Monday, March 16, 2015



A few weeks ago I picked up a printed list titled “Asian versus Western.” At first glance it seemed a good basis for a Zen talk. You know, compare and contrast. However, that word “versus” is bothersome because versus means “against,” and Zen is neither against nor for anything.

So this talk is not about East versus West but “East and West.” It notes variations and distinctions but does not focus on them. Remember what writer Rudyard Kipling said: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

The West bases its conduct on what is called the Judeo-Christian ethic. It is an ethical underpinning that was laid down by generations of intellects who had a credence in a pretend-being called God. According to them, God had all the answers, so there was no use for people to think for themselves. They only had to follow God’s instructions.

 The East bases its conduct on the potential of humanity.

Humans are basically instinctive and intuitive. They have the instinct to behave naturally and the intuition to understand life as a natural process. Humans can think for themselves, and that results in freedom from the dictates of some invented figure.

Physics is the general study of nature. It’s a discipline aimed at understanding how the universe behaves. 

Many Western researchers believe physics will not be complete until it can explain not just the behavior of space and time, but where these notions come from.

Where they come from is no mystery. Their origin is the researchers themselves. Like those old-time intellectuals, if they can’t explain something to their satisfaction, they generate a mystical story about it.

For example, take the notion of heaven and hell. Are there really such places?

The Japanese Zen master, Hiramu Oda, said “We make our own heaven or hell.” And the Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote “I myself am heaven and hell.”

          Humanism is an attitude that emphasizes the value of human beings, individually and collectively. Humanism prefers critical thinking and empirical evidence over dependence on doctrine or faith.

That printed list I mentioned noted Westerners are ruled by space. Not only space immediately around themselves but space way beyond themselves. Space out there, such as the Moon and the other planets. Westerners want to make such space useful as a place in which to have things.

Which brings up an interesting question. Do we own stuff, or does stuff own us?

Possessing things requires time to acquire them, time to take care of them, and time to hang onto them. Zen individuals live with relatively few possessions, and those possessions require little time because to a Zen person time is important in that it is being.

  In the Western view time is differentiation and determination. There is yesterday and today and tomorrow. Everything is temporary, so why bother slicing temporariness into chunks of nothing?

       Zen isn’t concerned with differentiation and determination. In Zen, time is a point rather than an enduring features.

 D. T. Suzuki said, “When time is reduced to a point with no durability, it is ‘absolute present’ or ‘eternal now’.”

           And Dogen suggested that there is no time that isn’t the right time.

          Westerners like to be on the move. On the move from one thing to another thing, from one place to another to accommodate their possessions.

Asians are relatively content to live in a calm environment.

          Westerners are extravagant and aggressive, even pushy, at getting what they think they want.

          Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois said, “What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?”

          Westerners like to always be doing something. To be on the go. To be trying something different or new. Easterners like to simply be right now.

A Zen person accepts or allows what happens, or what others do, without being aggressive. They accept things as they are.

Westerners like to change things according to their personal blueprint. They want to modify the natural world. Easterners accept nature and try to live at peace with it. Westerners make technology their passion. Easterners make self-understanding their passion.

          Westerners ponder the meaning of everything, especially of life. Why are we here? What is the purpose of existence? Where are we going? Easterners, especially Zen individuals, are not concerned with answers to meanings because life is meaningful living.

Because there is no meaning to life, there are no answers. So why be concerned about nothingness?

          Herman Hesse, author of Siddhartha, wrote, “I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I've got.”

          Monty Python said the meaning of life is to be nice to people, to avoid eating fat, to read a good book now and then, and to get some walking in.


          I could ramble on, covering that printed list point by point. But most of its points are pointless. So I’ll quit.

Is there a moral to this talk?