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.

Prow_Needle_cover_photo-Spring_2016

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3 thoughts on “Just Sitting is the Only Point

  1. Pingback: I Found a Friend – Don't Know Zen

  2. Steve Marino

    It’s unfortunate indeed that a political influence is invading Zen practices. Personally. I find the idea of collective guilt to be illogical, incorrect, and absurd. I am only responsible for my actions, not the actions of everyone that happens to be of my race or nationality!

    And yet, this does not surprise me either. Fortunately, Zen is what it is, so these people that have spoken in favor of presenting a particular way of viewing reality have no real power over you or me. They just make statements concerning their views (which in itself is incorrect, as the only view that is acceptable and true is the one of no view at all). These individuals have no real power over anyone, and all of us have the options to speak against their actions, resign as you did Titus, or ignore things and continue our practice. Those are good options, and available to all.

    The reason this does not surprise me is because for the 25 plus years I have been going to Zen centers in America it has become impossible to ignore who was there………white male liberal yuppies. Very, very few Asians, almost zero Blacks, no Native Americans, not many women, etc. Why is it like that? Something is wrong with the way Zen is set up in this country. The only thing I can think of that might explain this is that non white people of modest means do not feel welcome, so they stay away.

    Zen cannot be made into a politically correct practice, or into any other sort of political entity. But people are going to do what they do, and this is an opportunity for everyone to speak their minds and decide for themselves what they are going to do about this. This may actually be a good thing, as it will prod people to, hopefully, offer alternatives to “the company line” that is currently being put forward, which is something that is laughable when talking about Zen. In the end, it’s merely a bump in the road, and the road of life is full of bumps. How we chose to navigate those bumps and the actions we take is the core teaching of cause and effect.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Steve. A couple responses: first, for a very long time, I shared your more sanguine view about the long term prospects of the tradition. That things will just work themselves out. Now, I am not so sure. This repentance statement is the culmination of signs I’ve seen for years, and really constitutes a wholesale political take over of at least Soto Zen. Beyond that, it indicates the weakness and cultishness of its members, not one of whom has publicly stood by or up for my position, or against how I’ve been treated for speaking out. Not that I feel I need defending or confederates, but rather it points to collective issues of groupthink, fear, and intimidation.

      You discuss “Zen” without denominational distinction. I have practiced in two major styles of Zen over 30 years, and find that they have quite powerful differences, and these differences are meaningful. Soto, as evidenced in this repentance statement, has frankly been coopted and I would say hijacked by American communists. I know this sounds absurd today, like some kind of “red scare” panic. But it is literally true. The Soto statement is a relentless, total indictment of capitalism and American civilization. It explicitly employs the pseudo-academic language of neo-Marxism, not failing to miss one key phrase or notion. And true to the form of contemporary communism, it utilizes race, gender, and resentment as the fulcrum and levers of revolution, with the declared and underscored goal of borderless, global socialism.

      I won’t go fully down that rabbit hole or analysis. I will just relate recently seeing a Nigerian Nobel-winning economist (black, female, as if this needs to be mentioned to assuage the fixations of leftists – an itch which no amount of scratching can alleviate) who said only capitalism provides ANY hope for the 75% of that country’s population who are under 25 or so. It’s really quite simple. The evidence is overwhelming. Political and economic freedom have produced unprecedented abundance and quality of life around the world at incomprehensible speed particularly in the last two decades.

      These leftist ideologues have no proportionality. There are of course problems, but they do not analyze the causes properly, do not acknowledge the larger contexts in which these problems exist, and therefor can not provide accurate or effective solutions. The Soto church has institutionalized political ignorance and racial bigotry, and called it holiness and righteousness and justice. They’ve effectively demonized anyone who might bring reason or simply an alternate view into the building. It’s truly mind boggling.

      Second, while it’s true there has been a preponderance of WASPs in Zen, I would point out also the prevalence of Jewish leadership. This is no conspiracy. People who have been attracted to Zen tend to be highly educated. This underscores how it takes 2-3 generations for families to build toward a sort of educational and economic apex that would make such an exotic, esoteric religion meaningful or attractive. In my experience, the Soto church in particular is lead now by more women than men, and our little group here in New Mexico reflects the demographics of the state: about half white, many Hispanics, plenty of Native friends, equal numbers of women to men, and a few black folks (who are something like 2% of the population here. And only 12% of the population nationally.) In my experience, Zen hasn’t been missing proportional representation too badly, and it’s been shifting rapidly, as we see in every Buddhist mag or leadership council.

      The emphasis on race by whites, attempting to force interest by people of color, I find embarrassingly presumptuous and condescending a lot of the time. Practice authentically, and see who shows up. Don’t make it weird for them when they do show up. White liberals are notorious for making it weird for people of color – and USING THEM for their own social and political purposes.

      So. We could go on. Lastly I’d just say that all of this has me deeply questioning certain deeper philosophical problems in Zen and Buddhism generally, at least how they’ve been received here, that have made the traditions prone to this coup from the hard left. I have Buddhist friends in Europe who tell me this is not a problem for them; that their Sanghas are much more politically aware, balanced, and centrist. I find I am not very interested in “Buddhism.” I like to sit. I like the traditional Zen emphases. Maybe it will swing back. If it does, it will be because people get disgusted and alarmed and take action. I hope mine causes some shift for someone somewhere and helps a person pull themselves out of the leftist quagmire.

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