Monday, July 20, 2015



          I’d like to talk about something that is common to Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. It’s what is known as the Way. Basically the Way has to do with accepting whatever the present moment is without wanting it to be anything else. The Way also has to do with working within the natural order of things.

The Way is perhaps better known in its Chinese translation, which is the Tao. The printed Chinese character for this word originally meant a path to reach some place, but the character also suggested walking, and the face. To walk to some place you need to face in that direction and you need to take a path that leads there.

Humans are obsessed with saving time and effort, and they usually try to take the quickest route to get somewhere. As they proceed they look for shortcuts to make the going even easier.

Lao-tzu was perhaps the first person to enunciate the Way, that is, the Tao. Lao-tzu was a Chinese philosopher and a contemporary of Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha. Lao-tzu said that the Way is through self-knowledge and the acceptance of nothingness. According to Lao-tzu, the greatest action one can achieve is living according to the total flow of life and the underlying pattern of the universe.

For that there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts in life can lead to early death.

Being in harmony with the Tao, that is, with the Way, means doing nothing artificial or unnatural but instead following one’s own true nature. The Way shouldn’t be false or man-made, and it can’t be named or defined. It’s the spontaneity and freedom of the universe.

          Legend says that the Buddha was once asked if he was a god, or a saint, or a magician, all of which he denied. When he was then asked what he was, he said, “I am awakened.” Zen master Dogen writes of “Buddha-way,” which refers to the truth to which the Buddha awakened. Dogen advocated the day-to-day practice of simply zazen, which he called the Buddha-way.

          Unfortunately most people think of Zen practice, and of the Way, as going somewhere and achieving something. They think sitting in silent meditation and clearing the mind is foolish unless there is an objective in sight—a purpose—and enlightenment is gained.

          This is known as enlightenment greed. Westerners are fixated on enlightenment because to them it represents a payoff.

          Most so-called religions have a purpose, and that purpose is the saving of one’s soul. That term of saving one’s soul is an interesting one. First, what is meant by “saving”? Saving for what? Saving from what? Setting free from the consequences of sin? Redeeming?

          I remember a bit of graffiti I read somewhere. Some pious person had scribbled on a wall the words “Jesus saves.” Someone less reverent added “At the Bank of America.”

          That was a bit of clever wall scrawl, but there was more. In another handwriting were the words, “No I don’t.”

          Then came the capstone: “Quiet, son.”

          So much for saving.

          It’s interesting that only humans have to have a purpose. An aim. A goal. Where I live many oak trees grow wild and naturally. Judging from the size of some of them, several are quite aged. Does an oak tree have a purpose? An oak tree is simply an oak, and it is an oak superbly and wonderfully. Most oaks, if left alone, will exist much longer than any human. Without making a big deal out of it, an oak follows the Way

The Way does not have a purpose. It does not have an end to be striven for.

          To Dogen the Way wasn’t a progression in one direction from here to there.

Instead the Way is a circle that has no beginning and no ending. We are born, we live, we die. This is the life of a Buddha. According to Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, who wrote an excellent commentary on Dogen’s Bendowa (in the book The Wholehearted Way), the only basis of any possible system of values must be the fact that we are living right now, right here.                   

          The gate to attaining the Way is Zazen. Zazen leads to awareness, and awareness leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment is self discovery, self realization. Self realization leads to the Way. Self realization is the Way.

          Self realization is the Way. That’s like Dogen’s saying that Zazen is enlightenment.

          And here we are back to that circle of no beginning, no end.

          Not everyone can understand this, and many people don’t want to understand. That’s unfortunate, but it’s how it is. It’s how the ball bounces. We can’t go out on the street and collar people to try to convince them of the value of the Way. Zen isn’t a tradition of proselytizing, of converting to a doctrine. Zen doesn’t attempt to persuade people they are better off in Zen.          

And Zen doesn’t depend on blind faith. It isn’t stone acceptance of what a master or a teacher says.

          Some people love to argue doctrine and dogma. They ask question after question not in order to find out more about something but because they want to substantiate their own convictions.

          I once gave an introductory talk on Zen to a Unitarian group. Now most Unitarians are regarded as free thinkers, unattached to any solid beliefs, and open minded. So at the end of my talk I was surprised and amused when a woman in the front row snorted, “Well, I’m not buying it.”

          Well, I wasn’t selling it.

          Zen is not for such individuals.

          It’s like carrying oars to people who live in the mountains.

          Does following the Way make one a better citizen? A better parent? A better anything? Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s not what matters.

          Following the Way makes one a better one, and that’s what matters.


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