you purchase an expensive program…promises. 

I didn’t mean to start ragging on the Grand Marketers in this post.  My post was to answer John Daido Loori’s question

“Zen training is neither rebelling nor comforming.  What is it then?”

Understanding.  Zen (any sect of Buddhism for that matter) is a process of understanding.  Not understanding in the Socratic meaning with an empty vessel being filled with the words of another.  The vessel is never empty or completely filled.  Little bits go in and out that flavor our understanding which is expressed by and a result of our practice over time.  Flavors will include the teachings of others, our own random backgrounds and prefered methods of practice.  A constant flux.   

Is there tension in the works of the “Grand Marketers”?  Or do they provide a tonic of ease through salesmanship, flash and illusion? 

Don’t skip the flux and don’t look for easy answers.  Enlightenment will never come from a Marketer, it will come from time and effort.




8 thoughts on “American Zen

  1. I love this book. In fact, I am currently reading it for the second time. Loori really clicks for me.

    I went from being an extreme fundamentalist Christian to an extreme fundamentalist skeptic and angry atheist.

    Funny how it worked out, but the balance (Middle Path) between the two extremes was a huge draw for me toward Buddhism. To hear Loori describe practice in this way makes me more at ease about my choice to practice.

    Thanks for sharing… great post.

    • You took a big jump from fundamentalist Christian to fundamentalist atheist. I know atheist get pissed when you call them “fundies”. 😀 Some are and some aren’t I suppose. I never took such a large jump. I went from an indifferent Christian to indifferent agnostic (with angry atheist tendencies) to a striving Buddhist. I agree that I find the Middle Path by far the most appealing.

      Loori is one of the few writers/Zen Teachers that really hits all aspects of Zen for me (home-practitioner, devotional and practical) without denigrading any other viewpoint.



      • Yeah, I was one of those that probably would have pulled a knife on you if you called me a “fundie” atheist. Looking back I see that it doesn’t so much describe the worldview but the attitude. My point was that I was an a$$h0l3 at both extremes.

        Whether I wanted to admit it or not as a hardcore skeptic/atheist, and maybe my brained is still wired for religion after living as a Christian for 12 years, but I admit that I still find some sense of comfort and peace in religious observance like Zen ritual. Loori sums up a great perspective of ritual, in my view.

        I’ve taken a more pragmatic approach… which ultimately somehow brought me across the Dharma, and here I am.

        The one place I do disagree with hardcore atheists and skeptics is that many seem to lack any compassion for those that do find comfort in religious ritual. I also realized that many religious people aren’t stupid or ignorant even though they may hold some irrational beliefs. The Buddhist approach made more sense to me than a hard philosophical naturalism stance.

        • A pragmatic approach is the best approach of all. There should always be the understanding that what is pragmatic for one person is not pragmatic for another. We aren’t mass produced. Fundamentalists on both sides of the debate forget that sometimes. And I don’t blame many atheists for pushing their worldview in defence when theirs is attacked constantly and not given equal ground as the “worshippers”. I do agree that compassion is lacking in human nature for the most part. We always tend to prefer to sit in “camps” and surround ourselves with people that agree with us.

          I am actually planning on organizing a drinking club called “Mindful Drinking” it will be a hodge-podge of Freethinkers despite specific religious beliefs. The corner-stone of secular humanism or freethinking should be our own views tempered by the compassion for others. We’ll see if it gets off the ground.



  2. When a teacher insists that their method leads to enlightenment (especially when it comes with a nice price-tag) but without any actual possible doubt, my flags go up.

    Amen. That is a perspective people should try in their day to day lives. Lots of people want to profit from fear and if they can promise a no-fail solution, they get lots of profit.

    • Hey Scimitarblue!

      I like that you brought up fear. Fear, for me, is the “Great Doubt” I bring up in my post. If someone is able to go through life w/o fear then they are living like a zombie.

      And that is what “gurus” want – zombies. People can attach to fear and attach to non-fear. When you attach to non-fear (as with a guru) you are still controlled by fear rather than accepting and working with it.

      That is why gurus are always surrounded by smiling people and always smiling themselves. I mark a true teacher by being able to not have the answers every once in a while.

      Sorry for speaking in “Zen-ese” I get caught up in my own BS sometimes.



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  4. “Don’t skip the flux and don’t look for easy answers. Enlightenment will never come from a Marketer, it will come from time and effort.”

    Excellent quote man!

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