Just Sitting is the Only Point

Last night I announced and discussed with the group that I have recently resigned as a Soto Zen priest, essentially in protest of directions the most prominent leadership of the tradition are taking it in this country. By request, I told folks I would post something here with links for the community, and fill out my reasoning a bit for those interested (if you’re not, I commend you. Please just keep coming to sit. That’s the only real point.) In particular, I’m speaking about the intrusion and triumph of radical political partisanship in our nascent religion, forcefully pushed by its most visible teachers, without a peep of apparent dissent.

I have been considering this decision for months, taking this step with utmost gravity, and only after consultation with friends, counselors, and colleagues. I have practiced Zen for almost 30 years. I’ve been ordained in different traditions, but have been a Soto priest since 2011. I’ve executed most of the preparations demanded in anticipation of Dharma transmission (the completion of a priest’s formal training in our tradition), including the penultimate step of serving as Shuso (head monk) at my teacher’s temple in 2017.

My decision to resign is fundamentally a personal one, but it has a public aspect. My felt sense of responsibility to the group was a major impetus in my coming to this conclusion. Transparency is among my highest priorities and values, and in that spirit I feel an obligation to lay my situation out a bit for people’s consideration. While my choice should have zero functional effect with just sitting (again, Valley Dragon’s sole purpose), clarification might be meaningful to some people who might have had unexpressed expectations based on my being a Soto priest.

I remain a lay practitioner, still ordained in more than one Zen tradition, but primarily oriented by Dogen’s emphasis on the regular practice of simply sitting in dignified silence, peacefully together with others. I am authorized and thoroughly trained to present zazen. I remain committed for the time being to continuing to help facilitate that, depending only that this service is requested. Our numbers continue to sustainably grow, and the group is able to function in my absence, which I consider good and desirable signs. To be perfectly clear, I do not accept “students”, I am no master, cannot and will not give precepts, take no fee, and consider myself merely a fellow traveler on the path. Everyone sits on their own cushion or chair.

The final straw regarding my status as a priest was this “repentence statement” recently issued by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. Let’s clear the decks here and say, no one thinks we live in Utopia. There continue to be specific serious social and economic problems that can and should be rigorously confronted and addressed. That said, we’re not (yet) in dystopia, either; we should live with enormous gratitude for and dedication to the success of the incomprehensibly abundant human civilization surrounding us. A modern civilization that continues drawing more people per capita, more rapidly out of poverty and misery around the globe than at any other time in human history. I will not here get into a blow by blow analysis of this SZBA statement, although it is deserving of one. It is not an exercise that many of these ideas would survive unscathed, or survive at all. What I wish to underscore is merely that the views expressed by the SZBA are not inevitable, inarguable conclusions drawn from Buddhist teachings, much less natural science, philosophy, psychology, morality, common law, or ethics.

In fact, I find much of what is said there immoral, unethical, historically inaccurate, disproportionate, illegal in practice, and psychologically, politically, and socially deleterious. In spirit, in certain respects it directly contradicts traditional Buddhist and Zen teaching. The trend toward Zen adopting (or being coopted by) what I will inelegantly summarize as “radical postmodern identitarian leftism” has been gaining steam for some time (if interested, here is a link to a longer reflection on these issues on my slow going blog, which in retrospect seems entirely too timid.)

My main contention, overwhelmingly supported by traditional teachings (not to mention I think common sense), is that the sole function of the Zen priest is to facilitate access to zazen;  specifically endeavoring, in fact, to protect it from the intrusion of partisan politics, dogmatism, and trendy social causes, stepping beyond discussion of zazen only with the greatest trepidation and care. My teacher was adamant in his disagreement, clearly expressing that the inevitable and only truly justifiable response for the committed ordained Zennist was radical activism based in the socio-political conclusions perfectly voiced and encapsulated by the SZBA statement. This view has utterly and demonstrably prevailed. In the end, my choice was made crystal clear. This battle is lost. The ideologues have the field. I am forced by conscience to leave it to them, and seek more meaningful games with clearer thinking people.

Zazen is a powerful but delicate thing. It can involve excruciating vulnerability, and open people up to depths of latent confusion or insecurity. Transmission is a system steeped in anachronistic, mystical, irrational, non-Buddhistic contexts and contents. Over and over, its value is thrown into question as “masters” abuse “disciples”, falling prey to by-passed messianism and self-righteousness that seem almost inescapable in such role playing. The unexamined conflation of activist politics with all this is particularly dubious – especially the radical, explicitly neo-Marxist dogma suspended in this hazy, toxic sludge of hierarchical Asian mysticism, tribal identitarianism, and psychologies of perpetual division and alienation. Make no mistake: lives are already being destroyed by these grave misunderstandings, and these religious figureheads have thrown the future of the tradition, that they have been entrusted to maintain and uphold, into serious jeopardy.

As a young man, I received a graduate degree from one of the ground-breaking academies of the postmodern left. After those studies, I threw myself headlong into Zen, life among indigenous folks on reservations and abroad, and work with regular, everyday Americans, looking for refuge from the soul-killing poverty of many of the disaffecting, paradoxically elitist views the SZBA now champions. You can imagine my chagrin to have watched these notions creep in and steal the tradition out from under our feet. We’re in the upside-down.

But zazen is just zazen. I remain committed to my own practice of silent contemplation, which is just sitting and breathing. No big whup. I plan to keep practicing. You are welcome to join me and the other like-minded, decent, upright people who keep showing up. We don’t consider our color, gender, sexuality, or political inclinations issues that need much attention in this context. Our naturally diverse sangha strives together in fact to create a refuge from such matters, for at least a few minutes a week. What substance there is to any of that is still waiting for us when we walk out the door. We remain open to discussing any issues of concern like mature adults, with full and equal protection under every law, owning and respecting our own and others individual integrity and inherent Buddha Nature.

Post Script: I am hearing appreciatively from a lot of people, around the country, who share my concerns, and analogs to my experience. Sangha participants here have voiced their encouragement, requesting I continue to speak out in support of this attitude. This was my hope – not only that I might unburden my own heart and explain things for friends, but also that it might help others to feel supported in their zazen.