Letters to the Editor

High Spirits

I am an African-American male thirty-three years old and a recovering drug addict, if I were to label myself. I'm short on most things but spirit! I study Zen, Taoism, and I chant. I love to hear all about the above and your magazine is a great help.

What is needed in the black community to combat the flood of drugs and uncontrolled anger (i.e., gangs) is some sort of large-scale meditation program, and I hope I can be one of the persons to start it.

It would be great if the whole world learned to meditate instead of being ruled by passions and anger.

Larry Snowden
Boston, Massachusetts


Restoring the Balance

Thank you for printing "Zen In The Balance" (Vol. III, No. 3). It is not only good but necessary that someone brings back the goal of the Buddhist Teaching: enlightenment/liberation. Not only Zen, the whole Buddhist Teaching will disappear on our planet if this goal is forsaken. Enlightenment/liberation has always been the raison d’être of Buddhism, regardless of the path which leads to it. Even in the time of our Teacher, very few people reached it, but it is not an unattainable goal. 

Quynh N. Trinh
Annandale, Virginia


Bravo to "Zen in the Balance" for exhorting us to keep the emptiness in the enso [circle] of American Zen. We are a people renowned for our violence and our commerce, and Zen could suffer no greater violence than to have the enlightenment experience at its center sold out to peripheral concerns that reduce it, for the sake of accessibility, to the lowest common denominator.

One thing, though: can we get away from splitting ethics from enlightenment? If Tworkov meant that ethical conduct in and of itself is no substitute for realization, well of course: the leaves and branches are not the root. But neither are these separate. Sila (morality), like prajna, is one of the three essentials of Buddhist practice, and the precepts are not simply a description of our innately enlightened nature—i.e., how a full buddha lives. To put it another way: Zen is above morality, but morality is not below Zen. 

Bodhin Kjolhede
Rochester, New York 

[Bodhin Kjolhede is Abbot of the Rochester Zen Center.]


While I agree with the description of the state of Zen practice as expressed in "Zen in the Balance," I do not agree with the analysis of why this has come about. Some important dimensions have not been addressed in the article, and if they remain unaddressed by Zen students I suspect the state of practice will continue to grow weaker.

The issue of idealization and (the inevitable) disillusionment with teachers is being overemphasized. While these issues of individual transference and group-level dependency are at the heart of those phenomena that vitiate practice, I don't believe that this in itself accounts for the shift from an emphasis on enlightenment to ethics or secular materialism. If this were the issue, enlightenment as a central tenet of practice would not be devalued. The idea would retain its vitality because anyone with any sustained experience of zazen knows that it is at the heart of practice no matter what foolishness teachers or students are up to. The attractions of a comfortable consumer culture are also overemphasized. There are plenty of ex-Zen students who spent years in a semi-monastic practice; to leave that environment was to leave what had become familiar and everyday.

The problem is not disillusionment—it is demoralization. Tworkov's guess that "perhaps after twenty years of zazen with no remarkable experiences to report, they feel betrayed by false seductions" points to the problem that I suspect lies behind a retreat from earlier inspiration. After all, there is a saying in Zen that "one should be patient for ten years." Ten years of practice is adequate to produce enough insight to convince one that the practice is valid without fireworks. So why, then, are people no longer sitting, why are they devaluing kensho [enlightenment experience]? I suspect that the answer is embedded in the need for "remarkable experiences" to justify one's sense of accomplishment. I suspect that this demoralization is not a product of a failure of nerve, a result of the seductions of consumer capitalism, nor disillusionment with Buddhist authority figures. Instead, it is a combination of historical and cultural factors peculiar both to Zen practice (and its historical evolution) and to the state of Buddhist culture in North America.

The combination is not an easy one. As Shunryu Suzuki put it, bringing the dharma here was "like holding the roots of a plant to a rock and hoping it takes root." In Zen we have the product of more than one thousand years of distillation of Buddhist practice being introduced to a culture with absolutely no supporting cultural context. This is not the way Zen evolved historically. It was introduced to and nurtured within an already established monastic culture in China and required several hundred years to evolve to the point where it was identified as a distinct school. The Chinese, with their ruthlessly pragmatic bent, took Indian Buddhism and reduced it to its essentials; but they took a long time to do it. What is essential to keep in mind is that they did so within a Buddhist culture. In fact, Zen was to some extent a rebellion against an already senescent, ritualized, and overly scholastic Buddhist tradition. I think that understanding the importance of this historical and cultural context cannot be underestimated, particularly in terms of the ways in which unarticulated cultural assumptions about self, life, and death can either support practice or weaken it.

For example, if one views reincarnation as an interesting abstraction, an issue about which one is willing to withhold judgment, then practice is deeply influenced by this attitude. On the other hand, if one feels that this life is of importance primarily because of its inevitable results in future lives, then raising bodhicitta [awakened mind] becomes a very different proposition. If the importance of this life reaches beyond this particular identity, we can assess the meaning of our existence in a radically different way which compliments zazen and at the same time de-emphasizes the personal, neurotic importance of attaining enlightenment. This (correct) relative view is contained and nurtured within Buddhist culture. The problem for us is that Zen takes no interest in directly cultivating a relative awareness. It speaks only from the absolute perspective.

This, I think, is the root of the dilemma. Zen is speaking from the absolute to an audience that is culturally unfamiliar even with the relative Buddhist perspective. How, then, do American Zen students interpret what is said and done in the zendo? They do so from American perspectives, not Buddhist ones. This has resulted in a very interesting and unarticulated definition of kensho. I think it is illustrated in the response I got from a longtime Zen student who no longer sits. I asked him why, and he said, "Because my only association with zazen is of personal failure." I found his answer one with which I could easily identify. Upon reflection, however, I think the answer contains much information. This response was not a critique of a teacher: it is a statement about another more important dimension of the crisis.

Of course zazen must be one long series of personal failures. Practice is by its nature destructive; we are, after all, seeking to eliminate all that which obscures the truth. Why then, associate longtime practice with failure? There are at least two probable reasons. The first has to do with what happens when an absolute perspective is introduced into a culture that cannot support it contextually: enlightenment has been translated into a culturally more familiar notion of power. It has become an unarticulated assumption that kensho will do what psychotherapy, a career, a degree, and marriage will not do: make one finally happy. There is no internalized Buddhist way available to us in which to understand the experience of personal failure as a part of practice and as a reflection of its essential process. The experience can find no other context within the zendo, and therefore is placed in more familiar containers, primarily that of psychotherapy.

This is not—superficial resemblance notwithstanding—a good container. Psychotherapy may provide the religious vernacular for some aspects of Buddhism, but it is not necessarily a useful vehicle for conceptualizing practice. If nothing else, the emphasis on dyadic interpersonal interactions can work at cross-purposes to understanding what is necessary to go beyond the self. The result is that Zen students either psychologize practice, fail to understand its destructive nature, or repress their inevitable experience of failure. The result of this repression is a hunger for power, for compensation, and some indication that the effort is improving one's life. The depression which must accompany practice is converted into a psychotherapeutic problem and thereby made inaccessible to intuitive understanding, or it becomes another experience to be observed (and implicitly, to be gotten rid of). When so many Zen students enter practice in their twenties, at a time in their lives where developmental tasks involving the acquisition of power in order to adapt to the adult world become paramount, success has come to be equated with kensho. Success has been elevated to a cosmic level, and we are treated to the absolutely grotesque products of this assumption wherein "abbots" market practice with t-shirts and videos as a means of disseminating the dharma, therapists advertise therapy as "Buddhist," and becoming a monk means having a career.

The second reason is also a cultural artifact, associated with what has happened to the interpretation of how the absolute is to be understood. When the absolute perspective is taken without a living faith to contain it, it tends to strip all experience of its human meaning, and to denature it. It has become a form of radical deconstructionism, which leaves one with no meaning with which to practice. Practice becomes sterile, as feelings are reduced to makyo [a dream occurring in, or associated with zazen], and faith is translated into the same soft-headed abstraction to which organized Western religion has managed to reduce it. "Great Doubt" had been translated into intense skepticism; "Great Determination," into a contest over who can stay motionless on a zafu the longest; and "Great Faith," into—at best—self-confidence along with a certain cool cynicism, which in Zen circles has come to mean hard-headedness. I have no doubt that Japanese teachers have deep faith; I wonder if they are aware of the implications of the absence of such faith in their students.

The dharma has come to be equated with a species of deconstructionism where the relative is seen as epiphenomenal because it is not absolute, and therefore has no significance or meaning. As a result, rather than uniting conventional and ultimate truth, Zen students have as part of our unexamined cultural baggage recreated a Christian view of the world as profane, wherein only the zendo is the locus of practice. This, I think, was the dynamic behind the growth of large centers in the sixties and seventies, which were characterized by successful business enterprises surrounding a zendo. This conflation has led to a tendency toward sterile withdrawal from the world, a confusion of emptiness with a state of blankness, and the assumption that kensho is really about getting out of here. Or it is about doing really well here, and creating aggressive nonprofit organizations capable of buying up entire city blocks.

There is a fascinating historical resonance between our discussions about the state of the dharma and the debate that engaged the Tibetans during the introduction of Buddhism there. Hoshang, according to Thrangu Rinpoche (in "The Open Door of Emptiness"), claimed that "enlightenment resulted from Wisdom alone, that from one['s] seat of meditation awakening could be gained." His position seemed to be the radical one of Zen, wherein the use of skillful means and virtuous action were cutting the leaves and branches of a tree that required uprooting. What is interesting in this context is the Tibetan reaction to this notion. It was taken as a "great danger to the dharma" which would "undermine the already shaky morals of the Tibetan people." I take it that it was not that Hoshang was deluded, but rather that the culture into which the dharma was being introduced was not capable of using his vision.

In other words, in the absence of a deeply rooted Buddhist tradition in which a Buddhist worldview is part of one's unconscious organization of reality, the introduction of such a pure, essential methodology as zazen has not been held or contained by a faith that can allow for the destructive process of meditation to open one to the unknown. Without this kind of faith, insight cannot lead to the stabilization of practice, and compassion cannot interpenetrate ethics.

What then are we to do? Perhaps the first step is to accept that none of us will live to see the Golden Age of Buddhism in North America. We have several hundred years of violence to integrate first, along with a culture which is as barren as a rock in its support of the psyche. In this acceptance we can begin to appreciate our profound ignorance about the nature of Mahayana and the interdependence of all phenomena, including one another. We have a good understanding, as Sasaki Roshi said in a teisho, of Hinayana. We don't understand Mahayana at all. We are fond of all the cosmic bodhisattva imagery generated by other, far older cultures, but we in fact practice as sravakas [Theravada practitioners]. If we can accept that we are just beginning a process that will take five hundred years to bear fruit, maybe we can let go of the frantic grasping after personal liberation, and work in ways to liberate one another.

Ronald M. Sharrin
Topanga, California

[Dr. Ronald Sharrin is a clinical and organizational psychologist.]

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