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.