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Is Zen Selfish? - ordinary_mind
December 15th, 2003
09:55 am
[ouroborous]

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Is Zen Selfish?
[crossposted from my journal]

That's something I was thinking about on my way in to work.

An LJ friend recently posted that they were considering a change in religion because, among other things, Zen seemed very self-centered.

This engendered a number of reactions in me. First was indignation and a desire to be snippy -- Zen is, after all, the one "flavor" of Buddhism that I most commonly identify with.

Another reaction that I had was incredulity; Zen is just one tiny, tiny branch on the tree of Buddhism. There are other traditions that focus differently. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, has compassion and service to others as one of its primary tenets. Perhaps try that, rather than abandoning Buddhism entirely.

But above and beyond this, it got me to thinking. Is Zen selfish?

On a surface level, the question is patently absurd -- Zen can no more be selfish than an aluminum can or the doctrine of logical positivism can be selfish. Only people, not things or ideas, can be selfish. But does Zen inherently lead to self-centered behavior?

Again, no. I think that any interpretation of Zen that leads to self-centered behavior is a wrong understanding. Among other things, all flavors of Buddhism teach that ego-self (which is the only part of us that can be selfish) is illusory. Buddhism teaches that all suffering arises from ego-self grasping and clinging. In fact, for Zen to be selfish, it would have to be going completely, 100% against the tenets of Buddhism.

That being said, there's Zen, and then there's Zen, and then there's Zen. What I mean by this is that "Zen" is not one contiguous, monolithic whole. There exist two major schools of Zen in the U.S. -- Rinzai and Soto. The differences between them are both profound and subtle, but I think that neither of them preaches selfishness. In fact I can pretty much state with authority that neither Rinzai nor Soto Zen believes that selfish behavior is a good thing.

So what is this Zen that's selfish?

Funny you should ask.

I'm reading a book by the rather amazing writer Chogyam Trungpa called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Very good book so far.

The premise of the book is this; spirituality, like anything else, can become a game or a tool that's used for ego-gratification, rather than for proper progress towards an Awakened Mind.

I rant and rave (a lot ;) about how so many people believe that satori/awakening/enlightenment will give them super powers or special abilities. I complain about those who like the "spooky" "mystical" "Eastern" flavor of Buddhism, but don't give a damned bit of thought to what it really means. I hate Hollywood Buddhism, which either focuses on it as an adjunct to martial arts, or shows Buddhists as superheroes, or makes us believe that the whole thing is a sham just designed to get us laid, or lower our cholesterol.

Chogyam Trungpa has some similar cautions. Of course, being a lot wiser than me, instead of ranting and raving, he gently cautions. He warns how easy it is for spirituality to become a tool of ego rather than a vehicle towards a greater understanding of and connection to the universe and all other human beings.


We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to "me," a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciation of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path.


From what I've seen, this "spiritual materialism" is rampant in our Western practice of Buddhism. This is not because Westerners are defective or lazy. It's probably because there aren't enough voices speaking out against lazy, self-indulgent versions of Buddhism as depicted in movies and television, and even as taught in some sanghas. I constantly fight the tendency in myself; one of the reasons I resist answering questions about Buddhism is because I don't want to become attached to the idea of being a master or guru. It would be all too easy to listen to the siren's call of this spiritual materialism and use the trappings of Buddhism to further my own self-centered needs.

So I think the answer to the question of "is Zen selfish" is -- drumroll -- it depends. Zen (all Buddhism) as practiced in America is often a very selfish thing. It's all for show. It pays lip service to compassion and humility and ego-renunciation, but in truth wants none of those things. It exists to further and stroke the egos of its practicioners, not as a legitimate path towards an awakened mind.

Thus we have "Buddhists" who will happily lie, or steal, or have inappropriate sexual relations, or gossip, or slander, or use intoxicants, and who don't allow themselves to feel the cognitive dissonance of realizing that this is not Buddhism at all. Zen can become simply a form of mental calisthenics -- a way to develop better focus or lower your blood pressure -- and it strays from its roots, from the bodhisattva path. The bodhisattva is one who has awakened his mind and has access to nirvana (or nibbana), but who has renounced nirvana until all beings are awakened. He refuses to live in that exquisite state, until we can all be there. Spiritual materialism, on the other hand, grabs greedily at this perceived state of ecstasy, happily trampling on others all around in a race to "get to the top."

The sad thing about this is that this will never work. As long as you're pursuing "enlightenment" or nirvana for your own needs and goals, you will never, never reach it. It's that simple. Once you want your awakening because, through it, you can be of service to all men -- not for your own selfish needs -- then you may have a shot. Even so you can't cling to it. You must practice the precepts -- living morally, avoiding harm, practicing compassion, avoiding inappropriate sexual relationships, avoiding intoxicants, and so on -- with no expectation whatsoever of "achieving" something or "gaining" something. If you want to "gain" enlightenment for your own aggrandizement, you never will.

I have to stop myself and examine my motivation here. Whenever I see or hear someone denouncing another's path, I have to wonder why they would do this. Is it just for their own feeling of superiority, or is it legitimately because they fear the other is stumbling into dangerous error?

I hope that my motivation is the latter here. I hope that people realize that Zen -- all Buddhism -- is not a selfish path. That some people (here and everywhere in the world, for that matter) do and always will "practice" Buddhism because they want to be praised, admired, and sought sexually. They "believe" in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path because they think it will make them sexy, mystical, or give them the power to peer through others' clothing.

It won't. It never will. And doing this reduces the ability of the path to help others, because they are distracted by this spiritual materialism from focusing on a true path of spirituality.

No, Zen isn't selfish. But many, many people practice Zen and other flavors of Buddhism for essentially narrow, selfish reasons. It's a pitfall we ALL have to look out for, but it's not a pitfall specific to Buddhism, nor should it keep us from earnestly following a spiritual path.

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 15th, 2003 10:12 am (UTC)
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Something like that said the Man from Delmonte
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From:ouroborous
Date:December 15th, 2003 10:12 am (UTC)
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*laugh*

Why say in three words what you can say in three hundred, eh?
From:nymnees
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:02 am (UTC)
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I think (and I know I often paraphrase some of what you already say) that the crux is really intention. One of the reasons I like the Tibetan path is because it focuses any benefit of enlightenment to the benefit of all sentient beings. The mantras and compassion exercises are all for the benefit of others. One magical, nice byproduct is that we also benefit from thinking of others and genuinely extending compassion to all sentient beings… But that’s not the point.

I think it's of utmost importance to examine any religion or "good deed" with the motives being the primary focus. Are we honestly trying to be good people and help others, or are we doing as you list above, trying to gain some sort of personal benefit? And further more, as you ask, I have to stop myself and examine my motivation here. Whenever I see or hear someone denouncing another's path, I have to wonder why they would do this. Is it just for their own feeling of superiority, or is it legitimately because they fear the other is stumbling into dangerous error? it's really not important - our jobs are not to weigh the legitimacy of another's practice or intentions. It's not our place to even wonder.

Our only job is to do the best we can for others, by example, and doing the best we can each day, moment by moment. That's the beauty, and that's the truth... Anything else, well, it just gets in the way. It’s really just a fine veil between pure and clouded, and I’m not entirely certain that anyone has it down pat. The thing I hope for is to do the best I can in the way I know how, and when I learn something more to do for others, I add that into my practice. I may never attain enlightenment. But that’s ok by me. I’d rather help people feel better and have that benefit pass on to others.



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From:ouroborous
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:11 am (UTC)
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Intention is indeed the differentiator.

I do think that attempting to talk about what we know is worthwhile, as long as the motivations are pure.

I think that Buddhism and Zen in particular can be vehicles towards greater happiness and contentment, and it makes me sad to realize that their misuse can deter others from trying them out or staying with them.

So, to take what you've said to heart, it's also important to realize that not everything that has the same appearance as something selfish, IS selfish.

Take two people performing the same action. They are both telling a Buddhist practicioner that he's not practicing right, and they both attempt to correct the student's practice.

One, however, is doing it from a viewpoint of personal aggrandizement -- he wants to be the master, he needs to feel superior, he wants to demonstrate how he knows the 'truth' and the poor, deluded student is clueless.

The other sees the student stumbling into an error or pitfall, and wants to show the student the problem, for the student's own benefit.

We can never change another, and all attempts to do so are fruitless. A master that tries to "force" his students to "straighten up and fly right" is performing an exercise in futility, and probably acting in ego. However, someone who shares something they've learned in an honest desire to help others, is not accruing negative karma.

So -- we equally have a responsibility to talk about and share what we've learned with others. It's true that some may see this as arrogance, but that's their monkey; they need to feed it themselves.

Let me make an analogy. An old lady is crossing the street. You see a bus speeding towards her, obviously not slowing down.

Do you say "oh no, that poor old lady. Well, that's obviously her karma -- it's not my place to interfere?" Or do you run out there and try to carry her to safety?

Inaction is not a virtue :)
From:nymnees
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:22 am (UTC)
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I didn't say anything abt inaction - and I think that the bait is "obviously in a situation where anyone would be harmed" you'd want to help - but that again is a slippery slope.

Would you stand by and let the little lady get trampled because to save her would be an ego boost and you don't want to be associated with a good deed? Would that in itself be ego? Would it be right action to let her get run down? Personally, I don't think so.

It's a round-about topic, and all I have to say is go on right action, and right speech, and check your own intentions.

I think that people who "do Zen" for their own benefit, purely in the quest of enlightenment, because "wow! I'd be enlightened!" are missing the boat.
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From:ouroborous
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:31 am (UTC)
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Ok, I'll stop arguing with that -- I agree :D
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From:jin_shei
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:33 am (UTC)
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Thats the same reason I love tibetian buddhism :)

*beams*

LBF
From:nymnees
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:35 am (UTC)
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That's why I didn't like Zen - it just seemed pointless to me - the koans, the hours of sitting - what for? I mean, what does that practice do? I just wasn't feelin it. And I knew that I'd been attracted to Tibetan from several years ago, so when I truly investigated the differences, it seemed a better way for me.
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From:spazzychic
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:53 am (UTC)
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Awesome then! Thankfully, unlike some flavors of christianity, they don't compete for membership. Find your own :)
From:nymnees
Date:December 15th, 2003 12:22 pm (UTC)
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right - I mean, who cares? Really like Tom was saying above - it doesn't matter which "brand" of path you choose (Baptist, Buddhist, Islamic, Catholic, Methodist, Wiccan) as long as you do what's fitting for you - and if the boot fits...
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From:spazzychic
Date:December 15th, 2003 12:30 pm (UTC)
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If the boot fits, buy that Prada goodness! *smiles* I love long conversations which act like they have disagreements when they really don't :)
From:nymnees
Date:December 15th, 2003 12:38 pm (UTC)
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feh. I'm keeping to myself now.
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From:ouroborous
Date:December 15th, 2003 12:48 pm (UTC)
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Please peek at my LJ.
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From:spazzychic
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:54 am (UTC)
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copy of my comment from the other post

Lots of time and effort is taken on self improvement, meditation and introspection. I can see why it might be considered selfish, considering much energies are put towards self, but it's not selfish in the typical dictionary sense.

That being said, every religion has it's dinkum yahoos which do it wrong, (Such as being buddist for Kung Fu, Levitiation or personal gain) and give the rest a bad name. Perhaps this person has run into some of them?

In the end I hope this friend finds a niche somewhere she can make peace and be joyful, wherever it may be.
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From:ouroborous
Date:December 15th, 2003 11:55 am (UTC)
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As do I. That's the "real" point, right?
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From:spazzychic
Date:December 15th, 2003 12:25 pm (UTC)
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Exactly right. :D
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From:whitetara
Date:December 15th, 2003 06:36 pm (UTC)

Why I Practice Zen

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"If you are traveling with a small child or another passenger in need of assistance, first secure your own oxygen mask and then assist the other person."
From:hiddenleaf
Date:January 5th, 2004 12:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Why I Practice Zen

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That's a funny right to the point quote, I like it!
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From:ouroborous
Date:January 5th, 2004 01:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Why I Practice Zen

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It's brilliant :) I agree!
From:hangedwoman
Date:December 16th, 2003 09:04 am (UTC)
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OK, it's late in the morning for me, so I just want to say a couple of quick things. I think it's my post you are referring to, and I think you really misunderstood what I was saying. Maybe I wasn't clear, but either way I'd like to correct some assumptions you seem to have made.

a) I don't intend a "change in religion", but simply to add to my spiritual practice.

b) I don't consider Zen in the least bit to be selfish. I said it was lonely. I said that I knew that would change as my practice continued, but in the meantime it's just me and the rest of the universe.

I am human, and I am recognizing my human need to put a face on the universe, or in my case, several faces. My beliefs have not changed one whit, simply the way I wish to ... communicate with the universe.
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From:cranehaven
Date:December 19th, 2003 09:57 pm (UTC)
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HAH!!!! Zen is Zen, nothing more, nothing less.

When I am selfish, Zen is selfish.


After all, as Trungpa also points out, this is a solitary path, we enter life alone and we exit alone....Did you read The Myth of Freedom [written during hte same time period as Cutting Through....
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