Tuesday, May 06, 2008



What we Westerners call Zen Buddhism is a tradition that is linked to the Ch’an School of China. A tradition is the passing down of cultural elements from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.

So, Zen is not a religion, not a philosophy, but a tradition.

What is Ch’an?

Ch’an is a tradition that’s related to Taoism, and also to the Zen School of Japan.

What we call Zen Buddhism came about in the sixth century A.D., and its purpose was to simplify the confusion that had sprung up in Indian Buddhism.

Speaking of confusion, it’s best not to study Zen, either chronologically or philosophically. You’ll only be messed up. Just absorb everything you hear or read, neither believing nor disbelieving.

Eventually—as they say in New Zealand— everything will sort itself out.

New Zealand is what might be called a cool place.

The people don’t seem to worry much about anything. They take things as they are. They have a good sense of humor, which is necessary in everyday life. And they speak a wonderful sort of English.

Getting back to Buddhism.

The original teachings of the man Guatama Buddha, during his time and shortly after, were basic, straightforward, and simple. Unfortunately, in a relatively short period after his death, those teachings were added to, taken away from, and generally made as complex as were the Hindu philosophies they tried to escape.

Fast forward to contemporary times.

The Buddhist scholar and teacher, Christmas Humphreys, wrote, in A Western Approach to Zen: “The early masters of Ch’an sought the same personal direct attainment without scripture, ritual, or formulated thought, and all Zen training is concerned with one thing only, awareness of the Absolute with the heart of man.”

So, what is the Absolute? We’ll talk about that in a minute.

When I’m forced into a corner by someone who wants to know what “faith” or “belief” I subscribe to, I hesitate answering, knowing all the explaining that lies ahead.

If I go to the heart of the matter and say I am Zen, the inevitable response is, “Oh, you’re a Zen Buddhist.”

Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

Most people identify Zen with Buddhism, and most people have at least heard the term “Buddhism,” thinking it to be a heathen Asian religion that is at odds with Christianity.

Nevertheless, I usually nod to being labeled a Zen Buddhist. Agreeing is easier than stating there’s a tremendous difference between Zen Buddhism and Zen. But to say that usually opens a figurative Pandora’s Box that releases not evil but knowledge that simply cannot be experienced in a casual conversation.

Because Zen is life, it takes a lifetime to comprehend. But try telling that to someone. They will think:

1. You are being a mystical wise guy, or else

2. You really don’t know what you are talking about and are blowing smoke, or else

3. You are some sort of nut. Maybe a latter-day hippy.

Paraphrasing Humphreys, Zen is a name for the Absolute. That is, the ultimate basis of all thought and being.

The Absolute is something that is independent of and unrelated to anything else.

Because Zen is beyond the grasp of the relative mind, it can’t be simply defined or easily explained.

If you ask me what Zen is, all I can say is that it’s the real you.

Zen is Zen, and—like you—it must be experienced through awakening of your own self.

That was and is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

We Westerners are born into a world of relation to a thinking mind. Society trains us to think in terms of opposites, of “this or that,” or “this and that.”

My last seven words are an example of the sort of relativity we are stuck with. The first three words—“this or that”—set up opposites. Then the last three words—“this and that”—set up independence.

On top of everything, each of the two groups of three words is joined by the word “or.”

And that word sets up another opposite.

Such this-or-that business is what Zen refers to as duality. Zen steers clear of dualities. Zen thinks of opposites and dependence as “not one, not two.”

We’ll talk about not-one-not-two another time.

You may remember an old song titled, “It’s gotta be this or that.”

Unlike that song, nothing is entirely this or entirely that.

Speaking of this or that, let me throw in a word that probably everyone has heard: Nirvana.

Nirvana is not Paradise, nor is it the Promised Land.

In Buddhism, Nirvana is the attainment of disinterested wisdom and compassion.

In Zen, Nirvana is here and now.

Remember that term because it will appear now and again in these talks and in your various readings on Zen.

Nirvana is not pie in the sky.

Nirvana is here.

Nirvana is now.


Post a Comment

<< Home