Thursday, September 10, 2009


These days everyone talks about, reads about, and practically drips about Zen. There are books and magazines and newspaper articles devoted to Zen. There are advertisements with phony Zen themes. There are Zen takeoffs on travel destinations, on diets, even on dog foods.
Is Zen really some sort of a New-Age fad that detonated over the horizon in the eighties?
Incidentally the dictionary definition of New-Age mentions (I take a deep breath) a complex of spiritual and consciousness-raising movements covering a range of themes from a belief in spiritualism and reincarnation to advocacy of holistic approaches to health and ecology.
Is this Zen?
In a word: NO.
Zen has been around a while. It isn’t new.
According to indistinct records, Zen probably had its start in China in the sixth century when the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma touched down in a Cantonese monastery. There, he taught silent meditation, and his practice became known as Ch’an Buddhism.
Back then the world had no airplanes or trains. There was no Internet. And because China was physically, linguistically, and philosophically a long Way from Japan, Ch’an took some five hundred years to reach Japan.
Ch’an’s introduction to Japan, where it became known as Zen, is attributable to several teachers. But the Japanese master who opened the first continuing monastery, and is best known for his outstanding contributions to Zen literature, is Dogen Kigen.
Early on, Dogen wrote a meditation manual that presented straightforward zazen instructions. He followed this with another piece in question-and-answer format. Best known today was his manual titled The Record of Things Heard, a collection informal talks on various Zen subjects. In these and all of his writings, Dogen emphasized one’s dedication to realizing the Way.
Dogen said no matter what one’s intelligence or education, zazen was the universal practice. He claimed that everything other than zazen was a digression from true Zen.
Dogen was not dead-set against koans, which were all the rage in most Ch’an and Zen schools of his time. He did say that koans could be an obstacle to Zen practice and awakening. Rather, he focused on shikantaza.
Literally, in Japanese shikan means “only”; ta means “hit”; za means “sit”.
So, shikantaza is absolute meditation without an object or an aim in mind.
No koans, no chants, no rituals.
Pure meditation.
The true study of the Way doesn’t depend on book learning, or on brainpower, or on intelligence. The true study of the Way relies on perseverance in the practice of zazen.
No more, no less.
To quote Dogen: “In the first place, there must be a keen and sincere desire to seek the Way. . . . . Anything sought for with . . . intensity will surely be gained. . . . Those who have this drive . . . even if they are
stupid . . . will without fail gain enlightenment.”
In other words, you have to stick with it.
Then Dogen said that to awaken such a mind one has to be aware of the impermanence of the world. Impermanence is not some arcane conjecture or theory; impermanence is a reality, a fact, a truth.
We humans may try to get around death with religious routines, but nothing lasts forever. Not trees, not birds, not humans, not even the mountains or the rivers or the oceans. We come we go.
Every year you read about the death of someone who has lived to be a hundred-and-some years old. The longest-lived human, to date, is Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years. The other day I read about the death of the oldest living dog in the world. It was a dachshund, named Chanel. It was 27 in human years, 147 in dog years.
My point is that nothing lasts forever.
Dogen’s third point in the study of the Way is really first, in order of importance.
It is zazen.
Dogen was asked by a follower named Ejo that when zazen and the reading of texts are practiced together, we maybe understand one point in a thousand. But in zazen alone, there isn’t even this much. So why so much emphasis to zazen?
Dogen answered that koans and readings may lead to a slight comprehension, but they can—if one becomes attached to them—actually get in the way of the Way.
The value is not in words or mental games, but in zazen.
To summarize Dogen, in the study of the Way you have to shed attachments. If you follow a good teacher and practice together with the others, and shuck off all notions of how important self is, you will be a person of the Way.
The Buddha way is never-ending. If you become awakened, keep right on practicing zazen.
A final word: Don’t become a smart-ass about enlightenment.
Especially yours.


Blogger SJ said...

"Don’t become a smart-ass about enlightenment. Especially yours."
That is great!

Friday, September 11, 2009 11:30:00 AM  

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