Thursday, May 24, 2012

What is Zen?

Below is my response to the following post, "That's Not Zen" on the excellent Nyoho Zen blog:

When I first started practicing Zen I felt clear about what it was. I read Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen, and thought Zen was a set of practices which would lead to a direct experience of your “true nature” or “original face”. I had read of this concept before in earlier and extremely crude readings of Zen when I was 13 and 14- I remember explaining to an assuredly perplexed father when I was 16 that I did not want to go to school and pursue a normal job, I wanted to see “my face before my parents were born”.  When I started practicing Zazen, at the age of 18 or 19, I thought it would be a way to experience the essence, the true reality, of my self and of life.

I’ll insert a spoiler here and tell you that more than 15 years later, after many changes of view and path, I have come back to this same opinion: Zen is a set of practices which aim at a realization, an understanding, a direct experience, and an embodiment, of the reality of the self and of life. This reality is sometimes called “buddha nature” “one mind” “mind ground” “tathagatagarbha”, and goes hand in hand with the understanding of the emptiness of self and things, of subject and object. Put another way, the self is ungraspable, and things too are ungraspable. The reason this realization is important is that it frees us from our deluded grasping, which is the source of the suffering of both ourselves and of others, and also the source of our inability to truly serve others, which is the same thing as serving that which is deepest within us.

After I began sitting Zazen I continued reading books on Zen, and after an initial ecstacy of love became more and more confused. Within about a year I felt I no longer had any idea how to practice Zen. When I tried I found I was trying to fake various Zen-like attitudes I didn’t really understand. It was then that the late Patrick O’ Connel, great Manitoban poet, Buddhist, and sometimes Christian, handed me a copy of Nyaniponika Thera’s Heart of Buddhist Meditation.
The Burmese Mindfulness meditation of that book was a revelation. The gentle attentiveness, the pursuit of reality, the whole body and mind presence, and the promise of self knowledge and freedom I had also found in Zen, but here it was without the pretense and obfuscation!

I took up Mindfulness meditation and read Goldstein, Kornfield, Salzburg and crew. I felt relieved and energized by the clear, simple teachings. When I applied them my clarity increased and my afflictive emotions decreased. All aspects of my life improved.

I took up Theravadin practice and ultimately ordained as a bhikkhu (monk) in the Thai Forest Tradition under the brilliant scholar and meditation master, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. I benefitted tremendously from his teachings and from Buddhist practice as taught in the Pali Canon (the earliest, pre-Mahayana scriptures) and Thai masters like Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Chah, and Ajaan Maha Boowa.

The other side of the story was that I slowly became a slave to technique, form and dogma. I lost sight of the possibility of radical insight here and now, of direct penetration, freedom, and contemplative creativity. I felt I had to perfect my monastic discipline, my renunciation, and my jhana (sankrit: dhyana) before I could hope to have any real insight or freedom beyond character development and increased skillfulness and happiness.

To simplify the story considerably this was what led me back to Zen, which I keep on coming back to like an old lover ever since I tremblingly took the four Bodhisattva vows as a teenager. To my thinking Zen is exactly as it was described by Bodhidharma: “Not depending on words and scriptures, a special transmission outside the teachings, direct pointing to the heart and becoming Buddha.” Zen goes to the same place as other forms of Buddhism, but does it not by relying on the Buddha’s techniques and philosophies but by direct realization of the Buddha’s mind of freedom. The Buddha’s mind is the mind of non-grasping, the mind of nirvana. The only difference between Zen realization and Theravadin realization, in my opinion (whose worth is questionable and you will question very justifiably) is that Zen takes the mind of non-duality and non-grasping further, going beyond realization of nirvana to the Mahayana ideal of non-grasping to nirvana or samsara, to emptiness or form, to rejecion of the world or addiction to to it. This is the path of the Bodhisattva- endless non-abiding practicefor the sake of self and other, beyond self and other, the ultimate mind of non-grasping.

I believe that Zen attempts to keep practices to a minimum, well aware of the tendency to worship the means and forget the end. Of course this happens in Zen still, but no one is perfect and everything flowing in the stream of samsara is relentlessly pulled into the muddy waters. Only the steel guts of the Bodhisattvas pull Zen out again and pass it along until the next muddy wave.

I understand Koan study to be a technique for transmitting understanding of that which leads to the non-grasping mind- understanding of the ever-free nature of our own awareness, our Buddha nature; understanding of the illusory and projected nature of our concepts and perceptions; understanding the emptiness of self and phenomena; understanding our non-seperation from all things; understanding the non-grasping compassion of a Bodhisattva. It is a thorough training in the seeing through, in barrier-lessness, in letting go.

Shikantaza is a direct taking up of the mind of a Buddha, the non-grasping, luminous mind. Even though Shikantaza by definition must be done without desiring attainments, without doing, and without grasping to any ecstacies, insights, or even any simple ease and pleasure, that comes with it, I believe that shikantaza properly done leads to a real “dropping off of body and mind” where one realizes directly the always and ever free Buddha nature and the emptiness of self and other.  I believe that the writings or teachings of Dogen Zenji and Keizan Jokin, Hongzhi Zhenjue, or for that matter Obaku Zenji (Huangpo) or Eko Zenji (Huineng) amply point in this direction.

I do not believe that this means Zen rejects monasteries, precepts, sutra study, chanting, or for that matter psychotherapy, psychiatric medication, yoga or tooth brushing. It just means that these things, though they help stabilize and put in order body and mind for practice, do not lead to freedom are not Zen. Zen is the direct realization of the Buddha’s heart. It is the wholehearted effort to let nothing else get in the way.

Some may argue, rightly, that Zen says there is nothing to attain. That is true. We are already free and all of our suffering is an illusion. But until we know that we must practice. We will not gain anything, but we will lose every thing, which is exactly what we need.


Koun Franz said...

Here's my response to your response. :-)


Thank you for taking the time to write this comment, to share so much of your story. Great stuff.

I, too, started out with Three Pillars of Zen. For years, I desperately wanted the kind of insight described there (or to be the kind of person who had such insight — I was a kid, it’s hard to differentiate).

You wrote, “Zen is a set of practices which aim at a realization, an understanding, a direct experience, and an embodiment, of the reality of the self and of life.” I’ve wrestled with all of these, and (again, based on my encounters with my teachers and my training) I’ve come, over the years, to see “embodiment” as the word in that list that is in all caps, bold, underlined. (“Realization” can be just as good, as long as we read it as “making something real,” rather than “figuring something out.”) To me, that’s the critical thing. I’ve met a lot of people with what we might call insight, or “deep realization,” who do not express it in their actions or words. They have experiences they can tell you about. In many cases, you can see it in their eyes — they’ve seen something, and perhaps continue to see something, that is out of reach of our ordinary way of viewing things. It feels very powerful, that’s clear. But if it’s not embodied, what’s the point?

If, as Dogen tells us, practice and realization are one and the same, if we go down that path, then it seems to me that realization is always inseparable from doing something. It’s in how someone walks, the words they choose. It’s offered, visibly. Put one way: in that context, I think that what we usually imagine as enlightenment (as a felt experience, an opening, an insight, a letting go) is also a side effect of practice, not the goal. Put another way: the enlightenment described by Philip Kapleau (which still sounds great, by the way) is not the enlightenment described by Dogen. I admire anyone the “wholehearted effort to let nothing else get in the way” regardless of which definition we’re working from — it’s that effort that keeps it from being just a story.

You’ve written a beautiful description of Zen here. I know I’ll be reading it a few more times before I’m through. Thank you.


Matthew Gindin said...


Thank you very much for your eloquent and thoughtful reply. Rereading my post and your reply I want to clarify a couple of things. The first is that I don’t consider the aim of Zen practice to be any particular experience, but rather a shift in understanding. I believe Zen practice does aim to produce certain experiences (of big mind, selflessness, nonseperation, pure awareness, everything-perfect-just-as-it-is, emptiness, and others), but only because they are likely (not certain, just likely) to provoke those shifts in understanding. I believe it is also possible to attain those shifts without the experiences, as a natural result of practice but in a less dramatic way. And, to underline the point, I think it is possible to have the experiences without them provoking significant shifts in understanding.

The reason the shifts in understanding are important is that they reduce our suffering and lead us to embody our understanding in ways that reduce the suffering of others- in ways that manifest Buddha. This happens because one of the fundamental and most important understandings of Zen is that understanding is tested by whether it is embodied.

I also agree that for Dogen, practice that itself embodies realization is the way, and this goes on endlessly. This is a very pure, practical, and beautiful approach to practice (and the one that I follow). It shifts attention away from what experiences are encountered towards how one encounters all experiences. I believe it is important to understand that one is still engaging in practices that if done wholeheartedly will produce insights and openings. I think it is just honest to admit that we are still engaged in practices with aims, however minimalistic they are, and however much they aim to directly embody Buddha. In Dogen’s way insights and experiences are not the focus, even though his way will produce them. One just practices. This is a very realistic, very humble, very wise approach I think.

Thank you for this wonderful conversation.



Koun says:
May 26, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Thank you for the clarification. I think we’re really in agreement here. In insisting that we don’t aim for certain results, I want to be careful not to accidentally disparage those very real (potential) effects of practice.

The reason the shifts in understanding are important is that they reduce our suffering and lead us to embody our understanding in ways that reduce the suffering of others- in ways that manifest Buddha. This happens because one of the fundamental and most important understandings of Zen is that understanding is tested by whether it is embodied.

Exactly, yes.

One of the things I find beautiful and attractive about some other traditions (Tibetan, in particular) is the straightforward clarity of saying, “You want to cultivate compassion? Well, then, let’s do a ‘cultivation of compassion’ practice.” It’s explicit and unmistakable, and I find no fault with that at all. Much of what can be frustrating about Zen is that it can seem so roundabout: “You want to cultivate compassion? Here, dry these dishes.” Compassion is compassionate action, an offering of the self, and we learn, in this practice, to offer ourselves all the time, in every little mundane way. But that explicit conversation with the heart that happens in so many other traditions is really not an explicit part of the process, and often, I think we want that (because, as you suggest, even if the practice is goalless, that doesn’t mean that we are). When people accuse Zen of being cold or of obfuscating even the most basic ideas, I sympathize. I get it. I don’t agree with it (anymore), but I do get it.

I’m grateful for this kind of extended discussion. I’ve also enjoyed perusing your blog, which I would recommend to anyone.