Wednesday, November 28, 2007


This evening’s talk consists of a batch of meanderings along the Way.

That is, the Way with a capital W.

These rambles may seem hang-loose, but they have a common thread. Just as the Way has no name, if you want a label for this talk, feel free to add your own.

Finally, if these rambles seem to hover around my personal life, I hope they won’t be too tedious.

* * * * *

As we all know, Zen was introduced to the United States, in the early 1900s, by four Japanese masters: Soyen Shaku, Nyogen Senzaki, Sokei-an, and D.T. Suzuki.

You don’t have to remember those names. You won’t be tested.

For a few years this mystical offshoot of Buddhism and Taoism sparked the limited attention of Western scholars. But that interest sputtered out in the 1940s with the start of the Pacific war with Japan. At that time, all Japanese people were considered adversaries.

After World War II, and on into the 1950s and 1960s, several other Japanese masters came to the States to talk about Zen. Among them were D.T. Suzuki, again, Hiromu Oda, and Kobun Chino. I read everything published in English by Suzuki, and those last two were my teachers.


Weren’t these guys missionaries? Weren’t they evangelists, proselytizers, trying to reshape the world to their concepts of religion? Weren’t these Zen fellows like the gospelers of Judaism, and Christianity, and Islam, who trip off to China, Africa, South America, and the United States, to get people, who don’t acknowledge their god, to change?


There was and is a big distinction.

First. Religion is defined as a belief in a supernatural power or being that is regarded as creator of the universe. It’s an authority that must be revered, worshipped, and prayed to.

With no criticism intended:

1. Religion is a system of belief.

2. Religion is a dogma.

3. Religion is a faith.

4. Religion is a doctrine.

With no praise intended:

Zen is none of these.

Second. Zen, or Buddhism, or Taoism—individually or collectively—is not a religion.

They are the way of life. None of them claims any sort of supernatural being. None of them prays. They worship nothing, but respect everything, including the thinking of any person, no matter how diverse it might be.

Zen doesn’t require that people change.

Zen doesn’t want or need people to change.

Third. The Buddha never tried to convince anyone that his way was the way for everyone.

The Buddha discovered something that opened his eyes and his mind. He told people what that something was, but he did not tell people they should follow him, physically or philosophically.

With a nod to Frank Sinatra, the Buddha said, “I did it my way. You have to find your own way.”

Fourth. Zen shrugs off prayer. However, some Buddhist schools do a form of prayer to a so-called enlightened being known as Kannon, or Kwan-yen.

She is known as a bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy. Of course, Buddhists don’t really believe in supernatural gods or goddesses, but many adherents to some organized groups offer prayers to Kannon.

If there are answers to Kannon’s prayers, the answers really come from the individuals themselves.

I have personally never gotten a handle on the term “bodhisattva.” It means an awakened being, who out of compassion skips nirvana in order to help all others.

Nirvana? That’s the state in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. It’s emancipation from ignorance, and the doing away with all attachment. It’s a condition of harmony and stability.

Nirvana doesn’t seem like any part of Zen. And who is to say if you or I am a bodhisattva?

Who knows what I am?

I don’t even know what I am.

The term “nirvana” is as fishy as the term “enlightenment.”

“Enlightenment” is often mistaken for self-delusion.

I don’t think I ever asked myself the eternal, cosmic question that goes in many forms: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? Who am I? What is the purpose of existence?

And I know I have never wondered where and how everything came to exist, or when it will all end.

What does it matter?

Is this a form of self-righteous complacency?

Self-righteousness is being piously sure of one’s own morality.

I once palled around with a guy who I considered a good buddy. We went hiking together, we skied together, we double-dated. We had a lot of fun together.

Then, one day, this guy said, “Jack, you and I can never be friends because you don’t go to my church.”

I was momentarily crushed, but I got over the feeling.

It didn’t seem to matter to him, and it didn’t matter to me.

Self-righteousness isn’t the same as being self-sufficient. Self-sufficient refers to a guy or a gal who can take care of him or her self without depending on other people, or on state handouts.

Still, a self-sufficient individual has to remember he is related to all existing things, whether humans, birds, trees, or stones in a river bottom.

We, as a Zen sangha, are a bunch of individuals. Each of us is an independent being, yet we are kindred.

If you feel you’ve achieved a state of inner peace, if it’s the real thing you can’t hoard it. You can’t be full of yourself.

When you are open to all existence, all existence will be open to you.


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