I’ve been experiencing for the past couple of months a growing interest in Zen Buddhism, specifically the branches from Japan more so than Korea (Seon) or China (Ch’an).
I can’t quite put my finger on what it is I find so appealing, but the draw is incontestable, and each layer peeled away from the onion only reveals something more fundamentally compelling.
I’ve always had a fascination with Japan in general, although mostly when I was much, much younger, through the physical aspects of the country’s martial arts. Of course, as with nearly everything oriental, the spiritual is never far away. Martial arts have their own spiritual heritage, whether it’s recognized or not.
Eastern cultures, especially the Chinese and Japanese, have deep concern for the mind — for want of a better word to describe our inner phenomenology that Westerners will understand.
Zen, in particular, is less a religion than a practice, that has fairly dogmatic rituals and hierarchies, but few dogmatic beliefs. Saying it’s spiritual is to mischaracterize Zen. Central to the core of Zen is zazen, or simply sitting in meditation. Its goal, more or less, is satori, or enlightenment, or realization of the pre-linguistic nature of mind.
To put it in more familiar language, Zen practice leads the practitioner to an awakening of themselves, an awareness of the “I” behind the relentless stream of chatter, images and connections of memories constantly thrown up by the mind. Zen, then, if it has a purpose, which is debatable, seeks a connection with the fundamental reality of … well, I guess “is-ness” is as good a word as any. The Chinese would call it “tao”; in Sanskrit, tathata, or “suchness.” In Christian terms, “I am that I am.” I rather like Alan Watts’ almost-nonsense phrase: “The which than which there is no whicher.” It’s an experience of realness, of engaging with the world with directness. In sitting, one allows the phnomenological contents and mental processes to present themselves in awareness — images, inner narrative, memories and fantasies about the future — simply allowing them to happen, to provoke the feelings they will, then letting them pass.
I’ve been doing this for a short time, and it’s far from being as easy as it sounds. Like a blind, deaf man who has his sight and hearing restored, once one really pays attention to the mind’s contents, the resulting influx of stimulus can be overwhelming.
Ultimately — spoilers ahead — we understand we were enlightened all along. Zazen merely takes the blinkers off the horse. Eventually.
Words, as you may have gathered, are pretty poor ways to define concepts that rely on a direct connection or unveiling of the something-something. Zen teachers can sound maddeningly paradoxical on these experiences. Dogen, one of the world’s greatest Zen masters, described the mental state of zazen as “think not thinking.”
The notion of satori may not simply be a singular or all-encompassingly profound revelation. It’s a matter on which Zen schismed into two schools, Soto and Rinzai, the former of which talks about gradual enlightenment, the latter, a sudden awakening.
Modern American Zen practices even de-emphasize enlightenment as an oversold concept with “unreal expectations,” Robert Aitken is quoted as saying in “One Bird, One Stone,” by Sean Murphy. (Aitken is one of American Zen’s most noted teachers. He was one of the first Americans to visit Japan and export Zen westward.)
I digress. Most practitioners tend to agree that satori, whatever its conception, is a point of beginning rather than a definitive end, one simple term for innumerable personal experiences both simple and profound.
In any case, satori, enlightenment, realization or awakening is not something about which I’m qualified to expound. If I’ve had it, I’m not aware of it, so take everything I say with a grain of salt as I’m simply digesting and regurgitating thoughts from those who have thought about the experience. Or thought about thoughts about the written thoughts about the experiential action of Zen.
Ironically, for an art that relies so much on a pre-linguistic awareness of self, divested of language and outside logic, Zen teachers have written thousands of books. Some are simply stated, some are deeply obscure, but there’s no end to the human desire to communicate these revelations. Even the act of writing — which is to me a supremely logical thing — can become a meditation practice. Life is a zendo — a place for meditation, a crucible for Zen mind.