Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Some 750 years ago Zen Master Dogen said Zen is meditation, and meditation is Zen.

Think about that.

To add to it, these days Zen is often described as a tradition, which is a waffling way of saying something when nothing needs to be said.

A tradition is a behavior or a pattern that’s passed along from generation.

That sort of goes along with Zen, which is a direct transmission of wisdom called the Dharma.

D. T. Suzuki, who had his own ideas about everything, claimed Zen is much more than a tradition. It’s an experience, he said. To study Zen is to have Zen experience, and without the experience there is no Zen.

Suzuki went on to explain experience means to communicate to others. To communicate you have to be aware. A turnip can’t communicate because a turnip doesn’t have what is called awareness. At least that how it seems to humans.

To experience is to be aware. Zen experience is complete when it’s backed by Zen awareness and expression.

I’d like to tie together these three ideas: (1) Zen awareness, (2) Zen experience, and (3) Zen meditation. Much of my talk is based on a 1939 essay Suzuki wrote on Zen experience.

First off, is there any connection between awareness, experience, and meditation? To say this another way, is there any relationship between being and non-being? If you don’t see these two questions are essentially the same, don’t worry. Things will become clearer.

Once a Zen master named Daian told his monks that being and non-being was like a flowering vine twined around a tree.

Visualize that. A living tree with a living vine curled around it.

In another part of the country a fellow named Sozan heard about this statement, and he thought about it for a long time. He couldn’t get the image of a tree and a twining vine out of his mind. Finally he journeyed to Master Daian.

“Did you really say that being and non-being was like a flowering vine twined around a tree?” Sozan asked.

Daian nodded.

“I can’t sleep, thinking about this,” Sozan said.

Daian smiled.

“So, what happens when the tree dies?” Sozan asked.

Daian burst out laughing and headed for his living quarters.

Sozan said, “Master, I have come a long way to grasp what you said. Why do you make fun of me?”

Daian turned around and said, “Some day you may encounter a master whose nickname is ‘One-eyed Dragon.’ He will help you see into this matter.”

Months passed, then one day Sozan bumped into Master Myosho, who was known as ‘One-eyed Dragon’, and Sozan told of his interview with Daian.

“Tell me, what happens when the tree dies?” Sozan asked Myosho.

Myosho smiled and said, “My friend, when you ask, you make Daian laugh all over again.

At that moment Sozan understood the whole issue, and he bowed in the direction of Daian’s monastery.

Do you suppose Sozan was equating the tree-vine story with human existence?

One of the greatest questions that worries humans is that of the natural process of life and death.

Isn’t life being, and death non-being?

The end of life is as much of a natural process as growing older. Everything grows older. Everyone dies. Yet, most humans are scared to death with the thought of death. Life is so familiar that to some persons the thought of it ending can be fear-provoking.

When the tree dies, it’s only natural that the vine around it withers. Being is possible only with non-being.

Probably every human has the desire to exist after death. This craving is what most religious groups use to victimize people when they declare that the after-life will be better than the present existence, and please drop your money in the box so we can tell you all about the afterlife.

When we die will we go to what is usually called “Heaven,” a place in the sky where angels flap their wings and choirs intone joyous songs around the clock for all of eternity?

Is there really something higher and deeper around the bend?

Or, after life leaves the body is there nothing?

Life and death are direct opposites.

Being and non-being are direct opposites. As long as we worry about such things we will always be uneasy.

Sozan apparently was concerned with the matter of being and non-being, or, in religious terms, with the issue of immortality. When he heard about Daian’s pronouncement comparing being and non-being with a flowering vine that was twined around a tree, and was affected by it, Sosan probably thought the master could settle his spirit once and for all. So he went to Daian for answers.

As social animals, we humans like to communicate with one another, and we do this through a medium.

When I say “medium” I’m not talking about self-styled psychics who claim the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Such characters are also called contacts or channels in that they pose as guides or mouthpieces to a supposed other world.

Painting is a medium. Music is a medium. Language is a medium.

Unfortunately, language is easily diddled. It can be twisted to mean anything. Look at the doublespeak that gushes from governments and politicians.

To quote Suzuki, “The highest and most fundamental experiences are best communicated without words.”

To paraphrase Suzuki, no matter well-expressed a medium may be, it will not have the desired effect on someone who has never had a similar experience. That is, we can establish a relationship between apples and apples, but we may have a tough time connecting tangerines and lamb chops.

When Daian laughed at Sozan’s question, did he see something hilarious about it?

Or was he laughing at the futility of worrying about something that has no answer.

Suzuki said there is no such thing as the finish of anything. Things are timeless, everlasting. Things may age, they may break down. But they never come to an end.

What’s important in Zen is not to make guesses, not to make assumptions, but to experience the meaning itself. Leave intellectualizing to the philosophers.

Leave intellectualizing to the philosophers.

When I attend a lecture or listen to a speech, the words I most welcome are, “… and in conclusion.”

And in conclusion, do you recall Hollywood’s Loony Tunes?

Do you remember Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote? Tom and Jerry? Porky Pig?

Porky Pig had a speech impediment, but he always concluded with three words that were straight Zen.

“That’s all, folks.”

By the way, if you ask why Myosho was called One-eyed Dragon, you’ll make me laugh.


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