Deciphering Zen

The volumes of works written on the subject of Zen are massive and very diverse as to the opinions the authors hold and the concussions they make. With so many opinions and conclusions, how then do we know what is Zen, and what is just conjecture and opinion?

This article is to give you some insights as to how religion tends to work, and how to use logic and reason to ponder the issues.

Nearly all religions and religious movements spring from a body of canonical works that are deemed as ‘Holy, authentic and irrefutable’. From this springs forth two types of religious thought: Interpretive Religion and Living Religion.

Interpretive Religions in Zen are typically termed ‘Lineages’, often within a sectarian (Sects) body of accepted works by the foundational members of the sect. For example:

In Rinzai Zen, the works of Lin-chi (9th century China), Eisai (11th century Japan), and lastly Hakuin (13th century Japan) create a body of works that create the Interpretive Religion.  

Soto Zen, derives from the Caodong-school out of China, though the 12th-century monk Dogen is often accredited for founding Soto In Japan, his own work was dismissed, and the modern Soto-shu bases its own interpretive religion on Keizan, Shozan, Dohaku, and Zuiho who came well after Dogen create an Interpretive Religion.

A living religion also called an Oral Tradition, bases the religion on Holy books, such as the Mahayana Sutra, though priests will divine the meaning of the Holy books according to the needs and times of the body of members. This is often the case in which the membership is largely illiterate, or simply unable or unwilling to read the Holy books themselves.

The Western New Age movement is largely a Living Religion, in which the Living Priest will base their interpretations and divinations upon select books that they deem as Holy.

So, a zen student must now ask the questions: Is what I am reading, listening to from the Interpretive Religion or from the Living Religion. 

The next issue a Zen student has to consider is the authenticity and trustworthiness of the Interpretive religion, the living religion, and the holy books they derive from. There are always forgeries in religion, often manuscripts are found that are claimed to be from some famous religious figure or preacher that in many cases state radical positions and depart from prior writings of said religious figures. Sure, a person can have a change of heart later in life, further revelations make come to them, or a deeper enlightenment may spring forth a different direction and view of their earlier teachings. Yet, what is looked at is the consistency of style, tone, and cadence of the works – does it match earlier works? Forgeries are often detected because the style is not consistent with the author, or the tone is out of time-period, or even non-cultural, of the author. In many cases, terms and references in a forgery are used that were non-existent in the original author’s time.

In some cases, the religion is highly tinkered with by national politics (Emperors decrees and edicts) that at the time could not be ignored. In such cases, reading materials from authors deemed as significant by the Interpretive religion need that special * by them; for external factors beyond the control of the religion were involved.

In the Living Religion, in which the Zen Student is taking direct instruction from a living Priest (or whom they consider their teacher), the question is the same: Are they authentic and trustworthy?

Typically, a bit of detective work is all one needs to find out if a person is authentic as to who they say they are, their history, and prior studies. Yet, it has happened that many charlatans have shown up in Religious communities to claim to be someone they are most certainly not. Often those who make such claims do so when it is difficult, if not impossible, to very anything they state or to denounce it. 

For example, such is the case with Hsuan Hua, a Chinese national who immigrated to the United States in 1959 with claims of being a Ch’an Buddhist monk.  Given that China was in the throws of the Communist revolution, Buddhism smashed and scattered, and general disarray a the times…there simply was no way to validate his claims. Yet, decades later when China opened up many did go to China and found that none of Hsuan Hua claims could be verified, that he was not remembered by those who alive who would remember him, and that places he claims to lived at as a monk had no record of him.

Yet, other Ch’an monks from the same time, who also escaped to the West, did have records in temples they claimed to have lived at, and people alive did remember them as monks. So, to just say that the Communists destroyed is no longer a valid excuse.

There are many such cases with not only Chinese immigrants posing as monks, but with Japanese Zen Priest who escaped Japan after WW2 to the west – because they were part of the ultra-nationalistic regime that lead Japan to war and would have been imprisoned if they stayed in Japan.  Many like Deshimaru had no choice but to escape Japan and reinvent themselves in the west, finding those counter-culture beatniks, and later the hippy culture was receptive to their Japanese version of Zen in which they created their own ministries based on their views. Again, liken to the Chinese example above, verifying their claims is difficult if not impossible.

Finally, we have the current issue of Martial Arts club teachers posing as Zen Masters. We see this with the likes of Meido Moore, a martial artist who claims to be of the Japanese Rinzai tradition of Omori Sogen, one of the Japanese ultra-nationalist described above who had to leave Japan after the war.

Lastly, the Zen student has to then use logic and reason to evaluate the living and Interpretive religion as to if the dogma is reflective and supported in the base Holy books (canon) that they claim their religion is founded upon.  

In the case of Dogen, the 13th century Japanee Tendai monk, who is claimed as the father of Japanese Soto Zen, we find that none of his writings are reflected in the Mahayana canon, or even the Ch’an Caodong-school that he claims he studied with. Clearly, this was also seen with the predecessors of Dogen, who quietly shoved his works into the deep library archives where they were unread and forgotten. Only the name of Dogen as a founder survived, but not his teachings.

Other so claimed Zen teachers such as Joko Beck, stated a number of positions about Zen that was clearly not supported in the Mahayana, not even by her own lineage (Sanbo Kyoden) that she renounced soon after founding her San Diego Zen group. Her books were largely denounced, and publishers classified her works as ‘Self-help and psychology’ not as Zen religion.

Other popular writers such as Brad Warner also made a number of statements on Zen that are clearly just his opinion, and is a writer of Zen-themed books classified as ‘non-fiction’, ‘Self-help, and psychology’. Again, like Meido Moore, we find that Warner studied Martial Arts with Gudo Nishijima, another one of these ultra-nationalistic WW2 men who instead of leaving Japan for the West as so many of his cohorts did, he languished on the fringes of Japanese society for decades clinging to his version of Zen, that what pushed Japan to war. A good book about how Japanese Zen pushed Japanese society to war is documented in the book, ‘Zen at war’ by Brian Victoria.

The Zen student, with the research and detective work at hand,  then has to analyze and ask some serious questions.

Is that what is being taught to me actually Zen? Or is it something else?

– Spiritual Materialism, Japanese nationalism, cultural appropriation, opinions and conjectures based on personal biases, misunderstandings, bad interpretations, and forgeries as authentic.

Most Zen students early on, with zero actual zen studies and investigation as to who they are dealing with, fall into this belief that the teacher is authentic, that what they are learning is ‘real zen’. This is the lazy man’s way out of having to actually take responsibility for their own spiritual development, and those who behave like this often become liken to the evil Karate-club members who bully those who they deem as lesser and pride themselves upon their club membership status.  Oh, what a pit of hell they have opened up for themselves! 

You have to do your own work, the teacher cannot do it for you. One can believe that a dunghill is a Buddha (a reference to delusional thinking), till you do your own work and liberate yourself from that delusion. Is that not what Zen is about in the first place? To liberate from delusional thinking that only creates suffering?

All I can do these days is to implore and emphasize that,  “you have to look where you are walking.” That you have to open your eyes and actually look at what you are calling a Buddha and see the dunghill for the truth of what it is. You have to stop being lazy, and do the work yourself.


Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website

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