Zen Stories & Paying Attention to the Little Things

The truth is beyond words; it’s about practice and not study.

 

By Daniel Scharpenburg

What we call the Zen school is really a conglomeration.

It includes the original teaching of the Buddha, which I call First Turning Buddhism, and the spirit of Chinese culture at the time. What we call “Zen meditation” is a method for training the mind that is practiced in First Turning Buddhism and in what we call the Great Way, Mahayana Buddhism.

The original word is Dhyana, which means “concentration” or “quiet meditation.”

So, when we talk about the Zen Tradition we’re really talking about “The Tradition That Practices Meditation.” But if we’re honest, a lot of traditions practice meditation, although that wasn’t the case when the Zen Tradition started. The Zen tradition is also sometimes called the Mind School, or the Prajna School, which I think might have been a cooler name. This is because the tradition is all about training the mind in order to engage our true selves.

But, while the tradition started out as a get-back-to-meditation, kind of bare bones approach…it’s slowly deviated from that, sometimes moving away from its roots, as traditions often do. In plenty of Zen circles you won’t see anything resembling a bare bones approach.

Yet, the earliest Zen teachers really wanted to set Zen apart. There were a lot of Buddhist traditions in China at the time and some of them said the path to Enlightenment was very easy.

The truth is beyond words; it’s about practice and not study.

That’s the important point that the Zen teachers were trying to emphasize. They thought too many people were into studying Buddhism and not very many were into actually practicing Buddhism. Zen isn’t something we learn about, it isn’t something we study and it isn’t something we are. It’s something we do.

That’s how Zen teachers started telling stories. Stories are words too, though (obviously they are made up of words), except the Zen stories are words that tell you how to go beyond words. Stories about people who were attached to words and had that attachment shattered. This is kind of silly and circular, if we really think about it.

Stories are helpful because they can be used to illustrate a point. Sometimes the difference between a successful religion and one that struggles to find followers is based entirely on which religion has better stories. We love stories.

Here’s a story:

The Buddha stood at a place called Vulture Peak in front of a bunch of people. There were monks and nuns and also regular people like you and me. It’s said that there were a million people, but that seems far-fetched. It’s also said that spirits and celestial beings were there too, but I don’t believe those are real.

People were expecting a teaching and the Buddha just stood there, not saying anything. Everyone was just sitting there waiting, looking around awkwardly. I’m imagining what it would be like to go to a concert and see the band just standing on stage not performing.

Then, the Buddha held up a pretty flower and twirled it, showing it to everyone.

So, still everyone was standing around awkwardly.

And one guy who they call Kasyapa the Elder just smiled.

That’s supposed to be the beginning of the tradition. They say Kasyapa was the first Zen teacher and that the teachings were entrusted to him because he understood the truth that’s beyond words. There is as much truth in a pretty flower as there is in a teaching. Enlightenment is right here—it’s everywhere. That’s the message.

I once heard someone say, “Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s less true.”

Kasyapa was a real person and was considered one of the best monks in the early sangha. The point of the story isn’t “this really happened.” Maybe originally that was its purpose, but we don’t have to pretend it really happened now (no one wrote about this or, as far as we can tell, told this story until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s lifetime).

The point is it tells us something.

Talking about Buddhism is great. Learning about Buddhism is great too, but sometimes life is about paying attention and noticing little things. Sometimes it’s about looking at a pretty flower.

Stop and smell the roses. Don’t attach to words so much, even Buddhist words. The truth is right here.

That being said…now I wonder if people in the Zen Tradition are becoming too attached to stories, if they’re thinking of them as IMPORTANT rather than as useful teaching tools. I hope we don’t forget that the tradition came from teachers who wanted a simpler, back-to-basics approach to Buddhism.

 

Learning about Buddhism is great too, but sometimes life is about paying attention and noticing little things. ~ Daniel Scharpenburg Click To Tweet

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

 

Did you like this post? You might also like:

We are All Bad at Meditating

  By Daniel Scharpenburg I have this friend who said to me, “I want to come to meditation, but I’m just really bad at meditating!” And that really got me thinking. I think we’re all bad at meditating. I know I am. I’m starting a weekly...

How Much of Your Time Will You Waste Today Worrying?

  By Daniel Scharpenburg   “Take all the courage you have left Wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head.” -Mumford and Sons   We waste a lot of mental energy; we are wasting it all the time. I only use the...

Practicing the 5 Strengths {Lojong Teaching}

  By Daniel Scharpenburg Practicing the five strengths is about taking our practice seriously. Plenty of people think that spiritual practice is a good idea and that living in a more awakened way would be nice, but they also think they...

Not Happy? Change What You’re Doing

  By Daniel Scharpenburg   My kids fight with each other. They’re three years apart and they’ve had quite a struggle over the last few years. I hear a lot of, “He’s being annoying!” and “She’s yelling at me!” and “I want him to stop...

Comments

comments

Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel lives in Kansas City. His background is in the Zen tradition and he was empowered to teach by the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha. He runs Fountain City Meditation. He has experience leading meditation events, giving dharma talks, and doing koan study.

Find out more about Daniel here and connect with him on Facebook

Latest posts by Daniel Scharpenburg (see all)

(Visited 402 times, 1 visits today)