Thursday, January 15, 2009

THE VOCABULARY OF ZEN

When I started preparing this talk at home I intended dealing with deep meditation. However, as happens in most of my writings, shortly after I began working, the words charged off on a course of their own.

Rather than fight what was going on between my brain and my fingertips, I decided to flow with the flow. So this evening I’m not going to talk about deep meditation.

That sounds rather Zen, doesn’t it? Our subject tonight is not deep meditation.

Instead, I’m going to define some words that are common in Buddhist literature, and then I’ll take a quantum leap and say a few things about religion and Zen.

Bear with me. Even though what follows may seem disjointed, there is an underlying connectedness to it.

Another time we we’ll talk about deep meditation.

In studying Buddhist material you will encounter many commonly used words that are derived from Pali, or Sanskrit, or Japanese, and which are not easily translatable. I’ll mention a few. Others will pop up in other talks.

Generally in my talks I avoid using words that aren’t English. I could call this object a zafu, which is the common Japanese term, but why impose a new vocabulary on everyone? This is a cushion for sitting meditation. We usually refer to it as a cushion, and that word is usually adequate for all practical purposes.

Nevertheless.

Zazen is sitting meditation. We do zazen here Monday evenings. On our rear ends. Usually on zafu.

To ease our rear ends, and to learn to meditate in other positions, we also do kinhin, or walking meditation.

A place dedicated to the practice of Zen meditation is termed a zendo. It can be a formal building or a large hall in a monastery. It can be a small room in a home.

When I lived in California I often sat at a zendo that had once been a residential garage and was then transformed into a pleasant meditation room. The interior walls were painted a light tan, the color of a biscuit. There were raised platforms around the four walls. On the floor and on the benches were thick straw mats and meditation cushions.

It was a placid space in which to meditate, and to listen to someone present a talk or read a sutra.

A sutra is a teaching discourse of the Buddha given by a buddha. Sutras are presented at sesshins.

A sesshin is an intensive period of sitting meditation that lasts a full day or several days. Meditation at a sesshin is usually broken by dharma talks.

Dharma is a prevalent word in Asian thought, and it has a couple of meanings. To a Hindu, dharma is the principle or law that orders the universe. To a Buddhist, dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and the application of such teachings.

Karma—a similar sounding word—is simply fate or destiny. People speak of good karma and bad karma. To a Zen person, karma is karma, neither good nor bad.

A sangha is a community of people dedicated to the dharma; that is, to the application of Buddhist teachings. We constitute a sangha.

A roshi is a Zen master who shares the dharma with the sangha.

A buddha, with a small letter “b” is a person who has perceived the origins of suffering, delusion, and craving, and has attained the capacity to benefit others. Literally, “buddha” means “awakened, or enlightened, one.”

The Buddha, written with a large “B” refers to Guatama Siddhartha. The enlightened one.

I recently read about a Buddhist conference at which, after several days, a woman asked the head monk, “Why is no one here enlightened”? The monk glanced at her and answered, “If you can tell that no one here is enlightened, then you must be enlightened.”

A bodhisattva is a person who aspires to become a buddha.

A bhikkhu is a Buddhist monk who has been ordained by a Zen master.

To change the subject, but to mention one more word, people often ask if Zen is a religion. In western terms religion is commonly defined as a personal or institutionalized system grounded in belief in a supernatural power that is regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

That is a long-winded definition, so I’ll say it again in condensed form.

Religion is a system grounded in belief in a supernatural power. That power is regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

This definition is interesting in that the “supernatural power” is credited with human qualities, such as “creator” and “governor.” This would indicate that the concept of a supernatural power is a human invention that possesses anthropomorphic characteristics.

Also, it appears to be designed to satisfy a certain need of most humans.

That need is the need to believe in something other than oneself.

As Voltaire said: “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent Him.”

As Nietzsche said: “There cannot be a God because if there were one, I could not believe that I was not He.”

Most religions give credence to a creator and governor of the universe, a so-called higher being. That being is either made in human image, or else humans are made in its image. Theologians debate this point.

The point is, finding and accepting that being—whether it is called God, or Jesus, or Allah, or Krishna—is the aim of most religions.

Zen does not concern itself with the existence or non-existence of a supreme being.

Zen neither denies nor affirms such beliefs. Zen simply cannot conceive of them.

Can a lily comprehend a recipe for chicken gumbo? Does a lily need to do this to be itself?

Zen is not a religion. It is a way of life,

The point of Zen is not finding some supernatural being, but realizing oneself.

Being oneself.

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