Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » What Is Zen Buddhism? Part I - Christianity and Zen

Author of this essay:

Email: Shi Ming Zhen

by Ming Zhen Shakya

In recent years Christians have shown increasing interest in Buddhism,an interest, I think, which doesn't arise so much from academic orneighborly curiosity, nor from any dissatisfaction with Christianity, butinstead stems from a desire to return to older forms of Christian worship...forms that included the various methods of meditation that are stillfollowed in Buddhism.

Buddhism's history is such that, having been founded in a preliterate timeand place, it was spread by word of mouth and never found itselfconstrained or codified by any federalizing forces. Buddhism was all overthe place and out of control before anybody committed its teachings toprint. The genie was out of the bottle, so to speak; and nobody has everbeen able to get it back. The upside of this freewheeling diversity is thatBuddhism rarely has had to contend with the problems of organizationalpolitics. A great deal was added to Buddhism... but nothing - no technique,no method - has ever been uniformly repressed. A universally intertwiningChurch and State has never been an issue in Buddhism as it has been inChristianity.

If we can imagine the U.S. Congress running our religious life, we canimagine what the early Christians had to face... There were civilauthorities and religious authorities in a sort of bicameral legislative andexecutive body. Kings and Popes, Dukes and Archbishops, and a varietyof lesser nobles and priests. In those days, before Chrysler Motors,Southwest Airlines and Amtrak, a person could very easily be born, liveand die all within a radius of 50 miles. Aside from the county sheriff, theonly authority-figure the average man ever knew was his parish priest.Priests had to wear many hats. They were lawmen, judges, familycounselors, little league coaches, doctors, psychologists, teachers,supervisors of church administration and building maintenance, and on topof all this they were required to write letters and sermons, to hearconfessions, and to perform rituals. Nobody in his right mind would envythe lot of a l4th century parish priest.

Christians had access to the methodologies of all the saints - their recipesfor achieving exalted states of union with God; and many parishioners putthose meditation techniques to use and became mystics, persons who couldcommunicate directly with God.

Mystics are spiritual anarchists. You can't tell someone who has adirect-communication link to God what you think the divine word means orthe divine will intends. A mystic can figure that out for himself. He prefersto tell you. The last thing a priest needed was a few mystics in hiscongregation challenging his authority. He had enough to do withouthaving to coddle these troublesome elitists. So cloisters were created,lovely places where mystics could go and contemplate God in private.There would be a nice high wall around the cloister. But more than likelythat wall wasn't there to keep people out, it was there to keep the mysticsin...

At any rate, meditation, that means by which we come to directlyexperience of God, was deemphasized and common prayer was put in itsplace. The emphasis was placed on fellowship, not solitude. This was quitea change. Cathedrals, you'll recall, were not designed to accommodatecongregations. There were no pews for ordinary folks.

And so Christianity's great body of meditational lore was hidden away.Nobody counted on the stress of 20th Century life or on the separation ofchurch and state that would allow Christians to explore the secret Paths toGod.

Those meditation techniques have been available to Buddhists for two anda half millennia. And nobody has ever had to convert to Buddhism in orderuse them. Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, doesn't succeedaccording to the number of people it can claim as Buddhist. In fact, if thetruth be known, Zen Buddhism has little or no group dynamic.

Zen is the mystical branch of Mahayana Buddhism. As the Sufis stand toIslam, as the Cabalists stand to Judaism, as the Yogis stand to Hinduismand the Contemplatives to Christianity, so does Zen stand to Buddhism.And as such it is singularly non-congregational.

For example, I'm considered the pastor of a thriving Buddhistcongregation here in Clark County. Of course, a pastor is by definition akind of shepherd - but Zen is a highly individualistic religious discipline,and shepherding Zen Buddhists is rather like trying to herd cats, as thesaying goes. If you can get a congregation of cats to move when and whereyou want, it's because you've laid down the scent of Fancy Feast and notbecause of anything you've said. I'm also reminded of Benito Mussolini'sanswer when someone asked him if it was difficult to govern the Italians.El Duce sighed wearily and said, "Difficult? No. Useless!"

And so it is with Zen. There's an unwritten law that says Zen done in agroup is not Zen at all. It is of course both possible and desirable to preachthe Buddhist Dharma to large gatherings of people. The more the merrier.But not Zen. True Zen is done alone. Let's consider the word's definition.

Zen is a sanskrit word which means meditation. I'll digress to tell you thatin China the word is written C-H-A-N and is pronounced Jen which is moreor less how it's pronounced in India. The sanskrit is written D-H-Y-A-N ...duh yen. Now, whenever we have a heavily voiced D followed by the glideY, we pronounce that d-y combination as a J. For example, when we say,"Did you go?" Did you becomes dija. Dija go? Or, ed-u-cate, becomesejucate. It's a natural speech change. So, dh-yen becomes Jen and thenZen.

The English cognate is dwell.

When our mind truly dwells or meditates upon something we're practicingZen. Of course this doesn't mean that we're merely pondering a subject,musing or mulling it over. Meditation which involves thought is astructured, orderly discipline. The meditator concentrates upon his subject,mentally circling it, and that concentration leads him into total absorption.Platonic dialectics is one form of this rigorous meditation technique; theZen koan is another.

In the Republic, for example, Plato demonstrates this advanced Zentechnique when he has Socrates engage in a dialogue on the subject ofJustice. The Buddha, in the Surangama Sutra, uses the same techniquewhen he inquires into the nature of the Mind. What is mind? What isjustice? what is the sound of one hand clapping? Structured inquiry is anancient meditation form.

But the important thing here is not acquiring knowledge about mind orjustice or clapping hands. These topics are merely an excuse, if you will, toenter those higher levels of consciousness: concentration, meditation, and,if we're lucky, the orgasmic ecstasy of divine union, a state which we callsamadhi. Entering the Nirvanic precincts, the sacred state of samadhi,experiencing that incomparable bliss, is the goal of any spiritual practice.And obviously this isn't the kind of goal the serious practitioner wouldeven want to attempt in a public environment. Prayer and meditation arepersonal and private endeavors. Every Zen Buddhist knows this as well asevery Christian. ln Matthew Chapter 6, verse 6, Jesus says, "But thou,when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door,pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secretshall reward thee openly."

When you succeed in meditation, it shows. You change! You radiate joy:You are rewarded openly!

Fellowship can be valuable. Human nature is such that people often needthe feeling of security that comes with belonging to a group. And so we findmany Zen organizations whose members regularly meet in order to sit ontheir cushions and then to enjoy a cup of tea and some spiritedconversation afterwards. There's nothing harmful about fellowship but itisn't Zen - it's fellowship, it's a social endeavor. Jesus didn't say that youshouldn't go to the Temple. He said that when you want to communicatewith God, don't make a public spectacle of your piety. Talk to God inprivate.

The great problem with group Zen arises from the kind of meditationtechnique that is usually employed by groups, the technique calledmind-blanking. As an advanced technique, it is dazzling. But it is not andshould never be attempted by anyone who has not already experiencedSamadhi and a few other exalted states of consciousness. Yet, because theinstructions are so simple, everyone feels competent to try them. All youneed do is sit down and stop thinking. Every time a thought arises in yourmind you erase it. The aim is to attain a thought-free mind. Each thought islikened unto a speck of dirt that soils the mind and so you are obliged topolish it off immediately.

Unfortunately, this friction can have serious consequences. The next timeyou find yourself sitting around with nothing better to do, try making yourmind blank by thinking about nothing. No thoughts. The normal personcan't remain thought-free for more than a few seconds at best. He wouldgive up quickly, unless, of course, he attached soteriological significance tothis activity. If he perceived it as a means to gain spiritual salvation thenhe'd be deadly ernest in his attempt - or if he was responding to peerpressure, that religious fervor which inspires mass-hysteria andmass-hypnosis. In either case a person might really try to hammer hisbrain into submission.

This mental self-flagellation then becomes a strange kind ofsadomasochism. The most that can be accomplished by this activity is thestate which we call Quietism - a stuporous blandness, a wretched, numband passive state in which life's blessings and hardships are acceptedwithout consideration. This is not reasoned equanimity. It is not tranquility.It is mere vegetative dullness.

Back in the 7th Century, Hui Neng, Zen Buddhism's 6th and last Patriarchwho founded the order I was admitted to in China, once approached syoung monk who was always sitting on his cushion trying to meditate inthis manner. "Why do you spend so much time sitting like this?" he askedthe monk. "Because I want to become a Buddha," the monk replied. The6th Patriarch shook his head, "My son, you can make a mirror polishing abrick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion."

But usually the person who attempts this technique fails miserably andthen, frustrated and disappointed, he abandons Zen, deciding that it'suseless and a bit too bizarre.

What is necessary in Zen or in any other religious discipline is clarity ofthought. Life can be cruel and confusing especially when we discover thatwe're largely responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. We need tounderstand our predicament. Escaping from life to sit on cushion andobliterate our minds is hardly the answer to anything.

Next week we discuss how a Zen practitioner develops the necessaryclarity of thought to transcend ego-consciousness - the state in which theego doesn't exist. [Next page.]

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