rivers into islands

rivers into islands

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The No-Zen Center

REALITY IS NONDUALISTIC.  Intellectually, it is possible to imagine non-dualism as either the essence of reality or not.  It is another thing to experience it directly.  “Difference” + “Sameness/Oneness” = “Thusness.”


At its best, that which is termed Zen offers the possibility of this experience.  And yet, “Zen” can be derivative and conceptual and even degenerative rather than direct.

Monasteries and temples and Zen centers [typically more lay than monastic] become “parishes” of sorts.  “Newbie spiritual explorers” come and go.  “Intros” are offered. In Asia, orphans are taken into monasteries [with the condition that they become monks] and the descendents of parish temples come for their intensive “basic training” exposure before returning to gradually assume directorships of the home temple.  The larger the group, the larger becomes the demand for a management infrastructure.  The need for attention to management, recruitment, schedules of rituals and work, economic stability, confrontation of soft politics of inter-group issues and the elevation of some members into leadership, and group compliance to a programmed approach [given a variety of reasons for membership] become factors that are quite different from whole-hearted attention to realization of that which Siddartha experienced.   

In Zen Centers, classes replace day-filling monastic routines as a way to nourish the “eight-fold path” [the larger the Center’s group, the more the classes or activities that are likely to be offered]: zazen in Spanish, the way of tea, calligraphy, bread baking, healing rituals for the home, the path of parenting, transforming depression and anxiety, techniques for samadhi.  Typically, Buddhist studies are added, such as “the five hindrances,” “Dongshan and the practice of suchness” or group book reviews.

Talks and potlucks and Siddartha’s birthday celebrations and seasonal markers such as Spring Equinox ceremonies bring the group together and offers group support.  Affiliation with rural centers allows for short-term retreats.

Memorial services and funerary rites become a practice.  In Japan, parish “Zen” temples may appeal to folk deities and aspire to address physical, psychological and relational issues that members bring, as well as perform rituals such as exorcism that local persons request and for which offer payment.

Sangha tends to reference members and prospective members, with secondary attention to the trees and mountains and waters.

Center and monastic leaders—priests and abbots—literally become administrators in the religious tradition of the vocation of priests or pastors that sustain rituals and practices.  Monastic and center practices become highly ritualized and comprehensive to touch all aspects of life—vows, stages of membership and acknowledgement of stages of involvement, sitting style, zazen practice, formal eating, walking, clothing, very conceptual imagery, etc.  Such practices are taken for granted as valuable for overcoming a freedom of alternatives through a freedom of discipline.  Theoretically, high conceptualization becomes envisioned as a gateway for de-conceptualization and dis-identification.

In retreats for pastoral leaders of any spiritual or religious practice that has a center base, the conflict of maintaining the deep experience that provoked the vocation of the leaders becomes obvious and often a focus topic of the retreat.  Administration, economic demands and politics within the group, the needs of members, recruitment and education erode time available for attention to the leader’s original purpose for his or her vocation/avocation.  Popularity, charisma, and public speaking become assets for growth.


The original drive—the core element that provoked exploration, to realize authentic nature and be actualized by it—remains. However, “straight-forward” stands to be diluted. 

The No-Zen Center’s buddha, dharma, and sangha is the inconceivable, inseparable, unhidden rivers, mountains, winds, Earth, stars, cosmos and beings.       

While this is acknowledged, coming together as a specific sub-group or community to attain this realization tends to easily override the ineffable and overlay an additional set of concepts and practice based on those concepts.  None of it is essential to realization, not human community, not sitting, etc.  More than anything else Zen practice across the centuries has revealed the sense of “Great Doubt,” that there is something authentic to be experienced. 

And because of the intrusion of the conceptual, reformation, often radical, is essentially the historical record of Zen practices across the centuries and the real essence that sustains a triggering of realization of authentic home/nature.

And yet, the expressions of reformation soon become the grist for interpretive commentaries almost as infinitum.

Still, a deep, deep bow to this assault on arrogance.

...no human conception can grasp absolute reality as it is in itself.
Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xii]

In reality nothing cloisters the mind but attachment to thoughts and projections.  The meaning of Zen is to realize this fact in experience, in the experience of genuine freedom on mind. […arriving at direct witness of reality.]
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xii]

transforming ordinary experience into extraordinary enlightenment.
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.ix]

            …the experience of Zen is so inconceivable to the ordinary mind and cannot even be imagined until it happens.
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xxii, bold, mine]

A core practice involved the dogged acknowledgement that every image and ritual is arrogant no matter how benign and helpful it appears to be.   The barrier is conceptualization.  And conceptualization is rampant in Zen practice. This is exactly why Zen emerges.  Both ultimately and practically, there is “nothing upon which dust can alight.”

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