In an entry on sameoldzen.blogspot.com, Sensei Alex Kakuyo addresses the question, or more accuratly, makes the statement: “Western Buddhism is dying”.
Kakuyo describes himself as,
“an ‘elder millennial’. In other words, I’m old enough to remember a childhood without the internet and smartphones, but I’m young enough to know the difference between Tik Tok and Twitter.
I’m old enough that if I tell someone, ‘I’m a grown man, don’t talk to me that way,’ they’ll listen. But I’m still young enough that anyone over 50 is my elder, and I bow respectfully to their wisdom.”
The reason I mention this is due to the fact that, in my view, I parallel this description, and although my opinion aligns with his, it also has differing aspects that I would like to discuss. I find myself also asking this question and running up against the same queries that he addresses here. I want to thank him for bringing these thoughts to light, as well as thank him for his transparency.
Kakuyo makes a distinction to his age in a successful attempt to drive home the fact that ponderings such as, “retirement planning and ‘settling down'” along with “questions like dying, the loss of old friends, and how to live a purposeful existence” are real pieces of business and are not “abstract ideas”.
He raises an interesting statement wondering “why there aren’t more people my age in Buddhist temples” considering the fact that “these are questions that Buddhism has answers successfully” for quite some time now.
Kakuyo disassembles the facade that, “some people chalk this up to a lack of spirituality in my generation.” By making a point that, “when I did my certifications in breathwork and meditation, the classes were packed with people my age and younger.” By sharing his experience that although many certification classes are packed with participants from younger generations, “meanwhile, I’m always the baby in the room when I go to Buddhist centers that teach meditation and mindful breathing for free.”
Why is this so? Why are individuals from younger generations not staying or returning after visiting traditional dharma centers, zendos and sanghas? Yet yoga studios, massage parlors that provide reiki services and clinicians that extend mindfulness as part of their treatment plans experience increasing membership and clientele?
“If we do choose to look at this issue; working to keep Dharma alive in the west, there are three things that we need to contend with” Kakyuo refutes.
His answer is the following:
“The attitude I generally experience at Dharma centers can best be described as, ‘We won’t kick you out, but we don’t really care if you stay.’ I walk in and stand around awkwardly with other people milling around, making a point to not make eye contact with me.
If I’m lucky, someone will tell me where to put my shoes, and then we all shuffle into the meditation hall where I have to look at the person standing next to me in order to know what to do from one moment to the next. After the service, there’s more awkwardness while people continue to not make eye contact with me, and then we all go home.
I’ve spoken to other people who’ve had similar experiences when they’ve walked into new centers. And I’m wondering why that’s the case. It probably goes back to the old Zen stories of pupils having to prove themselves by cutting off body parts before they could sit with a teacher. I think there’s a place for that. I think there’s a place for making people fight for things; even if that fight is just standing alone in the zendo while everyone else goes about their business.
“But that’s not a helpful attitude if we want people to become active members of our sanghas. It’s especially not helpful when people can go to the yoga studio down the street where they’ll be offered bottled water and a Groupon as soon they enter the door.”
That difference in attitude is important. I imagine it’s the difference between someone saying, ‘I love everyone,’ vs. that same person saying, ‘I love you.’ Yes, the former includes the latter. And there’s no logical reason why both statements shouldn’t work. But they don’t, and they never will because we’re human.
And a human being will never respond to ‘I love everyone,’ the same way they respond to ‘I love you.’
We need to make people feel wanted and cared for when they come into our centers. It doesn’t need to be all hugs and kisses, but is it too much to ask for newcomers to be greeted at the door and offered a tour of the meditation hall? Yes, I know the beginner’s class is on Friday, and they foolishly showed up on a Wednesday, but why can’t someone walk them through the forms before class begins?
Frankly, a lot of problems could be solved if we got off our high horses and treated newcomers with respect, and not just cold politeness.”
I agree hospitality is one of the key elements for retainment. However, I have to say that my experience does not match what is being described here.
I do admit at the time surrounding the beginning of my journey into the stream, fear was present. I wasn’t quite aware of it, and the presence of fear did skew my perception towards the level of hospitality I was receiving entering a dharma center for the first time.
However, the practitioners at the zen center I walked into must have been a lot more aware of my fear than me and gave extra special attention to it. So much so, that I did not at all feel unwelcomed or awkward.
After a while I came to the understanding that the individuals that were positioned on the cushions had been there for quite some time and practiced regularly and frequently inside the zendo. This regularity of practice made it obvious to them that I was a newbie.
My sense now is that it was obvious to them for quite a few reasons. One, their understanding and experience with fear due to their dedicated practice made it clear to them that it was present in my actions. Two, because anyone who attends zazen practice twice a week in a formal setting knows when a new face arrives which one hasn’t seen before. Three, because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was a Southerner entering the foreign land of the Midwest and there are some obvious cultural differences in that equation.
I was extended hospitality, in fact, on my very first visit I was invited for locs and coffee after service.
I’m grateful for this welcoming, although personally, I would have stayed if I didn’t receive it, as I had a strong drive to fall into the mix with practitioners that had experience under their cushions.
And yes, there is a time and place to stay true to form and tradition. And as I frequented the center more the teachers allowed me to find my way into that particular arena if I decided. And I did. And I choose to attend weekend retreats where the container was a bit tighter. Then I found myself at a week long sesshin where dedicated form and practice is held to high standard. All for reason of course.
Protip… One does not have to participate in a week long sesshin. One can attend a dharma center for any reason whatsoever.
My experience shows me that not everyone walks into a zen center for the same reason. Nor when they stay is it for the same reasons. Tenured members allowed me to explore my reasons and others to explore theirs. Those individual reasons are supported and celebrated. The hospitality inside the centers are abundant and individuals are not held to standards. Free movement is encouraged. This is present. Always. Everywhere.
This is the information that needs to be freely communicated and available for seekers to peruse. These are words people should be able to place their eyes on more frequently. This is the attitude centers extend. These are the stories and experiences that happen more frequently than not.
This is how Dharma unfolds. Dharma means time, duty and also balance. A mind is a sleeping entity. In the sleep it dreams, and dreams accumulate images. The mind is but a limited view of the whole. The whole cannot be perceived by the mind.
There is no question of unfolding. One holds the Mind when he perceives directly without the mind. When this happens, what will he see?
“For Buddhist centers to be relevant and dare I say useful, they have to give us something we can’t find on Facebook or YouTube. They have to make us feel something, teach us something that we can’t learn anywhere else. If they can’t do that, what’s the point?
This is especially true for a tech-savvy generation like mine. Huge swathes of Buddhist scripture are available online, we can listen to Dharma talks on our smartphones, and new apps are created every day that offer guided meditations. So, what can Buddhist teachers offer that can’t be found somewhere else?
As I ponder that question, my mind wanders to the Christian church of my youth. The pastor was an older gentleman; charismatic and well-versed in scripture. I can’t remember a Sunday where he stepped behind the podium and I didn’t feel something be it fear, joy, or awe by the time he’d finished his sermon.
I remember one lecture where he was explaining how we shouldn’t be afraid to be Christian in a world that’s bent on our destruction. We were constantly being told that non-Christians were out to get us, so that wasn’t a new topic. But when he went on to explain that God would protect us if we were faithful, he stated:
“We worship a god who loves a good fight. We worship the god of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; a god who reached out his hand against the Edomites and said, ‘By my vengeance, you will know my name is The Lord!'”
Those are strong words, passionate words. Those are the type of words that make you get up and go to church on Sunday when you’d rather stay in bed. And when I was a child they were the type of words that kept me up at night, wondering if I’d upset a vengeful deity.
So, the sermon was problematic, to say the least. But the fact that I still remember it more than two decades later means something. I wonder if Western Buddhists are offering sermons that people will remember, or are we just rattling off lists and reciting koans in the hopes that people will take our opacity for wisdom?
Passion is the one thing that teachers can offer that people can’t find somewhere else. If we aren’t passionate about our work, if we don’t make people feel something before they walk out the door, why would they bother coming back?”
“Let me respectfully remind you. Birth and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost. We should all strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life!”
These were the last words that I heard a few days ago when Shunya Prajna, Lynn Hyer delivered a dharma talk after zazen.
Passionate…? Most definitely.
“I thought it was a good choice for the first 2020 talk.” Shunya mentioned. A passionate well thought out message in attempt to arise engagement and action to those sitting on their cushions that evening.
“Your problem is that you think you have time!” Vimala Muni, John Nemick interpreted, driving home the importance and timeliness of the statement that was shared that evening.
I hear messages of passion like this all the time. As I consider these messages, I have to admit, they have definitely not been sporadic and scattered throughout my life. Nor did I only start hearing messages like this after I first crossed the threshold of a zen center. Passionate messages such as this, which hold depth and weight, have been in my face my entire life. Was I listening to them?
Climate change, walls around our country’s boarder, impeachment of our president, the opioid epidemic, the possibility of a third world war to be specific. More generalized messages discussing homelessness, diminishing natural resources, uncared for children, untreated mental illness, poverty, animal extinction and persecution across the world constantly were being communicated to me. Was I listening to them?
Passion arising within myself is necessary, in my view, to relate to a message of passion. Otherwise it falls on deaf ears. But attempts are made nonetheless, in dharma centers, in the press and on social media to name a few venues.
Messages of love, hope, charity and kindness are also abundant for the taking. Passionate messages that drive me to continue on this path because change is always present. Change in the form of making progress on perceived negative aspects of this dualistic experience we exist in. Change in the form of growth and already well established progress on perceived positive engagements of life.
Passion is everywhere, abundant and available for the taking. The stage is set in particular at meditation halls near and far around the United States. The fundamental message that is taught is one of passion:
There is suffering in this world. And just as true, there is a path and the very real ability to end suffering in this world.
What’s more passionate than that?
“For theologians, praxis is religion made flesh. It’s where the high-minded philosophies of faith leaders become practical and useful in daily life. Praxis is a Buddhist teacher explaining how the practice of Right Speech can heal family relationships. It’s a student doing prostrations in front of the altar so they can learn humility. And it’s a teacher walking a class through loving-kindness meditations because they’re struggling with anger.
In short, praxis in the Buddhist-context consists of using specific Dharma teachings to solve real-world problems for our students. Buddha did precisely this in the Pali Canon, which consists largely of monks and laypeople coming to him with problems, so he could give a teaching that would help.
Sadly, this common-sense approach is becoming rare in Western Buddhist sanghas. In fact, I’ve seen teachers smile while telling students that Buddhism is a useless practice! Yes, this is correct teaching in terms of the absolute and everything being resolved in the unborn.
“But people don’t just live in the absolute. They also live in the conventional world. They live in physical bodies, and in the words of Rev. Lyvonne Picou, ‘we can’t care for a spirit without caring for a body.'”
Buddha understood this, so why is it so hard for us to comprehend? We need to be able to draw a straight line between our teachings and their application in daily life. If we can’t do that for our students, they’ll leave Buddhist centers and find someone who can. Many people my age are already doing that.
But in our defense when we go to secular meditation centers, they explain the primal stress response and design meditation templates that are designed to meet our specific needs. When we go to Buddhist meditation centers, we’re told that if we practice for thirty years, everything will become clear. For anyone who’s not already in love with the Dharma, it’s only natural that the former would be more appealing than the latter.
Buddhism has grown and changed countless times over the past 2,600 years. It has survived wars, persecution, and natural disasters. And each time it has sprung up in some new corner of the world; stronger and more beautiful than before. Now it faces a new challenge; our apathy. And it will be the job of western Buddhists to decide what happens next.”
More and more people are waking up today than every before in my eyes. Maybe I’m seeing this because I’m attempting to stay awake myself these days. Or maybe it’s actually true?
Praxis is handled quite eloquently in my experience. Maybe I’m the lucky one. Or maybe it’s readily available for everyone just as it is to myself?
Mondo Zen, is a program created with just this topic in mind. An integral part of the order that I choose to belong to. Taking meditation off the cushion, as it’s meant to be. I do not have the ability to sit on a cushion all day long. After a while I would go to the cushion for refuge. It was safe. I saw things better from that perspective. However, I realized that I was running away from everything and everyone. I have a job, responsibilities, relationships and life to attend.
On the cushion, these things I mentioned became easier to respond to instead of reacting to. How do I take my practice off the cushion? How can I take the refuge I am experiencing from the cushion into my daily affairs and interactions? I do not practice to live a life confined to a cotton stuffed three foot by three foot fabric prison. I used to think these were two separate initiatives… practice on the cushion and practice off the cushion. Now I know they are one in the same.
Modo Zen protocols help me to participate fully in what I just described.
Mondo Zen transcends the hierarchical/authoritarian, gender-biased and constraining monastic aspects of traditional Zen in favor of practical, experiential “in the world” engagement. Relying only on direct personal experience – as taught by the Buddha himself – it does not allow mythic constructs to complicate its philosophical orientation. This includes ideas such as reincarnation, soul as personality, bardo realms, past lives, a creator deity, or other faith-based beliefs. It is important that in our practice of Mondo Zen we consciously choose to set aside all such ideas at least until we have experienced, tested and evaluated for ourselves a simpler and stronger way of knowing.
Yes, there is something to be said for time, as it’s an integral factor in experience. A necessary factor in growth and development for anything one is trying to achieve is time. It allows for mistakes and the ability to try again and again from failures or backslides. A failure can be just as successful as a win. Sometimes a greater and deeper lesson is learned from failure. Things aren’t given to me in this life; I must work for them. However, while I’m working for them, individuals are assisting me in that journey, if I allow them, through support and by giving me real life antidotes. In my view life is only made up of a series of imperfections. That’s the beauty of it. Is anything we attempt achieved with perfection? The answer is yes, because it happened exactly that way!
Maybe I’m the lucky one, but again, my sense is that people everywhere are waking up more and more these days.
I’m reminded about a Teisho given by Vimala Muni, John Nemick at my first Rohatsu eight day sesshin. He eluded to this fact that more and more individuals are waking up these days.
He made the analogy to a balance scale with a very large elephant situated on one of the scale’s balance plates and a grain of rice on the other plate. He mentioned that the scale was definitely out of balance. However, masses of individuals were waking up daily and carrying a grain of rice to the balance scale with every opportunity they had.
He made an analogous depiction of the elephant being problems of the world and the grains of rice being positive actions taken to rectify them. He suggested that every time an individual extends a caring gesture to another, a grain of rice is added to the scale. That every time an individual makes a choice to not be wasteful, a grain of rice is added to the scale. That when one takes time to grow individually a grain of rice is added to the scale. He said, “that elephant is being lifted by all the grains of rice. Little by little. Inch by inch.”
Practice inside a dharma center is simple. All one has to do is sit there. However, this is extremely difficult. It is the most difficult work one can engage in in my opinion. That’s why I believe it’s a task to keep individuals coming back. That’s why this practice is referenced as “against the stream.”
This work, even though difficult, is the most important work that one can take part in… Personal growth. It’s difficult to just sit and see. It’s scary, it’s hard, it’s amazing, it’s the most wonderful thing.
People will visit and not come back… for many reasons. Hospitality is extended, passion is abundant and praxis is interwoven. The stage is set. Dharma centers everywhere have this figured out. Yet, people will not return. For no other reason than they just won’t. This is not reason to not focus on these three initiatives and improve upon them.
“Even those who have practiced meditation for just one sitting, will see all their twisted karma erased. Nowhere will they find twisted paths, but the pure land will be near at hand.”
And when they come once, we have done our job and have made the world a little bit better. If they never come, we have done our job and have made the world a little bit better. If they stay, we have done our job and have made the world a little bit better.
“Even spiritual life and practice are fundamentally empty.” Buddhist practice is interconnected to all. It is in everything we do. It is all that there is.
Dharma practice is participating in a sangha and meditation center. Yet at just the same time that has nothing to do with it.
People all over the world are dharma practitioners without even knowing it, without even having stepped foot inside a dharma hall. To frequent a zendo is not necessary. The do-gooders that walk the face of this Earth for example, without setting foot inside a meditation hall are dharma practitioners. The ex-addict that helps others find their way to a healthy life. The farmer that provides sustenance by using safe practices with her stock. The man, retired from military service, whom makes a commitment each and every day to find stillness. The one who has a particular interest in felines and gardening and uses that knowledge to make the world we live in a better place in ways too numerous to mention. And, the old grand-paw that dedicates the remainder of his life to helping people achieve this view. And, the only reason he is successful in doing so, is because he has experienced failure and successes on the path already and has the map which he lets others see so that they know the route to live a purposeful life and experience all the wonder that this life experience has to offer.
Is Western Buddhism Dying? YES! ABSOLUTELY! And in just the same breath it is striving and having new life breathed into it.
So walk into a dharma center and stay. Never come… Or leave. The Dharma continues to unfold nevertheless. So it is thus… And practitioners will remain. Continue to awaken. The elephant will fly!
~Kin Shin, Stephen D’Antonio
Deep bows to Sensei Alex Kakuyo for his courage to address such views. Thank you.
Cited from a blog written by: Sensei Alex Kakuyo