Sunday, September 19, 2010

Yes, indeed you might have a career and practice Buddhism - even Zen

Kyle over at the Reformed Buddhist had an interesting  post on Friday on the Lenz Foundation, and I wanted to use the site indirectly referenced, that is, this one, which has some rather strange stuff on it,  to point out the issues with both Lenz's approach and the gushing of Genpo Merzel and Shishin Wick about Lenz's teachings.  The latter two said:

There are three major differences between the traditional Zen monastic training and those who practice in the West. The vast majority of those who practice in the West are lay people; there are a large number of women who practice and hold positions of leadership; and there is more interest in emotional and psychological approaches to meditation.

We are integrating these facets into our approach to teaching Zen and have moved in the direction of westernizing the practice. Reading Dr. Lenz, we have found inspiration to expand our teaching in new ways that were not part of our training. Dr. Lenz has helped make Zen more accessible to a wider portion of the population, including non-Buddhists as well as committed Buddhists.

First of all, the idea of bringing Zen to the laity goes at least back to Hakuin (and even before if you consider Ikkyu Sojun).  This trend picked up momentum in Japan in the Meiji era, led, among others, by my ancestors Imakita Kosen, Soyen Shaku, and Tetsuo Sokatsu. Presumably the bit in that link about no meals except those comprising 3 bowls of vegetables and sake included water as well and wasn't to be the case when folks were out and about away from the Zendo.  At any rate, it's not that way in my sangha today, and I digress.

But more importantly, it was understood that there should be more lay people practicing Zen, this was a purposefully directed way in which to encourage Zen practice in the laity, and these traditions continue even today in Japan.  While it is true beyond doubt that the vast majority of Japanese do not practice Zen Buddhism in Japan, the fact of the matter is,  there are many temples throughout Japan that provide the opportunity for laity to study Zen Buddhism. In fact, three are two Ryobo Zen An sanghas  open to lay practice and one thing on my agenda is to ask my teacher about that.  I have met Japanese lay practitioners.  There are differences between Japanese culture and practice of Zen Buddhism and the American practice, and a large amount of it I'd say is that they have generally less New Agey corruption and psychobabble in it and a better understanding of Japanese and Chinese culture, at least in the Rinzai school.  While there may be more Zen clergy in Japan, and the bulk of their tasks is funerals and related tasks,  the likelihood is that as a proportion of the general population the amount of lay Zen students in Japan (per say, 100K people) is probably at least the same if not greater than it is in the United States.  China's a different story, and it remains to be seen how China will play out in this,  but places like the "Lin Ji Style Zen Temple" in Liaoning  province have clearly been built to facilitate lay practice at the temple.

That's my first point.  My second point is that the idea that the idea that one should not have a "successful" (I always thought that was an empty word)  career and not have a deep religious practice has never, to my knowledge, been part of the Buddhist tradition.  Going back to the earliest Buddhist writings it is clear that the directions of the Buddha were that people should perform their tasks well.  Hakuin alluded to all work as being important, and work practice being more important than seated practice (although he never said seated practice wasn't essential, and it was clear he implied it was essential).  These views were echoed by Shosan Suzuki earlier as well.  And I shouldn't need to mention that the calligraphy industries (that is the right word) that grew up in Hanzhou and Nara are the direct result of Buddhist monks.  Clearly they didn't keep the sumi (墨絵) and paper business solely in the hands of the monks, not in the Kansai area and not when there was money to be made.  OK, maybe Nara wasn't ever exactly like Osaka (though I could relate to you stories about my times in Nara while while we quaff sake in an izakaya joint), and again I digress.   But then again, along with that grew the tradition of ”wabisabi” (詫び寂び) or ”humble simplicity" as an esthetic to be reached. Humble simplicity is a good esthetic to use in one's business practices - though I admit that is a major shortcoming of yours truly. (There's a strange loop in there if you look for it, I suspect.)

Presumably when Wick and Merzel talk about "Westerninzing" Buddhist practice  they're not talking about Lenz's reputed issues with women.  (Barbara O'Brien where are you on that issue?)  Instead, they're alluding to this "career" thing. You can see Lenz  discussing his "Western" approach to "Buddhism" here,  and as a bonus it includes a bizarre bit of narcissistic denial about all the bad people who have made bad allegations against him

Your practice is precisely where you find it. Dogen said, "When you find yourself where you are, there is practice, actualizing the fundamental point." (Heh, didn't think I could quote Dogen, did ya?)  This practice must above all be ethical, which means that you shouldn't chase after wealth for the sake of owning a Lexus (full disclosure: we own one; mostly because of my wife's activities) but for the sake of all beings and the transcendence of dukkha and suffering. 

Now that means you might have a "great career" or you might be stuck outside of middle management for decades or you might make a lot of money or you might get laid off tomorrow and have to accept a 30% pay cut in this wretched economy.  That should not be the point of your practice.  The point of your practice is right in front of you. And right in front of you there is a path to be practiced, including but not limited to right speech, right intention, right livelihood, right effort, ...oh, heck all of 'em.  When they are considered carefully and constantly practiced,  I'd say it kind makes Lenz's version of a "career success" seem like a cheap and poorly made knock-off of what might actually be possible and what can be realized  in life.

Practice where you find it requires mindfulness, I in the time I spent watching the Lenz blather above, I didn't hear very much about mindfulness.

Finally, I have one more point to make.  It's about racism cultural ignorance (on edit I'd say "racism" was too strong here).   If you watch the video above Lenz makes reference to an "Oriental couple" who he claimed approved of his teaching their daughter.  One can't be sure if Lenz was making this up or not, but one thing was certain: Lenz expected his intended audience to buy his nonsense about these "Orientals." The very reason Lenz could get away with any of his nonsense was two-fold: first, most Americans had not been readily exposed to Asian culture in the 1950s - 1970s.  As far as they knew Lenz was the real deal, since "real" Zen Buddhists temples were few and far between except in major metropolitan areas, and Asian inhabitants in the West were too ethnically isolated in both the Asian community's mindset (I would imagine) and in the Euro-American community's mindset (I can vouch for that).  

That is unfortunately the schtick  Genpo Merzel has been using as well when he touts things like the "rarity" of an opportunity to work with a "real" Zen Master.  That a bit too similar to Lenz, I'm afraid.

Questions? Comments?  Am I still being too hard on Bernie Glassman and Genpo Merzel and the others who've taken money from the Lenz Foundation and yet still give the patina or approval as Buddhists on Lenz's "intellectual property?"


Kyle said...

Oh, not to mention the very sharp turn Nictern and the ID Project has taken ever since they took a bucket of cash from Lenz this year...through the efforts of *drumroll* Lynne Twist. Hmmmmmmm

Also, I did search high and low for a quote from Glassman about what he thought of Lenz, but could not find one. Maybe he was smart enough not to say nice things about Lenz since he knew the truth, but still wanted the money.

Mumon said...


What are the details of the ID Project relationship with Lynne Twist and how would you say they've diverged? I honestly don't follow Nichtern at all, except for that post I'd made earlier about Nichtern's post on the Huffington Post - another venue of which I'd steer clear based on the MSIA connection.

BTW I made one correction: the word "racism" is too strong a word.

It's not "racist" per se that teriyaki is a weird distortion of what it is in Japan, but rather someone decided that they should try to "adapt" something to "Western" "tastes." On the other hand, it's a whole other shibang for any Joe who studied briefly with a swami to say that Zen masters in Kyoto have their approval to peddle any old poop as Shinola.

This whole East/West thing is dissolving rather quickly on the coasts. The most popular Chinese restaurant in Vancouver WA is one of which Anthony Bourdain would be proud - it's radical and down to earth. Oh, and they serve meat.

Good thing you didn't mention meat eating. :-)

Kyle said...

Twist sponsored the ID Project to Lenz in the Fall of 2009. They have a very boring video here:

But the amount isn't available, but from the sounds of it between 50,000 - 200,000. Since they took the money, they have really pushed a Glassman like agenda, this "Change the World" approach.

I don't know all the details.

Mumon said...

Full disclosure: I'm going to a dinner at the Zen Community of OR tonight, (it's in the Maezumi lineage but is becoming somewhat more Rinzai) and I will probably bring up some of these issues if the opportunity arises.

My point in going is simple: if we don't support the local sanghas, they might consider money from the Lenz folks. And that'd be a pity.

They go to the Portland Buddhist Festival every year, which through the efforts of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship severed the relationship between the festival in Portland and "Change Your Mind Day" - over the Lenz Foundation identification.

Kyle said...

You know, if they did something actually constructive with that money, I mean like repay his victims, setup funds for the families, then they might have some moral ground to stand on. But not only do they still continue to hock his crap, half their "investments" on Genpo type stuff.

Very sad indeed.

Mumon said...


If it's any consolation a chunk went to the Audubon Society - I guess heh you could say it went to the birds.

Seriously, even if they didn't do that, (and although I think Genpo Merzel is a bit shady I can't say he's doing anything illegal) at the very least they could a) sell books by legit Buddhist teachers and b), if they did hawk Lenz's feces, they'd repackage it with disclaimers and critiques from Buddhists who, you know, have a problem with Lenzism.

Kyle said...

The thing that seriously bugs me the most, is that since Lenz has given so many people and organizations money, the whole issue of Lenz's cult becomes a taboo subject, or one that is purposly avoided.

And it really is perplexing how defensive folks get when the issue is brought up. Oh well.