What Is Zen Buddhism?
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
In recent years Christians have shown increasing interest in Buddhism, an interest, I think, which doesn't arise so much from academic or neighborly curiosity, nor from any dissatisfaction with Christianity, but instead stems from a desire to return to older forms of Christian worship... forms that included the various methods of meditation that are still followed in Buddhism.
Buddhism's history is such that, having been founded in a preliterate time and place, it was spread by word of mouth and never found itself constrained or codified by any federalizing forces. Buddhism was all over the place and out of control before anybody committed its teachings to print. The genie was out of the bottle, so to speak; and nobody has ever been able to get it back. The upside of this freewheeling diversity is that Buddhism rarely has had to contend with the problems of organizational politics. A great deal was added to Buddhism... but nothing - no technique, no method - has ever been uniformly repressed. A universally intertwining Church and State has never been an issue in Buddhism as it has been in Christianity.
If we can imagine the U.S. Congress running our religious life, we can imagine what the early Christians had to face... There were civil authorities and religious authorities in a sort of bicameral legislative and executive body. Kings and Popes, Dukes and Archbishops, and a variety of lesser nobles and priests. In those days, before Chrysler Motors, Southwest Airlines and Amtrak, a person could very easily be born, live and die all within a radius of 50 miles. Aside from the county sheriff, the only authority-figure the average man ever knew was his parish priest. Priests had to wear many hats. They were lawmen, judges, family counselors, little league coaches, doctors, psychologists, teachers, supervisors of church administration and building maintenance, and on top of all this they were required to write letters and sermons, to hear confessions, and to perform rituals. Nobody in his right mind would envy the lot of a l4th century parish priest.
Christians had access to the methodologies of all the saints - their recipes for achieving exalted states of union with God; and many parishioners put those meditation techniques to use and became mystics, persons who could communicate directly with God.
Mystics are spiritual anarchists. You can't tell someone who has a direct-communication link to God what you think the divine word means or the divine will intends. A mystic can figure that out for himself. He prefers to tell you. The last thing a priest needed was a few mystics in his congregation challenging his authority. He had enough to do without having to coddle these troublesome elitists. So cloisters were created, lovely places where mystics could go and contemplate God in private. There would be a nice high wall around the cloister. But more than likely that wall wasn't there to keep people out, it was there to keep the mystics in...
At any rate, meditation, that means by which we come to directly experience of God, was deemphasized and common prayer was put in its place. The emphasis was placed on fellowship, not solitude. This was quite a change. Cathedrals, you'll recall, were not designed to accommodate congregations. There were no pews for ordinary folks.
And so Christianity's great body of meditational lore was hidden away. Nobody counted on the stress of 20th Century life or on the separation of church and state that would allow Christians to explore the secret Paths to God.
Those meditation techniques have been available to Buddhists for two and a half millennia. And nobody has ever had to convert to Buddhism in order use them. Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, doesn't succeed according to the number of people it can claim as Buddhist. In fact, if the truth be known, Zen Buddhism has little or no group dynamic.
Zen is the mystical branch of Mahayana Buddhism. As the Sufis stand to Islam, as the Cabalists stand to Judaism, as the Yogis stand to Hinduism and the Contemplatives to Christianity, so does Zen stand to Buddhism. And as such it is singularly non-congregational.
For example, I'm considered the pastor of a thriving Buddhist congregation here in Clark County. Of course, a pastor is by definition a kind of shepherd - but Zen is a highly individualistic religious discipline, and shepherding Zen Buddhists is rather like trying to herd cats, as the saying goes. If you can get a congregation of cats to move when and where you want, it's because you've laid down the scent of Fancy Feast and not because of anything you've said. I'm also reminded of Benito Mussolini's answer when someone asked him if it was difficult to govern the Italians. El Duce sighed wearily and said, "Difficult? No. Useless!"
And so it is with Zen. There's an unwritten law that says Zen done in a group is not Zen at all. It is of course both possible and desirable to preach the Buddhist Dharma to large gatherings of people. The more the merrier. But not Zen. True Zen is done alone. Let's consider the word's definition.
Zen is a sanskrit word which means meditation. I'll digress to tell you that in China the word is written C-H-A-N and is pronounced Jen which is more or less how it's pronounced in India. The sanskrit is written D-H-Y-A-N ... duh yen. Now, whenever we have a heavily voiced D followed by the glide Y, we pronounce that d-y combination as a J. For example, when we say, "Did you go?" Did you becomes dija. Dija go? Or, ed-u-cate, becomes ejucate. It's a natural speech change. So, dh-yen becomes Jen and then Zen.
The English cognate is dwell.
When our mind truly dwells or meditates upon something we're practicing Zen. Of course this doesn't mean that we're merely pondering a subject, musing or mulling it over. Meditation which involves thought is a structured, orderly discipline. The meditator concentrates upon his subject, mentally circling it, and that concentration leads him into total absorption. Platonic dialectics is one form of this rigorous meditation technique; the Zen koan is another.
In the Republic, for example, Plato demonstrates this advanced Zen technique when he has Socrates engage in a dialogue on the subject of Justice. The Buddha, in the Surangama Sutra, uses the same technique when he inquires into the nature of the Mind. What is mind? What is justice? what is the sound of one hand clapping? Structured inquiry is an ancient meditation form.
But the important thing here is not acquiring knowledge about mind or justice or clapping hands. These topics are merely an excuse, if you will, to enter those higher levels of consciousness: concentration, meditation, and, if we're lucky, the orgasmic ecstasy of divine union, a state which we call samadhi. Entering the Nirvanic precincts, the sacred state of samadhi, experiencing that incomparable bliss, is the goal of any spiritual practice. And obviously this isn't the kind of goal the serious practitioner would even want to attempt in a public environment. Prayer and meditation are personal and private endeavors. Every Zen Buddhist knows this as well as every Christian. ln Matthew Chapter 6, verse 6, Jesus says, "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."
When you succeed in meditation, it shows. You change! You radiate joy: You are rewarded openly!
Fellowship can be valuable. Human nature is such that people often need the feeling of security that comes with belonging to a group. And so we find many Zen organizations whose members regularly meet in order to sit on their cushions and then to enjoy a cup of tea and some spirited conversation afterwards. There's nothing harmful about fellowship but it isn't Zen - it's fellowship, it's a social endeavor. Jesus didn't say that you shouldn't go to the Temple. He said that when you want to communicate with God, don't make a public spectacle of your piety. Talk to God in private.
The great problem with group Zen arises from the kind of meditation technique that is usually employed by groups, the technique called mind-blanking. As an advanced technique, it is dazzling. But it is not and should never be attempted by anyone who has not already experienced Samadhi and a few other exalted states of consciousness. Yet, because the instructions are so simple, everyone feels competent to try them. All you need do is sit down and stop thinking. Every time a thought arises in your mind you erase it. The aim is to attain a thought-free mind. Each thought is likened unto a speck of dirt that soils the mind and so you are obliged to polish it off immediately.
Unfortunately, this friction can have serious consequences. The next time you find yourself sitting around with nothing better to do, try making your mind blank by thinking about nothing. No thoughts. The normal person can't remain thought-free for more than a few seconds at best. He would give up quickly, unless, of course, he attached soteriological significance to this activity. If he perceived it as a means to gain spiritual salvation then he'd be deadly ernest in his attempt - or if he was responding to peer pressure, that religious fervor which inspires mass-hysteria and mass-hypnosis. In either case a person might really try to hammer his brain into submission.
This mental self-flagellation then becomes a strange kind of sadomasochism. The most that can be accomplished by this activity is the state which we call Quietism - a stuporous blandness, a wretched, numb and passive state in which life's blessings and hardships are accepted without consideration. This is not reasoned equanimity. It is not tranquility. It is mere vegetative dullness.
Back in the 7th Century, Hui Neng, Zen Buddhism's 6th and last Patriarch who founded the order I was admitted to in China, once approached s young monk who was always sitting on his cushion trying to meditate in this manner. "Why do you spend so much time sitting like this?" he asked the monk. "Because I want to become a Buddha," the monk replied. The 6th Patriarch shook his head, "My son, you can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion."
But usually the person who attempts this technique fails miserably and then, frustrated and disappointed, he abandons Zen, deciding that it's useless and a bit too bizarre.
What is necessary in Zen or in any other religious discipline is clarity of thought. Life can be cruel and confusing especially when we discover that we're largely responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. We need to understand our predicament. Escaping from life to sit on cushion and obliterate our minds is hardly the answer to anything.
Next week we discuss how a Zen practitioner develops the necessary clarity of thought to transcend ego-consciousness - the state in which the ego doesn't exist.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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