Japanese Cultural Zen

Spiritual Materialism: An Exercise in Western Consumerist Vanity

When one thinks of themselves, as in ‘Who am I’, it is common to see yourself as in what you do to make money, your positions in various societies, your looks and appearance, and lastly your family status – married or unmarried.

An example is when a person introduces themselves, they may say such as, “Hi, my name is Jack, I am a plumber, my wife is Mary-ann and I have two kids” and they have the appearance of a plumber, that corresponds with their station and position in life, according to societal standards. If someone was to introduce themselves as a Lawyer, we then expect them to have the appearance of a lawyer, that being a sharp haircut and wearing a suit.

These materialistic adornments of position and station trend through all societies and cultures from the dawn of humankind.

In Zen, particularly with the Western Japanese Cultural appropriation centers, members take on positions within the Zen organization by wearing cloth adornments, such as Japanese-style robes, a bib like cloth called a ‘Rakusu’ that denotes seniority and commitment, and lastly haircuts that also denote membership and position within the organization.

All of the above listed, are Materialistic adornments of Station and Position, much like you find in any human society.

It was Trungpa, the Tibetan scholar in his book ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ that coined the term Spiritual Materialism, in meaning to create an Ego, a self, an identity through the adornments of the Spiritual Path, as well as through the methods, rituals, and ceremonies, and what Spiritualist term as ‘Practice’, that being a core belief put into action.

Western Zen is no exception to Trungpas’ criticisms of being a Materialistic ‘New Age’ view, clinging to station and position, creating the egos and the identities within the society of Japanese cultural appropriation.

Oh, I know many who read the charge will protest, in saying that Zazen, the core practice of the Western ‘Dogenism’ Zen centers perform, is not materialistic. However, it is, and here is why:

The Zazen is a performance act, thus “sitting like a Buddha is being Buddha” is what Dogen the revered patriarch of Western Zen says. This a materialistic stance that the Zen practitioner takes in mentally saying “I am practicing Zen, this is Zen”.

Lets look at how Dogen embraces the Materialism of Zazen:
“We truly know that when we make a mirror by polishing a tile, Ma-tsu becomes a buddha. When Ma-tsu becomes a buddha, Ma-tsu immediately becomes Ma-tsu. When Ma-tsu becomes Ma-tsu, zazen immediately becomes zazen.”

Dogen statement is exactly contrary to the old Ch’an masters who urged students to abandon Materialism, here is an example:

Nangaku one day goes to Baso’s hut, where Baso stands waiting. Nangaku asks, “What are you doing these days?”

Baso says, “These days Dōitsu just sits.”

Nangaku says, “What is the aim of sitting in zazen?”

Baso says, “The aim of sitting in zazen is to become Buddha.”

Nangaku promptly fetches a tile and polishes it on a rock near Baso’s hut.

Baso, on seeing this, asks, “What is the master doing?”

Nangaku says, “Polishing a tile.”

Baso says, “What is the use of polishing a tile?”

Nangaku says, “I am polishing it into a mirror.”

Baso says, “How can polishing a tile make it into a mirror?”

Nangaku says, “How can sitting in zazen make you into a buddha?”

The Zen Materialist often cite the above as a ‘Koan’, or spiritual riddle, and see it as an affirmation of the practice of Zazen, where it clearly IS NOT.

Take away all the Japanese cultural baggage (the robes, the bibs, and haircuts) and the performance arts of the Zen Materialist, and ask them what Zen is…they simply fall apart in a heap of psychological babble and pseudo-scientific double-talk (more materialism if you ask me) because they have no clue as to what Zen is.

I tend to find this same sort of issue with westerners in any Buddhist traditions, and I venture to say it stems from the materialistic culture we are born and raised in, and that is presented to us every day, every second, through the media devices that brainwash and mind-control people to be nothing more than materialist that consumes market goods.

It is a complete delusion to think that just because one joins a Zen or any Buddhist organization, that one does not bring everything in from their ordinary everyday life to that organization that troubles them in the first place as to why they sought out Zen!

What is Zen? I can say it’s not Zazen, the performance art, and it is certainly not the robes, the bibs, and the haircuts. It’s not a Station or Position within a society, it’s not physiological babble or pseudo-scientific double-talk, and it’s not head-game either, of ‘Zen is everything and nothing’ sort of nonsense.

The book, The Secret of Zen, is perhaps the best nonsense teaching of Zen that is not based on Materialism as we see in these Zen Center cults. For the true zen seeker, is that not what you were seeking this entire time?

Those who insist that Dogens’ teachings are Zen, that Zazen is Zen, that the Society methods and way are ZEN, need to be seen for who they are: MATERIALIST! They don’t teach Zen, never have, they teach something else…Dare I say what it is? Yes, it’s just more suffering. Materialism only bring suffering, for those who have not long for it, and for those who have cherish it, and fear to lose it.


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