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[Last updated: 27 September 1993]
THE FUTURE OF ZEN BUDDHISM IN THE WEST
ROBERT AITKEN, Roshi
Copyrights (c) 1987 by Rober Aitken and Sydney Zen Centre
I have been commissioned to do a paper for the forthcoming (July, '87)
conference on World Buddhism in North America that will be titled, The
Zen Buddhist Movement in North America: Retrospect and Prospect". I
have the first draft finished, and here are some excerpts. (The
conference will be held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is sponsored by the
Zen Lotus Society under the direction of the Korean teacher Samu Sunim.)
The Middle Way is the Sangha form that we choose, the nature of our
organisation and the practice we follow as members. Organisation and
practice are imtimately interrelated matters, but they can be examined
separately and in categories.
Regarding the organisation: The Buddha's teaching is our guide. You and
I have no abiding self, but rather we are temporary aggregates,
individually and socially, depending on each other for our lives and our
identities. The Sangha that is grounded in this teaching will have a
number of distinctive qualities.
First, like all beings, the Sangha will have its own personality. This
will be partly a synthesis of the personalities of its members and its
teacher, and partly a "je ne sais quoi" spirit that cannot be precisely
identified. This personality will have a virtuous power that will
radiate the teaching so long as it is not turned back upon itself in
Next, the Sangha will be grounded in certain rituals - a meditation
meeting with ceremonies that make it a spiritual home, just as a secular
home is grounded in the ceremonies of greetings, common meals, in-jokes,
bedtime stories, and so on. The spiritual home is a particular place, a
temple perhaps, but it can carry over into the secular home if a corner
is made sacred with an image, flowers, candlelight, incense, and
meditation practice, and if gathas are included as grace before meals
and at other occasions such as bedtime. In this way, the secular home
becomes spiritual, enhancing the virtues of both spirit and family. The
Buddha Sangha is then an aggregate of households.
Among the rituals of the Sangha there should, I am sure, be refuge in
the Three Treasures and acceptance of the Three Pure Precepts and the
Ten Grave Precepts. As monks of ancient times came together to renew
their vows every fourteen days, so the lay Western Sangha can work out
periodic renewal ceremonies that confirm the way of right action. The
Tiep Hien ceremony of renewal is an instructive model. We are in the
world but not of it. Like lotus flowers in the fire, we bloom in the
world of desires including our own, conserving our energies for the
Dharma wheel, and maintaining the Buddha's noble path as our own.
Other rituals should, I believe, be forms of communication for sharing,
healing, and reconciliation. Many of these can be adapted directly from
Theravada ceremonies, some can be taken from contemporary Christian and
humanistic movements. The sharing and healing rituals of Rissho Koseikai
that bring lay leaders into member families to help with problems of
disaffection are very interesting models. All such rituals confirm our
interdependence, and offer intimate engagement as a way of realisation.
Depth psychology, the interpretation of dreams, and the study of
folklore can be important supplements to sharing and healing rituals.
The Zen centre programme should, I believe, also include academic study
of Buddhism. Traditionally, Rinzai Zen in particular has offered little
teaching of other forms of Mahayana, and even less of classical
Buddhism. Yet Zen is a Buddhist stream, and the various formulations -
the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Four Abodes, the Six
Paramitas, the Three Bodies of the Buddha - and the many sutras are
essential lights on our path. There also should be a supplementary study
of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the pantheon, for these archetypes
can be personalised as inner guides toward compassion and understanding.
Finally, if indeed the Sangha is all-inclusive, then the Buddha Sangha
is merely a sub-family of the larger community, and engagement in the
neighbourhood, city, nation, and world is also the way of turning the
Dharma wheel. As a Sangha, we can offer specific programmes to the
homeless or the imprisoned. We can speak out against injustice, violence
and war - and the exploitation of forests and lakes.
It must be communication, not just projection. The systemic illness of
Western society that has infected the world arises direclty from the
neglect of perennial values that Buddhism shares with other religions,
so when we speak, we communicate best with language that is common to
all and with actions that resonate across sectarian lines.
The way of Zen Buddhism in the West should, I think, recall the
perspective of the Buddha in a relevant manner for lay people. Most
people tend to get locked into a quite dreary round of tasks, and
experience little peace or harmony. Yet if Nirvana and Samsara are the
same, we must find upayas that can keep such unity clear at all times.
For this there are three options for meditative practice within the Zen
tradition. The first is koan practice, the second is shikantaza or "pure
sitting", and the third is the way of mindfulness through gathas and
mantras. These three ways inform each other, and can be combined or
blended. The choice of one of these options, or two or the three of them
together - reflects the karma, personality and aspiration of both
student and teacher.
Koans can be called arcana, points of quest, matters to be made clear -
that enlighten the dark night of the spirit, and release the self from
its limited preoccupations. The points are examined during periods of
withdrawal, some no longer than a single breath, some for extended
periods, with concentration fuelled by a profound questioning spirit.
The essence of this meditative practice is shikantaza, which is pure
sitting, not merely sitting. I hear shikantaza described as watching
perceptions come, identifying them, and letting them go. I don't think
this is adequate. Shikantaza is a matter of sinking into one's bones and
sinews and facing the bare emptiness of the mind. This mind is both
inside and outside - neither inside or outside.
The third meditative option, the path of mindfulness through gathas and
mantras is exemplified by the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh. Repeating the
Breathing in, I calm body and mind;
Breathing out, I smile;
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is the only moment.
you are brought to your breath and to the personal realisation that all
beings are indeed Buddha, beginning with yourself. Acknowledging your
need to mature and to understand, acknowledging your past mistakes, it
is all right to be where you are now in your practice.
In my view, the practice of Zen Buddhism in the future must include all
three of these options. I do not list them in order of importance
because all are important and they depend upon each other. First, there
is the practice of focussing on arcana and experiencing the primordial
truths of purity, harmony and variety; second, there is the practice of
grounding this focus in the empty, silent samadhi of the vast and
boundless universe; and third, there is the practrice of using reminders
that keep the lotus of the Buddha Dharma blooming in the midst of all
the demands of our busy lives.
All this in a setting of a Buddha Sangha that is not preoccupied with
its own identity, that holds ceremonies of refuge, accepting precepts
and renewing of vows, that seeks the most open communication possible,
and reaches outward into the larger community. This is for me an ideal
image of a balanced Sangha.
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