Sitting Zen
I was approached recently by a man in his middle years who had spent much time sitting with various Zen groups around the country.   He had left one after another after being disillusioned with each.  In one, the head teacher was having an open affair with a student, to his wife’s chagrin.  In another, the hierarchies of the students made it feel like a prison.  Others were cold and foreboding, or elaborately beautiful, but seemingly with no substance. Another encouraged new members to sit in painful positions for hours daily.  The ethnic Buddhist temples, if they would let him in at all, made him feel uncomfortable and his presence, he said, seemed to make them uncomfortable as well.  The list of complaints went on for quite a time.  In the end, he explained that he was disillusioned with Zen groups and asked, “Is Zen for real or is it a sham?”  He seemed at his wits-end, not knowing which way to turn.  I felt his problem was one of not grasping the essence of Zen in the first place, and getting trapped by institutionalized Zen in the second.

Zen, I explained, is not about groups, or even about religion.  It’s about delving into ourselves in a very deep, honest, way.  And that can only be done by us alone.  Nobody has the answer, the “key”, that will unlock the gates to expanded consciousness except ourselves.  "Why don’t you just 'do Zen' on your own?" I asked.  He replied, “Because I want guidance to know if I’m doing things right. And how will I know if I get enlightened if there is no one around to confirm it?”

When I asked him how long he had been “doing Zen” he said for over 20 years. Twenty years of Zen and he didn’t know if he was doing things right.  I had heard this from others as well who had professed to long years of sitting on a cushion, jumping from one group to another, from one teacher to another, struggling to find the "right" spiritual home.

Several things came to mind as our conversation unfolded.  He was clearly dedicated and sincere to have stuck with a tough practice for so long, despite having not made much progress with it.  He was of the impression that Zen can only be learned and practiced within the context of a group, specifically, a Zen group.  He was also under the impression that any kind of attainment was dependent on a self-professed “enlightened” teacher and that validation of “attainment” by such a teacher was imperative.

A central hurdle for many people interested in Zen is the relationship between religion, namely Buddhism—which, like all religions, is fundamentally a social institution--and Chan, which is a purely spiritual practice,  one we do alone regardless of whether we are with other people or secluded in solitude.  It relies on nobody except ourselves to do it. Yes, someone needs to show us how to sit, how to breathe, how to direct the mind, what to expect during the beginning stages of practice, etc.  Sometimes we also need guidance and pointers as we go along, but the work is all done by us and us alone.   

It’s natural to get confused about what Zen is, and what it isn’t, especially when we’re a novice entering the domain of a formal sitting group, temple, or monastery.  We encounter a mélange of aromas from incense, visual stimulus from statuary and other religious decorum, and often strict etiquette requirements.   Apparel is specific and often unique to each group depending on its lineage tradition.  We may be impressed with the presentation to the extent that we believe “this is the real thing.”  We may join the ranks of sangha members with enthusiasm for our newfound home of Zen.  We then learn all about sangha hierarchy, protocols for sitting, walking, cleaning, and eating.  We learn the chants, the prayers, and how to sit and focus the mind.  “I’m really doing Zen!” we think to ourselves.   We soon, often unconsciously, begin to judge others in the group, assessing their level of attainment – we observe how they walk, how they talk, how they sit, and use this as a benchmark for our own progress and perceived attainment.  We begin mimicking them, behaving as they do.  We may try to act pious, aloof, or indifferent.  Before we know it, our practice is not one of Zen, but of acting, of trying to fit in to a community, a sangha, so that we can feel accepted and part of the group.  It is our herd instinct kicking in, that innate trait we humans have of wanting to belong to a group, to seek an identity with a group, but which also encourages a lack of individual decision-making and thoughtfulness and encourages us to behave and think like all the others in the group.

Anyone who has spent time in a zendo, a church, or an office, recognizes that the community encourages conforming behavior, often down to minute details of how we wear our hair, or the colors of our clothes.  And this is no different from other institutions; the difference only being lost in the details – for example, instead of kesas or rakasus, ties and jackets may be worn; instead of slippers, shiny black shoes.  Groups, whether religious or secular, encourage conformity; the antithesis of what is required for individuation, for personal growth.  How can we discover our Selves when we are intent, consciously or unconsciously, on mimicking others?

“Yet,” we tell ourselves, “since everyone is doing things this way, it must be the right way.” 

Psychology gives some clues about what’s going on.

In China, when one reaches the late teens, a young man or young woman may perform a kind of “rights-of-passage” in which they leave their home and enter a Buddhist monastery.  During their first year of residency they perform a “leaving-home” ceremony, marking their departure from their parents, from their protected environment, and from their life as a dependent child. While this may have spiritual significance, it also has significance for the Buddhist establishment, for the young man or woman takes on a new family, a new home, in the religious institution, serving the institution by eventually perpetuating its doctrines and carrying on its traditions. Great importance is put upon the leaving-home ceremony and the individual is praised greatly for not taking the path of having a spouse and children, and vows are taken to forever be celibate and a committed member of the religious community to the exclusion of all else.   The rights-of-passage ceremony is long and grueling for the initiate, involving sleep deprivation, short times for meals forcing one to eat quickly, and a numerous assortment of pain-generating postures that must be held for lengthy periods of time. After weeks of this, a new psychological state is attained, binding one more strongly than ever to the purpose for which they are there: belonging to a new family. 

In comparison, this process is little different from the hazing that goes on in college fraternities and sororities in the United States and elsewhere. 

Some well-known effects of hazing:

Hazing produces group cohesiveness.  Hazed individuals typically feel a strong sense of group affiliation and acceptance.  It also produces a strong feeling of “us vs. them” in which they feel it is the group against the world; anyone not in the group is an outsider to be ignored, shunned, rejected, or diminished in some fashion.

Hazing engenders a strong feeling for the need to “give back.”  Hazed individuals often become staunch supporters of the hazing traditions and will justify their hazing experiences as necessary for the continuance of the group and their own social acceptance within the group.  The attitude of “Since I did it, you should to” is ubiquitous among hazing traditions. (For more on the effects of hazing on group dynamics, see Psychology, Vol 59(2), Sep 1959, 177-181.)

All too often the reality of “zen groups” is that their objectives evolve to become counter to the service they are intended, and expected, to provide.  The group becomes the central object of importance, its leader the manifest top-dog, imbued with super-human attributes by his or her congregants.  This role takes its spiritual toll on the leader as well as the congregants.  We know of the many examples of zen-group leaders abusing their position by seeking and indulging in power and sex and enjoying the benefits of donations and fees given to them by their congregants for personal pleasures.  [c.f., Stuart Lachs’ Dressing the Donkey and Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America]

When the cohesion of the group is strong, such misbehavior is typically overlooked or accepted as being okay because it is seen as being done by an "enlightened leader", and because “who is an unenlightened person to judge an enlightened person?”  As long as the myth is perpetuated that the leader is required for the progress of the student, for the assessment and acknowledgement of spiritual attainments, etc., that leader will remain in a high seat of power, his or her actions unquestioned, unchallenged.  And if challenge is given, the challenger is simply expelled from the group. 

Zen mind cannot be seen or imitated.  An outsider cannot look in on it.   One person cannot tell of another person if he or she has attained enlightenment: anyone who would do so is, if not a fraud, deluded.  When enlightenment happens, it is a sudden experience that is so unique to our being, so life-altering, that the notion of needing it validated is as silly as thinking we need someone to confirm for us that the bright ball we see in the sky is the sun.  The myth that is often perpetuated by the Zen establishment that a “master” is required to validate our spiritual experiences serves only to strengthen the establishment, and preserve group hierarchy.  An unintentional consequence is also to undermine the practitioner’s confidence in his or her own spiritual labor, i.e., in accepting spiritual experiences as valid in-and-of themselves.  After all, when we learn something new, is it not the joy of discovery itself that inspires us to continue learning?  When do we ever learn something and then doubt that we have learned it?  If there is doubt, then we have not learned it.  Zen is not about attaining anything; it’s about the process of discovery from instant to instant as we live our lives. 

Zen is an extremely simple practice, yet extremely challenging to do, for it requires a fierce desire to do it.  The experiences we have along the way are their own validation of our efforts.  They may be highly unpleasant experiences or beautiful, or transcendental, or fill us with awe or immense joy.  But regardless, of their quality, these experiences bring us closer to understanding ourselves, and to the nature of being human. And that is the singular journey of Zen, whether we find ourselves in a group or outside shoveling snow. :)