Why Zen? A Small Meditation on the Smallest of Things

Why Zen? A Small Meditation on the Smallest of Things September 4, 2021



I’ve noticed no one has a “good reason” for embarking on the spiritual quest, whether Zen or any other. Our motives for taking up any spiritual practice are always clouded. After all, in most cases, certainly in our human hearts, motivations are almost always multiply caused. And, sometimes, well, that presenting thing feels wrong to some observer.

One example. Many years ago my brother and I took a hike in the mountains above Palm Springs. We met some other hikers and at dusk we set out our sleeping bags near each other.  And all of us shared wine and cheese and bread and some fruit we’d packed in with us.

Then in the middle of the night it started raining. It quickly became dangerous. We all scampered up the side of the gully and no sooner were we as high as we were going to be able to get we could hear the water rushing down. It was terrifying. Our companions being to cry out to God to save them. One loudly promised to change and to become God fearing if he were saved.

The truth is I have no idea what came next for him. Most likely, given my observation of humans, is that by the next morning he’d completely forgotten his prayer. But for some people, and I’ve met them, as well, that promise is kept. They have continued on. Some for a lifetime.

What I began to notice was that perhaps it wasn’t some “right” motivation. Well, other than that most fundamental of all our motivations for spirituality or religion. Noticing that there’s something wrong. And that is the important thing.

We can see that wrong is a hundred different ways. The wrong, in fact, seems specifically cut for each of us. Guilt and shame, each a variation on a sense of not fitting, of not belonging range large in the hearts of people who choose to take on the way.

When I was thinking about entering a Zen monastery, I asked the abbot how much faith did this whole thing require? She responded that only the thought that possibly, maybe, something good could come of doing this. I realized I had that much faith. I was, and perhaps, I remain one of those of little faith.

But, what really drove me was some desperation. Some feeling things were not right.

And, however we frame it, that feeling that something’s not right is the nugget that starts us on the way. Your problem, your sense. My problem, my sense. There is no right or wrong in our choice of name, what it is we notice specifically in our lives. Rather it is a feeling there’s something wrong in the world, or, perhaps, it’s something wrong in my heart – which is the beginning of the beginning.

So, what is the why of Zen?

A mustard seed.

The smallest of things.

And yet.

It might become shelter for the birds of heaven…

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