Monday, September 12, 2016



What we Westerners call Zen Buddhism is closely linked to the Ch’an School of China, which derived from Taoism, and the Zen School of Japan, which derived from India and China. What we call Zen Buddhism came about in the sixth century A.D., and its purpose was to simplify the confusion that had sprung up in Indian Buddhism.

            Speaking of confusion, do not try to study Zen chronologically or philosophically. You will only be thoroughly muddled. Just absorb everything you hear or read, neither believing it nor disbelieving it, and eventually everything—as they say in New Zealand—will sort itself out.

            The original teachings of Guatama Buddha, during his time and shortly after, were basic, straightforward, and simple. Unfortunately, those teachings, in a relatively short period after his death, were added to, taken away from, and generally made as complex as were the very Hindu philosophies from which they were derived.

            The Buddhist scholar and teacher Christmas Humphreys wrote, in A Western Approach to Zen: “The early masters of Ch’an sought the same personal direct attainment without scripture, ritual, or formulated thought, and all Zen training is concerned with one thing only, awareness of the Absolute with the heart of man.”

            When I am forced into a corner by someone who wants to know what “faith” or “belief” I subscribe to, I first hesitate to answer, knowing all the explaining that lies ahead. If I go to the heart of the matter and say I am Zen, the inevitable response is, “Oh, you’re a Zen Buddhist.”

            Well, yes and no. But mostly no.

            Most people identify Zen with Buddhism, and most people have at least heard the term “Buddhism,” thinking it to be an Asian heathen religion that is at odds with Christianity.

Nevertheless, I usually nod to being labeled a Zen Buddhist. Agreeing is easier than stating there is a tremendous difference between Zen Buddhism and Zen. To say that opens a figurative Pandora’s box that releases not evil but knowledge that simply cannot be experienced in a casual conversation.

Because Zen is life, it takes a lifetime to comprehend. But try telling that to someone. They will think (1) you are being a mystical wiseguy, or (2) you really don’t know what you are talking about and are blowing smoke, or (3) you are a wild-eyed fanatic.

Paraphrasing Humphreys, Zen is a name for the Absolute—that is, the ultimate basis of all thought and being, something that is independent of and unrelated to anything else. Because Zen is beyond the grasp of the relative mind, it cannot be simply defined or easily explained.

Zen is Zen and must be experienced.

We Westerners are born into a world of relativity. We are trained by life to think in terms of “this or that,” or “this and that.”

My last seven words are an example of the sort of relativity we are stuck with. The first three words—“this or that”—set up opposites, then the last three words—“this and that”—set up dependence. On top of everything, each of the two groups of three words is joined by the word “or,” which sets up another opposite.

Such this-or-that business is what Zen refers to as duality. Zen avoids duality. Zen thinks of opposites and dependence as “not one, not two.”

Unlike the old song, nothing is entirely this or entirely that.

Speaking of this or that, let me throw in a word that probably everyone has heard: Nirvana. Nirvana is not Paradise, nor is it the Promised Land. In Buddhism, Nirvana is the attainment of disinterested wisdom and compassion. In Zen, Nirvana is here and now. Remember the term because it will appear now and again in these talks and in your readings on Zen.


Blogger Jonathan Gervitz said...

I love your blog. It's extremely inspirational to me and has helped me grasp some type of understanding about what is Zen. Thank you

Thursday, November 03, 2016 1:49:00 PM  

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