Tales of Failed Zen Student

Well, my brief experimentation with Soto Zen is officially over. I started attending an online Soto Zen community about 4-5 weeks ago and took part in the yearly Ango (安居) vows.1 As I said before, it is a good community. I followed the Ango vows under a senior student, and learned a lot about Zazen meditation.

However, I came to realize after a while that it was difficult to sustain as a working-parent. I kept missing the weekly online services because the time conflicted with work. On the weekends, I was busy with children all day and by evening, I was too tired to do anything. After a couple weeks, my Ango vows started to slip more and more until I stopped altogether.

Now, someone might say that if I was really devoted to it, I would find the time. I would make time somehow. I realized that this was true. I was genuinely busy, but also I was making excuses. I really could’ve found a way to keep up Zen practice. But I didn’t.

Later, I thought about why I wasn’t motivated. I was curious about Zen before I started, but after doing it for 4 weeks I realized I wasn’t interested in Zen “culture”: the so-called “teaching outside the tradition”, the mystical, cryptic teachings, and the narrow focus on meditation. A lot of people are attracted to Zen culture but I just didn’t like it.

I got annoyed toward the end and decided that rather than forcing myself to continue, and hope it gets better, it would be better to stop right there. So after a short goodbye message (in which I expressed my frustrations), I left the community and gave up on Soto Zen. I probably shouldn’t have said anything and quietly left but I felt it was important to say some things.

To be honest, I think if I stayed with a Rinzai community long enough, I probably would get annoyed too. The temple in Seattle annoyed me in some ways too. I guess Zen really is not for me.

But as I said, it is a good community and if you like Zen and want to learn more, I definitely recommend it. I learned a lot. I also realized that I would be happier following a different path, but at least I gave it a sincere try and I met some cool people.

As for me, I guess I like being a Pure Land Buddhist who dabbles in meditation more than a Zen Buddhist who dabbles in Pure Land stuff.

But as I look back, I’m starting to think I don’t want to be ordained in any tradition. Sure, I like teaching things a lot, but ordination requires me to follow a certain doctrinal line and I am not comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable doing it in the Zen tradition, and I’m not comfortable doing it in the Jodo Shinshu tradition either. I’m happy to help at the local temple because my family goes there but I am not sure I want to be ordained after all. I like being who I am, making the best effort I can as a layperson. Time will tell. I still have lots of time to decide.

Anyhow, just some thoughts for today.

1 Ango is the Japanese-Buddhist equivalent to the yearly “rains retreat” still observed in Theravada Buddhist countries.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Tales of Failed Zen Student”

  1. Doug,
    I’ve followed along too. My experience with zazen is different. Since I work shiftwork, I sit at different times. I don’t really have a set time to do it. For me, this works. However, I didn’t like the way it was posted either. There seems to be too much ego in most zen groups. I do highly recommend that you go to the Seattle temple tomorrow for Rev. Kubose’s seminar. He’s a really great teacher.
    _/|_

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    1. Hi michael482, I think you hit it on the head: Western Zen groups can get really pompous. I believe Zen, if taken all the way, can definitely shatter egos and such, but some students may only be “half-baked” yet go oj to lead others.

      I would love to see Rev. Kubose. Folks at the temple are certainly talking about it. But the truth is is that i cant take the time to go. With luck, I might see him Sunday though.

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  2. Hello Doug, This is definitely one of the issues with monastic practices and lay people practicing them. I have also seen the opposite where people get depressed about not having enough time to do the practices they love and then grow bitter being a lay person. The Buddha-Dharma is vast and as many Zen teachers have stated, most important is what happens off the cushion. Also, it is my feeling that in the Declining Dharma Age after the Buddha taught people, most clergy during this age are merely devote lay people in robes. “Wish to see the Buddha with all your heart,” in your daily life is how I practice. I would like to state that we are very lucky, for people interested in Zen Buddhism in Seattle, that we have so many great and supportive teachers here. Thank you again for your honesty and openness to share with us. With Gassho…

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    1. Hello Kanjin and welcome! You’re certainly right: lay people can get bitter about lack of access to Buddhist resources too. I guess that’s why so many lay groups spring up here in the West.

      Wishing to see the Buddha with all your heart is a really great approach. I think it’s mentioned in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra too. I think that’s why ive stuck with Pure Land Buddhism for as long as i have: it lends itself to that approach.

      As for resources here in Seattle, I’ve been to two different Zen groups here and they’ve both had their strong points and weak points. If you know another resource please feel free to share. 🙂

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  3. Hi Doug
    I’ve had similar frustrations over the years. I’m in a Tibetan tradition, with a strong monastic thread, but one which certainly encourages lay practise. I have a daily meditation practise of 20 minutes which i’ve kept daily for nearly a year now, and I try to attend at least one weekly group sitting session or Chenrezig prayers etc.

    In my tradition its pretty clear that you need to devote a lot of time to make any real *progress* and I got a bit down about this at one stage as I just knew in my heart that I wasn’t a monastic and due to personal commitments would never be able to do an extensive retreat (i’ve done week long ones). But the more i learned I realised that the best thing was to do as much as possible within the worldly life, and this would have positive benefits both now and in future lives. I guess i’ve resigned myself to trying to garner merit so that I may be born in more fortunate circumstances next time 🙂 but at least in this life I can also be of benefit.

    I’m at peace with this now. Meditation, ethical living and contemplation of the teachings need to be all practised to some degree (IMO) and the trick is to find a balance.

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    1. Hi rubot,

      Thanks for your comment. I feel we’ve kind of both come to the same conclusion. I used to fret a lot more when I was younger about making progress, but these days, I’m generally happy to just recite sutras and the nembutsu, follow the precepts and meditation from time to time.

      Back then, I was younger, and had no kids. Now, I have two lovely children, and a load more responsibilities in general. Far from being upset about it, I’m happy to live this way.

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