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Sunday, September 7, 2008

[pc monk] A bowl of cherries

So, what is it with this Zen stuff? There's definitely some sort of resonance, some sort of attraction to what I think it might mean, but there's also a lot of stuff in the way of my understanding and a lot that I just don't know. So maybe we just start with some ideas from the wider world before we dive into any formal works or, perish forbid, actual Buddhist texts themselves. Then as we go, we can compare the expectation with the reality.

We start with a cautionary tale. This article from the New York Times Magazine illustrates the dangers of style over substance when it comes to Zen. Down that path leads madness, or at least silliness, and we don't want to go there.

Which I don't think is to say that all "zen lite™" is useless; sometimes things that look and feel like actual wisdom can be found in unlikely places. For example, take 12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk, written by an ad-blogger named Leo. It may not appear to be well-researched or cited, but I sure can take a lot from it: things I have already begun doing and things that I would like to do a lot more of. Or try the section called Buddhism in an Oversimplified Nutshell, from an article on roleplaying games, which seemed to me to be an accessible if epigrammatic introduction to a core concept. Sadaharu Oh's autobiography (which I haven't read) and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (which I have read) both use the game of baseball as a lens to examine Zen practices. Perhaps calling this stuff wisdom is overstating the case, but I don't think that calling them valuable is.

The world of quantum mechanics also provides some handholds as we make our way toward understanding. This video compilation of different remarks by the slightly goofy philosopher Robert Anton Wilson breaks down a lot of barriers:

So, that's some of the debris that's floating around in my brain right now. As I come out of the summer days daze and get back to some more structured thinking with the new school year, perhaps I'll be able to make more headway with Walpola Rahula or even bypass the books and go straight to The Platform Sutra or something.


John said...

Whatever you do, please don't start singing the praises of "What the *&#! do We Know?" and other crackpot unified field theory metaphysical horse hockey.

Walaka said...

Hadn't planned to.

Jon said...

Hi Walter,

I am not really sure I am qualified to speak more about this but forgive me as I use this opportunity to clarify in my mind some of the questions that I have about Zen Buddhism. I too have spent a time reading about Buddhism and trying to make sense of it but realizing more and more that it isn't something to make sense of as much as something to try.

As I wrote in an earlier comment, I don't think the Buddha would recognize much of what is called Buddhism. In a way, there is no Buddhism. There is only the world as it really is - Truth or Reality, if you want to give it a label. What the Buddha articulated was his experiences in achieving a realization of the reality of the world, his sense of what it is that prevents us from seeing the world as it really is and a way or ways for us to achieve that awareness. The word 'see' is important here because I think that it is what distinguishes Buddhism from religions and other philosophies. It is not a system of thought as much as a system of action - a philosophy of action. It is an empirical approach to life. The Buddha himself said that you should not follow what he did but to find your own path. We need to see the truth of the world and no one else can describe it to us.

To practice Buddhism is not to believe in anything but to see that some actions will help you see the world in its reality and others will prevent you. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha talked of acknowledging that our lives are not perfect, that we cannot expect to be happy and healthy all the time and that we cannot prevent death. He suggests that we try to deny or avoid this reality through our thoughts and feelings of greed, anger but there is a way to deal with this- the Eightfold path. Which is not a path of belief as much as a path of behavior(s). Of living your life in the Right (or True or Whole) way.

I know I am cherry picking but this is the way I see it: I think of Truth or Reality like a pearl in an oyster - the oyster is the means by which we realize the real nature of the world. This oyster has a shell that over a couple of thousand years has accreted many other things to it - this are the different traditions of Buddhism - but at the heart of all of them is the oyster - and at the heart of the oyster is the pearl.

So I have problems with the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. I have difficulties with some of the prescriptions I have seen in Zen Buddhism as to whether you can truly practice meditation if you cannot at least sit in a half lotus. On the other hand, I think that some rituals are useful as a discipline even though they do not carry any intrinsic meaning.

As I see it, the centrality of zazen to Zen Buddhism is that it is practice of mindfulness - of action - not thinking or feeling but being. Acknowledging that there is nothing but now. The other post you received on the WordPress site (which I hope you will also cut and paste as it was an interesting answer) seemed to answer well some of your misgivings about the intellectual nature of Zen - because there is none. Zazen is nothing but concentration and mindfulness - it is practice for what we should be doing every minute of the day. But like regular exercise, in some ways, it does not matter how we do it or how well we do it, it just matters that we do it. One of the Zen schools believes that zazen is not about achieving our buddha-nature, it is about realizing the buddha-nature that we all naturally possess already.

So whether we chant or not, whether we bow or not does not really matter. The posture does not matter other than as a means to achieving mindfulness. So I understand why some teachers say you need to sit in a lotus position. What they are saying is that we are doing what we are doing mindfully. We are striving with our practice to be Buddha. What matters is that we attend to the true nature of the world and that we acknowledge the ways that we try to avoid accepting this reality. We cannot see the world as it is until we start looking in a way that is not clouded by our thought or feelings. We are accepting that everything is conditioned, everything is impermanent. That for me is the challenge of zazen.

Walaka said...

Wow, Jon, I think you need your own blog about Zen... what's up with Desperately Seeking Sangha.

Some brief responses to just a couple of your points:

I have made my peace with the whole "cherry-picking" thing. In the end, it's all a thinking person does anyway, innit? But I still think it's good to be precise with labeling what it is we're doing.

And what is it I'm doing? I think it might be something different from you.

Several times in your response you refer to "the world as it really is" and "see the world in its reality" and "realize the real nature of the world" and similar phrases. I'm not sure that I am looking to find a reality beyond that which presents itself to me; rather, I am looking for ways to be a better me. Those two things are certainly not mutually exclusive, but I don't think they are necessarily the same thing, either.

I wonder if I don't relate more to the Tao Te Ching; while still providing insight about the ineffable unknown, it is also a practical guide for rulers. This speaks to me much more than "seeing the world as it is."

Or maybe this is the same hesitation that I found from the beginning: it is not the process of Zen, but the goal that gives me pause.

I do appreciate your drawing a distinction with my use of the word "intellectual" in my initial posting; that was a poorly written attempt to convey a sense of the utility of the techniques even if the actor is not fully part of the practice of Zen. I think I understand the not-thinking aspect (heh) of the approach as well as I can right now.

Jon said...

I think there may be less difference between us than you think. What I was maybe trying to express in a clumsy way was the sense that the world is what it is whatever we may choose to think about it. In other words it is what you appear to be interested in - what presents itself to you. However, there are ways in which we try to deny that reality. Zen is about accepting the nature of the world as is - and becoming at peace with it. And becoming a better person who is able to act in a way that helps others become at peace with the way of the world too.

I am not sure still what you see as the 'goal' of Zen - it still sounds to me like you see it as something external that we are to achieve whereas your goal of understanding the world that you live in and being a better person seems to fit into the practice of Buddhism. To me that would seem better than any guide to the ineffable unknown - one thing that the Buddha was uncomfortable with discussing. He frequently refused to answer any metaphysical questions because he thought such lines of inquiry pointless.

I guess one reason why Desperately Seeking Sangha is still unready for publication is that I trying to be more focused on my practice now. But thanks for the encouragement.