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.


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