…Zen is living experience, not musty principles in the abstract. It is a special form of Buddhism in which precepts and practice fuse. What are some of its main teachings?
1. Zen emphasizes meditation as a way to enlightenment. This final spiritual awakening focuses on one thesis: we and the universe are coextensive. This central theme is implied in the term Maha-prajna-paramita. Maha means great; prajna means insight-wisdom; paramita implies reaching that other shore, the place where there are neither attachments to living nor fears about dying. The term points to that profound insight which frees one from all suffering caused by selfish, egocentric concerns.
Atomic physicists can tell us in words that we are all derived from stardust. But Zen takes our interpenetration with the universe literally. Its insight strikes as a fact of experience. This deepest truth is not captured in words. Insight information, like a cool drink of water, has an impact at levels beyond reasoning.
To D. T. Suzuki, the kind of Zen enlightenment that took place back in the Sung and Tang dynasties of China was subtly different from other kinds of spiritual illumination. Zen masters then, he noted, aimed to bring their students so intimately in touch with the "Being of Life which animates all things" that they felt its own awareness vibrate within themselves. An endpoint this advanced would seem to go beyond the usual spiritual goals that we ascribe to those who practice most religions today.
Zen enlightenment today is still somewhat different from the others. No, it does not descend from some greater power up above. Its aspirants view it as emanating from that within, which is all around. It means awakening to our fundamental unity with that eternal universe right under our noses. It does not imply adding some new and esoteric concepts from the outside. The potential for such insight-wisdom is latent in each of us, and will ripen under the proper set of circumstances. Fully ripened, it will greatly simplify, stabilize, and liberate the person. Opening up to anything and everything, the aspirant will drop off childish passions and rechannel his or her energies along more mature lines.
2. The intellect is not at home in the province of Zen. Zen withdraws before the intellect. Hides, if you will. In this, it resembles the elusive Japanese bush warbler, the uguisu. Never is this warbler perched on high, singing assertively for all to hear as do the Japanese grosbeak and the American cardinal. Instead, the uguisu blends naturally into the foliage of smaller trees and thickets. There, its lyrical notes begin with a low, soft uprising whistle, then end in a loud, incredibly beautiful liquid warble: "hot-kat-kyot!" One memorable day, I actually saw the bird while it was singing. Only then could I convince myself that a creature this small and unprepossessing could create such beautiful music.
Zen teachings emphasize the straightforward. They devalue the discursive intellect with its edifice of words and abstract theories. Lengthy, complicated philosophical discussions are scholastic mumbo jumbo. Less is more. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, "Those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know."
3. Zen values the simple, concrete, living facts of everyday direct personal experience. When our brain takes in a red rose, it doesn't need to think about the word "red," ponder its wavelength, or try to analyze what chemistry caused it to be this color. It perceives red directly. Zen training encourages this same instantaneous, uncluttered awareness throughout everything else in the here and now. The Zen point of view appreciates each moment's sacramental quality. Imbued with genuine ecological reverence toward nature in all its forms, Zen practitioners learn to look humbly, "livingly," at the way they use each day's food, clothing, shelter, and companionship.
Zen, living in this present moment, concentrates upon this bird song, this falling cherry blossom. It brings together all these present moments of quiet clarity into the flow of its timeless, ongoing awareness. This Zen doesn't soar or proselytize. It will erect no cathedral spires high in the sky It is utterly down-to-earth, matter-of-fact. In Zen, life's firsthand earthy experience is the living reality. The unreality is our usual hectic existence, the one full of swarming thoughts, clouded perceptions, and self-centered behavior.
Today's New Age spirituality, newly wedded to high technology, is already promoting a host of brain-tuning devices. Authentic Zen will not be drawn into such artificial "mind gyms." Zen requires no contrived "virtual reality." It is like an art appreciation course. Its message is to look at natural things; see into them. One day, you will finally see, beyond yourself, into their own sacred qualities. Then you will comprehend things as they really are, in keeping with the basic unity of all things. This illumination will remain, and thereafter you will act authentically in relation to all things.
4. Zen is intensely pragmatic, wary of moralistic judgments, of manmade distinctions between good and bad. Its security comes from knowing, as a result of long experience, how people act after they have become totally committed to its path of awakening. Go ahead, let them then encounter some ambiguous laissez-faire situation. Increasingly they will act in accord with the "natural, right way" of things. And meanwhile, why burden them with another superstructure of someone else's doctrines imposed from without? Their behavior is going to become increasingly selfless anyway, because it will be proceeding in harmony with this natural order of things.
A favorite Zen phrase is, "A finger pointing at the moon." Symbols are crucial in religion. In Zen the pale moon symbolizes enlightenment, at many metaphoric levels. The real moon up there will still go on existing, long after our fingers and words down on earth have ceased to point toward it. Similarly, anything said about Zen is, at best, no more than a finger vaguely pointing off in its general direction… Zen is like swimming; you don't learn swimming by reading about it in a book. You learn to swim by doing it, in the water.
5. You learn about Zen in zazen, Zen meditation. It is the essential, fundamental practice for ripening the brain's intuitive faculties. To the Zen master Dogen, the practice of zazen in itself constituted enlightenment. The Zen meditative approach has a simple, unstated premise: moods and attitudes shape—determine— what we think and perceive. If we feel happy, we tend to develop certain trains of thought. If we feel sad or angry, still others. But suppose, with training, we become nonattached to distractions and learn to dampen these wild, emotional swings on either side of equanimity. Then we can enter that serene awareness which is the natural soil for positive, spontaneous personal growth, often called spiritual growth.
Meditative practice does not set itself against all conscious thoughts or emotions. Rather it encourages those that are selfless and freed from unfruitful links with the passions. Zen shuns hallucinations and dogmatism, except, perhaps, that which may be implied by some of its rigorous training methods. Because such methods are regarded as the fruit of centuries of experience, in the Orient, at least, the novice is unlikely to brush them aside.
6. You needn't sit on a pillow to practice Zen. Zen practice extends itself into paying bare attention to all the events of daily life. If a goal is to be defined, then it is to learn the art of letting go while paying attention. Sitting in clear-minded, open-eyed zazen, one develops the capacity to let go, and this gradually flows on into all other activities of one's daily life practice. Aspirants flounder until they finally let go of their attitude that enlightenment is something to "achieve." Those who keep trying to "gain" enlightenment discover that becoming truly goalless and selfless is the most difficult of all the arts of living.
7. Zen stresses self-reliance, self-discipline, and personal effort. It's up to the individual to enlighten himself or herself. Zen deemphasizes, even-handedly, not only those behaviors that are self-centered from the inside but also any authoritarian doctrines from the outside that might interfere with self-realization.
"Look within." True. But still, the long, hard meditative path to awakening is best traversed with the aid of the master, the roshi. He has traveled the bumpy road before. He may not speak about its every height, but he knows its twists, turns, and pitfalls. However, the Zen master only acts as guide and exemplar. It is the aspirant's own self-discipline and tolerance which will prove critical. Positive interactions within a small group are strongly reinforcing, yet the journey is mostly private, interior. The final responsibility falls squarely on the aspirant.
8. The inner journey is but a prelude to going out. Insightful awakening will reunite the aspirant deeply with what is understood to be the mainstream of the life force, the full range of life's joys and sorrows. But these rare moments are not to be savored for themselves. They are to be actualized. This means putting precepts into practice. It implies an increasingly selfless, simplified spontaneous affirmation of life. Whether this is the dedicated life of a monk or lay aspirant, it then becomes one of introspection, humility, labor, and service. What does the herdsman do in the old Zen story after he finally becomes enlightened? He does not retreat from the world to become a hermit. Instead, he goes forth with joy and compassion to mingle in the world "with helping hands."