Dharma FAQ

I don’t know you but I like the sound of you. This is likely because I have an underdeveloped sense of self and I find your rudeness appealing. I bet if I studied with you, I’d be able to set boundaries and sound tough, like you. I never realised Zen people could sound like you do. Now I want to be a Buddhist! Will you be my teacher?

No. Fuck off.

Why not?

Several reasons. Here are two:

  1. I do not feel ready to engage with random people at that kind of level. It feels great to be all-powerful in the face of spiritually hungry practitioners, especially if there is evidence that I get to feel powerful and actually help people at the same time. But that’s an obvious psychological trap and I don’t want to fall into it. I am not satisfied with what I am up to in my own practice yet.
  2. I don’t trust you. If you want to learn to be rude, pay me. Don’t pretend to be interested in “the Dharma” when you’re really trying to prop up your sense of individuality in a dangerous world.

What does it take to be a good Western Zen practitioner?

That depends. Before I get into it, you need to look at the passive, childish position you fall into by asking such a question. If you seriously explored this alone, you would find yourself somewhere interesting.

Here are various somewhat stupid and contrived answers to your question:

  1. You must be willing to confront that which cannot be confronted.
  2. You must be courageous and disciplined.
  3. You must find a good teacher.
  4. You must be willing to die to your own ego games.
  5. You vow to attain awakening for the sake of all beings.
  6. You must enter a monastery.
  7. You must strive for authenticity in all situations.
  8. You must engage in koan practice.
  9. You must renounce samsara.
  10. You must embrace samsara.
  11. You must identify as a Buddhist.
  12. You must not identify as anything.
  13. You must go to Japan.
  14. You must understand that Zen has no place and no history, and that it is right here and now.
  15. You must sit for a very long time in silence.

I would be surprised if any of these is really news to you, since they represent common perspectives. I also have no idea if they are valid. Valid according to what standard?

Let’s play the game anyway. Here are some refinements of the above points.

  1. You must be willing to confront that which cannot be confronted.
    Existence cannot be understood in any final way. There is no non-ideological standpoint from which you can observe reality. Knowing this intellectually is simple enough. Accepting it in a way that changes your behaviour is next to impossible for everyone.
  2. You must be courageous and disciplined.
    Lazy cowards do not need Zen.
  3. You must find a good teacher.
    Spiritual teachers love telling people about the importance of finding a “good teacher”, which always means someone like them.
  4. You must be willing to die to your own ego games.
    Ego is “bad”; everyone knows that. Don’t be a bad person! Have no ego.
  5. You vow to attain awakening for the sake of all beings.
    Otherwise your practice is selfish and evil, of course. (Conveniently, it will also be easier to justify all those retreats you’re taking if it’s for the sake of all beings. What a champ you are.)
  6. You must enter a monastery.
    The person who says this is never the most senior person in a given monastery. Wink-wink.
  7. You must strive for authenticity in all situations.
    The assumption here is that “authentic” Zen leads to “authentic” behaviour. Maybe.
  8. You must engage in koan practice.
    There is huge value in working with koans. I do recommend it for a certain type of person. But I advocate para-traditional koan work, that is, working with koans in a semi-traditional manner that self-consciously sees itself as standing outside the tradition. So no self-respecting Zen Master would call that real koan practice.
  9. You must renounce samsara.
    After all, if you don’t renounce the terrors of endless rebirth, why engage in a practice designed to free you from it?
  10. You must embrace samsara.
    After all, if you were enlightened, you’d know that samsara and nirvana are not separate, you idiot.
  11. You must identify as a Buddhist.
    Otherwise, why take the precepts? Get some skin in the game.
  12. You must not identify as anything.
    Otherwise, you’re just substituting one label for another.
  13. You must go to Japan.
    We all know only the Japanese can do Zen.
  14. You must understand that Zen has no place and no history, and that it is right here and now.
    Surely you’ve read your Suzuki.
  15. You must sit for a very long time in silence.
    All the masters did it.

Do you believe any of those points?

I don’t know. The point is you need to treat any such proclamations with skepticism. There is a hidden agenda behind all of them. Some of them do sound like good advice to me, but don’t be passive about this shit. I don’t know what it means to be a good Zen practitioner.

Can you please give me some kind of advice? This isn’t really all that useful, practically speaking.

Seriously, take what I’m saying to heart — this part is non-bullshit, I mean this. A great part of the problem is the persistent idea that if you just ask the right question, you’ll get an answer that “does” it for you. You may not know what you’re asking.

But you’ll likely just take this as part of the game, no matter how meta I make it, so here’s my advice: Suffer as profoundly as you can.

I am not saying you should go out intentionally seeking more suffering. What I am saying is that you are not willing suffer the suffering you have, so before you go off looking for solutions to the Problem of Suffering, you need to be clear about what you’re up to.

Buddhism plays a cool trick on people: It tells them that they do not even realise how much they are suffering. The fact is that when people are forced to confront the full extent of their suffering, they are susceptible to almost any teaching that promises salvation. So there is an initial shock — “Holy fuck, how have I managed to live like this until now?!” — and an immediate scramble for a solution. Buddhism dangles an especially juicy carrot, since it frames itself as the exact answer to the problem it tells you it is pointing out: the problem of suffering.

But it’s not really enough to experience a moment of terrible realisation — that you’ve been living a lie, that you’ve got no idea what you’re doing — and then set about trying to patch your life up in response. This betrays their unwillingness to rest in the truth that they have discovered, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, the basic fact of self-sustaining, indiscriminate suffering itself.

Hold on. You’re telling me not to become a Buddhist?

I think most people are not suited to kind of the Zen Buddhist practice that I consider “authentic” (please don’t latch onto that word) because they are not willing to feel the fullness of their own suffering. It is absolutely true that certain practices developed within the various Buddhist traditions can lead to fundamental rearrangements of lived experience. I swear upon my mother’s grave that there is something to all this. There are real shifts in perceptual experience, noticeable changes in personality, undeniable mutations of the subjective sense of space-time.

But the problem is that I cannot in all honesty connect those “fundamental rearrangements” with anything that would validate the foundational premises of Buddhism. That may sound strange or disappointing, but it’s true.

With enough time and “attainments”, you end up in this paradoxical position of knowing what “the traditions” are pointing to — or rather, understanding the fundamental questions raised by your own tradition in a way that seems impossible to describe — but feeling like a fraud when trying to explain to others why they, too, should “practice” as Buddhists in order to attain those “results.”

So when  I say “Suffer as profoundly as you can”, I mean that you should become as acquainted as possible with the Non-Negotiable Axiological Proposition of Buddhism — SUFFERING — without being too quick to buy into it.

Which means…?

At the level of your own life, suffer the fuck out of it. Choose to suffer. Choose to be unhappy in the specific way that you consider yourself unhappy. If you hate yourself and feel like you are wasting your life, then choose to hate yourself and choose to waste your life, and from that vantage point, return to the question of the First Noble Truth. It may expose you to a very different and interesting kind of pain.