The problem with Buddhism

I’d like to preface this blogpost by saying that the only problem with Buddhism is the three letters at the end of the word. Truth can never be confined to a belief system, no matter how venerable or refined, even though the practices and pointers it offers can help guide us on our journey.

My first Zen teacher, Kobun Chino, was considered a rebel in the highly stratified and ideologically strait-laced world of mid-20th century Japanese Buddhism. Trained at the principal Soto monastery, Eihiji, schooled at the Zen stronghold of Komazawa University, with an MA in Buddhist studies from Kyoto University, he was being groomed as a young man for a post in the Soto Zen hierarchy. Instead, Kobun broke with his master, declined to inherit the family temple, and answered Suzuki Roshi’s call to the US to help establish an unconventional, coed monastic community in the wilderness near Big Sur.

Kobun encouraged his students to practice what he called “guerilla Zen,” that is, taking our meditation out into our lives and not adhering to traditional rituals and practice forms. When he ordained me a monk, he ad-libbed the ceremony, shaving my head himself and giving me his own robes to wear, rather than the new ones generally reserved for acolytes like myself. In fact, much of what Kobun did was unconventional and even provocative by Buddhist standards. 

In this spirit he often admonished me, “Never call yourself a Buddhist.” Yet, at the same time, he wore his monk’s robes wherever he went and taught classes on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most arcane scriptures in the Mahayana Buddhist canon. He was a walking paradox, devoting his life to essential Buddhist principles yet fiercely averse to any ideological limitations.

Since my formative years with Kobun in the 1970s, I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers who have inspired me to transform my life at the deepest level. And every one of them has taught that, when you wake up to your true nature, you wake up out of a tradition and a belief system and into your own autonomy and independently verifiable realization. Though the tradition may have been invaluable in providing guidance on your journey, you now no longer need it to tell you how to think and act, because you’re guided by your own awakened heart and mind. When he taught the Buddhist precepts, or guidelines for conduct, Kobun explained them not as a set of rules imposed from outside, which is the more conventional understanding, but as a description of how a truly awakened person would naturally behave.

At his enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly declared, “Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one”—meaning that this realization is complete, all encompassing, and self-sufficient, nothing more need be added or realized. Buddha would no doubt have never called himself a Buddhist or his teachings Buddh-ism; indeed, the term is an oxymoron, since Buddh means awakening, and ism refers to a pre-established viewpoint. As I tell my students today, you are the path—there’s no cookie-cutter approach that’s right for you, you have to find your own way and allow yourself to be drawn to the teachers and teachings that appeal to your deepest yearning for truth. “Everything is impermanent,” the Buddha told his students on his deathbed. “Please devote yourself to discovering your own liberation for yourself.”