Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The dictionary defines the word “religion” as a belief in and reverence for a supernatural power regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

Most religions are thought up and controlled by humans, and most of them are based on some sort of payback. Do this and you’ll go to glory (what ever glory means). Don’t do that and you’ll be rewarded.

Humans are suckers for prizes.

Especially Westerners.

Zen is not a religion, and it doesn’t offer prizes.

So, is Zen the answer to life’s headaches?


Zen doesn’t offer quick fixes to anything, much less to what Buddhism terms suffering.

Instead, Zen generates one outlandish brain-teaser after another to rattle your cage and encourage you to think for yourself.

But if you try to nail down answers to Zen questions you’ll become bogged because you’re thinking in terms of questions and answers, in terms of two different things.

In Western terms of if you do this, you’ll gain that.

This is what Zen calls dualistic thinking, and Zen avoids dualisms because they are dead ends.

What Zen does is enable you to see life’s twists and turns clearly, and realize that those twists and turns are inevitable. They aren’t really problems unless you allow them to be problems.

Back in the days when self-help paperbacks filled the shelves, I had what I thought was a whizbang idea for a book. It would be titled Traps.

Traps would talk about life’s snares such as bad jobs, poor relationships, gambling habits, and so on, and so on. Furthermore, it would offer practical ways to break free of such snags.

I sent off a detailed prospectus, and one publisher showed interest. Wow! I was on my way.

But the more I thought about the project, the less I liked the idea because the book might end up being touted as a fix-all manual. It was too fundamental, too much of a non-brainer. So I abandoned it.

If anyone wants to filch my brainchild, feel free. I won’t sue.

In other talks I’ve mentioned people who imagine every combination of circumstances as a personal rebuke. A divine slap on the hands.

But consider this: Problems don’t appear out of thin air. Problems aren’t like the Big Bang, an event that just happened.

Problems have a cause. Like religions, problems are created by people.

The word “problem”—like the word “religion”—is an expression I wish would go away because it’s a pointless idiom. What most people think of as a problem is simply a situation that will fade once it is seen clearly for what it is.

Do you remember the core of the Buddha’s teachings, the four noble truths? They don’t deal with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disorders. They deal with reality.

Few humans are continuously cheerful. Instead, most of us are often dissatisfied. We feel we are never getting enough. Not enough money, not enough happiness, not enough respect.

There was a song titled “I’ll Never Get Enough.” I don’t recall the lyrics, which is just as well.

Anyway, discontent leads to unhappiness.

As the comic Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don't get no respect from my doctor. I told him I wanted a vasectomy. He said, with a face like mine I don't need one.”

In Sanskrit, discontent is termed dukkha. In English dukkha is suffering. Which brings us back to the first of the four noble truths.

Human beings suffer. They are unhappy. They are dissatisfied.

The second noble truth states that suffering is the result of desire. In two words, we want. What’s ironic is that we usually want what we really don’t need.

The columnist Art Buchwald said, “The best things in life aren’t things.”

The third noble truth states we can do away with suffering.

Note the word we. We means you, it means me. Go-betweens aren’t required. No guru, no priest, no savior, no executive committees. You and only you can eliminate the worthless stuff you think life hands you but which you and only you create.

You’re the one in charge of your life. If you want your life to be filled with more than crap, don’t look to someone or something else. Look to yourself, and keep away from the desire for crappy stuff.

You don’t have to become a priest or a monk. All you need do is follow the Taoist/Buddhist way—the middle road—and recognize the traps you have set in that road.

The fourth noble truth says to follow the middle road’s eight guideposts.

We’ll discuss those guideposts another time, so come back for more.

Remember: Zazen encourages you to be, without demands, or rituals, or powers beyond your own.

Maybe I’ll write that book after all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


You are probably familiar with the term “Dualism.” It shows up often in Zen literature. Here’s how dualism is defined in a Western dictionary.

1. The idea that everything is explainable as two things. So, if everything is explainable as two things, how do you explain one dog?
2. The idea that mind and body function separately. So, if the body is lifeless, does the mind continue to exist?
3. The idea that the world is ruled by good and evil. So, if there is no good, is there also no evil?
4. The idea that humans have two basic natures, the physical and the spiritual. So, if a human is deceased, what happens to the otherworldly part?

Zen teaches you to avoid dualistic thinking, to steer clear of this-and-that outlooks that too often lead to judgments.

It’s human nature to simplify and at the same time to complicate. Humans like to explain things and they like to give things labels. I suppose such classifying enables people to find a place for themselves in the world.

When a person is asked who he or she is, the answer may be I’m a doctor, or a teacher, or a used-car salesman.

The individual might say: a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.

The answer may be a name: “I’m Jane. I’m Joe.”

Such responses may seem satisfactory, but they beg the question because they are only names some one, at some time, has doled out. Names are labels, but they are not really you. To give a name to something is to have power over it.

What is a Joe?

People who practice Zen are often asked what is Zen.

A Zen master would probably regard the question as frivolous and ignore it. In early days a master might yell “KWATZ!” and pull your nose to wake you up.

“Zen” is a word, so what is Zen?

In simplest terms, Zen is a way of life.

Recently a friend and I got this far. He said okay, and then he asked if there were any guiding principles to Zen as a way of life.

Such as the Ten Commandments, he suggested.

I said the Ten Commandments were rules, and Zen doesn’t have rules.

I knew I was digging a hole that I couldn’t climb out of, but I mentioned the Eightfold Path. You know: Proper Understanding, Proper Intention, Speech, Behavior, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Meditation.

These aren’t rules. They are hints for living a full life.

Only eight pointers as a basis for a way of life. You’d think they would be easy to remember. But as long as I’ve been in this Zen life, I can never remember all eight. So I have to mumble a couple, or else find the list and read it off.

Zen people are often asked why is Zen.

That’s like being asked why is a bicycle.

Nevertheless, that why question is Zen-like because it’s short and to the point.

And the point isn’t clear.

A Zen individual might take the question not as a why or a what, but what he or she gets out of Zen.

What’s the payback? My friend asked.

I’ll talk about fringe benefits another time.

For most humans life is complicated.

People challenge one another. They squabble. They go to war. History repeats itself, but people never seem to learn from the past.

When I was ten years old or so I had a flash of insight. I told my parents that human beings were no damn good because of all the nastiness they caused.

My parents probably nodded and said, “Uh huh.”

I’d like to think that over the years I’ve become more tolerant. Maybe more tolerable.

Nevertheless, people can be kind, obliging, and unselfish. Sorry to say, these kinds of people are rare. They don’t make the news.

The Buddha said life is suffering. Suffering is the word most commonly used in Buddhism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean physical pain. Suffering refers to desires and wants that make us bite our nails.

Most Westerners think of Zen in terms of robes and shaved heads.

But Zen isn’t restricted to a monastery in Japan, or to a hermit’s cave in China. Zen doesn’t require renunciation of anything, or acceptance of anything.

Zen is for anyone, anywhere.

Zen steers clear of dualisms.

You don’t have to believe in any sort of deity, or any sort of savior, or any sort of intercessor.

That may be hard to understand in the West, but it’s spot-on.

Like I said, you don’t have to believe in any sort of deity, or any sort of savior, or any sort of intercessor.

Zen is you, right now.

That’s the what and the why of Zen.

A question: Do you think everything has two sides?