Why Can't Zen Buddhism Find an Online Home?

By Gary Ray, 1995

Zen Buddhism is believed to be the predominant form of Buddhism in the West, with some estimates claiming that Zen Buddhists comprise up to 40% of the Western community. So why can't Zen find an appropriate online home to match its home in the hearts of Westerners?

It's not because there aren't enough Zen forums. There's the alt.zen Usenet newsgroup, the ZENDO listserv, two BBS echomail conferences on the BodhiNet and DharmaNet networks and a slew of Zen conferences on The Well, America Online and CompuServe. Despite all these forums, Zen discussions tend towards amateur koan practice, perpetrated by message writers who respond that "everything is emptiness" or constant reference to "oak trees in courtyards" or "dried shitsticks." Worse yet, discussions occasionally revolve around flower arrangement, tea ceremonies or the finer points of rock gardening. It is rare indeed, to see a debate regarding the finer points of Zen practice, doctrine or history.

At first I thought the problem was because these conferences were poorly moderated. Alt.zen and the commercial online services often fall victim to "drive by flamers," those who stop in for a moment and shoot their mouths off with meaningless epithets designed to incite a negative response, or at least stop meaningful discussion. ZENDO is only slightly better, and if you can slog through the many messages to the moderator to SUBSCRIBE or UNSUBSCRIBE, you can occasionally find a few gems of wisdom. The echomail networks have the highest quality of posts, however they aren't immune either. Also, "traffic" is extremely low and you may wait many days for a discussion to develop (if it ever does).

Even the best of these forums were falling prey to Zen drivel, so I realized the problem was not with the forum administration, it was in the general attitude of its participants. This lack of quality and insight seems to be caused by three particular problems, not necessarily unique to the online world of Zen. Attachment to emptiness, Zen without Buddhism and an inaccurate portrayal of Zen in popular culture all combine to undermine meaningful Zen dialogues.

Attachment to emptiness is so common that the term "Zen sickness" is often used to describe it. Sufferers of this
malady run around telling you that "everything is empty" and nothing really exists. In discussions, when these people don't know the answer to a question or don't know how to pursue a meaningful dialogue, they often resort to their emptiness claim to stifle conversation, or worse, appear wise. A recent discussion in alt.zen was composed of a someone asking where the Zen was in the discussion group, since everyone seemed to be ranting and raving about new age teachers and Hindu philosophy. The response to his question was overwhelming, as many people slyly informed him of the "emptiness" of the conference. Heck, it doesn't have Zen because it's empty. True emptiness
represents a lack of permanent form, pregnant with potential for unlimited growth and development. The emptiness discussed in these conferences is a growth impediment, since discussion immediately stops when the emptiness word is used. A response one of my Zen teachers often used when confronted by an emptiness spouter was: "Does emptiness feel pain?" This is especially effective when brandishing a big Zen stick (or listserv software).

Zen without Buddhism is the second problem that impedes discussions. In the vein of Toni Packer and Charlotte Beck, many discussion participants think that Zen is some separate "way," divorced from its roots in Buddhism. I visited Charlotte Beck's center several years ago and rather than a Buddha on the alter, there sat a rock. This is the world of Buddhism without the Buddha. What happens when Zen is removed from its context and its support in Buddhism? It becomes a technique _ either for relaxation or for enhancement of the ego to protect oneself from reality.

Zen divorced from Buddhism is nothing. It lacks the moral foundations, the base, that is necessary for spiritual advancement. Meditation (which is the meaning of "Zen" after all) is only one of the Eightfold Paths or Six Paramitas. Steven Echard Roshi writes that "Such people think that you can extract the essence out of Zen Buddhism, dilute it to infinitesimal levels, and still possess the same thing." The result in online discussions is that there's very little left to talk about when Buddhism is removed from the picture. There's sitting, and then there's, well, sitting. Actually these people spend enormous amounts of time trying to explain "enlightenment experiences," the brass ring of the Zen student whose Buddhist foundation is removed.

The inappropriate portrayal of Zen in popular culture is really an extension of this second problem. In popular culture, Zen becomes divorced from its Buddhist context and worse, it even loses its inaccurate representation as a meditation technique. Zen becomes an expression for any event that somehow had a synchronistic effect on the speaker. Zen changes form from a noun to a verb, and gets used to describe the proper way for motorcycle maintenance, creative management, internet navigation, and a variety of unrelated topic. The word "Zen" in the title seems to illicit a popular response that increases market share. In online conferences this "popular understanding," or what Zen master Seung Sahn calls "Common People's Zen," is used as a springboard for discussing just about anything, but preferably something from Japan - since it sounds more romantic.

Most of these problems can be fixed with a simple remedy. Just refer to Zen as Zen Buddhism. Whenever you use the word Zen, put Buddhism after it. If it sounds funny, the word Zen is probably being used inappropriately. Try it: Zen Buddhism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Gosh, the clouds were still and I had this experience of oneness with everything,; it was very Zen Buddhism. The problem of Zen divorced from Buddhism can be solved by placing meditation in context. Think of Zen as a link in the practice chain. If you sit in zazen, divorced from the rest of Buddhist practice, I'm afraid it's not Zen Buddhism.