Butt-Kicking Buddhist

By SAM DUNN, Los Angeles CityBeat, Sept 12, 2007

Bill Jordan is a tough-standing, troop-supporting, Republican-leaning sensei?

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- You can look through all 8,263 titles about Zen Buddhism on Amazon. com, but not one will prepare you for the thorny path to Nirvana offered at the Santa Monica Zen Center.

Even finding it is hard: the address says 1001-A Colorado Blvd., but that means an alley in back of the post office. What used to be an automotive garage with oil slicks on the concrete has been transformed into an immaculate zendo, the focal point of which is an elegant altar topped with a statue of Manjusri, one of the many representations of the Buddha. This one just happens to carry a sword, a symbol of cutting thorough delusion to see what is.

Lots of folks who wander in seeking calm and peace, visions of lotus flowers dancing in their heads, miss that particular metaphor at their peril. The whole sword thing, I mean.

While anyone can make a reservation to attend the Sunday sitting (called zazen) and dharma talk (the Zen equivalent of a sermon, more or less), few make it as Zen students at this center. (Even fewer make it to become actual priests.) The SMZC motto is to offer the most effective Zen training in the world, and if you think that means resting in a peaceful state of meditation and thinking good thoughts, think again. (Actually, in correct Zen terms it would be don t think again, but enough about theology.)

This whole bodhisattva, saving-the-world business isn t for pussies. True, at the heart of this practice is the traditional zazen, a process of sitting still and silently, for hours on end, to clear your mind which at SMZC is not called meditation. It's zazen. It s harder. (Just trust me on this.) But here there s also other twists on the traditional, such as the Zen Life Intensive sessions, kind of like rational emotive behavior therapy except more so, designed to knock the whiny, my parents did this to me neurosis clear out of you. If that doesn t do it, the required Bukido training an intense mixed martial-art form invented by a former Navy SEAL surely will.

There s more to the curriculum, but what tends to make many would-be SMZC student run screaming from the place is the support our troops, liberate Iraq dialogue heard there since the war began since 9/11, in fact. Here, in Santa Monica, the most liberal zip code in liberal Los Angeles, who would dare be so dangerous, so insensitive, so REPUBLICAN???

That would be a certain Yoshin Sensei, a.k.a. Bill Jordan, equal parts successful contractor, Zen Center leader, and rabble rouser. A wiry guy, Virginian by birth, Jordan is a disciple to both Maezumi Roshi, one of the Japanese masters who brought Zen to America and founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and Werner Erhard, controversial founder of EST, the forerunner of what has become The Landmark Foundation.

Jordan s life mission is to liberate all beings from suffering, self-created and otherwise, and it s hard not to believe him when he fixes you in his clear, blue-eyed stare. That s not so unusual for Zen teachers; it is, after all, the golden rule of Buddhism. But to do it, Jordan is just as apt to quote Dennis Prager as he is Dogen (a Zen patriach). He may be the only sensei who uses scenes from The Matrix as a teaching tool. (Spoon? There is no spoon, Neo.)

The Dalai Lama he ain' t. Jordan can be infuriating, difficult, obtuse, at times just plain wrong. How he runs the Santa Monica Zen Center can send a tofu-eating pacifist into a murderous lather, a fact that tends to make Jordan laugh. Zen isn't supposed to be comfortable, he often says; it's supposed to make you question everything, including Zen itself.

With my own ears I've heard people other Buddhists, mostly call him an embarrassment to Buddhism and an a**hole outright. For a long time I just called him teacher.