Zen as Rebel Artist Training


Han Shan and Shi Te, Rebel Ancestors

Let’s return to process in this post, as these posts seem quite helpful.

The Zen folks I admired and respected in the beginning had a big rebelliousness about them, a wildness, like they’d found zen as a tool to channel their wild creative spirit to push themselves toward freedom. They were the ones who would take me on an all night walk over the mountain after osesshin or survive on no sleep, still doing the whole schedule but somehow not bound by it. The ones who seemed to be working on a different level, shining for no reason. I never gravitated toward the overly holy people, but loved the maniacs, felt their mischievous joy.

These Zen Shugyoshas (people of training) seemed to be living in another world than me.  Of course the same world, but they seemed not to be bound by all of the normal rules all of the rest of us were tethered to.  Meeting my first Zen monk was like that.  I saw a different type of freedom going on.  Where everyone was going right, he was going left.  Hell, he was not going anywhere but where he chose, somehow unbound by the normal current of reality. It was shocking! It pushed my buttons. Actually, it was completely infuriating!  Partly because I felt safe and insulated in my fear and closed mindedness.  My fear of freedom made me resent anyone not bound by that fear. I left after a couple of days with him.  But the experience hooked me, and I returned months later after realizing that even while I had been traveling in exotic places, where I felt I should be loving my experience, I was somehow not happy.  I was not free.

In my twenties, with the luck of a great teacher, instead of playing by what I perceived to be the confining rules of life, desperate to find an answer, like destiny plunging through the birth canal, I began to look at everything in a questioning manner.  My way of working on this was not through just discovering what I liked or what felt good, but in an extremely structured environment.  This structure created a freedom to explore.  I realized this journey would not happen overnight.  The creative act of meeting reality with unhindered awareness takes real consistent effort.  We are pretty locked into our habits.  And it is incredibly confusing, as we at once want to transform into our true selves, and at the same time want to defend that we are the most adorable brilliant one already.  The abrupt realization that no one gives a shit about our internal identity fantasy is a shocker, especially in a Zen dojo.  It is so incredibly humbling to self reflect in this way.

Luckily, at that time in my life I was involved in intensive Zen practice, so I got to give twenty-four hours a day to this investigation.  I highly recommend taking some time to do this or some form of training environment if possible. No matter how long, it is not wasted time.  Looking around a zendo, most of us serious Zen students were not there to become religious or to be good Buddhists. We were more like anomalies, artists, square pegs in a round hole.  Where life seemed to be leading everyone in society, we instead felt a great urge to reinvent ourselves, go against the grain, and drive ourselves toward another, liberated, unknown way of being.  Sounds great, but at first, leaping into the unknown is emotionally confusing to say the least.

It is a big struggle, giving ourselves to this radical investigation.  But at the same time, it is all that we want to do. We are driven, it is a passionate struggle.  Like mad artists, falling in love with our process.  We have to be willing to risk anything and everything in this process.  It is a wild ride.  That is why Zen training is referred to as “Life on the Line”. This is also the joyous, rebellious feeling of people of training.  The ones really into their training, living life on the line, all have a swagger, a hidden grin, wild eyes, pushing life and themselves.

I think it has to be an investigation of obsession.  To take hold of the meaning of life. Like a fire burning.  A great revolution of our entire being. In my process, which was full of incredible struggle, instead of taking anything for granted, I thought to myself, What is walking?  What is looking through me?  And hearing?  What is real?  What is the base of all that I believe?  And we do not stop until we find something which does not fit into any category.  Something beyond ideas.

Although most of us worship the teacher at first, when we really get into our own process, we no longer need to be just like them.  We are in it for the truth.  This process is so individual.  We lose interest in complicated techniques or imitation as our personal process unfolds.  We’ve read Dogen and Hakuin (and probably seen their ghosts walking around the temple!), and yet, our iconoclastic process has its own trajectory and momentum.  More than sweet slow-motion quiet renunciants, we’re like a band of focused criminals, joining together to complete a great heist, a heist to find the truth. Following a very formal schedule, we use the training as a vehicle to discover what Zen is pointing to, which does not belong to any religion.  It’s a wholesale freedom.

It is great to have a teacher.  But they can only lead the way.  They can only provide space for us to metamorphose.  How could anyone show us the way out of our own delusion?  We have to find it, and then we know it for ourselves and carry it with us.

Falling in love with this process of discovery is essential, and why do we do that? We do it because it all feels unmistakably right.  When we begin to carve away at our stuck places, our rusty notions, we are compelled to keep shedding those layers.  Feeling freedom emerging, the shells of our conditioned body and mind shattering or evaporating or dissolving, we feel new and alive, like newborn babies.  Like happy zeroes.  We don’t know why we feel happy, but we do.  We feel it because we have discovered a different type of freedom.  Like artists of life, in each movement, life begins anew.  And the more we see it, it compels us to be more honest, less manipulative.  More compassionate and true to ourselves.

I think in my early twenties I was looking for someone who could take my intensity and not be shaken by it. That I could say anything to and he would never be moved around by it! Meeting people like this is so refreshing and inspiring.  They show us that life is not so fragile, and that our minds are vast.  They’ve seen the devil enough to not blink an eye. I know it was so inspiring for me to meet a few people walking around with real freedom. And with the world in flux these days, people need it most now. To find people not moved around by such confusion.  And who’ve become big-hearted because of their struggle.  So, I am trying to spread the word about this rebellious, artistic, creative process.  Getting spiritual is not just for nicey nice folks (barf!), but something even extreme rebels can relate to. Hopefully this post will hit someone in the gut, and they’ll get a fever to discover something truly profound, and then they’ll be another crazy artist bum out there covertly spreading the Dharma.

Thanks for reading!  Comments and questions welcome!  Good luck!



10 Comments Add yours

  1. Nadine says:

    I love this beautiful post and I’m so grateful you shared it! Reading it feels like being home again. I was lucky enough spent a week at a zen monastery family retreat with my kids, and I don’t remember feeling so happy in a long time.

    I love so many things you said and can relate to almost all of them, but this one grabbed me for a moment: “I think in my early twenties I was looking for someone who could take my intensity and not be shaken by it. That I could say anything to and he would never be moved around by it!”

    That hits the gong for me and you know what? As much as my husband irritates me at times, he is one of those people for me! (And I did meet him in my twenties, come to think of it.) Great insights. Thanks again for this wonderful post. 🙏🌻:)

  2. Robert says:

    I love the essence of this , which you’ve touched on before , “ this path isn’t only for the nicely folks “ , of course, no certain type of person can have the monopoly on truth, , Thanks Corey

  3. Robert Schrei says:

    Hi Corey. A similar painting is outside the zendo of one of the sub temples at Daitokuji. This was always one of my main attractions to zen. Unfortunately I never found a Shi Te to follow me around and pick up everything I threw over my shoulder into the wind. A number of years ago an astrologer said to me, “ You need a saturn brother”. Unfortunately he never showed up:-) Do you know this book? Manfred was a student of Robert Aitken.


    I also have a couple of rare books on Ikkyu that I found in Japan which you can look at when you are here next.

    Here is another favorite in this vein.

    and this:


    This is one of the books I have here, among others. At $400 dollars you can wait 🙂





    1. Thanks so much for the comment! Great books! I’ve read the Ikkyu, but have never read the Zen Rebels one, but have seen it. I appreciate you commenting!

  4. steve marino says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve practiced Zen for 20 years at Zen centers across America, and must admit I have not been fond of the watered down sort of quiet, passive aggressive Zen that is taught everywhere. Always the same people….introverted white yuppies searching for a teacher to do what only they can do. There’s so many weak teachers out there. We need more strong Zen students to stand eyeball to eyeball w/ them and say, no, they should shout, NO! Something is wrong w/ the way Zen is taught, like it’s a college major or something. It takes courage to look at yourself, and no one can do it for us. In 15 minutes I can teach anyone the essence of Zen. That’s easy enough. The hard part is following each moment into the next. It’s all in the Nike ads. Just do it! But understand who it is that is doing it first.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Steve!

  5. Maya Ward says:

    I love that I still haven’t read all your posts, and one day unexpectedly one will fall into me, like a gift of rain on dust. This one is particularly special. Thank you

    1. Oh thanks so much!! Great to hear!

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