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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Photo ... Zen ...

Here is the Buddha altar in my local zendo on a typical day. It could be 9 am or 9 pm, a bright sunny morning or a dark stary evening outside. At a Zen altar, the darkness always prevails. We bring flowers to honor the Buddha and his teachings, and to follow his teachings we sit for many hours with eyes closed in the silent darkness before this altar.

We call it “zazen”, which is a form of group meditation practice. In many ways it is a beautiful experience, one which I try to participate in at least once every week. Our “teachers” continually extol the virtues of zazen to us. And most of what they say makes sense to me.

But still . . . at some point, their focus on zazen makes Zen sound a bit like a one-trick pony. That one trick is to sit in the darkness in silence. Once again, I myself find much benefit in sitting in the silent darkness. But this is not where life is lived. A teaching that focuses the meaning of life around zazen makes just as much sense as placing these flowers in an always-darkened room. Flowers are no strangers to darkness; some flowers only open when the night comes. But they would never grow and have blossomed without the light of day.

Flowers in the dark, like zazen meditation, can be quite beautiful. And yet, they are both just a small part of the cycle of life for flora and fauna. Zen has to be seen in the larger context of everyday life, if it is to grow beyond its present status of a somewhat chic but mostly esoteric and exotic form of spiritual expression. Most of our zendo members are just now-and-then participants. Very few show up even half the time. Our Zen Center is clearly a side-show in the lives of most of our members. It speaks to some portion or component of their daily lives, perhaps a significant and important part of it; but far from all of it.

As with monastic communities within the Christian and other religious traditions, Zen is inherently a “specialist” institution focusing on silence. But Christian monasticism flourished when it was most relevant and accessible to common people in their daily lives (back in the Middle Ages), and has declined as the world changed (and it did not). The Zen movement may well outlive or eclipse the Trappists and Benedictines, but it must not shrug off the lessons of their decline as “not relevant to what we are about”.

The Zen tradition in America is very good at cutting flowers and admiring them in their final hours. It is not attuned to the long, earthy work of growing flowers. Zazen is a wonderful way to still the mind; but for the most part, life is not lived with stilled minds. Unless our tradition finds ways to speak and strongly relate to the entire circle of life, including childhood, schooling, career, falling in love, raising families, sickness, aging and dying, then our focus on zazen and our esoteric wisdom on “the present moment” will mean little more to most people than a fresh flower that soon withers and shrivels in the dark on a Buddha altar. I.e., a moment of beauty, but nothing that lasts.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:25 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Lovely Picture, once again. I can definitely see the points you make. Seems to me that practicing Zen (and other Asian philosophies and/or religions) is much the same as any other religion.

    Oddly enough I was reading last night (this was only a small portion of a book I’m reading currently reading, The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min) about a man in her life who practiced Zen and Tao. As she talks about him and how captivating he was with his message that one should live in the moment, (I admit here I’m putting this in my own words, simplifying; and I also admit I’m not finished with the book yet), I just don’t trust the man. It seems to me that he’s much too interested in gathering attention to himself and letting others take responsibility for the hard results of life when it comes right down to it.

    And I’m not saying that’s particular to Zen and Tao; it’s found everywhere, in every religion or philosophy followed as a way of life.

    With the little or somewhat more (depending on how one might count–for several years I faithfully practiced Buddhist meditation and Transcendental meditation) practice I’ve had of Zen and other kinds of meditation, in the end it all boils down to how honest one is with oneself, how willing one is to “kid” oneself.

    You are right: “Zen is a wonderful way to still the mind”; you are also so very right that “for the most part, life is not lived with stilled minds”. Oh, how true that is!

    And you are right how symbolic the flowers are: flowers withering in the darkness just aren’t enough. For me, I’ve never really understood the need for darkness in so many areas: meditation (as you mention; I used to do mine on the train in the midst of everyday activities; that worked just as well as quiet in the dark), even (and here we are off subject I admit) any attempt at contact with those who have died. (I’ve “dabbled” in so many things!). I have always wondered why one had to be in the dark to do such things, meditate, contact those who have died, etc. And I must say (definitely on a tangent here), the Long Island Medium, although I don’t watch her very much at all, certainly doesn’t need the “dark” to do whatever contacting she manages to do. Seems to me that the dark may most be conducive to sleep in some people. (There’s also the saying that babies sleep the best when there’s the noise of ordinary life around them; but then who knows, maybe that only applies to certain people raising certain children.)

    But, then again, my tho’t is to always respect what others believe; and I certainly have a great deal of respect for Zen. There is a lot of good in it and why not follow that good. MCS

    Comment by Mary — June 7, 2013 @ 10:40 am

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