What Is Zen?

What Is Zen? August 2, 2021

What is Zen?

A meditation

James Ishmael Ford

A few days ago on social media, I wrote what I wanted to be a summation of the Zen way as I understand it.

Zen is not about calm nor focus. It does not focus on nothing. Although it does not ignore it, either. Part of the interesting thing is how Zen or more correctly Chan emerged in early medieval China. There the hard logic of Indian scholastic Buddhism gave way to a poetic stance, one of metaphor and indirection. It becomes all about pointing and inviting. Also, unlike some forms of Buddhism, Zen teachers in the normative sense of that rowdy gang, make no causal associations between the practices, whether they be seated Zen, huatou or koan, or even liturgical life as practice, and obtaining. Pretty adamant about that as there is no space between the open and the phenomenal, just angles of perceiving. Something, perhaps, like waves and particles. Not that I claim to understand waves and particles. Much of Buddhism is about escape. Zen is about no escape.

It generated a lot of responses, and a little heat.

Some thought it sectarian. Others really had problems with the sentence about escape. Some felt I said “Buddhism” when I said, “much of Buddhism.” Others read “escape” as “escapism.” And from those slight but significant shifts offered views.

But the person I found most intriguing, most challenging, and with that most helpful, was Richard Kollmar. Richard is an old dharma hand, someone who has pondered the challenges and invitation of the intimate way.

He focused on those two sentences as I actually wrote them “Much of Buddhism is about escape. Zen is about no escape.”

Richard then dug into the matter in a way I find, well, challenging. “Zen is a family of uniquely Chinese contemplative traditions,” Richard asserts. “Fundamentally unrelate to Buddhism but wearing Buddhist togs & carrying Buddhist baggage.” I guess this can be found in what I wrote. But, I am of the view Zen really is Buddhism, if Buddhism opened wildly by its Chinese encounter.

Richard, however, continues. Zen’s “roots are in nature mysticism & the Daoist culture of participatory spirituality, return, merger, doing not-doing.” Again, while I believe Zen is Buddhism, he’s also right. These specifics are as much the esense of the Zen way as are the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, and most especially the deep analysis of Nagarjuna.

But Richard presses. He points to the true secret of our little corner of the intimate way, asserting this allows a “de-linking of practice & realization.” This is where I find myself invited into deeper waters. I have met more than one Buddhist teacher who asserts that if we follow the meditative methods of the tradition, and here that means samatha and vipassana, closely, step by step, we will awaken.

And when people do not experience awakening, well, they’re doing it wrong. It’s completely hermetic. There’s no falsification. And that’s a problem in real life, where people do practices an they don’t necessarily as its described in the literature. And, at the same time, people with little or no formal practice sometimes have the most amazing and transforming encounters while going to the grocery store.

A retired Episcopalian bishop, Dan Edwards dipped his oar into the conversation, also picking up on those last two sentences, “Much of Buddhism is about escape. Zen is about no escape.” Turning to his own tradition he notes how much of “Christianity is about escaping real life experience(s), cramming it into belief boxes, generally managing it into safe distances.”

I find this one of the harsh truths. Much of religion is about crowd control. And much about the human heart is about denial, and management of our grief. Dan quotes T. S. Eliot, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Dan concludes his contribution with a question. He wonders, “if our heads are where we go to escape our hearts.”

Another challenge and with it an invitation. I find.

Turning specifically to Zen and its relationship with and within Buddhism, Richard plays with contrast and compare, suggesting two kinds of contemplative culture. “Buddhism is transcendentalist, yogic, & analytical. Zen is this-worldly, mystical, & synthetic. Buddhism is headed for the exit sign; Zen stays home. Buddhism is exoteric; Zen is esoteric (Buddhism relies on the Dharma as transmitted by lineage of transmission).” He digresses a bit by asserting how “complex political & cultural factors inform the invention of Chan in the eighth century.”

One might begin with that tidbit of history, the clash of various cultures that births the specificity of Zen. And it’s important because it reminds us religion and spirituality is a human thing. Our stories may tell of revelations from gods, but if we think that too rigidly, we lose that actually the revelation is in our own hearts, the possibilities are in our lived lives.

But, for me it’s also important to quickly get to the heart of the matter. The human hurt, and the path of healing.

And there’s a bit of time and place involved in the matter. How can I hear the invitation? As a person of this faithless age, what can touch me, what can invite me, what, well, what can heal me?

I was recently told that there’s a new use for the term “spiritual bypassing.” The term was coined out of noticing spiritual teachers who do bad things and trying to explain it. I have some problems with the implicit assumption that there’s some point where people are no longer subject to the travails of the world, no longer subject to grasping and aversion and the sweet tempations of various certainties. But I am also helped by the term calling us back to dealing with the mess of our lives. In the newer use, it’s a challenge to those who go on a spiritual path while abandoning the hurt of this world.

Time and place. I find any spirituality today that is not intimately connected to the matters of the world is hampered, an eagle that’s been tethered.

I love that Zen is Buddhism. But, not exactly. And I love that a Christian bishop can look at that and wonder what it is about Christianity that is Christian but not exactly.

What is that most illusive thing? What is the animal we catch at the corner of our eye? What is the dream that keeps returning, but that when we wake, we can’t quite recall?

What is the thing about religion that is not crowd control? What is the mystic heart that calls us all wherever or whenever we have come? What is it that take a hundred thousand million shapes?

What is Zen? What is Zen really?

It is something crazy for this world.

And with that it challenges how we live in this world.

It is about our hearts. It is about how we live in this world, no other place, this world. It is about the moment, not some other moment, this moment.

And with that it points to who we really are.

And, in this world of birthing and dying, what might yet be born.

"I love this reflection on TS Eliott."

| James Ford
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