Zen appeared in China because some teachers noticed that Buddhism in China had changed quite a bit. Things had gotten weird. People were focusing on complicated rituals and philosophical speculation and they had lost sight of meditation practice and of gaining any sort of insight. Buddhism had gotten weird. It seems like Buddhism always gets weird.


By Daniel Scharpenburg


Siddhartha sat under a tree for a long time trying to understand how to be free of suffering and how to help others. After his long journey this is what he set out to do. He asked questions like who am I? why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? and the only answers he could come up with was “I don’t know. “

After a while his imagination took hold. He imagined a demon named Mara appearing and telling them how unworthy he was. Mara said “Who are you to try to become enlightened? You are too weak you don’t deserve this!” 

He made Mara vanish by touching the ground. He touched the ground to literally ground himself and say, “The earth is my witness.”

 He was worthy. We are all worthy because enlightenment is our true nature. So even when we feel like we don’t deserve this and we’re not good enough to practice and will never get anywhere… we are worthy. We are good enough we can do this. Siddhartha became the Buddha. He looked up at the sky and said, “I and all beings have attained Enlightenment.”

So, I want to say that I love a lot of Buddhist traditions.

I think the modern mindfulness movement is great. I think the Thai Forest tradition, as it’s been westernized by teachers like Jack Kornfield, is great too. And I’ve really liked every Shambhala teacher I’ve talked with—I’m certain they’re doing something right.

I’m going to tell you why I like the Zen tradition, and the reason I (usually) refer to myself as a Zen Buddhist and not something else. It’s a little odd that I choose the Zen tradition. I’d probably fit in pretty well with the Insight Meditation people if I tried, but I feel like there is something missing in their tradition for me, but not a lot. If I’m honest, if there was some sort of Insight Meditation Center or Against the Stream Center in Kansas City, I’d probably be going there. But there’s not.

There are aspects of Zen that I don’t connect with very well.

I don’t wear robes, I’m not all that interested in liturgies, and I don’t like Koan practice very much. But none of that stuff is fundamental to Zen practice, really. People will try to tell you that it is and very likely some Zennists will come argue with me.

According to Red Pine, “One of the hallmarks of Zen is that its teaching is not separated from our every day lives. Buddhas don’t fall from the sky.”

The Buddha stood on Vulture Peak before numerous assembled monks and laypeople. They were expecting a teaching. The crowd was waiting expectantly and he seemed to be taking a long time. They really wanted him to get on with it. He picked up a flower and twirled it. That was it. Everyone in the assembly was confused by this…except one person. Mahakasyapa saw this flower twirling and he smiled.

The Buddha was teaching that Enlightenment is this, that there is insight in twirling a flower.This is it. The truth is right here. Dogen said, “Where else would you expect to find it?” We get so distracted sometimes with our philosophies and our arguments. But the truth is always here for us to pay attention to. It’s in the twirling of a flower, in the cool breeze on a hot day, in staring at the bright moon, in listening to a child’s laughter.

Zen appeared in China because some teachers noticed that Buddhism in China had changed quite a bit. Things had gotten weird. People were focusing on complicated rituals and philosophical speculation and they had lost sight of meditation practice and of gaining any sort of insight.

Buddhism had gotten weird. It seems like Buddhism always gets weird.

Zen is about this moment. Right here. “What’s really happening?” “Who are you and what are you doing?”

And “How can I help you?”

Zen is characterized by meditation practice, insight into our true nature, and (most importantly) expressing what insights we gain in daily life. If we can’t apply this stuff to daily life…then why are we doing it?

Zen also has some great stories, which many other Buddhist traditions lack. Not that stories are critical, but I like them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most powerful religions in the world also have some of the best stories. I loved that story of Jonah getting swallowed by a whale when I was a kid.

Bodhidharma traveled to China and was greeted by the Emperor. The Emperor said, “I have created all these temples. I have supported all these monks. I have built many statues. How much merit have I gained?”

Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever.”
E: “Tell me what the point of your teaching is, then?”
B: “Vast Emptiness. Nothing Holy.”

E: “Then who are you?”
B: “I don’t know.”

Why did Bodhidharma behave that way? To begin with, he didn’t care that this guy was the Emperor, or that the Emperor was doing it wrong. If we’re giving because we’re thinking about gaining something, we’re on the wrong track, and the Emperor is mired in delusion, just like we often are. We label everything all the time. Nothing is holy because “holy” is a concept we created (maybe also everything is holy…hmm..).

He’s trying to get the Emperor to understand that the Zen path is about seeing things as they are.

We observe the breath to train in concentration.

We observe the mind to train in insight.

We think about how we can help others.

That’s it.

Baggage has been added to the Zen tradition. That’s why I practice a kind of “Hermit Zen” as opposed to “Temple Zen.”

It used to be that Zen teachers just traveled around giving teachings, leading meditation and bestowing the Bodhisattva Precepts. If I’m honest, that’s really all I want to do. Over the years more and more things have been added, but Zen is supposed to be (in my view) just about this moment. How can I make the best choice right now? How can I help others? Am I facing reality as it really is?

This path isn’t about becoming calmer, or more productive, or even kinder and wiser (not really).

It’s just about becoming more and more authentic—more real. The world needs fearless authenticity. Our true nature is at the center of our being. We can experience our true nature just by turning away from that which is false.

Our true nature is Great Love, Great Compassion and the Bodhisattva Way. We just have to turn our minds to see that. Then we have boundless potential to help others.


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

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