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Living Zen in America
What Is Zen?
Rather than give you a detailed explanation of Zen doctrine and history, which could mislead and even bore, and in any case would be contrary to the spirit of Zen, let me put before you three typical Zen koans, or spiritual problems. These koans are Zen's method of demonstrating truth directly and concretely without recourse to logic or reason. Were you to reflect on them deeply and awaken to their innermost meaning, you would come to understand Zen.
Here is the first koan. A monk came to the Master Ummon (Yun Men in Chinese) and said, "Suppose you meet up with someone deaf, dumb, and blind. Since he couldn't see your gestures, couldn't hear your preaching, or, for that matter, ask you questions, you would be helpless. Unable to save him, you'd prove yourself a worthless master, wouldn't you?"
"Bow, please," said the master. The monk, though taken by surprise, obeyed the master's command, then straightened up in expectation of having his query answered. But instead of an answer he got a staff thrust at him and leaped back.
"Well," said Ummon, "you're not blind. Now approach closer." The monk did as he was bidden. "Good," said Ummon, "you're not deaf either. Well, understand?"
"Understand what, sir?"
"Ah, you're not dumb either."
On hearing these words the monk awoke as from a deep sleep.
Before going on to the next koan, let us reflect a moment on this one. Some people can never get away from theoretical, abstract questions, perhaps with the sense that the way to learn is to ask questions -- the more the better. Questions frequently asked me are "What does the Zen person think of the Vietnam War?" or "What does Zen think of sex?" or "What does Zen have to say about morality?" The "Zen person" is an abstraction; he or she doesn't exist; only a specific person with Zen training does. One person's enlightenment may be deeper and training more thorough. One person may be wiser, more compassionate, and steadfast. This is all you can say. So the questions are really meaningless. More often than not, such questions are a dodge, a subterfuge to avoid facing up to one's own life problems. When a Zen teacher hears such questions, he must quickly determine the state of mind of the person asking them and treat them accordingly.
Observe how masterfully Ummon handles this student. He wastes no words probing or analyzing his motives, engaging him in a Socratic dialogue, or challenging his sincerity. In a direct, concrete, existential manner that would be the envy of any contemporary pedagogue (and remember, this incident took place in ninth-century China), he makes the student realize that he has the power of sight, speech, and hearing: everything, in fact, he needs to save himself. Why, then, doesn't he do so and stop engaging in speculations? Moreover, this koan points out a fundamental doctrine of Zen, namely, that in our essential nature each one of us lacks nothing, but is like a circle to which nothing can be added and nothing subtracted. We are each of us whole, complete, perfect, and so is everything else. Even a blind man, as a blind man, lacks nothing.
Why then do we suffer? Why is there so much greed, folly, and violence in the world? The Zen answer is that because our bifurcating intellect and our five senses deceive us into postulating the dualism of self and other, we are led to think and act as though each of us were a separate entity confronted by a world external to us. Thus in our unconscious the idea of "I," or selfhood, becomes fixed, and from this arises such patterns as "I hate this," "I love that," "This is mine," "That's yours." Nourished by this fodder, ego -- and this is not the psychological ego whose healthy functioning is necessary, but the delusive sense of oneself standing apart from others, from the whole universe -- comes to dominate the personality, attacking whatever threatens its domination and grasping at anything that will enlarge its power. Antagonism, greed, and alienation -- in a word, suffering -- are the inevitable consequence of this circular process. To see through this mirage and grasp the ungraspable is to realize that "heaven and earth and I" are of the same root, to use a Zen phrase.
The Buddha, the master physician for the ills of the spirit and the heart, deeply understood this question syndrome. Replying to a monk who threatened to quit religious life unless his questions about whether the enlightened man exists after death were answered, he said, "It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinfolk, were to procure for him a physician or surgeon, and the sick man were to say, 'I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learnt whether the man who wounded me was tall, short, or of middle height, was from this or that village, town, or city, whether it was an ordinary arrow or claw-headed arrow.' That man would die without ever having learned this." At another time the Buddha stated, "The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal, infinite or finite, that the soul and the body are identical or different, or that the enlightened man exists or does not exist after death. It profits not, nor has it to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor does it tend to the absence of passion, to supreme wisdom, and nirvana."
Now for the second koan. One day a master was taking a walk in the woods with his disciple. Suddenly a pure white rabbit darted in front of him. The master, taking advantage of the moment, said to the disciple, "What would you say as to that?" The disciple gushed, "It was just like a god!" The master, looking at him in disgust, said, "You're a grown man but you talk like a child." "All right," said the student, slightly miffed no doubt, "What would you say about it?" "It's a rabbit!" replied the master.
A rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. How many truly see when they look, truly hear when they listen? Not many. The average person is perpetually weaving ideas and embroidering notions about what he sees or hears. An art student studying a painting probably analyzes the formal structures; another may try to recall what he had read or heard about the painting; to another the painting may turn the mind to the circumstances of the painter's life. A flash of lightning may set a person's mind to thinking, "What a dazzling sight!" If philosophically inclined, he might reflect, "Man's life is as brief as that lightning." If fear was his dominant emotion and he was looking out the window when the lightning struck, he could think, "I'd better pull my head in before I lose it!" The haiku poet Basho has a verse that goes, "How fortunate the man who sees a flash of lightning and does not think, 'How brief life is!'"
With each mental judgment or coloration the viewer or hearer is being taken farther and farther away from the object itself, the experience itself, so his knowledge becomes correspondingly weaker and more distant and limited. Truly to look at a painting, one has to see it with one's own eyes and ears, one's whole body.
Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz tells about the time he played a dissonant contemporary composition at a private gathering. When he had finished, someone asked, "I just don't understand what that composition means, Mr. Horowitz. Could you please explain?" Without a word, Horowitz played the composition again, turned to his questioner, and announced, "That's what it means!"
The mind of the ordinary person is a checkerboard of crisscrossing reflections, opinions, prejudices, fears, and anxieties, so that his life, far from being centered in reality, is grounded instead in his notions of reality. The rabbit koan is urging us to empty our minds of all false values and notions and directly experience things in their wholeness and purity. To one who enters into every action with no separation, empty-minded, so to speak, yet filled with attention and awareness, a rabbit is the whole universe. Or if you like, it is everything and it is nothing. This koan celebrates a life of truth, a life of Zen, a life of full, undiluted participation at every moment and in every circumstance. It proclaims that to experience the core of a person or a thing we must ourselves be fully, wholeheartedly, present without reservation.
The responsible life is the responsive life. As long as we stand apart weighing, analyzing, and judging, people and things confront, even menace, us. So we feel, as the poet A. E. Housman wrote, like "a stranger and afraid in a world I never made." But embrace the whole world, take it and all things into your hara, your belly, and you have the Buddha's "Throughout heaven and earth I am the most honored one." With this realization birds fly in the sea, a cow gives birth to a calf on a flagpole, the Rocky Mountains stride over the Mississippi River. Is this not true, limitless creativity?
Now for the third and best-known koan, one that illustrates the Zen principle that from unity flow freedom and creativity, while from separateness come pain and confusion. A Zen master said, "Zen is like a man up in a high tree hanging from a branch with his mouth. His hands can't grasp a bough, his feet won't reach one. Under the tree is another man who asks him, 'What is the innermost truth of the Buddha's teachings?' If he doesn't answer, he evades his duty. What should he do?" Zen, we must remember, is not a philosophical game or a literary embellishment, but life itself, absolute life. The problem posed by this koan is central to every life, namely, when to speak and when to remain silent.
It's a vital problem between a teacher and pupil, a husband and wife, a parent and child, between friends and lovers. So much of our lives, personal and professional, is about communication, isn't it? What could be more vital to understand truly? In Zen, of course, there are dead words and there are live words. Words that merely analyze and explain are dead, while words that issue from the heart and gut, that stir our depths and fire the imagination, are alive. We feel their power. Every explanation, including this one, no matter how subtle, is but looking from a single side at something that has infinite dimensions. Overly long interpretation s and elucidations often tire the brain and leave us feeling torpid. One live word -- "Goddamnit!" for instance or even a real "Yes!" or a real "No!" -- uttered from the gut reveals more than a dozen words of explanation. The gut word is the true word, the word that cuts away all stratagems and makes us One.
Silence, while said to be golden, can also be yellow. Discretion may be the better part of valor, yet not to speak when our words may help another is craven. There are other situations involving words and silence. What do we do when we are unjustly accused or abused? Do we maintain a monumental silence, or do we stimulate further argument and abuse by fighting back? Or is there a middle way? The most creative silence is beyond speech and stillness, and it is really to this Silence that our koan points.
Please understand that I have merely talked about koans here, not given answers to them. To resolve a koan, one must be able to demonstrate one's understanding and not merely talk about it. Each of us, whether endowed with subtle intellect or little intelligence, whether male or female, whether physically or mentally handicapped, possesses as a birthright the primal source of all creativity, namely, Buddha-nature, or Mind. Now, what is Zen? Zen is another name for Mind, and Mind is the foundation of Zen. Zen therefore never provides creeds or dogmas. Zen is not something to be philosophically thought of or intellectually understood. It has to be a concrete fact personally attained by one's own realization experience. Until one has this experience, Zen is merely an idea, a concept, an image. The real life and spirit of Zen is in the spiritual experience attained by each individual. Zen is the doctrine of the true, living self. Conventional wisdom says, "Where there is smoke, there is fire." Zen wisdom says, "Where there is smoke, there is smoke."
From the ground of Mind each of us is creator even as we are the created. Each one embraces every world and every being. At every millionth of a second this unique being, arbitrarily defined as "John Jones" or "Jill Smith," is dying and being recreated. With the lifting of my finger I re-create heaven and earth. All existence is the creation of my own mind -- it therefore belongs to me as I belong to it. The energy of the cosmos is my energy; its sounds, my speech, its movements, my movements. The Rocky Mountains are not the Rocky Mountains. The Rio Grande is not the Rio Grande. The strength and grandeur of that incalculable conglomeration of protons, neutrons, and electrons we arbitrarily call the Rocky Mountains are my strength and my grandeur. The flow of the Rio Grande is myself streaming and gushing on. Were I to die, the Rio Grande would stop flowing, the Rocky Mountains crumble. Zen Master Eisai says, "Because I am, heaven overhangs and earth is upheld. Because I am, the sun and the moon go round; the four seasons come in succession, all things are created, because I am -- that is, because of mind." Shelley, the poet, says, "I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself and knows that it is divine."
To create, the painter needs paint, brushes, and canvas; the sculptor, wood, stone, or metal, and tools; the poet, words and a pen and paper -- or computer; the composer, sounds, notes, paper. But for one awakened to the nature of Mind, the entire universe is the canvas; hands, feet, emotions, and intellect the implements. Each moment is joy unbounded, ripe, and creative, when we are liberated from the enslaving notions of "This is my head, this is my body; this is my mind." Here, at the core of each of us, is creativity, here is the art of living. If the mission of the artist is "to make the invisible visible," in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, the purpose of Zen is to bring into consciousness the substrata of both the unconscious and the conscious.
The aim of Zen training is awakening, and the living of a life that is creative, harmonious, and alive. These "goal-less goals," for there really are no goals to attain, no place to get to, are brought into being through a process of concentration and absorption. In the sense of purging and freeing the mind from enslavement to fugitive, useless ideas, ideas that bog us down and limit us, Zen meditation, or zazen, might be called "brainwashing." Perhaps this statement will be clearer if I tell you briefly the experiences with zazen of two Americans in Japan. The first, after he had been practicing Zen a short while, said, "Zen discipline, I know, involves ridding the mind of all tightly held beliefs and values so that it becomes a clean slate. But look, I spent four years getting a good education at Harvard. This knowledge cost me a considerable effort and my parents much money. If you think I'm going to throw it all away for a pig in a poke called 'enlightenment,' you're crazy. To tell the truth, I'd rather read about Zen than practice it; that way I don't lose, I gain."
The second fellow, after longer training, said, "Some people ask me what I have gained from Zen practice. I must answer truthfully that I've lost, and that whatever gains I have made are the result of this loss. I have lost much that was not really myself, and as a result the burden of the false self which I was carrying around has become lighter. Unhappily I do not yet know who I really am, but I know better who I am not, and this means I can move about and flow more easily through life."
Our ordinary mind is an Augean stable of stale impressions, of theories, opinions, assumptions, standards, dogmas, prejudices, and facts in which our lives become mired. This is the stuff of mind we endlessly argue about and even fight for, bringing upon ourselves and others much pain and suffering, not to mention confusion. We sacrifice our inborn freedom to these abstract notions. When they are swept from the mind through zazen -- the concentrated sitting meditation particular to Zen -- our true Mind rises to consciousness in all its beauty and effulgence. Furthermore, through zazen, energies that were formerly squandered in compulsive drives and purposeless actions are preserved and channeled into a unity, and to the degree that the mind attains one-pointedness, it no longer disperses its force in the uncontrolled proliferation of idle thoughts. The entire nervous system is relaxed and soothed, inner tensions eliminated, and the tone of all organs strengthened.
In other words, by realigning the physical, mental, and psychic energies through proper breathing, concentration, and sitting, zazen establishes a new body-mind equilibrium. With the body and mind consolidated, focused, and energized, our emotions respond with increased sensitivity and purity, and our will exerts itself with clearer strength of purpose. No longer are we dominated by intellect or driven by unchecked emotions. Eventually daily zazen transforms our personality and character; dryness, rigidity, and self-centeredness give way to warmth, resiliency, and compassion. Self-indulgence and fear are, in time, transmuted into self-mastery and courage.
Let me close with some words on Zen by Bernard Philips, an old friend who trained with me for a time in Japan:
Zen is three things. First, externally and objectively considered, it is a sect of Buddhism. As such, it has its own history and institutionalized forms.
Second, from a deeper point of view, it is the heart and essence of Buddhism, having no doctrine or scriptures of its own but pointing to the ultimate source of all Buddhist teaching, namely, the enlightenment experience of the Buddha. On this level, it is a discipline oriented towards that illumination of mind, pacification of the heart, and freedom of action, in the context of a disciple's life, that the historical Buddha achieved through his enlightenment.
Third, and still more profoundly considered, Zen transcends the particulars of Buddhism as such and is not one religion so much as it is religion itself in its most universal intention. In other words, it is the life of truth, of authentic being, wherein the self has overcome its alienation from itself and from all other things. When Zen in this sense is fully concretized, there is no longer anything to be called Zen, and the uniqueness of Zen is that when it is realized, it bows out of being. Life in its unconditioned integrity calls for Zen no more than water calls for wetness or fire for heat.
Toward a Meaning of Buddhism for Americans
Zen Buddhism springs from the great awakening, or enlightenment, of the Buddha. What in the West we term Buddhism has its origin, historically speaking, in the person and life of Siddhartha Gautama, later to be known as the Buddha Shakyamuni. Among Buddhists he is revered not as a deity or a savior who takes upon himself the sins of others, but as a fully awakened, fully perfected human being who attained liberation of body and mind through his own efforts and not by the grace of a supernatural being. People often asked him, "Are you a god?"
>"No," he would answer.
"Then what are you?"
"I am awake," he would reply; and this indeed is the meaning of the term Buddha: one awakened or enlightened to his own Self-nature and all existence.
Upon his enlightenment, the Buddha is recorded as having said, "Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are complete and whole, endowed with virtue and wisdom, but because of their delusive thoughts, they fail to perceive this." How truly marvelous that all human beings, whether clever or stupid, male or female, ugly or beautiful, are whole and complete just as they are. That is to say, the nature of every being is inherently without a flaw, perfect, no different in fact from that of the Buddha himself. Yet most people are restless and anxious, living half-crazed lives because the mind, heavily encrusted with delusive thoughts, is turned upside down. We need therefore to return to our original perfection, to see through the false image of ourselves as incomplete and sinful, and to wake up to our inherent purity and wholeness.
In Zen the fundamental problem is not God but man. Not what is God, but what am I? How can I realize my original perfection? The religious question in Zen is, Why was I born, why must I die? What is my link with my fellow human and other beings? This is the primary concern in Zen. Dostoyevsky, in a letter to his brother, wrote, "How terrible to watch a man who has the Incomprehensible within his grasp, does not know what to do with it, and sits playing with a toy called God." Toys are for the amusement of children; they are not for adults. Zen demands maturity and responsibility of its adherents. It admonishes them to stand on their own two feet, not God's or anyone else's, and to respond wholly to what is most true in themselves and others. Our inborn freedom and spontaneity must not be fettered by attachment to God or Buddha.
So in Zen there is nothing to search for. Search implies some goal or object outside oneself and a subject "I" that does the searching, a dualistic notion that fractures our inherent Wholeness. But since our True-nature is like, as I have said, a circle to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted, what is there to seek? Many people, proudly calling themselves seekers, become attached to the idea of searching, and so they never find.
Waking Up with Zen
An earlier form of this essay appeared as the introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh's Zen Keys in the mid-seventies. The essay has been rethought and revised, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have given it new life here. I found it especially important to clarify the discussion of ego. The last twenty years have brought much greater sophistication to our thinking on this subject. Most importantly, we need to distinguish the psychological concept of ego from the spiritual one.
We live in a society where the object for so many is to do as little work as possible, where the workplace, whether office or home, is looked upon as a place of drudgery and boredom, where work, rather than being a creative and fulfilling aspect of one's life, is seen as oppressive and unsatisfying.
How different is Zen! In Zen everything one does becomes a potential vehicle for self-realization. Every act, every movement, done wholeheartedly, with nothing left over, is an "expression of Buddha," and the greater the pure-mindedness and unself-consciousness of the doing, the closer we are to this realization. For what else is there but the pure act itself -- the lifting of the hammer, the washing of the dish, the movement of the hands on the typewriter, the pulling of the weed? Everything else, such as thoughts of the past, fantasies about the future, judgments and evaluations concerning the work itself, what are these but shadows and ghosts flickering about in our minds? Right before us is life itself.
To enter into the awareness of Zen, to "wake up," means to free the mind of its habitual disease of uncontrolled thought and to return it to its original purity and clarity. In Zen it is said that much more power is generated by the ability to practice awareness in the midst of the world than by just sitting alone and shunning activity. Thus one's daily work becomes one's meditation room, the task at hand one's practice. This is called "working for oneself."
An opera singer is reputed to have responded to Descartes's famous phrase "I think, therefore I am" by saying, "I work, therefore I am." In Zen all labor is viewed with the eye of equality. Only a dualistically ensnared mind discriminates between agreeable and disagreeable jobs, between "creative" and "uncreative" work. It is, in part, to root out such weighing and judging that Zen novices are set to work pulling weeds by hand, licking envelopes, or doing other seemingly unimportant, "noncreative" work at the start of their training, and why the abbot himself often cleans the toilets. For true creativity is possible only when the mind is empty and totally absorbed in the task at hand. Only at the point where one is freed of the weight of self-consciousness is there transcendence and the joy of genuine fulfillment. In this natural creativity our intuitive wisdom and joy are released and brought into play.
All this does not mean, of course, that attempts at bettering working conditions and making work more meaningful are worthless. But for someone to constantly resent the work itself or his or her superiors, to become sloppy and slothful in working habits, and embittered toward life, these attitudes cause unnecessary harm and do little to change working conditions. When it's time to work, one works, nothing held back. When it's time to make changes, one makes changes; when it's time to revolt, one even revolts. In Zen everything is in the doing, a doing arising from Awareness, not in the contemplating.
There is one more area in which the untrained, ego-dominated mind plays thief to us, and this is in terms of energy. The fatigue that grips many at the end of the workday is not simply natural tiredness, but the product of a day filled' with wasted thought, with feelings of anxiety and worry; not to speak of anger and resentment, whether openly expressed or inwardly held. These negative mental states probably do more to sap energy than anything else. In contrast, the trained Zen person can move through the day aware and alert. The task at hand receives its due share of energy, but little is wasted in unnecessary anxiety fantasy; or smoldering resentment. Such a person is present, and so, even at the end of a full day's work, his or her store of energy, having not been destructively depleted, remains unexhausted.
Awareness -- and this is more than mere attentiveness -- is everything. A lack of awareness is responsible for so much of the violence and suffering in the world today. For it is the mind that feels itself separated from life and nature, the mind dominated by an omnipresent "I," which lashes out to destroy and kill in order to satisfy its desire for more and more -- at whatever cost. This unaware mind breeds insensitivity to people and things, for it doesn't see or appreciate the value of things as they truly are, only seeing them as objects to be used in satiating its own desires. The deeply aware person sees the indivisibility of existence, the rich complexity and interrelatedness of all life. Out of this awareness grows a deep respect for the absolute value of all things, each thing. From this respect for the worth of every single object, animate as well as inanimate, comes the desire to see things used properly; and not to be heedless, wasteful, or destructive.
To truly practice Zen therefore means not leaving lights burning when they are not needed, not allowing water to run unnecessarily from the faucet, not loading up your plate and leaving food uneaten. These unmindful acts reveal an indifference to the value of the object so wasted or destroyed as well as to the efforts of those who made these things possible for us: in the case of food, the farmer, the trucker, the storekeeper, the cook, the server. This indifference is the product of a mind that sees itself as separated from a world of seemingly random change and purposeless chaos. This indifference robs us of our birthright of harmony and joy.
From a Buddhist point of view, the teachings of impermanence and non-self hold the key to resolving the anxiety of a mind that sees itself as separated from a world of random change. Anyone alive to the realities of life cannot but acknowledge, for example, that impermanence is not a creation of mystical philosophers but simply a concretization of what "is." In the last hundred years this process of constant and explosive change on the social and institutional level has accelerated to a degree unknown to people of earlier ages. Almost daily the newspapers report new and dizzying crises in the world: famines and natural disasters, wars and revolutions; crises in the environment, in energy, and in the political arena; crises in the world of finance and economics; crises in the piling up of divorces and nervous breakdowns, not to speak of crises in personal health.
The average person looking out on this ever-changing world sees anything but natural karmic laws at work; nor does he perceive the unity and harmony underlying this constant and inevitable change. If anything, he is filled with fear and anxiety, with a feeling of hopelessness, and with a sense that life has no meaning. And because he has no concrete insight into the true character of the world or intuitive understanding of it, what else can he do but surrender to a life of material comfort and sensual pleasure?
And yet in the midst of all this seemingly meaningless chaos can calmly stand the Zen Buddhist. Her equanimity is proof that she knows there is more to life than what the senses tell her -- that in the midst of change there is something always permanent, in the midst of imperfection there is perfection, in chaos there is peace, in noise there is quiet, and finally, in death there is life. So without holding on or pushing away, without accepting or rejecting, she just moves along with her daily work, doing what needs to be done, helping wherever she can, or as the sutras say, "In all things one is neither overjoyed nor cast down."
Like the law of impermanence, the teaching of non-self is no mere philosophical speculation, but the expression of the deepest religious experience. It affirms that, contrary to what we think, we are not merely a body or a mind. If not either or both, what are we? The Buddha's answer, stemming from his experience of Great Enlightenment, is ego-shattering: "In truth I say to you that within this fathom-high body, with its thoughts and perceptions, lies the world and the rising of the world and the ceasing of the world and the Way that leads to the extinction of rising and ceasing."
What could be grander or more reassuring? Here is confirmation from the highest source that we are more than this puny body-mind, more than a speck thrown into the vast universe by a capricious fate -- that we are no less than the sun and the moon and the stars and the great earth. Why, if we already possess the world, do we try to enlarge ourselves through possessions and power? Why are we afraid, at times self-pitying and mean, at other times arrogant and aggressive?
It is because our image of ourselves and our relation to the world is a false one. We are deceived by our limited five senses and discriminating intellect (the sixth sense in Buddhism), which convey to us a picture of a dualistic world of self-and-other, of things separated and isolated, of pain and struggle, birth and extinction, killing and being killed. This picture is untrue because it barely scratches the surface. It is like looking at the one-eighth of an iceberg above the water and being unaware of the seven-eighths underneath. For if we could see beyond the ever-changing forms into the underlying reality, we would realize that i