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Misconceptions about Zen


At Issue: Included among this last holy week of religious celebrations was a Sikh parade Sunday in downtown Los Angeles, celebrating Baisakhi. In a Los Angeles Times article on Monday, Sikhs were quoted saying they’re often mistaken as members of the Islamic faith because of their turbans. Considering the volume of religions practiced and derivations of each religion, do you find people often categorize you as something you’re not because of dress or other generalizations? How do you deal with such misconceptions?

Response: “Navel-gazing.” “Go with the flow.” “Blissed out.” “New age.”
The phrase “Zen-like” has become commonplace in advertising and popular journalism. The vow to compassionate action, which is at the heart of Zen, and the discipline and steadfastness involved in this spiritual path are often overlooked.
Another misconception is that all Buddhists are alike. Many people do not know that Buddhism has branches and denominations and as much variety as Christianity. A Southern Baptist from Georgia, Coptic Christian in Cairo, Roman Catholic from Spain and member of Crystal Cathedral will all express their interpretations of Christianity quite differently. A Buddhist monk at the Jade Temple in Shanghai, a Theravadan practitioner in the caves of Thailand, a Tibetan monk, a Pure Land Buddhist in Japan, and a Zen practitioner in Orange County will not see their Buddhist practice the same way. To give one example, in Zen we do not worship the Buddha or call on him to intervene in our lives. We regard him as an awakened person, an example and guide in our own attempts to be aware.

At the Zen Center we choose not to wear clothes that stand out or to call attention to ourselves because we don’t feel this is especially helpful or meaningful. In similar fashion, the majority of Roman Catholic sisters in the 60’s replaced their religious habits (and veils), derived from the lay clothing of medieval Europe, with the ordinary clothes of our day and culture. This was a part of a much more important shift in awareness: that the sacred is found within daily life, rather than in some otherworld or foregone time. Many of the sisters I know felt that these clothes implied that they wanted special treatment, that they were perhaps superior to others, and that it did little to promote Christian values (despite contrary views that distinctive dress provides an important “witness”).
In Buddhism, the robe and kesa (cloth worn over one shoulder) are the distinguishing garb worn around the world. Sometimes the shoulder is bare (for example, in Tibet) and sometimes it is not (in Japan). We prefer that Zen practitioners quietly live their practice without calling attention to themselves by apparel or extraneous signs.

– Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: April 14, 2004