Authentic Zen by Barry Roshi
At the White Plum Meeting in May someone told the story that she had been approached on the street one day and thanked for something she had said three years earlier. The man said that it had changed his life. She did not know the man or even remember him. This made her wonder if indeed his life had been changed. Could his life have really been altered by something she had said, without any real base of practice to back it up?? What did he, and we for that matter, really know about true Buddhism, real Zen? Was our tradition being watered down excessively with pop psychology and trendy therapeutic motivations, lacking the deeper spiritual quest that brought the tradition to us over thousands of years of serious practice?
It is an honest, and continuing, question for us in the West. Is what we’re doing truly authentic Zen? I like think of it in this way. I love to surf. And I take Duke Kanhanamoku as the father of modern surfing. He reinvigorated an ancient sport for us today. His ideas about board design helped revolutionize surfing and the power of his personality catapulted surfing forward to me and my generation. He is the modern god of surfing, and what when I surf I participate in an authentic recreation that dates back to the ancient Polynesians all because of him.
But if it were proven to me that my beliefs in this area were false, that Duke Kanhanamoku was more of a marketing tool than an important historical figure and that what I do today bares little or no resemblance to the authentic ancient tradition of surfing, it wouldn’t matter at all. I could care less.
Why? Because however it came to me in the present day, what I do in the ocean with my surfboard is so rewarding that whatever the historical facts of authentic traditional surfing might be are of little to no consequence. There are merely tidbits of information. I feel so blessed, so nourished by modern surfing that I find any discussion of its authenticity merely humorous.
I knew and studied with Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi. I know Tenshin Roshi, and I certainly know Jikyo Roshi. What they represent and taught to me, and what I realized while working with them, is so valuable to me personally that any talk of authenticity, or lack thereof, fades from my concerns like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.
What can possibly make Zen authentic? What country does authentic Zen come from? From China…Korea…Vietnam….Japan? What robe, what haircut, what diet and daily regimen make it authentic? Chanting in Japanese or Chinese? Being able to sit on your knees for a long time without wincing? Being able to function without much sleep and not complain?
There is only one person who makes Zen authentic…and that, of course, is you. If your inner intention is clear, and your motivation is true, you will find what you seek and you will make it authentic. Lacking that, no robe or bowl, temple or master, not even Buddha himself, can help you.
Everything else is merely a discussion for scholars. Interesting perhaps, even worthwhile, but it has no control on your experience of life and of practice. What I know to be true requires no one’s agreement. What I’m unsure of makes me convert the whole world to satisfy my own self-doubt.