So this month, two people in the Zen world that I respect are having an internet battle over koans.  This seems to happen in the Zen world every few years or so.  I guess the online  Zen community gets bored at times and needs good old fashioned Dharma Combat.  This month’s combatants  are two people who I have had conversations with over the years: *wrestling announcer voice* Dosho “The Elder Statesman” Port and Brad “Bad Boy of Zen” Warner. Both of these guys have been around the Zen online community for quite a while and I read their blogs religiously—no pun intended.

I actually spent about 6 months on Dosho’s Vine of Obstacles online Zen training course and was able to meet with him via video conferencing  several times over that period. He’s a good dude and knows his stuff. He’s trained in both Soto and hybrid Soto/Rinzai Zen through the years. Keep that in mind for the rest of this post.

Brad is the 21st century version of Ikkyu, that 15th century rascally monk that caused all kinds of problems. He’s written several irreverent books about Zen and has recently (thankfully) tackled translating Dogen’s writings so that the average laymen can understand them. He studied Soto Zen while he was in Japan and received transmission to teach there. As far as I know, he has little to no training in Rinzai Zen. Keep that in mind for the rest of the post.

So now that you have a little background of the two combatants, I’ll let you know what they are fighting over: did Dogen espouse the use of koans in his teaching?  Now, you would think this would be an easy cut and dry question. You just read all of Dogen’s writings and Boom! there’s your answer. But, you would be wrong. Both Brad and Dosho have studied Dogen’s writings. Dosho says “yes he most definitely did” and Brad says “no he most definitely did not”. So then the question is, who are we to believe?  MU! That is not the question! I’ll explain why in a little bit.  But first…

This battle seems to have been going on for the last 700 or so years. Dogen really didn’t like Dahui Zonggao (a Rinzai reformer of koans) and it looks like Dahui felt the same about Dogen. For Zen Masters, they said some nasty stuff about each other. Luckily, Dosho and Brad aren’t slinging any mud (although Brad has been known to do so in the past—just look at some of his old Youtube videos where he uses a sock puppet.) So during the last seven or so centuries Dogen’s Soto school and Dahui’s Rinzai school have been arguing about how best to reach enlightenment and that argument has come down to us today via Dosho and Brad.

Going back to that argument, Dosho says here that Dogen taught koan study while he was alive. Dosho himself has spent a number of years after receiving Soto transmission studying koans with a couple of different teachers. He now teaches koan study himself. So Dosho has been on both sides of this argument. Brad says here that Dogen didn’t teach koans as a path to enlightenment. Brad, if I remember correctly, has only studied Soto Zen and has extremely limited knowledge of koan study. He says he solved one once and his Soto teacher said, “yeah, that’s a good answer.” I don’t think that qualifies you as a koan master. So from an experience side, Dosho wins this round. His study in both Soto and in the Harada-Yasutani-Yamada koan lineage gives him the bona fides to talk about the pros and cons of koan introspection.

So for round two, let’s look specifically at Dogen’s teachings.  Again, Dosho spent the first part of his Zen life studying with a great Soto teacher. He also went to Japan to get a taste of the monk life at a real life Zen temple. According to his blog, he is doing some translating of Japanese texts. So I would say Dosho qualifies to give his opinion on Dogen. What about Brad? Well, his teacher wrote the first, and for a while the only translation of Dogen’s work in English. And if memory serves, Brad was involved in the periphery of that work. Brad lived in Japan for years and is semi-fluent in Japanese.  Brad is currently half-way through his promised four volume work of translating Dogen into something I can understand (thanks again for that Brad.) So he has studied Soto Zen and has indirectly and directly translated Dogen’s writings into English.  Sorry Dosho, but I have to score this round to Brad.  But it was close.

So for the third and final round let’s look at one of my favorite subjects, inherent biases. Brad has a history of being stubborn. I don’t think I have ever seen him change his opinion on anything. And when he has an opinion he is very vocal about it and charges at you with it. And he’s sold a lot of books and amassed a nice following by doing things that way. Brad’s main studies have been in the Soto lineage and he has Soto transmission. Soto’s current company line is that Dogen didn’t use koans and that is what Brad’s teacher thought and taught as well. So Brad may be biased to think that since he didn’t use koans that they are no good and therefore there was no way that Dogen would advocate their use. Dosho on the other hand has done extensive Zen work both without koans and with koans. He currently personally believes that koan study is the bees knees and the best route to enlightenment. So Dosho is predisposed to believe that Dogen would use koan study because Dosho himself likes it. I rule this round a tie. My guess is that both Dosho and Brad are biased in their views and are personally invested in their arguments and this could influence their interpretation of what Dogen wrote. While we hope as Zen practitioners that we can see through most of our biases, we are still human.

So that is one round for Dosho, one round for Brad and one round ends in a draw. So, who wins? Neither. And that is the answer to this koan. Neither Brad’s position or Dosho’s position matters in anything more than an academic way. Who cares if Dogen advocated koan study. The point should be that there is a school that doesn’t use it and a school that does. WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU?

Glad you asked. I spent the first half of my (so far limited) meditation life not using koans. I had my first kensho experience without the aid of them. I am currently working with koans. I don’t like them. But enough people I trust tell me that I should keep going so I do. I am currently using a traditional method and have recently started attending a sangha that uses koans in a group discussion setting. That group is interesting and isn’t “solving” koans in the traditional sense. But I don’t feel like my practice has changed that much with koans. That wasn’t the experience Dosho and many others have had. They benefited from koan study. And that’s great. Use koan study if you want to. If you don’t want to, don’t use it. It doesn’t matter what Dogen or Dahui  or the Buddha said or didn’t say about koans. Be a lamp unto yourself.

For the record, I am not trying to hold myself up in any sort of way to the level that Dosho and Brad are.  They are both transmitted teachers who have been doing this for a long time. I respect both of them very much and am glad they are available to us. So my weighing them in this post is just for fun, although I do think my ultimate point has some validity. But I certainly understand if you, Dosho, and Brad don’t think it does.

Love Letter To The Sangha

Reprinted from my post on The Tattooed Buddha 

So I have been meditating almost daily for 7 years. But I have a dirty little secret. Ok, I have several dirty little secrets, but only one that I am prepared to share with you readers. I don’t like to meditate. Yes, you read that right. I really don’t like to.  I have to talk myself into it most days and when I do finally force myself on the pillow I am ready to get up almost immediately.

This wasn’t always the case.  When I first started 7 years ago by going to a beginners’ Zen retreat I was a little scared, but excited. I had been an intellectual Zen student for over 15 years. I had read many wonderful books about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. I knew it was right for me. But I only read and rarely sat my ass on a cushion. So I was excited to find out that there was a Zen group in my area. I couldn’t wait to do the actual practice. I learned very little at the retreat (by design—those damn enigmatic Zen teachers ya know). But they did put me on a zafu and zabuton and force me to sit still for 15-30 minutes at a time for half a day. It flew by. I’m an introvert, so what better way to spend time with people than having them sit next to me and not be allowed to say anything to me? Plus, it was startling to see the tangled mess that was my mind. I was hooked.

After fast and furious 6 months of meditating once or twice daily I started to notice results. Now in Zen, we aren’t supposed to have a goal with meditation and any benefits you see because of meditation shouldn’t be discussed. They are purely incidental to the BIG AWAKENING. And we definitely can’t talk about that! But dammit, I did have results. I actually noticed things going on around me. I was actually listening to people instead of just hearing them. I was able to see that I was causing suffering in others and was able to at least cut that down some.

All great right? Other things happened too over the first couple of years. And I enjoyed being on the cushion. But sometime, somehow, it started to change. After a few years it wasn’t so fun anymore. I started making excuses about why I couldn’t sit that day. All of the sudden I was too busy. Or didn’t feel good. Or my knee hurt too bad from trying to twist myself into the pretzel full lotus position. I had any number of excuses to not sit and my practice went first to almost daily to a couple of times a week to whenever I felt like it. And I didn’t feel like it most of the time.

But throughout this time I kept going to my weekly Sangha meetings. I started enjoying those more and more. I began to interact with the other members even though, for me, it was painful to do. If it hadn’t been for my Sangha, I am pretty sure I would have given up meditation. But being around other dedicated practitioners, my compassionate teacher, and new people who were just beginning on the path, got me back on the cushion “full time”. I am thankful for them.

Now back to my dirty little secret. Even though I’m meditating once or twice a day almost daily, I don’t enjoy it. It’s still a burden for me most days. But when I have those days where I really, really, REALLY don’t want to do it, I think about how I’m not as big an asshole because of it and how much better I can be if I continue to do it. And I think of my Sangha.  The great group of people that come help me sit on Sundays. Some I’ve known for years. Some I see one time and they never come back. But they all have courage and it forces me to be courageous each time I stare down at the cushion before I sit. My Sangha is my motivation. So if you see any of my Sangha members, thank them for helping me to not be as big an asshole as I used to be.

No Saints, Only Sinners

Each week after zazen has concluded we go around the group and say our names and are asked to share a high and low point of the week if we are so inclined. This was instituted a couple of years ago because one of the complaints we heard from newbies that came to our group was that it was a “cold atmosphere” and not very inviting. Well, I think that pretty much sums up Zen, but I digress. 

This week during the high/low point discussion, several people brought up that they came to Zen to escape from a strict Christian upbringing. This is a thread that comes up in our group fairly frequently, and it happened to me to a lesser extent. I was sent to a Southern Baptist Sunday school because they were the only church that sent a bus by our farmhouse. Our mother shipped my brother and me there every Sunday and I’m convinced she only used the church as an unpaid babysitter for a couple of hours.  She grew up Catholic and never went to church as an adult. She abruptly stopped sending us when I came home one day and told her that she was going to Hell because she smoked cigarettes. 

But it seems like many of the people that visit our Sangha have had a much more traumatic experience with The Church. During these stories you can feel the pain and anguish in their voices as they share this with complete or almost complete strangers. On the flip side we have two members that are still active in their respective churches and seem very content and ok with their Christian Sanghas. 

I often wonder if in China there are people that go to Christian churches and tell how they were scarred in childhood by their experiences at the local Buddhist temple. They think Christianity is the salve that will heal them like a lot of American converts believe Zen will do for them. I think a lot of the newbies that come to our Sangha are unaware that there are plenty of Americans across the country that have been emotionally scarred by Zen in general and some of the teachers of Zen in particular. Are there Imams, Rabbis, and Pujaris that have been embroiled in controversies that have hurt their congregants? Should we expect more from our religious leaders than we expect out of ourselves? After all, they are supposed to be closer to God(s). 

I got into Zen because I read about the saintly Zen patriarchs that were serene, emotionless bastions of limitless wisdom.  I wanted to be one of those. Luckily I met a teacher that was 100% human and my idea of infallibility was quickly dispelled. Those saintly beings don’t exist in any religion. Some are going to help us. Some are going to hurt us. Some are going to do a good deal of both.

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.