By John Lee Pendall
Mountains, farmlands and paths paved by feet and hoofs—that’s where Zen came from.
It came from wooden fishing boats on valley lakes, and small villages full of poor traders in ragged clothes. It was the hermit’s footsteps along lonely ridges and hidden huts. Zen poetry is filled with birds, rivers, oars, and trees. It was born in a time and place where things took time, when nights were quiet and truly dark.
Now it’s here, in the West, greeting us in its many forms—Chan, Zen, Seon and Thien—and it’s many styles, like Caodong/Soto, Linji/Rinzai, Yunmen, Sanbo Kyodan and Obaku. The modern West, even the rural parts like where I live, have a vastly different atmosphere than ancient China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
There are fucking trains, planes and automobiles everywhere. We’re always online, always juggling a dozen different thoughts at once, and we don’t have to venture out during a blizzard to go number two. That’s all manageable, but Zen wasn’t built with this (gestures broadly) in mind.
As the philosopher Notorious B.I.G. said, “Mo money, mo problems.”
As Westerner practitioners, we have an interesting choice:
1) We can try to change the tradition to fit our culture
2) We can change our culture to fit the tradition
3) Both. Number three is probably the best option, but I’m also fan of the second one because I think most of our culture is a steaming pile of crap.
No matter which one we choose, one thing is certain: practice takes time, and letting things take time isn’t a dominant trait in our culture. I’ve been practicing Zen for almost six years (which isn’t long), and I just now learned how to meditate properly. Zen meditation is tricky because it’s a formless method. Even with all of the books, all of our teachers and Buddhist friends, none can show us how to do it. They can give pointers and methods that help us along the way, but that’s about it.
Zen meditation is doing non-doing, thinking non-thinking, and sitting non-sitting.
We’re focused, but not on anything, and not on nothing either. How do we make a guided meditation video on that? We can’t learn Zen meditation from someone, because no one can teach it to us. We figure it out on our own, and then when we do, others who’ve figured it out can see that we get it. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been practicing before then, it feels like, “Wow, I can finally start practicing Zen now.”
It’s not usually something we can do the first time we sit; or the second, or the third, or the 1,000th. For those first thousand sits, we’re usually practicing concentration or mindfulness meditations. Zen meditation is what happens when we lose those methods and sit without grasping at anything. Then, kind of like whistling, once you do it, you can do it. The basic advice for learning to whistle is, “Put your lips together, and blow,” and that’s accurate, but odds are, we’re not going to make a sound the first time we try it.
There are a lot of subtleties to whistling that just can’t be conveyed. Zen meditation is the same. When we’re given the stock advice, “Just sit,” that’s like, “Just blow,” and even that’s saying too much. The sitting is extra. For the first hundred years or so, Zen seemed to use usual Buddhist concentration and mindfulness methods. Then, around the year 600 or so, the methods started to change as rural Buddhism mixed more and more with Taoism.
When the, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” and, “Beyond words and letters,” creeds came about, Zen was able to shake off the parts of Buddhism that dealt with meditating for several lifetimes and focus on this life instead. Concentration (Samatha) and mindfulness (Vipassana) methods have truckloads of benefits, but they weren’t designed to help us Wake Up on the spot. One Mahayana estimate said it takes about a billion years to practice with them to Wake Up.
I’m not too interested in rebirth, but that just shows why Zennists felt the need to craft a new method that was orientated around Waking Up in this lifetime.
Even though Zen was designed to be the fast-track to Bodhi, it’s probably still going to take awhile. Don’t push yourself too hard or you’ll freaking break something. The more you push, the more that sweet spot is going to elude you. At the other extreme, we can’t go too easy on ourselves either. I also recommend establishing Right Intention at the start of each sit. We’re sitting for the benefit of all beings.
And meditation isn’t like going to church and having all our sins forgiven once a week; what we do off the cushion directly influences our time on the cushion. If you’re an asshole in day-to-day life, your mind is going to be an asshole to you when you try to meditate. If you have a fast-paced life full of juggling this and that, then you’re going to have fast-paced thoughts and feelings when you sit.
So, learning to slow down and simplify in general is great advice for meditators. It’s also helpful to exercise more and eat a healthier diet, because our physical health can definitely help or hinder our ability to meditate.
None of those tips are what actually make us learn to practice Zen—because it just happens and we don’t know why—but they might help you save some time. Oh, one more thing, let go of the idea of letting things go.
Just don’t pick anything up, and impermanence will do the rest.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".
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