Many ask what exactly is Zen, in the modern western context, and what is it exactly? In this post, I will outline what Modern Zen is, and exactly what they believe.
As for myself, the writer, I have been in the study of Buddhism and Zen for over 35 years. I lived in Zen centers during the 1980’s and served as a resident staff member in them. I have visited many Zen centers and listened to the talk of many modern-day Zen teachers that affirm what I am going to tell you.
They believe they are the successors of The Buddha
This is the ‘Holy Lineage’ that all of these Zen Centers put front and center in the ceremonies of honorification and beautification of such. This is a faith/belief that The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) passed the Mind-seal (Transmission of the lamp) to Mahākāśyapa that flowed to China through the legendaryBodhidharma then to China through the Japanese saint Dogen and to them in this current day.
This claim is contrary to the fact that The Buddha never appointed a successor according to the Pali suttas, and Mahayana Sutras speak of Maitreya, the Future Buddha to come, who is not a flesh-born Buddha.
The best I can uncover is that this ‘Transmission of the Lamp’ story is a Chinese creation coming out of the Tang Dynasty (600 to 800 ad) in China with the legendarystory of Bodhdharma coming from foreign lands to bring the Zen to China. It is likely that the Bodhidharma story is created out of many other stories, and used as leverage in a claim of holding a ‘holy mind-seal’ that would allow for the Ch’an sect (Zen in China) to establish itself and swoon over the government ministers and feudal lords of their Holy Lineage that is vital in those days to even survive.
So, yes it is a scam. Much like the Catholic position of ‘ex cathedra’ that puts the Pope as the successor of the throne of Peter, who is the successor of Jesus. This bit of scam is used as leverage over the masses as to impart Religious Authority, as well as to give favor to governmental ministers and royalty who may need a favor from the masses that devote to the Religious Authority.
Modern Zen today uses the ‘Transmission’ as the Religious Authority upon from what they operate. They claim that this transmission is unbroken, and the mind-seal of Buddha is here today. This however is a lie, for we already know that Bodhidharma is likely a fictional character, and there is also the Dirty Little Secret that Dayang (942–1027) had no successors and his ‘transmission’ was held in trust by another monk and given to Touzi 25 years after Dayang died. This later was lied about by the Japanese Tendai monk Dogen who claims Touzi directly received the transmission from Dayang knowing full well that Dayang died long before meeting Touzi. You see Dogen insists that only ‘face-to-face’ transmission is valid and he had to lie to keep his own Lineage scam intact.
They believe that sitting in meditation is itself the realization of Buddha nature, or enlightenment.
The San Francisco Zen Center has makes this statement:
“Our practice flows from the insight that all beings are Buddha, and that sitting in meditation is itself the realization of Buddha nature, or enlightenment.”
This is what I would deem the motto of all Western Zen centers, and you find this motto well reflected in what they call Practice.
To the Western Zen center members, Practice to them is the performance art of ‘still sitting’, in which they claim to sit with no purpose at all, however, we know from the motto that they sit because they believe it to be Buddhahood and enlightenment.
This is a peculiar belief that is only found in Soto Zen coming out of Japan, that is solely based upon the writings of a 12th century Tendai monk named Dogen who claimed to have traveled to China, visited the Chinese Caodong where he claims he receives the Mind-seal.
There are a lot of problems with Dogen’s claims. First is that he only ever received the Bodhisattva vows, not the full Buddhist Monk ordination. Second, he was not ordained on one of the Great Ordination platforms in China, third he did not speak Chinese though the Japanese written language was passable for communications back then, and lastly his claims of special permission to enter the temples in China is dubious and likely made up. Other aspects of Dogen also indicate some sort of scam that he was engaging upon the warring factions in Japan, in which he was positioning himself with the most likely winning factions in bringing to Japan a ‘new Buddhism’ that would give the favorite faction the Favor of Buddha through this Japanese version of ‘ex cathedra’ that of course would be used as leverage over the masses, warlords and royalty.
So, not only did Dogen lie about the unbroken Transmission of the Lamp, we also know he plagiarized the Chinese monk Dahui in rewriting his Shōbōgenzō and claiming it as his own. What is also telling is that Dogen’s own temple fell into disrepair shortly after his death with only 3 monks maintaining the place when Keizan, the Soto Reformer, absorbed the temple into the Soto religion that was sweeping Japan. Posthumously Dogen was named founder of Soto, due to his claims of going to China, though his teachings were archived and not taught.
What about this Zazen?
It is an interesting point to make that according to Nishiyama, an early translator of Dogens works to English, that monks prior to the finding of Bendowa, a manuscript claimed to be written by Dogen, did not sit Zazen, and that such practice was unknown.
We also know that the manuscript Bendowa, which was found in the 17th century in a Kyoto temple, is likely a forgery during very turbulent times in Japan under the Meiji Restoration that not only disbanded the Samurai, but outlawed Buddhism. This likely set up a situation where leverage was needed by the former monks who needed a practice they can peddle to the masses that was not outlawed – thus Zazen! This simple act of Sitting in a still position, a performance art, that they declared was ‘Being Buddha’ (sort of like the Buddha statues that are actually Maitreya) but the local masses still loyal to the outlawed Buddhism took to it as a religious practice (and protest), most likely because it was not like the Buddhist ceremonies that would bring the scorn and retribution down on them from the reforms.
Is not Zazen just Dhyana?
The term Dhyana is best translated ‘a state of being that taps into the practitioner’s self-awareness or soul’ and is often misunderstood to be Meditation, which it is not. This ‘state of being’ sometimes is described as Samadhi a word meaning ‘enlightenment’ or ‘absorbed in the Buddha-nature’.
Clearly, this is not a performance art, such as what still sitting would be classified. This state of being, dhyana, is formless and non-conceptual, as are the 9 Jhanas stages as described by those who enter dhyana.
Zazen according to Dogen is to ‘absorb Buddha-nature, thus becoming Buddha’ by sitting in the Zendo. This view is not supported in the Mahayana Canon and not taught by the Chinese Ch’an Zen masters. This is why Japanese Zen is called a New Religion, for it is only founded upon the writings of Dogen – thus those who follow such teachings of Dogenism are called Dogenist.
Are you not just writing this because you were kicked out?
This notion has crossed my mind many times over the years, and I reflect upon the physical violence committed upon me and the injustices of being kicked out of a religious Priest path I was on. Yet, as I reflect I was already questioning well before being ousted the history of what they taught, and the validity of what they taught. The holes in what they teach are glaring, and you can drive a large big rig truck through them, yet as a Zen Center student, you are taught to not see them, to pretend they don’t exist.
I have never done well with authority, or with groupthink and cult-like tactics. I tend to see them for what they are and call them out on such stuff. Well, doing such does make enemies, especially those who are caught red-handed doing the kooky cult stuff, and that is enough cause for them to send someone to you to have a ‘talk with a fist in your face’ about how it is, and to run you off.
When they speak of Zen, they are speaking of ‘Their Zen’, not the Zen of the ch’an Masters, not the Zen of Bodhidharma, not the Zen of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. Their ‘Zen’ is what they teach it is, and what they expect you to believe it is despite the historical inaccuracies, the glaring contradictions, the large holes, and the fact that Dogen was not even a monk, just a Japanese high-born who created a cult out of stolen and forged Chinese documents that he claims to have obtained in China.
Japan has a long history of kooky cults, and they still continue today. The number of strange and weird cults in Japan is way too many to list here, however, as long as they are not gassing subway stations in Tokyo they are left alone. My point is that the Japanese mindset accepts that these cults exist and are among them, whereas in the West we tend to more homogenize and are suspicious, if not outright hostile, towards differences.
So, you are saying Zen is bad?
No, what I am saying is that Japanese Zen is not Chinese ch’an and is its own thing based upon its own teachings found by their own institutionalized teachers and manuscripts.
Western Zen is not Japanese Zen, there is no official connection, and is based solely on the interpretations of westerners seeking a counter-culture (hippies) who found these Japanese men who catered to their wishes in teaching them this ‘Zen’ that we see today in the Zen Centers, that really is just a continuation of this counter-culture movement from the 60’s. In this, what they call ‘Zen’ is defined by them and is what they teach, even though as I said it is completely unsupported and not affirmed by Buddhist canon or the ch’an patriarchs.
So, where do I go to learn true Zen?
This, I cannot say. All I can do is explain to you what Modern Zen Centers believe and why. I can explain to you how I came to my understanding of this, and perhaps why I came to my understanding. If there is a Zen to be found, this is then your own quest and undertaking to engage in. My path of Zen is uniquely mine as yours will be uniquely yours.
All I can do is encourage you to go out and seek, have an adventure and see where it leads you.