It took me a little time to get my head round Zen as a spiritual yet non-religious practice. A Catholic childhood had given me insights into mysticism but generally put me off religion, which, until middle age, I equated with organised belief systems. What, I wondered, was the difference between the Zen approach and the religious approach, between the spiritual way of Zen, Zen Buddhism and devotional Buddhism? The Zen word is itself a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word ch’an, from the Sanskrit dhyan: meditation.
The Zen philosophy evolved, through assimilation of Taoist concepts, beyond the duality – cause and effect – of traditional religious Buddhism which, like Judaism and later Christianity and Islam, clung to the idea of struggle: Good vs. Evil, Right Way vs. Wrong Way, leading inevitably to division within their belief systems.
The imported belief systems we have adopted over the millennia spring from the environments which enabled them to take root, grow, flourish and spread. The harsh environment of the desert where each day is a struggle for life, where extremes of heat and cold exist under a huge sky, home of an angry god who lays down laws of behaviour. Compare with the climates and seasons of the temperate zone, Europe, North America and much of Asia, where what are now described as the ‘Old Ways’ evolved, nurtured by spring, warmed in summer, harvested in late summer, conserved in fall, rested in winter: human in harmony with nature.
The patriarchal and judgmental religions of the Middle East became the new ways of the Old World. They brought out the competitive acquisitive nature of man, the relish for conflict and combat reflected – too gentle a word – in modern society. And the white man’s thunder-god carried these divisive ways into societies unprepared.
‘Seek not the truth, nor cherish opinions.’ Zen, like Taoism, understanding that Right and Wrong depend on the view of the observer, embraces Harmony: Heaven and Earth instead of Heaven and Hell.
With its clear and simple approach uncluttered by shibboleth, ritual or religious cant, Zen offered a refuge from the institutionalization and sectarian divisions of Buddhism and the tendency of many Buddhists to treat the Buddha as a kind of deity – He who said there is no God – and from the frustratingly unworkable concept of duality which condemns every Buddhist to ‘innate dissatisfaction with this life’ (The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom, HH the Dalai Lama).
The simplicity of the Zen approach, a doctrine of No-Mind: ‘a way of seeing with a clarity free of preconception, of letting go duality’ (The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, D T Suzuki) allows for profound spiritual practice to inform and enhance our actions in this world, whether shiatsu, meditation, martial arts, or just plain living.
In the library at Dharamsala I had witnessed the debates, monks with mallas wrapped around biceps, robes round shoulders, arms free to gesticulate, arguing philosophical disciplines and such matters as the relative karmic consequences of killing a real person or of killing an imaginary person. I drifted off into thoughts of the origins, the words of Shakyamuni Buddha committed to writing four centuries after being spoken. So many words: fifty years of teachings compressed into eighty volumes of scripture.
‘Enough,’ I imagined the rebel, Bodhidarma, declaring. ‘How can we gain merit picking to pieces such unlikely situations?’
‘Then how are we supposed to understand the scriptures?’ said the Rinpoche, the one aware of his previous incarnations.
‘Dhyan. Meditate. Just do it,’ replied Bodhidarma, gathering his robe about him, crossing his legs into lotus and gazing at the foot of the wall.
Later he rose and walked through the snowy Himalaya passes into Tibet, to find the ideas of the Buddha enlivened there with demons and deities, dakhinis and bodhisattvas, sustained by hierarchical monasticism, entrenched in illusion, with form, ritual and ceremony.
‘For illusion to exist it must be observed, therefore the observer exists,’ he mused, ‘who must be just as real as the illusion.’
Wandering east along mossy trails, he felt thoughts and words clouding the moment of clarity. ‘It is only my own experience that is real to me, as is our own to each of us, as was his own to Shakyamuni. He tried to communicate this, but had to use words. Can we do without words, empty the mind of all experience?’
‘Or let go searching,’ remarked Lao Tse, asleep by the wayside.
Bodhidarma stopped. ‘How do you know I seek?’
‘You move, therefore you seek. Whatever it is, is already there. You know it, even if you cannot define or describe it. Do you dance?’
‘Of course,’ replied Bodhidarma, ‘what spiritual teacher doesn’t?’
The Patriarch and the Celestial Master circled in stately rhythm, singing to the rocky hills.
Sang Lao Tse: ‘Being in the ordinary way, strolling through life, supremely at leisure.’
Responded Bodhidarma: ‘Living each day intensely, as if your hair were on fire!’
‘Tis simple to understand but not to explain,’ trilled the Sage.
Bodhidarma slowed, a slight frown creasing the fearsome brow.
‘The idea of seeing your face before you were born is actually quite hard to understand and cannot be explained at all.’
‘No understanding, no explanation,’ sang Lao Tse, ‘no thought, no talk,
just mystic quietism,
dancing or working,
healing or fighting,
loving or losing,
singing a song or sewing a seam,
coming or going, yet always at home.’
‘Ah,’ Bodhidarma beamed, ‘mystic quietism – sitting in meditation, contemplating koans.’
Lao Tse grinned as he hopped around a stone. ‘Just sitting, just living, it’s all meditation. Beyond definition, beyond description, beyond using words to promote the idea of no-words. Ch’an. Just do it.’
‘Long speech,’ said the Patriarch.
‘You’re getting the idea,’ said the Sage, mounting an ox, ‘you only need words to heal, to comfort and to teach.’ He sat still on its back as the ox plodded away, calling over his shoulder, ‘Let good fortune jump on you.’
Bodhidarma strolled into the rising sun, contemplating the moment of not thinking, of connection with reality. When you start to think, he thought, you’re back in mind and the moment has become of the past. Our lives are spent heading for the future, away from the past, while the present slips by unnoticed. Our lives are spent. We spend our lives. We spend. And yet to stop the mind thinking is like asking the heart to stop beating. Is no-mind a philosophy? Is not-thinking a discipline? There must be more to it than that!
He met the Yellow Emperor by way of the Dragon Gate and asked him ‘Why are we here?’
‘Are we here? and if we are, why not? Do we need a reason? What reason could there be? To sit in meditation until arms and legs wither? To pray to a god? To renounce society or to live in society? To live right? What is right?’
With a mental shrug Bodhidarma gave up, and watched the dawn of subtle clear light and heard at last the silent thunder: ‘Neither seek the truth nor cherish opinions. Zen. Just get on with it.’