“A Critical Review of the International Zen Association”- Ralf Halfmann.
I. The foundation of the International Zen Association
The “Association Zen International” (AZI), a French organisation with its seat in Paris, was founded by Taisen Deshimaru (1918-1982) in the early 80s. Many more than its approximately 2000 official members practice Zen in the association’s dojos. The AZI is the biggest and most widespread Zen-organisation in Europe and has “branches” in U.K. (IZAUK), Belgium (AZB) and the U.S. (AZA). In its Temple “La Gendronnière” near the city of Blois in France sesshins are organised on an ongoing basis.
Deshimaru was a Japanese Zen-priest who arrived in France in 1967 in order to bring “the seed of zen” to the fertile and fresh soil of Europe. He always understood his coming as a “mission”. Today, after the death of Deshimaru, the AZI is run by his former disciples who see their task in continuing this mission. Deshimaru stems from the Soto-Zen lineage and claimed to be a disciple and successor of the famous Zen-priest Kodo Sawaki (1880-1965). This, however, is contested today by some of Kodo Sawaki’s disciples. Although he did receive Sawaki’s religious habit (Kesa), he did not receive a formal shiho (i.e. an official acknowledgement of Dharma-succession) from him, which would have constituted a bona fide transmission. Actually, his shiho came from master Yamada Reirin.
The recent publication of Brian Victoria’s book “Zen at War” has provided historical facts that demand a new appraisal of Kodo Sawaki, a man who has hitherto been praised as an “enlightened” Zen-Master in Japan and abroad, but who apparently was an atrocious Buddhist war-monger. He boasted openly about how many people he had killed during the Russo-Japanese war (1905) and incited Buddhist students to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield during World War II. He claimed, for example, that throwing an bomb was equatible with the precept of not-killing. Because of his myopia Deshimaru did not fight in the war but was send to Indonesia to work for Mitsubishi, Japan’s largest weapons manufacturer. After the war he plied his labours in road- and bridge-building as well as in many other odd and sundry areas, yet always without much success. In fact, he was confronted on several occasions with insolvency. According to his autobiography he followed Kodo Sawaki, but opted not to live in a monastery. In 1967, an invitation from a group of macrobiotics practitioners gave him the chance to leave his homeland and set off for France.
Once in Europe, Deshimaru suddenly presented himself as the only true Zen-Master amongst all traditions that trace their lineages back to the Buddha. He interpreted his failure in society as a “deep experience of mujo” or impermanence which gave him the feeling of being called to a “higher task”. Afterwards, he curiously enough did not speak much about his wife and children who he left behind in Japan; one has the impression that he deliberately expunged them from his autobiography. When speaking of himself, Deshimaru did not always employ modest language. In the foreword to his book “Za-Zen – La Pratique du Zen”, he asserts: “My Zen sums up the teachings of all Buddhas, all masters and sages and the spiritual experience of Asia”. In all of his 25 odd books, one cannot find even the slightest indication of self-criticism or uncertainty. Quite the contrary: all of his teachings have the air of brazen authority: as the enlightened, omniscient master he stands beyond criticism. It was clear to those around him, however, that he had a dangerous weakness for alcohol. In retrospect we know he did not tell the truth to his students. Although he knew about Sawaki’s brutal wartime excessives, Deshimaru never mentioned anything negative. On the contrary, he praised his teacher as a true and enlightened master and himself as the true disciple.
II. Present structure of the AZI
Today, the internal structure of the AZI is hierarchical with the Committee and the “Masters” at the top who work together. After Deshimarus early death in 1982 (he died at the age of 68 from pancreas-cancer), he left his disciples without appointing any heir. Like in his own case, the “Shiho” has been given to three of his closest disciples by someone else acting as representative, namely by Niwa Zenji, the former abbot of Eihei-ji. Interestingly, both Niwa Zenji and Yamada Reirin have, according to Brian Victoria’s examination, a rather dark record of behaviour during war times and afterwards, too. Of course, this has been carefully concealed to the western followers until today. From the three appointed successors one died and one other left the AZI in 1995 because of internal quarrels. The latter one founded the European Zen Association in Amsterdam. Apparently, he left because he could not accept another “Godo” (=master or disciple with high responsibilities) at his side and felt that he was not duly revered by everyone as he expected. In 1998, two ancient disciples travelled to Japan and received a formal “Shiho”, too. So, at present, there are three persons who call themselves “master” and claim to be “in the line of the Buddhas and Patriarchs”. What is not mentioned is that, historically regarded, the “lineage theory” is more than fragile and obviously only functions as legitimation for the principle of unchallengeable leadership.
Another important factor of power within the AZI is the committee, which is responsible for the management of the AZI. They administrate the money and the premises and thus have the real power. It consists of some 20 or so former disciples around master Deshimaru. The three present “masters” are members of the committee, too. One of them functions as president of the AZI thus uniting the “spiritual” and the administrative authority in one hand. The committee itself is “elected” in a fairly obscure and undemocratic procedure. Once I attended the general meeting where each was presented with a list of about 20 persons standing as candidates for the committee. From this list, so was explained to us, we could scratch out 2 names. The remaining persons would be automatically elected. That was the “election”. In general, the results of the “election” are, apart perhaps from one person, always fixed even before any voting takes place. The reason for this is the proxy-system. The leaders and old disciples presented in the committee hold enough proxies from their adherents at home that they can elect themselves no matter how the general meeting would vote. So, it is impossible for new candidates to be elected without “borrowing” proxies from the old committee members and having their previous consent. Also, it is impossible to get rid of the “clique” of disciples holding the power. The function of the members being present at the general meeting and giving their vote is, in reality, only to fulfil the quota of present members required by the statute. In reality, their votes do not have any meaning. One of the leaders overtly admitted this during a meeting of directors at which I participated. The persons in the general meeting, however, do not know this when faithfully passing their votes.
The structure does not admit any balancing of power that would include the interests of all members. The committee is an absolute “in-group” deriving its legitimation only from the fact that they were all close disciples of master Deshimaru and therefore “know” what is best for others. Apart from the members of the committee, no one really knows what is going on inside. The members are very carefully not to let anything outside or tell more that one already knows. It is obvious that transparency would undermine their power because their authority is solely based on the assumption that they dispose of a “superior” knowledge and experience. What can be seen from the outside, is that committee and “masters” apparently work together in order to respect the “spheres of interest” of the others. That means that, at present, each member has a certain preferred geographic region where to “fish” for new adherents. Each “Godo” directs one of the six summer training periods so that they commonly “share the cake”. This sort of co-operation has worked until today, but it does not seem to be a love-marriage at all. At the present time, an increasing process of regionalisation is undeniable so that a breaking apart of one or more leaders seems to be the logical consequence in future.
Among all of the elderly disciples today, particularly among those who claim to have been close to master Deshimaru, can be found the same belief in unquestionable authority as in their predecessor’s case. During his lifetime Deshimaru used to promise to them: “Even if you now are only disciple, but after you could become a master for eternal. During Zazen you everybody become same Buddha or God”. All of them, masters and elder disciples who hold a higher function within the organisation, never tire to insist and to teach others that true Zazen would solely be based on the principle of “transmission” from master to disciple. This transmission and therefore the “correct” practice require a total submission to the leader. Of course, this does not mean in the first place a “physical submission”, for example following all the orders that the leader would give. What is meant, is in the first line an acceptance of the teachings and the position of the leader as spiritual master who knows better what is best for you. This is described with “following” the master. A “good disciple” is someone who leaves his critical mind aside and “follows” without any ifs and buts. That means that the disciple moves when the master would move, he eats when the master would eat, he drinks when the master would drink and so on. Finally he is supposed to become the spitting image or an imprint of his chosen master. That is the underlying idea of the principle of “transmission” as described in the “San Do Kai” by the Chinese monk Sekito Kisen. Any other behaviour would be regarded and criticised as a “wrong practice” and an “illusion” stemming from one’s ego. As Deshimaru himself, some of the higher rank disciples explicitly refer to the “Tai Taiko Ho”, a chapter from Dogen’s “Eihei Shingi”, which demands from “lower rank” disciples a rigid, quasi-militaristic respect and obsequiousness towards higher rank monks. That this ancient text may be totally inadequate and atavistic for today’s society, which is greatly different from that of medieval Japan does, however, not seem a matter of any concern. Until now, there are no discussions about this subject nor any willingness for critical self-reflection.
III. Methods of mind control
The following list of things I have experienced within the AZI is not exhaustive. I have just written down what came first into my mind and what I find most remarkable after reading some critical books about the techniques of mind control used within cults (e.g. “Combatting Cult Mind Control” by Steven Hassan and “The Guru Papers – Masks of authoritarian power” by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad). I have therefore not only summed up what is “officially” said but also added my ideas about what really happens.
1. During initiations and information events, when explaining Zen to an interested audience, the main emphasis is laid on the beneficial aspects of Zen-Meditation on body and mind. Masters or leaders often refer to scientific examinations that prove the positive and healthy effects of Zazen. It is pointed out that this practice is exactly what led the historical Buddha to enlightenment and that it can put an end to all suffering. Furthermore, it is stressed that Zen itself is neither Buddhism and nor a religion or a philosophy. Anyone could practise it regardless of one’s denomination. Some leaders can be brilliant at conferences responding to questions posed from the relative, everyday-life perspective with answers stemming from the absolute point of view of Buddhism and vice versa. Thus, they undermine the seemingly limited understanding of the questioners and often leave them deeply impressed and stupefied.
However, what is not mentioned is the fact that it is not about simple meditation at all, but that the practice offered by the AZI is charged with and framed by an ideological system. That means that for example ceremonies are held twice every day before breakfast and lunch, Japanese sutras are being chanted, a special dark clothing is predominant (Kimono or Kolomo), lots of religious symbols are used, ordinations to “Bodhisattva” and monks/nuns take place, “Dharma-names” are being given and people shave their heads. Also, lots of teachings are held on the base of the Deshimaru-sect with Dogen’s “Shobogenzo” serving as the ultimate “bible” of correct Zen. If one looks close, there is actually no substantial difference to a religion. The whole daily routine is reigned by a meticulous time-schedule not allowing any breakouts or much spare time. Also, it is not allowed that one leaves the “Dojo” (meditation hall; place dedicated for Zazen) during meditation or to skip the meditation except for illness. Developing the purported freedom and independence within an environment of total control, however, is only possible through internalising the whole system. Persons who want to acquire this freedom would therefore tend to adopt this system or leave within short time. Thus, developing the desired mind of “letting go” is actually linked to the precondition of adopting a belief system, too.
2. Another deceiving explanation is what I would call equating a unique emotional experience with a “proof” for a complex system of beliefs. To understand this, it is important to know, that the intense practice of meditation (“Zazen”) usually sets off very strong and unique emotions, especially when it is done within a large group and under circumstances, which do not allow them to ventilate. Most of the persons practising Zazen know this feeling because that is probably the reason why they continue. We sometimes call this state “sesshin-high” and it is possible that persons can become a sort of “energy-junkies” by Zazen. This unique emotional experience is however labelled and sold as “return to the original state of body and mind”, as the “highest state of mind” or as the “mind of Buddha”. For lack of other, more rational explanations the practitioners tend to buy this explanation and thus take on the complex ideology linked with this unique experience. Moreover, this experience is regarded as “proof” for the correctness of the ideology skilfully foisted onto it (“proof through reframing”). Although a unique emotional experience is only a unique emotional experience, not more and not less, upholding one’s own system of beliefs under this conditions becomes nearly impossible. The energy and the group dynamics exert a very strong pressure towards conformity and would lead sooner or later to a full conversion. This sort of meditation therefore tends to “swallow” the people, and especially the younger ones who are seeking some certainty or group experience. Often people being in this unique emotional state ask for the ordination as “bodhisattva” or monk and nun. Usually, this request is happily granted to them, although it is fairly obvious that these persons are somehow “drunken” and carried away by the group dynamics. They are far from being in a “normal” state of mind. Once they are ordained they would be confronted with higher expectations to take on more responsibilities and engage themselves more intensively for the aim of spreading Zazen. These, in my view typical facts are totally concealed or diminished towards newcomers and most ordinary members.
3. The creation of a hidden dualism: The energy this practise usually sets off together with the explanation that Zazen would be the highest state of mind one could ever reach (“in Zazen you are Buddha or God”) have other consequences, too. Most of the members usually develop the attitude that the affairs of everyday life like family, friends, work and career are inferior to this practice. It is always maintained that actions in daily life are very important. The fact is, however, that members are praised and acknowledged strictly according to their engagement for Zazen. The more a member would cut off his social bindings, for example spending all of his spare time for visiting weekend-sesshins, the more he would be rewarded and praised by the master. Also, the more one focuses on Zazen the more one receives “responsibilities”. This, in turn, leads to being permanently occupied and thus having no more time to reflect one’s own position in life. The underlying message is very clear that it is good to leave the worldly affairs behind and focus all one’s attention on following the master. Although egolessness, self-abandon and non-discrimination are preached constantly, this ideology contains a hidden dualistic judgement itself that is even more dangerous because of its hidden character.
One of the problems this leads to is that many persons have, after returning from weekend Sesshins, severe difficulties in adapting to social life again. To escape the presumed “inferior” social world with all its difficulties, people are tempted to visit weekend Sesshins more and more often, finally devoting all of their spare time and money for it. They believe that the sesshin-life has a purifying effect and would represent the “perfect world”. They are explained that because of practising Zazen they would develop an egoless, non-dualistic mind, but in reality, a dualistic worldview is upheld and strengthened. It is only hidden and shifted towards another object, but certainly not abandoned. Critically thinking, the desired state of egolessness cannot possibly be reached by anyone. For some moments during meditation it may be possible, but immediately after meditation the ego reappears and manifests itself. Up to today there is no one who has ever been seen having permanently reached this state. The historical Buddha asserted it for himself but this cannot be proved anymore. Again, a matter of belief is sold as a given and provable fact. Because everyone feels this discrepancy, that means that he is far from being egoless, he tends to blame himself and concludes the need for an even harder practice. With only the “master” being able to certify any progress on the spiritual path practitioners become more and more dependant instead of developing independence and freedom.
However, taking a look at those “masters” or elder disciples who practise Zazen for many years and even decades, one cannot remark by no means that they would be any better than any other normal person. As to their behaviour, it is often much worse than that of beginners. The higher people climb within the organisation the more they suspend themselves from the rules that are, at the same time, imposed with strictness on others. E.g., among elder disciples and those who call themselves “masters” excessive consumption of alcohol is more than frequent. Without being moralistic one can remark many overt discrepancies between what is said and what is actually done. E.g., as to the daily work called “Samu” (that means service), it is very rare that one could see a master or elder leader taking part in it. Although the importance of Samu is particularly stressed, they do not participate saying that they would have “more important” things to do. At the same time, the practitioners are taught that all tasks would be of the same importance and that the differentiation between important and unimportant would be an erroneous view due to a “wrong” practice.
4. One of the most powerful instruments to influence the participants is the teaching (“Kusen”) being held during the meditation itself. That means that people sit face to the wall and meditate, whereas the leader sits in their back, face to the room, and gives an oral “teaching”. This speech usually lasts from 10 up to 40 min or longer for each Zazen period. For most of the beginners this represents a nice “entertainment” because Zazen is long, usually painful for the knees and may seem dull or boring. What they do not realise, is that by this method a very complex ideology is directly induced into their minds. During Zazen one is permanently admonished to concentrate on one’s posture and not to follow one’s own thoughts. Whether one agrees with the “teachings” or not, after a while, one will usually give up all possible resistance to it. During a hard long lasting meditation period, concentrating on one’s posture, it is simply impossible to uphold one’s critical conscience. So finally, one resigns and lets it wash over oneself. Deshimaru used to justify the Kusen by saying that he would implant “seeds of wisdom” into the minds of his disciples and that his teaching would be better than his disciples’ thoughts. Today, when questioned, the role of the Kusen during Zazen is permanently played down and diminished. The leaders usually maintain that the Kusen simply serves to uphold the concentration, to interrupt the flow of one’s personal thoughts during Zazen or to help to better understand and arrange one’s thoughts.
This is however not true at all: The Kusen has the effect of a straightforward replacement of one’s thoughts and one’s system of values. It is a sort of a “guided meditation” and a method to introduce messages into others in a situation where others cannot decide whether to accept them or not nor pose any critical questions. It penetrates deeply into the unconsciousness where it continues to work and thus has a long-term “oversampling” effect. The leaders themselves sometimes refer to it as “the power of Kusen”. Usually, the adherents take it for granted that the Kusen is an expression of the “true Dharma” and therefore tend to “swallow” the teachings and forget any critical thoughts. At the Zen-temple “La Gendronnière”, usually up to 300 to 450 persons participate at the summer training-periods. In the dojo they are subjected to an incessant indoctrination and replacement of their thinking up to four times a day. They are actually convinced that by doing so they would only develop their own selfs. They think they are advancing on the Way, whereas they are open for manipulation on a large scale. An impressive example of how the indoctrination works can be seen in the fact that most of the old disciples today still act as if master Deshimaru actually stood behind them or were in their heads giving the instructions. For any action or question they refer to what master Deshimaru presumably would have said or not said, thus having at the same time a justification, which cannot possibly be questioned by anyone. Although it is now more than 15 years that Deshimaru is already dead, he seems to be present everywhere. Pictures of him hang everywhere. Every morning after Zazen a procession is made to his grave where people bow before his picture. The omnipresent veneration of master Deshimaru reaches far beyond the measure of respect one usually and reasonably would feel for his ancestors. In my view, there are clear signs of a personality cult. Sometimes newcomers complain about this, too. It is astonishing how powerfully and effectively Deshimaru managed to “implant” himself into his followers’ minds.
In contrast to the alleged insignificance of the Kusen, when explaining its purpose to others the leaders themselves put great emphasis on their teachings. They want them to be written down correctly, recorded, translated meticulously, sold and, afterwards, disseminated. Usually two persons are designed to write down and record the Kusen being held during Zazen, one for the French language and one for another language into which the Kusen would be translated simultaneously. I have already seen three persons writing down the Kusen during the meditation. The scenery resembled more a press conference than a “meaningless” sitting without aims or intentions. Also, the overseers of the Dojos are strongly encouraged to read the teachings of Deshimaru and hold them as a Kusen in their Dojos. It is one of their main tasks to encourage newcomers to become members of the AZI and visit the sesshins. The results of proselytising are generally seen as a yardstick of the quality and righteousness of the practice and are rewarded with expressive approval, for example, with a placement at the “Godo’s table” during the meals.
5. The magical “key-word” used in nearly every second sentence is “ego”. It is the personal ego that has to be overcome. The egolessness and the total abandon of oneself is regarded as the highest reachable value on the spiritual path. This has as a consequence that any expression of one’s free will that deviates from the will of the master or leaders would be judged as egoistic and not in accordance with the Way. Of course, the masters’ and leaders’ wills are not egoistic because they claim to express the “Dharma” and be beyond dualistic and self-tainted conceptions. Nearly always, the very complex personal, social or familial situation of a person who does not seem to be “in line” with the ideology is reduced to the simple statement that this persons would only be following his “ego”.
6. Whereas joining the AZI or one of its affiliated Dojos is a free decision, there is no legitimate reason acknowledged to leave. The wish to leave or to join another group is always criticised as “selfish” and “egoistic”. During my 9-year membership within the AZI I have never heard any other commentary to somebody’s leaving a Dojo other than that he or she was impelled by “severe personal problems” or by the nefarious workings of “ego”. It is never respected as an expression of the leaving member’s free will. Moreover, stopping Zazen is described as the worst solution at all, since this would exacerbate one’s Karma.
7. The teachings given are absolutely unassailable. Critical questions are always turned down and deflected to questioner. It is always his “ego” and his lack of understanding which makes him pose that question. The master never commits any mistakes. The ideology is always right. Although questions are allowed in a formalised way, where the questioner comes forward in front of the group, inclines himself and knees in front of the master, it is impossible to subdue the ideology to a rational critique. For example, a rational question would be answered with the statement that one should not read so much. Or, the questioner would be asked to clarify where his concrete problem lies. Other questions are disregarded as being too abstract. The usual answer to someone who, after all, is not convinced would be: “Continue Zazen and you’ll understand”. So, Zazen is built up into being the ultimate solution for all possible problems one could ever have. If there is a problem that means that there is a “mistake” in the practice. A rational question is always treated as a sign of non-enlightenment or delusion. The masters masterfully undermine the self-confidence of any questioner. These sort of “answers”, together with the group pressure, cause the questioner to doubt his own understanding rather than the teachings of the master.
What is not admitted or said is that it is highly unfair and not compassionate at all always to deflect a problem to the questioner and place oneself beyond all inquiry. The masters assert that their teachings are not “opinions” and are not a result of their rational thinking but expressions of the “true Dharma”. The proclaimed words of “true Dharma” are alleged to come directly from the “sphere beyond thinking”. Though, in most cases the masters read a text that they have carefully prepared and written down before. Finally, they do not forget that their sayings are being recorded and written down. If one nevertheless dares to really compare the commentaries given by the leaders in their Kusen to the original Buddhist texts, one can easily remark that the original texts are being distorted and doctored, in that they are only interpreted in favour of Zazen and the AZI’s ideology. This applies particularly to Deshimaru’s commentaries of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Historically, many of the teachings are more than questionable and well worthy of a nearer scrutiny. This refers not only to their usefulness for daily life today but also to their accuracy. Developments, for example, such as the “Critical Buddhism”, which have started for many years in Japan have not yet reached Europe. When I spoke with one of the French masters about this his reply was that the Japanese would not understand Dogen at all! Leaving the arrogance of such statement aside, it shows that the doctrine, as in Japan, clearly express the “Dogen-centric mini-world of Soto-Zen sectarianism” (cf. W. Bodiford: Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1996 23/1-2, p. 22).
8. The masters perfectly understand to play with group dynamics and with emotions, too. Because everybody is focused on what the master says or does the master often does not need to criticise himself. Thus, he can always seem liberal, open and gentle to anyone. However, a confused look, an astonished mien or a single word of discontent are enough to trigger off harsh criticism and reactions among his devoted followers who subsequently do the job for the master. A simple and not important “mistake” can thus lead to the consequence that one is being told off or reprimanded by up to ten or more different persons. The creating of group pressure nearly always happens with knowledge and tacit approval of the master. He does not need to intervene as long as things happen in the desired way. If there is a problem he can appear as a “detached” and an “uninvolved” friend. Same tactics function well in the other direction too. An expressive praise of the master would lead immediately to a higher reputation among the disciples. Interestingly, many of the most intelligent and ambitious persons in everyday life get into the highest functions. Instead of being freed from their attachments, their same old behaviour patterns are reinforced and skilfully used for the aims of the organisation. Many of those in positions of authority put in this way into position finally become more rigid and overloaded with the obligation to play a role that does not fit to them. They are unknowingly used as instruments without having their real problems addressed.
Of course, this behaviour is interpreted as an advancement on the way because one does not follow one’s ego any more. What really happens is, in my view, that one follows another the ego of another person who, though regarded as being totally selfless, is still playing a role. The described mechanisms also stand in sharp contrast to so-called unconditional love and compassion. There is a very subtle system of rewards and punishments all having to do with giving and withdrawing love and attention. Criticising the master or the ideology would lead to an immediate withdrawal of the other group members or even to overt aggressiveness. In fact, the alleged deep spiritual friendship which one may feel is very fragile because it is solely based on the fact of a commonly shared ideology. It immediately stops as soon as ones overtly differs from it. Upon leaving the organisation all contact with the hundreds of persons I had known immediately stopped. Former long term friendships even turned into enmity and aggressiveness.
This list, of course, could be continued further. The enumeration of critical issues is, however, not my primary purpose. What I wanted to show is, that even in Buddhist groups, methods are applied, which belong to the classical methods of “mind control”, e.g. as known from Steven Hassan’s book (see above). It is important to see that these methods work perfectly no matter if they are applied by a destructive cult or by a group with seemingly good and honourable intentions. The reprehensibility of these methods does not therefore lie in the intentions they are used for, but in the fact that they aim to change a persons without their knowledge or previous consent, thus leading to create an artificial or fake identity of the persons involved. Thus, these methods inherently contradict the idea of an authentic spiritual development and should be abandoned or at least revealed so that they are liberated of their detrimental effects.
IV. How I got involved and how I finally left
Before I encountered Zen I had already some experience of meditation, yoga and other methods of relaxation. I had always been interested in going somehow beyond the usual limits of my mind or personality. In all the books I read about Zen it was highly praised as the purest, the fastest, the most direct and the most uncompromising way to attain Satori, liberation and true “Buddhahood”. So, I wanted to find out whatever this might be. After my first experience of Zazen I was fairly impressed by the strange atmosphere in the Dojo and the rigidity of the posture. I believed it as natural that the harder the practice was the better the results must be. Although Zazen was very painful for the knees I felt a big relief afterwards. Zazen caused a unique experience, which I had never previously known. I decided to deepen my practice and visited Sesshins more often. Right from my first Zazen-experience the meditation period was loaded with the oral teachings (Kusen) given by the instructor sitting behind me. I became used to it and regarded it as normal. Since it was inculcated into us in an open manner, that all the teachings could – and ought to be – verified though first-hand experience, I tended not to examine them too suspiciously. Furthermore, reading different books on Zen it seemed to be that Zen is absolutely exempt from any reproaches of being a cult. So, I slowly got more and more involved into the organisation, unwittingly taking on its ideology. By equating the unique emotional experience of Zen with a proof for a complex system of beliefs, I have accepted this ideology as being the truth. And to repeat this experience, which I believed to be the “true Way”, I have taken into account all the above mentioned discrepancies and contradictions. I did see them for many years but, compared to the “practice of Buddha”, I didn’t attach the due importance to them. Looking back, I can only explain this with how efficiently mind-control techniques can work to stun the critical mind.
The breaking-point came when I accidentally read the book “Zen at War” of B. Victoria and found out that the many of the highly admired masters of our Zen-lineage apparently were murderers and warmongers. The master to whom I had presented the book tried to play it all down with some ridiculous arguments, lying to me and to others. Starting from this fairly sobering experience I began to do my own inquiries and not simply rely on what others said. And the more I searched the more I found. For example, I found out that many of the things I have been told either were simply untrue or based on very dubious beliefs. I suddenly became aware of how much I departed from what I had originally wanted to do with Zen. I actually did not want to adapt an ideology. I did not want to become more rigid instead of more open. I did not want to sacrifice all of my spare time, my private life, my friends, my work, my money, for the sake of Zazen. And I didn’t want to become a “Guru” myself either. That was not what I had been looking for. Realising the extent of the fake identity that has been built up I decided to quit. Afterwards I felt an enormous and lasting relief. Perhaps I had not understood the “correct Zen”, but I am nonetheless feeling much better now. For me that is proof enough I have made the right decision in going. I am enjoying my regained freedom but I also feel sorry for those who are still involved in the AZI and perhaps moving in a direction that they have not chosen.
V. Some conclusions
The practice of Zen within the AZI is far more than a simple practice of sitting meditation. The meditation offered is loaded with and embedded into a complex ideological and authoritarian system of belief which is insidiously implanted into the participants while labelling it as “true Dharma”. I do not want to criticise either Zen or Buddhism in general. Although, I think that the problems I have tried to describe might well concern other Zen-groups in the West as well. In my view, meditation is a good thing to do and I can highly recommend it. The problems arise when an ideology or a belief system is added to it by using methods of mind control and without making it clear from the start. This is all the more important since the AZI’s belief-system is supposedly beyond rational criticism. Not being a buddhologist, I am unable to formulate a critique from the religious point of view. I have, however, serious doubts that the uncritical belief in an ultimate authority that is unassailable by rational arguments would really help oneself or others. The wish to rely on an all-mastering father who, in return for total abandon and submission, guarantees absolute certainty is, in my view, a regression into childhood desires. It is regressive in that the master would tend to intensify and strengthen the bindings between him and his disciples, thus keeping up and even reinforcing the state of dependency, whereas caring parents would educate their children to become totally free and independent from them.
It is not my intention to undermine the confidence which practitioners have in others and particularly in their teachers. I believe that confidence in oneself and others is important for any personal growth. However, uncritical confidence in others, mixed with a lack of confidence in oneself is not a basis for true progress, but is, in my view, doomed to failure. The AZI’s internal structure of functioning and of interaction, as described above, can be held as an example of a totalitarian society in miniature. This becomes quite clear when one imagines to apply its ways of functioning to real society. What it offers is therefore definitely not new and not a model for a new social order that could solve the world’s problems. I can therefore not recommend the AZI or its affiliated Dojos. For beginners interested in Zazen and keeping in mind the dangers I have tried to outline, it is well worth a visit to learn about the posture and the method of sitting, breathing, etc. But for those who are looking for a personal, self-responsible spiritual practice based on the teaching of Buddha: “Don’t believe what others say to you, prove it for yourself”, the AZI is not the right place. I regret to say this because the practise of Zazen itself is not to blame. Neither do I want to suggest that all the persons actively involved in this organisation would be malicious in that they knew what is really going on. I believe that even most of the directors unknowingly play their part in the system and simply continue to do to others what has been previously done to them. Unfortunately, those who are actively inside the system have only little chances to see through it.
I do not want this report to be regarded as an “objective truth” either. It is simply a short summary of my own personal and therefore subjective experiences and should be understood as such. There are however two things I would like to point out: Firstly, I am not the only one to have left with such sentiments. I have talked to other ex-members, and their experiences are similar to mine. Secondly, the crucial point enabling me to finally break away was a free access and a free flow of third-party information. I believe that the mind-control techniques within the AZI stand and fall with the possibility of controlling information. This is finally one of the reasons why I have decided to write this report. I would like to encourage others, especially those who are involved in the AZI or similar organisations, to assess their situation critically on the basis of all available information. I hope my report can at least to some extent contribute to this purpose.
Huston Smith’s book “The World’s Religions” as its text.
“Huston points out there are six main aspects of religion:
1. Authority – both human and divine
2. Ritual – celebration of the origin of the religion
3. Speculation – the sense of wonder
4. Tradition – the institutions and practices to perpetuate the faith
5. God’s transcendence and power – our existence is contingent upon God
6. Mystery, magic, mysticism and miracles.
And that the Buddha rejected all of these aspects of religion. He preached a religion:
1. Devoid of authority – “Be ye lamps unto yourself.”
2. Devoid of ritual – one of the fetters which bind the spirit
3. Devoid of speculation – “The Noble Silence.” He flatly refused to discuss metaphysics such as “Is the world finite?” or “What is the relation between the soul and the body?”
4. Devoid of tradition – don’t go by what is handed down. “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
5. As opposed to God, he taught a religion of intense self effort; no Gods can be counted on – even the Buddha, himself, cannot be counted on.
6. Devoid of the supernatural: he taught a religion of personal experience.