Saturday, June 28, 2014

spiritual expiration date

Frank and I were emailing back and forth yesterday, remembering times/places/people/events we had known in Zen Buddhist practice. And in the middle of it, it just came into my head:
I sometimes think there should be a time limit placed on institutionalized Zen practice ... OK, you can practice for, say, 20 years, but after that, you are no longer welcome.
Frank replied:
Should one stop practicing or move on to another place?
I said briefly that I thought practice might be OK, but certainly you would not be welcome in any other center or place of practice.

It was all a bit of whimsey, but it seemed to continue running around in my mind like some frisky dog let into the backyard. Nothing saying you can't imagine a little....

Imagine: Built into the bedrock of institutional Zen, there would be an expiration date -- something along the lines of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and ... an expiration date. After (say) 20 years, you either get it or you don't: Either way, you are better off and it's time to realign the energies. What good is anything if you can't give it away?

Frank and I were both well aware of the earnest tones with which anyone might describe Zen practice as "a lifelong endeavor." Both of us had, to one extent or another, expended considerable energy. Zen was not just some namby-pamby belief system -- it was pedal-to-the-metal experience and we had both done what we could to actualize an experience that brooked no doubt. From an outsider's point of view, we had worked hard, Frank more diligently than I, probably.

But now, with the new and improved Zen manual, it was time to move along. Our warranty had expired and we had both passed the "sell by" date. Naturally, like a loaf of bread, it still looked like a loaf of bread that held out the promise of nourishment. But looks can be deceiving and bread becomes stale, even as Zen enthusiasts balk and blither and say this is a practice that never grows stale... or if it is stale, it's all your fault.

An expiration date.

Just stop it!

No one who graduates from high school or college continues going to high school or college. Whatever usefulness or good the experience held is now planted and percolating within. First, the student needs the practice; then the practice needs the student; and finally it is time to cope with all this somehow overbearing and unwarranted neediness.

It's all just whimsey of course. But I note with some interest the Zen Buddhist acquaintances who have decided on a life of monk- or nun-dom ... how, with enough time, they wrestle with the problem of the expiration date they somehow know has come but is not yet entirely gone. In less polite moments, you can almost hear them begging: "How do I get rid of all this crap?" The crap that isn't crap and yet is.

The Four Noble Truths.
The Eightfold Path.
The expiration date.

Of course, the wide open spaces may seem incalculably daunting, but so did Zen Buddhism when it was first encountered.

Imagine: Stamp collecting, mountain climbing, picture painting, getting out to the race track, becoming an aficionado of shoes, singing at breakfast ... lordy! Zen takes care of itself and you are fine without Zen.

Just whimsey.

Just a dog frisking in the backyard.


  1. That it! I just got nutted at shatin, and it makes everything ive experienced seem frivialous . We have had some laughs though.

  2. Retirement happens, but life goes on.

  3. Thanks for sharing the gist of our email exchange, old friend...
    ...and for not trying to characterize my end.

    < Stepping onto the Blog Soap Box>

    Here's my opinion for whatever it is worth:

    In a nut shell, as usual at first I completely disagreed you, then had second thoughts, and now it's, well, to be frank, I am in partial agreement, but only very partial.

    First, a real life counter example:

    I don't want to "out" anyone here without consulting with them first, so you'll have to, may be, take my word. Some may recognize whom I write about. That's just OK. Feel free to let me know if I hae gotten some facts wrong, especially if it's really important. A met a man who was ordained in a certain Zen Buddhist lineage. I liked him a whole lot but he had has(?) some rough edges (yeah, like who doesn't). I got to like him after we had an exchange in a workshop he lead in his monk role. I basically said I didn't undertand why he was holding back the truth about the nauture of dukkha -- that suffering Buddhs tried to convey was actually much, much worse than the workshop leader was conveying. In public he disagreed but in a private conversation, much to my surprise he said I was correct, but that he believed the truth was too hard for public consumption.

    My reaction was "Huh? Come man, keep it simple and real!"

    Still, I went into "long term research mind": 1. who is this guy and 2. what WAS the classical defintion of Dukkha from the Buddha's time 2500 years ago.

    Of course my intellectual understanding was correct. Even at the private duscussion during a break in the workshop I pointed out my source of information as the book, "What the Buddha Taught." He said "You know about as much as I do," but he taught me something about "delivery" and "intent."

    Over time I learned about him. Apparently trained for some 18 years with one of the first generation American Zen teachers. He stayed up to the point where he felt that his "teacher" probably would have offered (or actually did offer him transmission). He just walked, or so he said.

    He later got ordained by another heavy hitter Zen Teacher, In whose lineage he is now considered a "Dharma Holder." I am given to understand he trained as a monk under the second heavy hitter for over 12 years. Then he left and returned to lay life. He now evidently teaches Zen part time, like, say, the respected Yamada Roshi the teacher of Philip Kapleau did.

    Way Cool!

    My point is that depending on one's point of view the 20 year rule makes little sense or or it makes perfect sense. Another teacher and another sangha might embrace a senior from another sangha or might not welcome such senior. I believe they will, but have no way of knowing for sure. I think it will depending on the seniors sincerity and the teacher's maturity and confidence in his/her skillness. That is not the point however, in my opinion. In the end, one should continue practice and refine one's understanding and work on one's teaching skills (if one is into teaching). I think it helps to spend significant time with more than one teacher. I think learning to live with different groups can help with one's overall goal of deepening one's understanding and teaching skill.

    Actual mileage may vary.

    We do need to be responsible for our own practice and not depend on others. Particularly necessary is two things:

    1. Develop you own voice. I heard too many of Eido Shimano's Heris sounding just like Eido. There has to be wrong !!! I "know" it.

    2. Not be afraid to explore the practice, one needs to give oneself permisiion to go beyond one's initial style's conscious and unconscious rigidities. Your writings about using less and less incense and doing less bowing provides an illustrative case in loin.

    "Can I get a towel and a glass of water, please?"


  4. Thanks for taking the time, making the effort. I mean that literally, not as a blow-off. If it works for you, then go for it.

  5. I'm for not waiting 20 years. I'd like to think that every time my butt hits the zafu i've quit something if not everything, zen included. It's more of an aspiration than a perfect practice mind you. lol