The Limitations Of Core Rinzai Zen


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In my last post on what I was calling “core Rinzai Zen,” I summarized what I say to say as follows:

Rinzai Zen is a direct path to awakening. It draws those who have warrior spirits and requires those to sit with gentle, feminine hearts (call this a yin/yang dynamic, if you like). It affirms the centrality of the “psychotechnology” called zazen, citing, as evidence, not only Gotama’s waking up beneath bodhi tree but also, and more importantly, the direct experience of each practitioner. It utilizes the koan (or, indeed, multiple koan) as a tool or device to keep raising the temperature on the practitioners. And it places great value on the direct, immediate, sometimes intense encounter between student and teacher.

Here, I would like to quote Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Chan (Chinese Zen):

A separate transmission outside all teaching

and not founded in fine words of scripture,

it’s simple: pointing directly at mind. There,

seeing original-nature, you become Buddha. (David Hinton translation from China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen [2020])

In fact, Bodhidharma’s teaching is even more direct. The Chinese ideographs in the third and fourth stanzas are more literally rendered thus: “direct pointing [at] person mind / see original-nature[,] become Buddha.”

Chan just is the direct pointing at the person’s, at each person’s mind, which is none other than original-nature, i.e., Buddha-nature, which has never been anything but original-nature, and which could never be anything but original-nature. What, again, is Bodhidharma’s teaching? Right here, right now, see original-nature–and be free.

The Limitations of Core Rinzai Zen

No philosophical investigation of any religion, let alone the one I affirm, would be complete without a deeper consideration of its limitations. Three chief limitations I discuss are (1) its lack of interest in cleaning up, (2) its quietism with respect to ethics, and (3) its lack of conceptual resources pertaining to our political and ecological predicaments–indeed to the planetary meta-crisis.

1. Cleaning Up

What Ken Wilber calls “cleaning up” I refer to as “cleaning.” Both terms intend to draw our attention to a completely different type of inquiry from the one into our original-nature. Psychological hangups may persist even as one’s religious practice deepens. To be engaged in clearing is to investigate the gross forms of ego-self that fall into various categories: pain bodies (Eckhart Tolle), core self (Wolinsky), shadows (Jung), baggage, and so on.

In my experience, Rinzai Zen has no interest in clearing; I’ve not found that it even takes clearing seriously. The assumption, which seems to me unwarranted, is that waking up (enlightenment) will take care of the rest. But if that were true, then how do we account for all of the scandals we’ve observed throughout the later half of the twentieth century (Adi Da, Trungpa Rinpoche, Joshua Roshi, etc.) and beyond?

This is why I supplement my root Rinzai Zen practice (a study of the koan) with supplemental clearing practices.

2. Ethics

Great Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki once wrote:

Present-day Zen priests have no knowledge or learning and therefore are unable to think about things independently or formulate their own independent opinions. This is a great failing of Zen priests…. With satori [enlightenment] alone, it is impossible [for Zen priests] to shoulder their responsibilities as leaders of society…. [B]y itself satori is unable to judge the right and wrong of war. (Quoted in Dale S. Wright, What is Buddhist Enlightenment? p. 97)

My experience in Zen chimes with Suzuki’s assessment. To be sure, various rituals like bowing (gasshou), waiting for others before eating, reciting important sutras, reciting the ethical precepts, and the like do inscribe non-self and care for all sentient beings into the body and into daily forms of conduct. But as we consider ethics more deeply, we immediately see that this is hardly enough.

In What is Buddhist Enlightenment?, Dale Wright suggests that Zen will need to engage in the relationship between no-thought (which it tends to privilege) and deliberative thought. I read Wright as saying that Zen will need to come into contact with Aristotelian virtue ethics. For Aristotle, a virtuous person must deliberate upon what the good is as well as upon which virtues are salient to exercise here, and he or she must act on these considerations. Zen spontaneity, however important it is, simply won’t do when matters ascend to a complexity of the kind indicated by war and ecocide.

3. Politics and Ecology

While listening to a podcast with teacher Soryu Forall and Daniel Thorson, I found confirmed my view that Zen has nothing concrete to teach us about how to engage in the meta-crisis. Soryu speaks of his personal crisis upon seeing that Japanese Zen teachers had supported the Empire of Japan during World War II.

I don’t see how Rinzai Zen can, on its own, have much to say about war, ecocide, the best political society, or ecological regeneration.


You can just start to make out, I believe, my commitment to something comparable to “the medieval synthesis.” Then it was the synthesis of Aristotelian cosmology and Augustinian theology. Now, in modernity, it must be consist of the best understanding of nonduality with the best understanding of social and cultural structures and systems. Indeed, beyond this synthesis there is an even greater need for a grander synthesis of sentient life, the divine, and a living cosmos (cf. Raimon Panikkar).