Oct 27, 2020

An interview with Jeff Shore

Jeff Shore is an American lay Zen teacher currently living in Japan. He discusses the health of present-day Zen teaching and practise.

Jeff Shore


Being without Self

Zen Gateway interviewed Jeff Shore after he presented an uncompromising report on Zen in America to a symposium commemorating the 1150th Anniversary of Zen Master Rinzai. Jeff is an American who has made Japan his home for the last 35 years. A lay Zen teacher and the authorized dharma heir of the late Zen Master Keido Fukushima, he is the author of Being Without Self (Asoka 2008) and the translator of this month’s forthcoming book by Master Boshan, Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the Modern World (Wisdom Publications, July 2016). Although he delivers a harsh critique of the self-proclaimed Zen masters who have dominated the American Zen world he studiously avoids naming names. This respects the Japanese tradition of not causing others to lose face. However those interested in further information can refer to the following link: https://newrepublic.com/.../zen-buddhist-sex-controversies-america.

“By the early 1960s, Western Zen practice started to go terribly wrong, resulting in the present crisis. In a nutshell, several Japanese monks who had spent time in Rinzai monasteries travelled to America and later to Europe. There they used their privileged position to abuse their disciples sexually and psychologically. Continued abuse, cover-ups, and widespread deceit over the last fifty years poisoned the practice environment. This made anything approaching genuine practice impossible, and caused many Westerners to dismiss Zen as a corrupt and dangerous cult. To this day Japanese Rinzai Zen – its institutions as well as its monks and masters – have failed to respond.”

Jeff Shore, extract from his talk at the Hanazono University symposium in April 2016.

ZG: The position that you hold as a Zen teacher and respected American scholar in Japan puts you in quite a unique position so I wanted to ask you a little bit about your own background. You talked about moving to Japan because you had experienced Zen in the US and you were dissatisfied with it. Could you expand a little bit on that?

JS: I was born in 1953 so I became a teenager in the 60s. If you were going to college then, there was a good chance you heard of D. T. Suzuki and maybe read some of his stuff. Yoga, Hinduism, Woodstock, drugs, sex, rock and roll: it was all mixed together. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia and by pure coincidence met one of D. T. Suzuki's close disciples, Richard De Martino, the man who co-authored the book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis with Erich Fromm and D. T. Suzuki. I started taking classes with him and he drove things home for me, and also I went to visit some of the Zen centres. I started to hear rumors but I had no idea how bad it was. I didn't really know much. I met some of the people who were teaching and I just felt this is not for me. Later I did go to graduate school in Hawaii, so I did practice for a while with Robert Aitken's group and did some sesshins there. That's where I had my first kind of insight, which I didn't know what to do with because it perhaps came too early. That's one of the things also that really drove me to Japan. I realised that you really need to have proper guidance if you're going to do this Zen thing. You can't just read some books and try to meditate. De Martino was teaching it as an academic. He was trying to see what it would be like to think rigorously about Zen critically, but he wasn't a Zen teacher per se. Robert Aitken had his head screwed on right. I don't know that he was a great teacher, but he was a sincere individual. But some of the other ones about whom obviously I'm obviously writing about in that piece; they were sick individuals and they were using their position to abuse students. It was just a very sad thing. I didn't know that when I went to Japan, I just knew that it was not right. What happened was many years later one of the people who had studied with one of these sick teachers asked me to check up on his validity and see if he actually had inka or certification from his Rinzai Zen master in Japan. And it was like opening Pandora's box. Unlike this person I could look at the Japanese writings and ask around. And oh my God, to see what this teacher had been doing somewhat openly for 50 years, the cover-ups, and the way that other people would distort what was going on so that they could still hold him up as some kind of a teacher to worship!

ZG: When did you actually go to Japan?

JS: The summer of 1981.

ZG: And was it what you expected, when you became involved in the training? Were you prepared?

JS: Nothing can really prepare you for living in the monastery. It's not just living in Japan. It's like living in medieval Japan. So I had gone and done a couple of sesshins, including the rohatsu, which is the most intensive sesshin and which was really, really gruelling and difficult. That's what I was there for, but I didn't frankly know what it was like to live in a monastery. Please remember there are seven sesshins a year on average in a monastery. They're a week long, which means 45 weeks of the year there are no sesshins.

ZG: Yes.

JS: Out of 52 weeks, what are they doing the other 45 weeks? Well, I had no idea because I had grown up with D. T. Suzuki and I knew all these stories about getting hit over the head by a daikon radish and you get enlightened but I had no idea what was actually going on in the monastery those other 45 weeks. So when I went to live there it was vastly disappointing because I realised I was being trained to become a Japanese priest. You're doing funeral ceremonies, memorials, so you learn how to recite the sutras a certain way. I remember sitting there thinking I've never felt so far away from Zen practice than I am here sitting in this monastery, because I was doing all of these - learning all of these - other things, which I of course judged as not Zen. So in a way it was a great disappointment, but as I went through it I started to realise, “Wait a minute it's really just your own expectations.” I thought, “Maybe I am doing Zen practice. I'm not succeeding very well, but having to bump up against this stuff: maybe that's what I really need to do.”

In the long run, what I did was - after a year of training in the monastery and also living in the temple to prepare myself - I decided to do it as a layman because I didn't want to become a priest and perform funeral ceremonies and things like that. And it just so happened that this wasn’t going to be in Myoshinji but at Tofukuji where another new monastery had opened up after being closed because the previous master didn't have a successor. And the guy who opened up that monastery was Fukushima Keido. He had studied with Shibayama Zenkei, who had written Zen Comments on the Mumonkan which was one of the books that had inspired me to go to Japan. Shibayama had already passed away so I couldn't study with him, but when I met Fukushima and found that he was the successor of Shibayama I said, “I've been living and practicing in Myōshinji for the last year. I had my head shaved and all that, but I want to practice with you.” He was delighted, but at Myōshinji they were really pissed off. A bit of a thing to correct there because you don’t just go shopping around. That was a faux pas on my part.

ZG: It's not an uncommon trait in us [laughter]. Sorry, go on.

JS With Fukushima I didn't waver for the next 25 years and I just went through it all. I was very, very fortunate.

ZG: When you were composing the article, whom were you aiming it towards in your mind?

JS I was writing for the Japanese audience, but I wasn't forgetting the Western audience. I am after all an American. But the piece was to be written in Japanese and then translated into Chinese. There were people from Korea, from France, from the States as well, but they could all read Japanese and Chinese. So the idea was to familiarise them with the issue, but I think that a good part of what I wrote was directed at what I felt is the failure of the Rinzai establishment to respond to this. They're not completely unaware of it, but they will not speak up about it and I'm hoping this will motivate them to do so. Of course, part of it is a cultural difference. In Japan you sweep that stuff under the rug. You don't speak ill of others. I respect that, but when something like this is going on - as bad, as painful, as detrimental as it is - in the name of Rinzai Zen Buddhism I see no way to get around it. Every 50 years they do this [symposium]. It's a big thing and having been asked to speak I just felt there was no way I could avoid this. My hope was that it could incite them to look and say,

“Wait a minute, I don’t think Rinzai would have put up with this crap.”

ZG It does reach a tipping point because the Rinzai establishment in Japan must be very concerned about what they see happening in the name of Master Rinzai and the school.

JS Yeah, when something like this happens they let it go by and just hope that it will die out.

ZG I can understand that.

JS They have a saying in Japan: “Whenever anyone beats their futon dust comes out of the futon.” Whoever's futon it is there's some dust in there.

ZG [laughter] So given that, what is your aspiration for this piece?

JS Well I hope for the Japanese here it will show them that they can't just remain silent and hope that it will pass by. Some of the people I have spoken to won't go on record, but in private they'll say, “We know; we know those guys are fakes; we know.” But they won't go beyond that. They won’t put it on record and that just allows the problem to continue.

ZG What's your hope for US Zen?

JS I think the future lies with lay groups, people who are not too attached to the monastic institution, and the forms and the dangers that can go along with that. Of course to train in a monastery as many of us have done is a valuable, valuable thing. But we can't stay there. We have to get beyond that. We have to bring it back to where we are, our own home ground. In a lot of places it is as if Zen had nothing to do with Buddhism. It's just this idea that anyone can do it, this kind of nonsense.

ZG Yes.

JS And not to understand anything about Buddhism culturally or how it developed naturally leads to a great distortion and misunderstanding of Zen Buddhism. We can learn how to sit, what meditation is, have guidance, but I don't know that it's helpful. I suppose there’s just a natural tendency for the ego to want to grab on and say: “If you can just give me something that will solve all my problems.” This is kind of putting it on the teacher. And if the master is not a genuine master of course he can take that and then turn it around and to me there's nothing further from Rinzai Zen than that.

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