A Zen’s-Eye View: Mindfulness is a spiritual practice

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Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji

In his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master, identifies religious views that he feels are a mistake. He writes that nihilism, the idea that life is meaningless, is a destructive wrong view. If we believe that nothing matters, that actions have no consequences, that when we’re dead and gone it’s over, there is no reason to develop moral behavior. It stops mattering whether or not our words and actions cause harm.

Another wrong view is pure naturalism, the belief that spiritual training and practice is not necessary because if you can be spontaneous, your wisdom will naturally come out. Dogen complains that there is too much of this Taoist view in the Zen teachings of his day. In Zen, he says, there is a training path to cultivate enlightenment. I compare it to becoming an accomplished musician. First you work hard practicing scales and chord changes, learn theory and perfect techniques, and then, when you have mastered them, you let go of the training. Your body and mind become a natural vehicle for the music. Dogen felt that the Zen teachers of his day were throwing away training. He accused them of naturalism, a classical mistake in Buddhism.

In the 13th century, the Zen establishment lost imperial support so it needed a new class of people to help finance the monasteries and temples. They turned to an alignment with the intellects and the literati who were into Taoist poetry and the Confucian classics. Many Zen teachers were reshaping Zen for those intellectuals, and they presented Zen as a very sophisticated literary game that had to do with knowledge of classical Chinese literature.

Dogen had no respect for that approach. He was completely committed to Zen as he had learned it. He believed that meditation and practice, as he taught it, was the epitome of the Buddhist tradition, that Zen was not a new school and that the Japanese literati were making Buddhism into something it was not.

Nowadays, Zen is a marketing tool. It has become pop psychology and its spiritual value has diminished. The mindfulness movement insists that its ancient Buddhist practices are not based in religious consciousness. Teachers say, “Forget the religion, just teach meditation.” They make the same mistake that Dogen wrote about. Mindfulness and meditation that ignores Buddhism misses the power and depth of a ritual life that extends back 2,600 years. Dogen saw that the intellectuals were throwing out the deepest part of Zen practice to gain financial support. Similarly in the present day, vigorous marketing of mindfulness practices has diminished meditation into a pop psychology fad. This is why, after deep reflection, even though I’ve seen people benefit from them, I no longer teach mindfulness courses — they rob a deeply spiritual Zen practice of its virtue and power.

Suggested practice: Whatever spiritual practice you undertake, consider deeply whether it is truly expressive of its spiritual roots, or has it been watered down for marketing purposes.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.