Last things first. I’ve said it before, and at the risk of repeating myself, will say it again: Buddha was not a Buddhist, any more than Christ was a Christian. Obviously, there was no such thing as Buddhism at the time of Siddhartha; and there was no such thing as Christianity at the time of Jesus. This is not meant to be a scholarly statement of historicity, nor is it intended to stir up controversy. Instead, I am suggesting that in considering our own, personal practice, our perspective needs to be informed by that of the ancient Masters (Harmony of Sameness and Difference):
Not understanding the Way before your eyes
How do you know the Path you walk?
No such thing as Buddhism
From a strictly Zen perspective, even today, there is still no such thing as “Buddhism.” If we misunderstand that Buddhism — that is, the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and his followers — is pointing to anything other than, or separate from, reality itself, our “first step is mistaken.”
If we mistake the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path for a doctrine about reality — rather than the outline of an approach to directly apprehending reality in our own experience — we have relegated Zen Buddhism to just another idea, philosophy, or belief system.
If we do apprehend the “Way before our eyes,” however (not “understanding” is a translator’s choice — even Buddha did not understand the Way), we will see directly into the insight of Buddha, penetrating to the only, singular point that he was actually making. This point is a turning-point, however, not an intellectual one (Precious Mirror Samadhi):
The meaning does not reside in the words
But a pivotal moment brings it forth
Move and you are trapped
Miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation
And this point, this “pivotal moment,” like any point, is so small — zero dimension on all axes — that it might easily be overlooked, or neglected (Precious Mirror Samadhi):
You would do well to respect this
Do not neglect it
So small it enters where there is no gap
So vast it transcends dimension
A hairsbreadth deviation
And you are out of tune
So this point is also inconceivably vast; it is beyond conventional measurement. Like the “eternal moment,” emphasized by Matsuoka Roshi, the “real time” of our existence. The deviation of a “hairsbreadth” represents a huge gap, by today’s standards of micro-measurement in physics; but it will suffice to make the point, that if we are only slightly to the left or right of center, as on an analog radio dial, all we will receive is static. We have to be tuned to just the right frequency, in order to “hear the true dharma” (Dogen’s Vow).
On the societal level, of course, there is, indeed, such a thing as “Buddhism.” It exists inter-culturally, mainly as a body of teachings — one that is starkly different from all others — about the nature of our existence, and what we can actually do about it. As such, Buddhism — and to a lesser extent, Zen — is subject to the same kind of intellectual analysis, and speculative discourse, as any other body of writing. And, indeed, it is a great deal more entertaining to engage in such conceptual diversions, than to simply sit in Zen. But even following Zen’s prescription for meditation does not assure us of success.
Crucially, on the personal level, it is particularly important that we do not try to embrace Zen Buddhism as yet another accretion to our self-identity. If we self-identify as “Buddhists,” or even as a “Zen person,” we fall into the same trap that others — who self-identify as followers of conventional religious, philosophical, or political systems — fall into. This tendency to identify with a group, or with a known persona defined by a stereotype — of necessity has the downside of identifying all outliers as different from us. Although it is true that we all exhibit differences, the sameness between us is by far the more dominant, and salient, characteristic. The differences are without a substantive distinction from a Zen perspective, at least as I understand it. Vive la sameness!
Thus, I do not regard myself as a “Buddhist” — though I share my enthusiasm for the teachings of Buddhism with anyone who will listen. Nor as a “Zennist” (if that is a real word), though I practice, and try to train others in, Zen. This difference is not without a distinction. It comprises a functional definition, rather than an ideological association.
In short, if even Buddha was not a Buddhist, how can we claim that identity, with any credibility? Further, what can it possibly mean, to those who do not see themselves as Buddhists? How is it not just another wedge, driven between ourselves and others?
Zen does not work
Zen is the “meditation sect” of Buddhism. But Zen does not work by itself. Like any method, you have to work it. Zen’s promise, however, is that if you do work at zazen diligently, you will inevitably penetrate to the same kind of insight that Buddha, and his successors, realized. No money-back guarantee; and your results may vary, of course.
But generally, if you do not give up, and are not fooling yourself, Zen will ultimately work. That is, zazen will work its magic. But we have to be careful about over-emphasizing the “effect” of zazen. Again, it will not work itself. It is not really magic, though its way of helping us return to our original, natural body and mind, may be considered somewhat magical.
Teaching Zen is impossible. But Zen can be learned. We can only teach about it, much like any other deep-learning process, such as art, or music. The most we can do is to demonstrate how we, ourselves, employ its method, the irreducibly simple form of Zen meditation: zazen. Now, you may argue that we could easily eliminate many aspects of the practice of Zen, as you understand it. But I would maintain that you are only playing with the peripherals. As Master Dogen himself reminds us (Self-Fulfilling Samadhi):
From the first time you meet a Master
Without engaging in incense offering
Bowing chanting Buddha’s name
Repentance and reading scripture
You should just wholeheartedly sit
And thus drop away body and mind
Of course, Master Dogen engaged in peripheral practices that he lists as not really essential. But they are designed to create the conducive environment for zazen practice, not to provide a substitute for it. Once you have taken up the zazen posture, and entered into what Matsuoka Roshi called “the real zazen,” there is not much more you can do to simplify Zen. If you are engaged in a great deal of thought while sitting, it is not the real zazen. If you are daydreaming, or in some other way preoccupied — worrying about the future, or regretting the past — it is not the real zazen. If you are not comfortable in zazen on the physical, emotional, mental, and yes, the social level — it is not the real zazen.
But when you enter into the real zazen — finding the natural posture, following the natural breath, and realizing the natural state of awareness — this is the real zazen. It now becomes possible for you to see into the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, and that of his successors through India, China, Korea and Japan. They all speak with one voice.
The predominant mode of teaching in Zen is much like the coaching relationship: if the student athlete is not wiling to do the work, there is not much the coach can do. Or we might think of Zen teachers and students as an apprenticeship. One apprentices oneself to a master craftsman, eventually becoming a journeyman, and finally a master of the craft. The process is largely one of observation and imitation, rather than instruction.
(Ironically, we now have the first celebrity president of the United States — discounting Ronald Reagan, who had some prior experience in governing — who is behaving as if he is still the star of the reality show, “The Apprentice.” However, neither he, nor most of his hirelings (or firelings) appear to be even journeymen — let alone masters — of the craft of governance. But this is but another distraction, if an important one, in the passing pageantry of what passes for social discourse these days.)
“May you live in interesting times” is an ancient Chinese curse. If you find yourself overly distracted, and distressed, by the politics of the time, your concerns are probably justified. But as a Zen practitioner, you might consider that your meditation has not yet transcended the physical, mental and emotional levels of discomfort, required to reach a level of self-awareness (as opposed to self-satisfaction) necessary to develop the requisite social level of comfort. Buddhism, from the beginning, offered an alternative.
Social comfort with the practice of Zen means that you feel confident that it is totally worth the amount of time you spend in meditation. Your peers, and others in your social circles, may find your involvement odd, at best; non- or counter-productive; or antisocial at worst. Most of us are reasonably concerned with our social relationships, and to a large extent may see ourselves reflected in the minds and opinions of others. While this is a normal — and in some ways admirable — perspective, it may not admit to the need for a personal level of comfort with the imperfections of life that we all experience. If we are not okay with ourselves, and by ourselves, we will not likely be okay with others, either.
If we can return to the simple and transcendent humility and humanity of Buddha, and the down-to-earth legacy of our Zen Ancestors in China, Korea and Japan, then our Zen practice has a chance of working. For Zen is about nothing more than becoming “Mister (or Ms) Natural.” Whatever the outward circumstances of our lives, the central question of existence, and its resolution, has not changed in 2500 years of the evolution of Buddhism. This is why Matsuoka Roshi insisted, “Zen is always contemporary.”
Zen Buddhism is a living religion, if it is a religion at all. It is not about the afterlife; it is about this life. Here, I am talking about “the real Buddhism,” just as we can talk about the real zazen. This construction implies that there can be a false, or unreal, Buddhism, or Zen. Which, again, is in the eye of the beholder, rather than in the reality. For Zen Buddhism does nothing more than point to the present reality, in all its homeliness.
The recent atrocities in Myanmar do not lobby against the legitimacy of Buddhism. They do, however, illustrate that merely self-identifying as a Buddhist does not guarantee that one will accede to the wisdom of Buddha. There can be “Buddhists-in-name-only,” just as surely as there can be Christians-in-name-only. Likewise Muslims or Jews, in the same wise. These anomalies tell us more about the person, than they do about Christianity, or Buddhism, itself. Again, there is no such thing, in actuality.
Thus, there can also be a false, or unreal, zazen. You can waste your whole life thinking you are practicing Zen meditation when, in reality, you are merely confusing yourself, and perhaps others, leading yourself and them astray. As Master Dogen kindly cautions us (Principles of Zazen):
Some people are very proud of their understanding
And think that they are richly endowed with the Buddha’s wisdom
They think that they have attained the Way
Illuminated their minds and gained the power to touch the heavens
They imagine that they are wandering about in the world of enlightenment
But in fact they have almost lost the absolute Way
Which is beyond enlightenment itself
Present company excepted, of course. But if you see yourself in this picture, own it. If the yoke fits, wear it. The (monkey) mind is a very powerful thing. Just when the sitting is getting good, the monkey pops up with some new absurdity, throwing us off. Just when we think we are on the verge of realization, we “fall into doubt and vacillation.” Embracing doubt and vacillation, then, is clearly part of the process. Second-guessing our way to insight, we become comfortable with uncertainty. This kind of doubt is the emotional content of faith in Zen. The two are not in contention with each other, but complementary.
Because we are human, and Buddhism is an invention of human beings, it is subject to the same attributes of impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality, as is every other construction of humankind. But it does not follow that what Zen is pointing to, is necessarily subject to the limitations of human error. This is a kind of category mistake. If we look for imperfection in the teaching, or in its practitioners, we are bound to find it. This amounts to a transcendental “catch-22.” It comprises a tautology, which, while logically consistent within itself, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Harboring doubt about Zen’s teachings amounts to a kind of evasive maneuver. Like a child facing punishment for something s/he is guilty of doing, we try to squirm out of the confrontation. Buddhism calls upon us to confront our own lack of understanding, to face up to our own ignorance, and yet not give up, or lose our vital aspiration, in the face of daunting odds. It seems easier to dismiss the challenge of Zen as unworthy of our attention and energy. Zen meditation can appear to be a big waste of time.
But this is not the fault of Zen Buddhism itself. Instead, we are falling victim to monkey mind. Nobody said this would be easy. Nobody promised you a lotus garden. Buddha merely pointed out — take it or leave it — the limitations of our potential. Which, ironically, must be embraced, in order to transcend them.
Unbelievably, just sitting still enough, long enough, is the prescription for practice. It is up to you do determine how still is still enough, as well as how long is long enough. The great Masters of the past assure us that you will know for sure, when it is enough. If you have any doubts about the intensity of your personal practice, it is definitely not yet enough. In a world where nothing is certain, you can be sure of that.