Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Missing Priests Koan

Each month, families gather at the Temple
Hoping to hear the words of the Buddha
Where have all the Priests gone off to?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Multi-Level Meditation: how Zen Priests Packaged and Sold the Dharma to Google

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute ( is selling Mindfulness Meditation as the next Great Leap Forward in Business Productivity. On their web site they list the results you can hope to achieve from mindfulness meditation, including:

- Reduction of Stress or Emotional Drain from 58% to 24% [Citation Needed]
- Increases in Focus and Performance from 36% to 68% [Citation Needed]
- Leadership's Calm and Poise increased from 17% to 46% [Citation Needed]
- Greater Perceived Well Being [Citation Needed]
- Deeper Emotional Intelligence [Citation Needed]
- Increased Creativity and Innovation [Citation Needed]
- A Better and More Mindful Company Culture  [Citation Needed]
- 36% Reduction in Stress Levels [Does not match the 58-24% range above!]
- An Additional 62.0 Minutes of Productive Work per Week [Citation Needed]
- 7% Lower Healthcare Costs [Citation Needed]
- Productivity Gains Totaling $3,000/year [Citation Needed]
- 13,000 employees have participated

On the web site you can book a two day personal package at a public event for $1250-1350 and if you have a group, well, contact them for a quote. For all that you have to gain, it's really a good deal.

What's More Valuable Than the Three Jewels? 

I could go on about the prohibitions on selling the Dharma or the multitude of Gaining Ideas  above or the contrived "data marketing" full of meaningless numbers which don't match (I really wonder what units are used to measure stress? Is there a calibrated reference?). However, the really interesting thing is the model for further engagement and teacher training.

The Engage program is the next step after attending the Individual or Group programs and cost USD $6700 for the San Francisco sessions and AUD $6500 for the Sydney sessions. Which is on the high end for this kind of business training seminar, but not unreasonable.

Graduates of the Engage program are encouraged to share the practices they learn in the context of a work environment. I.e. the tools of mindfulness are applied to making teams more effective and productive teams with lower stress, more wisdom and greater respect for each other.

Once the Engage program, and some outside training not provided by SIYLI, are completed there's a Leadership program, an additional USD $7500 for which you get a training program, test and shot at a certification. Once certified you can co-teach (and share teaching fees with) more experienced teachers while training towards becoming a senior teacher yourself, allowing you to co-teach with more junior members.

While it's not a Ponzi or Pyramid scheme exactly it does smack a bit of Multi-Level "marketectures" like Tupperware or Avon. There are significant benefits to getting in early in a social marketing system like the one that SIYLI has designed: classes are run, some people will be interested in more in-depth training and enter the Engage program, the eventually the Teacher Training (paying the program's total USD $15,250 tuition over the course of perhaps 18 months).

Much of this money will go to facilities and running the conferences no doubt, but the teachers need to eat as well, and the certification program guarantees them a cut of whatever future revenue their students make: co-teaching with a more senior teacher is required. So, the students do the foot-work to setup gigs for themselves, and effective do all the lead generation and sales work for the more senior teachers.

Don't the Ends Justify the Means?

As presented, the benefits of the program can be summed up into: Happier and More Productive Workers, better able to deal with the stresses of the modern work environment. Given the audience, business executives (who want the productivity) and human-resources managers (who want the happiness) it makes sense to put those features up front, even if you have to slap together some nonsense numbers [Citation Needed] to really sell it.

Mindfulness practices, which predate Buddhism and likely all of recorded history, are powerful tools for understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world around us, applying them to business problems is perhaps inevitable, and teachers making money selling training is completely reasonable.

In order to get to this business appropriate form of secular Mindfulness Meditation from Zen as understood by American Zen priests, some important parts of the tradition are left behind: the history (which many of the priests aren't well aware of) and the social, community and moral traditions which surround and support the practice and the teachers (no further comment). 

In the realm of business, stripping the moral lessons of Buddhism from the method of Mindfulness means that the focus and enhanced productivity promised by the program can be put enhance any program, from collecting and analyzing the personal data of billions of people, to optimizing advertising placements, to competing fiercely in the mobile phone marketplace. Why not have a quick thirty minute sit and some yoga after a long day of selling trivial things to people who don't need them?

Outside the social fabric and moral framework of a functional religious community, the tools of meditation and mindfulness can be used for any purposes, good, evil, approaching or crossing the creepy line. Like a knife which can cut diamonds there is a sharpness to the Dharma, and it is often depicted as a sword which requires much training to wield effectively and with compassion.

Putting Business First

Setting aside my despising Google and their acquisitive gathering of personal data, it's disheartening and disappointing to see the Zen Center priests involved in putting together this very elaborate, slickly presented and well funded program are choosing to focus their efforts on Business and developing revenue streams from it. Of course temples and teachers need support, but selling out to big business smacks of selling indulgences. It's a deep and complete corruption of the tradition and the role of priests.

Along this twisting, profit driven road the Zen tradition in America becomes exclusively a tool of big business, an efficiency exercise to improve production and optimize worker happiness. With VIP spa retreat centers staffed with priests driving the sports or luxury vehicle of their dreams, who get up early and sit in the Zendo then drop their kids off at private schools after chanting their vows of poverty and homelessness.

This is, of course, simple heresy.

[Edit: removed "and Zen Center has some challenges" from a sentence where it wasn't adding anything.]

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Shame on you Old Man…

Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting the precedent of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there?

In your wife's lovely face?

In your baby's laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere (simply) to find it?

- Judyth Collin "The Layman's Lament" from What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Zen Apostasy

"If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided [the Sangha]. Choose heresy every time."
- Apologies to Bishop Peter Lee
Buddhism is not well prepared to deal with apostasy. With a central tenant of "Not one, not two" Zen in particular rejects the cartesian dualism which seems to be required to have some one to turn away and some thing to turn away from. If the Buddha-Dharma is endless and all pervading in the ten directions; how can you turn away from literally everything!?  

While Buddhism has enjoyed the backing of the state at various times throughout history, the influence of the Dharma over government is generally seen as positive. Buddhist court record and law is not without instances of excommunication, and there was even an inquisition against Christians in Edo era Japan, apostasy is generally treated with a bit of dismissive contempt, following the Old Man's lead:
The Buddha's attitude to apostasy is epitomized by his encounter with a man named Sunakkhatta. He was a disciple of the Buddha, but after a while became dissatisfied with the Dhamma and decided to renounce the Teacher and the teaching. Sunakkhatta came to the Buddha and said: "Lord, I am leaving you. I am no longer living by your teachings." The Buddha responded to this declaration by asking Sunakkhatta some questions: "Did I ever say to you: 'Come, live by my teachings'?" "No Lord." "Then did you ever say to me that you wished to live by my teachings?" "No Lord." "That being the case, who are you and what are you giving up, you foolish man?" (D.III,2-3).
Buddhism A2Z
Righteous apostasy followed by schism is more of less the overall plot of religious history, creating the ramified tree of traditions practiced across the globe. Name a famous religious figure and you're likely to name an apostate, who successfully created a schism in the tradition they belonged to: Shakyamuni, Jesus, Muhammed, Martin Luther (who's apostasy was so inspiring there are literally hundreds of splinter factions of the protestant church).

In the Christian tradition, formal accusations of heresy are considered "reformative" in that the charges allow the accused to come back into the fold by resolving them by confession at an inquisition. Of course, many inquisitors determined that there was no hope for the accused and the results can hardly be called unexpected. Most apostates and schismatics turn away from their traditions with similarly reformative intent: their church has become corrupt, and they must turn away from it to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause and provide them with a platform to outline their complaints.

Here, then, are some of my reasons for turning away from Zen Center, as a practitioner, volunteer, parent and member:

Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies

The perfect precepts of “Do All Good” has a corollary of “Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies”. The character for “ceremony” in hanzi contains the radicals for “correct” and “action” suggesting the ceremonial behavior is by definition good and should be maintained by those who follow the way.

This is the basis of the ceremonial practice of Zen, one of the most unfamiliar and challenging aspects for new participants, but one of the great strengths of the tradition: the ceremonial forms create a firm foundation and supporting framework for practice. They are the Dharma Gates we pass through most often, and they deserve the greatest care and maintenance as they have been carefully handed down to us from the deepest parts of human history.

I believe that Buddhas birthday is an important holiday and part of the traditional relationship of the temple to the community which supports it. The residents of Green Gulch has abandoned that relationship and the practice forms and ceremonies that support it. In the past three years that the Children’s program volunteer staff has maintained this important tradition (to the extent that we could given the literal bulldozing of the area previously used), I cannot recall a single resident of Green Gulch, or any of their children, to have attended.

I believe that with four priests who currently have young children living at Green Gulch, and one other who previously volunteered for children’s program there is sufficient resident staff to provide a family ministry. However none of them has come forward to help us and the one who was requested to lead a retreat last year did so and then “bowed out”, leaving us with no priests to help lead the program or engage with families.

No Selling the Dharma

The third precept is usually interpreted as prohibiting the selling of intoxicants (teetotalers will extend it to consumption). There is another interpretation relating to the way that the Dharma is dispensed: It is forbidden to sell the teaching of the Buddha as they are considered to have an intoxicating effect on the mind.
Sadly, selling the Dharma for profit has become the order of the day for the administration and priests of Zen Center. From a string of questionable fundraising events to a very intimate relationship with Google, there’s never been a better time to hire a priest to show you how to harness the mindfulness revolution, which has been carefully stripped of religious iconography and language to keep you in your corporate or secular comfort zone.

I think the concept of a "zen-a-thon" is probably a literal heresy and I'm ashamed to have participated in the event this past year, and find the very concept of “sponsored practice” to be frankly disgusting and crass. Asking friends to help support your religious practice and institution is strange and awkward, and the extension from sitting to other activities doesn’t really help.

While no priests can be found to support family practice, many priests at Zen Center are fully engaged with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. They are lining up to sell the intimate secrets of practice and perhaps dispense an indulgence or two to a company who’s track record touches the creepy line over and over again.

All of this would be just disappointing if we had not received a request to “quiet down” the children’s program on buddha’s birthday so that the paying customers from Google would not be disturbed in their inner search. Similarly, I head that there was a conflict between Buddha’s Birthday and zen-a-thon at City Center this past year, and the schedule for next year’s Children’s program (as of November 17, 2016) has the date for zen-a-thon set but not for Buddha’s Birthday.

Not Taking Upon Oneself the Burden of Riches

Part of the daily liturgy in the temple is the dedication of merit, this is intended to wipe out the merit accumulated by the assembly in it’s practice so that it does not become a burden. I like to say that “Karma’s not a Checkbook” but Merit sort of is; it’s the abstract representation of ones spiritual capital, and the dedication in the liturgy is a reminder that we should perform good deeds for their effects, not for our own gain.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this daily emptying of the purse, there is a bit of a merit rush going on, both at the administrative level and the individual priests.
When I last approached the Abbess to ask for help from the community, she said that she really wanted to reach out to the families of Marin City. Marin City is a small enclave of majority African American families, descended from the workers who build the Liberty Ships during Wold War II. Apparently the children who do come aren’t worth the time, but if we could find a way to recruit some of these less fortunate families, the merit payout would be more worthwhile.

The priest who bowed out of the Children’s program after helping with our retreat last year has been very involved with the the San Quentin Sangha project. You have to imagine that bringing the Dharma to these condemned is certainly earning the most merit possible, these are murderers, they can truly confess and repent in ways that the dozens of children and their parents who come very month just could not provide.

Not Lying and Not Despising any Being in any State

Zen Center has a long and complicated relationship with relationships in the Sangha. One clear policy which the sitting abbess of Green Gulch explained to me is that single parents of young children are not suitable candidates for priest training, due to the responsibilities of their karma. Which effectively prohibits single parents and couples with young children from entering residence at any of the Zen Center campuses.

I believe Zen Center’s policy of excluding single parents from priest training and therefore residency is discriminatory even if it has a basis in traditional buddhist practice. It also presents a difficult dilemma to any parents currently residing at Zen Center together: separate and be expelled from the community.

Birth and Death are Serious Business, Arise, Wake!

Finally, we come to the straw which has broken my relationship with the Zen Center: In an effort to help introduce the parents to some of the ceremonial aspects of Zen practice, and the traditional relationship of families to priests, I asked for a demonstration of the Baby Blessing ceremony during our summer Family Program retreat last year. I have been practicing with this community for five years and haven’t seen a baby blessing, or wedding. Just funerals, and the occasional Jukai.

Funerals for abbots, funerals for past abbots, funerals for long term practitioners, funerals for babies and the unborn (offered to all comers, no questions asked, on the public schedule). Death and Dying workshops, Caring for the Dying workshops, Managing with Stress and Anxiety About Dying workshops, a Hospice program, a Retirement Community, and so on into the dark night. Basically the community has one foot in the grave, and the population pyramid shows it: look around the room on a Sunday morning with no Children’s program at Green Gulch and you’ll see for yourself.

I asked for the community to acknowledge a child who was born to two long-term Children’s Program attendees, who met at Green Gulch. The priest I asked to help with the ceremony said, “I’m not sure who those people are” and another accused me of proselytizing, and said that the priests weren’t for sale (maybe they should tell Google that, there seems to be some confusion). In the end we didn’t have the ceremony, and it’s clear to me that whatever the residents of Green Gulch and City Center say about how much they want family practice, when it comes to actually engaging, they are nowhere to be found.

[Edit: a few typos have been corrected in the original, Greed Gulch wasn't intentional even if it is hilarious.]

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sanga Visit: Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji

While staying at a Tendai temple in Lake County for a few days, I spent an evening visiting the Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji temple, just north of Cobb, CA, for their weekly public program. It was my first exposure to Rinzai Zen practice and an interesting introduction to the Rinzai sanga in California.

Sai Sho Zen-Ji is perhaps more of a retreat center than a temple. The resident community is very small, only four at the time of my visit, and two of them were out of town. I came with another Soto practitioner and we were the only visitors. The Zendo has seating for at least 32, and they hold sesshins here in the Rinzai tradition, when a teacher is available. The four of us had room to spare for the evenings program.

Rinzai Zen practice revolves around koans, the Zendo forms and meditation practice aren't wildly different than Soto as practiced at SFZC but the relationship with the teacher is almost completely focused on the student working on a koan and the master confirming their understanding in Sanzen, which is related to Dokusan. Soto emphasizes shinkantaza, or 'just sitting' while Rinzai practitioners spend much of their time in the Zendo working on a puzzle given to them in an effort to advance their progress towards enlightenment.

Both Soto and Rinzai place emphasis on samu, mindful work, or samu but the key difference is in the level of strictness and the marital aspect of Rinzai practice. The Japanese have a saying, "Rinzai for the Shogun, Soto for the peasants" which reflects the relationship between the two schools. The Samurai were chiefly patrons of Rinzai while the farmers supported Soto temples, and the two schools reflect this difference in their practice. Walking meditation is a slow and deliberate process in Soto, in the Rinzai Zendo we were in a tight formation, moving quickly and precisely, concentration focused on not running into the person in front of you or stalling the person behind.

A Dinner Koan

We arrived early and were invited to join the residents for dinner, a low carb meal featuring hamburger patties with no buns, and a smoked turkey soup. I was happy to have dinner (the Tendai temple observes the precept of not eating an evening meal, substituting a snack) but was surprised that it wasn't vegetarian as is typically the case in most Buddhist practice centers. Standing around the grill I made an observation about the first grave precept (not killing) being somewhat open to interpretation. Given the notorious violence of the samurai, who were required to wear two swords at all times which was necessary because any affront to their dignity was immediately punishable by death, a burger seems like a small thing.

Into the Zendo

On the drive over my companion gave me a brief introduction to the differences in form that I should be aware of: the mudras for gassho and shasho are diffrenent, one holds gassho while going to their seat, the forms for kinhin are much closer to the fast kinhin practice of Soto, and if you move there is an officer in the Zendo who's job it is to correct you and administer the encouragement stick if necessary.

I can imagine a full Sesshin feeling much more like boot camp than a Soto retreat of similar length. This is Zen for warriors, focused on delivering the sudden enlightenment of Kensho and tailored to an audience for whom stricture and obedience where critical to surviving day to day life. Sitting perfectly still for 25 minutes (vs. 40 in most Soto temples) is good practice for having to be perfectly composed in front of your lord, who could order you to commit ritual suicide at the slightest provocation.

A Singular Koan

In the months since my visit a scandalous story broke and has gotten the usual response in the small echo chamber of Zen in America: a flurry of blog posts and news articles and finally a set of statements issued by the larger organizations, including the Zen Center. I don't have anything to add to that debate but I do think that there's a more interesting story about the Rinzai School in America: there is no lineage.

Lineage is the blood line of the Buddhist tradition, we chant the succession of ancestors going back to Sidharta and the Buddhas before our great original teacher (they are given credit for achieving enlightenment but not for teaching, which is critical to the development of capital-b Buddhisim), during ordination we receive a document listing the lineage that carried the precepts to us. Within the relatively short history of the Zen Center the lineage has become complicated by the relationship between Baker Roshi and the Sanga, as he was the only student of Suzuki Roshi to receive transmission directly (a number of others were given transmission by Hoitsu Suzuku after his death).

The process of dharma transmission is an esoteric and a rarely bestowed gift which gives the receiver permission to teach and, in the case of a priest, to then ordain new members of the tradition. We have modified the form somewhat from the Japanese tradition at SFZC, only offering the rite to those with decades of experience in the community and a long track record of upholding the dharma, but nobody is perfect and there have been a number of scandals similar to the current one brewing with Sasaki Roshi.

The catch is that Sasaki Roshi is, at this writing, 106 years old. Withouth an appointed successor the lineage that he brought from Japan will not be transmitted through him. Given the current scandal and his reportedly failing health, transmission seems unlikely. Leaving the entire Rinzai-in Sanga with a critical and poignant koan to solve: 

What is the sound of one teacher passing into Nirvana?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Zen Product Review: Lucky Buddah Beer

An imported Cinese Lager, similar to Tsing-Tao. Served ice cold it's not bad.
The bottle is a little terrifying at the wrong angle.