How do I choose a Zen variety?
October 22, 2005 11:04 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn about Zen. How do I choose a Zen variety?

There are two Zen centers in this town, one Kwan Um (Seung Sah), the other Soto (Kaisen). Also, there's a Diamond Way Buddhism Center (Karma Kagyu), though I guess that's not Zen. (But for all I know, it is. As I said, I want to learn about Zen; I didn't say I know anything about it now.)

So if I want practical experience, it's going to have to be one of the above, but if you've got anything to say about other varieties, I'd be glad to hear it. The only people I run into around here who know anything about Zen are practitioners at one of the centers, and they are of course biased for their centers.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Diamond Way is a splinter group of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu school, following a lama who hasn't received the approval of most of the Kagyu lamas or of the Dalai Lama himself. Not saying that they couldn't teach you basic meditation techniques, but you'd find yourself in a minority sect with things to be said against it.

Seung Sah is Korean. Soto Zen is very classical Japanese Zen. I haven't practised Zen and think the best idea is that you should try introductory classes with both to get a feel for how they do things.
posted by zadcat at 11:30 PM on October 22, 2005

One way might be to read things about, or written by practitioners of, each school. I don't know anything about diamond way, or kwan um, but I can (highly) recommend "zen mind, beginner's mind" by shunryu suzuki, and also "branching streams flow in the darkness" by the same author, of the soto school. The second isn't perhaps as well known as the first, but it's particularly relevant, as it's a series of talks by suzuki on a poem called the Sandokai. The Sandokai, at one level of abstraction, is about two schools of Zen Buddhism that schismed around the 8th century. As such, it provides an interesting perspective on choosing between competing schools of Buddhism.
posted by advil at 12:23 AM on October 23, 2005

I practiced at a Kwan Um center for a while, and plan to return to practice there again at some point. I wouldn't say I'm biased, I just have experience with Kwan Um and not any experience with Soto.

If you have any specific questions, please feel free to email me.

As Zadcat said, the best way is just to try one or both out. I'm sure they both have Intro or Visitor nights.
posted by falconred at 12:26 AM on October 23, 2005

I can't recommend this book enough - it helped me understand the difference between the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.

More info here and here (of course).
posted by ryanhealy at 1:07 AM on October 23, 2005

Karma Kagyu is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the Vajrayana school (the diamond vehicle that cuts through ignorance), which bases its practice on aspiration-devotion. It's quite ritualistic, which is relaxing and centering for stressed minds.

I don't know anything about Diamond Way centers, but it looks more business-oriented than several Kagyu centers I know well -- a very superficial assessment, sorry.

The spiritual head of the Kagyu school is the Karmapa - the man of karma. He wears a crown woven from the hairs of 10,000 celestial beings, the Black Hat, and offered the ritual of the Black Hat Ceremony worldwide in his last incarnation. The present Karmapa is a young man who escaped occupied Tibet not very long ago.
posted by anadem at 1:26 AM on October 23, 2005

The most important consideration, especially in deciding between Zen schools, is probably the characters of the teachers leading each group, so you should check each one out.

Also, I haven't heard of Diamond Way, but I wouldn't write them off just because they're not sanctioned by the Tibetan theocracy. Who cares what the Dalai Lama thinks, frankly? If they're bad news, you'll be able to tell after a couple of visits. You do find some interesting accusations by googling for "diamond-way cult", though.

I study alone, but the book I've based my practice on was written by a guy with Karma Kagyu training. I've found it way more useful than Zen, because he presents a wide variety of practices and he's very explicit about the goals and risks of each of them. I feel like I've made much more rapid progress this way than I ever could have with Zen training. But studying with an experienced teacher might offset this advantage.
posted by Coventry at 1:59 AM on October 23, 2005

The head of my local Kwan Um sangha once told me that the major difference between Kwan Um and Soto is that they sit facing the center of the room and Soto practitioners sit facing the wall. I've had some experience with both schools, and I'd say that's pretty accurate-- but if you want to answer koans and meet with "Zen masters" on a regular basis, you might be better off with Kwan Um. I'd say, show up to a regular practice at both centers for a while, and then pick whichever one you're more comfortable with.
posted by Chris Freiberg at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2005

Anonymous? Is that you, Billy Graham?
posted by klangklangston at 4:45 PM on October 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

An excerpt from Primary Point (a magazine related to the school of Kwan Um) Spring/Summer 2006, the following is excerpted from "You can save the cat" by Zen Master Wu Bong (ruthlessly paraphrased by myself):

A community is visited by a deadly disease. Doctors were baffled. They heard of a doctor far away who might cure the sick folks in their town. The town's leader goes to visit the doctor and comes back with a recipe for medicine. The townspeople, overjoyed and caught up in their excitement, think to themselves 'we can make this recipe even better!' They form a committee to improve the recipe. The committee comes up with good ideas to improve the recipe. Also a group of concerned townspeople come up with ideas on their own. These improvements don't match the committee's recommended improvements, but seem to improve the recipe as well. More committees and groups align, each thinking they have the best, true, perfect recipe. They continue to argue over it. Finally, everyone dies.

There are alot of recipes out there, but none of them do any good unless you take one. Perhaps it is not so important which one is the best.
posted by iurodivii at 6:52 AM on October 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

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