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Monday, January 26, 2009

Why I Chose Zen Buddhism.

When we practice zazen [Zen Meditation] our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say "inner world" or "outer world," but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door.

The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe," the "I" is extra. There is no you to say "I." What we call "I" is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no "I," no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

James: I often am asked why I chose Zen Buddhism over the other Buddhist traditions. I have written about this before but I'd like to write about it again, however, hopefully from a bit of a different angle. I respond well to the stripped down nature of Zen Buddhism as seen in this quote by the Zen legend Suzuki. I was raised in a very dogmatic religion and found it to be less helpful and I think that past experience led me in part to Zen, which (in my view) the least complicated form of Buddhism. For me it demystifies Buddhism and does a great job of focusing on the basics of Buddha's Dharma.

As well as the focus on Zazen (meditation) because that is something that I can easily understand and implement. I continue to study the sutras and canons and I certainly do not want my readers to think that I don't value them at all nor think them necessary to understanding Dharma because they do overall offer essential wisdom. That said, I find it more valuable in my personal practice to spend more time meditating than doing rituals (thought I find some ritual to beneficial) and keeping track of deities except as archetypes. I also like that Zen (in my view) is a bit more flexible in regards to dogma.

I find great success in Thich Nhat Hanh's style of Zen, which gets back to the very basic teachings of Buddha such as focusing on one's breath (as mentioned by Suzuki) while meditating and extending that formal meditation practice to everything that I do. So that mindfulness is the center of my practice, which cuts through the fat so to speak to better enable self-awakening. In my practice I have found that focusing on living in the present moment is where the essence of Buddhism flowers like a lotus.

I like that Buddhism has many flavors because it is more proof to me that karma is indeed apart of our lives. I believe it is this varied karma that, in part directs us toward one school of Buddhism over another. I'm currently reading the new book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "Becoming Enlightened" for a review and he speaks about these different variations in Buddhism.

When teachings at particular students are examined as a body of work, it is possible for their surface of literal meanings not to be in agreement, since their purpose is to help in ways appropriate to a student's current situation. Buddha himself sometimes taught this way, based on a trainee's need.

He also has some real gems of wisdom in warning against a stubborn, strict adherenace to dogma:

For a teaching to be a suitable source of refuge, it must pass the scrutiny of reasoned reflection and must be highly beneficial. A famous Chilean scientist told me that a scientific researcher should not be attached to science, and I believe that in much the same way a Buddhist should not be attached to Buddhist doctrine as such, but instead should value teachings and teachers that can bear investigation into their validity. The scientific attitude and the Buddhist approach are the same in this case.
Now, of course some dogma is essential to maintaining a religion but I have personally found that a little goes a long way. Remember though that this is my personal experience, I'm not a sanctioned teacher nor a Buddhist scholar but have seen the damaging effects of a heavy handed dogma.

So while I am a Zen student I find much to agree with in these two quotes from the Dalai Lama as well as from many of the great Theravadan teachers. I think all traditions of Buddhism have something essential to offer the others. I don't think that there is one form that is "superior" to any other but again that the variations are there to take into account our different karma, life experiences and socio-economic-cultural differences.

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Ted Bagley said...

Can you give some examples of how Zen is less dogmatic than other schools?
What "flavor" of Buddhism did the Buddha choose?
Is there another side to the Suzuki quote at the top? If so, can what he said really be agreed with on it's own.

Ted Bagley said...

I'm sorry, one more.
You said there was much to agree with in the D.L quotes. What in them would you disagree with?

release_in_extremity said...

hey james,
interesting post. i practice vipassana meditation. is that different from zazen?

Paul said...

You never fail to inspire me with your posts.
I am just beginning my journey into Zen so reading this blog is great. I have learnt so much directly and indirectly from reading here. Somethings you have said I have gone off and researched further.

I've been flipping coins about which school of Buddhism to settle on and this blog gets a karma token towards my final decision.

I like TNH style Zen. I was drawn to it when I read his 5 Mindfulness Trainings

It felt a bit more modern to me. It kinda takes a little mysticism out of the a good way.

The Buddhist Conservative said...

The proof of the effectiveness of the Buddhist practice, regardless of flavor, is the simple fact that it is still a force after more than 2500 years. A concept with this kind of longevity was bound to develop as different cultures adopted the basic principles of the practice.

While the sutras are important for understanding the dharma, I agree that the practice itself is what will ease our suffering.

I practice in the Theravadan tradition mostly due to the fact that it was what I was exposed to first. I agree that each tradition has something to offer and practicing any form will be helpful.

It is rare to find a Buddhist who rejects someone who does not practice the same tradition as doing so would go against the principles of Buddhism in general.


Barry said...

Thank you for your efforts, James!

Alice said...

Thanks for your post. It's always nice to know the background to how one ends up on one's particular path. I agree that the various schools are there for people of all walks of life to find personal connection to the teachings - that helps mega. And as you've mentioned, the Buddha taught in many different ways according to his audience.

My main practice is the Mahayana of Tibetan Buddhism (have not ventured into the Vajrayana thus far, although that's still the Mahayana). But I also love sitting with, practicing with, and learning from other schools, and visit zendos and Theravadan gatherings. I love LOVE Suzuki Roshi, TNH, and ZM Seung Sahn in particular, along with all the great Tibetan masters past and present.

I would say my personality gravitates more toward Zen, and I have considered switching a few times, but I've grown to love and appreciate the warm, playful, intuitive, oftentimes wild style of Tibetan Buddhism - especially the crazy wisdom part!

I like 'em all!

Lawrence said...

I have also settled into Zen over the past few months for many of the same reasons, thank you for expressing it all so eloquently.

They call him James Ure said...


I mean that Zen can be less dogmatic in that it focuses less on things like the six realms and even rebirth in some context.

I have heard teachers tell students not to focus too much on what will happen after we die (rebirth) because we only have this present moment.

So in other words, our future will be established in how we spend this present moment. Thus the focus on meditation in the present moment. Rather than spending time trying worrying about which realm we will enter next, etc.

Read Page 19 in this link. It mentions how Suzuki believed Zen to be less dogmatic.

Dogen was leery of dogma:

"Dogen criticized the Zen that had become exclusive and intolerant and was tending toward rigid dogma. He pointed to shortcomings in the characteristics associated with Zen in the past, and advocated a Zen beyond Zen."

From the "Complete Idiots Guide to World Religions.":

"Explanations, scriptures and dogma are viewed with deep suspicion in the Zen tradition."

I like this quote too from author Thomas Cleary:

"Although they have been called iconoclastic, Zen masters did not oppose the practice of conventional religion, except where obsession with formalities of dogma and ritual inhibited spiritual experience of formless truth."

And from the Zen Group of Western Australia:

"Even though Zen practice traces its roots back to the Buddha, its essence remains vital and immediate, since it relies on personal encounter and not on dogma."

As for the "flavor" of Buddhism that Buddha chose. He didn't choose a tradition because he was the one who started the religion. Despite not wanting to start one but he was destined to do so. That was his karma.

I didn't meant to say that our karma alone is what leads us to one tradition over another but that since karma is involved in everything that we think, do and say that it has a major role to play in our choices.

I didn't read the whole book that this quote came from so I'm not sure what he said before it. I just thought it was a nice quote.

The rest of the post is only loosely based on the quote. I was just going to post the quote but then got the idea to talk about my personal views on Zen and why I chose to follow it.

As for what I don't like in the D.L. quotes? I like everything said in them. So I'm not sure what you're getting at with this one.


I'm no expert but I think there are only minor differences.


I'm glad that I have in some small way helped you along the path. I am helped along by my readers just as much. I appreciate the interactions.

As for TNH you should read his book, "Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life." It's simple and beautiful. It's a quick read but full of treasures. I read and reread it often.

Buddhist Conservative:

I think it is a great compliment to the Buddha Dharma that it has survived the many cultural differences that it has absorbed.


I think that learning about the other forms of Buddhism and sitting with those practitioners from time to time is good for understanding the greater sangha.

Each tradition has such a wonderful heritage and beautiful traditions. I find the many colors of Buddhism to be an inspiration rather than discouragement.

Buddhism is said to reflect life as a mirror does. So it only makes sense then to me that it is reflecting the diversity of this world it in different traditions.


You're welcome. I have found Zen to be very beneficial to modern life with the stripped down nature.

I need to simplify my life in these chaotic times and the simple style of Zen fits beautifully.

Ted Bagley said...

Definatly a lot to have questions about in these comments. I'm gonna pick as a catalyst Buddhist Conservative for now.
I'm no sure what the first paragraph is trying to say. Wars have been around for longer than 2500 years so maybe the effectiveness is misunderstood. Maybe the longevity of Buddhism is due to cultures taking what they like of it and ignoring that it's questioning what a culture is in the first place like keeping the bathwater without the baby?? The Zen flavor being designed to do just that.
Sueng Sahn said you could chant the mantra, "Coca-cola, coca-cola, coca-cola, and have the same result. So there ought to be no issue with the flavor as much as what the flavor is being used for. That being seeing how I want to keep on suffering. "Can I just bow to a thing on a table or does it have to be production of reverence on my part?" That would be a practice question.
As a Buddhist has no reason to reject someone that practices in other traditions a Buddhist does have responsibility to point out when that person seems to be using the tradition for something else based on what they say only. In my mind that's the only way to support each others practice. There is no "Personal" practice like a personal pan pizza. It's not mine. I'm merely alone with it and I'm the only one that can do it. I just need others to help confirm what I see by saying things out loud with them to hear then say the other side of what I say about it. Done through speaking which is the same as practicing with the breath.
I appreciate how Theravada focuses on the real of the mind-body connection and how it exposes a feeling of separateness, how the Vajrayana focuses on the imaginary dimension and how it exposes to a feeling of wholeness, and how Zen focuses on the symbolic by getting me to read and study more while teasing me by exposing a feeling of lack because that is only inherent in language itself. That feelings of separateness, wholeness, and lack are not what I think they are is the purpose of practice in any flavor as far as I stand. All three felling are caused by a mis-recognition of the Self. I like the notion of every student having to learn all three of those flavors.
Teachers are telling half of the story and are supposed to be challenged with the other half otherwise they're just being the parents we always wanted and didn't get. Tich Nhat Hanh is shrewd as he'll treat you as if you were a little kid if that's what you want. That takes Superman patience on his part, I think.
I'm sorry to ramble on so long, but I've heard this conversation way too many times now to go without saying something like this.
If anything in this upsets you just ask your teacher if they disagree with any of it. Please excuse my forwardness.

Ted Bagley said...

James, my comment posted after yours so about the DL quote question. In the post you wrote that you had much to agree with, but now in your comment you said you agree with all of it. I heard "much" before so I thought I might be missing something you left out of your post. No worries.
I'm sure my comment before will contrast some of what you just said.

They call him James Ure said...


Sorry about confusing you. I shouldn't have said "much" but rather, "I agree with these comments by the D.L....."

_Eiehua said...

I truly enjoy reading your blog! I was wondering if you could point out some good books for a very beginner. Any suggestions are very much appreciated! Thanks again for your post! They are always very enlightening!

anonymous said...

Buddhism is like a great tree that offers refuge from the inclemencies of existence; birth, old age, sickness, and death.

The bark of this great tree is composed of social interpretations, like Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, Forest tradition, Zen, sutras, ceremonies, and words, whereas the heart of the tree is following the breath and seeing clearly (vipassana).

Those who do finally manage to see through all of the bark are also able to use it, that is they go along with it as an exercise in non-self, in contrast to those who mistakenly think that it all has significance.

The bark serves a purpose. However, only the heartwood has significance.

moonpointer said...

Came across this notion about Zen - Zen is too simple for the complicated mind :-]

Then again, what a complicated mind precisely needs is some simplicity!


They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you very much. I'm glad that you enjoy the blog. I like writing and it's a humbling compliment that people enjoy reading what I have to write.

As for books, the first two are about Buddhism in general:

1). "The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation."

It's a great introduction from a great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He writes in a way that is very easy to understand though parts of this book can be a bit heavy reading. Overall though it's a great, great book on the basics of Buddhism.

2). "An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices."

This one's a bit more academic but still a great book, which gives a little more history into Buddhism.

I can suggest a few others but they are associated with Zen and I'm not sure if you are looking to follow that tradition. So I'd say start with those two and if you decide to go Zen then I'll be more than happy to give you a title.

There are also some great books written by excellent teachers in all the other great traditions. In fact, I'm reading one right now by the Dalai Lama titled, "Becoming Enlightened."

I'm reviewing it for a publisher so I don't know if it is out yet in all book stores but I'd recommend that one too.


Well said.

Ted Bagley said...

You can also say that a complicated mind is totally dependent on the thought of simplicity. Wanting to make things simple is a complicated en-devour. "Too simple" is simply a matter of degree. So maybe there is no such thing as a complicated mind?
Back to the earlier post- The word "nothing" has to stand in for Zen in Moonpointer's comment in order for it to be of use to anyone.

Paul said...


I have just begun my journey into Zen. I am currently reading Complete Idiots Guide to Zen Living.

I find it good as it is really basic and I think is a good base to start from. So far I am about a third of the way through and it is good.

But whatever you start from I would definitely read a book or two by Thich Nhat Hahn.

Ted Bagley said...

I curious of a comment you made earlier. What's mystical about the precepts?

Paul said...


I don't think taking over James blog with questions for me is the right thing to do. If you would like to have a conversation about what I have said then please feel free to email me.

Lori said...

Ted, I can only make inferences from your questioning and convoluted statements. I think you're saying that Zen is only one form of Buddhism that is not complete without other forms of Buddhism. Other times I think you're saying that Zen is missing the mark altogether and should be disregarded. Or, perhaps you don't feel labels should be used at all. Although if that's the case, why are we even using words here to discuss Buddhism at all? I honestly don't understand your point. Can you please simplify? While I fully acknowledge the possibility of ignorance on my part, my impression is that you are being quite hostile--forgive me, but sort of a "holier than thou" attitude. I would like to understand if that is not your intent.

Ted Bagley said...

No hostility intended.
Any ranting is hopefully done as gently as I can.
I can really only make my position more clear to me by asking for clarification of someone else's that isn't clear to me. Consider that being questioned about your thoughts could actually be a compliment to you without being forced to stroke your ego about it or mine either for that matter. I don't believe James is writing this blog to get his ego stroked (You're ding a great job, by the way!) so I think it's good to see how far his topic can go and what avenues it takes us with as much direct conversation as we can muster. Don't be so easily offended. This a blog and we're just talking after all. From my own experience being easily riled up is what a person just starting on the road needs to be looking at and is how others can support them the best. It's called patience. Paul is at an important time in his practice and feeling agitated can tell him way more than feeling good. The thought of patience is only there when there is conflict in the first place. Life is nothing but conflict. If it's not, it's fantasy. We're all alone. How do we handle that? Challenge what I'm saying if there is a problem without finalizing my intentions. The listener actually confirms the speaker's intention, so be generous. If I didn't you guys were saying good stuff I wouldn't be logging in so much.
As Buddhist practitioners our goal ought to be to speak more clearly to each other. Part of that is knowing I won't say everything that is in my head clearly to someone outside my head. It's there job as a speaking being to reflect back what is said and vise versa.
Steve Martin said that comedy is not pretty. Communication isn't either which makes it quite comedic if you think about it. Avoiding the not pretty is like making comments that don't go anywhere and then just replaced by another comment that doesn't go anywhere but everyone feels good. I'm sorry, but if that's the intent, it just isn't good practice. The world happens need us to be strong and if we can't practice that with each other than being a hermit is the only other option.
If we practice with each other than it's easier to challenge our teachers which in turn makes them better teachers!
In an earlier post when Twisted Branch got on a high horse he should have been challenged to tell what he knows instead of dismissed as being insulting. That would have been better for him and everyone else.
My statements aren't any more convoluted than anyone else's and my responses come from what I hear the other person saying or not.
Lighten up and just practice. It's hard to get off the cushion, I know.
It's a long comment, so make sure you read all of it and not just bits and pieces.


Ted Bagley said...

When I say something I usually totally believe what I'm saying to be it unless shown to me otherwise. That can sound "holier than thou", for sure, but it can also not be heard that way.

They call him James Ure said...


I certainly don't mind an on-going discussion as long as it remains civil and no personal insults occur.

As I've said often here on this blog, we can all have a constructive debate as long as we don't resort to, "You're stupid" and stuff like that.

Just a reminder of the boundaries that I place upon the blog. So otherwise, debate is welcome. However, one last thing...don't expect everyone to answer questions.

Some people don't want to engage in debates and if that is the case then they should be respected rather than chided.


Ted Bagley said...

I think a word that has a feeling of love to it is engagement as apposed to debate. Just as a question doesn't have to be answered, comments have to be allowed to be responded to if only for the practice of the one responding.
If someone makes a comment and I think it could help me I can't always put my finger on what it is so I have to pick out what it is that is unclear about it. It's the nature of speech where meaning gets in the way.
Most of the time feelings of being called stupid are only coming from our own heads when they are not implied by a statement.
Buddhism is not an isolated practice therefore we really have no choice but to let it be uncomfortable. That's what the line,"Take your practice off the cushion." is saying.
Twisted Branch was not insulting before. But I feel he was insulted in the process by assuming he was pompous without asking him to backup his statements.
It's like the DL's book in the next post. He's saying the truth of what he sees without coming right out and saying it. If he really said what he's trying to convey it wouldn't take 12,000 words and people wouldn't swallow it as well which would put his work as a whole in jeopardy. (Twisted Branch just did the other way around.) The downside is that most people don't know what he's really saying because they're ignorant of how to read so they just try to do what he says instead which really doesn't help the world much. He's a very strong guy for being so alone, I think.
Take these thoughts as you want or leave them behind.

Paul said...


I appreciate that you say I am at an early stage in my journey (specifically Zen in this context) which is of course 100% true. My decision to not enter into a 'debate' or whatever it may be labeled on James' blog is purely that I feel uncomfortable with what could be a back and forth and I would feel like I am taking over the comments page. I would welcome the debate in the correct forum (via email which you can certainly get from my blogger profile, there is a valid email address on it that is checked almost every day).

I admit my knowledge is at a beginners level specific to Zen. I will usually write in my own blog or comment here about what I know at that present moment. I am happy to learn how others feel or what their beliefs are. I will engage conversation on this blog, but what could turn into debate (and I do not see the word debate as necessarily negative) I would gladly welcome in the form of email to me or on my own blog.

Of course I don't mean this direct to you, it goes for anyone. I will gladly answer whatever I can within the context of my own comfort levels and the correct forum.


Ted Bagley said...

thank you.

Brian said...

"The Dharma Jewel is sometimes visualised as a Metaphysical Crystal with 84,000 different facets, representing all the teachings of the Buddha. Depending on our viewpoint, one or a few of these facets will reflect brightly in our direction.

When we first meet the Dharma, we are attracted to the most brilliantly reflecting facets - those aspects of the teachings that are particularly relevant to us and our problems. Most of the other facets will appear dull or oblique, or not appear to us at all, being completely hidden round the other side of the Crystal.

But other people may be attracted to those facets of the Jewel that appear bright to them but dull or hidden to us. We must be very careful before making any comparisons, because the appearance of the Jewel to our mind is entirely a result of our karma."

- The Dharma Jewel

They call him James Ure said...


Thanks for adding this. That is basically what I was alluding to in the original post mentioning the karma aspect in particular. The example of the diamond is one of my favorites because it is so powerful and easy to understand.

Chintan - चिन्तन said...

Hi James,
Thanks for the nice post! Just Curious to know about the differences among Koan, Zazen & vipassana .

They call him James Ure said...


Koan: is a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Chán (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition. A famous kōan is: "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?"

Zazen: is the type of meditation that Zen practitioners do.

Vipassana: Vipassana is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation, attributed to Gautama Buddha. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and introspection. In English, vipassanā meditation is often referred to simply as "insight meditation".

Those except the Zazen definition all came from wikipedia. I hope that helps.

gary said...

Hi James,
I have discussed these ideas many times too as it is something that is very different in Buddhism that other religions - different flavours of Buddhism are never "wrong", just different. I am reminded of something I heard that heresy in Buddhism is defined as someone who breaks the vinaya - the rules of conduct. So it is that how we live treat other people is more important in Buddhism than doctrine. Can't remember where i read it though...

Mark Foote said...

Hi, all,

thanks to James for encouraging discussion, and to all the participants for heart-felt remarks.

I feel a lot of sympathy for Ted, in that I also have a sense of urgency and of the uselessness of preserving institutions for the sake of preserving institutions. Am I making sense- I mean that the actual historical teachings get obscured over time, and reworked to conceal the imperfections of the teachers and the incompleteness of their teachings.

An example would be the division of Mahayana and Hinayana. If I can believe A.K. Warder in "Indian Buddhism", the schism was a result of the failure of the schools to agree on whether or not an arahant could have a wet dream ("have erotic dreams due to visitations by goddesses", pg 216). The idea for me is to be mindful that we have especially now in 2009 an amazing body of ancient teachings, many of which attempt to describe a linear approach to a wholistic experience in strikingly similar ways, and we have the opportunity to be a part of the science if we can find the framework in which all these pieces fit.
yours truly, Mark

Another Buddhist said...

Hi everyone

Some great posts here and all at a prudent time for me as I am in between traditions.

My main issues are in the MO of practice. For example, Tibetan methods describe an analysis of the nature of 'self' and how it appears to the mind. This will ultimately result in the emptiness of 'self/I' being clear yo the mind.

My understanding of Theravada & some Zen schools (Soto) look upon analysis as putting more 'stuff' in the mind - thus taking us away from the goal (as it were).

So, question is - which method is right. They simply can't both be right, no matter how new agey' we'd like to be.


Another Buddhist said...

I gather this blog is no longer used ...pity.

They call him James Ure said...

Another Buddhist:

I think it comes down to what feels best for you. What works best for you. Try them all on for awhile and see what fits your karma best. :)

El Dharmarado said...

Great post thanks for sharing this I agree completely about becoming to dogmatic. I reminds that Buddha's first teaching before the four noble truths was "don't believe anything unless you can prove it to be truth"


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