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Silence and Noise

Growing Up Zen in America

About The Book

A fresh new voice in American Buddhism -- a twenty-nine-year-old raised among Buddhists in California -- offers wisdom for both longtime practitioners and a new generation of students in this fascinating memoir of his Zen upbringing.
Over half a century ago, when the first Zen Masters came to America, eager young students in search of enlightenment flocked to hear their teachings. Many, like Ivan Richmond's parents, became Buddhist teachers themselves while raising their children at monasteries and retreat centers. Growing up in the seventies in the deliberate silence of a Buddhist community, young Ivan knew only the hippies and redwoods of Northern California. When his family left in 1983, he became an immigrant in his own country, suddenly entering a mainstream society that was full of paradox and pop culture, uncertainty and noise. This is the story of his struggle to find peace amidst the chaos.
Whether dispensing kernels of Buddhist insight taught to him as a child or reflecting on the merits of rock concerts, Richmond narrates his emergence from seclusion with a sensitivity that is often touching, frequently funny, and always honest. The story of the powerfully resonant journey of this foot soldier in the front lines of American Buddhism is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of Zen in America.


Chapter One: An American Immigrant in America -- Eight Conflicts

The World of Green Gulch

I have lived in two worlds. One is the world of Green Gulch. Green Gulch was a world landscaped with religion. The fields were religious with the practice of simplicity. The dining room was religious with the purity of our meals -- brown rice, tofu, and organic produce from our farm. The paths to the zendo were religious with silence.

Ours was a religion in which the emptiness of delusion was discouraged and the full wealth of enlightenment was what we sought. By enlightenment, I simply mean a deep and profound understanding of life and of what was truly important in life, such as birth, death, loving others, the good of the world, the arts, and inner beauty. We at Green Gulch didn't think we were enlightened, but Buddhists believe that the Buddha was enlightened. In Buddhism, we don't believe that enlightenment is necessarily easy to achieve, but we also believe that it is an ever-approachable perfection.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, which, as I was told them, say that all human beings suffer; that suffering is caused by desire; that the key to avoiding suffering is to avoid desire; and that we can avoid desire by achieving enlightenment. Delusion, then, which is the opposite of enlightenment, is caused by the desire for things that prevent one from understanding what's truly important in life, which are, in the simplest of terms, material goods and possessions.

At Green Gulch, we tried to live in a way that would bring us closer and closer to the enlightenment of the Buddha, and to stay away from any delusions that would derail us from that path.

As children, we learned from the role-modeling of the adults not to display intemperate emotions, such as anger or overexcitement, but to be meditative at all times, to live a simple life, free from consumerism and materialism, and to avoid the temptations to delusion that are found in popular culture.

Of the fifty or so people who lived at Green Gulch, most were monks or laypeople. Buddhism has traditionally been based on student/teacher relationships. A teacher helps the student to achieve enlightenment by teaching him or her Buddhist philosophy. At Green Gulch, the students might be either monks or laypeople. The monks were people who had been ordained by a Buddhist priest and who had dedicated their lives to practicing Buddhism as a profession. Unlike monks of the Catholic religion, Zen Buddhist monks in America are not necessarily required to be celibate, and are free to marry. They do, however, take sixteen vows, similar to the Ten Commandments, that guide their behavior. I reproduce them here exactly as the monk taking them would speak them:

I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the Dharma.

I take refuge in the Sangha.

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do good.

I vow to live to benefit all beings.

A disciple of the Buddha does not willfully take life.

A disciple of the Buddha does not take what is not given.

A disciple of the Buddha does not engage in sexual misconduct.

A disciple of the Buddha does not lie.

A disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate oneself or others.

A disciple of the Buddha does not slander.

A disciple of the Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others.

A disciple of the Buddha is not spiritually or materially avaricious.

A disciple of the Buddha does not bear ill will.

A disciple of the Buddha does not ignore Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, their own enlightened nature.

The word "Dharma" refers to the teachings of the Buddha. The Sangha can mean the congregation, all Buddhists, or all people in the world. The phrase, "a disciple of the Buddha," is just a fancy way of saying a Buddhist monk or in America, a layperson. Even though a Buddhist monk is literally the disciple of his teacher, he is also, figuratively, a disciple of the Buddha himself, because the Buddha's teachings are still "alive" through the written word of the sutras and the teachings of Buddhist teachers.

In addition to taking these vows, monks wear robes and shave their heads. Each monk also has a special bowl called an oryoki that, at least at Green Gulch, they used to eat meals in the zendo during long meditation sessions. All the monks were expected to live on campus.

At Green Gulch, the laypeople were members of the congregation who had not received monastic ordination or taken monastic vows. They didn't shave their heads or wear robes, but they wore a rectangular cloth called a rakusu that hangs from the neck. They were not required to live at Green Gulch, but many chose to do so, either out of dedication to Buddhism or because, like my mother, they were married to monks.

The priests were monks who, like my father, held a higher rank in the community than that of an ordinary monk. Priests might be compared to the clergy in Western religions. They are leaders of the congregation who have the ability to train monks and laypeople and give them ordination. They conduct religious ceremonies and services, are licensed to perform marriages, and also preside at funerals.

Although these definitions may vary somewhat from one congregation to another, they were the ones that prevailed at Green Gulch.

Most of the monks and laypeople lived in a two-story wooden dormitory adjacent to the zendo called the gaitan. In traditional Japanese Zen monasteries, the gaitan is not generally the same as the monks' quarters. It is the lobby just outside of the zendo. At Green Gulch, however, our gaitan was housed in our dormitory, so we referred to the entire building as the gaitan. It had two main entrances with screen doors. One door allowed access to the gaitan from the area surrounding a complex known as the Wheelwright Center (named after the man from whom Green Gulch's land had been purchased). The Wheelwright Center was comprised of two two-story buildings. The second stories of these buildings were joined by one big deck called the Upper Deck that allowed you to walk from the upper-story room of one building to the upper-story room of the other.

One of these buildings housed guest rooms on the lower level. On the upper level was a lecture room, which was also used for social events. The other building contained the dining room and kitchen on the lower floor, as well as a small annex called the family room. The upper story housed the library.

If you walked through the other door out of the gaitan, you would come to a grassy lawn that we called the Central Area, where the community often gathered. To one side of the Central Area was the post office. It wasn't an official United States post office, but it was where our mail was delivered. Mainly, it was used as an administrative office, and if someone called Green Gulch's main telephone number, he would get the post office. The hills surrounding the gulch rose above the gaitan, the Wheelwright Center, and the Central Area.

Some of the monks and laypeople in our community were married and had children. Those with families didn't live in the gaitan but in trailers and tiny houses nestled among the valley's golden grasses. Each house and trailer had several tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen, an equally small bathroom, and a basic living area.

Although, as I've said, we at Green Gulch didn't think of ourselves as enlightened, we did try -- as best we were able -- to live according to Buddhist precepts. We tried to avoid the pitfalls that come with desire. We didn't want to eat fancy food, live in big houses, or drive fancy cars. We didn't want to fill our heads with television or loud music. We didn't try to forget the reality of our lives by acquiring expensive but unnecessary luxuries. We believed in having just what we needed, eating food that nurtured us, and paying attention to the things that are really important. We believed in being quiet so that our minds could be quiet. When our minds were filled with silence, we could almost hear ourselves living. Then, in those moments of inner silence, we could find happiness in the things that enrich us and take pleasure in simply being alive.

The World Outside

The "outside" -- America -- was viewed by the people of Green Gulch as the world of the unenlightened, slaves to the delusions of their society and culture. Outside, people were thought to be intemperate. Their minds, we were led to believe, were cluttered with empty ambitions and materialistic desires. In effect, we were taught to think of the world outside as the opposite of Green Gulch in every respect.

While I imagine that, to some degree, every religion and even every political or social group perceives itself to be superior to the "outside," the important difference to understand here is that Green Gulch and the outside were separate worlds. We children went into the outside world five times a week to attend school, but we played almost exclusively with one another and seldom, if ever, with children whose parents were not in some way affiliated with the Zen Center. We tasted the fruits of the outside only in contrast to our own flavors.

A Buddhist Immigrant in America

Leaving Green Gulch was, for me, like crossing a psychological border. Once we left, my mind and soul were in foreign territory. However, like all immigrants, I brought my "native" culture with me, a culture that defines me still. Just as an immigrant from China, for example, leaves China, enters America, and becomes a Chinese American, so I left Green Gulch, entered America, and today I am an American Buddhist.

In the outside world, I soon discovered, people judged me by standards that were completely the opposite of those I'd been raised with -- such as how I dressed and how much money my parents made. For the first time, I was tantalized by things that had always been remote from my way of life -- candy bars, Saturday morning cartoons, and popular toys such as action figures. At the time, all these things seemed really exciting. I was still a kid, after all, and at first I binged on everything I'd been denied at Green Gulch. It seemed decadent and outrageous. But I also had a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong with it all. It was too good. My parents, however, did almost nothing to help me to learn how to live in this new world without bingeing. Later on, I would have to discover on my own how to live in America and still be true to myself.

As a cultural being, I am comprised of polar opposites. My psyche is filled with things Green Gulch and things American. These associations are set one against the other as us versus them, near versus far, native versus foreign, same versus other, old versus new, yin versus yang. Green Gulch culture is, for me, a thesis, and American culture its antithesis.

Much of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I have noticed, involves identifying and separating opposites -- good from evil, thou shalts from thou shalt nots, for example. Let's just talk for a moment about Light and Dark. Good, God, Heaven, God's commandments, and God's worshipers are all in the category of Light. Evil, the Devil, Hell, sin, and those who don't worship God are all in the category of Dark. Light is preferred over Dark. Light is to be had and held alone, apart from Dark. A good person is supposed to hold the Light only. Darkness needs the Light to illuminate and expose it. Anyone who holds to Darkness is bad. Now, let's add to the category of Light the terms familiar, us, near, same, and related concepts. To Dark then we add foreign, them, far, other, etc.

In Buddhism, we believe that a truly enlightened person doesn't separate opposites. We try to hold opposites like Light and Dark in both hands, one pole in each. The Light is not always good and the Dark is not always bad. I'm not enlightened, however, and too often I still fall into the trap of seeing Green Gulch and America as opposites. But, ever since leaving Green Gulch, I've been trying to find a way to hold in one hand the culture of Green Gulch and in the other the culture of America. If I can do that, and then bring my two hands together, I've got something else: me, now. I have my own culture today, which is comprised of my immigrant's culture and the culture I brought with me from Green Gulch.

Within me there are many conflicts formed by the fact that, culturally speaking, I'm both Buddhist and American. Who I am today is paramount and pivotal to an understanding of American Buddhism, but who I am cannot be understood without first understanding the opposites that form my identity. To do this, we need to explore these conflicts.

Leaving Green Gulch: The First Conflict

Knowing how different the world of Green Gulch was from traditional American culture, it shouldn't be difficult to understand what a shock it was when my parents took me, at the age of ten, out of the environment in which I'd grown up and thrust me into a new and virtually foreign land -- the land I call America. It's likely that none of the other contradictions or conflicts in my life ever would have occurred if my parents hadn't taken me to live at Green Gulch in the first place, or, more importantly, if we'd never left. But we did.

I had always known my father as a Buddhist priest and an important member of our community. My mother I knew as a devout Buddhist layperson. Together, they had always epitomized our simple lifestyle. To me, then, leaving seemed totally at odds with everything I knew them to be. All they told me, by way of explanation for their decision, was that they had spent close to fifteen years practicing Buddhism and they felt that was long enough to study it so intensely. Now they wanted to move on. I didn't want to leave, but, clearly, it wasn't up to me.

It all happened so quickly that, at the time, I was barely able to process the enormity of the change. I realized, of course, that I was living in a very different place in very different circumstances, and that suddenly many things that had been forbidden became accessible. But now, as I look back on it, I realize there could hardly have been a more profound change in my life.

For my parents it was different. They were of America. They'd grown up in it. They'd rebelled against it, and they'd found Buddhism. Leaving Green Gulch was, for them, returning to their native country, so to speak. It was a place they already knew well, and even when I talk to them now, they don't entirely understand how foreign American culture appeared to me. They think of themselves as Americans and never thought of me as being any different. I guess, to them I was just at Green Gulch because it was where they were currently living.

But Green Gulch was my life and my world. Being a Buddhist was my identity. And, as far as I was concerned, it was theirs, too. It was a world they'd found and founded. It was where they'd decided to raise me. How could they so suddenly separate me -- and themselves -- from that life?

My parents remained nominally Buddhist. They still had their zafus, and they kept an altar in our new house. They meditated sporadically and in private, but they didn't join a congregation. We very seldom talked about Buddhism after we left, and I didn't understand that either. How could we not talk about it when I'd seen, heard, and smelled it all around me for as long as I could remember? To me, it made no sense.

I don't want to sound entirely self-centered. I believe in enlightenment, and so I've given a lot of thought to what the Green Gulch experience had been from my parents' perspective. I realize that Buddhism wasn't what they'd been raised with. I understand that Green Gulch was simply a place where they'd decided, as adults, to live a portion of their lives. They invested their lives from 1969 until 1984 in Zen Buddhism at the Zen Center -- years that spanned three decades. And what I still don't understand is how they could so suddenly just put it all away and start a new life as a nuclear family in their own, private house in small-town suburbia.

Certainly, as an adult, I've asked them about this, and I'll talk about their reasons -- or the reasons they've given me -- at greater length in the following chapter. For now, I just want to make clear what an enormous change their decision made in my life, and how it has led to the many other conflicts I've been trying to resolve ever since.

Buddhist culture versus Popular Culture: The Second Conflict

The Buddha, as I've said, taught that desire is the root of all suffering. He said we should, therefore, avoid becoming too attached to things. At Green Gulch, we didn't believe in following popular culture because we considered adhering to popular trends a form of attachment. We thought that being interested in or involved with something simply because it was popular would enslave us and mire us in delusion.

By contrast, American culture is full of all sorts of popular icons, such as rock stars, movie stars, and sports stars. There are movies everyone goes to and movies that are considered classics. There are television shows everyone watches, and TV, too, has its classics. As an American, one is expected to be familiar with these elements of popular culture.

American society presents people with a kind of social in/out list, comparable to the lists in magazines that summarize what's currently "in" or "out" of favor. There's certainly nothing inherently wrong with watching an entertaining movie to unwind after a long week of work. There's nothing wrong with appreciating the arts, and everyone has the right to decide what he or she considers "art" or "literature." But if you're a slave to society's in/out lists, you're not making that determination for yourself, and, according to Buddhism, you're bound to something superficial and delusory. I was taught that being free from such bonds would allow me to find pleasure for myself and would empower me to create my own happiness.

The problem for me is that I was raised in a world that discouraged me from even knowing anything about popular culture. Not only did I not adhere to society's in/out lists, I didn't even know what was in and what was out. At Green Gulch I didn't need to know these things because Green Gulch culture didn't have in/out lists. But in America one can't really survive very well without at least some understanding of popular trends. Ever since I left Green Gulch, part of me has tried to stay away from popular culture, but I've encountered all sorts of conflicts trying to do this. When I was younger, not knowing much about popular culture made it hard to get along with my peers in America, and part of me really wanted everything American pop culture had to offer. For a long time I've struggled to figure out how to live in American culture and not be a slave to society's in/out lists.

Nonmaterialism versus Materialism: The Third Conflict

Materialism is directly related to popular culture. It drives the popular world. If a good Buddhist is not to be a slave to popular culture, he or she must first be free from desire for material goods. The Heart Sutra, a primary text of Zen Buddhism, states, "form is emptiness and emptiness is form." This means that the material things we believe to have value in life, such as fancy cars, large homes, or elaborate sound systems, are, in fact, emptier than we think, and that nonmaterial things, such as love and friendship, are full, deep, and rich.

Sometimes we think that form is full and emptiness empty. We think that emptiness needs to be filled. But Zen teaches that emptiness is sometimes fuller than material fullness. I've always taken this as the enlightened view of the world, and for a long time, as I've wandered my new world, I've wondered why other people didn't see this as enlightenment.

At Green Gulch, we believed strongly, as that line from the Heart Sutra implies, that material possessions couldn't really make us happy. I was taught that if I wanted a material object, I should ask myself what it was about that object that would make me happy.

For example, if I want a really expensive car, what was it about that car that I think will make me happy? If I just want to get out on the road and drive, wouldn't a less expensive car do just as well? And if I want to travel a distance, couldn't I take a train or a plane? If I want the car for status, then what I really want is status itself and not the car, and that begs the question of why I want status.

To this day I believe that material things like expensive cars can't truly make us happy. I believe the things that really make us happy are nonmaterial, such as love and friendship. From this perspective, form -- in the sense of material objects -- is empty of its ability to make people happy, but nonmaterial things can give us true happiness. So, I think the Heart Sutra is right. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

Today, my goal in life is to be a really good writer. I don't need to be rich. So long as I have what I need -- a roof over my head, food to eat, clothes to wear, enough money to pay my bills, and the things that will really make me happy, which are not material goods -- I can push on with my writing and take pride in myself for pursuing what I love.

I admit, however, that the longer I've lived in what I'm calling America, the more I've become assimilated into the mainstream. I have a decent job as a computer programmer. I live in a large, one-bedroom apartment and drive a '93 car. I like to eat in restaurants and buy nice things for myself. I'm not always the perfect Buddhist. Sometimes I think material things will bring me pleasure, but I invariably find out that the pleasure I thought I experienced from having them was only an illusion. How to be a good, nonmaterialistic Buddhist while living in a world driven by materialism has been an ongoing conflict in my life.

Patience versus Impatience: The Fourth Conflict

The second of the Four Noble Truths states that suffering is caused by desire, and impatience -- wishing for something to happen or trying to make it happen sooner -- is certainly a form of desire. It also requires that we think too much about the future, which the Buddha taught was wrong because always thinking about the future would mean that we weren't paying enough attention to what was actually going on in the present. And for those two reasons, patience -- the opposite of desire and looking to the future -- is a virtue all good Buddhists ought to cultivate.

At Green Gulch, I was taught always to be patient and not to rush things because everything happens in its time. The people at Green Gulch never procrastinated, but they were also never busy or rushed. The cultural norm was to be patient because people always got the job done in whatever time they required to do it, and you could count on their not putting it off or taking longer than was necessary.

In the outside world, however, I've found that I can't always wait indefinitely for things to happen. If I'm waiting for someone to do something and I don't get impatient, there's always the chance that he or she will take advantage of my patience. If I'm waiting for someone to call me back with the answer to a question, for example, I sometimes have to remind him or her with a second or even a third call in order to get a response. I can't simply assume that he or she is "getting the job done" in the time it naturally takes.

The pace of the world outside is so different from that of Green Gulch, and the expectations of those who live in it are so different as well, that some degree of impatience appears to be expected, if not actually necessary. American culture appears to revolve around a "squeaky wheel gets the oil" way of thinking. Americans sometimes appear to assume that if you don't nag, you're not really interested. And so, in order to survive in the outside world, I constantly have to ask myself whether to be patient or impatient in any given situation. I try to be a good Buddhist and not fall prey to desire or lose sight of the present while gazing into the future, but I also have to conform to the expectations of the world I'm now living in. Finding that balance has sometimes been difficult for me.

Child Care versus Child Freedom: The Fifth Conflict

Not everything at Green Gulch was ideal, or lived up to Buddhist ideology, and one aspect of my life there that I now see as far less than perfect was the way the community regarded and cared for its children. Although Buddhists are supposed to cherish children, and Buddhists elsewhere in the world believe in taking care of children, the child-care system at Green Gulch, as I see it now, was never really adequate or well organized.

Many of the students and monks at Green Gulch didn't have kids and didn't want children around. They felt that their meditation was being interrupted by our play, and they were critical of our parents for compromising their practice in order to attend to our needs. For the most part, they tried to help us as little as possible.

Organized child care was sporadic, and the person in charge changed from month to month. We had child care through some parts of the day, but much of the time we were allowed to roam the property at will, doing whatever we wanted so long as we didn't disturb the students. There were many times when we were totally unsupervised.

Many of the adults claimed it was good for children to have a certain amount of freedom because it gave us a chance to explore the world on our own, but for me, child freedom was not a blessing.

As a result of this lack of supervision, we children were never really taught proper social skills, which made it harder for us to get along with one another (leading to the next important conflict in my life, Nonviolence versus Violence), and -- even more important -- we received very little formal Buddhist education. How was it possible that, as I was being raised as a new-generation member of this new tradition, no one of the previous generation cared enough to be sure I was taught its basic precepts?

In retrospect, it now seems to me that the Green Gulch community not only failed its children but also failed to live up to its Buddhist tradition. In America, children are, for the most part, given more guidance and nurturing than we received, and -- at least in families where religion holds a primary position -- they usually receive some sort of formal religious education.

On the other hand, despite these failings, I did learn -- by whatever means -- some good values that have remained important to me throughout my life. And so, I have to wonder: If it takes a village to raise a child (and Green Gulch was certainly a village), is it better to be raised by a less than perfect village than by no village at all?

Nonviolence versus Violence: The Sixth Conflict

Like most Buddhists, we at Green Gulch believed in pacifism. But it was a struggle for me, growing up, to reconcile my own feelings of aggression and other people's violence with my Buddhist belief in nonviolence.

The adults would scold us children for pretending to shoot guns or playing war games, but that didn't stop us from pretending to blast storm troopers when we played Star Wars, for instance. (Even though the Green Gulch adults disapproved of popular culture and did their best to shield us from its temptations, they were not vigilant enough -- and no community could have been isolated enough -- to protect us from the lure of George Lucas's epic, which was, in many ways, one of the defining events of my generation.) And because we weren't always supervised, we weren't taught how to deal with conflict when it arose among us. While all kids certainly fight, it seems to me that there was a lot more picking-on, teasing, and being mean to one another at Green Gulch than there would be in most groups of kids because, on the one hand, there was often no one around to stop us and, on the other, no one had taught us how to resolve our differences any other way.

Now, as an adult, the part of me that is a good Buddhist wants to stand up for pacifism, and, intellectually, I'm opposed to violence. I often tell myself that I'd never use violence against another person because I'm a born and raised Buddhist from Green Gulch. But, another part of me rebels at such a notion, because the adults in the community never taught us children how to be nonviolent toward one another. I sometimes feel that, while I was taught to embrace pacifism as a principle on an intellectual level, I never really learned to be nonviolent at the practical level. When I get angry or feel threatened, I don't always know the correct pacifist answers, so this tension continues inside me.

For most Americans, violence is bad if it's considered "evil" in someone's assessment and condoned if it's "good." In World War II, for example, America was "good" and Nazi Germany was "evil." America's use of violence was, by that logic, acceptable.

My tradition, however, categorizes acts as either enlightened or unenlightened. An enlightened person would understand that violence comes from anger and anger from fear, so that any act of violence derives from fear, and fear is unenlightened. Fear is considered unenlightened because it can be caused either by something illusory or by something real. A person might, for example, see a coil of rope and mistake it for a snake. The unenlightened person would fear the snake but the enlightened person would recognize the rope for what it was, and wouldn't fear it. Or, conversely, if the coil really were a snake, the enlightened person would recognize it as such and deal with it accordingly. In either case, the enlightened person would not be frightened.

For me, however, the question remains, how do you tell the rope from the snake? What happens when a pacifist meets someone who feels justified in using violence or aggression? What happens when a genuine pacifist meets someone who only presents a pacifist fa çade but is actually violent inside? And which one of these am I? I was raised a pacifist but not taught how to deal with aggression as a child. I believe in nonviolence, but I also think violence is sometimes necessary. How do I resolve this dichotomy?

I continue to have many questions about nonviolence that no Buddhist teacher has ever answered to my satisfaction. What should I do if someone acts violently toward me? What if someone gets angry with me or gives me a good reason to be angry? What if I use words and people don't listen? I often wonder if pacifism is really enlightened, or if true enlightenment isn't really something that allows us to feel compassionate toward all living beings, frees us from our fears, but also allows us to protect ourselves against people who would hurt us, psychologically or physically.

Eastern versus Western Morality: The Seventh Conflict

Directly related to the issue of Violence versus Nonviolence is the issue of morality. Morality in Eastern philosophical traditions and throughout Eastern culture is very different from Western concepts of morality, but not, to my mind, any less valid.

Traditionally, much of Western morality has been based on the Judeo-Christian concept of commandments or lists of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots, believed to have been handed down to man by God and codified in scripture.

But, in addition to Judeo-Christian morality, which is based on religion, there's also a modern perspective on morality that's espoused by those who adhere to no religion at all and who would, therefore, argue that if you have no religion, you have no way of knowing whose "commandments" to follow. If you don't know which God, if any, is the "right" or "true" God and which holy book, if any, is "authentic," how do you know which list of dos and don'ts is the "correct" one? These people would argue that it might be better not to have any do/don't list at all.

Eastern morality, however, is not based on God-given commandments or dos and don'ts lists. With all due respect to anybody who reveres a holy book that's supposed to be the word of God, in Eastern thought we believe there's a more objective way of telling right from wrong based on the concept of karma.

Karma, a Sanskrit word that literally means "action," embodies the notion that all actions have consequences. Many forms of Eastern philosophy share the belief that people need to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes, in Eastern thought, we think of karma as a cycle or wheel of actions and reactions, and we refer to this as the Wheel of Karma.

If someone does something hurtful to you, you can either do something hurtful back or you can not do something hurtful back. We call the former "staying on the Wheel of Karma" or "giving the Wheel a kick," because responding in kind keeps the cycle of actions and reactions going around. We call the latter "getting off the Wheel of Karma" or "not giving the Wheel a kick," because not to respond would end the cycle of actions and reactions. In Buddhism, it is believed that one should always get off the Wheel of Karma.

The conflict for me is not whether I should adhere to an Eastern or Western concept of morality, because I firmly believe in morality based on karma. The conflict for me is how to get off the Wheel while still trying to make sure that people who do "bad" or hurtful things -- that is, people who behave immorally -- are made to face the consequences of their actions. Does my getting off the Wheel of Karma mean allowing another person to get away with hurting me or people I care about? Does it mean that I can't confront people who do bad things? Does it mean I can't do anything to stop people from doing bad things?

On a theoretical or philosophical level, I think I've found a way to avoid kicking the Wheel while still acting responsibly toward those I believe to be behaving immorally, and I can only hope that when I'm actually tested, I'll be able to act properly on my beliefs.

Silence versus Noise: The Eighth Conflict

Zen is just one branch of Buddhism, and in Zen we believe that the path to enlightenment is through quieting the mind. We believe it is only when we quiet our minds that we can free ourselves of desire. The Buddha didn't say we should avoid desire by being ascetic. Rather he taught something he called the Middle Way, which is a way of living that seeks a balance between two extremes -- living in pursuit of desire and denying oneself the things one needs to survive. Only when we silence the noise of our own thoughts can we see this balance. And for that reason, the principal meditative practice of Zen Buddhism is to silence the mind.

The approach at Green Gulch was to keep the environment quiet so that it would be easier to keep one's mind quiet. At Green Gulch, everywhere you went it was quiet. You could walk from the dining room up a dirt road to the gaitan and from there to people's houses, and everywhere it would be tranquil.

The monks did things all day, but no one was ever busy. The loudest noise was probably that of the han (which we kids called the bopper), a hanging piece of wood that was hit rhythmically with a mallet to call people to meditation and dinner. The only other sound was that of chanting, and that was so controlled and rhythmic that it didn't sound like noise.

Out in America, however, it's almost impossible to live in silence. People hurry in every direction, in cars or on foot. Cars drive past thumping loud music. Where there was chanting in Green Gulch, on the outside there are rock concerts with cacophonous music and raucous crowds (or so I've been told).

In America, everyone of my generation expects me to understand things like rock concerts and loud music. If I say that I don't, they think something must be wrong with me. Loud music seems to match the manic fervor of American society. Everything is fast-paced and high energy, and it's almost as if Americans need fast, loud music to keep up with it. Maybe they do. And, if they do, maybe, living in the outside world, I do, too. It's a conundrum.

But silence and noise have an even broader significance for me. To me, silence is emblematic of all the elements that define Green Gulch. Noise summarizes in one word all I associate with the rest of America. For me, they serve as the yin and yang that define these two cultures. Buddhist culture, nonmaterialism, and nonviolence belong to the world of silence. Popular culture, materialism, and violence belong in the world of noise.

But the opposition is more complicated than that. In fact, everything I associate with noise represents something that was forbidden to me at Green Gulch but is a constant temptation in America. As I've already said, I'm not yet enlightened, and I'm human in my imperfections, so that, despite my Buddhist beliefs and all my effort, as I slog down the difficult path to enlightenment, trying to live in a way that upholds those beliefs, I am still, from time to time, tempted.

Both silence and noise exist within me, and as we continue this journey, I will explore these fundamental contradictions, how they came to life inside me, and how I've learned to hold them, one in each hand, and bring them together in harmony.

Copyright © 2003 by Ivan Richmond

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (July 29, 2003)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743417556

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