Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Zen Survival Handbook: chapter one

Zen isn't easy. Our practice doesn't always match up to the aspirations we have.We may become slack, or ill, or too busy. We may just struggle with the classic Zen koan, as did Dogen: "Why bother with Zen?"
Often, our Zen comrades might be a little tightlipped when it comes to encouraging words. Maybe they've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner, or maybe they figure that you'll work it out on your own. Which you will. But sometimes you need help from another to be able to figure it out on your own...

"Zen is too hard"
When people say this, they usually mean one of two things: 1) they don't "get" Zen, or 2) they find zazen painful and difficult.
In both cases, you are absolutely right to feel this way. But let's deal with the former concern first.
Let's be clear: there are loads of Zen stories about people hearing a single Zen phrase or the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo or something similar, and "getting it." What these neat tales usually omit is that the person in question has been with a teacher, doing zazen and koans and whatnot, possibly for years and years beforehand. You may have heard of a fellow called Hui Neng, who "got it" after hearing someone recite a Buddhist text, despite never having had any Buddhist training. This may well have happened. Or it may not: the story of Hui Neng is more a myth intended to make certain points, rather than a historical account. Anyway, neither you nor I are Hui neng. He had his way; we each have ours. You are not expected to "get" Zen. In fact, the less getting of it that you do, the better. It is not something to be owned, known, or acquired. If you feel in the dark, unable to explain to your curious friends and family exactly what Zen is, then bravo. You are on your Way.
The latter problem, concerning zazen, is widespread and usually rears its head early on, especially if you attend a sesshin (a Zen retreat) where the zazen can be pretty intense. The most important thing to know is that the pain generally lessens with time, and/or you become accustomed to it, which makes it much less of a hardship. Be kind to yourself. If you are in real pain, then you can move. Yes, we are aiming for stillness, but we're not killing ourselves for it. Moving about with every sign of discomfort is not to be recommended because, as you'll find if you try it, it often make things harder. But everyone moves from time to time. A lot of emphasis is placed on not annoying your neighbour, at least in the Zen gang I hang out with. But don't place undue emphasis on this. In all seriousness, annoyance is good practice, especially for older hands who may be stuck in their ways...
It's not a competition. Yes, you may be the only person weeping with pain and shifting every five minutes. So be it. Zen is not about stoicism or asceticism, though it often is mistaken for both. Just don't add any stories to your pain, you know, like "I'm rubbish at Zen" ,"I'm always so weak" or "Why is everyone else having it so easy and yet I'm suffering?" These sorts of tales told to yourself will make it harder than it is. So don't do it.
In the long run, zazen actually makes things easier, at least that's my opinion. That doesn't mean that practise will always be pretty: in fact, as you begin to see the contents of your mind and life more clearly, it can get decidedly ugly. But as I say, in the long run...