21 August 2010

"What I think we’re looking at is a dying off of Zen in the West within the next twenty years."

So blogged James Ford about a month or so ago on his Monkey Mind site.

To be honest, if Christianity had come to the West from elsewhere some 50ish years ago, I have no doubt the prognosis would be equally grim. It's not a matter of the efficacy of the practice, and it's not a matter of the profundity of the sutras or scriptures, nor is it a matter of how lofty the ideals are yet how reticent our nature is to live up to them.

It's a matter of not having enough non-lay practitioners setting down the ugly, rough, subterranean foundation on which to support the edifice. Yes, Layman Pang and Vimalakirti had deep insight, enough to spar with the very best. Nevertheless, the vessel of the tradition was borne by the full-timers, the lifers, who had nothing else to do but serve the establishment of the practice. They parked their asses in one spot, didn't go on vacations and sightseeing trips, and were tough as nails. They endured hardship and cold. They knew hunger and loneliness.

The generation to whom Zen has been entrusted in America wanted the cake and the eating. They wanted marriages (though maybe not families) and the abbotship. They wanted careers and the transmission. They wanted the rigors of the practice and they wanted to make it accessible to the multitudes. They wanted to open a field of merit and make money at it.* Maybe they wanted to be Zen and Christian, even. Who knows? In all of this, they were truly WASP-Americans, or quite the Baby-Boomers or their wannabes. But they were not sustainably Zen. Or anything else, for that matter.

I'm all for lay practice in Zen. But it has to have a solid touchstone somewhere, and that touchstone -- as it has been for every spiritual practice known to humans since the dawn of agriculture and cities -- can only be the hermitage and the monastery. What hubris to think that Zen in the West in the 20th/21st centuries could be an exception to that rule!

The future of Zen, if it is to have one, is going to be prepared quietly by small groups of men and women who will live apart, who will not seek to expand the temple's membership, get invited on the lecture circuit, or publish the next book. These men and women will practice hard. They will keep their own counsel and demand far more of themselves than anyone would probably think prudent. They will become the Anthonys, the Dogens, the Brunos and the Rinzais of today, and the success of their efforts will be known in, oh I don't know, about 10 to 15 generations.


* My goodness, how far would Christianity have gotten in the British isles and northwestern Europe if the Celtic monks had charged the equivalent of $900 sesshin fees for their service to the laity as some places currently do?

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