Noticing the Growing Up Part of Zen’s Spiritual Way: A Couple of Cautions from the Western Tradition

Noticing the Growing Up Part of Zen’s Spiritual Way: A Couple of Cautions from the Western Tradition April 28, 2022




While Zen has been in North America for quite a while now, it started reaching into the larger population through books and missionaries in a significant way starting in the 1950s.

Since then representatives of most Zen schools from, I’m pretty sure, all countries with historic Zen lineages have at least visited. Many have settled. Some North Americans and Europeans have traveled East and have returned with various titles and authorizations. With that communities of practice have not only been established, but some have sunk significant roots. And of wondrous variety.

With this things have been happening. Some extremely good. Some tragically wrong. And, most, like most of us, gradually growing, although by fits and starts. Advances, retreats, and the odd dead end.

It’s always good to pause and to look. And here’s one. My small gift from my small angle…

One of the things I’ve noticed about our lives as people of the way, both as individuals, and in the, well for the lack of a more accurate term, our emerging institutions, is that we often miss the spiritual way involves  two things going on at the same time.

Waking up. And, growing up. They’re not the same thing. But, if they don’t travel together, it’s unlikely we’ll win the great hope of healing for ourselves or the world. Because of this one of the intriguing things about taking on a spiritual path is that most of the naturally arising negative aspects of our lives will present.  Usually from pretty early on. And, we have the choice to deal with them, or not.

If not, well, our career following the spiritual path will be either extremely slight or somewhere along the line will just plain end. When we determine to enter the intimate way, almost immediately we start encountering difficulties. Turns out we are most of the early difficulties. That is, you. That is me.

Throughout the ages people who have walked the intimate way have offered signposts for us. And they’ve named many of the difficulties. And often, they’ve added in positive attributes that correspond to the negative things. For me negativity shifted to curiosity, and over the years toward a generally positive disposition in the face of our common failings.

As our Zen way comes west, we are challenged, and occasionally enriched by the indigenous cultures. Especially, I believe, by the religions. And what they may offer us as we grow and find our way…

Within the Hebrew scriptures I’m particularly interested in the Wisdom literature. Job, for instance, cuts straight to the heart of the matter for me. The first of the Psalms is often counted part of the Wisdom canon, and, oh my, yes. The Book, of Proverbs is a great mixed bag, probably the clearest, or messiest of mixing of the crowd control part of religion and its deepest invitations.

It’s in Proverbs we find a first draft of the seven deadly sins, markers of the lure away from the deep. Chapter six, verses sixteen through nineteen. I kind of like how the list starts with six and then becomes seven. It’s all kind of dynamic.

These six things does the Lord hate: yes, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaks lies, and he that sows discord among the community.”

For Aristotle the vices and their corresponding virtues are not precisely fixed. They seem to float a bit in his writings. But most people identify seven pairs. Each pair presents the polls of a perspective. For him the goal was to find the mean between the polls. The seven are, in one rendering, prudence and pride, fortitude and anger, faith and lust, hope and envy, charity and sloth, temperance and gluttony, justice and avarice.

Taking these and running with them, the Desert sages began to consider these things that arise in our hearts and which become hinderances if we encourage them. Evagrius Ponticus may have been the first. He identified these inclinations as hostile or negative spirits to be overcome. One of his disciples John Cassian wrote a book the Institutes, which would become the prototype for manuals of spiritual direction into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Eventually a Christian set of seven blocks to the spiritual life became standard for those following the spiritual path. They were seen as sins, and specifically sins that cut one off from the movement of grace. So, powerful and dangerous.

The lists differ. But by the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory I compiled a commonly accepted list. It even features in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Another text where amidst the literary elements and the small pleasures of putting people he didn’t like into various parts of hell, also points for the spiritual pilgrim toward the lacuna of our hearts, the shadows of who we are.

Luxuria in Latin, lust or lechery.

Gula, gluttony.

Avaritia, avarice or greed.

Acedia, discouragement or sloth.

Ira, wrath.

Invidia, envy.

Superbia, pride.

Perhaps reading them you can feel echoes of stirrings in your own heart? Certainly, investigating each of them and how they manifest in our individual lives could be worth digging into. A worthy exercise might be to reflect on each one, and wonder, is there some aspect of this particular “sin” that seems to have a place in your heart?

Here we may find the structures of growing up allow the waking up part of the spiritual life to find support and a frame for expressing that call from before the creation of the heavens and the earth.

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