Last night I announced and discussed with the group that I have recently resigned as a Soto Zen priest, profoundly concerned as I am with the directions the most prominent organizations 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.) Specifically, I’m speaking about the intrusion and apparent triumph of radical political partisanship in our nascent religion, forcefully pushed by its most visible teachers and figureheads, 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 fully authorized and thoroughly trained to present zazen. I remain committed 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.)
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.