Sunday, January 22, 2012

Zen Outreach in Kenya

I would like to reignite a discussion I started a long time ago. It concerns the degree to which Zen should or should not be an evangelising religion. (Let's just call it a religion for now - one variable at a time, please!)

I have just completed a weekend near Lake Victoria, Kenya, haivng been invited by Spencer (pictured below)

to assist in a Zen teaching session, right in the middle of nowhere.  It was a somewhat "samurai" experience as, this being something of a blind date, I was invited as much to bring along my machete as my satori. Fortunately the natives were friendly and so the steel stayed sheathed.

We appear to have been invited on account of a perceived inability of Christianity to keep its promises. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, merely reporting that our host who has formed the Zen group pictured, having until recently been a Christian preacher, said, "The Pentecostalists said there would be miracles, so people came and prayed for miracles - but I never saw a single one!"

Thus he investigated an alternative and asked Spencer, who facilitates "Zen Kenya," to provide instruction. He only discovered that such tuition was available because Zen Kenya had gone to the trouble of making its existence and teaching role known.

My point is that if Zen Kenya had been terribly Zen, terribly self-effacing, then the excellent practice of anapanasati, as very clearly taught by Spencer, would be a gift ungiven - and the Africans pictured would be bereft of something beautiful.

I'm not saying we should copy Jehova's team (put on a suit, grab a child, go ringing doorbells.)
However, I feel we are breaking our Bodhisattva vows if we do not quietly and respectfully use all skillful means available to make the practice and fruits of meditation available to as many people as possible.


  1. Michael,

    Per Wikipedia, evangelism “refers to the practice of relaying information about a particular set of beliefs to others who do not hold those beliefs.” This is education, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, though it can be dangerous if it becomes proselytizing – “the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion.” In this there is an implication of force, of trying to compel somebody to accept your point of view. However, if people approach you about your practice or religion - maybe because you dress in funny robes, or because you just ooze serenity, or because you have put up an advertisement for meditation sessions – then you are not proselytizing. You are merely making it known that you are a source of information, and making yourself available to dispense it to any who wish to hear it.

  2. I've never thought of you as self-effacing Michael. But I do think you rock.

  3. Michael, I think we all do a little bit of missionary work just by letting others know we are Zen Buddhists. There is no need to proselytize, we are who we are, and how we act and what we do speaks for itself.

    People often see this as an invitation and ask: "What is it you do?" When we tell them what we do, it is as if we are showing them a doorway; it is left up to them to decide whether or not to enter. As Bodhisattvas we can act as their guides, but there is nothing for them to believe…just experience.

    Unlike Christianity, Zen Buddhism is a religion that promises you nothing and delivers.

    Good post and great pictures!

    Thanks for keeping the gate open


  4. Hi Hadashi,

    I take your point about the vocab and agree that rushing out with a megaphone would be excessive. I guess I'm looking for a middle way, trying to compensate for what I see as an imbalance on the yin side when it comes to Buddhists sharing what they've learnt.

    I like the approach of the Muslim "evangelists" who stand in the Cornmarket in Oxford. They stand quietly behind a table, a little signpost saying who they are, and they will give you a leaflet if you go and talk to them.

  5. Ed, how could I be self-effacing with no self to efface?

  6. Michael,

    If you like the Muslims’ approach, why not duplicate it? It sounds pretty informative and non-invasive to me. Just make sure not to set up at the edge of the Cornmarket, but put your table in the middle of the way, to really show people that you’re Buddhist! :-)

  7. Having moved form Oxford to Nairobi, I suspect there might be security implications of going into town and standing still in a white skin for too long!

    I've opted instead for a poster and a phone number. I would indeed have put it in the middle of the path - but the parents' noticeboard at school is off the path entirely. That's how unBuddhist Kenya is.