Nothing is wrong with Zen, except the people who practice it.
That’s a joke. Sort of.
In the modern style, especially in America, Zen is mostly meditation, and more meditation, and more meditation, and the point of it seems to be to get to a zero point, where you can watch your own mind, your own thoughts, and finally, without effort, stay separate from them, separate from all that radio static, and separate also from your own unbidden parade of emotions that swing by with tooting horns and crashing symbols and clacking drums and gawking dancing clowns.
A laudable goal.
But on the whole, how many people who do this wind up becoming passive? That’s the thing. People tend to opt for quietness.
Whereas, the whole idea ought to be: launch a tremendous amount of dynamic action from the platform of zero-stillness.
Because stillness as a way of life sooner or later begins to disintegrate.
In original Zen, there were ordeals. The teacher gave the student things to do, tasks which eventually became absurd, without discernible purpose. The teacher spoke to the student in riddles and wisecracks. The teacher drove the student into a state of desperation, because the student’s rational faculties, which were obsessively involved in systems, couldn’t supply answers to questions which defied logic.
The teacher did whatever he had to do to bring the student out over the edge of the cliff, where in mid-air, there were no foundations…and the student felt terror. But the teacher persisted.
And then, in one explosive moment, the student found himself floating in the air. He saw there was no need to explain his existence. There was no need to place a veil between himself and the present moment. He didn’t die. He was, finally, alive.
Who knows how this radical approach actually worked out in the many cloisters and huts and cottages where it was practiced, where the stories grew and expanded in their retelling.
But compare the image of silent monks in robes, their heads shaved, gliding through temples, with this old Zen story about a teacher and a prospective student (from AshidaKim.com):
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.
“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.
“You, a soldier!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: “Here open the gates of hell!”
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.
Those old teachers were tough characters. They weren’t merely meditation instructors.
There was another aspect of Zen, which survives to this day. It could be summarized as: “become the other.” The archer becomes the target. He becomes the bow, the arrow, and the target.
The runner becomes the road and the air and the sky and the clouds. The artist becomes the canvas.
The theater of merging with the other.
And as in any theatrical setting, the actor can, by choice, merge with, and un-merge from, his role.
But again, in these times, the main thrust of Zen teaching seems to be meditation, and the culture of stillness, quietude, and passive acceptance.
I’m not saying the meditation is easy to do. It isn’t. But somehow, its environment has become circumscribed.
This is unsurprising in America, where every philosophic and spiritual import from Asia has been distorted and watered down for the seeker-consumer. The overriding intent has been to create The Quiet Person.
The world of action has been painted as too disturbing to the “student seeking inner peace.” Therefore, retreat. Therefore, set up a buffer zone within which all is harmonized and balanced.
Where is the Zen now that sends people out into the world to revolutionize it down to its core, that stimulates the desire to find and invent a Voice that will shatter delusions and create new realities that have never been seen before?
If the moment of insight, satori, doesn’t instigate this, what good is it?
How can satori be “seeing into one’s true nature,” if the result is a wan gaze out on a uniform landscape of soft-boiled bupkis?
The answer is obvious. Breaking apart, exploding the primary illusions and fears that hold an individual in check is not the goal of most Zen as it is now practiced. That objective has been replaced with the false promise that some ultimate “ordinary consciousness” will reconcile the soul with itself.
The way this promise is offered and the way it is taught and the way its surrounding social culture is embroidered is a dud. Dead on arrival.
It’s time for a few new koans.
What is the real sound of David Rockefeller? What does Henry Kissinger say when somebody finally puts him in a small bottle with a cork on it? How does an android disguise himself as a human?
If I need a Zen teacher, I’ll go to Henny Youngman: “A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”
In the beginning, the whole point of Zen was to shake things up, not calm them down.
The master assumed a new student was an annoying clod. But that doesn’t comfortably mesh with today’s “tolerant culture.” Today, annoying clods are a special interest group.
Silence, as a key Zen feature, isn’t only about a desired inner condition now. It’s about a synthetic attitude. So show me a temple where the meditation room is outfitted with a few dozen giant TV screens. The students do their meditation while CNN, Christingle Matthews, Sean Hannity, Oprah, news-boy-on-a bike Brian Williams, the vampire Scott Pelley, don’t-cry-for-me-America Diane Sawyer, Hawaii Five-O, the Shopping Channel, Pawn Stars, Jimmy Fallon and his screaming pubescent audience, and four or five Spanish soaps are going full blast.
That would be a start.
Or throw on 20 or 30 TED lectures simultaneously—prancing grasshoppers extolling the future of technology.
I submit that if the one of the ancient Zen teachers walked into a modern American Zen cloister today, that’s exactly what he’d do. Turn on a few hundred TV sets, computers, and mobile devices and say, “Okay, try being quiet in the middle of this!”
Another Koan for our times: What did Bill Gates look like before he was Alfred E Neuman?
Zen is sacred? What? When was it ever sacred? Soft bells, empty halls?
No, you must have Zen confused with a funeral home.
Every age has its massive collection of heavily loaded apple carts, and the job of Zen is to overturn them. When up is down, and insanity is called normal, that’s where you begin.
The author of two explosive collections, THE MATRIX REVEALED and EXIT FROM THE MATRIX, Jon was a candidate for a US Congressional seat in the 29th District of California. He maintains a consulting practice for private clients, the purpose of which is the expansion of personal creative power. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has worked as an investigative reporter for 30 years, writing articles on politics, medicine, and health for CBS Healthwatch, LA Weekly, Spin Magazine, Stern, and other newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe. Jon has delivered lectures and seminars on global politics, health, logic, and creative power to audiences around the world. You can sign up for his free emails at www.nomorefakenews.com