Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Presenting Zen to Westerners is not easy. Zen stories are often loaded with metaphor, allegory, figures of speech, and references to ancient Asian cultural traditions.

You might think such embellishments would appeal to Westerners, who feel at home with complexity and sophistication. However, a simple way of explaining Zen does not appeal to most Westerners. They look at simplicity with suspicion.

Perhaps if Zen teachers fogged up the basics, and made them convoluted, Westerners might take notice.

After all, Westerners are used to the elaborate ideas of the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Life—that is, living Zen—is simple and direct. But only if you let it be simple and direct.

Only if you flow with the stream instead of thrashing around, and kicking against the flow.

There, I’ve used a simile. Does it make the message more understandable?

Japanese Zen Master Gudo Nishijima stated that to study Buddhism is not so easy. Yes, even to an Asian it can seem contradictory, paradoxical, and incongruous.

Japanese Zen Master Dogen realized this early on.

As brilliant and discerning as Dogen was, he wrestled with a dilemma regarding Buddha-nature.

In plain language, Buddha-nature is existence. That is, Buddha-nature is life as it is.

That’s fairly straightforward.

Life as it is.

Dogen puzzled over this. If Buddha-nature is life as it is. Dogen wondered if Buddha-nature existed in beings from birth. If so, why was it necessary to seek it? Why do we need to work for enlightenment—awakening—if we are already awakened?

According to some records, Dogen went to Master Eisai at Kennin-ji in Kyoto, and asked the key question.

“Are all beings endowed with Buddha-nature from birth, or must it be sought?” Dogen inquired.

Eisai probably chuckled, and he said, “I don’t know anything about Buddhas of the past, present, or future. I do know that black cats and white oxen exist.”

In other words, don’t trouble your mind over nebulous stuff. Experience what is right now.

Consider the Christian notion of predestination. That’s the doctrine that a supernatural being has laid out a blueprint for all time and for all things. Existence is predetermined.

Earthquakes, wars, sunny days, human behavior, when one dies, how one dies, what happens then.

For humans, there’s no choice, no matter how good one lives their life, or how vicious a person they are.

It’s a sort of a spiritual DNA. You’ve long been chosen to either go to heaven or to hell when you die.

Wait a minute. Maybe God had a second thought. Maybe he thought, gee, that’s not really fair. Hey, I have a better idea. I’ll make predestination and free will co-exist, and let humans figure it out.

I’ll give them a choice.

But then maybe God thought, whoa, wait a minute, if I declare predestination, then that rules out free thought. So humans really have no option in the matter. The poor sods are all doomed from the start, so to hell with them.

And people think Zen is complicated.

According to Dhammapada, which is a supposed record of the supposed words of the Buddha: All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

Buddha-nature is existence. Buddha-nature is life as it is.


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