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?


Blogger Good Will said...

Answer: only if you are looking at one side of it.

Thursday, September 08, 2011 9:19:00 AM  

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