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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(April 21, 2006)

by Abbot John

I have a friend, not the one that looks like a big rabbit but another, who shall remain nameless simply because I am not sufficiently familiar with this country's libel laws to risk naming him. Suffice it to say that he is of the philosophical bent; and due to that peculiar inclination he has to subject everything to the test of rational argument before he accepts it as a valid condition or truth. Zen is an uncomfortable subject for him.

He is finding it difficult to comprehend what to those of us who know what we're talking about is incomprehensible. He tried studying books about Zen; unfortunately he bought the books and therefore wasn't happy when I laughed at his choices. I tried to explain that Zen is filled with elusive, if not esoteric, well.. let's just say unintelligible terms. Anyone who picks up any book dealing with any aspect of Zen is sure to reach the same conclusion. And the point I was trying to make to him and to anyone else who could possibly be interested, is that if you can understand it, you've gotten it wrong. It is possible to read history books about Zen. But Zen itself defies inspection or definition. Now that I had his attention, he brought up the subject of enlightenment.

"I'd like to ask you a question." he began, "What, Abbot John, are you Zen people talking about when you talk about Enlightenment; and what is the use or the meaning of the weird word "Kensho" that is thrown about like cigarette butts at an AA meeting."

"All in all," I answered, "It's a good question." And then I quickly corrected myself. "Actually, you asked two questions. Did you realize that you asked two questions?"

We had a brief count of the questions and after he capitulated I had no where else to go. I said, "Enlightenment is a hard term to pin down because it revolves so much around the meaning of ‘seeing into one's true nature.'"

He affected a look of confusion. "Well, then, " he said, "Having just been told yesterday that if I weren't such a phony I could see what a natural asshole I am, I suppose that if this statement is true and I recognize it as such, I am or will be enlightened."

"Yes," I said, unthinkingly - it that is such a word. I wanted to switch the discussion to words such as unthinkingly, but he persisted and I had to refine my comment. "The person who stated that you were both a phony and an asshole may have been merely perceptive and not necessarily enlightened. So in a sense, you're off the hook."

"What about Kensho," he asked.

"I don't know if it is in your spell check, but I think you'll find it is the Japanese way of pronouncing Kenosis - which, if you have a really good spell check ought to be there. It comes from the Greek meaning "to empty out" and--" Here he interrupted me with a wave of his hand that meant that I should shut up while he produced some papers from a folder he was carrying. He extracted ten photocopied sheets of illustrations which I recognized as Kaku-an's famous Ox Herding picture sequences.

"I see the ‘empty' kensho designation in Picture #8. It shows an empty circle," he said.

"If you're thinking in terms of assholes, " I warned. "Don't go there."

First let me make some admissions. I have no idea what the origin of these pictures is. I am no authority on them nor do I see any need to be, although, I concede, they do seem to be held in high esteem and universally displayed - even in the most intellectual circles. I don't know if anyone else really knows what they mean, either.

We discussed the illustrations' value as a teaching aid. I appreciate teaching aids of all kinds.

Then he got a little too smug to suit my sensibilities.

"I'm imagining a classroom in an oriental monastery," he sneered. "All these young monks are going to classes everyday - and hanging above the blackboards - instead of portraits of their equivalent of US Presidents, they have these little scenes. Instead of the usual mantra of "Okay children, in this country, we can all grow up to be the President of the United States" they get told something like "Okay children, in this world, we can all grow up to be an…empty circle."

"Yes, " I said. "Precisely. If, of course, they're lucky, too."

He produced Picture #1, and demanded that I tell him what the hell that meant.

"This represents us at an early stage in our lives. We've been searching for an understanding of life's age-old questions. Why was I born? When will I die? How will I pay my income taxes this year? And, What the hell am I doing here in this Godforsaken forest?"

He understood immediately and produced Picture 2.

"This," I said, "shows that I am onto something. But I don't know what. I simply see footprints... or hoof prints... something that indicates it had a better idea of getting out of there than I have... Anything is better than nothing and, as I've said, I don't have a clue."

This also he understood. In quick succession he produced Pictures 3, 4, 5, and 6.

"Then I suppose that for whatever reason you think it is worth the trouble, you forget your tax problem, chase the ox, catch it, tame it, and ride it around while playing a flute. Great. And this is Zen?" He was being rather sarcastic.

"No," I said. "This is life."

He ignored me and sneered, as he produced Pictures 7 and 8. "And here you are praying to get into the empty circle.

"No... not really. You see, after all that work, I discovered that the ox had Mad Cow Disease and I sold it in the market place and now my ass is being sued. That hut I'm praying outside of is all I figure I can get out of a bankruptcy referee. That Empty Circle represents my bank account. And if you look at #9, you'll see I've lost even my hut. And in 10, I'm reduced to beggary.. I'm what the Australians call "a swag man" - a vagrant. I am asking directions to the nearest bistro. And that, my friend, is Zen, indeed... because after all this, I'm still smiling and still very much enjoying my life."

He looked even more puzzled than when we began. I therefore put the explanation for the Ox Herding pictures in a more accessible reference. "I will quote the great philosopher Bobby McGee. "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

He said he'd think about it and left. But I could tell from the gleam in his eye that he was approaching a Zen understanding at last.

I once read a little book in which a Japanese monk was answering questions from some of his American students. One that is relevant to this little discussion was; "Roshi how many Kenshos have you had?"

He replied; "I have had eighteen major awakenings and thousands of minor ones."

On first reading I thought the Roshi was confused; but then I reconsidered and thought perhaps it was my confusion not his, because I had tended to think of Kensho and Enlightenment as somehow being the same thing. But now I have come to realize that we can gain freedom... fill our lungs with its pure exhilarating oxygen richness... and then go back into the polluted atmosphere of fetid swamplands. Life is that way.

We chase after things... yes, even oxen. We try to reform ourselves, make up schedules of meditation, join groups, purchase books, get enthusiastic about salvation, and become new and exciting Zen people. But all we need to do is get free and stay free.. not of ourselves, but of those things around us that make us chase after them.

In the end, all we've got to call our own is ourselves. If they stuffed our coffins with bearer bonds, where would we cash them? These are the important questions we need to ask ourselves. And then, while we can enjoy the finer things of life... that glorious music we play on the ox's back... ultimately all we can hope for is the right directions when, as free men, we get good directions to the bistro.

Have a good day.

Humming Bird
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