Why Can't Zen Buddhism Find an Online Home?
By Gary Ray, 1995
Zen Buddhism is believed to be the predominant form of Buddhism
in the West, with some estimates claiming that Zen Buddhists comprise
up to 40% of the Western community. So why can't Zen find an appropriate
online home to match its home in the hearts of Westerners?
It's not because there aren't enough Zen forums. There's the alt.zen
Usenet newsgroup, the ZENDO listserv, two BBS echomail conferences
on the BodhiNet and DharmaNet networks and a slew of Zen conferences
on The Well, America Online and CompuServe. Despite all these forums,
Zen discussions tend towards amateur koan practice, perpetrated
by message writers who respond that "everything is emptiness" or
constant reference to "oak trees in courtyards" or "dried shitsticks."
Worse yet, discussions occasionally revolve around flower arrangement,
tea ceremonies or the finer points of rock gardening. It is rare
indeed, to see a debate regarding the finer points of Zen practice,
doctrine or history.
At first I thought the problem was because these conferences were
poorly moderated. Alt.zen and the commercial online services often
fall victim to "drive by flamers," those who stop in for a moment
and shoot their mouths off with meaningless epithets designed to
incite a negative response, or at least stop meaningful discussion.
ZENDO is only slightly better, and if you can slog through the many
messages to the moderator to SUBSCRIBE or UNSUBSCRIBE, you can occasionally
find a few gems of wisdom. The echomail networks have the highest
quality of posts, however they aren't immune either. Also, "traffic"
is extremely low and you may wait many days for a discussion to
develop (if it ever does).
Even the best of these forums were falling prey to Zen drivel, so
I realized the problem was not with the forum administration, it
was in the general attitude of its participants. This lack of quality
and insight seems to be caused by three particular problems, not
necessarily unique to the online world of Zen. Attachment to emptiness,
Zen without Buddhism and an inaccurate portrayal of Zen in popular
culture all combine to undermine meaningful Zen dialogues.
Attachment to emptiness is so common that the term "Zen sickness"
is often used to describe it. Sufferers of this
malady run around telling you that "everything is empty" and nothing
really exists. In discussions, when these people don't know the
answer to a question or don't know how to pursue a meaningful dialogue,
they often resort to their emptiness claim to stifle conversation,
or worse, appear wise. A recent discussion in alt.zen was composed
of a someone asking where the Zen was in the discussion group, since
everyone seemed to be ranting and raving about new age teachers
and Hindu philosophy. The response to his question was overwhelming,
as many people slyly informed him of the "emptiness" of the conference.
Heck, it doesn't have Zen because it's empty. True emptiness
represents a lack of permanent form, pregnant with potential for
unlimited growth and development. The emptiness discussed in these
conferences is a growth impediment, since discussion immediately
stops when the emptiness word is used. A response one of my Zen
teachers often used when confronted by an emptiness spouter was:
"Does emptiness feel pain?" This is especially effective when brandishing
a big Zen stick (or listserv software).
Zen without Buddhism is the second problem that impedes discussions.
In the vein of Toni Packer and Charlotte Beck, many discussion participants
think that Zen is some separate "way," divorced from its roots in
Buddhism. I visited Charlotte Beck's center several years ago and
rather than a Buddha on the alter, there sat a rock. This is the
world of Buddhism without the Buddha. What happens when Zen is removed
from its context and its support in Buddhism? It becomes a technique
_ either for relaxation or for enhancement of the ego to protect
oneself from reality.
Zen divorced from Buddhism is nothing. It lacks the moral foundations,
the base, that is necessary for spiritual advancement. Meditation
(which is the meaning of "Zen" after all) is only one of the Eightfold
Paths or Six Paramitas. Steven Echard Roshi writes that "Such people
think that you can extract the essence out of Zen Buddhism, dilute
it to infinitesimal levels, and still possess the same thing." The
result in online discussions is that there's very little left to
talk about when Buddhism is removed from the picture. There's sitting,
and then there's, well, sitting. Actually these people spend enormous
amounts of time trying to explain "enlightenment experiences," the
brass ring of the Zen student whose Buddhist foundation is removed.
The inappropriate portrayal of Zen in popular culture is really
an extension of this second problem. In popular culture, Zen becomes
divorced from its Buddhist context and worse, it even loses its
inaccurate representation as a meditation technique. Zen becomes
an expression for any event that somehow had a synchronistic effect
on the speaker. Zen changes form from a noun to a verb, and gets
used to describe the proper way for motorcycle maintenance, creative
management, internet navigation, and a variety of unrelated topic.
The word "Zen" in the title seems to illicit a popular response
that increases market share. In online conferences this "popular
understanding," or what Zen master Seung Sahn calls "Common People's
Zen," is used as a springboard for discussing just about anything,
but preferably something from Japan - since it sounds more romantic.
Most of these problems can be fixed with a simple remedy. Just refer
to Zen as Zen Buddhism. Whenever you use the word Zen, put Buddhism
after it. If it sounds funny, the word Zen is probably being used
inappropriately. Try it: Zen Buddhism and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance. Gosh, the clouds were still and I had this experience
of oneness with everything,; it was very Zen Buddhism. The problem
of Zen divorced from Buddhism can be solved by placing meditation
in context. Think of Zen as a link in the practice chain. If you
sit in zazen, divorced from the rest of Buddhist practice, I'm afraid
it's not Zen Buddhism.