Meido Moore

In spite of the stern – one could say ascetic – facial expression on almost all the photographs I have seen of him, Meido Moore smiles easily and laughs frequently. In fact, he’s fun to talk to. Part of that fun comes from the fact that he has clear opinions about current controversies in Western Zen which he articulates with great facility.

I began our conversation by asking what distinguishes Zen practice from other forms of Buddhism

“Buddhism is Buddhism. And Zen is a Mahayana tradition. It is also what we call an expression of the Ekayana, the One Vehicle. So it has a particular orientation, an approach to and an understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. But if I had to say what distinguishes it, I would return always to the four lines that Bodhidharma – the great patriarch who transmitted Zen to China – used to describe Zen: A separate transmission outside the scriptures; not dependent upon – or setting up – words or letters; and, crucially, the last two lines, directly pointing to the human mind; seeing one’s nature, becoming Buddha. Those four lines sketch out the approach and the method of Zen. That it is a path in which the direct pointing activity from the teacher, rapidly, at the entrance or the gate to the path is intended to cause us to have this recognition of our nature that we call kensho. That is the gateway to the path. And then taking that as the basis of all subsequent practice is the maturation, the path of progressive transcendence, post-awakening, which we call becoming Buddha. So, to see one’s true nature and become Buddha through directly pointing at the human mind. If I have to sum it up, in the most pithy way, that’s the Zen approach. It’s not the only Buddhist path that has that kind of direct approach or that is dependent upon the activity of the teacher in that way, but I have to say that is the Zen way. That is what distinguishes it.”

There, are, I point out, contemporary North American teachers who discount the significance of kensho or awakening.

“If you deny the centrality of what we call ‘awakening’— which, of course, is not a culmination or a fruition, a fulfillment at all; it’s just the entrance gate of Zen, the moment when we can say we’re no longer just doing Buddhist practice, now we’re doing Zen Buddhist practice – if you deny that, then you have to deny the words of Bodhidharma and every great master down through the ages. So I cannot understand the kind of people who take that position. I could understand using rhetoric like that to disabuse people of attachment to it, because – again – it is not a culmination. The post-awakening training is the meat of the Zen path, and to deny the centrality of it denies Zen practice totally. Because the rational behind Zen practice is predicated upon taking the content of awakening – if you will – as its basis. The practice itself is based on that. So we cannot have a Zen practice without awakening.”

“Does one have to be Buddhist to practice Zen?” I ask.

“No. Anyone’s welcome. Anyone’s welcome to practice and get whatever benefit they can out of it. But if someone asks me directly, ‘Do I have to be Buddhist to really grasp what Zen training is pointing at?’ I’ll say, ‘Yes. Absolutely.’”


“Because if you remove the core Buddhist teachings and the whole intent behind the training – what the training is pointing to – then it becomes something different entirely. It becomes more of a therapeutic activity. It becomes . . . Well, you can see what it becomes because we have a so-called secular Buddhist movement everywhere. All of the great masters, everything they’ve taught, and even the rationale behind the training – even something like the koan system – it’s all pointing at the core Buddhist teachings and to have experiential understanding of what those are.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with the classifications that come from Guifeng Zongmi, the so-called Five Types of Zen.[1] We have those five types; they’re all valid inasmuch as they give someone some benefit. But if we want to say what Zen ultimately is, it’s so-called Saijojo Zen, it’s the highest realization and ultimately the attainment of liberation in the way that is conceived of in Buddhism. It does not mean that someone cannot do Gedo Zen or Bompu Zen for common benefit. There’s no problem. Those people are welcome. But if they ask me if what they are doing is really Zen, I will tell them honestly, ‘No. It’s not.’ But they’re still welcome. And I don’t care what you call yourself. I don’t need you to become any kind of -ist. I don’t need you to change into some kind of -ism unless you have the interest. But if you ask me, ‘What is the intent of the training?’ I will tell you from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings. What is kensho, actually, from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings? What is the fulfillment of the post-kensho path of liberation? I will tell you from that perspective. Do you need to believe in karma and rebirth? No. You can remain agnostic about those issues, but the whole training is predicated upon it, so if you take it out, you remove a linchpin. It’s fine to do that for yourself if you want. But then there is no need to call it Zen or Buddhism anymore: just call it ‘my own personal spirituality inspired by Buddhism.’ I have no problem with people getting benefit as they see fit and engaging with the tradition as they wish. What I will criticize is people who remove crucial aspects of its framework, like the Four Noble Truths, for example. You know, if you remove the teachings of karma and rebirth – someone said this; I don’t remember who – the Third Noble Truth becomes, ‘You will die.’ The Fourth Noble, instead of revealing the Eightfold Path, becomes, ‘Wait.’ Because suffering will end then.”

He gets me laughing frequently as well.

“So Buddhism is what it is. Of course, there are different expressions of it. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there is a lot of debate and creativity within it. If someone wants to remove those things – as a person or an organization – that’s fine. Just don’t call it Buddhism. Just call it something else. Just say, ‘This is my personal spirituality inspired or influenced by Buddhism. I get great benefit from it. This is what I’m doing.’ That’s an honest way to approach that kind of thing. So I try to present it to people this way if they come in asking me, ‘Do I have to be Buddhist?’ ‘No, you don’t. But I’m teaching Buddhism. Please get whatever you can get from it. And I leave your own mess  to you,’” he adds with a chuckle.

Further Zen Conversations: 14-17; 39; 46-47; 93-94; 114-16; 142-43.

Other Links:

[1] 1) Bompu Zen – meditation practices undertaken for health benefit; 2) Gedo Zen – meditation practices associated with non-Buddhist traditions; 3) Shojo Zen – meditation practices undertaken to acquire psychological equanimity; 4) Daijo Zen – meditation practices associated with Mahayana Schools of Buddhism; 5) Saijojo Zen – practice undertaken to achieve awakening and integrate it into one’s life.

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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