Saturday, January 14, 2012

What is"Zen" anyway?

And, is Zen the same thing as zen?  Ah, I won't touch the second question here - I'll use both interchangeably.   As for the first question, I suppose you could go to Wikipedia or Google or something and get a variety of answers.   But I thought on this blog it might be a good idea to explore the question here.

There's a blog - The Worst Horse - that devotes quite a few bits of storage to the notion of finding examples where Buddhist terms and imagery, including "Dharma," "Zen" (or is it zen?),  Buddhas, etc. are used for commercial gain or pop culture. (His latest entry on electric butter lamps, though, is an amusing misfire: There's a whole host of Chinese and Vietnamese (and probably other ethnic groups') temples that actually use electric lighting as "candles" and other lighting on the altar.) 

There's also - I found this out this week - a foundation called "Urban Zen" which is apparently associated with charitable activities, and some forms of meditation and yoga. 

Is that Zen?

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.


The special transmission of Zen is the realization of the Buddha's enlightenment itself, in one's own life, in one's own time. This experience has been realized by Zen students and confirmed by their teachers for over 2500 years.

Central and indispensable to Zen is daily Zazen practice. It is this practice that is the "direct pointing to the mind of man." Zazen melts away the mind-forged distances that separate man from himself; leads one beyond himself as knower, to himself as known. In Zazen, there is no reality outside what exists here and now. Each moment, each act is inherently Buddha-nature. While sorrow and joy, anxiety and imperturbability cannot be avoided, by not clinging to them we find ourselves free of them, no longer pulled this way and that. With this self-mastery comes composure and tranquility of mind, but these are by-products of Zazen rather than its goals.

Zazen is a Japanese term consisting of two characters: za, "to sit (cross-legged)," and zen, from the Sanscrit dhyana, meaning at once concentration, dynamic stillness, and contemplation. The means toward the realization of one's original nature as well as the realization itself, Zazen is both something one does - sitting cross-legged, with proper posture and correct breathing - and something one essentially is. To emphasize one aspect at the expense of the other is to misunderstand this subtle and profound practice.

It's kind of interesting to me that Shimano (presumably) phrased it this way, especially since folks like Hakuin, Suzuki Shosan and others (I'm Rinzai, mostly) emphasized that the practice should take place in the midst of activity as well as on the zafu.

And in that activity - whatever the activity - if "done right" there is practice.  Though I would profer that being a corporate raider and causing suffering, or being a mass murderer or (insert any other time of person who does a heinous act) and such can't be practicing when they're being greedy, hateful or ignorant.

This "special transmission outside the scriptures" of which Bodhidharma (presumably) wrote is the transmission of this activity - in the same way that  詠春 (Wing Chun) or 書道 (shodou - Asian calligraphy) or yoga or playing the violin or learning to live peacefully with people who grate on your nerves is transmitted via experience outside of writing and words.  And this "direct pointing  to the mind of man" is the mind that just does these things, and does them for the benefit of all beings.

I've no idea whether or not the realization of the mission of the  Urban Zen Foundation really is that kind of Zen or not.  But I do know practice is bigger than that.  And that practice is realized by the cultivation of skill required to actually help all beings.  Their heart seems to be in the right place (that's a lousy phrase, but you get my drift), but I must admit that my reaction on seeing some of their stuff is "Nice charity work...some New Age oddness...but is this trivializing Zen practice?"

I could be wrong.

I'm not really in Donna Karan (benefactor of the foundation)'s target demographic (must avoid linking to a Bill Hicks video on marketers...oops too late).  As an engineer who's now in his 50s, I've developed an esthetic about clothes that kind of excludes that sort of thing, without getting into details.  OK, I'll put in one detail: clothes should fit, be easily maintained and last nearly forever.  They should be kind of a cross between whatever the heck the Shakers would produce if they were around to make clothes in these times and if you had your own tailor.  Oh, yeah, and they shouldn't look outrageously "different" in terms of matching one's social demographic.

Sorry for the digression.

I don't know if the kind of Zen done by "Urban Zen" is or is not the kind of Zen I aspire to incorporate into everything I do; neither do I know what kind of Zen or practice anybody else on the internet does/is or does/is not do/is.  Eventually I suppose it all points back to my practice - what kind of Zen am I practicing?

A lot of people will tell you a lot of things about a lot of topics on this here internet.  Kick the tires; do your homework...especially on yourself.

1 comment:

Petteri Sulonen said...

That Urban Zen thing smells funny. More like something up Gurudas's alley than a legit program, spiritual, medical, or social.