According to the usual notion, Zen is a spiritual tradition that promotes a spare, ascetic lifestyle. It apparently involves sitting for hours in an uncomfortable position, pondering contradictory sayings about the true essence of nothingness or the ultimate inscrutability of the obvious.
What can such a tradition realistically offer people today? If we human beings, like all living things, constantly strive to improve our condition and to stave off misery and want, how can a tradition that emphasizes non-action be considered worthwhile or practical?
One way to approach that question is to strip away some of the cultural debris that has accumulated around the core of Zen, and then to examine that core in light of today's interests.
Sometime during early childhood we acquire a self-referential perspective. We suddenly shift from simply doing what we're doing to "this is me doing what I'm doing." From then on, everything takes on a quality that could be called aboutness.
We look at everything we do in extrinsic terms, for what it says about itself, rather than for its own, intrinsic sake. Aboutness is such a dominant habit of thought that we have to pause even to notice it. Our minds are always busy thinking in terms of labels.
Zen trains the practitioner simply to observe plainly, quietly, and non-judgmentally the thoughts and feelings passing through the mind, instead of being pulled along reflexively by them.
With consistent practice paying bare, unembellished attention to the moment-by-moment flow, the practitioner begins to awaken from the cloud of aboutness and self-referential thinking that has built up through lifelong habit. The word Buddhism itself comes from a word meaning awaken.
Life today demands a keener sense of competition than ever before. When there is only one winner but many losers, doesn't putting "me first" in a competition seem antithetical to the spirit of Zen?
Interestingly, many elite athletes and performing artists describe reaching a level of training where they "get out of the way" and allow their performance to flow as if by instinct. Such peak moments illustrate the intense engagement that is actually also at the heart of Zen.
In a sense, the practice of Zen is simply to stop thinking, by quietly relinquishing the inner mental dialogue within which we habitually wrap our experience.
The direct, unembellished mind has a fresh and responsive quality, similar to when a person experiences something for the first time. In that sense, to seek expertise in Zen is a contradiction.
Ancient though it is, Buddhism was developed within the context of a literate civilization. For those of us living in societies that emphasize individualism, learning how not to be one's own worst enemy is an especially important lesson. However, would the insights of Buddhism be interesting to people never touched by civilization?
We can all say that "no matter where I go, there I am." At first that seems too obvious for comment, but on second thought why should our mental floor plan be set up this way?
What is the tiny observer that we call our "self", that peers out onto the world and into ourselves, and that reacts to what it sees? Is that observer who we are?
When a train of thought or a feeling passes through our mind, we can observe it within ourselves, but when we observe the observer within ourselves, then who or what is doing the observation?
Because our own experience is all we really know, we take ourselves so seriously that we seem almost to forget that an entire world exists outside ourselves.
Seeing oneself in a playful, humorous light is a form of self-awakening. Humor is a kind of satori.
Michael Webb, 2001
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