Thursday, 19 January 2012

Zen as Art

It's always difficult to define or explain Zen. The lazy way is to suggest that it's religion, but then if we define religion as requiring certain beliefs, then we can't include Zen on that list. We have to launch ourselves from the hundred-foot pole as it were: at some point we drop our need to rationalise and understand intellectually and just sit or just do koan practice, and so demonstrate faith in practice and the Buddha Way. This kind of faith is not religious: even scientists, for example, have to decide at some point which hypotheses to test, and cannot do so based on information they have gathered. They must reach a point where, to gather more information, they have to make a leap based on intuition alone. Intuition is really just reaching the end of sequential, factual knowing, and acting anyway, whether that comes quickly or slowly. But we don't need to believe in any supernatural business, or any eternal entities, even though some commentators might suggest that "Buddha Nature" in some ways resembles an unchanging Absolute, that's to say something that's not subject to impermanence or being affected by the conditions of the universe. On this point, I disagree, but that's another discussion. I don't see Zen as religion. Is it a philosophy? Insofar as it is a way of living, perhaps so. But philosophy nowadays seems devoted to categorising knowledge, and Zen is concerned with everything but knowledge; philosophy these days also seems exclusively to be an exercise in thinking, where again, Zen is concerned with everything but.  Finally, Zen is no self-improvement scheme. It points towards the wholeness of everything as it is now, and this is where the radical flavour of Zen comes from, as bemused onlookers throw a variety of things at Zen to see if they too are perfect as they are: war? starvation? deprivation? murderous acts? If we can be big enough to accept these things as they are in the world, there is Zen, and unless you are that way inclined anyway, it doesn't need to lead to passivity, or the turning of a blind eye to the problems of the world. There we must be careful again, and not lean on Zen for our morality. There is no system of beliefs or practice that we can follow that will somehow "guarantee" our conduct in the world. Japanese Zen teachers and students supported the Japanese Imperialism before and leading up to World War II. What this says to me is being "Buddhist" isn't enough; subscribing to Zen isn't enough: the way we act in the world can't be legislated for, only determined second by second, case by case. So Zen isn't morality.

I like this angle, put forward by Brad Warner: "Rather than being a religious authority, a Zen teacher is more like some kind of strange performance artist." (p40, "Zen wrapped in karma dipped in chocolate") He goes on to say "Zen teachers have to expose their flaws as well as their graces."
When we see art that affects us, or that we like, if we are that way inclined we may want to find out how this art was produced, how it came about, in order that we can do it ourselves. The skill of the artist lies in his or her expression of life. Whereas a painter produces canvases that reflect this,  the Zen teacher produces "a life". Really, of course, he doesn't produce anything: he just throws the frame of Zen practice around his or her existence and says "There!". Certain tools may be used, like zazen or the Four Noble Truths, and some people will employ these better than others do., but really, Zen seems to me like an imitative process: we see someone who inspires us and we try to copy them. It is the overall spirit and flavour of a teacher that makes the impression on those that come after. Pinning down that particular flavour is the tricky part, just as we find it hard to say what it is we like about a painting or a sculpture.

To be continued....

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