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Zen Training in Northern California

In the forested mountains of northern California, in the shadow of immense Mount Shasta a "holy" mountain to the original Indian inhabitants, and long a center of occult activities and settlements, which are now once again on the increase there has been since 1970 a Zen Buddhist monastery. Long before 1970 there had been Zen temples in the larger cities of the West Coast where Japanese had settled, and there had been attempts to start Zen monasteries in California; but "Shasta Abbey," as it is called, is the first successful American Zen monastery. (In Zen Buddhism a "monastery" is primarily a training school for Zen "priests," both male and female.).

In Shasta Abbey the atmosphere is very orderly and businesslike. Visitors (who are allowed to take guided tours at restricted times, but may not fraternize with the residents) find the monks or trainees in traditional black robes and with shaved heads; everyone seems to know exactly what he is doing, and a clear sense of seriousness and dedication is present.

The training itself is a strict five-year (or more) program which allows graduates to become "priests" and teachers of Zen and to conduct Buddhist ceremonies. As at secular schools, trainees pay a fee for room and board ($175 a month, payable in advance for each month - already a means of weeding out unserious candidates!), but the life itself is that of "monks" rather than students. Strict rules govern dress and behavior, vegetarian meals are eaten in silence communally, no visitors or idle conversations are allowed; life centers about the meditation hall, where trainees eat and sleep in addition to meditating, and no non-Zen religious practices are allowed. The life is a very intense and concentrated one, and every event of daily life (even washing and toilet) has its Buddhist prayer, which is recited silently.

Although the Abbey belongs to a "reformed" Soto Zen sect to emphasize its independence from Japan and its adaptation to American conditions of life rites and ceremonies are in the Japanese Zen tradition. There is the ceremony of becoming a Buddhist, equinox rites celebrating the "transformation of the individual," the ceremonial "feeding of hungry ghosts" (remembrance of the dead), the "Founder's Day" ceremony of expressing gratitude to the transmitters of Zen down to the present master, the festival of Buddha's enlightenment, and others. Homage is paid by bowing down before images of Buddha, but the primary emphasis of the teaching is on the "Buddha-nature" within one.

The Zen Master at Shasta Abbey is a Westerner and a woman (Buddhist practice permitting this): Jiyu Kennett, an Englishwoman born of Buddhist parents in 1924, who received Buddhist training in several traditions in the Far East and "ordination" at a Soto Zen monastery in Japan. She came to America in 1969 and founded the monastery the next year with a few young followers; since then the community has grown rapidly, attracting mostly young men (and women) in their twenties.

The reason for the success of this monastery apart from the natural appeal of Zen to a generation sick of rationalism and mere outward learning - seems to lie in the mystique of "authentic transmission" of the Zen experience and tradition, which the "Abbess" provides through her training and certification in Japan; her personal qualities as a foreigner and a born Buddhist who is still in close touch with the contemporary mind (with a very "American" practicality), seem to seal her influence with the young American convert generation of Buddhists.

The aim of Zen training at Shasta Abbey is to fill all of life with "pure Zen." Daily meditation (at times for as much as eight or ten hours in one day) is the center of a concentrated, intense religious life that leads, supposedly, to "lasting peace and harmony of body and mind. " Emphasis is on "spiritual growth," and the publications of the Abbey a bimonthly journal and several books by the Abbess - reveal a high degree of awareness of spiritual posing and fakery. The Abbey is opposed to the adoption of Japanese national (as opposed to Buddhist) customs; warns of the dangers of "guru-hopping" and falsely worshipping the Zen Master; forbids astrology, fortune-telling (even the I Ching), astral travelling and all other psychic and occult activities; mocks the academic and intellectual (as opposed to experiential) approach to Zen; and emphasizes hard work and rigorous training, with the banishing of all illusions and fantasies about oneself and "spiritual life." Discussions on "spiritual" matters by young Zen "priests" (as recorded in the Abbey's Journal) sound, in their sober and knowledgeable tone, remarkably like discussions among serious young Orthodox converts and monks. In intellectual formation and outlook, these young Buddhists seem quite close to many of our Orthodox converts. The young Orthodox Christian of today might well say: "There, but for the grace of God, I myself might be," so convincingly authentic is the spiritual outlook of this Zen monastery, which offers almost everything the young religious seeker of today might desire except, of course, Christ the true God and the eternal salvation which He alone can give.

The monastery teaches a Buddhism that is not "a cold and distant discipline," but is filled with "love and compassion." Contrary to the usual expositions of Buddhism, the Abbess emphasizes that the center of Buddhist faith is not ultimate "nothingness," but a living "god" (which she claims to be the esoteric Buddhist teaching): "The secret of Zen... is to know for certain, for oneself, that the Cosmic Buddha exists. A true master is he or she who does not waver in his certainty of, and love for, the Cosmic Buddha... I was overjoyed when I finally knew for certain that He existed; the love and gratitude in me knew no bounds. Nor have I ever felt such love as came forth from Him; I so want everyone else to feel it too."

There are presently some seventy priest-trainees at Shasta Abbey and its "branch priories," chiefly in California. The monastery is now in a state of rapid expansion, both on its own grounds and in its "mission" to the American people; there is a growing movement of lay Buddhists who make the Abbey their religious center and often come there, together with psychologists and other interested persons, on meditation retreats of varying lengths. With their publications, counselling and instruction in California cities, a projected children's school and a home for the elderly Shasta Abbey is indeed progressing in its aim of "growing Zen Buddhism in the West."

Towards Christianity the Abbess and her disciples have a condescending attitude; they respect the Philokalia and other Orthodox spiritual texts, recognizing Orthodoxy as the closest to them among "Christian" bodies, but regard themselves as being "beyond such things as theologies, doctrinal disputes and 'isms," which they regard as not belonging to "True Religion" (Journal, Jan.-Feb., 1978, p. 54).

Zen has, in fact, no theological foundation, relying entirely on "experience" and thus falling into the "pragmatic fallacy" that has already been noted earlier in this book, in the chapter on Hinduism: "If it works, it must be true and good." Zen, without any theology, is no more able than Hinduism to distinguish between good and evil spiritual experiences; it can only state what seems to be good because it brings "peace" and "harmony," as judged by the natural powers of the mind and not by any revelation -everything else it rejects as more or less illusory. Zen appeals to the subtle pride so widespread today of those who think they can save themselves, and thus have no need of any Saviour outside themselves.

Of all of today's Eastern religious currents, Zen is probably the most sophisticated intellectually and the most sober spiritually. With its teaching of compassion and a loving "Cosmic Buddha," it is perhaps as high a religious ideal as the human mind can attain without Christ. Its tragedy is precisely that is has no Christ in it, and thus no salvation, and its very sophistication and sobriety effectively prevent its followers from seeking salvation in Christ. In its quiet, compassionate way it is perhaps the saddest of all the reminders of the "post-Christian" times in which we live. Non-Christian "spirituality" is no longer a foreign importation in the West; it has become a native American religion putting down deep roots into the consciousness of the West. Let us be warned from this: the religion of the future will not be a mere cult or sect, but a powerful and profound religious orientation which will be absolutely convincing to the mind and heart of modern man.

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