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Does Zen mean anything goes? 

Is it OK to act in any way without regard to integrity or honesty?

Does thinking you’re in the right make you right?

Apparently some people, including some who claim to be Zen practitioners, think that the answer to these questions – or should we say koans? – is yes.  You can find them on the internet, in books, on Twitter and Facebook, anywhere where they can find an audience to expound on their particular greatness and rightness.  Some of them even make the (unsubstantiated) claim that they’re really enlightened, so they know what they’re talking about!  They use Zen doublespeak to hide behind, making silly claims, like it’s all just empty anyway, to spray their poisons at whomever their target is that day, then ducking behind their smokescreen when the target responds.  Usually their target is someone who has had the audacity to suggest that maybe they really aren’t all that enlightened and that they’re actually just full of themselves rather than empty of nature.

It’s a sad spectacle, one that no doubt causes real Zen masters to bristle their shaggy eyebrows.  It is obvious these people just use Dharma to defend their own pathetic egos rather than what it was intended for, to root out the poisons in one’s mind.  They seem to think that because they label it “Zen”, it gives them carte blanche to do or say whatever they want.

Let’s see what a real Zen master has to say about that notion.  Here’s what Dogen Zenji, perhaps the greatest of them all, had to say in an essay entitled Shoaku makusa (Not doing wrong action):

The primordial Buddhas are saying,

“Not doing wrong action,
Sincerely doing every kind of good,
naturally clarifies this mind.
This is the Teaching of all the Buddhas.”

This is the universal precept of the Seven Buddhas, our Founding Ancestors, and is truly transmitted by earlier Buddhas to later Buddhas and is received by later Buddhas from earlier Buddhas. It is not only the Teaching of the Seven Buddhas but of all the Buddhas. This principle must be investigated and mastered through practice.

Doesn’t quite sound like anything goes, does it?  Perhaps these people should just shut up and get back on their zafus for a while; a long while.

And then there’s another koan.  Why can’t Western Dharma students keep their vows?  Any vows.  Monastic vows.  Lay vows.  Tantric vows.  Whatever.  It’s a big problem.  Of course, one could just say it’s Kaliyuga.  It’s a very difficult time to hold vows.  Karma ripens very swiftly at this time, so it’s difficult.  Even Asian Buddhists have a hard time holding their vows nowadays. 

But Westerners seem to have a particularly hard time with this one.  Perhaps it’s because of our culture.  We’re not taught that upholding vows is of any value.  Look at marriage vows in the West.  More people end up getting divorced than stay married.  Many do it more than once.  There is no cultural stigma attached to those who break vows.  It’s that old “if it feels good, do it” mentality.  Vows become just words, and holding those vows just doesn’t seem important.

Or maybe it’s because there’s too much stimulation going on in samsara right now.  We are continually bombarded with sensuality and sexuality in both overt and subliminal ways every day, whether we’re watching TV or going shopping or reading a magazine or listening to the radio or just driving down the road.  We can’t get away from it.  So we’re constantly being tempted to break whatever vows we hold so we can get some sort of temporary (usually very temporary) rush.  We figure we can always feel guilty about it later.  Oh well!

Or maybe, to get real, it’s a lack of spiritual honesty and self-integrity that is the real cause.  It takes a great deal of effort to hold vows.  Maybe we just don’t have what it takes to do it.  We don’t really want to make the effort.

And then, to follow that road a little more, why then, when they break their vows, do they turn on their Guru and try to destroy them?  It happens time and time again.  Something in the student breaks, they abandon their robes or their lay vows, they flee the teacher, the temple, the sangha, and then they start attacking.  They attack the very one who showed them nothing but love and concern, the one who returned to samsara for the sole purpose of liberating them and all sentient beings.  Why would they do that? 

Perhaps, as we have discussed before, it is a case of transference.  They are so horrified at what they have done that they can’t face it, so they project it onto the teacher because they know, down deep, that the teacher will never reject them.  Through their deluded logic, they think that the teacher is a “safe” target, one that won’t bite back.  So they turn the self-hatred they feel outward onto the only one who truly loves them unreservedly.  It’s crazy, it’s sad, it’s so deluded, but most of all it’s creating the causes for tremendous suffering for themselves.  That is the saddest part of all.

How much better to stay the course no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem at the moment.  Our true nature is nothing to fear.  It is the source of all happiness and peace.  It is only when we move away from discovering the truth of our being that we make ourselves suffer.  Pray for us, pray for us all.


Coming, going, the waterbirds
don’t leave a trace
don’t follow a path.

–Dogen Zenji

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