What’s wrong with Zen?

What’s wrong with Zen?

By Jon Rappoport

April 5, 2014


Nothing is wrong with Zen, except the people who practice it.

That’s a joke. Sort of.

In the modern style, especially in America, Zen is mostly meditation, and more meditation, and more meditation, and the point of it seems to be to get to a zero point, where you can watch your own mind, your own thoughts, and finally, without effort, stay separate from them, separate from all that radio static, and separate also from your own unbidden parade of emotions that swing by with tooting horns and crashing symbols and clacking drums and gawking dancing clowns.

A laudable goal.

But on the whole, how many people who do this wind up becoming passive? That’s the thing. People tend to opt for quietness.

Whereas, the whole idea ought to be: launch a tremendous amount of dynamic action from the platform of zero-stillness.

Because stillness as a way of life sooner or later begins to disintegrate.

In original Zen, there were ordeals. The teacher gave the student things to do, tasks which eventually became absurd, without discernible purpose. The teacher spoke to the student in riddles and wisecracks. The teacher drove the student into a state of desperation, because the student’s rational faculties, which were obsessively involved in systems, couldn’t supply answers to questions which defied logic.

The teacher did whatever he had to do to bring the student out over the edge of the cliff, where in mid-air, there were no foundations…and the student felt terror. But the teacher persisted.

And then, in one explosive moment, the student found himself floating in the air. He saw there was no need to explain his existence. There was no need to place a veil between himself and the present moment. He didn’t die. He was, finally, alive.

Who knows how this radical approach actually worked out in the many cloisters and huts and cottages where it was practiced, where the stories grew and expanded in their retelling.

But compare the image of silent monks in robes, their heads shaved, gliding through temples, with this old Zen story about a teacher and a prospective student (from AshidaKim.com):

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”

As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Those old teachers were tough characters. They weren’t merely meditation instructors.

There was another aspect of Zen, which survives to this day. It could be summarized as: “become the other.” The archer becomes the target. He becomes the bow, the arrow, and the target.

The runner becomes the road and the air and the sky and the clouds. The artist becomes the canvas.

The theater of merging with the other.

And as in any theatrical setting, the actor can, by choice, merge with, and un-merge from, his role.

But again, in these times, the main thrust of Zen teaching seems to be meditation, and the culture of stillness, quietude, and passive acceptance.

I’m not saying the meditation is easy to do. It isn’t. But somehow, its environment has become circumscribed.

This is unsurprising in America, where every philosophic and spiritual import from Asia has been distorted and watered down for the seeker-consumer. The overriding intent has been to create The Quiet Person.

The world of action has been painted as too disturbing to the “student seeking inner peace.” Therefore, retreat. Therefore, set up a buffer zone within which all is harmonized and balanced.

Where is the Zen now that sends people out into the world to revolutionize it down to its core, that stimulates the desire to find and invent a Voice that will shatter delusions and create new realities that have never been seen before?

If the moment of insight, satori, doesn’t instigate this, what good is it?

How can satori be “seeing into one’s true nature,” if the result is a wan gaze out on a uniform landscape of soft-boiled bupkis?

The answer is obvious. Breaking apart, exploding the primary illusions and fears that hold an individual in check is not the goal of most Zen as it is now practiced. That objective has been replaced with the false promise that some ultimate “ordinary consciousness” will reconcile the soul with itself.

The way this promise is offered and the way it is taught and the way its surrounding social culture is embroidered is a dud. Dead on arrival.

It’s time for a few new koans.

What is the real sound of David Rockefeller? What does Henry Kissinger say when somebody finally puts him in a small bottle with a cork on it? How does an android disguise himself as a human?

If I need a Zen teacher, I’ll go to Henny Youngman: “A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”

In the beginning, the whole point of Zen was to shake things up, not calm them down.

The master assumed a new student was an annoying clod. But that doesn’t comfortably mesh with today’s “tolerant culture.” Today, annoying clods are a special interest group.

Silence, as a key Zen feature, isn’t only about a desired inner condition now. It’s about a synthetic attitude. So show me a temple where the meditation room is outfitted with a few dozen giant TV screens. The students do their meditation while CNN, Christingle Matthews, Sean Hannity, Oprah, news-boy-on-a bike Brian Williams, the vampire Scott Pelley, don’t-cry-for-me-America Diane Sawyer, Hawaii Five-O, the Shopping Channel, Pawn Stars, Jimmy Fallon and his screaming pubescent audience, and four or five Spanish soaps are going full blast.

That would be a start.

Or throw on 20 or 30 TED lectures simultaneously—prancing grasshoppers extolling the future of technology.

I submit that if the one of the ancient Zen teachers walked into a modern American Zen cloister today, that’s exactly what he’d do. Turn on a few hundred TV sets, computers, and mobile devices and say, “Okay, try being quiet in the middle of this!”

Another Koan for our times: What did Bill Gates look like before he was Alfred E Neuman?

Zen is sacred? What? When was it ever sacred? Soft bells, empty halls?

No, you must have Zen confused with a funeral home.

Every age has its massive collection of heavily loaded apple carts, and the job of Zen is to overturn them. When up is down, and insanity is called normal, that’s where you begin.

Jon Rappoport

The author of two explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED and EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. He maintains a consulting practice for private clients, the purpose of which is the expansion of personal creative power. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world. You can sign up for his free emails at www.nomorefakenews.com

40 comments on “What’s wrong with Zen?

    • Thomas Braun says:


      The old Zen teachers ‘arrived’ at peace and lived it, while trying to get their students there by whatever means EACH student required. The Zen of today has shed its ‘theological, religious or ‘crazy’ fabrication. Zen in five breaths. BOOM! DONE! and then off to accomplish whatever. Yeah, it really does work that way, and no, five breaths is just the beginning of peace, and then you go for more, like 500 or 5,000, and then off you go, ready to conquer whatever you have a mind to.

      Oh…and the tv’s and music and such….yeah….Zen takes care of that without a thought…yup, ESPECIALLY when blaring.

      Well…I’m of Zen….gotta get some more….done my good deed for the day….shook a few apples out of stupid tree….back to my worthless peace…to rise another day. nem

  1. frank green says:

    Great post Jon! About time someone put it to those touchy, feely navel gazers. Also thanks for skewering TED – I was beginning to think I was the only one who found it unctous, patronising & ultimately disingenuous.

  2. voza0db says:

    Remove the ‘I’ (the symbol of the cross † as this purpose) and… 😎

  3. zen shaman says:

    huh. apparently you arent hanging around the kind of zen characters i hang out with. I am not quiet, or soft spoken, and i am raising as much hell with my website and my life actions, as i possibly can, to break this societal conundrum we find our selves in. Be the change, is my koan. I know zen gardner is also doing his best to break the silence.

  4. […] What’s wrong with Zen? « Jon Rappoport’s Blog. […]

  5. mo kaplan says:

    dear jon,
    specifically, to know what it is and who do it and why…go back to the source.
    that is, the great master bodhidharma, the patriarch of chan(zen) and his mission to china.
    he was the third son of the palava king in what is now tamil nadu, india. he was black faced. he was master of all the palace studies including medicine and martial arts. after renouncing the royal position and becoming a buddhist monk, he made the vow to bring the true teachings to china. many biographies are available in print and on youtube which give glimpses into the heart/mind of the original teacher of chan/zen. the failures of the current practicioners cannot be attributed to the teachings that have liberated so many thru the centuries. lacking in discipline and dilligence…we
    find it easier to find fault outside. it is referred to as the ‘dharma ending age’ and you are missing the boat on this one! if you could just stop for a second…and realize that words cannot reach it.
    then, zen, is not wong or wight! it transcends conditioned existence that we perceive with the sense apparatus and returns u/me/we to our original home.

  6. W. Green says:

    Today’s environment is like a life and death magic show performed in front of a 3-ring circus. I suspect the only folks who remain in a Zen-like state are those who produce the show…the Controllers.

  7. georgbeck says:

    excellent blog post, Jon!

  8. The goal of Zen is neither passive nor active. You learn to live in the world without identifying with all the noise, but at the same time being aware of it all. You are not your possessions or your emotions or your thoughts. You are not even you, but that awareness is not attained until you can through the smoke and mirrors and static and noise.

    • bob klinck says:

      You are not even you? Now there’s a paralyzing concept of which those aspiring to control everything would certainly approve!

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        Or perchance the thought is “paralyzing” to you because to too closely identify with the meat package you perceive as you. Hmm?

        • Well.

          To start off with, the physical body does not define the Being within. It never should!

          The Being within, is the presence and the intellect that inhabits a physical body.

          THIS is what many get wrong, over and over again. What a sad shame.

  9. 🙂 Great peace there Jon.

    Wonder what you think of my rather active Zen TEDx talk?

  10. Lorie says:

    I wonder what Jon is on…it definately seems better than Zen, at least for him!!! Carry on JON!!!!

  11. bob klinck says:

    You can choose the way of pain-avoidance or you can choose the way of truth. In a control society such as ours, the latter choice almost certainly will lead to pain–but there are compensations, such as not feeling like a sell-out to evil.

  12. Mike says:

    Seems a lot like being grounded. Has nothing to do with dirt.

    Being grounded is simply cultivating and maintaining a neutral view point at the zero point of an axis. From that view point you can appraise yourself as you occupy one or more other points on that axis.

    If you choose to occupy more than one axis then you simply cultivate an additional neutral view point for each axis.

    You can occupy any number of axises. Whatever you choose to do.

  13. David Marino says:

    “launch a tremendous amount of dynamic action from the platform of zero-stillness.”

    Upon reading that the first thing that jumped to my mind was getting in touch with the hunter instinct and using it. I needed to be reminded of that at one time. The silence of Zen, the alpha state, is the time my batteries are recharging.

    You have to listen to Jon speak to know that he does so from a place of Zen, a calmness that can create cognitive dissonance in many of the average American’s mind, when he demolishes apple carts.

  14. rabbitnexus says:

    A worthy effort thanks Jon.

  15. zendeviant says:

    ahahaha! Magnificent, Jon. Approaches an explanation of my handle.

    Hmmmm what to do with this silent stillness? Raise a little hell!
    All about chillin while the villian is thrillin.
    Harmless, pointless–as a lightning bolt.

    If we stand with God, who will stand against us?

  16. hybridrogue1 says:

    One moment I was that animal in the mirror. The next moment I was one with God.

    Spontaneous…??? … Looking back now, no, I had prepared for it all of my life up to that moment.

    What do I know? That moment, and all moments are eternity. It is now, as always.


  17. jaihan says:

    OMG thank you for this awesome take on the milk toast new agey culture in America. Where are the centered warriors? NO WHERE! Passivity is being accepted as enlightenment. No. Steers in a field are passive – right up to the time they are slaughtered.

  18. Lrw says:

    Interesting… Consider this:

    Zen Buddhism Is Extreme

    There are two types of people, namely, those who are extreme and those who take the middle road. From the outset Zen Buddhism has been in the extreme category, and it does not amount to a cultivation system. Controversy has always surrounded Zen. Though people have cultivated according to Zen’s methods, they have actually been under the care of Buddha Shakyamuni, owing to their intention to cultivate Buddhahood and their seeking goodness. Zen doesn’t constitute a system. Boddhidharma does not have his own heavenly kingdom, and thus cannot provide salvation to people. The fact is that Boddhidharma himself, back in his day, took Buddha Shakyamuni to be the founding master. Though he is called Zen’s patriarch, he was in fact Buddha Shakyamuni’s disciple—a disciple of the twenty-eighth generation, and one who very much venerated Buddha Shakyamuni. Working from Buddha Shakyamuni’s theories, he focused his enlightenment on “nothingness,” and this didn’t depart from the tenets of Shakyamuni. With the passage of time, Zen went downhill. Later generations came to regard Boddhidharma’s approach as a cultivation way in its own right, and believed it to be supreme. His wasn’t supreme, however. Zen was actually declining with each successive generation, and Boddhidharma said it himself: His teachings would only extend for six generations.

    Boddhidharma gave a relatively large amount of weight to the “nothingness” that Buddha Shakyamuni taught, and held Buddha Shakyamuni in great esteem; he was known as his disciple of the twenty-eighth generation. But the generations that followed were completely trapped in extremes. And once that became the case, it arrived at the stage of degeneration, where Boddhidharma and Shakyamuni were seen almost as equals. People began to venerate Boddhidharma, and considered Boddhidharma’s theories to be the one and only Buddhist truth. This basically amounted to going astray.

    That’s because Boddhidharma cultivated to a low level and reached only the celestial rank of Arhat—meaning, he was merely an Arhat. How much could he really have known? When all was said and done he had not reached the level of Tathagata. The gap between his level and that of Buddha Shakyamuni was phenomenal! And for this reason, his teachings are closest to the philosophy of ordinary people, and his theories are easiest for ordinary people to accept—particularly those who treat religion as a form of philosophy or ideology. Those who take an academic approach and study Buddhism as philosophy tend to accept his theory the most. It closely resembles ordinary philosophy.

    Buddhas are to be found on every plane, however high one may go. [But according to Zen,] you cultivate and cultivate, and then, supposedly, nothing exists. In their cultivation they don’t even acknowledge so much as human beings. Living, visible human beings are right here before us and yet they don’t acknowledge them as real. It’s even worse than with those ordinary persons of poor spiritual insight who say, “I’ll believe it if I see it, and won’t if I don’t.” These people don’t even acknowledge what they do see. Why live, then? Why bother opening your eyes? Shut your eyes, don’t lie down, don’t stand… Nothing exists, right? They’ve gone to extremes. Boddhidharma said that his Dharma could be passed down for only six generations. It’s folly how people today still cling tightly to this doctrine that was never valid in the first place. It’s a dead end that they have gone down. They don’t acknowledge themselves, don’t acknowledge Buddhas, and how about planet Earth? If they don’t acknowledge even their own existence, what’s the point of having a name? And what’s the point of eating? You could just go hungry all day, not look at what time it is, and block out all sounds…

    And after all that, everything is gone. So doesn’t that discredit Buddha Shakyamuni? If Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t teach anything, what was he doing for forty-nine years? Do they know what the true meaning of “emptiness” is in Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching? When Buddha Shakyamuni [said that he] didn’t leave behind any Fa, he was saying that he didn’t truly teach the cultivation method or the Fa of the universe. What he spoke about were only things at his cultivation level, and what he left to ordinary people was Tathagata Fa—in particular, cultivation experiences and lessons learned. The real Dharma that Shakyamuni imparted when in this world was the rules and disciplines (jie-lü), and he discussed certain insights of different levels, which is the Fa at a certain level. But Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t want people to be trapped at his level, and thus said, “I have not taught any Dharma in my life.” He said that because he knew that the Dharma he taught was not the highest. A Tathagata is a Buddha, but not one at the highest level. Buddha Fa is boundless. A cultivator shouldn’t be limited by his Dharma. A person with a great spiritual potential (da gen-ji) can cultivate even higher, where insights both higher and deeper, as with corresponding manifestations of Fa, await.
    -Li Hongzhi
    Zhuan Falun vil. II

    • WOW!

      Very technical and very precise. What I have gathered, over the years, is that any singular system has its defined limits. The individual seeker, who “breaks out of” such limited systems, and learns to use the tools and knowledge to actually explore, eventually learns that there are no limits to what one can achieve.

      The “Chi” has its limits, for instance, but the Ki (or what the Egyptians called the “Ka”) knows of no such limits. The only limits that one may experience in working the Ki, are those by the worker’s own mind (his imagination, for instance). – The Buddha aspect is one such lesson that many of today’s adherents miss; The idea that one can transcend limits by simply removing the limits he sets within his own mind.

      – Rev. Dragon’s Eye

  19. Space Lord says:

    I turn off the television like a child, I smell the spring air outside, I recall these words no more.

  20. What many of the “modern Zen” movements seem to miss:

    ” There is a time for war, and a time for peace. – Let acts of war, be truly a righteous act of defense, and defiance against tyranny. Let acts of peace be the fruits earned and enjoyed because of fighting the “just wars” of injustice, and against tyranny. ”

    Just because one is peaceful, does not mean that he should give up all fighting, regardless the cost! Even Mohandas Gandhi told his students and followers that self-defense for self-preservation and the defense of his weaker Brother and/or Sister was HIS SACRED DUTY. Even He understood that there would be times where fighting for life and liberty was a just cause.

    Meditation to find that “zero point” has its purpose; One is more likely to find the best answers and solutions to his current issues. This does NOT mean that he should also become a permanent-pacifist. If one were to find this “zero-point” of minimal confusion and distraction, his thoughts would become clearer, and his actions become truer to purpose.

    – Rev. Dragon’s Eye

  21. Jon Rappoport: Rather than cultivating passivity, “the whole idea (of Zen) ought to be launch a tremendous amount of action from the platform of zero stillness.” | Exopermaculture says:

    […] What’s wrong with Zen? […]

  22. Sam says:

    One balmy summer night many years ago, I was at a party where an ordained Zen sensei was trying to fix an electric lamp for the garden. I sat beside him, marvelling at his endless good-natured patience as he tried over and over again for more than an hour to get the old lamp to work. Just as I was contemplating the profound lessons in patient one-pointed focus I was gratefully soaking up, the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman came blaring out of the house.

    “F*** that!”, the sensei cried as he laid the lamp down on the floor, jumped up and rushed inside shouting, “I’m dancing!!!”

    It always seemed to me since to be the best Zen teaching ever 😉

    On another note re: the West’s usurpation and bastardization of Eastern spiritual practices, I expect you’ll be aware of the way mindfulness meditation has been co-opted for use by mental health services?

    I’m not a Buddhist but I am angry at the way these trick-cyclists, their own remedies proving threadbare and even dangerous, have lifted this genuinely wonderful ancient practice from its context, stripped it of all its spiritual meaning and are now flogging this vanilla hodge-podge to their patients in an effort to help them to cope with the West’s insanity and the madness of their doctors.

  23. Trinogen says:

    Don’t you guys fall for what this politician talks about Zen, he is not a Zen adept for sure.
    Zen is a very diluted form of Buddhism brought to Japan from Chinese Taoism (which is at its turn a diluted form of Buddhism). The real Buddhism (which was diluted several times from Buddha’s time) is based on the principle of tapas or god provide and total seclusion, having nothing to do with politics and fight. And Buddha’s Nirvana is not by any means the Heavens, Buddha being an atheist. What Buddha has discovered cannot be told, because it doesn’t pertain to this world, that’s why the Chinese and the Japanese invented the huans/koans in order to make some sense from Buddha’s teachings and orient the mind in a direction or another and not turn paranoid. Those “minders” have no value whatsoever, the same way Yoga’s mantras have no value. The only value in the world is your heart, which is assaulted to a great extend today by the religio-scientific freaks and the social apparatus as a whole. Please get out the sensorial trance of man!
    And if you are brave enough, try my website as http://www.tachyyoga.org and give your Self a chance to withdraw from human mold into something better. Don’t you cling to terrestrial being!
    Sarva mangalam

  24. Space Lord says:

    Buddha resides on a mountain built for him by others. Searchers construct crooked paths tiled in words to see him. I am the mud he trod, the cloud his eye rests upon.

  25. Skylar says:

    the purpose of meditation is not ‘no action’, the purpose is ‘right action’. one example given is a monkey running wild, lots of action, but not much going right compared to a hen sitting on and incubating an egg, not much activity, but a new chick is in the making. crude examples, but i think you get it.

  26. vicfedorov says:

    There is a zen between your reader, me, and you. There is a zen to you and your audience, to your brand; the meditation reveals the meditator as the being; this is more important and how you change civilization. Zen is a study of relations, or realizes we emerge from, or are occluded by, a vortex of relations. The point is, if the world does stop, and the change is now, who will go along most freely? The meditators and buddist types, the lower class, the people who didnt invest in prestige, and susceptible to communication, zen decreases the distance between operatives, and understands the collusion to the general good.

  27. Genie says:

    Jon, it’s what you know *after* you know everything about Zen that really counts.

  28. Jon, I respect your past work, but you clearly didn’t do much investigation before publishing this piece. You laud a false past of mythologized Zen teachers and teachings. And you fail to see the genuine engaged focus of the vast majority of contemporary Zen practice in America. You are simply wrong on the facts about Zen. You write with intelligence and, as I say, you’ve done good work. Not here, though. Not with respect to Zen.

    Note that this is not to deny the self-centered and self-congratulatory pursuit of no-self that does happen in the American practice of Asian religious traditions. I can’t stand that, either. But please get your facts straight before you malign one of those traditions that actually tries to get it right.

  29. g says:

    Thank you for this article.

    I’ve had an idea…let’s get out of passivity and form an army. An army made of ordinary people who just want to defend and protect life. There is no leader, but what happens is this….

    Let’s say you have an idea-such as wanting to have more herbalists in your area, or allowing your local natural lake to allow public swimming, or have more reflexologists available in yourclocal health centre for free etc….these things are maybe too big for one person. What you do in this ‘army of ideas’ is to put your idea forward and then allow for local people to join forces with you. Basically you don’t need to wait for authority or someone up high to arrange any of this. You just go ahead and do it. As a group of even 2 or 3 a lot can be achieved. Even if your project is something that needs to go through the courts, you can read about the law through online resources and just get on with it. You don’t need to wait for ‘experts’ to tell you about common sense and what your local area needs, do you? You or your team may even end with experts in your team, experts who are disallusioned with how things are. So you could end up, for example with a group of public health doctors who are fed up and want to challenge something in public health. Let’s face it, if you stay in your field and don’t go freelance like this, those big things that maybe you have always wanted to change but couldn’t because your line manager and their line manager just wasn’t interested, may never change….
    Lets say you are a researcher interested in music and health but just couldn’t get anywhere at your university, because there was no such department….why not just do it yourself? Why wait for a command from above or a job description in a newspaper? Make up your new job based on your existing skills, expertise and the task that you really really want to do. The task that would give you a lot of satisfaction. Put it out there and I am sure that people will join you. The only common thread in this army is that it is for defending and protecting life, within a world where this not taking place.

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