By Daniel Scharpenburg
Once in a while someone asks me about the Five Mountain Zen Order.
It doesn’t come up as often as it used to; it’s been a long time.
It’s not an incredibly well known organization, but it’s one of the few that gives Zen training over the internet. And that’s a thing that some people who are far away from any Buddhist temples look for. Because the world of online Zen training is small, in that area FMZO is a big player. So if you frequent Buddhist forums like Dharma Wheel, you’ll hear about them once in a while. But if you don’t, you’ve probably never heard of them.
It’s of those Buddhist groups that people whisper about. “Psst, you know about them, don’t you?”
“Why did you leave?”
“What did you see there?”
It was a part of my journey, and not something I can deny. I’ve heard stories and I can only tell you that in my time there I didn’t see cultic behavior. They didn’t try to take money from me (which is good because I didn’t have any). I didn’t see students getting abused or anything like that. Those aren’t the reasons I left and I want to make that very clear.
This is sort of a warning, because it’s a story of attachment. I was attached to preconceptions that I had. This isn’t about the Five Mountain Zen Order, really. It’s about me. It’s about what led me to give up a Zen Sangha.
From 2011 until 2013 I was a member of the FMZO. I was what they call a Monk.
I say “what they call a Monk” because a majority of Zen groups in the west use the word Priest and reserve the word Monk for people who live in temples and monasteries and adhere to some strict vows about not having any sex or eating after noon. FMZO just decided to use the word Monk for…well…really committed and trained teachers. Seems like confusion that could easily be avoided, but who knows. I don’t know of other organizations that do this, but that’s okay.
A lot of people have trained in the FMZO and left over the years. I heard about some senior members that left right before I joined. Plenty of people say things about this organization that I’m not going to go into here. This is only about my story and not about anyone else’s.
I was recruited in 2011. I had studied the Zen tradition for years before that and I really liked it, but I had never met a Zen Buddhist before. All of the Buddhists I had met were Vajrayana. Soto was my favorite and FMZO is a Rinzai lineage, but I thought I could just overlook that. (now I practice Caodong Chan, which is what Soto derives from).
This young man named Wanji Dharma (he uses a different dharma name now, a much cooler name than Wanji) found me on Facebook and recruited me for Monk training. FMZO has teachers all over. It’s one of the few Zen organizations that gives training online. Wanji lived in the KC area and he was in training with his teacher in California (Paul Lynch, who actually lives here in KC now too. The whole organization moved it’s base from California to Kansas City).
We practiced together for a while. Other people were there too and it was mostly a good experience, although an overwhelming majority of my training was koan practice and I’m not a big fan of that method. I learned a lot about Master Seung Sahn, too. He’s the inspiration behind FMZO. I don’t connect with his writings a lot either, if I’m honest. He founded the Kwan Um School of Zen, which has been called the largest Zen organization in the west.
FMZO is an offshoot of Kwan Um that broke away under circumstances that I don’t really understand. A lot of people ask a lot of questions about the breaking away, but I don’t have any answers. And maybe most importantly, my teacher told me that he wasn’t really a meditator (a weird thing for a full time zen monk to say). That’s not something that I, someone who is very dedicated to meditation practice, want to hear from a teacher.
I took the five vows of a lay practitioner and then a few months later I took the five additional vows of a novice monk. I got certificates and everything, so you know it’s serious. I was given the Dharma name “Boepyul” which means “Dharma Zeal.” Technically I remained a novice monk when I left because these vows are something that you take for yourself. External things like leaving an organization do not and should not matter. I don’t really think of myself as “ordained,” but I suppose I am.
I went through a lot of koans with my teacher, and I took classes through an online school that they have. Those were really hit or miss. Some of them were good and some of them were just “here write a book report.” But I took a lot of them—classes in The Diamond Sutra, The Platform Sutra, Mirror of Zen, Compass of Zen…too many to name. Most of the teachers that taught those classes aren’t with FMZO anymore.
I liked it, in spite of my misgivings. I felt like I was part of the Zen tradition.
As I said, lots of people have left the Five Mountain Zen Order over the years. The people I practiced with are almost all gone now. They probably all have better reasons than I do, to be honest. I have regrets about the way I left. I think there are a lot of good people in the Five Mountain Zen Order, and having a Zen Sangha—a connection to other Zen Buddhists—did feel good to me.
I left because I got offended.
And not for a Buddhist reason, really. It’s not because of any scandalous thing that I saw. It’s not because the teachers were bad. It’s not even because wearing robes felt weird (although that’s definitely true). It’s not because people around me didn’t take their vows seriously. I left because the leaders of the FMZO acquired ownership of a Buddhist college and gave themselves PhDs. For some reason if someone goes around calling themselves a “Master” that doesn’t bother me. But if someone says they have a PhD when they haven’t done the work…well, as someone who went to college I had a sense of attachment.
I thought that the title PhD had to mean something. Calling yourself a “Venerable Master” is one thing, but saying you have a Doctorate after being out of high school less than five years….that’s something else. It really bothered me and I started asking my teacher questions that he didn’t like being asked. It’s kind of weird to think that this was the line that made me ask too many questions, but it was. I found it to be dishonest and I said that.
So I left.
I never really connected with Wanji as a teacher anyway, so leaving wasn’t hard. And there was some suggestion that they’d start expecting monks to wear robes all the time, which I wasn’t going to do either (also attachment, I guess). And I regret it now. I just had a strong attachment to that label “Doctorate.” It seems like it’s not a good look to give yourself a PhD, even if you’re not claiming to be an accredited college, you know?
But I also feel like it doesn’t matter. Call yourself whatever you want if you’re sincerely practicing the Dharma, and some of them certainly are sincere. I don’t think I should have cared about such things.
Everyone that left the FMZO after me has a better story than I do; I’m confident of that. I just left because I was attached to academic titles. I would like to have stayed longer so I had a better story.
I think Wanji took offense when I started asking questions, which is fine. I think as Dharma teachers we should be willing to be questioned always and at all times, but I understand not everyone feels that way. Being able to question teachers is important to me.
If you left too, tell us why in the comments. Or don’t. I just wanted to tell my story. Not sharing this part of my story with my readers has felt weird. I didn’t have a really bad experience, but what I saw there did sour me on the idea of Buddhist Orders and even teachers for a while. I decided that my heroes were the Zen lunatics: Han Shan, Ji Gong, Ikkyu. The Zen guys who rejected the establishment. They were still masters, just renegade masters.
I’m a renegade too.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Find out more about Daniel here and connect with him on Facebook