The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, June 29, 2015
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I’ve been involved in American Zen for more than 5 years now. I’ve listened to and talked with a handful of “teachers”, and I’ve read various books and internet sites about Zen; what I’ve experienced seems pretty typical of Zen in the USA.

But what is Zen really about? I can’t say that I’ve grasped it. Some teachers say that such befuddlement is a good thing. Sure, but is befuddlement helpful to my life? I’m not getting the sense that Zen is really making me a better person in any particular way. Just what is the point of Zen, of its rituals, of its teachings, but especially of its meditation, given that zazen seems to be the core of it? Most of the teachers I’m familiar with are psychotherapists, so it’s no surprise that they couch Zen in terms of achieving psychological health.

But that seems just so “American”. Psychological health — was that what the ancient masters in Japan and China were after? Is that why the Jesuit priests from Europe in the 17th century got so interested and involved with Zen, why they seemed to respect it so much?

Despite all the Americanizations to doctrine, most American Zen leaders and sanghas (i.e., meditation groups) strive for authenticity by adopting as many Japanese rituals and customs as possible. That includes some of the less desirable Japanese traits like rudeness (they call it “directness”). Sometimes it appears to me that Zen just gives certain people a license to be rude with others, to shout out orders like an Army drill sergeant. But hey, Zen (at least in Japan) has long had an attraction to warriors, so maybe this is not so surprising.

In sum, I have a “filtering” problem. I’m trying to determine what in my Zen experience is truly Zen, and what is a Japanese cultural artifact? I grew up in the embrace of Catholicism, and I know that if a group of Martians tried to adopt Christianity based on what they could observe today, they would probably mix together a few shots of core Christian doctrine and tradition, along with many medieval and modern rubrics and adaptations (both in terms of ritual and doctrine) which are Euro-nationalistic. Some elements of Christian theology were absorbed from classic Greek philosophical ideas. It would be very hard to pick out just what truly was authentic to the earliest Christian communities and to Jesus himself.

I have almost never heard any of my teachers give a good answer to the question of just why should a person sit in Zen meditation? I’ve all heard about counting breath, and I’ve read about the many physiological and psychological benefits that some people obtain from meditating. But no one seems to outline the expected process, what should happen, what is the idea behind sitting quietly for so long. About the best that I’ve come across (I read it, didn’t hear this from any of the teachers) is that intuition is involved, and intuition is not gained by study, analysis or direct mental exercises.

Some writings that suggest that Zen is a practical version of Taoism and of old-school Indian Buddhism; Zen practice is a means to develop an intuitive, internal sense of “the way of Nature”, the Taoistic “Way” (or the “Prajna” of Indian Buddhism, the transcendental wisdom) that can’t be grasped intellectually. And that thus explains the Zen disdain for intellectual study (although the whole koan thing isn’t all that different from any other mental exercise, even if it supposedly works to break the mind). The basic idea is this: by sitting silently long enough with an empty, un-occupied mind, you supposedly develop a natural sense of “the way” or the “Prajna”, and learn unknowingly how to live in accord with all the themes and purposes of the universe (thus, Zen implies a collective eschatology to everything that exists).

As such, there is no scientific rationale to support what Zen ultimately supposes, even though the Zen psychologists attempt to layer on a modern psychological justification / rationalization. But the Asian old-school Zen didn’t have that available. Their Zen had to be non-scientific, metaphysical, trans-natural. Americans just don’t want to admit that fact, thus they don’t talk about it. But, the idea is to realize the Way “intuitively”, which is to be “soaked” in the ambient wisdom of the natural world around us.

Going back to the common modern rationale that meditation is “good for you”, makes your life better, makes you calmer and less anxious– I’m not sure that meditation is working for me in that fashion. I’m also not sure that everyone else isn’t fooling themselves when they claim such benefits. The ancients masters proceeded in faith — they had the equivalent of a religious faith. They may well have possessed a FAITH in something that is a lot like God, but instead they called “TAO” and didn’t talk about too much more about it. They did not feel the need to capture and define it on paper. They felt that talk wouldn’t surround it and the mind couldn’t swallow it — it could only be realized unknowingly and intuitively.

Unfortunately, instead of just laying this out plain and simple, most Zen teachers and writers couch it in a lot of gobbledegook (which is akin to the Greek and medieval baggage that Christianity has obtained). Here’s an example of some typical American Zen-Speak:

Non-thinking is the pure state of no mental agenda, a state of mental silence and peace synonymous with Buddha nature. Dogen’s authentication is the practice of residing in non-thinking, once all mental agenda has been dropped. This represents a move away from the inherently agenda-laden state of the thinking and not-thinking mind, to the state of pure awareness that is non-thinking. If this state is cultivated and authenticated for a long enough period of time, one recognizes the pure state of reality that non-thinking not only represents, but allows to be seen clearly. In this state, intuitive thinking and living can arise in the mind without being hindered by compulsive mental thought.

If we cut thru the BS, the bottom line is that sitting quietly and emptying the mind as much as possible is supposed to give you some inner sense that you can’t get otherwise, and this sense will make you a better person and help you lead a more worthwhile life. That’s what the Americans just don’t seem to get about Zen (and thus they make Zen into whatever they think it should be). That’s the key question, if only you can get thru all the Zen gobbledegook.

And what should the answer to that question be? No one I’ve ever known or read about thinks to challenge that notion. Well then, let me be the first. Can we really soak in wisdom and become better, more developed humans by just sitting there?

The ancient Greeks seemed to think that virtue was something that didn’t just come naturally. If a human society was lucky, it would collect and form notions about what makes a person “good”, and would provide lessons and exercises and incentives to make people take the path of becoming “good”. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a prime example. To become good, truly good in the highest moral sense, you have got to work on it; we humans are very imperfect beings, we still have a lot of crude animal-like instincts. Thus, by ourselves, left to our own devices, we can rarely realize the goodest of the good.

This is the debate that Zen people should be having — who is right, Dogen or Aristotle? Zen people buy into the Buddhist notion of “the Bodhisattva”, the saint-like person who serves others selflessly. This is what Zen meditation is supposed to achieve — i.e., turn people into Bodhisattva by uncovering their inherent Buddha nature (you can already hear the gobbledegook in this rationale).

Can we really do this ourselves by entirely letting go of our rational thought? Or do we also need rational thought guided by collected social experience to lead us to goodness and Bodhisattva status? Personally, I like to meditate, but I really don’t see that it will turn me into a saint (or even a psychologically healthy and contended non-saint). But the Zen gobbledegook keeps on promising that this will somehow happen.

What I really need to know, oh sensei, is just how can this be true. (With all due apologies to the martial arts adventure movies and shows).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:34 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m going to presage this by a note that perhaps the following is phrased too much to *you* and should be more general. But it seems to me that being “too general” may be what the problem is that you seem to be seeking a solution to. So, this is my take on what you are saying, given with utmost respect for the search you are enduring. I should also say that perhaps in this comment I myself will say “stuff” about myself that is worth little; but somehow or other it has had meaning to me.

    I must say that I totally agree with you about all the psychological “stuff” that seems to be a part of the meditation you are practicing. I fail to see the relation between the two. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something; but I agree with you that it may be that the leaders of the group are imposing a lot of what they themselves have sent a lot of their own life practicing and thus think it simply has to be part of their meditative practice.

    I can see what you’re talking about in this post: Something’s missing that you’re not getting. The first thing that comes to mind (and I’m not saying I’m right; I’m just saying this might be something to consider) is that perhaps you are taking a much-too-intellectual approach to everything religion.

    *Yet* on the other hand I can see that a lot of what you say is 100% right. For instance: I’ve had the experience for 15 years of sitting with a group for an hour each day (well, to be exact a half-hour twice a day); this was not Zen meditation, but it was Christian meditation. As I think back on those 15 years of meditation, I must say (and here I think I agree with you) that I doubt I got much out of the *group* aspect of the meditation; however, I’ve found that, when I think about it, I’m surprised, even as I write this, that there is so much I remember of those periods of meditation. I also think that those 15 years gave me a kind of habit of meditation that I think I sometimes exercise without *thinking* about it at all.

    And I find myself wondering if that just may be what’s missing in your situation – or maybe what you are adding; and the adding is what’s causing the meditation to go awry. Maybe it’s that there’s too much “thinking” going on. This would be a natural thing for you as you are yourself very scientific, tend to think in terms of the scientific, and thus your thinking is itself more what *you* bring to it than what you allow to come to you.

    However, now to critique what I have just written: Perhaps I’m looking at your post from the standpoint of what has had meaning for me in my meditation practice; and thus I’m making the same mistake I faulted the Zen leaders for.

    It might just be that every, single, one of us has to find his/her own way in this whole thing. It might just be that (oh, how I totally *hate* the term but here I can find no other) each one has his/her own “journey” in this life. (Modern day uses “journey” to mean the slightest thing – finding the right ice cream when it’s hot; I so regret the bastardization of that word.) I mean this word in the way it was used before the modern generations got hold of it . . . the real *journey* that seeking and find is, a trek through a lot of places until one finds, hits on just the right one.

    And then maybe we are back to the word you yourself come up with: FAITH in something; and here I’ve left out the rest of your sentence. I might be more broad in using that word than you are in this post.

    Then, there’s the whole “non-thinking” aspect of meditation that a lot of people advise. Well, I’ve done both: the thinking kind of meditation and the non-thinking kind. Somewhere in there I’ve found the thinking kind somehow “better” (or maybe more adapted to my approach to life) than the “non-thinking” kind.

    So, I’m wondering if (as someone long ago told me when I asked what/why he was reading a particular book): I’ll take the “stuff” I want from this and forget the rest. Somehow or other that’s the one thing I’ve remembered from that person; but it’s also the one thing that’s been really useful to me.

    As to “who is right” in this discussion thinkers have had over the centuries: It may be that each one has had a little that is right and perhaps much more that is less meaningful or even lacking in usefulness. Maybe it’s not the question of “who’s right?”; maybe it’s what *part* of what this person says is right? Maybe we should be taking those *parts* that are right of the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Christians – name the groups down the centuries – maybe all of them have a little that is right. And maybe we should be looking for the part that is right, taking that, remembering that, incorporating that in our lives, and leaving the rest.

    So, perhaps as you ask at the end: Maybe the part of rational tho’t that is right should be kept, and the rest left; the part of social experience that leads us to goodness should be kept, and the rest left by the side. I must also add that the part about “being/becoming a saint” should be included in this idea: Take of that concept the part that fits for you and leave the rest.

    Combine them into something that fits for you and makes you a good person and man; and you’ve got, perhaps unknowingly, what you are looking for. From what I know about you, I tend to think you are a good man. “Saint” is a category reserved by the Roman Catholics for those to be revered – and now I see the Zen masters are using the word? The problem with “Saint” is that it leaves out all the saints who are not known, who are not famous, who lived plain lives but holy lives; they simply are not acknowledged, perhaps because they are not known. As I say, take the one part that fits of something, include parts of something else that fits for you and should be added and leave the rest.

    One more thing: I’ve recently been thinking


    about contemplation. I wonder where that fits. I have a quote I found from somewhere/someone that says: “Reading seeks. Meditation finds. Prayer asks. Contemplation feels.” I’m finding it interesting that “contemplation” is linked with “feeling”, such a human thing, supposedly a “lower human thing”, lower than seeking, reading, or thinking, as it seems to me. Hmmmm. . . is all I can say about that at this point.

    According to that one needs everything about being human to fit into what would make up what all the great religions, philosophies, and spiritual searches are about. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 30, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

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