Zen Buddhism and Zen Method

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Ugi: My personal experience with Zen folks is that they regard the Zazen practice as the highest spiritual practice there is but lacking any insight into emptiness, they often miss the point and they pretty much turn the practice itself into a thing of worship. I’m not kidding, I’ve heard Zen practitioners talk about Zazen like it’s the holy grail. It’s supposed to be that magical practice that might lead you to awakening if you’re lucky and diligent enough …

I did zen for 4 years with very highly regarded teachers out there and have done sesshins afterwards with few teachers, last time in Dec 2018 in Japan. What I learned from zen was extremely high work ethics because no one sits as much as zen buddhists do. They are really hard workers. That’s why it is a pity that most zen out there today has been reduced to mere mindfulness practice. I think zen would need it’s own thread…

Yes indeed.

Having this connection to Zen, do you see similar movements of pragmatism in Zen like we see in Theravada or begin to see in Vajrayana?

Having looked at several exponents of contemporary modern and western Zen, I’ve mostly seen an even further moving away from the original Dharma core of Zen. It often doesn’t sound much different than Eckhart Tolle teachings these days.

Pragmatic Zen? No, haven’t seen it anywhere… but I’ve often thought about how it would look like if it did. John Denko Mortensen, a zen-teacher who took up dzogchen, said, “While zen-masters say weird things, dzogchen-people actually explain things”. So in my pragmatic version of zen it would look pretty much like mahamudra and dzogchen.

All kinds of zen is based on kensho and there is no “zazen” apart from kensho… but the vast majority of zen people don’t know what kensho jobutsu, (lit. see nature become buddha) means, just like people don’t in other types of mahayana and vajrayana dharma. Not being able to systematically shed the samsaric mind and break through to buddhamind is a major obstacle abound everywhere and in all kinds of teachings. So, kensho, i.e. awakening has become a taboo that is not talked about, nor experienced, but what the ancient masters keep bringing up to create a pool of embrassing confusion in the minds of modern zen buddhists. What was a priority in ancient zen has now become an anomaly. How can you say that zen is zen anymore? And that’s exactly why the teachings of zen buddhist teachers and masters are no different from secular mindfulness, Tolle or even self-help.

I’d pictured something along those lines myself. Just recently I told a friend that modern Zazen is pretty much Atiyoga without pointing-out instructions. No wonder so many get lost for so long in the darkness if noone tells them where the light switch is.

What always strikes me - whether it is in Zen or Mahamudra or Dzogchen - is the fact that great masters of all times always mentioned the poor state of Dharma practice in their respective times. When I for example read the works of master Bassui, it’s evident how poorly Zen was taught already in the 14th century.

This brings me to the conclusion that there probably has never been a time where proper Dharma teachings were the main stream of Dharma. No matter how much a culture merged with buddhism, this is no guarantee for proper Dharma teachings. True Dharma rises and falls with real realisation of real people. There’s no Dharma besides that.

Ugi: Just recently I told a friend that modern Zazen is pretty much Atiyoga without pointing-out instructions.

I have immense love and deep karmic connection with zen but at the same time I think honesty is more important than allegiance for training systems, i.e. traditions. Getting disillusioned about that was really hard for me back in the day. I sizzled on a frying pan for months with that.

So far, I have met only one buddhist mahasiddha in my life and that was Harada Tangen Roshi of Bukkokuji. He was the only zen buddhist buddha I’ve met, who had attained mahamudra, who was done, on the other shore. His photos and talks can be found online. He was nothing like the rest. A completely different kind of being! Even though I have trained with other really exceptional zen masters, who were great examples and had truly great spirit, I cannot say of them what I say of Tangen Roshi. I received transmission and verbal pointers from them but not the experience, and this I think makes it not “pointing-out instructions” as they are understood on vajrayana. Tangen Roshi on the other hand was a walking, living, breathing and talking pointing out instruction. He didn’t need to make any effort to point out. Question arises how did he attain buddhahood when most zen buddhists don’t? According to himself it was his post-war desperation, immense self-based suffering.

Pointing out instructions or direct introductions means that a teacher takes the student by the hand and shows it to him/her. Whether this is done symbolically (by holding up a dharma object for example), verbally, through touch or in silence, the main element in pointing out the nature of mind is energy. It is the energy of the awake mind that makes it happen, or not, if it is not there. This is why you can’t have any passerby read Longchenpa’s book aloud, hold up a vajra or slap people with a sandal and have people recognise their basic state, because that realisation and energy that comes with it, is absent. Without awake mind it is just theatre.

There are different types of atiyoga. There is the atiyoga before emptiness of all phenomena and after it. However,during the pre-emptiness stage, if and when the fog of substrate consciousness is not separated from the mind that is utterly clear and bright, that is not atiyoga… But that’s exactly what you see in zen dojos around the world. That is not fit to be called zazen either because zazen is supposed to be buddhanature recognition.

What always strikes me - whether it is in Zen or Mahamudra or Dzogchen - is the fact that great masters of all times always mentioned the poor state of Dharma practice in their respective times.

Reg. proper dharma in main stream. I don’t think anyone really even tried to make dharma main stream, like international. Many did try to make it main stream locally. They had compassion, no doubt about that, but whether any past master really tried to create and spread a system that would awaken, awaken more and fully awaken any devoted individual despite of gender, nationality and social status, I think that thought, if it ever even popped up in their minds, didn’t get far because of instant and obvious limitations and obstacles.

Internet and English as the most spoken language in the whole world makes a huge difference. They weren’t there until few decades ago. Also, when it comes to traditional buddhist dharma, there are still more people who only speak about their practice with their teachers, who would never even imagine discussing their practices or experiences in a blog or youtube, than those who do. There are also the vows of secrecy, that pretty much seals most of tb practices from the outer world. Also due to how they’ve been structured methods themselves in most cases require full time and attention, in the past basically becoming a monastic, to produce even some fruit.

At the same time, like you say, in all traditions and lineages has been adepts who complain about the low level of realisation in dharma.

Now, for the first time in history, it’s a different opportunity but it remains to be seen what the need is.

Interesting to read this. I have felt a real strong pull towards zen lately, I love how it “looks” in terms of art and attitude/style, and had few experiences where some zen sayings make sense and feel close to it. But I think the point you make Kim Rinpoche reg how the person in question having realization or not pretty much is what validates any practice or tradition, thats number one. But I would like to ask a modern zen teacher, if in say sword fight or kaligrafi you achieve kensho, or just see or hear a story about a zen master going from zero to hero by using these tools, like how does it fit in. Meaning " I painted ensos for a week and saw there where no gap in awarness"or stuff like that, if it exsist. Not meaning this ironically, might sound thst way, just really curious.

Or meaning, how does these practices fit in with the various achievments into emptiness probably is what I wanted to ask?

There is no question fine or martial arts can make the whole samsaric mind subside but whether there are permanent shifts is completely random and certainly cannot be discussed in the sense of realising emptiness step-by-step.

Ah, well that makes sense though, didnt think about it that way.