The Future of Zen

Interviews with experts Sojun Mel Weitsman, Steve Hagen, Jiko Linda Cutts, & John Tarrant on how Zen is evolving in the West.

Lion’s Roar
1 March 2004

Interviews with experts 

Sojun Mel Weitsman

is the abbot of the Berkley Zen Center.

In your experience, is Zen changing in the West?

Mel Weitsman: Everything is changing. Zen came to us through our Japanese and Korean teachers mostly. So we inherited a Japanese style of Zen practice that is very formal. On its other side it’s informal. So we have both sides. I think when most Americans learn the formal side of practice, they become overly strict. The informal side provides a balance, and the mature person knows how to act in the informal way. The immature student acts only in the formal way. These two sides, the formal and informal, are always there. If the practice is too formal, the people revolt and they want to get rid of the formality. So the tendency for change is towards the informal.

If you look at the Vipassana people, they’ve got the informal side down pretty well. The Zens tend to retain the formal side of practice. I think formality is important, but informality is also important. This balance will actually create the foundation for how Zen progresses.

What is informality in Zen?

The informality is that you just act like a human being. You’re not trying to get everybody to toe some kind of line. You’re not sitting in full lotus every time you talk to somebody. You act in a very informal manner and you put people at ease. You don’t stand out in some way. When you’re in the zendo, there is a formality, but within that formality there’s also an informality. So you don’t feel that you are acting in a formal way; you are simply doing the practice. One of the problems of formality is that you get to where you want every action to be perfect and you get uptight. Formality has a tendency to become rigid, so you always have to be careful that you approach the practice with softness.

The real practice doesn’t depend on the formality. The formality is a way of maintaining an informal practice that helps people to know what they’re doing, and it has many purposes. When Tassajara had a big crisis in the early 1980’s and Zen Center was faced with near extinction, the formality of the practice at Tassajara kept everything going. Even though people had doubts, and there was anarchy, just following the formality helped make everything work and helped everybody through that.

I carry on the practice in a pretty formal way, but I see myself as a bridge between what my teacher brought and what I’m passing on.

Do you feel good about the way things are going?

I feel that our Zen practice is alive and working. I feel that we have a lot of really dedicated Zen teachers and students. And the practice places are working. Each one is a little different, and nobody’s in a hurry to change things. But, little by little, things change. The Zen teachers are in communication with each other, for the most part, and that will happen more in the future, as we have a Soto Zen Buddhist Association that is coming together pretty well.

Is it meant to keep each other honest?

Well, we try to do that. Most everybody is honest. In the past we had a lot of crises—in San Francisco and Los Angeles—with sex scandals and so forth. I think that really helped to put everybody on their best behavior.

Steve Hagen

is the head teacher at the Dharma Field Meditation and Learning Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His most recent book is Buddhism Is Not What You Think.

Can you tell me how Zen has changed since it left Japan, and how it’s continuing to change in the West? Do you have a sense of how Zen has been changed by being in this culture?

Steve Hagen: It’s changed quite a bit, but there’s still an attempt to continue to express the kind of forms we inherited from the East. I’ve allowed many of the traditional forms to drop away at our center, though I think we may be atypical of most places in the country. We don’t have a Buddha statue here, for example. We have a stone. It conveys the same sense of stability, calmness, patience—all of the qualities you would get from a humanoid Buddha figure sitting there. But without any added connotation that’s going disturb people.

I’m just looking at what is helpful for people to find the way of awakening, rather than leave things in that are distracting and disturbing for people: they might get captivated by these forms, and then they miss the point.

Is something like attachment to a Buddha statue more of an obstacle in the West than it would be in Japan?

Probably. The West is predominantly a Christian culture, and most of us who’ve been exposed to Christianity believe there’s a notion of idol worship and that kind of thing. That’s a problem you wouldn’t find in Japan, I suspect.

Are there other ways in which you’ve changed or not changed the form because of the times and culture we’re in?

I’ve done very little in terms of changing any forms. Mostly I’ve allowed different forms to drop away. When I spent time in Japan, I had a chance to witness some Shinto ceremonies, and I was amazed how many elements in the Shinto ceremony were in the Buddhist ceremonies that we trained in here. It’s not that any of these things are bad or wrong, but you start to wonder why we’re doing them. While the Shinto elements may be fascinating, they’re clutter and they just get in the way. But I don’t want to fight with any of these things; I just want to get a sense of how they shake out.

My teacher, Katagiri Roshi, once said to me, “I’m Japanese, I can only show you our way. You’re American, you have to find your own way. Find your own way to dress, find your own way to do these ceremonies.” He conveyed a sense that you shouldn’t deliberately try to change or shape things, but as you’re working with them, just let them shake out and they’ll establish themselves. I’m not trying to make it Western; I’m not trying to avoid anything that looks Eastern. I’m letting it find its own expression in a way that resonates with people. There are large numbers of people here in the West who are hungry to embrace different forms of Buddhist practices, but they find it difficult to embrace things that smack of being too foreign.

But can you get to the same place?

There’s no place to go. It’s always right here. All it is really is a matter of waking up to what’s happening here. I would say you can do that more easily here if there isn’t too much clutter and distraction. Because we become fascinated by the wrong things. I saw how my own teacher had this mystique about him—it wasn’t his fault, he was just Japanese. But people would become fascinated by that alone, and they wouldn’t actually hear what he was saying. They would gaze in wonder at him. I think he felt it was kind of a barrier. The human mind is incredible in its ability to put stuff up there and then get attached to that. So you’re not really seeing what’s happening, or what’s being presented to you.

Jiko Linda Cutts

is co-abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center.

How is Zen evolving in the West?

Linda Cutts: I think when Zen and Buddhism came to the West it met feminism and psychology. So one of the things that leaps out for me in terms of how Zen is evolving is the equal inclusion of women: women’s practice, women teachers, and so forth. We’ve been including women for a while now—so much so that the newer students don’t think twice about it. Whereas those of us who started practicing in the 1960’s and 1970’s still feel the change. For example, part of the morning service is chanting the names of the buddhas and ancestors: at Tassajara, we chanted from Shakyamuni Buddha all the way down to Suzuki Roshi. It’s a male lineage. So a number of years ago we gathered the little we know of the Indian women who practiced in the order that Shakyamuni Buddha started, and named those names. That has become a standard part of the service. Now we’re adding more women’s names to the list.

Also, in the zendo at Green Gulch we have a Tara Buddha on one altar, and Shakyamuni Buddha on the other. So the room is balanced in terms of wisdom and compassion, with male and female forms of enlightenment.

Do you think that’s the biggest change?

I don’t know what I’d call the biggest. There’s also the incorporation of family practice. At Tassajara, we’ve had families practicing in the monastery, supporting each other, living there with children.

Is that unusual?

I think that’s unusual in the Buddhist world.

It’s interesting, the switch from the monastic to this lay world.

Suzuki Roshi said that he didn’t know if we were lay or priest. In Japan it was clear that in the lay tradition you donated to the temple, you had your memorial services, you had your family plot and you supported the priest. Lay people didn’t necessarily participate in zazen. But they do here. So that’s another change.

Why are you doing things differently?

Well, in the 1960’s people got word that a real Zen master—Suzuki Roshi—was living in San Francisco, and so they came to see what it was all about. They asked what he did and he said, “I do zazen every morning—you’re welcome to join.” It was fifty-fifty men and women. No one was a priest yet; you just practiced. Already that was a different thing.

Is it possible that if you don’t keep these forms, you’ll lose Zen?

I think the feeling is, Let’s sort this out like Psyche sorting her seeds. What is Japanese culture, and what are the core teachings? Norman Fischer, who used to be abbot here before me, has his own group called Everyday Zen, and he has changed the ecclesiastical garb. His group is not living in a monastic situation—they’re more in the world. So I can see that eventually we’re going to come up with something new in the West. We’re experimenting with that.

John Tarrant

is the director of the Pacific Zen Institute. He is the author of The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul and the Spiritual Life.

Maybe we need to be clearer about what Zen is . . .

John Tarrant: If someone asks you what music is, you play the piano. Zen has moves like that. Somebody could ask, “What is Zen?” and you could say, “The apple tree out front,” or, “The eyes of the homeless.” That’s a good way to touch the need behind the question, yet it’s hard to grasp straight away. So, there are methods: Zen is something you do that transforms the mind. Every day, sit down and be quiet and feel your life. Try to keep company with a koan. Check whether your heart is open when you’re practicing. That’s important. Try noticing things in the mind. Try not believing your thoughts—that might be liberating.

If there’s a “No Trespassers” area in your life where you think spiritual practice can’t go, go there anyway and Zen will be more visible to you. If you think you have to be Japanese, Tibetan, thin, married, a monk, whatever, find what in you isn’t those things and Zen will be there.

Go to the mall, and when you’re standing in line for the movies, or looking for a better shade of lipstick, I bet you can find Zen there. That might be modern Zen.

If I were shopping for lipstick, what would I be looking for if I were looking for Zen?

Are you free? Is it funny? Can you see through the forms of things? Can you really enjoy the lipstick? Is it generous?

What is free?

Well, “I need this lipstick or I will be unhappy,” would not be free. “Oh, what a cool lipstick,” would be free.

But let’s take an issue more pressing for most people: If I say, “I need you to love me” then that’s not free, right? I’m in pain. But what if I don’t need you to love me—I just love you. Or you just love me. What if nobody is expecting to get anything out of it? That’s free.

A Zen question about love might be, “What if your attempts to manipulate others to love you are the main obstacle to others loving you?” That would be bringing a koan approach into a really normal, everyday situation.

This is not common American Zen at the moment, is it?

No, American Zen is all over the place at the moment, to be honest. That might be good.

Most Zen people don’t speak about transformation of consciousness.

You can make Zen into a museum of forms. How you sit, what robes, a pre-modern Japanese aesthetic, a minimalist hideaway. You follow a prescribed way to do things and try to relax and find freedom there. A radical idea might be serving a non-Japanese kind of pickle. What happens in the mind is not important. This path has its beauty, yet it’s not to my taste.

On the other path: Zen is a method for transformation. It’s fierce, you don’t hide out, you have to appear as yourself. You want freedom, you want to understand the universe. You want to stop building the house of pain. The old masters gave us methods and hints and it’s something we can actually pull off. The earlier generations in Zen with the Beat poets had a good time. Nice to do that too.

Zen looks backwards a lot. It suffers from past success. But backwards is not where the answers will be found. The imagination is the crucial thing. It’s like those little dry sponge toys for kids. When you put them in bath water they become amazing dinosaurs. We have to supply the water for Zen. Poetry is important, dreams too. You have to really listen, to do the methods and see how they aid you in your life—in your life—not in somebody else’s life.

But isn’t there a risk of perverting the dharma by changing the form? Wouldn’t it be prudent just to stick with the dharma?

That’s like saying, Stick with the bible. Which bible? You mean the one that says we should keep slaves? The one that says that women are inferior? Plenty of that in Buddhism. Zen is methods and a few road markers, not things to believe.

In China, the Zen people hung out, joked around, meditated, tried to address common crises together. They asked themselves, How can we use koan-style thinking to help the generals to rule cities rather than burning them? Those questions hadn’t been asked in India. The Chinese cared about these things. They trusted life and didn’t just avoid it. They had to find out what worked. We have to collaborate that way now.

So what’s new?

Zen has changed a lot. There are kids and women involved, Cajun sutras, new ideas of beauty, taking account of the private sorrows that grip everyone. Meditation in action. In the streets. In basketball. Meditation in places of sorrow and holocaust. Meditation inside art installations. The kids now are interested in the beat poets and that’s good. Enlightenment is more real, embodied.

This is a lucky time for Zen. Modern culture has fabulous ideas and art that link straight to Zen. The questions that touch our lives are new or new again: How do we make the natural world sacred once more? What is enlightenment in families? What about the different kinds of love that touch everyone? As empires get more hollow and think that the exterior is all there is, how to encourage the interior life? And the old favorite, how to persuade the generals not to burn the cities.

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Lion’s Roar

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