Tuesday, December 18, 2007


In the United States, and maybe in other Christian countries, people who show an interest in Zen tend to be older individuals.

I don’t mean old, as in aged, or elderly. I mean mature.

As the British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, said, “. . . able to digest and mature my thoughts for my own mind only.”

It seems most serious Western Zen people are older than, say, thirty, but, interestingly, not older than around seventy.

As you may have noticed in our group, from time to time a teenager or a twenty-some-ager will drop in. Usually a university student. They will sit for a session, they will listen, they will say they enjoyed the experience, and then they will leave.

They seldom return.

First off, their lack of long-term interest could be a result of my talks. But, not being paranoid, I’ll set that aside until later.

So, what is it about Zen that does not make it a turn-on for younger people?

I think one explanation is that a Zen group—particularly a Soto Zen group—is too calm, too composed, too unruffled.

It’s too much of nothing.

But for a Zen person, that nothing is everything.

Another reason may be that younger people are looking for answers. When they realize Zen doesn’t offer answers, they move on to something that they think will.

Perhaps younger people are looking for someone or something to do something for them.

Perhaps mature individuals have learned how to do for themselves.

Or, perhaps the mature individuals—the real Zenners—have come to know that some things really don’t need to be done.

Something that doesn’t need to be done is relaxing by listening to high-volume acid rock on an iPod.

Maybe the young person’s lack of staying interest in Zen relates to its not having jivey music, or ritual, or liturgy, or rules and regulations, or incense, or intellectual hocus pocus.

It’s a fact that most people like to be entertained,

Zen is not entertaining.

Zen can be demanding and challenging. Especially in the beginning when one is learning to sit still for up to an hour at a time.

The legs hurt. The back aches. The mind throbs from having nothing to do.

Philosophy, science, mathematics all stretches the mind. They encourage the mind to look for answers.

Zen calms the mind.

It’s not entertaining.

Zen doesn’t give a hoot about answers.

* * * * *

Zen can be confusing.

A monk asked his master, “What happens after we die?”

The master answered, “The crows are noisy.”

What kind of sense does this exchange make?

First, the question itself is nonsense.

“What happens after we die?”

Nobody knows.

Not only does no body know, no one knows.

So, “What happens after we die?” is unreal.

“The crows are noisy” expresses something real.

Also real is the expression, “My coffee is hot.”

Any answer to that death question is conjecture. It is speculation. It is assumption.

Death itself is observable, confirmable, and empirical.

Death is real.

What happens after death is unconfirmable.

It is unreal.

Noisy crows and hot coffee are real.

So are sticks and stones. They are now.

When I was in the Merchant Marine one of my ships spent several days loading cargo in Honolulu. For the officers there were several delightful periods with no watches to stand, so a couple of times the Third Engineer and I went ashore and rented bicycles.

Once we were biking along a rural road when Paul shouted, “My God, look at the cows!”

“Yes,” I said, “Like cows every where.”

“But these cows are real,” Paul insisted.

Paul had lived all of his twenty years in central Chicago. He had seen pictures of cows in books, he had seen movies with cows, and he had seen stuffed and mounted cows in museums.

But he had never seen a live cow.

He’d never seen a real cow.

To Paul, at that moment on Oahu, Hawaii, a real cow was one of the wonders of the world.

For Paul, those real cows were a moment of spiritual awakening.

* * * * *

An American humorist named Gelett Burgess wrote a cow poem that has outlived him:

“I never saw a purple cow,

“I never hope to see one;

“But I can tell you anyhow,

“I’d rather see than be one.”

* * * * *

What’s the point of all this?

Think about it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


The other day I went into a supermarket and, after some deliberation, I picked out a film-wrapped slice of fresh salmon. It was a hearty chunk of fish, and it would make a fine meal. When I took my selection to the cash register the checkout person—a pleasant-faced young woman—inspected it solemnly.

“What is it?” she asked.

What is it? I wondered if she was presenting a koan, but I responded graciously. “It’s a fish,” I said. “A salmon fish.”

“But where are its eyes?” she wanted to know.

Her direct question threw me off. “I mean it’s a salmon fish steak.”

She looked puzzled.

“You’ve never tasted salmon?” I asked, wondering if she had recently wandered out of the Ozarks hills after having been weaned on chitlins and redeye gravy. I leaned over the counter to see if she was wearing shoes.

“Salmon is delicious,” I said. “It’s a salt water fish.”

She looked at me intently. “Are you a sailor?” she asked.

Another straightforward question.

Fish . . . water . . . sailor. I presumed she was making some sort of association. Or maybe she was posing a spiritual problem. Perhaps she was demonstrating truth directly, without recourse to logic or reason. I reflected on her words.

“Not just now,” I said. “But I have been.”

Fish in hand, she gazed at me and I readied myself to launch into a collection of salty yarns from my days before the mast.

“Well, you look like one,” she said. I assumed she meant sailor, not fish.

As Pogo Possum used to say, reason reeled. I was wearing black shorts and a green T-shirt. I wondered what sort of seafaring books she’d been reading.

The nymph and I stood there for a long moment, both of us calmly regarding the salmon steak. After a while she rang up my purchase, slipped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to me.

“Well, have a nice day sailing,” she said.

I thanked her.

“And enjoy your whatever,” she added.

Rationalism had fled. “Maple tree in the garden,” I answered.

Intellect and logic had been blown out of the water. Was I having a spasm of awakening? I remembered a Zen story.

Once a fish asked another fish, “I’ve always heard of ocean, but what is ocean?”

The other fish answered, “You are surrounded by ocean. You move, live, and have your being in ocean. Ocean is all around you. Ocean is within you.”

The first fish looked confused, so the other fish went on.

“You are ocean.”

“Huh?” the first fish said.

“You originated in ocean, and you will end in ocean. You and ocean are one.”

Now the first fish was really bewildered.

“You’ve given me no answer at all,” it said. “I’ll have to go somewhere else for an answer.”

The other fish said, “The only real answer is the one you find in yourself.”

I carried my fish to the car and sat there for a few minutes, trying to find a real answer in myself. All I came up with was another question.

Why, I wondered, do I attract such weird moments?

After a while the world settled into place, so I headed for home.

That night I broiled the whatever with dill butter and served it with a baked potato and a side of corn pudding.

The meal was delicious, and I became one with it.