By Liwa Nim
After reading a bunch of sutras and Zen books, after listening to several lectures and speaking with Zen teachers, after debating for hours about Zen philosophy on Facebook, I realized something important—I think too much.
Or, rather, I use thinking unskillfully.
Zen sickness is a term for when we get too caught up in the philosophical side of Zen. Symptoms include neglecting housework and driving our family and friends crazy by saying, “Zen! Zen! Zen!” all day long.
Another symptom is being easily offended by other’s views.
“Wash your bowl!” was the remedy offered to me for Zen sickness. I felt relieved when someone threw me that lifeline. It means to return to simple mindfulness and meditation, while setting down philosophy and discriminatory thoughts.
That lesson had to be hammered into me several times before it finally settled in. Now, I prefer taking a simple approach to Dharma Practice.
For me, Zen can be summed up in six words: Let go, be mindful, be kind.
All the doctrines, Truths and Paths can be summed up in that pithy line. Letting go of clinging and craving, being mindful of all phenomena and letting practice materialize as deep empathy and compassion.
The Living Dharma is equal parts Transcendent Wisdom (prajnaparamita & upekkha) and Transcendent Compassion (metta & karuna). In the words of the Ch’an masters, it’s a balance between silent relaxation and illuminating clarity.
There are hundreds of meditation techniques that steer us toward non-clinging, mindfulness and kindness. I just focus on breathing—equal focus on the inhale, exhale, and the space between them.
Interesting sensations, insights and visions may arise, but I just keep breathing through them. That’s actually a nice remedy for troubles in life, just breathe through it.
A timer is important for this type of meditation because intuition may not signal when it’s time to finish. I can’t spend the whole day sitting.
Contemporary society demands that we get things done and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
No matter what I’m doing, each action and instant is an opportunity to be mindful. To me, mindfulness is focusing equally on all of the senses including thoughts and feelings. With letting go and mindfulness, kindness comes naturally as the Burning Bodhicitta strengthens.
The stronger the Bodhicitta, the softer the suffering.
Gestalt psychologists believe in the Law of Pragnanz. Basically, that means that equilibrium is found in simplicity. The mind naturally seeks simplicity and wholeness. When those states can’t be achieved, disequilibrium occurs. Disequilibrium is close to the Buddhist term Dukkha.
So even Dharma practice can cause suffering if we cling to it or make it more complicated than it needs to be.
A simple practice fits nicely with American culture. Dharma practice can be taken out of the Zendos, hierarchies and monasteries. It can be practiced without scholarly knowledge or a dependence on rituals. Living Zen is more of an applied practice rather than a philosophy or religion.
Just like educators who adhere to the Gestalt perspective, Dharma guides can show us how to walk the Path, but not tell us where to walk it to. There are as many varieties of Zen as there are Zen students, the common denominator is our Resolve and our deep empathy.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remember that practice can be as simple or complicated as we choose it to be.
At the core, it can be as simple as letting go, being mindful and being kind.
Liwa Nim (John Pendall) lives in rural Illinois between two cornfields. He is a psychology undergraduate and a Wayfarer in the Order of the Boundless Way (part of the Boundless Mind Zen school). He writes poems, short stories and makes progressive rock music. He loves philosophy, astronomy and a 50/50 mixture of unsweetened green/black tea. He hopes to make a living in the mental health field with a focus on preventing mental illnesses from developing.
Editor: Dana Gornall