Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

What Is Zen? Three key aspects help decode the mystery

Change your mind with Zen and see the world anew

There is more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony. There is no more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony. 

All there is?

Zen is like that... Apparently full of impossible contradictions! It is hard to explain it to a person who habitually thinks logically. It is easier to explain to someone who habitually thinks poetically. Zen is about expanding logical thinkers into logical and poetic thinkers. While the discernment of rational thought is not lost, the complementary perspective of a poetic and spiritual sensibility is added.

Rational (scientific) thinking is dualistic: either/or, right/wrong, good/bad, yes/no, etc. Poetic (holistic) thinking is unitary and unifying: both/and, yes/yes, etc. "There is more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony", appeals to logical thinkers. It is obviously true. "There is no more to Zen than the Japanese tea ceremony", appeals to holistic thinkers, who grasp intuitively the macro in the micro, the whole from one of its perfect parts. This is the vision of poet William Blake who wrote of seeing, "A world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower".

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How then might a rational thinker become, in addition, a poetic thinker? This is the essential transformation that Zen practice teaches. Three key aspects are involved. The first two are sitting meditation (‘zazen') and work on an apparently impenetrable riddle (the ‘koan').

Zen began as a stripped down form of more traditional Buddhism, and flourished especially in Japan where it has retained a monastic religious format. Monks lead a highly regulated and disciplined life. In recent times, including in places outside Asia, Zen teachers have set up training centres for ordinary lay people, but the emphasis on regular practice and self-discipline remains.

 

Zen monk sitting in 'zazen'
The first step involves learning to meditate and achieve a level of proficiency in calming and emptying the mind of distractions. It takes concentration, but no more strength of focus than many rational thinkers apply to routine problem-solving and other pursuits. The hardest part may come from having to endure aches and pains from holding a sitting posture for long periods.

 

Eventually the strong meditative mind can start work on a koan. The best known, because of its patent absurdity, is, "What is the sound of one hand?" (Obviously the answer is not ‘clapping'.) Another koan arises when the Zen teacher invites the pupil to, "Show me the face that was yours, even before you were born".

A logical thinker would be tempted to turn away at this point. Giving time to contemplating such a riddle would seem a waste... But this is where the third essential aspect of Zen comes into play: the devotional relationship between teacher and pupil.

Zen teachers can trace their lineage from pupil to master back for many centuries. It is the equivalent in Christianity to the laying on of hands from one bishop to the next in an unbroken chain. In each case, the Zen teacher offers the same kind of respect and committed devotion to his pupil as he once gave to his master; and him to his. No overt affection may be involved, but an unspoken kind of compassionate and selfless love usually is. This devotional, loving respect acts as a catalyst for the earnest pupil's transformation.

When the teacher asks you to work on the riddle and present him with a solution, it is taken on faith that he would not ask you to undertake a meaningless task; so you set to work. You meditate and reflect on the koan. You hold it in your mind every waking moment, and even recall it during the hours of sleep.

What happens is the gradual breaking down of your trust in the logical method of thinking as the sole way of addressing such a riddle. One hand cannot clap by itself, so there must be some other answer. Maybe, eventually, you start to sweat. The effort becomes exceptional. It becomes emotional. You experience bewilderment, doubt and anxiety at first, then perhaps anger at making no progress. Next you feel guilt (as you are tempted to let up on the effort) and shame at your lack of progress. These are the emotions of grief, of loss and letting go, the emotions of transformation.

Finally, cathartic tears flow and the hoped-for breakthrough arrives. You can see through the riddle to the great, holistic truth at its heart. Relief, joy and satisfaction overwhelm you. The master is smiling as you approach, knowing already from your new demeanour that the hoped-for revolution has occurred.

 

Sekida's excellent book
This is only one possible scenario. According to author Katsuki Sekida, in his excellent book 'Zen Training', a young woman, earnest and experienced in meditation practice, was attending a Zen group meeting in Honolulu some years ago. After a meeting with her teacher, when alone in a garden, she took out her handkerchief to blow her nose, and her existence was suddenly shaken by a sharp shock... "The curtain of her mind fell down, and the scene changed". The world in front of her was the same old world, but it appeared quite different. She stood mute in amazement, then felt an emotional welling up, an outburst of great delight. Everything in the garden - trees, grass, brightly coloured flowers, volcanic rock and the adjacent white sand - while retaining their original shape and colour, all seemed wonderfully fresh and new.

 

In Zen circles this experience is known as ‘kensho'. Until this occurs, the person and the world are separate from and strangers to one another. Afterwards, however, there is free communion. The person is harmoniously united to the world. A vital landmark of spiritual development, whereby the everyday ego is equally re-united with the true, ‘spiritual' self, has been reached.

Koan-like riddles occur throughout scriptures from many religions. Moses sees a bush that is blazing without being consumed by the fire (Exodus 3:2). A virgin conceives in her womb and bears a son (Luke 1:31). They also arise frequently in many branches of science. Who, for example, except Einstein, would have thought that energy and matter, while obviously different, were also the same and inter-convertible?

If you are a mainly logical thinker, why not investigate Zen? It may prove highly worthwhile.


Copyright Larry Culliford

In addition to ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', Larry's books include ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide'.

 

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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