Four Little Fishies in the Big Zen Sea and How They Do Study

Four Little Fishies in the Big Zen Sea and How They Do Study


This post is the second in a series of three on study practice in Zen. The first post, The Vital Importance of Studying Buddhadharma: Why and How, was the why and how - like the title says. In the third post, "Stinking Skin Bags, Blind Donkeys, Parrots and Studying the Buddhadharma," I'll offer some of what the great teachers in our tradition had to say about dharma study, especially Dōgen Zenji and Hakuin Zenji.

In this post, I really come out as a crabby old person and fulminate about the sad state of affairs in contemporary Zen. Again. This time, I'll identify some of the study fish in the Zen sea and rant on about "them." By "sea" here I'm referring mostly to the Zen social media whirl where the fact that most participants are short on actual Zen training seems to have no impact on their being long on opinions and advice for the training of others.

The essential problem, as I see it, is that in our time too few people have done the deep work necessary to thoroughly realize and fully actualize the buddhadharma in Zen tradition such that the authentic, intimate truth might be transmitted to the helpless ones in the next generations. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from cosplaying in Zen robes and off-gassing about what they zealously cling to as Zen, much of which is just a regurgitation of the dharma-dogma of the Post-Meiji Soto Orthodoxy (PMSO)™.

But due to my wholehearted love for this tradition, a Way that I've given my life to (with no regrets), I'm called to do something about it, at least to call it out. Granted, I lack virtue and depth and am a work in progress. At the same time, I'm getting old and think that it is important that these things be said. Given that lost time does not come again, I transgress knowingly. So although my capacity is limited, the situation for Zen today is so dire, that I'll cast decorum and good sense aside, and do my best here. My capacity for decorum, after all, was spent a long time ago, and as for good sense, well.... And, yes, I'm a little old guy on the shore of Lake Superior, whispering into the wind.

Consider all that your trigger warning.

I'm aware, of course, that it has long seemed that authentic Zen was at the very verge of extinction, some of which is the "old people yelling at kids on their lawn" phenomena. The Rinzai master, Nantembō Rōshi (1839-1925), for example, was so concerned about the Rinzai Zen of his time, that in 1893, about a century after the death of Hakuin Zenji's major disciples, that at an assembly of rōshis at Myōshinji, he "...boldly proposed a ruling that would have compelled all recognized rōshi to undertake an examination ascertaining the level of their realization." (1)

Perhaps it is needless to add that his proposal was not adopted. As a result, Nantembō Rōshi shifted his teaching to focus on householders and established a monastery in Tokyo that was open to all. He even worked with a so-called radical feminist and outcast, Hiratsuka Raicho, guiding her to kenshō.

For a bit of his spirit, see his "Bodhidharma as Kannon" at the top of this page.

Also see "Muso Soseki's Admonitions" below for another example of the old teacher's criticism of Zen in their day.

On the other hand, just because old people have long had concerns that the buddhadharma was on the verge of extinction doesn't mean that it isn't now. Keep that in mind. In addition, with the world coming apart at the seams, there really is no time for the frivolous indulgences I identify in this post. It is of utmost importance that we take up our practice as a life-death matter - because it is. Blink and it's gone.

Dreg Slurbers

The first type of currently common fish in the Zen sea are those who have read a lot on their own and have stuffed their heads with factoids devoid of dharma context, especially regarding the purpose of dharma practice - liberating self and other - and instead spend their time slurping dregs. They study apart from a training relationship with a Zen teacher and community, so their study isn't a practice at all, and more often seems to be about satisfying an intellectual curiosity which simply isn't connected within lived relationships. Thus, their study has no transformative function.

Many of these bottom feeders seem to have done the minimum amount of reading necessary so they sound smart to the uninformed. They have read widely (fast and furiously), but have not engaged in in-depth study of the sutras, Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, or Torei's Inexhaustible Lamp, for example, within the synergistic dynamics of zazen and engagement, instead regard the teachings of the buddhas and ancestors with the same covertly dismissive attitude that they approach a post on social media - as something that might might gobble up so as to support their identity-center posturing. They then spew nonsense while masquerading as experts, misleading those new to Zen, and dampening the curiosity of those who might be capable of doing the deeper work. Sad!

Even if one can credential themselves with decades of Zen practice with many big name teachers, if one hasn't broken through the barriers of the ancestors, then perhaps that might be one's focus rather than hours a day on Facebook.

Scum Suckers

Another type of common Zen fish has studied very little buddhadharma, but that doesn't stop them from simply duct-taping a zazen practice (often puffley referred to as "shikantaza") onto their present world view - usually a Western, progressive, post-modern, materialist, "my way" view.

This type of fish naively assumes that one can pull a practice out of context and then get the same result as did those who wear through zafus within a training container. Nonsense!

In addition, they seem completely unaware that the buddhadharma is intended to be disorienting medicine and that the course of treatment is only fully effective when taken in full. They reject that which isn't comfortable and nibble at the edges of truth. They might insist that they're nibbling on whale shit, but whale shit is still shit.

Further, this type tends to assume that due to their Western modernity, they know better than the buddhas and ancestors. They then blithely pick and choose what works for them and what doesn't without doing the deep work that would allow for such discernment. Paradoxically, it is this very "picking and choosing," this type's true religion, which is the very thing that blocks the blooming power of the buddhadharma.

This type tends to rudely dismiss the bone-breaking training of our ancestors in the buddhadharma, many of whom risked their lives so that we might have access to this incredible teaching, practice, and realization. Many of these scum suckers inhabit the pseudo-Zen "just-sitting" zone of social media, many never having set foot in a true place of Zen training, let alone have they studied wholeheartedly with a Zen teacher. After all, why bother? "It's all good, dude."

If they do have some background in training, it is often inflated for public consumption, and the Zen Centers they frequent tend to be merely coffee cliques. Posers!

As Koun Ejō Zenji put it: "Taking words at surface value, they never even imagine investigating the real meaning of the ancestors. Although they might dress up as seasoned veterans of practice, they do not understand advanced practice and so do not understand that the luminosity of this whole body is the luminosity of the Total Field, pervading the skies and covering the ground. Fools who cling to obvious forms, they are almost beneath contempt." (2)

Definitely another crabby old man excreting billows of bile - don't say I didn't warn you!

Both dreg slurpers and scum suckers appear to be entrenched in a sweet delusion of "I've-already-got-it Zen" or "There's nothing-to-get Zen," oblivious to the truth that the dharma knows no such bounds.

Fishy Scholars

The third type of fish is more complicated. And they aren't on social media much. Here I'm thinking of the study and writing that Buddhist scholars do. Their work can be valuable to those aspiring to practice awakening. However, what they do and how they do it (as a scholarly endeavor) isn't the same as dharma study within a training relationship as I unpack in The Vital Importance of Studying Buddhadharma: Why and How.

Recently, I heard someone say that Buddhist scholars should share the dharma seat at Zen centers. Although I greatly value the contributions of scholars, I think it's a mistake to conflate what's learned through scholarly endeavors with what's learned through studying under the guidance of a teacher, through absorption, and awakening.

The good news is that there is a fourth type of fish, thank the Buddha

Please know that if you are a youngish person and/or are just getting involved in Zen practice, you don't have to be any of the above fishies. The good news is that there is fourth type of fish. Granted, they seem to be a distinctive minority, but they still do swim in this pond.

The fourth type are those aspiring Zen students whose bodhi minds are glowing brightly, and who study the buddhadharma with heart ablaze through the whole ten-directions body. They may be broken-wooden-shit dippers, but they embrace their brokenness with sincerity and transparency. We are blessed with a gathering of such types at Vine of Obstacles Zen and I hear that there are other shoals of such critters. I'm fortunate to spend most of my time with them and just a little spewing wild fox slobber like this on the internet.

At first glance, this group looks like ordinary carp, no offense intended, but some among them have the potential to become dragons of the dharma. This group might actually benefit from some instruction. Indeed, "they" might be you. Or you might be a closely related species - those with clear intention and the capacity to let go of self-grasping, yet you swim with senior fishies who haven't received instruction on how to be a true fishies in the dharma sea. Well, it's not too late.

And the really good news

is that none of us are just one kind of fish forever. Fish, as the sutra says, are empty of self nature. There is the great possibility, even for dreg slurpers, suckers of scum, and fishie scholars, to transmogrify into the fourth type of fish. Simply find a teacher and devote yourself wholeheartedly to the Way. In order to do that, you'll need to spend very little time on social media. And instead of off-gassing about what "Katagiri Roshi (or Suzuki Roshi or Uchiyama Roshi or Omori Roshi or The Roshi) said..." and see it for your own damn self.

So let's close with

a couple passages from the ancients. First, from old Zen master Xuansha said:

"If you really haven’t had an awakening yet, then you need to be urgent about it at all times, even if you forget to eat and lose sleep, as if you were saving your head from burning, as if you were losing your life. Absorb deeply to liberate yourself—cast aside useless mental objects, stop mental discrimination, and only then will you have a little familiarity. Otherwise, one day you will be carried away by consciousness and emotion—what freedom is there in that?" (3)

And finally, as promised, "Muso Soseki's Admonitions," chanted during teisho okyo at Korinji: "I have three kinds of disciples: those who, vigorously shaking off all entangling circumstances, and with singleness of thought applying themselves to the study of their own [spiritual] affairs, are of the first class. Those who are not so single minded in their study, but scattering their attention are fond of book-learning, are of the second. Those who, covering their own spiritual brightness, are only occupied with the dribblings of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, are called the lowest. "As to those minds that are intoxicated by secular literature and engaged in establishing themselves as men of letters and are simply laymen with shaven heads, they do not belong even to the lowest. "As regards those who think only of indulging in food and sleep and give themselves up to indolence-could such be called members of the Black Robe? They are truly, as were designated by an old master, clothes-racks and rice-bags. Inasmuch as they are not monks, they ought not to be permitted to call themselves my disciples and enter the monastery and sub-temples as well; even a temporary sojourn is to be prohibited, not to speak of their application as student-monks. "When an old man like myself speaks thus, you may think he is lacking in all-embracing love, but the main thing is to let them know of their own faults, and, reforming themselves, to become growing plants in the Patriarchal gardens." (4)


(1) Michel Mohr, "Monastic Tradition and Lay Practice from the Perspective of Nantenbō: A Response of Japanese Zen to Modernity," 65. Thanks to Stephen Slottow for pointing this out.(2) Koun Ejō, Komyozo Zanmai: The Practice of the Treasury of Luminosity.(3) Dahui, Treasury of the Eye of the True Teaching, trans. Cleary, 123.(4) Shared by Meido Moore Rōshi, May, 2022.