Puppies and Buddha Nature and Zen Fundamentalism



I bought a French Bulldog puppy 9 days ago. What a 9 days it has been. I don’t have any children, but I’m pretty sure this is at least 5 times more difficult than raising kids. But damn, he is such a cute puppy! And I can tell you for certain, Joshu was wrong, a dog, well at least a French Bulldog puppy, definitely has Buddha-Nature. Although he seems to be trying to poop it out of himself all the time.

During an email exchange with another prominent blogger whom I admire but seldom agree with, he called me a fundamentalist. I wasn’t insulted, but it did cause me to really examine the meaning of the word in a Zen context. I think it’s safe to say that in America, when the term is applied in a religious context, it has a negative connotation. Christian fundamentalists are very inflexible when it comes to their beliefs. Same for Muslim fundamentalists. But does it really have the same negative connotation when talking about a Zen fundamentalist? Or am I just hoping it doesn’t?


I can see why he would call me that. However, I think (hope) the tone of my emails to he and others in the American Zen world have been one of compromise and not holding tightly. My blog may seem otherwise, I know. But this blog is mainly one big rebuttal of what I see as American Liberals and Progressives trying to make sure their politics get shoehorned into Western Zen. I don’t think that is right for many reasons and I’m obviously pretty vocal about it. But in my correspondence with the same people I rail against I’m pretty centrist and if not gentle, at least a little gentler than I am here.


Now I’m not really a fundamentalist. Not in the strictest sense of the term anyway. One Zen group I sit with has a small circle used to discuss koans in a group setting. Although I was very skeptical of this at first, I have quickly come to see how valuable this can be. One of my main issues with Traditional Zen is its lack of fostering any intimacy other than the teacher-student intimacy. The group discussions of koans can go into interesting, and often emotionally deep places. But they are definitely not traditional.


I’m also for dispensing with a lot, although not all of, the forms that we have inherited from our ancestors. I understand why we have some forms, but to me Zen should be mainly meditation and if there is any time left over, study some sutras or practice the precepts. The sanghas I sit with aren’t big on elaborate forms, but take a look at some of the ceremonies on YouTube. Do we need all that? Yes, you can practice using those ceremonies. But you can also drive yourself and others crazy from attempting them.


So I am only a “fundamentalist” when I am against the injection of politics into Zen. And ironically it seems that it is the Liberals and Progressives that are the political fundamentalists. They will make sure you feel unwelcome in their sanghas if your political beliefs don’t align to theirs. Never mind that you just want to practice Zen and sit quietly with them. If you are not already indoctrinated with their political views, or open to being indoctrinated, they will excommunicate you. It might be a subtle excommunication, such as bashing Trump and his supporters during every Dharma Talk they give. It might be using the sangha and its resources to support politically liberal causes and if you don’t participate, well, you get looked down upon. But you will feel “other” and you will stop coming. And they will stay insulated and pat each other on the back about all the good they are doing for the world. Never mind that your opinions are different and just as valid. You are just not as “enlightened” as they are.


My puppy is trying to chew my laptop as I type this. I have asked him several times if he has Buddha Nature. He only cocks his head, looks at me quizzically and starts chewing again.

Not Your Ancestor’s Zen Teaching

I’ve made the statement that if the Ancestors wanted Zen mixed with politics they would have written about it. This blog was started because of what I perceived as the overabundance of American Zen teachers using their status as Zen teachers to discuss politics. That takes them right out of the Middle Way and Don’t Know.

Now, an argument could be made that Don’t Know is only in regards to the Ultimate, and not our Relative truth. I don’t buy that. I don’t know if I’m right and the Left is wrong about the need for stronger controls on illegal immigration. I don’t know if I’m right and the Right is wrong about the death penalty being a bad thing. I leave room. And that room has allowed me to respect other’s opinions and sometimes change my own –I used to be a card-carrying NRA member. Now I’m for stricter gun control.

But at the height of the 2016 election a lot of American Buddhist, and especially Zen teachers didn’t seem to be leaving a much room. They knew. Their cup was full. There were exceptions. One teacher that I engaged with during this time, Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler over at No Zen In The West, did not have his cup full. He listened and kept an open mind. I’m not sure he changed his mind about anything, and that’s fine. But he didn’t automatically dismiss anyone because they held different views. And then there’s Brad Warner. He often played devil’s advocate with his own views. But he tried his best to stay out of the debate as much as he could. Bodhidharma would’ve been proud.

So, here’s Brad’s latest on Zen and politics. Per usual, someone else has more eloquently stated my opinion for me.

Left Wing Buddha, Right Wing Buddha

I’d guess that if you asked most American Zen teachers if the Buddha was a Democrat or a Republican, the majority would answer that the dharma transcends politics. And they would be correct. But I believe they’d secretly be thinking that the Buddha was a card carrying liberal. I personally don’t know how you can read about the Buddha and not think he was a Libertarian. “Be a lamp unto yourself” could be the most libertarian statement of any major religion.  

My Buddhist friend (everyone should have one) and I were discussing this subject. He thinks most people see the dharma through their particular political lens. Me, I’m a little more cynical. I think that statement is too passive. I think people actively bring their politics into the dharma. I wasn’t alive when the hippies in the Northeast and California started converting en masse, but it set up the American Zen we see today. Well, that and all the New York psychoanalysts that also came to it. But that’s a post for another time.  

This is not a uniquely American Zen problem. Last weekend, I attended a local interfaith event for Pride Month where the themes were “unlearn fear and hate” and “building bridges.” Our mayor, who is openly gay, was there. This event was organized by a local Catholic parishioner and many clergy from the Big Three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) attended. My Zen teacher joined the group last year. The main speaker was a local Rabbi whom I’ve heard speak many times. I’ve also had personal conversations with him and he’s a very charismatic guy with a wonderful sense of humor. His speech started off great, talking about how important it is to include everyone, regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. He mixed in some Jewish sayings with some Jewish humor. And then, bam! Out of nowhere he started deriding the current President, his cabinet members and the people who voted for him. I was dumbstruck. An event dedicated to building bridges and this is how he honors that theme?  

There are better ways to talk about inclusion. I don’t know why this is so hard for our American religious leaders to understand. And to our Zen leaders, once again, I ask you where the political ramblings of Dogen, Rinzai, Bodhidharma, and the Buddha are in the historical record? If the ancestors stayed out of politics, why do we as a sangha feel we need to be involved?  


Not Just Another Zen Blog

Welcome! This won’t be your run-of-the mill Zen blog. Ok, maybe it will. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be as good as some that are already out there. My personal favorites are Hardcore Zen, Monkey Mind and No Zen In The West. The problem with those blogs is that I don’t agree with a lot of what they say.

See, I think there’s a big problem with “American Zen”: Its loudest and most pervasive voices are always liberals. In my opinion, the San Francisco Zen types have taken over the whole movement. If your thoughts and politics don’t lean to the left, you get looked at kinda funny. Personally, I don’t think politics and Zen should mix, although I do realize I’m in the minority here.

So I created Don’t Know Zen. This will be a place where we can have civil discussions about Zen, and even politics if we have to. Also, civil discussions about whatever else pops up in my not-so-calm mind. But you, dear reader, will have to bear with me because I’m not a lot of things. And two of those things are Zen teacher and professional writer. I try to meditate every day and go on day-long retreats every now and then. I also try to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes and form cohesive sentences. But sometimes I fail at all that. So have compassion. Please. But most of all, comment, discuss, and be civil.