Zen Without Buddhism: Getting to the Heart
- By Fa Che Shakya, OHY
- Mar 18
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As a Dharma teacher in the West, in a small, rural town of 2500 people, Zen is virtually unknown. Perhaps there's a class or two at the university about 25 miles away. But outside of college elective courses, people out here break down into two categories: Catholic or Lutheran. When I moved here, it was like stepping back into the 1950's, at least as it was portrayed on television.
An article in our essay series: Making Connections: Discourses on the relationship between Zen, Buddhism, and culture
As a Dharma teacher in the West, in a small, rural town of 2500 people, Zen is virtually unknown. Perhaps there's a class or two at the university about 25 miles away. But outside of college elective courses, people out here break down into two categories: Catholic or Lutheran. When I moved here, it was like stepping back into the 1950's, at least as it was portrayed on television. There's virtually no crime, people wave to one another, and they help old ladies cross the ice. Certainly not like the Phoenix area I'd left. But along with that 50's idealization comes a lack of diversity. Arriving as a Zen priest, I wanted to start a local sangha, but that was easier said than done as it turns out.
Needless to say, there is not a sangha to be had in a hundred mile radius. Okay, I have my work cut out for me. I began my quest to bring forth the Dharma at a local alternative healing center right on our downtown strip. I figured if there was anyone that would even try Zen out here, they might well consider themselves "alternative". I approached the center's owner and he seemed intrigued about my being a Zen priest and agreed that I could use the upstairs as a meditation area. He knew that Zen involved meditation, so that was a good start. The owner then put together a "press release" for the upcoming classes. I didn't really agree with all his wording and he had me quoted as saying things I didn't but, what the heck, it was a place to sit. Then he wanted a picture of me, so I gave him one in which I was wearing my Rakusu.
He asked, and I quote, "what is that bib-like feature that you're wearing?" I told him what it was and that I would be wearing it during the meditation sessions and Dharma Talks. My naiveté of the situation was then made clear as he told me that as this was a small town and anything non-Christian was seen as odd at best, and cultish at worst. As he was economically tied to the alternative healing center, I couldn't just march in there and start any kind of "non-standard" practices that might get the town talking too much. He said this had happened to him before and it was a problem he didn't want to repeat. He then asked me if he could just Photoshop the Rakusu out of the picture. I told him that wouldn't be necessary, I'd simply provide a picture without. We were set, but I had to rethink my approach to spreading the Dharma in my rural setting.
So how was this Zen thing going to work? I had to use the word meditation, not "zazen". I couldn't use the word "Buddhism", or "Zen". I had to wear "civilian" clothing, as the owner put it. He also thought it best that I keep that "priest thing" to myself as well. He didn't think candles or incense were a good idea either. Forget about a Buddha statue. After some thought (or perhaps I was being led) I suggested that maybe it could just be a meditation class. If anyone wanted to explore Zen, they could see me after class - that is if they brought it up first. So my "insight meditation" class was born.
The first night I got about 8 people. That number dropped as expected to about 5 over the course of time. People would come, and they would go. I was impressed with the conversations after meditation. There was real Zen happening, but no one used that vernacular. In fact there was a whole lot of Zen going on, as much as any bona fide Zen group I'd ever sat with. The participants were on the Path without any Buddhism, without any Zen forms for that matter. Then, after about a year, the class fell off to one participant. And it stayed that way.
What happened? Again, I had to change gears and figure out how to present the Dharma in my small town. I had one faithful participant. She was curious about Zen and read a few books that I'd suggested to her. I also began to think about "insight meditation", "Zen" and "Buddhism". Perhaps the "insight meditation" was too watered down? Perhaps Zen in some form was needed, but how much? How little? Do we need Buddhism at all on the Zen path?
I left the confines of the alternative healing center and began to sit at my work on Saturdays with my one fellow Zen practitioner in tow. Zen came about as a "special transmission outside scriptures, not founded on words or letters". I wanted to present Zen to my small community and I began to think about what Zen really means and what it would look like. We know what it looks like in the East, but how should it look as it spreads to the West. And, specifically, what should it look like in my somewhat isolated, conservative town?
The answer is still being developed by me and others in the West. Zen, in its truest form, is without form. It is beyond thought, culture, and words. It cuts straight to the nature of reality. Still, I and others need a boat to reach the other shore, and that means practice forms and metaphorical fingers pointing to the moon.
The four noble truths (suffering, grasping, cessation, and the noble eight fold path) and the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and no-self) seem to be one place to look for the holdovers of Buddhism on Zen, at a minimum. As for the forms that are practiced in Zen, it's best when all paint our own landscapes as different artists would paint a scene with their given talents. The scene is ultimately the same, but how it's portrayed would vary from person to person, from sangha to sangha. However we go about it, the crucial thing is getting to the Heart.