I started practicing Soto Zen with an online Sangha in May of 2013.In 2015, a bunch of passive aggressive drama went down in that Sangha that made me lose confidence in my teacher and affinity for my Sangha mates. My teacher got into a very public, and very shallow lineage debate with one of his Dharma siblings. Also, a member of the Sangha posted that they were on their deathbed and received nothing but dozens of soft platitudes as a response.
“Is this Zen?” I asked myself. “What’s wrong with these people?” So, I left the Sangha and studied with another Soto Zen teacher for a few months. We were doing great, and he was teaching me how to work with koans (Zen riddles of sorts). I went on a vacation in Cali and smoked a little pot—a breach of the fifth precept if you’re a hardline Buddhist.
Wanting to be honest, I told him. He said, “I can’t work with you anymore unless you join a substance abuse support group.” Yeah, for smoking a little weed. He had a history of substance abuse when he was young, so I’m guessing that influenced his views (on another note, he totally supports marijuana these days).
I told him no, I wasn’t gonna do that. A few days later, he emailed me and said I was no longer his student. I got the message on my way back from doing jury duty in Chicago. I was right in the middle of working with a particularly in depth koan.
Lost and adrift, I went back to my first Sangha with my tail between my legs. The teacher took me back. A few days later, my account was locked. I had to hunt down the IT guy and ask about it, and he told me to email the teacher.
The teacher said, “Someone told me that you were involved in some kind of unorthodox Zen that I didn’t approve of.” I wasn’t, at all, so he unfroze my account. I said, “Next time you hear a rumor, please just come to me directly.” There wasn’t a next time, because after a few days of perusing the forums, I logged out and never logged back in.
I didn’t know what to do. I relied on my teachers and Sangha so much that I didn’t know how to practice without that support.
I practiced with a Vajrayana Buddhist friend for little awhile. He asked me to write a mantra 500,000 times in lieu of doing 500,000 full prostrations (bows). I played along for awhile, and we had some fantastic discussions, but I couldn’t get into it. I mean, why would I do that, to show dedication? Who am I proving myself to, myself? Fuck that guy, I don’t care what I think about me.
Then I practiced with a Chan teacher for awhile, a close friend and fellow writer. But, after a few months, he decided to go another way so we dissolved the training on good terms.
After that, I set out on my own. I was always interested in Buddhism-at-large, so I decided to study and practice as much of it as I could. It was basically a kind of informal Buddhist University.
I went back to the beginning, and made my way to modern times. I went through as much of the Pali Canon as I could, and practiced anapanasati and satipatthana. I studied the views from all the early schools I came across, including Theravada (the only surviving branch of Pali Buddhism).
Then I went East of the East, and practiced Madhyamaka, the Nirvana school, Pure land, and then Yogacara. I followed them into China and investigated Huayan, Tiantai, and of course, Chan. I practiced all the Chan methods I could find, and sifted through the teachings of all the lineages and Houses. I also got really into Taoism and researched Confucianism and Moism a bit.
I fiddled around in Tibet with the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions. Then I went a little further East to Korea (Seon) and Japan (Zen). After that, I came back to the States with DT Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Trungpa before diving into the Vipassana Movement and the Thai Forest Tradition before circling back around to Yogacara.
It felt kinda like getting an AA in General Buddhism, a BA in Mahayana, an MA in Zen, and a PhD in Yogacara.
After all of that, I still didn’t have anything. I had less than I started with. But it was a great way to exhaust myself, unhinge some of my, “Buddhism is this,” views, and I recommend it to everyone.
Setting it all down, I came back Chan in 2018, which is where I am now.
There’s a huge, “Burn your books,” ethic in Zen, but most of the guys who supported that studied a lot before they came to that conclusion. Just because the Way is, “Beyond words and letters,” doesn’t mean it isn’t in words and letters too. Everything’s included.
I recommend this kinda pilgrimage to everyone who’s seriously interested in practicing any kind of Buddhism.
Conversely, pilgrimages were a big part of the Chan tradition. Most students were ordained in another school, like Vinaya or Huayan, then they’d travel from teacher to teacher and spend a lot of time in hermitages before gravitating toward one lineage that they eventually passed on to others.
What I did was nowhere near as involved as that. I stayed at home, bought some books, surfed the net and tried out different meditation methods. Those guys walked the earth and climbed literal mountains. But, things are different now.
We don’t live in a culture that’s hospitable to the notion of hiking cross-country to different Zendos and monasteries. The Zen Centers are empty 90% of the time because all the priests have day jobs.
So, a virtual pilgrimage is a compromise.
It’s not essential that you know everything about everything, but I think it’s vital to know a little bit about everything, to grok the gist of each tradition. Here’s a reading list I threw together. I put an asterisk next to the ones I found essential.
DIY Course at Buddhanet
Access to Insight (Also contains most of the Pali Canon)*
Buddha by Karen Armstrong*
A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard (also includes later teachings. There’s a 100 something page abridged version as well, but it sucks)
Some Talks by Ajahn Sumedho from the Thai Forest Tradition
The Heart Sutra by Red Pine*
The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion by Thich Nhat Hanh*
The Lankavatara Sutra by Red Pine*
Inside Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses by Ben Connelly
An Article on Buddha-Nature*
Pure Land and the Patriarchs by Hanshan Deqing (PDF)
The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma by Red Pine
The Hsin Hsin Ming by Sengcan (webpage)*
The Platform Sutra by Red Pine*
Harmony of Difference and Sameness by Shitou (webpage)
The Zen Teachings of Huang-po by John Blofeld*
Cultivating the Empty Field by Hongzhi and Dan Leighton*
Zen’s Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson*
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki*
Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken*
Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau
Flowers Fall by Hakuun Yasutani
Bankei Zen by Yoshito Hakeda
Article about Ikkyu at Dharmanet
Wake Up & Roar by HWL Poonja
Complete Enlightenment by Sheng Yen
Buddhist Phenomenology by Dan Lusthaus
Maitreya’s Distinguishing the Middle From the Extremes
The Surangama Sutra