Sometimes I Call it the Great Empty: A Mind Bubble on Zen in the West

Sometimes I Call it the Great Empty: A Mind Bubble on Zen in the West June 22, 2021


Jan & I are on a drive across the country. We’d not allowed enough time and find ourselves more on the road than gawking at things. But, this has its charms, as well…

As we were winding our way from the Oklahoma border into the Texas panhandle, having just eaten an astonishingly good Punjabi dinner at a little hole in the wall tucked into a truck stop, I found myself thinking a bit about the way Zen is finding its place here in the West.

I’ve been in recent conversations, some brief, some more substantive about Christians practicing Zen. No doubt that has fed into my thoughts, as well. That and a few Facebook postings where after some years when Zen and the interwebs has been mostly dominated by people long on opinion and short on knowledge, some people with strong opinions woven in fine with genuine knowledge are now being expressed. And it has my heart churning.

At this point in my life, where I have, if I’m lucky a few more active years, a full decade is possible if not fully likely, I find myself doing a lot of reflecting. And so, as I said, filled with some saag and turnips and black lentils and pakora curry and passing through a forest of wind mills heading for Amarillo, I found myself considering Zen.

I cannot say how important Zen has been in my life. Specifically, the fundamental teaching of non duality and a path beyond one and two, together with a small basket of practices, zazen and koan introspection, along with some competent guidance has proven the thread I’ve followed for all of my adult life.

And, blessed with a time and place where you can get Punjabi meals in rest stops on the Oklahoma/Texas border, my path has been informed by many other things, as well.

I have no faith in the historicity of the Christian story of Jesus as Christ as atonement for sin. The story as told didn’t happen. Or, is no more likely than any of the hundred thousand stories that people have dreamed to explain the mess. But, I am much taken with the human need to understand life, particularly the apparently universal noticing of dis-ease in life and anxiety about death. And, as my natal religion, I reflect on how it has played out as and within the Christian story. Especially important for me how it has been engaged among those Christians who’ve come to something akin to the non dual analysis. There are more of them than one might think right off, considering the apparent relentless dualism of the Christian tradition.

That for me, along with some time with universalist Sufis, a bit of read into Judaism, a passing experience of Vedanta, and a more than passing appreciation of the Western enlightenment and with that the natural world. Here I am.

I think the real deal is not about adhering to some form of orthodoxy. I think all religions lie. Of course, there is no liar as bad as our own brains left to their own devices. And some of those lies cooked up by various religions and in our individual heads are more than passingly dangerous. At the same time, it is precisely within religions where we find the treasure trove of human wisdom regarding our place in this world.

So Zen.

Zen as a thread, informed by those other things, mostly the ones I’ve listed, but more, as well; I’ve found this life a precious and beautiful and passing, passing thing.

So, if you’re interested, a bit of good news.

There is no meaning to things.

But, also, there is no meaninglessness.

Meaning and meaninglessness are human things. Of course, they have some utility. In human affairs there are consequences and with that meaning and meaninglessness. But when it comes to the matter of the heart, of that sense of dis-ease, well…

One of several bottom lines follow.

If we open our hearts we can find a place. And we can live, more or less constantly, in that place at the same time we are in the mess. This has its own consequences.

A big one is I don’t fear death. And another is I’m in no hurry.

For all its problems, this mess can be something wonderful. Like sitting with Jan and eating saag in a hole in the wall restaurant on the Oklahoma/Texas border.

Sweet as sweet can be.

And for me, Zen shows how to notice this, to see the place, and to walk into it.

One needs to be just a little wary of Zen the religion. The religion Zen is a close enemy of the true. Especially dangerous because it is closer to the true than most religions. But, if we’re careful. Respectful. Cautious within the reckless adventure of the spiritual journey. Oh my…

Zen literally means meditation, but more expansively it is about a certain openness. The invitation I’ve found is to let go of my certainties, large and small, to be hesitant to interpret, and instead, for as long as possible, to let the things of the world present. When I don’t fall into Adam’s trap and think I need to name all the animals and things, I discover they will tell me their true names.

And, I’ve found we all share a family name. Sometimes I call it the great empty. Sometimes I call it boundless.

There are some consequences to that, and I reflect on it, as well. But not so much today.

Today Jan and pakora curry…

Just this in the moment.

A coalescence of the cosmos. Passing, passing.

A simple joy.

Sometimes I call it the great empty.

Sometimes I call it boundless.

Turns out, it is enough…




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