Seated Meditation

“Zazen” is the core practice of meditation in all forms of Zen Buddhism. It is characterized by sitting in one of a few traditional postures, either at home on one's own time or as part of a Zen community or study group. Despite the apparent simplicity of zazen as a meditation method, there are in fact several distinct “techniques” or approaches one can take to the practice.

One is to count the breaths. This is intended to help you achieve “one-pointed” concentration, by giving your mind a task to focus on so it does not wander. Another method is to repeat a mantra, which essentially works in the exact same way. If you're paying attention to saying your mantra, your mind can't run riot over a thousand different topics and anxieties the way it ordinarily does in daily life.


Another approach is to focus your mind on your “hara,” which is the area of your torso just below your navel. This is a traditional method and is supposed to be highly effective, but it is also said to have two disadvantages. One is that it can lead to an obsessive focus on the hara rather than to free-flowing spontaneity. Another is that longtime practitioners of this method sometimes experience psychosomatic stomach problems.


Another method is to just sit without trying to focus on anything in particular, allowing your thoughts to come and go without becoming “stuck” on any of them.


Finally, you can focus on a “koan” or Zen story/riddle, trying to “solve” the koan with a supra-rational insight.



And Tendai Buddhism

Mount Hiei is a very ancient center of Japanese Buddhism, home to the Enryaku-ji temple complex. Enryaku-ji was once the headquarters for the “sohei” or warrior monks of Tendai Buddhism, who fought on behalf of the Tendai sect during Japan's many centuries of civil wars. Even though the sohei were warrior monks, they weren't usually fighting for religious reasons. It was just that the Enryaku-ji temples had significant political and even financial interests, and they used their armies of fighting monks to back up their interests with armed force.

The warlord Oda Nobunaga eventually got tired of the competition, surrounded Mount Hiei with an army of samurai, and set fire to every temple on his way up the mountain, killing every monk who escaped the flames. Enryaku-ji was allowed to rebuild, but it was no longer allowed to maintain its own armies.


The involvement of the Tendai sect in warfare and power politics might seem odd or even hypocritical for a Buddhist denomination, but in a certain way it fits with the Tendai doctrine that true Buddha-hood is achieved in the midst of the world, not apart from it. This doctrine may well have been misused, but it has also led to Tendai sponsorship of poetry, visual art and other aspects of high culture, all of which still play a significant role in Tendai practice. As for the sohei, they no longer exist, and their techniques of fighting with the “naginata” or halberd and the “yari” or spear are all but forgotten.



Buddhism and Shamanism

In Mongolia

Buddhism and Shamanism (or more specifically, Tengerism) have had a very uneasy relationship in Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhism was brought to Mongolia by a crafty ruler or “khan,” who couldn't unite the Mongolian tribes under his banner because he was not a bloodline descendant of the mighty Genghis. He made a deal with a Tibetan lama to declare him a reincarnation of Genghis's grandson Kublai, thus allowing him to seize power. In return, he recognized the lama as the “ocean teacher,” a phrase indicating supreme authority. That phrase, in Mongolian, is “Dalai Lama,” so the institution of Dalai Lama was directly connected with Mongolian power politics.

Of course, this doesn't invalidate either the spiritual validity of Mongolian Buddhism or the spiritual authority of the current Dalai Lama, who is universally respected for very good reasons. But it does illustrate how power, political machinations and less-than-pure motivations are not restricted to the history of Christianity and the West as some self-hating Westerners would like to believe.


In the case of Mongolia, the incoming Buddhist religion engaged in a long campaign of persecution and harassment against the indigenous shamanic religion of Tengerism. This campaign had most of the same features as Christian campaigns against Paganism, or the earlier Pagan campaigns against Christianity, including intimidation, public humiliation and even public executions. Spirituality is vitally necessary to human life, but the human tendency to try to enforce conformity and persecute those who are different is not restricted to one religion or ideology. It has reared its ugly head among Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Pagans and Atheists alike.



Sudden Enlightenment vs Gradual Enlightenment

A Zen Controversy

Is enlightenment sudden, or is it gradual? Does it happen in stages, or in a single moment of insight? This is one of the oldest doctrinal controversies in Zen Buddhism. Opinions have always differed on this point, so there is no single answer.

Adherents of the “sudden enlightenment” argument claim that insight into the true nature of self and reality occurs in a single flash of understanding, and that once a person experiences this insight, he can never become deluded again. This has been an extremely influential position within Zen Buddhism, but it raises questions that are difficult to answer.


If a Zen master believed to be truly enlightened is found to have committed crimes or indulged in ethical lapses, the sudden enlightenment school has a hard time explaining this. Was he never actually enlightened at all, or was his seemingly sinister behavior a form of “crazy wisdom” or a type of teaching trick? Believers in sudden enlightenment are inclined to excuse any sort of behavior on the part of the master, because acknowledging his serious moral failings calls the entire doctrine into question. Unfortunately, some masters have clearly abused this situation, and in some cases are still renowned as Buddhist teachers despite sleeping with their own students, drunk driving and other behaviors that would not normally be considered marks of spiritual enlightenment.


The school of gradual enlightenment sees spirituality as a process, characterized by an interaction between moments of insight and years of hard, daily work on the self. From this perspective, it's easy to see how a person could have a powerful and valid spiritual insight, yet still be subject to unresolved character flaws. This perspective does not put the Zen practitioner in the position of having to defend the unethical behaviors of a spiritual teacher.




Shim Gum Do

Sword And Zen

The city of Boston is home to an unusual Zen temple/school of swordsmanship known as Shim Gum Do, headed up by a Korean Zen master. If you've always been fascinated by the traditional connections (however tenuous) between Zen and swordsmanship, you might be interested in studying this art or even participating in their residential program, which is probably the closest you can get to being a “warrior monk” in the United States.

If you're interested in combatively realistic swordsmanship, though, you should be aware of one thing. The martial arts taught by Shim Gum Do are not historical Korean combat arts. Nobody has ever used Shim Gum Do swordsmanship on any battlefield. These arts were revealed to the founder of Shim Gum Do in a religious vision.


I don't question the validity of the founder's vision. Many Japanese sword arts were created in the same way. However, the founders of those arts had been training in combatively-proven forms of swordsmanship for years or decades prior to their visions, and in many cases they had extensive experience of battles and duels. One can assume that whatever insights the vision gave them were filtered through their established understanding of combat reality. The founder of Shim Gum Do had no such experience or training as far as I have been able to determine. Therefore, while Shim Gum Do would probably be a very rewarding way to practice Zen, it is probably not a way to learn realistic swordsmanship. Since realistic swordsmanship is not needed in the modern world, this is strictly a matter of personal taste and temperament.




"Taoism Isn't Really A Religion"

Sorry, This One Is Wrong Too

If you know anything about Taoism, you've probably heard that it's a “philosophy” or a “way of life” rather than a religion. Of course, people say the same thing about Zen Buddhism, and with just as little validity. With Taoism, there's the extra twist that some people will admit there's a “Taoist religion,” but they'll describe it as a corrupted version of the original pure philosophy of Taoism.

I'm just going to say this, because it needs to be said- no matter who says it, this is total bunk. Taoist religion can't be a corrupted version of Taoist philosophy, because Taoist religious practices existed for thousands of years before Lao Tzu wrote the “Tao Te Ching.” Practicing Chinese Taoists attribute the origins of their tradition to the Yellow Emperor, not Lao Tzu. Saying something comes from the Yellow Emperor is a Chinese way of saying “it's so old no one even knows when it started.” Scholars of religion usually describe Taoism as a development from very ancient forms of Asian shamanism.


Is there such a thing as “Taoist philosophy”? Yes, the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu can be described with this term, but the Taoist philosophical tradition derives from the Taoist religious tradition- not the other way around.


Think of it this way. St. Thomas Aquinas is a pillar of the Western philosophical tradition, but his philosophy is grounded in his Catholic religious faith. You can't separate Thomist philosophy from Catholic religion, because Catholic religious doctrine is the starting point for Thomist philosophy. Can you imagine anyone describing himself as a “philosophical Catholic” but not a “religious Catholic,” or claiming that Catholicism was a corrupted version of the Thomist philosophy? Of course not, that would be ridiculous- but people do the same thing all the time with Taoism.


So, how did this happen? During the era of colonialism, some Western intellectuals became fascinated with the profound philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, but they couldn't reconcile the sublime ideas of these philosophers with what they perceived as the vulgar superstition of Taoist religion. So they engaged in a desperate act of wishful thinking, convincing themselves that the religion must be a debased popular version of the philosophy they so admired.


In other words, the whole distinction between philosophical and religious Taoism is inherently patronizing, derives from the false assumptions and projections of colonialism, and has no validity at all.




"Farmer's Zen"

Japanese Zen, historically, was divided into two main sects- Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen. Some people referred to Soto as “farmer Zen” and Rinzai as “samurai Zen,” which tells you something about the two sects. The main difference between them is one of practice.


When Americans think of Zen, they think of koans- those riddle-like questions that are supposed to lead you to enlightenment. Rinzai Zen has a structured curriculum of koan practice, so you work through the koans in a fixed sequence and get a “Zen diploma” when you finish them all. Soto Zen did make use of koans at an earlier stage in its history, but it no longer does. So what does Soto Zen practice involve, if not koan study?

In Soto Zen, you just sit. Silent, seated meditation is the core of Soto, with the goal being a mental state of completely awake and alert clarity without allowing the mind to fixate on any objects of thought. If that sounds easy to you, give it a try- it's an extraordinarily difficult mental state to achieve and maintain.


The differences in practice between Soto and Rinzai are also reflected in their attitudes to Kensho or “enlightenment.” Rinzai practitioners tend to think of Kensho as a huge, life-changing experience, while Soto practitioners tend to see the practice of correct meditation as being enlightenment in and of itself. Many Soto Zen Buddhists practice seated meditation for years and years without ever having the big “enlightenment experience” familiar from so many Zen anecdotes, yet this is not generally seen as a problem. In Soto Zen, sitting quietly and paying attention is both the means and the end.



"Buddhism Isn't A Religion"

Well... actually it is

“Buddhism isn't really a religion. It's more of a philosophy or a way of life.”


“There are no gods in Buddhism.”


“Buddhists don't believe in heaven or hell.”


These are some of the statements you typically hear in the West from people who either practice a Westernized form of Buddhism (consciously redesigned to be more acceptable to modern Westerners) or who are generally friendly to Buddhism but do not practice it. All of these statements are also false. They are basically just part of a marketing campaign to make Buddhism into something that anti-religious Western bohemians and intellectuals will find appealing. The reality of Buddhist practice in Asia is very different.

First, the idea that Buddhists don't believe in sin, or don't believe in heaven and hell. According to Christoph von Furer-Heimendorf, an ethnologist:


“In Buddhist thinking the whole universe, men as well as gods, are subject to a reign of law. Every action, good or bad, has an inevitable and automatic effect in a long chain of causes, an effect which is independent of the will of any deity. Even though this may leave no room for the concept of 'sin' in the sense of an act of defiance against the authority of a personal god, Buddhists speak of 'sin' when referring to transgressions against the universal moral code.”


So, the understanding of sin is different, but the idea is still there. And what happens to the soul of a person who has committed great sins? He is reincarnated in one of several “Naraka” or hellish realms, until he is able to burn through all of his bad karma. Similarly, people with good karma can be reincarnated in a heavenly realm. So, in Asian Buddhism, there are actually concepts of sin, and of heaven and hell.


What about a God or gods? The Buddha himself discouraged speculation on this topic, but later generations of Buddhists incorporated many, many deities of different kinds into their belief system, and for all practical purposes Mahayana Buddhists worship the Buddha as a divine being:


“Mahayana Buddhism is not only intellectual, but it is also devotional ... in Mahayana, Buddha was taken as God, as Supreme Reality itself that descended on the earth in human form for the good of mankind. The concept of Buddha (as equal to God in theistic systems) was never as a creator but as Divine Love that out of compassion (karuna) embodied itself in human form to uplift suffering humanity. He was worshipped with fervent devotion...” (Professor C.D. Sebastian)


Buddhism in Asia has every single characteristic of an organized religion as understood in the West- a priesthood, a temple network, monasticism, deities, sacrificial offerings, prayer, mythology, a concept of sin and the punishment of sin, and so forth. It's certainly true that you can practice a kind of “philosophical Buddhism” stressing the core concepts and cutting out all of the organized religious elements. It ought to be clearly understood, though, that this is basically a Western creation- or a reform, depending on your perspective- and is not how Buddhism is actually practiced in Asia. But even this Westernized Buddhism is still a religion, if you define “religion” as many modern scholars of religion do:


“(religion is) a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought ... it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.” (George Lindbeck)


"...for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence." (R.N. Bellah)


Out of all of the forms of Asian Buddhism, Zen is arguably the least theistic, the least “mythological,” and the most amenable to being practiced as a “philosophy” with no overtly religious content. So it is quite common for Zen teachers in the West to say that Buddhism is not a religion, or that it is not theistic, or that it has no concept of sin. Their statements are arguably true in regards to Zen, but it's a case of spin. They're choosing to interpret a very complex tradition in the one way that will be most appealing to their Western audience. All of those statements are very debatable even for Zen itself, but they are just flat out wrong when generalized to other forms of Buddhism. The widespread acceptance of these viewpoints in Western intellectual circles is a case of successful marketing. If Westerners interested in Asian thought had seen Buddhism as a form of religion, most of them would have rejected it- so it was simply packaged as something else.




Korean Zen

Because of the prominence of the sect in Japan, people tend to think of Zen as being Japanese. It's actually a uniquely Chinese form of Buddhism (most scholars don't accept the view that Zen was ever brought from India) and it spread out from China to several other Asian countries, of which Japan was just one.

Zen Buddhism in Korea is called “Seon,” and it is characterized by a strong focus on asceticism. This is the practice of denying oneself various pleasures (or sometimes even necessities) in order to focus more completely on one's spiritual work. Asceticism is found in all forms of Zen, but Seon in particular puts a lot of focus on it. Seon monks are frequently hermits, living a self-denying lifestyle in order to focus completely on enlightenment.


Interestingly, while Japanese Zen temples were heavily involved in supporting and legitimizing militarism and imperialism in the years leading up to World War II, Korean Seon monks were often prominent in the resistance movement. This doesn't mean that Seon is somehow more virtuous than Zen- it's just that organized religion in all countries generally acts in support of the status quo. That's why, in modern America, fundamentalist Christians are among the most conservative people in society, and tend to strongly support the military. Similarly, Zen priests in Japan supported their own military government, while Seon priests in Korea were active in defending Korean tradition from the invading Japanese.


Seon is still a large and active sect in Korea, and has recently spread to the West in various forms.



Shaolin Warrior Monks

Fact and Fiction

The image of the Shaolin warrior monk is revered by many, seen as a cartoonish stereotype by some, and given serious historical investigation by very few. According to the so-called legend of Shaolin, Bodhidharma brought Zen from India to China, but when he tried to each it to the monks at the Shaolin temple, he found that they were took weak for the discipline of serious meditation. So, he invented Shaolin kung fu to strengthen the monks, and for centuries afterward they used it to battle the forces of evil as enlightened super-heroes.

Why do I call this a “so-called legend”? Because it was never a traditional folk belief until the twentieth century, when stories from Chinese pulp novels became accepted as fact. The original Shaolin legend about the origin of their martial arts involves a cook at the temple who used his staff to drive off bandits, then revealed his real identity as a Buddhist deity. I am a big believer in respecting the mythic and the legendary, but the legend about the cook is the original “Shaolin legend,” and the story about Bodhidharma is not.


As for historical fact- which is not superior to myth, but also should never be confused with it- this is what serious scholars of Chinese martial arts history currently think:


The Shaolin Temple, like a lot of other Buddhist temples, did maintain an armed militia to protect its landholdings from bandits and roving armies. Because a lot of military men retired to the temple, there were trained professionals available to teach the “soldier monks.” Because they were reasonably well-trained by the standards of that era, they were effective soldiers. As a result, the Chinese government called on them on several occasions to help fight rebels, pirates or bandits.


The soldier monks were mostly known for staff fighting, but at some point in the 17th century they also started to practice bare-handed pugilism. Boxing with your fists is not a battlefield skill, so this practice was more of a health/wellness exercise than a fighting art as such, unlike their staff combat.


The Shaolin Temple was something of a center for the development of Chan, the Chinese word for Zen. Bodhidharma, if he really existed, might have gone there. He didn't teach martial arts to anybody, and the Shaolin monks didn't start practicing martial arts till long after his time.


Despite this fact, it is the case that some of the later soldier monks viewed their martial arts training as a path to Chan cultivation. This is consistent with Zen's overall approach, which tends to use any activity in the practitioner's daily life as an opportunity for Zen practice. Modern Zen practitioners are told to use daily chores such as washing the dishes as opportunities for cultivation. To a soldier monk whose job was to protect the Temple's property, his martial training was his daily chore. Thus, it was also an opportunity to practice Zen.