The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Spirituality ... Zen ...

Although I consider myself a fairly serious Zen practitioner (I sit zazen for 2 hours every week at the local zendo, and I occasionally attend a mini-sesshin), I’ve been remiss in attending “daisan” or “doksaun”, i.e. the regular face-to-face meeting with the teacher. Given how important these meetings are within the Zen tradition, perhaps the truth is that I’m just not such a serious Zen practicioner; perhaps I am ultimately doing my own thing, making my own kind of Zen. Which the great Zen traditionalists would say is no Zen at all (Zen tradition – a bit of an oxymoron?).

Well, my own Zen is certainly a Zen somewhat detached from the koans. I have much respect for all those enigmatic little stories, and have made effort to study and learn from them. But as to being on a traditional multi-year course of formal koan interpretation under the tutilidge of a certified teacher . . . no, that’s not where I am right now.

Regardless, I do feel the occasional inspiration to sign up with the sensei and make the walk over to the interview room during the 3rd or 4th sitting for a short talk. Just this past Sunday (our main zazen happens on Sunday mornings) I had something I wanted the sensei to comment on. This is the great fun of daisan . . . if the sensei takes my comment or question seriously (and he usually does, but at times he just listens in silence and offer a gesture to be still), his response is usually not predictable. He often offers a new point of view, occasionally brilliant, sometimes irrelevant, often worth further reflection. He certainly does “carry the dharma” (the little “d” is intentional; as the dharma that you can speak of is not the true Dharma). He certainly seems well-steeped in what you could read of the great Japanese Zen masters of old.

This past Sunday, I wanted to convey to him my frustration in understanding Zen. In a way I do understand it, as I have invested a lot of time over the past 3 years partaking in our (Americanized) Zen rituals, in discussing it with other Zen devotees, in listening to talks by our sensei and other certified teachers, in studying koans, in reading books about Zen history and wisdom, and in writing my own thoughts. I can respond to even the most mysterious koan, I can easily use Zen-talk in my daily conversation, I can sit in silence for long periods with folded legs . . . but sometimes I look back on it all and wonder, just what is all this getting at?

What is Zen supposed to do for me? I know it, but I still don’t feel it. Perhaps it helps me to be calmer and more focused in my daily life (a lot of people are said to experience this, but I myself don’t really feel any different than before I started this practice). I enjoy sitting in silence on a regular basis with a group of other silence devotees, I enjoy the sense of community with my sangha, I have started some new and interesting friendships . . . but I still wonder sometimes, just what is this really all about?

Well, the sensei was not seeing anyone this past Sunday due to an on-going construction project that made our interview room unavailable for the past few weeks. But on the way to the zendo, I thought about how to explain just what I would want to feel about Zen. I came up with a contrasting analogy to present to the good sensei . . . about how I had been listening to a Teaching Company video lecture on the formation of the universe, specifically on the topic of nucleosynthesis (i.e., how the nuclei of atoms with their protons and neutrons were formed from the hot energy soup that resulted from the “Big Bang”). I had listened several times, and nothing about the lecture seemed beyond my comprehension. Everything that the learned professor had said was quite understandable. And yet, after the lecture was through, I didn’t feel as though I had gained anything from his words – just why was this important?

Finally, I took out the notebook that comes with the lecture and reviewed some earlier lectures. It took several hours, but I reviewed the details of the nucleosynthesis talk, thought about what they may have meant relative to some of the earlier themes – and the light bulb finally went on! Oh, now I see it – by understanding the physical processes behind atomic nuclei formation, and combining them with certain astronomic observations, you can get a good estimate on how much “ordinary matter and energy” there is in the Universe. And that turns out to be very small compared to the overall mass-energy required to describe the Universe that we observe (non-curved, i.e. having no funky triangles with angles that don’t add to 180 degrees, and expanding in all directions at a certain rate). Thus, there has to be a lot of unknown forms of matter and energy out there, stuff that we don’t yet understand. I.e., dark matter and dark energy.

Now the lecture makes sense. It uses some facts that we know, as to point out some very important things that we don’t know. Well, knowing that you don’t know something is not the gold ring, but it’s still a big step up from not even knowing that you are missing something very important. It’s not “enlightenment”, as Zen-talk goes, but it’s a step in the right direction.

And how did I come to this “step in the right direction”? I finally paid the nucleosynthesis lecture some real attention. ATTENTION!!! That’s it! Attention – a big Zen buzz-word. The great roshi’s always say “PAY ATTENTION”. Not so much about themselves, but about . . . everything! Zen is about paying attention to life. About taking it seriously, as I finally took the nucleosynthesis lecture seriously. It’s about tasting things slowly, savoring both the bitter and the sweet. It’s about making the most of being alive and conscious. All the negative Zen jive, e.g. about there being no consciousness, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance, no old age and death . . . it’s all just to get your attention! Take this stuff seriously (i.e., the consciousness, old age and death . . . not the Zen jive!).

As the roshi’s also say (to my great annoyance), DO NOT WASTE TIME!!! I’ve always thought this was just a Chinese and Japanese discipline thing, just part of a somewhat heartless culture focusing on busyness and hard work and accomplishment for the sake of . . . whatever. But perhaps not; maybe they are trying to say that time is the flavor of being. Don’t eat your dinner without taking time to taste it. Good or not so good, tasting your food is what life offers you. If you don’t taste it, you will still get your calories and carbs and nutrition, but you are wasting the most important part – i.e. the subjective experience! If you spend your time by going through the motions necessary to keep on living, you will stay alive; but you will ultimately waste that time if you ignore or short-shrift the experiential possibilities in even the most ordinary things and moments.

Bottom line, Zen is about life. Ordinary life. Nothing special life. It’s a very non-specific set of rules and teachings about how to live a life, and live it well. But Zen is wise enough not to make any promises. If you do manage to live life and live it well (in the truest sense), it isn’t the Zen doing that for you. It’s up to YOU to do that for yourself. Zen, when it works right, just makes you think about life. (And as with every religion, too often it does NOT work right; it is often used for various alternative purposes, such as seeming hip and profound or improving your golf game.)

So maybe I answered my own question? Did I find enlightenment? Did I finally taste the core of Zen? NO!!! But maybe a step in the right direction? Maybe. Once that construction project is finishes, maybe I’ll see what my sensei thinks about nucleosynthesis and dark matter.

PS — if Zen is so much about living life and appreciating the taste of it, including the passing of time, then why is so much Zen energy focused around sitting in silence with eyes closed, emptying the mind by counting your breath? How can that be an appreciation of ordinary life? The problem with Zen is confusing the exercises with the results that the exercises try to bring about. Sitting in silent meditation is an exercise meant to give you a taste for the most basic thing, i.e. merely being, pure existence, the thrill-less thrill of just existing. If you can appreciate that, you can appreciate all else that unfolds from it, good and bad. The problem is that most people (including most Zen teachers that I know) seem to present sitting meditation as an end in itself. No. Life is the end, sitting is just a means to develop a more sensitive palate towards life.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 pm      

  1. Jim, If I understand you correctly here, I think you are talking about the difference between intellectually understanding a philosophy or religion and actually experiencing it. Another alternative here would be to intellectually understand and believe, but I doubt you interested in simply believing any philosophy or religion.

    So that leaves for you the “experiencing” part of a religion, which is very hard to come by. Some people never actually experience a religion, i.e., have some actual communication or experience in some form with either the founder of the philosophy or religion and/or one of its major examples of the philosophy or religion. Then again, a few people might once or twice (a few times at most) experience something that can be taken as an actual experience with some aspect of the philosophy or religion; these people seem to remember that experience for a lifetime.

    Then there are those who find a philosophy or religion to be a structure that gives them the needed form around which to govern their lives—-actually a very good thing in some individuals’ lives. It keeps them from running willy nilly through life and screwing it up; in other words their particular philosophy or religion gives them structure in their lives which is badly needed by a great many people. But this aspect of belief can go the other way. People can believe out of a sense of fear or guilt; they can spend their lives simply “believing” and refusing to ask questions lest they “doubt” anything and “lose” their philosophy or religion. I think you are definitely excluded from this last group as you are certainly asking serious questions of Buddhism here.

    My question(s) here is(are): Will you go to the person who is leading your Zen group and find that he has had such a direct experience? Even if he has had such an experience, he cannot give it to you as the experience aspect comes from somewhere/something else; but he may be able to show you by his example. Or: Will his connection to Buddhism have remained on the “belief” level? I find myself wondering if some of his vague answers really are hiding a lack of experience. So he relies on not answering in some way or other, either by positing a conundrum of some kind for you to think about or simply remaining silent.

    Then again, I may be very wrong here. Perhaps he has experienced Buddhism to the fullest and knows that the conundrum/silence approaches are the best and knows that it will remain for you to wait until you experience Buddhism. It is also possible that I may not understand at all what you are positing in this post.

    I often think that the real “trick” is to search until one finds the *experience* one is searching for or one realizes that one has experienced the philosophy or religion and missed the point at the time. Coming to realize that one has already had an experience is most useful and enduring.

    Yet again, this whole thing may be—-likely actually is–a search on your part to find the philosophy or religion that suits you best. *Or* it maybe for you to eventually put together parts of several different philosophies or religions that suit you best. Then again, one could choose to “follow” a particular group that is closest to what one actually has experienced and thus believes, leaving along the wayside (so to speak) all those parts one finds unbelievable—-in the exact meaning of that term, not believable.

    Either way, continue the search because that’s what life’s about, I would say. MCS

    P.S. And then again, perhaps I’m way off track on this whole thing and don’t get your point at all here. If that’s the case, sorry. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 29, 2012 @ 10:56 am

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