By Enrico Blanca
After reading John Lee Pendall’s piece, Zen Isn’t Buddhism, I feel compelled to respond because I strongly disagree with most of the points he makes and with his central thesis.
In the article he writes that there are “thousands of Zen doctrines.” There may be hundreds, but only a few really represent Zen: non-duality and the transitory and interdependent nature of the world and our experience in it being primary. He then quips that there are “dozens of meditation methods.” Zazen uses counting or following one’s breath, koan introspection and shikantaza, all done in a few variations of the same posture.
Later on in the piece it is written that, “This usually happened when a person’s heart was open and they had a simple chat with someone else who experienced illumination [kensho]. After that experience, the freshly broken person feels the need to pass the light along to someone else, because it’s something to be shared.”
Kensho was and is truly a profoundly transformative body/mind experience which was usually confirmed by an often fierce and challenging teacher. It is not the same as having kind emotions and a talk with a like-minded friend.
Pendall writes, “The thing is, Buddhism doesn’t have a monopoly on illumination. Mystics from all religions and philosophies throughout that ages have experienced it as well. It just so happened that the Buddhists who experienced it eventually got together and formed a school around it, complete with their own set of robes and monastic precepts.”
Well, Christian mystics, for example, had no chance to form schools (even if they were historically organized as such) because they were routinely burned at the stake. Indian, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese culture has been far more tolerant of mystics.
While I do appreciate Pendall’s attempt at demythologizing the idea that Zen has been transmitted in a face-to-face unbroken line for millennia, my main objection to his piece is the thesis that, “you don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to be a Zen Buddhist,” and that Zen is not a religion. This is not correct.
Zen has ritual, scripture, liturgy, monastics and priests. It is concerned with liberation and salvation as are other world religions. As a Soto Zen Buddhist, I like to tell people that I am religious but not spiritual because I am committed to a particular religious tradition and practice. I do not go in for vague and whimsical selections from a spiritual supermarket.
Yes, empathy and compassion are vitally important in Zen. But for me, being a Buddhist in any meaningful sense means much more than having an aching heart.
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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