Zen or Nothing

61. Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.

–The Dhammapada, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita

It has been about 3½ months since I wrote this post about shopping for a new Buddhist temple. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs since then, but gradually I’ve been narrowing down my choices to two: Follow Zen or give up on Buddhism entirely.

Some might be shocked to read that since I’ve been following Buddhism since 2005 (now 8 years), and have spent a lot of time and energy putting it into practice. However, I’ve become very frustrated at the lack of community support, especially family support, for Buddhists in the West. If I lived in Japan, this wouldn’t be an issue. If I don’t like one temple, I can just go visit the next one around the corner. I can do the same thing with churches here. But with Buddhist temples in the US, it’s often a different story.

For years, I attended a certain Jodo Shinshu temple here in Seattle, both before and after moving to Ireland. However, I gave up on that temple 2 years ago after I became frustrated with the politics and conservatism there. Recently, my brother-in-law wanted to learn more about Buddhism, so I brought him to the temple. It was an opportunity for me to give the temple another chance. It was a nice service, and it was good to see old friends again, but I realized that in 2 years, it hadn’t changed a bit for me and there was no point in coming back again.

After I left that temple, I decided to try following Buddhism on my own, similar to the quote above. Of course, I wanted to join another community if possible, but there aren’t that many, even in Seattle. You’re often forced to chose between New Age communities (sometimes cults) or immigrant communities who may or may not welcome you. Within both extremes, there are healthy and friendly communities, but it’s always a gamble. Plus I do know of several “cult” temples around here. If you remove them, the number of temples are even smaller. Also, after the years spent trying to make the last temple work, and getting frustrated, I decided I want some “fresh air” away from a community.

But I realize now that without a community, it is lonely. As the Buddha taught in one sutra, the Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2, Pali Canon), it’s actually really good to have a community:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.

I’m fortunate to meet and talk about Buddhism online with various readers, and that has helped sustain me for years. Also, yearly trips to Japan help, but it’s kind of far away and expensive just to see Buddhist temples. ๐Ÿ˜‰

In the end, I want to find a community (preferably Japanese because of my background) closer to home, that encourages positive Buddhist habits, and isn’t a cult or excessively New Age. Basically good “ol’ fashioned Buddhism”. I enjoyed visiting a few other temples recently, but I just didn’t feel that I could commit to them. Giving up on Buddhism may seem drastic, but sometimes I think I might have better community support if I consider religious communities other than Buddhism. Something more mainstream in the US where there are more options.

But when it comes to Buddhist communities, there’s no denying that the largest Japanese-Buddhist presence in the US is Zen, especially Soto Zen (sōtōshū ๆ›นๆดžๅฎ— in Japanese). Zen in the US is something I’ve avoided in the past, because of its tendency toward “neo-orthodoxy” you see among some Zen converts, and its anti-intellectual streak.

However, my interest in Zen began when I had the nice visit to the temple in Arizona (Rinzai, not Soto) and I’ve been kind of hoping to find a similar community here in Seattle.

There are, for me, a few advantages to exploring Zen:

  • Zen tends to have an austerity that is refreshing. I was impressed by my visit to Sojiji temple years ago.
  • Zen has connections with mainland Asian Buddhist groups (Chinese “Chan”, Korean “Seon”, etc). They speak a “common language”, even if there are some differences. This also means closer affinity with people like the late Ven. Yin-Shun whom I admire.
  • Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. These are two things the Buddha emphasized.
  • It’s one of the few Buddhist communities in the US that is growing steadily, not declining, and isn’t a cult of personality (mostly).

I don’t want to become one of those Zen people who argue online with each other. I’d prefer to lay low, visit the temple once a month, and otherwise, just be a good ol’ fashioned Buddhist in general (precepts, meditation, etc).

So, at this point, I have decided that I will give Zen a sincere try. I had a nice experience once, and hope I can find a similar community here in Seattle (possibly Rinzai, not Soto). However, if I can’t, I just might give up Buddhism for good. We’ll see.

P.S. I hesitated to write something regarding the Boston tragedy for a lot of reasons. In the end, I have nothing useful or clever to say, and I fully believe trust law-enforcement to get to the bottom of this. I don’t want to add to the sense of hysteria or anything, so I felt it was better to just be silent. Still, I hope that the families affected will find peace, and that “rule of law”, not mob justice, will prevail.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

10 thoughts on “Zen or Nothing”

  1. Hello, thank you for posting such an interesting blog. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Have you ever visited White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn? I’m not about to say that it is superior in any way to other temples, but if you haven’t, you might want to at least visit,
    I would enjoy having a chance to chat with you, at least.


    1. Hi Ruth T, and welcome! I have been WRBT a few years ago for Bonodori. My wife and I liked it, but we live way up in North Seattle, so it’s not easy to get to from where we live.

      But, your invitation is warmly appreciated.


  2. Hey Doug, Ruth’s suggestion seems worth checking out. I am not familiar with WRBT personally but the minister is Koshin Ogui Sensei who as well as being a Shin priest was also a student of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki so you might find his community a good blend of influences. // Also as an aside, if you get nowhere with the local Zen groups, it might be worth checking out if any of the local UU churches have Zen or Buddhist groups. I’ve heard good things about UU-Buddhism in terms of its inclusiveness. Anyway best wishes in your search. Gassho, K


    1. Hi Kyoshin,

      Huh, I had no idea that Rev. Ogui was there now. When I last visited, it was a different minister.

      As mentioned above, it’s pretty far from where I’m at, but it would be nice to visit once and say hi. I just might do that. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think though, I’ll need to find something closer to home and I’ve done the Jodo Shinshu thing enough that I don’t think I want to go back anytime soon. Time to branch out and try new things.


    1. Yeah, it is. Not a trivial decision but I’m weighing things carefully so I don’t make a hasty decision.

      I prefer Buddhism in any case but I’ve always been fascinated with other religions so I’m not adverse to exploring them especially if Buddhist resources are too few and far between.

      Thankfully though, I have been finding good resources lately so I don’t think I need to make any big changes.

      Like I said, more soon.


  3. I feel you are residing in an extreme, the extreme and false dichotomy of “this or nothing” which Buddhism abhors. I love Japan, I have since I was very young, but Zen in America is not like Zen in Japan, nor is it like Buddhism, there are varying differences in doctrine, though few in practice. For discipline and simplicity, I love Zen, for it’s philosophy, I love it’s connection to Bushido, but as a practice leading to Enlightenment, I think it is slightly confused, and has yet to find it’s place within the Buddhist pantheon. Buddhism, especially sectarian, we cannot expect much out of in terms of unbiased Dhamma, though most Buddhism has been splintered into sects, there are few in each sect who defy this stereotype, ex; Rime (of Vajrayana) Sanbokyodan (of Japan) and in my own experience, and most will disagree; the Thai Forest Tradition, which I identify with most for some reason or another. I don’t think it’s reliable to put all of your reliance on a community, if you must wander alone like the rhinoceros. However, consider that if no community will suffice for the moment, trust that the Dhamma and Vinaya are suitable guides, the only successor to the Buddha himself, and that if we cannot trust the people around us, we can at least trust the Buddha. I’d implore you, if I may, to seek out the Suttas, mostly the Nikayas. If you are anything like me (and you seem to be very similar to how I was) it will be a moving experience.


    1. Hello and welcome,

      I think you might misunderstand my situation. I have a fair amount of experience in various communities in Buddhism, plus I am already familiar with the Nikayas.

      My efforts are to find an adequate support community in my area, preferably with a more Japanese-oriented approach for the sake of my wife and kids (who are Japanese).

      Zen has the largest presence in the US of any Japanese Buddhist group in the US, but I do agree that it is not that similar to Japanese Zen itself. This is becoming a source of concern since I wrote this post.


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