Tuesday, December 23, 2008


In one of our recent meetings we discussed the suggestion that in Japan Buddhism is dying out. We proposed that such a change might be a result of the Western influence on that country.

For the most part, in Japan, people have adapted to Western dress, Western foods, and Western customs. That is, there is a shift away from Asian spiritualism toward Western materialism.

More leisure, more money, more possessions.

Tonight’s talk doesn’t attempt to confirm or deny Chicken Little’s bewailing that the Buddhist sky is falling.

Instead, tonight’s talk discusses some of the ancient yet living principles of Zen culture that do not have parallels in Western civilization. Owing to their differences in mindset, some of these nonintellectual forms are puzzling or mystifying to the rational Western way of thinking.

Maybe it’s Western culture that is ebbing.

The contemporary writer Thomas Hoover suggests that Zen culture brings us in touch with our nonrational side. To this end, the ancient Zen masters worked hard to devise methods to short circuit the mind’s reasoning characteristics in favor of developing instinct and intuition.

Zen master Takuan (who lived in the 1500s) claimed that the inner spirit of an art is understood only when one’s mind is in harmony with the principle of life itself. That is, when one attains that state of mind known as mushin, “no mind.”

This means going beyond misgivings, beyond life and death, beyond good and evil, beyond being and non-being.

To name a few of the vital Zen arts and practices: archery, stone gardens, painting, drama, haiku, the tea ceremony. In Japan such forms may be past their zenith, but they are neither defunct nor obsolete.

One of these methods is the koan. To quote myself from an earlier talk, a koan is a paradox. That is, a statement that is self-contradictory. Koans can’t be grasped by the intellect but must be understood through direct experience. A single koan doesn’t have a single answer; it may have dozens or hundreds of answers, each of which depends on the mentality of a Zen master or that of a Zen novice.

As I’ve said many times before, a koan may have many off-the-wall, misguided responses, but there is no right answer.

A koan is a cultural way of pointing to awakening.

Another classical Zen practice that continues to be applied as a way to understanding one’s self is cha-no-yu, the art of the tea ceremony. Though it is still a custom in Japan, the observance doesn’t seem to have taken hold in the Western world. Perhaps this is because the ceremony is lengthy. It takes time. In the West time is a precious commodity not to be frittered away unless it has a financial return.

D.T. Suzuki said the art of tea is intimately connected with Zen “in the observance of the spirit that runs through the ceremony itself.” The basic values of cha-no-yu are expressed in the words harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. These values are the way of a true Zen person.

Harmony between persons, between objects, between persons and objects.

Like most Zen practices, Japanese painting, particularly sumi-e—the art of black ink painting—requires something of the viewer. That something is participation.

A sumi painting is incomplete because the artist has omitted something. The artist wants a viewer to take an active part in appreciating and understanding the work. In doing so, the viewer completes the work, and in so doing exercises his or her intuition.

Even today, most of Japanese living is bound together in a similar appreciation of the harmony of things.

This is the basis of Zen.

“Say something about haiku,” I am asked.

Alright, to recast some words of writer R. H. Blyth, haiku is a tradition of looking at things (isn’t Zen?), it’s a way of living (isn’t Zen?).

Does haiku belong to Zen, or does Zen belong to haiku?

Remember the enso—the closed circle. What goes away comes back again. There is no beginning, no ending. In the words of a haiku:

I never questioned

My Master about meaning.

He never answered.

And few more words from R. H. Blyth:

“. . . art and poetry and the drama, learning and religion. . . are far closer to one another in the East than in the West.”

Looking at the history of humankind as a history of the human spirit, we can think of it as either a rise and fall or a fall and rise.

Remember the enso—the closed circle.

What goes away comes back again.

There is no beginning, no ending.

There is no this or that.

To wind this up, is Buddhism, or is Zen, dying? Maybe yes, maybe no. Anything is possible. After all, scientists predict that in a few trillion years our sun will burn itself out.

Well, I’m not going to wait around for either to happen. There are better things to do in the present.


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