Buddha Never Told Me To Be Stupid

The most common compliment I receive is that I’m “smart.” These days, I’m not really sure what “smart” means, because in my mind, giving up all of my possessions to live in a country where I don’t speak the language and have no social mobility was kind of a stupid thing to do. There are different kinds of intelligence, and I would like to be better at the kind that involves logical decision making.

In the Zen tradition especially, there is a lot of emphasis placed on “not thinking.” In Fukanzazengi, Dogen-Zenji wrote, “Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.” Most teachers of Zen, in Japan at least, will tell you that Zen is “not about thinking,” and that practice is something that you do primarily with your body. This is pertinent advice for Westerners especially who seem to come in with lots of intellectual questions they want to answer, and seem less willing to clean the floor and sit silently for ten years. So the advice given is to just practice without trying to understand what’s happening, because the only way to actually learn something is to engage with the thing itself without adding your own idea. If you add your own idea, then you’re just engaging with your idea, and not the thing you’re trying to learn.

I should add that this is all advice I’ve personally received. I’m always trying to add my own idea into this. To this day, sometimes in the monastery when I get presented with work, formal ceremonies, or a list of Buddha names to memorize, I think, “This isn’t right. This isn’t Buddhism.” Thankfully I’ve gotten better and better over the years at letting go of that idea and accepting what is happening, accepting that there is teaching and meaning in all situations, and that I probably won’t know what the meaning is until I do it. And I’ve come to discover that the more I let go of my ideas, the more possibilities there are for learning.

There is so much more to this life than what I can understand now. The buddha-dharma is endless. So if I am in a monastery, I try my best to “just say yes” to the instructions people give me. This is because I know the buddha-dharma is bigger than me, bigger than my life.

Now, what I am about to say is very important: this doesn’t mean I have to be stupid. 

Let me reiterate this: NOBODY IS TELLING YOU TO BE STUPID. I think there is a really important distinction to be made between “non-thinking” or “wholeheartedly engaging the way” and “being stupid.”

Aoyama Roshi uses a useful metaphor to talk about the relationship between practice and study. In Buddhist practice, imagine we are trying to play the piano. The historical Buddha and the various Buddhist masters are like great composers. They created beautiful symphonies and wrote those melodies down as sheet music. The Buddhist teachings— sutras, commentary, history, writings— are like sheet music. The sheet music tells us how and what to play. Without knowing how to read sheet music, it’s nearly impossible to sit down at a piano and play music. So study is important, and thinking is important, and using your brain is important.

It’s the same with driving a car. It’s true that you can only say you are a Driving Master when you can drive without thinking. But to get to the point of “non-thinking” in driving, first you have to go to driver’s ed, and then someone has to teach you how to drive. You have to learn the traffic rules. These traffic rules are not your idea. Someone else wrote these laws, but you’ve studied them, and chosen to follow them. It’s also important to know the kind of car you’re driving, how many miles it has on it, and what kind of fuel it takes. After all this, it’s safe to get in the car and drive without thinking. 

So you need to know what kind of traffic school you’re going to, what the teachers are qualified to teach, and what they’re not. In the Soto School at least, the abbots of official monasteries are experts in monastery life— in rituals, form, and tradition. They’ve studied Dogen’s writings and can give dharma talks about the Shobogenzo and other important texts. They officiate ceremonies, and can ordain people and give jukai. Those are kind of the basic qualifications. In my experience, good teachers are also teachers of how to stand, how to sit, how to bow, and how to speak kindly and respectfully to people. I learn a lot by watching them move, talk, and work.

What no one is qualified to do, either in Japan or in America, is be in charge of my own personal, subjective experience. That is my space and my own territory. My likes, dislikes, fears, desires, and emotions are my own, and it’s actually not the job of anyone else to change that— mostly because my personal, subjective experience is not the point of this practice. Practice is much more than that. In fact, I’m starting to like the word “training” a lot more than “practice” because instead of being a vague, quasi-spiritual term with no clearly agreed upon definition, “training” implies that there is an exterior model I chose to follow.

Recently I was having a conversation with my dharma sister about what we think are reasonable boundaries in spiritual communities. We agreed that within the confines of a monastery or institution, everyone has to follow the rules. If celibacy and head-shaving are the rule, then so be it. If someone tells us to make tea for sixty people, that’s what we’ll do. If chanting is done in monotone, without dropping pitch, that’s what we’ll do. But outside of the monastery, no one is in control of our bodies and our choices. No one has the right to tell me whether or not I can get married, or if I should shave my head, or where I can work or study, or what I should and shouldn’t believe. An institution can and should control schedule and set standards on a daily level within its own walls, but in terms of big life choices and values: those are mine. 

It’s important to establish these boundaries, and I think I caused myself a lot of pain and suffering because I used to think that the solution to my problems was to get out of my intellect and to be in some non-dualistic, embodied state of being all the time. I became interested in Buddhism because meditation offered me peace of mind. I could sit and watch my breathing and not get caught up in an obsessive thought processes. I needed that quiet, that space, that absence of thought. And I needed a practice to show me that I am not The Center of the Universe. I really used to believe that, and I was miserable. Noticing how I am a very small part of everything is a much healthier and honest way to live. So I’m not really sure how to strike a balance between thinking and non-thinking, between skepticism and trust, between independence and humility. It’s clear to me, though, that I should not be trying to dumb myself down. The Buddha said to give up lust, give up hatred, give up delusion, but he never told me to stop reading history books, or to give up being smart. 


  1. O, my, I am remembering so vividly one of the times when your parents were away and I was caregiver...you and I were headed down the steps and you asked me "Katy, who is the smartest person you know?". "Which kind of smart?" I asked. You looked at me as if I had spoken Swahili and said "What do you mean 'which kind'"? I said that there are so many kinds of smart that I'd seen people when I travelled that had never been to school but who could cut a piece of bamboo and create a water system down from a mountain with just a machete for a tool and fix anything with some wire and old bits of things. I said that your mom and dad were another kind of smart and I think of them as some of the smartest people I know and then there's me who isn't academically particularly smart but really smart about making connections between things and smart about feelings and intuition. I told you about some folks in Caz who were amazing at problem solving the challenges of living on the land and working with animals. You listened so intently...your tender young self.

    1. kt- yeah! i remember, i was trying to write a short story about a child genius who was the child of two other geniuses. i think after our conversation i made the dad a concert pianist and the mom a scientist. and the kid was so smart she could see ultra violet and sound waves and stuff. sigh...

    2. or actually, i think the brother was so smart he could see sound waves, and the youngest sister was normal. that's probably the dynamic i wrote about.

  2. That balance between thinking/non-thinking sounds useful, can you let me know how to do it when you find out :)

    'stupid' often sounds amazing as a narrative, it's only when you ask "What am I ACTUALLY doing" that you see. My Kung fu belt is kept as a reminder of how far I went before I asked the question....

  3. This is an awesome blog with wonderful writing. Thank you & keep it up, if you can. I'll be happy to follow along.

  4. At the first introductory workshop I went to, the zendo leader tried to clarify this for us- that Zen isn't anti- intellectual at all, but at the same time, if you don't feel particularly intellectual you can still take up Zen training. I' m grateful to him for clearing this up for us. So many people could be put off otherwise.


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