Zen is simple, but not easy. As I have mentioned elsewhere, it would be difficult to re-engineer its meditation, zazen, to be any more simple than it already is. And from a design perspective, the round sitting cushion (zafu) is difficult to improve upon. Zen is fundamentally simple, but we human beings are complicated. We make our Zen practice complicated in turn. Our “application” of Zen to daily life is often way too complicated.

As Matsuoka Roshi often said, the greatest majority of practitioners in the West are those who begin practicing Zen, and then quit too soon. They are disappointed, apparently, that the expected results do not materialize as quickly as they might like. This may be attributable in part to the “everything, all the time” consumption culture of America. We want what we want when we want it. Patience is in short supply. Sensei would often refer to his disciples who showed this tendency as “come and go” or “wishy-washy” types. It may be that they continued in some form of practice, with or without a teacher.

However, Zen in its traditional form insists that one find and train under a “true teacher,” one who has been formally recognized by another recognized priest. And then to train with that person until s/he kicks you out. Of course, we cannot expect to have an affinity with just anyone. But Zen actually recommends that we find a teacher with whom we disagree. That is, one who disagrees with, or exceeds, our own understanding of Zen.

This is another dimension of the difficulty of Zen, and particularly difficult to swallow for those raised in the cult of the individual. A manifestation of false independence, I think, but regarded as a given, a meme, in the USA. While not operative on the level of conscious awareness, perhaps, we in the West “take pride” in our independence. The very founding of the nation was, after all, based on the Declaration of Independence. So it is only natural that we would value the notion of personal independence above all else.

But let’s take a moment to examine these concepts a little more closely. Because that is what they are — concepts. And, as attributed to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. I am afraid that too many American students not only quit too soon, but also do not recognize that the underlying reasons they do are from these unconscious memes, which negatively affect their conception of Zen, with its corollary, their perception of it. And so they never seriously examine their own assumptions, or question their validity.


Take expectations. Where do they originate? Expectations of changes in one’s life owing to the practice of Zen come from two sources — the unsatisfactory nature of that life as presently constituted, and some idea one has assimilated about Zen, either from reading or hearing others talk about it. Then there are expectations of other people practicing Zen, in particular the Zen priest, or guiding teacher, Abbot/Abbess of whatever title. Similarly they come from some source of concepts regarding historical or contemporary figures.

The former, history, can be a great deceiver, and is subject to our reading into it all kinds of myths, both positive and negative, that may have little or nothing to do with historicity. Taking the words of others at face value can be unreliable as well, and may devolve into what is essentially a form of gossip. So we say, sit without expectations; sit without desire. We should apply this off the cushion as well.


For example, one should be able to harbor some reasonable expectations of one’s fellow Sangha members as to their behavior. But when it doesn’t pan out the way we expect, it does not mean that there is anything wrong with Zen. It just means that people are complicated. And they make mistakes. Fall down seven times, get up eight.

Of course, there comes a point when it becomes clear that in spite of all of our kind and compassionate understanding, and overlooking, we are simply enabling others in their habitual cluelessness, or even intentional disrespect for the harmony of the Sangha. Sometimes an individual’s problems are too profound, or stubborn, to be assimilated into the group, “rubbed off” by the friction of Sangha practice. In that case, something has to be done about it. Sometimes the few have to be asked to leave for the sake of the many.

Likewise, expectations of the guiding teacher and/or more senior students may be out of line with reality, and lead to disappointment, a critical mindset, and discouragement. There is a point at which it would be inadvisable to continue practice under leadership that is not conducive to genuine Zen practice, of course.

However, it is important that each of us examine whether the fault we are finding with others is in our own mind, or an actual problem that must be dealt with. If the latter, the best thing is to consult with the leadership of the Sangha. If need be, move on.


Practice that is dependent upon others is not real Zen practice. We must be able to do zazen alone, and to find the meaning of the non-separation of practice and daily life for ourselves. If we are dependent upon the presence of others in the zendo, for example, there is something wrong. If we practice regardless of whether there are others present or not, this is the real Zen way. Then we have the opportunity to develop genuine insight.

So, one of the principles of simplicity in Zen and zazen is that it is our personal practice, the expression of the “Buddha Seal” in our lives, whether alone or with a group.

Practicing with a Sangha is the Zen way, as it actualizes our interdependent nature, which is not separate from the practice of others. When we become a member of a Sangha, or later a disciple or priest, the harmony of the Sangha becomes more of a focus of our practice. We become more concerned with how it is going for everyone else, and less focused on our own experience. In adopting this attitude, we find ourselves naturally less distracted or irritated by the unskillful behavior of others for disturbing our equanimity, and more concerned with how such behavior may interfere with the practice of others.

Maintaining the Zen way in comportment and environment is primarily the responsibility of the guiding teacher and her/his students. But any member of the Sangha can feel this way, and take on some ownership of the harmony of the community.

I am sure I have paraphrased our erstwhile and widely reviled former Secretary of Defense, but it bears repetition here: You do not practice Zen with the Sangha you choose; you practice Zen with the Sangha you have.

So if you have begun Zen practice, joined a community, and then quit, why did you quit? Was it the Sangha, that you could not fit into comfortably? The perceived inadequacies of the guiding teacher, or teachers? So now how are you practicing? Haven’t you simply replaced the former situation with one that is very similar, and maybe not as conducive?

Are you not simply looking for an excuse to quit, and blaming others for it, as usual?

The Zen life, while appealing in concept, can become tedious and boring in execution. It is we that are tedious and boring, of course. And we can be boring and tedious anywhere, under any circumstances.

Zazen is particularly difficult to continue, though relatively easy to begin. If zazen is expected to deliver some sort of spiritual reward, it is not the real zazen. We must pursue zazen regardless of circumstances. Otherwise it cannot work.

Everyone already has a spiritual practice; it just may not be very good, poorly designed. Designing one’s own practice is a bit like being one’s own trial lawyer. Fool for a client.


The cult of the individual, the sense of total independence and self-sufficiency, which may be another source of the symptom of self-centered Zen, is a false form of freedom, a faux independence. It can lead to some of the most baleful traits of the ugly American.

Zen and Buddhism in general have always taught that the lives of all people, indeed all sentient beings, are intricately interrelated. Further, they are enmeshed beyond even the bounds of this present lifetime, being karmically connected with the past and future, according to the principle of rebirth.

Maintaining the bravado of the self-made man, or the apparent independence of the frontiersman, requires actively ignoring a great deal of reality, as well as history. Nobody got to the place they occupy in time and space alone. We all have a debt to those who have directly and indirectly assisted us in this life. In Zen Buddhism, the greatest debt is owed to our ancestral buddhas and bodhisattvas, great teachers and exemplars. They alone are pointing to the effective way out of our own limitations, the way into the deeper meaning of existence. This way is simple, but not easy.