What is Zen Buddhism?
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Let's suppose that a Guru comes to our town and advertises that for some fee or other he will teach a class in meditation and that a certain group of ladies who have the necessary time and money sign up for his class. He tells his students to close their eyes, relax deeply, breathe rhythmically, get into a passive, receptive mood, and then to concentrate upon a rose - to construct mentally, petal by petal, thorn by thorn, leaf by leaf, this rose.
So everybody sits there trying to do this and then after awhile one woman starts squealing like Tweety Bird... "Ooooooh: I did it: I did it:" And she totally disrupts the proceedings babbling on about seeing this perfect rose that glowed with a kind of brilliant AURA and she jabbers on about how she never really understood roses until this very moment... and how after a mere ten minutes? or twenty? how long was it anyway? - time just seemed to stand still! - no matter! she NOW knows all there is to know about roses... and wasn't Gertrude Stein so right when she said, "Rose is a rose is a rose! Wow!" Blah, blah, blah. And this woman won't shut up or can't shut up ... but whatever the reason people become annoyed because she's really making a nuisance of herself and being quite unfair. The others have come there to learn about meditation not to hear her silly jabbering. Everyone's relieved when the Guru comes to sit with the woman and stroke her head.
Isn't it amazing? At any given moment on the earth's surface there are dozens of philosophy professors who would KILL for even a glimpse of one of Plato's Ideal Forms... and there's that silly woman babbling on and on about this perfect rose that she's seen in this brilliant, timeless moment.
Well, for the record, this woman has indeed seen one of Plato's Ideal Forms and she may be vilified and ostracized but nobody can take that vision of perfection away from her. She knows what it is, as the mystical poet William Blake has said, "To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."
We call her irrepressible chattering Zen Disease. Plato called it Divine Madness. This is the euphoria that immediately follows the experience of true meditational transcendence. The euphoria is definitive. As I tell my students, if, when you get up from your cushion you are not euphoric, then I don't know what it was you were doing but one thing you were not doing was meditating.
Quietism is not meditation. Neither is hypnotic trance.
Incidentally, when the Guru went to that woman to stroke her head, he wasn't being merciful to the unfortunate or gentle towards the absurd as everybody thought. He was simply trying to share her most uncommon joy. And needless to say, while that woman may well have wanted to become a disciple of that Guru, she wouldn't have tried to repeat her success sitting publicly in his ashram. She would have gone to his ashram to sit at his feet and learn from him.
I'll repeat the rules the Guru gave: sit quietly, relax deeply, breathe rhythmically, get into a passive, receptive mood as if you're listening for something. Then mentally focus your attention on a common object... a rose, a shoe, an umbrella, a stone, a pencil... without, of course, going first to the object to inspect it - this is not an exercise in memory training: Just construct the object and itemize its qualities without discursive thoughts. In other words, if you contemplate a shoe, don't start thinking about shoes you have known... your favorite shoes... shoes you hate, etc. Just construct a shoe in your mind - any shoe will do - see the sole, vamp, heel, tongue, laces - without getting personal about it.
Another powerful meditation technique is merely to listen to sounds without analyzing them. Get yourself in a gentle, receptive mood, close your eyes, and record the sounds you hear without thinking about them. Have no expectations. Without expectations there are no anxieties. Just concentrate and keep your attention focussed. You'll be surprised at how successful you can be if you bring a gentle, unassuming humility to the task.
Baba Ram Dass who in his secular life was Richard Alpert, a psychology professor at Harvard, used to tell the story about a lecture on meditational transcendence he once gave before an audience of mostly academic types, learned men and women from such disciplines as psychology, theology, and philosophy. Encouraged by this array of intellectuals, Ram Dass, in clear but sophisticated language, began his exposition.
Sitting conspicuously in the front row was a pleasant-looking old grandmotherly lady and whenever Ram Dass made a point that should have provoked a response from his audience, this lady and only this lady nodded appropriately.
When he resorted to insider's wit, this lady and only this lady laughed. Clearly, she was the only one in the whole group who understood what he was talking about. At the end of the lecture he came down from the podium and questioned her.
"Are you a teacher? he asked.
And on that pearl, I'll quit.
This was originally a talk given to Grace Christian Church,
Boulder City, Nevada, on March 27, 1996
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts