Dangers of Zen, Part II

Zen is about awakening, and not about experiencing any particular state, or becoming “good,” or displaying any peculiar powers.

zazen soto

Zen is about awakening, and not about experiencing any particular state, or becoming “good,” or displaying any peculiar powers. These points, which I talked about in Part I of this two-part series, are beautifully summarized by the following text by Keizan Jokin, a Japanese Zen teacher born in the 13th century.

Keizan Jokin’s “At Ease and in Harmony”*

Sometimes when you are sitting you may feel hot or cold, discomfort or ease, stiff or loose, heavy or light, and sometimes startled. The mind may feel as if it were sinking or floating; it may seem dull or sharp. Sometimes you can see outside the room, or inside the body, or the forms of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Sometimes you may believe that in this moment you have attained wisdom and now thoroughly understand all the sutras and commentaries.

These extraordinary conditions sometimes arise—just keep body-and-mind at ease and deportment in harmony. Shed worldly sentiments and do not become attached to sublime feelings about the Way. Though you should not spare the Dharma, do not speak of it unless you are asked…

Do not use the Way to make yourself important. This is the foremost point to remember. Remain always in Great Compassion and dedicate the limitless power of zazen to all beings. Maintain the vow to realize awakening—and just sit. Do nothing at all. This is the way to study Zen.

Margaret Thaler Singer’s Cults in Our Midst

Good Zen teachers can, as I mentioned in Part I, gently help us release the cravings that—over and over again—cause us to attach to experiences, feelings, or beliefs. And, as also discussed in Part I, “the good person”—the clearly advanced practitioner or teacher—can yet be drawn away from the path, coming to believe in their own superiority. They can turn into a teacher who leads their followers astray.

It’s a bit eerie and disconcerting to realize how many of our typical Zen practices are also techniques used by cult leaders as part of a gradual and insidious campaign of “thought reform.” Psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer describes the latter in her book Cults in our Midst. She mentions, for example, maintaining silence, moving and chanting in unison, and peer pressure (even in such subtle forms as following the group in removing one’s shoes). She goes on to describe displays of warmth and affection, sleep deprivation, systems of rewards, notions of special knowledge, encouragement to suspend one’s rational thought, spiritual hierarchy, and complex and ever-changing rules. The use of somewhat obscure language or phrases with changed meanings, she writes, is an additional “thought reform” technique.

If you’ve ever sat zazen, bowed with a group, walked in a kinhin line, chanted a sutra service, looked to others in the group to figure out what to do, or felt welcomed, these should sound familiar. Have you ever gotten up at 4:30 am at sesshin, received a teaching status, heard about “enlightenment,” or been encouraged to “let a talk wash over you”? Have you sat with a group that distinguishes students from various levels of teachers, or experienced screwing up time after time in oryoki or a in retreat role such as Ino or Shusho? And, of course, I just used a bunch of obscure language in describing Zen practices. If you’ve also attempted koan practice or struggled to understand the writings of Eihei Dogen, you know how far removed from typical understandings of language and logic Zen can be!

I’m even more struck by who it is, Singer writes, that cults attract. You are probably already aware that people who are lonely, depressed, isolated, or in crisis may be particularly susceptible. While we may resist the idea, that description probably fits most of us in Zen. If we weren’t desperately looking for something, why would we give up beautiful days and entertaining pursuits to spend hours sitting silently on a cushion? But the most striking to me is Singer’s insight that cults also tend to attract good, altruistic people—people who want to be on the side of the right and true, people who want to do good things, people who want to save the world. Or people who want to “save all beings,” as we chant in the Four Bodhisattva Vows. My sangha is full of good people.

If we think of cults as only those groups that isolate their members in some far-off rural compound, and lead them into sexual abuse and murder, then of course your typical Zen group is not a cult. But cults, Singer writes, come in a variety of kinds and degrees. She defines a cult as

a group that forms around a person who claims to have a special mission or knowledge, which they will share with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-appointed leader.

Some cults more mild and under-the-radar, letting members stay in their families and live apparently normal lives. Some have single leaders, while others are led by a team. Not uncommonly, the leaders will be educated, apparently rational, successful, and even professional people.

So when is a Zen group a healthy, supportive environment for Zen practice, and when has it become cultish? I believe the former do exist—though the overlap between Zen and cult practices should serve as a constant reminder to stay alert, even when in an apparently healthy group.

Singer writes that it is often hard to tell a healthy group from a cultish one because the techniques of thought reform are insidious and leave people unaware they are being controlled. People around the fringes of the group may often perceive nothing amiss at all. But her discussion can help point to some of cults’ distinctive aspects, which are not characteristics of healthy group. Some of these include:

  • Veneration of the leaders. The leaders are served by the members (rather than vice versa), and create systems of control to assure this. The members trust and rely on the leaders to an excessive degree.
  • The group “love-bombs” new recruits with excessive displays of warmth and attention.
  • The leaders and their senior followers suppress questions, member communications with each other, information from “the outside,” and dissent. People who disagree with the leaders are shunned or evicted.
  • The leaders may pressure members into making donations of money, time, and effort in excess of what is reasonable. These donations are often used for purposes that are more self-serving than those publicly expressed.
  • Singer writes that, very importantly, leaders and their elite helpers make extensive use of Orwellian doublespeak, that is, using words euphemistically or even to mean their opposite.

As I wrote about in Letting in Some Air, the Zen “school,” with which I’m associated (Boundless Way Zen) has been going through hard times. A couple of Guiding Teachers–who are very advanced Zen practitioners, very experienced teachers, and very warm and welcoming human beings–claim they have greater spiritual authority than the other Guiding Teachers. They have gotten deeply involved in the business matters of the organization, hand-picked many of the people who serve on the lay boards intended to provide oversight, and carefully managed flows of information. People who raise questions are pressured to conform or shown the door. (One of their close associates has written to me—I kid you not!—”I must insist that you…always discuss any action you propose with me first to ensure that I approve.”) Monies raised to support retreats by a larger group have been turned towards more local purposes, including providing these teachers with a comfortable, rent-free home and tidy stipends. I’ve seen plenty of doublespeak.  “Listening carefully,” for example, has been used to describe rushing to make a change with only minimal, tightly-managed discussion.  “I’ve been harmed by that person” is said when someone does not supply sufficient agreement and deference.  “Interpersonal conflict” is euphemistically applied to a situation of abuse of spiritual authority.  I could go on. Yet, when I try to draw attention to these concerns, the good people with whom I engage often just can’t believe that these teachers could be motivated by anything other than the highest purposes. What I see as valid critique, they see as unprovoked aggression. What I see as a need for accurate information, they dismiss as unnecessary quibbling.

And here I think it is very important to get back to the distinction between the goal of “being a good person” and the goal of waking up. It’s true that waking up will likely make one a better person to be around, and one who possibly does a bit less damage to the world. But if our deepest desire is to “be good” rather than to wake up, we will get in big trouble. We have a natural desire to want to succeed at our projects. We also have a natural tendency—well documented in the psychology literature on confirmation bias—to see the things we want to see, and thoroughly and unconsciously tune out the things we don’t. (I don’t claim to be any less prone to this than anyone else.) So to the extent that our deepest desire is to “be a good person,” that very craving will itself tend to block us from perceiving our shadow sides. That little gap between authentic and continual awakening and its near enemy of good-ness is enough to let in a multitude of demons. And if our desire to “be good” and “do good” involves following practices or leaders who we also need to believe “are good,” we may not be able to psychologically tolerate waking up to their dark sides.

I’m in my early 60s, and an academic, and had thought until recently that my considerable experience and training had made me a pretty good judge of character and a skilled critical thinker. And yet I’ve discovered, in regard to my Zen associations, that I’ve spent years on cruise-control, eyes mostly shut, lazily enjoying a sensation of being associated with something good, ignoring those little twinges in my gut, not bothering to look deeply into matters. It’s far from a pleasant realization.

We need to wake up.

As Keizan wrote,

Do not use the Way to make yourself important. This is the foremost point to remember. Remain always in Great Compassion and dedicate the limitless power of zazen to all beings. Maintain the vow to realize awakening—and just sit.


* From “Zazen Yojinki.” Translated by Anzan Hoshin and Yasuda Joshu Dainen; adapted and abridged. The version I’m quoting is on p. 56 of the liturgy book of Boundless Way Zen, an organization which I will very likely be soon, and with great sadness, parting ways.

Previous post: Dangers of Zen, Part I

Related posts: Letting in Some AirPostscript to “Letting in Some Air”


Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

4 thoughts on “Dangers of Zen, Part II”

  1. What an incredible post, thank you Julie. I know I am late to it, but it helped me a lot. I especially loved this part: “But if our deepest desire is to “be good” rather than to wake up, we will get in big trouble. ” Your blog is wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

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