the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by – part 3

DSC_0010It’s going to be a couple of months of dealing with koans¹. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say it’s going to be a few lifetimes of dealing with koans. Notice I wrote “dealing with” and not “working with.” As someone who not only flunked out of koan studies but also remedial koan practice, I’ll not be your bright North Star – other than to serve by nefarious comparison. I also think we tend to deal with something more than work with it (which implies some level of commitment) because we rarely know it’s a koan until smacked full in the face with one.


The Dog Ate My Zabuton Koan

I walked in and said, “Teacher, the dog ate my zabuton so I couldn’t practice.”

She tipped her head to the right and smiled. “How did the dog manage to eat your zabuton?”

‘She doesn’t get it,’ I thought. Aloud I replied, “The dog ate it. He just did. Maybe he’s not a good Buddhist.”

“Ah. Or maybe he’s just a dog. Where was your zabuton that your dog could get to it?’

I scuffed my toe.

“Dog is dog,” she said. “And you know better.”


On the surface, the previous three posts have dealt with issues of the Plum Village Lineage Dharma Teachers and their document intended to resolve conflicts. You can read about it (in order) herehere, and here. Underlying the issues of what one global sangha has done to make it possible for individuals to seek support and recourse in cases of conflict in their sangha are an innumerable number of accretions and assumptions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner. Or more accurately, a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings. These are very different paths and the former may not always end in liberation.

When we are caught in our need to belong, to not be criticized, to be accepted, we are vulnerable – and all the more so when the philosophy of the captor organization is couched in concepts of peace and love and oneness. In our fear of being disconnected from the tribe, we buy into the constructions that seem like Buddhism but are not. If you want to delve into the ways we have bought into a constructed institutional Buddhism, I strongly recommend reading NellaLou’s post Precisely the problem? Typical of her deadly swordship, she points out the ways we risk becoming a mindless cog in the massive machinery that can be Buddhism:

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in theunwritten (sic) rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.


Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

This is the point: without transparent and courageous leadership, we – who are hitched to these massive vehicles – are easily dragged away despite our own moral anchors. At the same time, without our own inner leadership that must be unrelenting in its willingness to blast away personal delusions, we are fodder for anyone who talks the ethics talk. And who wouldn’t be? It gets tiring being oh-so-watchful over my anger, greed, and delusions. It wears me down to constantly check in on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of my thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s hard not to flip the truths of impermanence, nonself, and suffering on their heads and claim anything goes because nothing lasts, there’s no one to hurt, and samsara just is. So much easier to believe that if our leader is ethical, we are in a position to benefit from a received knowledge of their values.

But we know better. Truly. We know better in that moment when we turn away from something that doesn’t feel right. We know better in that moment when we said nothing because belonging was more anxiety-reducing and speaking out. We know better when the sound of our voice denying malfeasance carries into our spirit and rings false.

Yes, we know better than to think someone else can do the thinking for us. And we know that the cost of that unwholesome choice is ultimately having choice taken away. I’m not talking about the choice of staying in a corrupt organization. The choice we lose is the choice to honour the life we have and the death we practice.

NellaLou’s uncompromising conclusion:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

Living Truth IS the very matter of life and death.

NellaLou’s second post, Buddhist Exceptionalism, drives the point home. Believing that our path as practitioners of the teachings of the historical Buddha make us Buddhists is the first step in not knowing better. It is the first loosening of the knot that ties us to our “moral anchor.” Our attraction to the putative safety and support it affords us as captialized-B Buddhists is the first magnetic event that destabilizes our moral compass. We can continue down that path, caught by the desires of our teachers and sanghas who are caught themselves in their delusionary states. And pretty soon that capitalized-B is the way in which we keep people quiet or ostracized so that our world is not rocked by facts or reality, ethics or responsibility.

I told a friend last week that I have given up on Buddhism. I have.

But I know better than to give up on buddhist practice.


¹Mid-October will be a review of Barry Magid’s Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans (Wisdom Pubs) and November features Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moons’ The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women (Wisdom Pubs).

the industry of zen & buddhism

Ah! There you are*.

I’m rather chagrined to discover I’ve been MIA for almost a month.  There are no excuses but many reasons; and as I type I’m scrolling through my eCalendar to wow you with some of the amazing accomplishments that have come to pass in these three or four weeks.  Well, perhaps I overstate myself.  It seems the biggest accomplishment has been that I got through the weeks, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, only arrive right here where I began three years ago.

Over those weeks, days, and moments, a challenging question has been worming its way through my mind: Is this Zen?  Is this even Buddhism?  Perhaps this is a poorly conceptualized version of the more powerful question, What is this?  What is this?  Or perhaps this is an important space to open up (again) that cultivates the discernment between the Industry of Zen/Buddhism and the embodiment of it.

Not-Zen/Not-Buddhism is typically easy to spot albeit not easy to resist.  Beer labels, perfumes, furniture, bars, restaurants, clothing, and most objects can safely be tagged “Not-Zen.”  However, it is useful to consider that the intent of using the term for a product is to increase sales through a subtle promise of a mind-state.  And yet, if that is the case, perhaps we find ourselves reduced absurdly to include things like books, audio files, dharma talks, zafus, zabutons (and the love of words most people in our life circles would neither understand nor use in daily discourse), and even dharma teachers, priests, temples, zendos, and the odd kit with kaboodle.

Is that absurd?  I’m beginning to think not.  It’s been my observation that when we first encounter something which fulfills the promise of a mind-state more easeful than the wild, vicious, tumultuous one we inhabit out of habit, we quickly slip from the embodiment of that state to the Industry of what promises to accomplish that state.  Meditation helps you feel calmer?  Great!  Sit longer, download more meditation tracks!  Buddhism explains the state of your world?  Awesome!  Get a few more books, buy a few more buddha statues to fill the spaces!  The world too filled with distraction and pain?  Great!  Go on more retreats, enforce more silence in your schedule!

The sad thing is I don’t think I’m exaggerating.  The early stages of the path are filled with opportunity to be infatuated with what we think is Zen and Buddhism but which, on closer examination, is only a promise heard in a moment of desperation.  And what a seductive promise it is with its purring engine and fine, fine aerodynamic lines!  The vehicle of Buddhism – especially the Zen model rolling off the production lines – has us begging for the keys.  And we fall prey to the Industry of Buddhism which is in fact the after-market industry and occasionally comes frighteningly close to “Pimp My Ride.”

But in the fine print of the ownership papers lies the true intention for taking this baby out for a spin.  The intent of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular  is – and has always been – embodying  openness to the dynamic between our experience and our avoidance of it.  There’s no promise of elevated mind-states or visceral joy in catharsis in the fine print.  There is only bearing witness to the slip-slide-skid and the compassionate action of turning into that skid.  And yes, there are some forms in practice that facilitate our skillfulness to embody its intent.  However, and sadly so, the more enamoured we are of specific forms of practice – be it meditation, insight cultivation, retreats, or what have you – the easier it is for the Industry of Buddhism to aid and abet our avoidance of who we are in this and every moment.


*This is our little ghost cat, Desirée.  She’s 14 years old and this is first time she’s allowed me to cuddle her.