I've taken up Zen during the past six months or so.
In practice, that means that I sit staring at a wall a fair bit. About a half-hour every day, in principle, although of course I miss one every once in a while, whereas on other days I sit twice or even three times, and I go to the zendo to sit a bit more once a week or thereabouts. For those who care, the sangha I belong to belongs to the Sanbo Kyodan school in the Soto tradition.
I know, just what the world needs -- another Zen blog, and one by a complete beginner to boot.
Thing is, this stuff is complicated. Not Zen as such -- it's dead simple, really, all you do is "sit down and shut up" as Brad Warner puts it -- but everything around it. There's an incredible amount of potentially dangerous bullshit flying around, about various flavors of "Oriental Wisdom" in general and Zen in particular. The Net is chock-full of people promising instant enlightenment (with seven free gifts if you act quickly), solving all your personal, interpersonal, financial, and spiritual problems for evermore, and what have you... and there are lots of entirely legitimate, or at least harmless, but massively diverse meditation-oriented groups out there, from yoga schools to Tibetan Buddhist traditions, executive retreats to... well, anything, really.
It's not trivial to make sense of all that. This shit gets very close to the skin, and there's real potential for damage. Meditation techniques cut deep, and if misused, they can fuck you up pretty seriously. I like to think I'm smart enough not to get fooled by some phony guru suckering people into his thing -- but then I'm pretty sure so was everyone who did get fooled by them. John Lennon was no dummy, but he fell for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi big-time, for a while anyway.
The first Buddhist thing I went to last spring didn't smell quite right to me. It was a dharma talk and meditation session organized by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's gang. A guy named John from Britain -- apparently the leader of their London sangha or something -- came here for that, and me, my wife, and her mother went to check it out. There was a quite a bit there that was pretty sensible, but then again there was a quite a bit that wasn't. There were two things in particular that stuck in my craw: the way John couldn't stop singing Geshe Kelsang's praises or quoting his books (his photo on the altar, with the candles and chocolates piled up next to it didn't help), and the feeling I got that he was trying to sell me something. I even remember some shit about "all your problems will just go away."
Later I looked up the group, and found out about the Dorje Shugden controversy. It's a spat between Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dalai Lama, about some kind of spirit called Dorje Shugden who Kelsang says is an enlightened being and Dharma protector and the Dalai Lama says is an Earth spirit and as such not worthy of veneration (or whatever they do in the Tibetan tradition; I don't really know much about it at all). Doctrinal disputes. Yay.
So maybe it was just that John fellow. Maybe it was just me. Whatever it was, it wasn't my thing.
So I Googled "zen helsinki" and found the Helsinki Zen Center. I went to their introduction to zazen course, and liked what I saw and heard. I've been going since then, and I like it more all the time. The people are about as down-to-earth and normal as any you're ever likely to encounter (i.e., not very, when you get down to it), and I liked the Swedish sensei who visited Helsinki too. Sort of like Max von Sydow as Yoda; very "present" and down to earth, but at the same time immensely impressive in a hard-to-define way. He has some funny ideas about reincarnation and stuff, but does not smell like someone out to reprogram you or extract your money.
Meditation teachers are a necessary evil. Zazen -- any meditation, really -- is basically just sitting quietly and letting shit happen. Zen masters keep saying that that's ALL it is, and I'm willing to take them at their word. Kinda. The trouble is that a lot of shit does happen, both when sitting and afterward, there's a surprising variety of ways to sit quietly and let shit happen, and "discriminating mind" or not, at least I need to make some sense of it. That's where the teacher comes in -- it's incredibly helpful to be able to just ask someone you trust about it. But finding someone worth trusting... now, that's another matter.
I wish there was some equivalent of ResellerRatings for meditation masters -- except, of course, that it couldn't work, because the creepy cult guys always have the most vocal supporters and would get most of the attention. As it is, it's sort of like buying into a camera system. You only know what it is you needed years after the choice is already made, so the best you can do is try to figure out what NOT to do, and then hope for the best. Trouble is, that's not all that easy to do either. About all I know is that I want to avoid (1) anyone who promises obviously too much, (2) anyone who wants more than reasonable amounts of money for services rendered, and (3) anyone who demands belief in anything obviously irrational. I'm willing to be flexible with the rest.
If someone has better advice on the topic, I'd be happy to hear it.