The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Friday, May 4, 2012
Society ... Spirituality ...

I heard a news story on NPR the other day about the war in Afghanistan, and how many Afghan Army recruits aren’t literate; a lot of them don’t even know how to count. Wow, no numbers in their life! And yet, somehow life does goes on in the mountains of Afghanistan, despite the inability to formally distinguish between a pasture holding 9 sheep versus one holding 10.

It just goes to remind us that there are still a lot of places in the world where things are thought of and dealt with quite differently than here in the USA. Obviously, this should relate to the wisdom, or lack thereof, of continuing US military investment and “nation building” in a foreign land like Afghanistan.

But it also reminds me of the Zen tradition, which took root in lands not far from Afghanistan in ancient times, and somehow transplanted itself to the USA over the past 50 years. A big part of modern Zen practice is focused upon sitting in silence while concentrating on one’s breath. The “standard operating procedure” in modern American Zen is to count one’s breathing cycles, as to lead the mind toward deeper meditative states. That’s what all the roshi’s and sensei’s and high priests will tell you. Just breathe . . . and count.

And count. Yes, well, what if you are an Afghan soldier and you CAN’T COUNT? Let me just say that it is quite apparent to anyone with a brain that Zen, American style has its fair share of contradictions and even hypocrisies. I would still say that Zen is a good place to be for those burned-out from their experiences with mainstream, God-oriented faith systems, e.g. Christianity and Judaism. But don’t expect Zen to be any more free from contradictions and human foibles than the religion that you left behind.

Zen indeed does have its “standard operating procedures”, despite its protests of being above and beyond the many logical and empirical rigidities of Western culture with its emphasis on “scientific management”. Zen’s standard operating procedures are just as culturally rooted in a particular place and a particular time, as any of the “Euro-based” mainstream churches are. Zen does not speak a spiritual Esperanto understandable by all men and women from all ages (despite the many illusions that it weaves for those seeking a “deeper” and more mystical interpretation of life).

But as to Zen’s ability to advise the Afghan army private dodging bullets from the Taliban, regarding ways to find “suchness” and meaning in life, the starting point would still be “sit in silence and count your breath“. And such language, even if translated, would be incomprehensible to that soldier. (Another place where Zen goes mute is in the experience of child rearing; many American churches are family places where crying babies and tots and rambunctious 7 year olds mix together with adults and seniors. The typical zendo is devoid of anyone under age 21. Not exactly a comprehensive community experience!)

Perhaps I’m saying that Zen could use a little bit more humility in its self-image. It impresses itself as the “Marine Corps” of Buddhism; but in fact it addresses but a limited sliver of the world population on a limited sliver of the glove, regarding a limited number of life’s many issues. Yes, Zen is parochial! It tells some truths that might otherwise be disregarded, but it misses many others. It ain’t for everyone, including those Afghanistan youth who would make no sense whatsoever of the self-important American Zenmasters’ fixation on enforcing the seemingly “ancient” way of counting one’s breath, in search of “enlightenment” and Nirvana.

Whatever that stuff is.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:57 am      

  1. Jim, To a certain extent I agree with you; yet I do not think you are giving enough consideration to something that is missing in this discussion but really quite important.

    Specifically, there is a difference between being educated and being intelligent. One may be intelligent yet be totally uneducated. Being able to count presumes education–and a specific kind of education, that involving arithmetic and/or math. Intelligence meanwhile would enable a person to figure out the difference between a pasture holding 9 sheep and one holding 10.

    So it does seem to me that somehwere in all this, if a person really wanted to following one’s breath, counting is not necessarily the most important thing–following it is; there’s a big difference between them, unless there’s something I simply don’t understand about Zen here.

    I should also make clear here that I am also NOT saying that Zen has the solution to all the problems of the world; it does not, any more than any other religion seems to have.

    But I DO think that one needs to make a distinction between being educated and being intelligent. I’ve been amazed in my lifetime by some individuals I’ve known who were not necessarily really very educated; yet they were MOST intelligent and quite able to figure things out–and quite quickly too. Education is an imposed, learned, cultural thing; intelligence is an inate ability. At least this is the way I see it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 4, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

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