Preposterous Ponderings

Losing Your Mind Over Zen

If the answers to all the big questions of existence were easy to come by everybody would know them.   There’s good reason why so few hold the most profound secrets of life.  Let’s face it, the path to enlightenment is undeniably a tough and arduous slog.  Those deciding to pursue the weighty issues of our intrinsic Being better strap in for a rocky ride filled with perplexing concepts, torturous reason, an avalanche of bewildering language and endless acres of convoluted conundrums.  Of course, just because the task is formidable doesn’t mean there aren’t many willing to give enlightenment a shot.  For such ambitious souls there’s no end of revered spiritual systems to hitch one’s fate.   While almost all spiritual or wisdom traditions specialize in the esoteric, obscure and impenetrable one in particular raises the levels of confusion, mystification and befuddlement to vertiginous heights.  This asylum of contradiction is the fusion of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism commonly known as Zen.  Those of saner disposition steeped in logic and reason best turn back now.

Zen, or more appropriately the concept of Zen has long had a conspicuous hold on the Western imagination and culture.  Within the publishing industry it’s been linked to every conceivable topic from A, (archery,) to Z, (zombie disposal,) with such seemingly incongruous pursuits, (more so than zombie disposal?,) as Triathlon, Cab Driving, Competitive Eating, Foosball, Face Punching and Grilled Cheese slotted in between.   Given the contemporary understanding of the term “Zen” it’s easy to appreciate its wide spread appeal.  In modern usage Zen is associated with the innate, instinctual and spontaneous elements of human behavior.  It’s emblematic of a natural, reflexive, right brain approach to activity and challenge.  Though popular culture is notorious for getting most ideas bass ackwards, in this case the masses essentially have it right.  However, while the intuitive, reactive approach to life is consistent with Zen doctrine, very few have any idea of the underlying philosophy of Zen that mandates such behavior.  It’s easy to understand why.

Western seekers have long been enamored with the Eastern wisdom traditions.  Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and a host of lesser known sects provide an intriguing counter balance to the positivist, Cartesian paradigm driving traditional Western thought.  Unfortunately, many of the terms and concepts associated with these ancient schools are maddeningly difficult for the products of modern empirical thought to wrap their brains around.  To be fair, it’s often hard to take certain philosophical concepts from one culture and efficiently transplant them to another.  Incompatibilities of language and perspective, layers of nuance and subtlety and years of contradictory enculturation are always formidable obstacles to overcome.  However, with a modicum of effort, most who’ve mastered the art of reading without moving their lips can acquire a cursory understanding of the basic spiritual perspectives of Eastern thought.  It’s really not that tough.  All the vital texts have been translated into English.  We understand the words.  Even the squirreliest ideas in flagrant contradiction to our own sensibilities are graspable enough.  When the wise sage says “up is down and down is up” we may wince, but we understand the statement.  But superficial familiarity is one thing, a depth of understanding necessary to effectively integrate such concepts within our psyches and guide our actions quite another.  And therein lies the appeal of Zen.  Literally meaning “instantaneous awakening,” Zen is the shortcut to applied Eastern spirituality.  However, as experience painfully shows, the shorter path is often the more treacherous.

The philosophical underpinnings of Zen are virtually identical to the fundamental precepts of Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.  All claim we exist in a world of illusion.  Everything we perceive is in actuality just empty appearance.  Like the images on a movie screen all is sense without substance.  Consistent with this idea, any qualities we should assign to such empty appearances are equally illusory.  Characteristics such as tall, short, black, white, good and bad and any and all gradations in between can’t really exist within entities having no actual existence.  Further complicating matters, this illusory reality, which appears to be comprised of many individual “things,” is in essence different aspects of one grand, unchanging, infinite, transcendent, “singular” entity.   The Eastern sages are fond of the term “non-duality” to describe this condition as it eliminates the notion anything has a separate or independent existence.  Though it appears reality is comprised of many different worldly forms there is actually just one; the form of pure Being itself.  What many find unsettling is we humans are also just as empty and ephemeral as everything we perceive.  Not just our individual physical bodies, but our minds as well.  What we consider to be our sense of ego is in reality pure delusion; we are neither a what nor a who.  Bucking Descartes’ time honored beliefs, the Eastern traditions claim there is no such thing as mind on the one hand and its experiences on the other.  The “knower,” (our ego,) is not independent of the “known,” (Being.)  All that exists is just the process of pure experience or awareness of the totality of Being.  There’s nothing else; period, end of statement, finito, deal with it.

All of these traditions are quick to point out how miserable are the lives of those who fail to understand the true, illusory nature of existence.  The first Noble Truth of the Buddha, (a guy never known for his lighthearted disposition,) is that all life is suffering, (dukkha.) His second Noble Truth links our suffering to the desires inherent within us all.  We live our lives in a constant state of want; desperately trying to latch onto that which we lack or think we need.  This is not merely a desire for physical things but intangibles such as love, knowledge, respect and a host of other immaterial qualities.  However, being the perpetual malcontents we are, our desires are never satisfied.  The nature of human behavior condemns us to an endless cycle of one desire leading to another.  The only way to break this cycle of desire is to recognize the “empty” essence of all we seek; to appreciate the illusory quality of the objects of our desire.  Only when this “enlightenment” occurs are we liberated from the realm of suffering, (samsara,) and free to revel in our inherent condition of pure awareness, referred to as Nirvana in Buddhism, Brahman in Hinduism or Tao in Taoism.  Only in this original, eternal state are we spared the cycle of reincarnation with all its earthly travails.   Failing to recognize the true illusory nature of ourselves and the world of perception condemns us to perpetual return to an existence of illusion and constant suffering.  Truly a nasty bit of business.

There, that wasn’t too tough.  Though the Eastern spiritual perspective may fundamentally obliterate your carefully crafted sense of self and everything you ever thought you knew you have to admit, the idea wasn’t that hard to grasp.   The words spoke for themselves.  Matters of understanding aside, one could be excused if the whole thesis leaves your average Westerner a little off kilter, a wee bit unbalanced, a tad existentially insecure.  Let’s face it, no matter how comprehensible the words we’re still plumbing some pretty radical territory.  Those blessed with the requisite curiosity and time may feel inclined to pursue the process of penetrating this world of appearances; perhaps someday coming to terms with the full meanings and consequences of this “anti-empirical” thought.  Snug in the comfort and security of their traditional view of existence they resign themselves to awakening bit by cautious bit.  Unfortunately, Zen isn’t interested in your comfort level.  Zen is much more pro active than any other Eastern discipline; more action oriented.  None of this hanging around the temple sipping tea, whiffing incense, mumbling mantras or indulging in meditation on the cushy comfort of your satori mat waiting for enlightenment.  The word “Zen” doesn’t translate into “instantaneous awakening” for nothing.  It has no intention of taking this nebulous, empty nature of existence lying down.  Zen seems to be saying, “Maybe existence is nothing more than illusionary, empty forms.  But god damn it, I got a life to lead in spite of this apparent absurdity; places to go people to see.”  Unfortunately, in order to make sense of the quick fix Zen offers, the utter hopelessness and confusion of our situation must be completely appreciated.  This is where the craziness sets in.  The first step in this process is recognizing the inherent lunacy within the very principles of Zen.  In other words, to make the actions of Zen credible, Zen must expose the flaws within its own underlying philosophy.  As the great man said, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

True to its expedient nature, Zen’s first self inflicted wound aims at the ultimate target of our existential quest; seeking to leave the world of suffering and reach enlightenment by abandoning our desires.  As earlier noted, transcendence can only be reached when the impossibility of “grasping” has been thoroughly appreciated.  This idea is one of the cornerstones of Eastern thought.  However, the Zen masters delight in tormenting us.  They note if Enlightenment is a desirable thing and the world of suffering or samsara is an undesirable thing, (duck if you see this one coming,) as soon as Nirvana is made an object of desire it becomes an element of samsara or suffering.  By not wanting to desire we find ourselves desiring.   Predictably, desire is a source of suffering in any context.  So what we’re left with is the following curious tautology; to desire is to suffer, but to desire not to desire is to obviously desire and to further suffer.  And round we go.

To further confound, the sages ask if all existence is a single unity how can there be two separate dimensions of existence, (samsara and Nirvana?)  That’s big time duality right there.  And if all elements of existence are in reality just empty appearances devoid of qualities how can either samsara or Nirvana have any distinctive characteristics of any kind?  It would seem neither Nirvana nor samsara can be separated from one another as each is devoid of any reality.  And in fine theatric fashion they save the nagging quandary of ego for last: if the ego is like every other aspect of existence, merely an empty convention with no intrinsic reality how can “it” attain anything?  And this is the quick and easy way to enlightenment?

Like any good straight man, the Zen masters are keenly aware of the ironic and preposterous nature of what they espouse.  Though they rely on the underlying doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism to shape their existential perspectives they baffling admit Zen can’t be expressed in any form of doctrine.  Thought, reflection and reason, those traditional beacons of philosophical illumination, are scorned by the dedicated Zen practitioner.  As the legendary Chinese sage Bodhidharma claimed, “the true mind is no mind.  If you work on your mind with your mind how can you avoid an immense confusion?”  How indeed?  Should the acolyte not be flummoxed enough, the master haughtily baits the issue by mocking the obvious, “to try and purify the mind is to contaminate it with purity.”  Advocating such an extreme degree of personal detachment may seem a little odd coming from someone who reputedly sliced off his eyelids so as not to fall asleep in meditation.  However, the point remains; because the ultimate reality has no qualities and is not a thing it cannot become an object of knowledge.  The enduring and cryptic ideal of Zen is to realize that to truly know is not to know.

Those stubbornly searching for reason and rationality within the ideals of Zen best beware.  Lest any hint of sanity carelessly arise, the sagacious and cunning masters have crafted a series of devious exercises known as koans to befuddle any who dare doubt the intrinsic absurdity of Zen.  Koans are stories, statements or questions that can’t be understood or responded to in a rational manner.  Only through intuition can they be appreciated and their lessons known.  It’s been said koans are designed to shock the mind into awareness.  Though often sounding like harmless riddles, koans represent the loopiest nadir of an already seriously irrational spiritual pursuit.  Possibly the most elementary, well known, ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ type koan is the one asking “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  After musing over the possible sounds air makes as it’s fanned by an open hand one quickly appreciates the preposterous nature of the query.  Further reflection would likely reveal no reasonable response exists, which is precisely the point.  That this question was designed to encourage our reflection on such weighty topics as the inadequacy of language, the inherent absurdity of form or the limitation of reason should be readily obvious to even the most existentially challenged, materialist worshipping Westerner.  While it’s all very quaint, clever, and colorful, the real disconnect occurs when we’re told some of these sanity sapping combinations of words actually have right and wrong answers.

Within the scalp scratching repertoire of the early Zen masters the koan “What is the Buddha” holds an esteemed status.  Like reading Great Expectations or listening to the Beach Boys, mulling over this question is a soul rending ordeal all must endure on their way to deeper life appreciation.  The record is vague regarding the litany of erroneous or misguided responses to this koan.  However, you can be sure any references featuring a spiritual drifter offering up mystical musings under a Bhodi tree to hoards of emaciated, existentially alienated cowherds would be dead wrong.  Surprisingly, two certified and confounding answers to this question exist, both attributed to the Zen sage T’ung-shan; they are “three pounds of flax” and “dumpling.”   Harboring no pretentions of being a master of Zen I haven’t a clue why these two responses should be correct when any multitude of spontaneous, irrational answers would be wrong. Wouldn’t it be equally absurd to refer to the Buddha as rye mold or carp droppings or whatever deranged and unfounded idea immediately springs to mind?  Or is that too blatant an attempt to game the question?  Undoubtedly, many a Westerner will wonder why their responses would be considered contrived and unnatural when the end result is equally bewildering.

And lest we ever forget, Zen is all about being natural.  The Taoist element within Zen continually stresses the ideal of “naturalness” both within man and existence.  The Zen perspective equates naturalness with the undivided mind.  The fact that Zen also touts itself as “no mind” is more practical contrivance than theory.  The natural “no mind” response is always instantaneous and unthinking, (dumpling?) It’s a reaction beyond knowledge, contemplation and control.  However, this need to be spontaneous and natural might be the greatest circularity within the grand Catch-22 that is Zen; how does one be natural and spontaneous?  How do you try not to try?  It would seem yet another fundamental contradiction within this chain of insanity.  Anything we consciously do to “let go” will surely be just another disguised form of control.  Any resolution or resignation to spontaneity is in itself a calculated maneuver.  It would seem an irresolvable situation, a hopeless conundrum.  However, don’t fret.  Just when it seems darkest, when we again find ourselves victimized by our own reason, the Zen masters swoop in with a solution more preposterous than the predicament.

In a classic example of altering the rules when you can’t win the game the masters engage in a breathtaking act of definitional dexterity.  They unflinchingly assert that the act of intention is really spontaneous.  You have to give these guys credit.  This equivalent of changing the meaning of black to white takes the ideal of “no mind” to a whole new level.  Dismissing our confusion, the great sages plow forward by explaining any attempt we make to control ourselves is grounded within our uncontrolled or natural self.  Despite what we may think, we have no choice but to act spontaneously because that is our nature.  One stops trying to be spontaneous by accepting the trying as spontaneous.   When we do this we see it is unnecessary to try.  We must trust that our natural nature is spontaneous.  The following oft cited adage seems to sum it up, “in not being able to get it, you get it.”

Witnessing the Zen masters ruthlessly expose the contradictions within the philosophy of their own belief makes one wonder why they ever aligned themselves with these tenants in the first place.  However, wider analysis of the situation reveals a deeper perspective.  It’s not Zen theory that’s crazy and delusional.  It’s the aspirations and actions of those who ascribe to this spiritual perspective that are the problem.  Zen, like all wisdom traditions, plays out in two different arenas; philosophy and action.  Philosophy defines the theory and structure of our essential Being or existence.  Action addresses our ideal worldly behavior in relation to this fundamental essence.  Zen has no problem with the overriding philosophy of the Eastern traditions; the unity of existence behind empty appearance.  It’s our response to this ultimate condition of Being that it finds ludicrous.  Our belief there is something we can think or do to “game” our relationship with the fundamental reality of Being is the real absurdity.  Knowing the true nature of our essence may alter our existential perspective but does little to spare us or mitigate the experience of being human.  No amount of awareness changes the fact we remain like a singular drop of water within an ocean of existence immune and indifferent to any of the puny corporeal efforts we advance to manipulate our fate.

Given this inevitability it’s easier to appreciate the Zen method.  Zen focuses on recognizing and exploiting what it believes to be our true nature.  The Zen approach tries to instill perspective, temper thought, deflate intention and eliminate any illusion of control.  Leave your mind alone and trust it to follow its own path.  We’re at our best when we stop interfering with our essential selves.  The masters continually note a person is never genuinely free, detached or pure when their condition is the result of an artificial discipline.  Our highest abilities flow when one loses self consciousness of every kind.  After all, do any of us really “think” about walking; putting one foot in front of the other?

In many ways Zen is the perfect fit for all.  It effortlessly blends with who we are and disdains all what we are not.  Zen requires no great compromises alien to our nature or desires.  In fact Zen is unique in its total rejection of any moral or behavioral dictums.  Zen is the ultimate “do your own thing” system.  It will never be mistaken for any regimen of self improvement.  Our true, non-conceptual self is already perfect and needs no improvement.    Mandating or recommending any human activity to better ingratiate ourselves with the powers that be is for other spiritual systems with more earthly agendas.  Zen heartily recommends we live our lives consistent with the affairs of everyday life without suppressing any of our human passions.

It’s tough to believe that Zen, this most irrational and elemental of spiritual perspectives could be one of the most profound.  Accepting the notion that knowledge, reason and intellect are not powerful tools but obstacles towards fulfilling our potential is a difficult sell to most modern people.  After all, abandoning every impulse of control and thought contradicts many of our deeper sensibilities.  It’s often hard to resign ourselves to our innate nature; to let it move us in whatever manner it may.  Of course, exploring this proposition in the first place is completely antithetical to the spirit of Zen.  Perhaps I would be wise to shut up and follow the unvarnished advice of the renowned master Lin-chi when he simply recommends, “relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes and eat your food.”

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1 Comment

  1. Commentsjuliano   |  Monday, 14 February 2011 at 6:36 am

    I completely agree with Christian Ratsch, and the Goddess understanding that entheogenic awareness IS enlightenment. That is IT! Not the Eastern concept of having to ‘attain’ enlightenment (and on the surface at least, most of Eastern belief systems denigrate entheogenic awareness!)
    No, the fruit in Goddes oriented mythology –The Tree which grew the fruit is the Tree of Enlightenment, and the actual experience is exactly that. THEN …AFTER the ecstatic participation in her Mysteries is when we must integrate these insights.
    But the guru system is not like that and has usually males posing as ‘enlightened’ with some future promise of all-the-time-bliss and escape from nature and the body and senses, and this keeps their businesses going of course. Keeps the money coming in!

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